In the first of two extracts from her 2012 Janet Frame lecture, Marilyn Duckworth looks back on her literary life.
Reflections can startle when one peers across more than 50 years – the length of my time as a published novelist. The face of New Zealand literature in 2012 stares back at me defiantly – changed like my own face, but enriched by new bulges and hollows. Times might be hard for the industry, but there’s always a heartening measure of good news for New Zealand readers and enough reasons to celebrate. To be celebrating it here under the Janet Frame banner is an honour and an added pleasure. I was lucky enough to be staying in her friend John Money’s house in Baltimore in 1987 and slept in the narrow bed he told me had been Janet’s when she visited. The house itself conjured scenes from her distinctive novel Living in the Maniototo, a work of genius. Sadly, genius is not catching.
I used to think I knew a mounting number of things about being a writer. The truth is there appears to be so much more to know and understand than when I began to write decades ago. This has come to me as I swim on the internet like a fish with my mouth half-open wondering what to swallow. It meant a lot to this particular fish to be chosen as President of Honour for New Zealand Society of Authors/PEN. I owe much to the organisation, all the way back to that day 52 years ago when I was nominated for membership by John Pascoe, author of Mr Explorer Douglas. Due to misplaced confidence, I found myself nominated for the committee far too soon. I was startled, but flattered. I was 24, a wide-eyed innocent. I can’t say I contributed much at all to the literary debate in those early meetings – I was too shy, but Denis Glover told me it was my job to look decorative. I smiled but didn’t tell him I’d observed how carefully he combed his hair in a shop-window reflection that day as I followed him up Woodward Street to the meeting. I took on the job of editing the PEN newsletter, searching out ideas for the few pages, which I would deliver regularly to Bayley’s Typing Services.
In 1959, I remember the PEN committee as mostly male, apart from the poet Ruth Gilbert who later became my first daughter’s mother-in-law. John Pascoe was a true gentleman, as was Monte Holcroft, the president of PEN. Monte was also the editor of the New Zealand Listener and commanded awe in me, as well as respect. Each would raise his hat politely if we passed on Lambton Quay. I think Pat Lawlor, who originally founded the New Zealand PEN Centre in 1935 – the year I was born – was on the committee when I first attended meetings. I wasn’t aware of this distinction at the time. The sharpest memory I have of Mr Lawlor, as I knew him, is an unkind remark about my first novel, A Gap in the Spectrum, which he’d found unnecessarily shocking. He preferred, he said, a novel by another woman writer, also published by Hutchinson, Light Cakes for Tea. I’m sure that contained nothing remotely naughty, unlike mine – apparently. I learned recently that Pat Lawlor was a friend of Michael King’s family. Michael wrote that Pat enjoyed rating New Zealand writers – “the way a racing form guide would rate horses and their chances”. At least he’d allowed this naughty contender onto the race track.
PEN – begun for poets, playwrights, editors, essayists and novelists – helped me over the years to connect with other writers and to believe in myself. It’s something writers can have trouble with; that’s a fact, despite our huge egos. Members of NZSA/PEN will know what I’m talking about. We’re at the mercy of reviewers and indeed publishers; it can prove a damaging ride. It was useful to hear how others managed the experience. It was endlessly entertaining too. Those early PEN parties – with Ngaio Marsh’s ringing tones, Nelle Scanlan in her dainty hat, and the Glovers, Denis and Khura, making the most of the good wine – were eye-opening occasions, and unforgettable. I remember one year in the 70s when Harry Seresin, my partner for the evening, and the novelist Noel Hilliard started swapping name tags to liven up the proceedings. They were lively enough already, and we received a black mark for leaving the premises in the old Red Cross Building on Willis Street in less than perfect order. But that was what the parties were like; some very good results, or the now fashionable word “outcomes”, were achieved as well. Late in 1971, we were campaigning for the public lending right, and I accompanied Ian Cross to plead our case, but as usual I barely opened my mouth. Ian did a great job, and it came about anyway. In 1973, the Authors Fund was established and since 2009 it’s labelled the Public Lending Right – a right, as we always hoped it would be understood.
Novel writing is a dangerous occupation. I took my first blithe step into that crocodile swamp in the 50s. My youngest daughter, Mia Farlane, had her first novel published recently, in England, after completing a Middlesex University MA in creative writing – an often familiar story these days. There are plenty of signposts and tour guides in this century showing writers the way – perhaps too many. I suspect the excitement of stepping out into mysterious terrain, as I knew it, is sadly altered. It remains a tough world. No change there.
My understanding of how to complete a readable manuscript had been gleaned over the years through reading satchels of novels lugged home from the Miramar library, from laboriously counting the number of words needed, and from listening to my mother, Irene Adcock, an early member of the admirable Women Writers Association. I chose the UK publisher Hutchinson because I’d recently won a Hutchinson novel in a competition and I thought mine was rather better. It was my sheer good luck that Hutchinson had just launched an adventurous imprint “New Authors” that concentrated on debut novels. They were later to publish a novella series which included Maurice Gee, C K Stead and Maurice Duggan: “We are proud to be able to introduce three such remarkable men to a wider public.” I had chosen well. In 1958 I was able to telegram my mother: “First novel accepted Hutchinson.”
No doubt first-time novelists share much the same feelings today, but then the differences begin. The changes haven’t happened all at once, but very gradually over the five decades of my writing life: first insidiously, then picking up speed frighteningly. Speed is the first difference in fact – not speed of writing, but certainly speed of editing and of communication. Publishers’ editors play a much larger part in writers’ lives today. What appealed to me as a shy, fairly inarticulate person was the solitary nature of putting a book together. I’m sure this is what often appeals to most first-time writers, with no one else telling you what to do. You would no more dream of delivering a manuscript that needed considerable editing than go out wearing a half finished dress. Times change. Editorial input and advice have become a necessary and useful part of the process, although I can’t help resisting both.
There will always be bookshops, we know that, but closures are everywhere occurring. In the 60s we had Whitcombe and Tombs on Lambton Quay, Souths around the corner in Willis Street, and David Archer’s Phoenix Bookshop not far from where Unity is today. Hugh Price’s Modern Books in Manners Street – one of the smallest – was my favourite because one saw such unusual people browsing there – Peter Varley, barefoot gay actor; Jim Winchester carrying his encyclopaedic knowledge of theatre on one hunched shoulder. Perhaps Hugh Price noticed me because surprisingly he gave me my first ever window display. Parsons Bookshop on the Quay, altered but still alive today, heavily stocked with DVDs and CDs as well as books, was the only one with a “Coffee Gallery” in those early days. It was a quiet meeting place for book lovers and like-minded artists.
In 1959, I was basking in the publication of my first novel – no such thing as a launch in those days – just a very private celebration. My then husband used a clumsy reel-to-reel tape recorder, part of the necessary equipment for a radio advertising copywriter. For fun, we recorded a debate after dinner with two family friends, one of them John Mansfield Thomson, (later initiator of New Zealand Books). He’d suggested the topic “Should novels be sold like soap?” I wish I’d been able to keep some of John’s clever comments, but I do recall it was the first time I heard myself termed a lady novelist and realised I wasn’t meant to be more than that. It took me a couple of decades before I noticed that, for years, I’d been conducting an unconscious battle to resist being sidelined by my gender.