Marilyn Duckworth is one of our most important writers, yet her new novel Seeing Red has not been included in the Top 20 of the Women’s Book Festival. It deals with an embarrassing subject in Women’s Suffrage Year – female violence. Here she talks to Elizabeth Knox about the background to her writing and the many traps and sudden twists that imperil her characters.SOCKING IT TO THEM
We get down to it in the study at the front of the imposing, two-storey brick house Marilyn Duckworth shares with her husband John Batstone. I’m on the couch with my back to the street, where she likes to work, with the good light and all the distractions of traffic behind her. Marilyn sits beside her laptop, which is crowded to the edge of the desk by earlier, defunct computers and an old television. We both have our tape recorders.
Marilyn wants to listen to the interview and vet any errors or unwise confidences – a trick of politicians, she explains. Her tape recorder wheedles away throughout the interview, recording its own feedback so that, in the end, she can’t bear to listen to it.
So much for precautions. In a Duckworth novel this would be a significant detail of the plot, one of those bits of misfired planning that can determine the lives of her characters.
She was born in New Zealand but removed to England as a three-year-old at the beginning of World War II. “War broke out when we were on the boat. I was aware of the war, but much more of a measles epidemic. The ship was divided by a rope. That was much more significant. I remember being so hot with measles that I took off all my clothes and lay on the lino floor.”
Her father, psychologist John Adcock, who had gone ahead, sent a cable to his wife Irene, telling them all to get off the ship at Cape Town and return home. England was too dangerous. But the radio operator was talking to his girlfriend and missed a few cables, including this one.
During the war, Marilyn and her older sister Fleur spent longish periods separated from one or both parents. “We were with relatives in Leicestershire, then to Wiltshire. I feel I’ve lived lots of lives and several childhoods and instantly adapted. Take accents – in Wiltshire I lived with a Welsh family and when I came back to my family no one could understand what I was saying, My mother couldn’t. I said ‘Aye’ not ‘Yes’. Then I went straight to Cockney. I remember an argument about whether it was all right to say ‘isn’t’. I thought you had to say ‘ain’t’ or you were up yourself.”
With all these moves Fleur and Marilyn were thrown upon each other’s company. I ask her about their “imaginary game”. Apparently she and her sister corresponded with someone “doing a thesis on these things”: the Bronte sisters; A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble; the Adcock sisters.
“We called it Dreamland. It was set in a boarding school. I always wanted to go to boarding school. The classes were named after birds – English birds of course – robins, cuckoos, starlings. There were wicked teachers who we lampooned. And friends – because we shifted a lot it was useful having these friends who were fixed. We went for escapades.
“I would always be most interested on going to the Enchanted Forest, and doing very fairy-story things. Then Fleur, being older than me, dragged in the idea of going to the Land of Happy Meetings, where you met boyfriends. We got there by hooking our way through the trees with long walking-sticks, like monkeys.”
Sometime during these years – the game spanned the Adcocks’ “massive shift” back to New Zealand when Marilyn was 11 – both sisters began to write. Marilyn planned and began writing her first novel A Gap In The Spectrum when pregnant with her first child (after a very youthful marriage). There was an interval of over five months when the manuscript went seamail to London and the publishers looked it over. After it was accepted there was another year till publication. Marilyn was 23 and a mother of two.
“Early success felt fantastic. I’d always promised myself I’d get a novel published, but promising yourself and actually finding it come true! It certainly made me feel a different sort of person.”
But since her publisher was on the other side of the world there were no book launches and publishers’ lunches. “I already knew some local poets but the novelists came later – though I knew Ian Cross.” Duckworth frowns. “I remember Ian came around one night, we were having a drink, he and my then husband Harry Duckworth, and Ian said to me that the reason I wrote was because I was unfulfilled as a person. This upset me – would he have said that if I were a man? I’d written two novels by then, the first was out and the second was on its way.”
Duckworth’s third novel was produced in difficult circumstances. She had a Literary Fund scholarship, so felt bound to deliver. “I spent three months in Auckland writing
A Barbarous Tongue. I got a job in the London Lending Library and wrote at night. I found it was the only way I could do it. My mother-in-law moved in and minded the kids. I could manage to write a novel while I had a fulltime job – but with the children at home I couldn’t. I felt torn two ways. In Auckland I felt guilty and missed the kids. There were times when I’d ring up Wellington in the middle of the night – I had a key to the shop, I’d let myself in and sob down the phone.”
The fourth novel before the gap in Marilyn’s career (from 1969’s Over The Fence Is Out to 1984’s Disorderly Conduct) she wrote by swapping her children with those of an artist friend so that both women secured one free day a week to work. “It was a really hard way to do it and I don’t know how I could do it now. Well, no, I suppose I became used to disciplining myself in that way.”
Duckworth’s use of “freetime” has been further complicated since she developed narcolepsy in her 20s. If she didn’t get a good 11 hours’ sleep each night she would quite literally fall asleep on her feet, without warning, anywhere and any time.
Duckworth is now one of our established writers, a position that entails various duties. She was one of the judges of the 1992 New Zealand Book Awards, and didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the experience. “I hated the responsibility of judging other writers. But acting as a judge in competitions is part of the business of being a writer – like this interview and getting up on panels – which is totally against a writer’s personality often.
“The reason I started being a writer was I wanted to do something on my own, and not have to fit in with others. I hated group activities at school. Like reading in groups, I’d get terribly nervous and start to cough, so that just as it was getting to my turn everyone would start coughing.”
Seeing Red is Duckworth’s 11th novel, a pithy book, set in contemporary Wellington. It concerns two sisters: Isla, “La Stupenda”, a lesbian, botanical gardener who nurses a very personal but hurtful secret; and Vivienne, a divorced mother made redundant from her job by shonky financial dealings. And, in significantly symmetrical contrast to the sisters, there is an English couple, dubbed “the Burberries” after their coats – and also because they are cloaked, in a way, and uncannily alike.
“I wanted an alien couple, locked into a frozen existence, who could affect both sisters. Jake and Jennet needed to be foreign to the sisters; that’s why I brought them from England, from a different, a European, culture – also so there would be no witnesses to their early lives.”
I point out that the author is a kind of witness, as there is a small section early on in the book in which a child, later identifiable as Jennet, refuses to swallow a worm tablet and renounces God. Marilyn says she wanted that section to have a mythical feel to it.
“Jennet sees herself as something of a witch, she wants power. Life became so intolerable when she was little that she wants to be wicked. She’s abused and becomes a abuser.”
A different note enters Duckworth’s voice. “You know Seeing Red hasn’t made it on to the Women’s Book Festival Top 20. It’s been suggested – not too seriously – that women’s violence isn’t an appropriate topic for Suffrage Year. I see women’s anger as very much a feminist issue. If you start not talking about it, then you’re creeping back to that silence that women have laboured under for years.”
It is clear that Marilyn Duckworth doesn’t think much of permissible politics and forbidden points of view. She is not, however, a “political” novelist; or someone who, like Margaret Drabble, writes “novels of ideas”. In Duckworth’s novels politics become a detail of private life. Disorderly Conduct (joint winner of the New Zealand Book Awards in 1985) is set during the 1981 Springbok Tour; Message From Harpo has as its backdrop public wrangling over the Homosexual Law Reform Bill of 1985; other novels are concerned with the “spirit of the age”. Duckworth says she is interested in how the ideas people have determine how they treat each other.
“When I bring in politics I’m never trying to portray what is going on in the world, just what’s going on in these people’s lives. I hope I also get across an attitude.”
Sometimes she has been accused of having characters who are passive – specifically her women characters; the men, she is told, are unreliable bastards. “I’m interested in human weakness – not passivity, it can be the opposite. I do have women characters who are put-upon, clumsy rather than weak. Of course there are different ways of being active and what I’m writing about is surviving.
“I write about traps. Quite often the trap is love, but not just romantic love; it can be siblings – it is in Seeing Red – or children and parents. It’s not all about ‘marriage’. Too many people come out and say I write disparagingly about marriage.”
I suggest that perhaps what these reviewers are responding to is the way in which her characters often see themselves as ordinary; that I think her fiction is about the oddity in ordinary people and the odd lives that overtake people who expect things to be more ordinary. “Yes, I like to twist things slightly, set up expectations then shatter them. When I say I’m interested in human weakness, I want it to be seen that it’s equal across the genders. That’s why I did Pulling Faces through a man’s eyes. He was the one who felt put upon and who was trying to get it right.
“And the title of Message From Harpo – the telegram Harpo sent in fact read ‘No message’. When I’m writing I can’t have an audience in my head. If there was an audience how could you possibly write without being self-conscious and posturing?
“So far as style goes I don’t believe in being distracting. I want people to puzzle a bit but I want a surface that’s negotiable – where everything is accessible yet underneath this, subtle vibrations are going on. I think the important thing is for people to read what’s there and feel that even if it’s bizarre it’s somehow inevitable.”
Finally, I ask whether she has ever considered writing an autobiography – those by Frame, Shadbolt and Edmond have made these highly visible in the national literature. “No, not really. I have a fantastic story to tell, but it’s full of unpublishable material. There are too many people involved.”
“Too many young ones for you to outlive them?”
“Yes. The only thing that would lead me to write one would be if someone else was going to write a version that” – she laughs – “conflicts with mine. I’m very concerned about truth – my version of the truth.”