The 58th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the December 1993 issue. Nigel Cox interviews Barbara Anderson, who died this morning, aged 87. She was a wonderful woman and a wonderful writer of short stories and novels: there was also an autobiography. One of the great pleasures for me as literary editor of Metro in the late 80s/early 90s was that I got to publish her. So here is Nigel Cox interviewing her 20 years ago.
The intro read:
Before becoming a prize-winning writer, Barbara Anderson was a naval wife, which could make readers of her new novel All The Nice Girls wonder if perhaps it mightn’t be a little bit autobiographical. “Well, yes,” she tells Nigel Cox, “there’s that marvellous phrase of Margaret Atwood’s, where she says she likes to know the furniture of what she’s writing about. And certainly I know the furniture of being a naval wife...”NAVAL GAZING
“The bit in the book when the ship comes home, for example, I can remember that particular feeling when the men have been away for a long time, the excitement on the wharf, so to that extent, yes — but none of the characters is based on anyone. You pinch bits here and there, and make them up.”
Reading Anderson is like being in the company of a brilliant talker, a phrasemaker. Listening to her you get that same voice, worldly, wry, precise, amused. She’s that rare thing, a writer who can talk well about what she does. A particular feature of her conversational style is the ability instantly to summon comments by other writers, like the reference to Atwood above.
“I like what Hemingway said,” she says, “when someone asked him what was the hardest thing about writing he said, ‘finding the right words’.” When asked if she writes in longhand she says, “Yes. I agree with that thing Nabokov says — the hand supports the thought.” The sense you get is that these distillations are part of the furniture in Anderson’s head, where they guide her and keep her company.
All The Nice Girls [reviewed on page 32] describes a culture where women support their husbands by keeping the devil from finding their hands idle, and Anderson, who’s been a late starter as a writer, seems to have kept hers full of books and reading. Storing it all up.
She was born in Hawke’s Bay in 1926, completed a science degree at Otago and, 30 years later, an arts degree at Victoria. In earlier incarnations she’s been a school teacher and a laboratory technician, as well as being married to the navy. Now it’s her husband who supports her by typing her manuscripts up and, she says, acting as her toughest critic.
One of the other partnerships Barbara Anderson shares with her husband is the world of sound. She is partially deaf and he often has to catch a word for her, which is a surprise when you think of her remarkable ear for dialogue. Her other strength is her marvellous command of character. So, when she’s at work, is she mainly focused on her people, or on the language?
“Both, I think. I like to try to create people who seem rounded, and yet to take pleasure in the words. When I’m reading I like it when an author can make the words sit up and beg. Janet Frame, for example, where you get that delight in unexpected phrases. But I also very much like the way that the Victorian women novelists, and those who preceded them, give you a fully rounded character that you feel you know.”
She pauses. “I don’t see how you could try to write unless you read a lot of writers you admire.”
So whom does she admire? Barthelme is a name that she gives without hesitation, but then the conversation begins, in the happiest sense of the word, to degenerate Listening to her, it’s impossible not to wonder whether, now that she’s got four books under her belt, writing comes as effortlessly as talking about other writers.
“Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, that’s the sort of writing I like. That bit in More Die Of Heartbreak, where Mrs Layamon was talking about how the wedding boutique had ‘screwed up the dessert sets’, and in that one phrase you get the whole thing of what the woman’s like — she’s getting married again and her main interest is in how the dessert sets are screwed up. That juxtaposition of slanginess and meticulously chosen words, that’s making words work. Wonderful book.
“But no, it doesn’t get any easier. I think you become more conscious of the process, so that instead of just writing you’re sort of watching yourself do it. I do so agree with Virginia Woolf where she says the most difficult thing about writing is getting your character from one room to the other. It’s so difficult. What are you going to say — she hopped, she moved, she crawled? You get sick of it, you just want to tip them through the wall without having to go into it. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it gets any easier.”
This time, she says, she wanted to write about “authority and acceptance, or the non-acceptance of it. How you can toddle along your apparently predestined path and then like one of the characters in the new book, think, as in Rupert Brooke’s poem: ‘Fish say they have their Stream and Pond/ But is there anything Beyond?/ This life cannot be All, they swear/ For how unpleasant if it were’.”
She wanted to set the novel in the “pre-feminist early 60s, a long time ago now, but I hope that people will recognise the sort of vicarious lives that I think a lot of women used to live in those days. It’s a smaller canvas than Portrait, but you get to know the main character quite well, I think, and see her coming to terms with being a naval wife.
“ I read a thing in the Malaysian Times, oh, years ago, that I kept, and this woman was saying then, ‘What is femininity, what is masculinity? Anything that deprives a person of their full development is a bad thing.’ I mean, I’m all for people living vicariously if that’s what they want to do, but...”
The stories in her first book, I Think We Should Go Into The Jungle, saw her being compared with Flaubert, a comparison which was reconsidered in the Guardian recently as “not seeming senselessly extravagant... this must be the sharpest collection in English since Raymond Carver’s Cathedral”.
Her first novel, Girl’s High, had the London Sunday Times describing her as “a born writer” and, on the strength of Portrait, announcing that “it now seems only a matter of time before Wellington replaces New York as the literary capital of the world”. Roll on.
But this admiration has been less readily forthcoming at home. When Portrait became the first novel by a woman to win the Wattie (Other Halves was first equal), critic Andrew Mason announced on Sunday Supplement that this was “an extraordinary decision” which over-praised an “enjoyable but forgettable” novel.
Sue McCauley’s Listener review said, “It may be art but it’s not a square meal”. Other reviewers were niggardly, and the book wasn’t even shortlisted for last year’s NZ Book Awards. Why could this be?
“Well, I would be the last to know, wouldn’t I,” says Anderson. “What they liked in the UK and what the man at Norton’s in America liked, was what they called the economy, the freshness. Perhaps we’re more used to that type of writing here.”
Personally I’d be surprised if we’ve had a surfeit of writing as stylish and engaging as Anderson’s.
It will be interesting to see how All The Nice Girls fares here, as it’s appearing almost a year before it comes out in England, this time under that most prestigious of imprints, Jonathan Cape. I suspect that the time when we will recognise this superb storyteller has arrived.
Victoria University Press remembers her this way.
Paula Morris interviews Barbara for the Listener in 2008.
Damien Wilkins interviews Barbara for Sport 36: Winter 2008.