Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Denis Edwards on Lindsey Dawson

The 63rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1995 issue.

The intro read:
There is Lindsey Dawson, Corporate Woman, who spends her days working with budgets and circulation figures, hiring and firing setting deadlines. And then there is Lindsey Dawson, Sensitive New Age Gal and author of Angel Baby. “I have times when I have spiritual bursts, when I am full of wonder at what life is all about,” she tells Denis Edwards.
Lindsey Dawson has been in journalism since the early 60s, when she started work at the Auckland Star. Later, in the 80s and 90s she made a name working at Metro and as founding editor of first More and then Next, the bulletin board for the cocooning generation.
It’s a career built on interviewing people. She long ago learned the rules. One, let the interviewee do the talking, which isn’t as oft-practised a bit of wisdom as it sounds – check out Holmes almost any night. Two, save the ugly stuff till the end. Thus, if an offended interviewee boots you out or walks, you still have a bit of material to work with.
Now Dawson has become an author. Her first novel, Angel Baby, has just been published by England’s Hodder and Stoughton (and is reviewed in this issue): the next step is the marketing. That means fronting up to being interviewed. “You have to do them,” she says. “It’s a part of promoting the book. That’s the process, and there is no point in saying you are going to stay out of sight and not do them.”
It is also an opportunity for her to see how others practise journalism. This has been revealing. There was, for instance, the jolt she got when a bright-eyed young hack flicked open a mint-fresh notebook, looked her right in the eye and fired off a “And exactly how old are you?” Boom, straight down the barrel, just like that. Welcome to the New Zild media. “I’m not sure that’s the sort of thing you ask someone of a certain age, at least not as the very first question,” she says.
This is the latest rung on her literary climb. The previous rung was in July, when she first held a copy of her book, straight from the publishers – bound, dust-jacketed and, above all, ready to go out there into world. Her imagination, her vision, her words.
And the rung before that was January 28, 1995, the day Auckland’s biggest iwi, Te Middle Class, assembled in the Auckland Domain to hear the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in Opera in The Park accompanied by a bottle or two of champers – this was in the days when wetting the whistle with the French stuff was a point of prestige, rather than cause for being spat on by the righteous.
Earlier that day Dawson had heard from Hodder and Stoughton that Angel Baby would be published. This was big news, especially as Hodder is not famed for taking first-time authors, particularly ones from beyond the sceptered isle. It was good reason to add an extra bottle of bubbly for the evening in the Domain. I hasten to point out that Dawson bears no resemblance to that other magazine editor, Edina – although, after news like that, a certain loosening of otherwise commendable and mature restraint would have been acceptable. “It was a nice night, but no, there wasn’t anything like that.”
Dawson is a journalist. Journalism is literature’s hit-and-run driver: do the research, write the story and move on. It’s for observers, watching and waiting for the tell-tale act, the revealing moment, the choice quote. It’s about coaxing others to reveal all while keeping one’s own options open. It is, in fact, a job for spies with well-defended personalities.
Unlike fiction. That is revealing. There is nowhere to hide. Psychologists get people to write long journals, to force them away from their defences.
This happened with Dawson. She began in earnest in October 1990, when she had a five-month break between leaving More, which she had marched to a massive 80,000 copies a month circulation (probably impossible again in today’s fragmented magazine market), and launching Next.
The first 30,000 words were a breeze. “I wrote in the morning and stripped wallpaper in the afternoon. It was pure joy. That 30,000 words was a really good base on which to build the rest.”
Then it was back to full-time work. By the end of the first draft, Dawson had discovered a thing or two about writing fiction. “I wanted to write a good story, something of my own – a ripping good yarn, I suppose you could call it. I began it with huge arrogance. I’d been an editor for 10 years. ‘I can knock words around. I know all about writing. This is going to be good’ – and as I very quickly found out, it is completely different.”
The book moved along at a rate of three to four hours’ work a night, on top of getting Next out and working on the Broadcasting Standards Authority, a time-consuming role. It effectively added up to three jobs. Dawson hit the wall. She got sick, ending up on the surgeon’s table, farewelling her gall bladder.
An amazed surgeon asked, “Didn’t you even realise you were sick?” She hadn’t. She had been pushing herself too hard. That was a fright for Dawson, and a boost for her book. She handed over the editorship of Next and settled into a 1992 of writing and relaxing. “The next time I might have had a heart attack or something and that would have been it. I didn’t see the point of working myself into an early grave.”
Most of the time Dawson is Corporate Woman, working with budgets, circulation figures, hiring and firing, giving assignments and setting deadlines. But there is another side. “I have had times when I have had spiritual bursts, I suppose you could call them. It’s not religion. It’s more of a time for reflection and a time when I am full of wonder at what life is all about.”
A friend’s death in a plane crash lies behind the central image on which Angel Baby is based. “That was a very close friend of mine, and during a period of grieving I did a lot of praying, which was something I had never done before. I had a dream one night, of the world as this great glistening, blue globe hanging in the dark in space, surrounded by this glittering web, like a measure of energy.”
She recalls it as a wonderful, clear vision which triggered her to wonder, “What if there were little beings charged with the responsibility of maintaining this mythical thing? That was the seed, I suppose.
“Every so often, when I was away on holiday or something, I would think I should write, that story, and I would buy an exercise book and start writing. Then I’d go back to work and it would get thrown away.”
Eventually the first draft, a whopping 220,000 words, was finished, and a proud author lugged her manuscript off to Glenys Bean, literary agent. This is often the moment of truth for the tyro author, because someone independent gets a look at their creation. That moment of truth can be painful. Dawson’s experience matched thousands of authors before her. It was “get real” time. The book had real possibilities, but was way, way too long. Repetitions and long conversations would have to go. So would the Maori references – English publishers couldn’t relate to them. “That all hurt a bit, because I had had such confidence and then realised I had a lot to learn about writing, even after all those years in journalism.”
Even so, she had no idea six more drafts would lie ahead. By the sixth she had had enough. “If I didn’t sell it after the sixth draft, that was going to be it. The book would go in the bottom drawer and I would have had a learning curve and that was it.”
It helped that she has a strong support group back at the ranch in Epsom – husband Peter and their two daughters. “They were all great. All of them reckoned I was producing a bestseller.”
They might be right. Hodder and Stoughton have produced a first run of 7000 copies in hardback, and there will be a paperback next year. Translation rights have been sold to Holland and Spain. An agent specialising in filmable properties has picked it up; negotiations proceed for other rights and other deals.
Her second book, The Next Book Of Home Decorating, is due from Penguin in November – and another novel is already in the works. It has similar themes with different circumstances, she says, but beyond that she’s reluctant to talk too much about it at this stage.
What she will say is that, as a frequent book reviewer for Next, she has become a much more sympathetic critic, “now that I’ve seen what it’s like to get a book written and into print”.

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