Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mark Amery on Barbara Else

The 67th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Mark Amery and is from the August 1995 issue. The portrait (apologies for the dodgy scan) is by Marcus Williams.

The intro read:
Sometimes, marriages that appear stable and contented can suddenly snap and fall apart. Sometimes, a woman wronged takes her revenge. And sometimes, a comic novel appears and takes the country – or at least its bookshops – by storm. MARK AMERY talks to Barbara Else, author of The Warrior Queen.
“Sod The Beauty Myth,” my partner exclaimed, after reading The Warrior Queen cover to cover without being able to put it down. “Here’s the accessible feminism.”
A smart and very funny novel, The Warrior Queen digs the knife into the heart of wealthy suburbia and twists it right around. It’s a book that is likely to be passed from one person to another with a mixture of consternation and delight. That’s because Else, with a rich load of sardonic artillery, touches on some of the unsaid things below the surface of middle-aged, middle-class life. Her heroine Kate Wildburn, your typical bored housewife with a workaholic husband, breaks through the veneer of her comfortable married life.
“On the surface it does look quite good,” says Else, “but there are things under the surface that need paying attention to. Everyone’s very envious of it, going to all those glamorous places and eating those rich meals, but after you’ve been to Sydney it actually becomes quite exhausting. I think a lot of people think the same but don’t admit it.”
There will surely be people crying out “yes” as, with a sharp and accurate black wit, Else dismantles Kate’s life, and then allows Kate, after discovering that her husband is having an affair, to become the Warrior Queen and take her revenge.
“Kate realises there’s more going her life than she thought. She’s quite content and it’s all superficial but then suddenly she’s got to look underneath at what’s on. It’s about marriages where one partner gets put down without really realising it. There’s the strong partner and the one that’s just ticking along.
“These women, and it’s usually women even if they have jobs and are living a more meaningful life than Kate is, still don’t have the important job in the family. It’s about people, without meaning to, putting the people that are supposed to be important to them right at the bottom of the list.
“I think lack of communication leads an eventual lack of respect, the respect you have for them when you first fall in love with them. The tiny little failures of communication can be very significant. It’s very much the thing that happens in relationships where you simply don’t have time to talk.”
In person, Else appears to be nothing like the sharp and biting pen that she holds. Quiet and gentle, in fact: it’s clear that writing lets her mischievous side out to play. “The digs are, I guess, sharp,” she admits. “Sometimes I reeled away from my keyboard and thought, ‘Can I say that?’ Then I thought, ‘Yes I can!’”
Else has found humour in the everyday life of the well-off housewife, bringing life to a subject many other writers run away from. But she is no working-class cynic and readily admits she is from the same flock.
“I think it’s good to be able to laugh at yourself. I don’t think you can really poke fun at something if you’re really not quite fond of it, or you appreciate it in some way. It was really nice that I found something in my life I could write about.
“One of the more conscious things I was trying to do was to write about the middle classes. I thought, why not? They’re actually very funny. Why not write about the sort of person I am, for heaven’s sake?”
There is a feminist edge to the book as well. Else is more political than she had thought: “When I wrote the first draft I just wanted it to be a funny book, but the more I worked on it, going over draft after draft, the angrier I got on Kate’s behalf.
“I got quite upset sometimes, and that’s when I realised the book was really starting to work. That it wasn’t just a funny book, it had depth.
“Women have basically got a lot more power than they think. They tend to do a ‘poor little me’ thing sometimes, but they have got a lot of control of their domestic lives and families. They can exercise that in subversive ways and I was really using that to say, look what you could actually do if you were in that situation. Look at what powers you have.
“It’s something I do feel anger about. At the same time it’s a generalised anger because I think the women are as much at fault in that circumstance as the men – whichever partner’s doing it, the other is colluding in some way. It’s quite interesting to wonder what will make the worm turn.”
In The Warrior Queen it’s a motel receipt found by Kate in her husband’s pocket; for others it may be this book itself. Else is proof that we’re all political animals, even if we don’t intend to be.
“I’ve heard a lot of women say, ‘I’m not a feminist,’ but they’ve just been saying five minutes ago how they thought this and did that. They just don’t realise it or don’t accept the term. The term still has got a negative aura to it.”
The title The Warrior Queen (the publisher’s), and the Megan Jenkinson image of a woman handling a Ken doll on the cover, could be misconstrued as a wrapper for a much more political text. “I was worried that it might be seen from the title as a feminist textbook of some kind so I’m hoping reviews will pick up on the fact that it’s a funny story. Once the image of the warrior queen cropped up, it was so useful for what Kate was going to do that I kept using it. It wasn’t very feminist at all. I thought the whole idea of a warrior queen was quite absurd. It was so intriguing because it was a reversal.”
As a male, I said, I felt some discomfort about the unfavourable light her husband Richard and other males, cast firmly in the background, are given. “I did wonder sometimes if I should have done things differently, but I wanted to do a straight drive or narrative from her point of view. I actually began to feel really sorry for Richard, in that he’s too blind to see. As an individual he’s really quite sad.”
My slight discomfort may stem from the fact that Else uses a dark humour that I’m accustomed to hearing in women’s conversation. It’s a humour that males can find quite threatening. “Comedy is a way a lot of women deal with a life that is quite dreary,” Else says. “They have to be very subversive about it and have to deal with things with a black humour. They may only actually admit to their women friends how black things are, but at the same time keep it quite flippant. There’s a tension in women’s conversations.”
It is the intelligence and wit of Kate that drives The Warrior Queen. Else revels in the freedom to play with both Kate’s actions and what she does with her voice. It’s as if both Barbara Else and Kate say to the reader, “I’m playing and I’m allowed to.”
Else plays around with Kate’s voice partly by having fun with the text – employing different styles, fonts, headings and emblems. Like Kate she is bravely taking risks that are there to be taken. “That play really popped out of Kate’s voice and her self-irony because, even at the beginning, when she is apparently a contented wife, she still has a little self-irony about being ‘the faithful wife’. The play is really her way of dealing with repetitive occasions like dinner parties.
“It’s also giving the reader a little treat now and then. It’s a little visual treat, The technology to do it is so readily available now and it seemed to work with this character. I was quite worried about how they would work, so at one stage I took them all out, but the book suddenly seemed so flat. So I put them all back in and I perked up again.”
Else is very conscious of the mechanics of writing, That’s not surprising since she also works as an editor, assisting other people with their writing. She runs Total Fiction Services, a manuscript assessment service, with her husband Chris Else. “It’s much easier to apply it to other people. That was the intriguing process about writing this book. It taught me a lot about writing, even though I tell other people about that all the time.
“I had an academic background studying classical novels [a degree in English literature and criticism], and when I learned about writing technique it all clicked together for me. You can look at a piece of writing when you’re actually writing on it and find out what you’re trying to do.
“Writing is very much a process with two sides to it. There’s the critical side, where you have to remember your editor’s ability and objectively assess your own work. That’s where a lot of writers get caught up, they get too caught up in the critical and can’t get back to the other side, the creative.
“I have learned with much trial and error to apply these things almost within the creative side. For example, I may know that I will have to do something else later to make this work right now. That’s something all writers learn but I think I have learned to be more aware of it from working on other people’s writing.”
Else has had considerable success already with her writing. With four writing awards to her name, she has won recognition for her children’s writing, stage plays and radio drama; her short stories have been published in a variety of magazines and broadcast on radio. “l stopped writing short stories because I found them too difficult. I find it very difficult to know when I’m finished with a short story because I’m not sure what effect it will have on the reader. With a longer narrative I have a much better feel for how it’s operating.”
The Warrior Queen is a case in point. It began life as a short story for Metro, which Else then developed further. “I think the character was so interesting to me. She was so lively, even though she doesn’t do much in those first few pages except go shopping! The tone of the short story was what really appealed to me and it was much more satirical. The voice of the character was there and that made it quite easy to continue.”

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