NOTES BOOKS AUTHORS NUMBER 6 1996
LM, KM, EL, ME & me, KDG
A talk to the Friends of the Dorothy Neal White Collection
Kate De Goldi
First published in 2002
By the Friends of the Dorothy Neal White Collection
P O Box 12 499, Wellington
Friends of the Dorothy Neal White Collection and Kate De Goldi
LM, KM, EL, ME & Me, KDG
A few months ago I gave a speech to the New Zealand Children’s Book Foundation. It was called Fiction made me and began: “There were only three books in my father’s Greymouth family home during the thirties and forties.” I described these three books in some detail – the novels, Coral Island and Rival Redskins and the school poetry text Mount Helicon. I recalled their look and feel and smell, their contents, and the annotative doodlings of their owner (my Dad) and their place in his and, by extension, my own reading history. As is the way with these things it turned out I’d made up Coral Island – that is to say, I’d invented its presence on Dad’s little bookshelf. It was never there, he told me later – not only did he not win it as a school prize (as he had Rival Redskins) but he’d never owned it, period. Never had it in the house, didn’t read it until he left home.
Initially, I was thrown by this – would it undermine the thrust and logic of my talk? I was frankly dubious, too. Surely my memory had been correct – I could see the book’s faded red cover, its friable spine, the sticker on the flyleaf: Awarded to Rony De Goldi. Eventually, I was gleeful – the mistake became a perfect illustration of the twinned processes of memory and fiction – the grafting of a misrecalled event onto a plot-line in the interests of a certain theme or point; it was yet another example of my unconscionable tendency to invent or exaggerate for the sake of narrative neatness, for the sake of colour and poignancy. In the end I was thoroughly grateful to the mistake because it allowed me to conclude my speech rather niftily, I thought: after confessing to the invention I got myself neatly off the hook by saying that “fiction made me do it”.
In fact, the impulse behind the unconscious invention in that talk was a well-founded one. I wanted to emphasise the fact of my father’s relatively bookless childhood home and how, as a reading child, this seemed to me a preposterous deprivation. I understood – dimly – that the booklessness was driven by economics and social circumstance (immigrant parents, labourer father, five children, English as a very rudimentary second language, Depression years). In terms of the hierarchy of basic needs the household only slowly worked its way to leisure purchases. And I understood – gradually – that the lack of books in his early life was precisely what drove my father to collect them so sedulously in his middle life.
Comparatively speaking – and my yardsticks for comparison were the homes of my cousins and school friends which seemed to have just a few rugby biographies, the Edmond’s cookbook and the occasional classic novel – our house had a large number of books. With more ready cash than the wider family – but also with a firm belief in reading as education par excellence – my parents were able to build a library which eventually – I remember being indecently proud of this – was housed in floor-to-ceiling bookcases. There were shelves and shelves of my father’s second-hand history and theology books, and paperback detective and historical series bought by my mother, though the books lodged in my earliest memory were the twelve volumes of Junior Britannica, the various and apparently endless Time life series (world history,
philosophy, art, the human body, great inventions, explorations), a white Bible the size of a small table and three volumes of The Catholic book of knowledge. In time my favourite books were the complete Dickens, Somerset Maugham and Nevil Shute – all available at “a reasonable rate” (as Dad told me recently) through good old Reader’s Digest. The initial appeal of these books was their pristine appearance – a book’s cover is important. Nevil Shute was in red and gold mock-leather hardback, Somerset Maugham in blue and gold, and Dickens in dark green. I liked their colour and shine, I liked their uniformity, I liked their numerousness. I liked their tassels. I liked arranging them in order (alphabetical or chronological). Eventually I liked reading them – all of them, one after another, one glorious summer in a kind of coming-of-age reading fever.
But that was later. The first really significant texts in my reading life
were On Cherry Street and Little white house.
I said (rather rashly) on radio recently, that there were only two picture books around in my childhood, Robert the rose horse and Harry the dirty dog. Patently untrue, of course – as soon as I said this I remembered the Cat in the hat and The cow who fell in the canal. I was making the point that compared to the prodigality of current picture book publishing – and the fascinating redefinition and extension that genre has undergone in the last two decades – the picture book scene of my pre-school years was a rather tamer one. Of course I read what was around (or rather it was read to me) though I don’t remember owning any titles and doubtless they were as crucial an early component in my reading life as Where is Timothy? and the other immortal PM school readers. It’s just that I have no real memory of them. My coming-to-reading consciousness began with the Ginn reader series – the aforementioned On Cherry Street and Little white house and their companion volumes, Roads to everywhere and Trails to treasure.
Oddly enough, I’ve never met anyone outside my old primary school who was suckled on these readers, but they were the standard and sacred reading stepping stones at Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. (It’s occurred to me recently that anyone educated at a place with such an outrageously baroque and unKiwi name was bound to develop an intense and romantic engagement with language later in life.) The nuns who ran this school and two other schools in New Zealand were from an Irish order, The Sisters of the Holy Faith, whose sister houses ran schools in the United States. My guess is that the Ginn readers were the texts used in the American schools and duly sent over to the nuns marooned on this rock in the Pacific Ocean.
The Ginn readers were thick story-books, graded readers, and resolutely American. Their stories charted contemporary (fifties) American domestic, suburban life (there were characters recurring throughout the volumes); they retold American history, American myths and legends, and classic American literature. They subtly promulgated American Cold War values, too, and the materialist individualism of mainstream post-war America – but that only mirrored the cultural colonisation happening on the TV at home, and anyway I didn’t care. I loved the Ginn readers. I loved my steady progress through them. I loved the reinforcement that steady progress gave to my flowering
sense of self as a reader. In recent years I’ve come to see the Ginn Readers as books that seeded a sensibility deeply favourable to American literature and culture – a sensibility that was later nurtured by legions of American children’s books and eventually led me to major in American Studies at university.
From time to time since I started publishing I’ve been asked in interviews and panels what the major influences on my writing have been. The answer is always, reading, of course – and music, too, which is perhaps less obvious. The more accurate answer is the ascendency of pure story and language in my life (obvious again, I guess: if balls had been ascendant I might have been a sportswoman). But the story and language came as much through an aural/oral legacy as through solo reading. For example, I have always been a big time eavesdropper – not an attractive habit, I admit, but meat and drink for a writer. I’ve always felt I needed to know things that weren’t necessarily for publication (secrets, the real story behind the official story, private opinions, another person’s singular spin on an event or relationship, anything and everything that was kept from children).
Secondly, I was lucky enough to be born into a family that liked to tell its story and stories over and over again. I was always ready to prompt my grandmothers, my aunts, the occasional uncle, but particularly my mother and father, both of whom are eloquent reporters – to yet another retelling. What was important about these oral histories were the repetitions not only of events – but of the language with which those events were described. Certain treasured phrases – pejorative and celebratory – became anticipated. My maternal grandmother and mother both mined a particularly rich vein of Irishisms which ornamented their stories: so and so’s hair wasn’t merely thin and limp, it was “terribly squitchmone”. Mrs Cotter wasn’t just a bad housekeeper, “her kitchen was a Paddy’s market”. The bloke whose name you couldn’t remember was “old spookemdyke up the road”. The skinny, elfin grandson was a “little spithogue” and Mrs O’Malley was unfortunately burdened by that “shickery Mick of a husband of hers”. And so on.
There was a third element. My sisters and I not only had a wealth of books bought on our behalf, we also had a great library of talking books – albeit condensed. We began with a couple of 75s which gave us The three billy goats Gruff and some nursery rhymes maniacally rendered in American accents. We moved to a stack of 45s which delivered the entire Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen as well as one-off classics: Peter Pan and Alice in wonderland. And then we graduated to long-player classics which really did justice to the language of their originators. The happy prince narrated by Bing Crosby; a deeply affecting version of The snow goose accompanied by – I think – bits of Die Valkyrie and, most memorably, A Christmas carol narrated by, and in the role of Scrooge, Sir Laurence Olivier, with choir and Spin-O-Rama orchestra at heart-rending stretch.
We listened to these records countless times and over time the words and phrases, their pitch and harmony, their sweep and rhythm and cadence – and I use these words deliberately because there was an essential musicality in the narration of those stories – over time the words lodged firmly in our minds and became as familiar as prayers or hymns or carols committed to memory.
So now I can, at any given moment, call to mind the exact timbre of Bing Crosby’s voice as he has the Happy Prince upbraid the tiring swallow: “Swallow, swallow, little swallow, will you not bring me…”. Or, I can hear the full-throated vibration of Frith’s mezzo (I don’t recall the actor) as she describes the snow goose flying over the “swollen estuary” bringing tidings from Dunkirk. Or, on the flip-side of that record I can hear precisely the fevered incantation of the imprisoned Edmond Dantès, in The Count of Monte Cristo, as he chips away at the wall of his cell: the names of his three betrayers, the men he has vowed to take vengeance on: “Danglars, Mondego, De Villefort.”
And finally, Sir Laurence, snarling and snivelling and crowing and weeping and singing his way through A Christmas carol – long florid sentences, heavy with adjectives, in tones that will doubtless be with me to my last breath.
“Oh but he was a tight-fisted hand to the grind-stones,” said Sir Laurence, as narrator. “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. He iced the walls of his counting house on weekdays and he certainly didn’t let it thaw one degree at Christmas.”
Great metaphor, but it was the words, finally – those adjectives, spat out, howled, whispered – that were important, that accrued to make up a litany, a memory-bank with reverberations that affect me now in my writing life.
These big deposits in that memorybank of language and the accompanying imaginative adventures all happened parallel to a solo reading life that began with the Ginn Readers but really flowered after a visitor to our house gave me, aged seven, as a parting present a copy of One hundred and one dalmatians. She may have meant it as a gift for my sisters, too, but, typically, I claimed it. I think of this as my first real book, my first own book and I have read it upwards of thirty times since 1966 and though the passing years have added dimensions to it – cultural, social and political perceptions that were absent in my childhood – each re-reading has been just as pleasurable as the first. I have read it to my children several times. I have worn out three copies of it. At least some of its significance in my personal reading history derives from the fact that it was a present from a woman I knew as an ardent reader and collector of children’s books, but just as importantly it became the seeding book in a library of my own that grew out of this same friend’s suggestion to my mother that she – Mum – start buying me paperbacks on a regular basis.
Never one to do things by half my mother started bringing home armloads of paperbacks – box-loads, truckloads, a quite astonishing amount – all from the Merivale Corner bookshop. She doled them out to me at birthdays and Christmas but throughout the year, too, six or so at a time, nearly always on a Friday night or the first day of the holidays (and you know those Friday nights, those first days, it was always raining, but the sound of the rain was immensely pleasurable from the bottom of a warm bed, and the book was so good, and there were another five, and no school tomorrow…).
It was the golden age of Puffin paperbacks with Kaye Webb as editor. I never really knew who or what a Kaye Webb was – those two words took on a
life and series of associations quite independent of person. Neither did I have much idea what an editor was, but “Editor, Kaye Webb” was written at the front of every book since time immemorial and “Editor, Kaye Webb” meant, as far as I was concerned, an imprimatur second-to-none.
By the time I was fourteen I had some four hundred Puffins stacked horizontally on my bedroom bookcase. Having read most of them once and having spent sundry hours organising and reorganising them, according to various personal hierarchies – favourite authors first, authors with the most titles first, thickest spines first, American authors first, school stories first, fantasy first. Whatever, I knew them all intimately, their cover compositions, the idiosyncrasies of their wear-and-tear – a ripped spine here, a butter-stained bottom right corner there: The magician’s nephew completely coverless through excess reading; pages 87 to 100 of Anne of Green Gables, cut into three precise tassels by my sister, Margaret Mary, learning to wield scissors.
I knew them like the proverbial back of my hand and one of my most pleasurable soporifics was to lie in bed scanning the bookcase and naming each book and respective author, according to the colour and design distinction of its spine (they were too far away to read the print). It was my private litany of secular saints, following hard on the more sacred and petitioning end of the nightly business. When I had asked God to bless MumDadClareMargaretMary, AlltheAuntsandUncles and EveryoneOfMyForty-TwoFirstCousins I turned my attention to that other catalogue of names, said them quietly, with a kind of proprietorial reverence; it was a creed really, holy couplings that made up a system of belief I never asked blessing for because I knew somehow it was already much blessed.
The night the rain came in, by Jennifer Wayne
Emil and the detectives, by Erich Kästner
We couldn’t leave Dinah, by Mary Treadgold
Little old Mrs Pepperpot, by Alf Proysen
The voyages of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
Auntie Robbo, by Anne Scott-Moncrieff
Mary Poppins, by PL Travers
The house of sixty fathers, by Meindert de Jong
Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn, by Eve Garnett
Harriet and the cherry pie, by Clare Compton
The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright
One hundred million francs, by Paul Berna
The weathermonger, by Peter Dickinson
The Friday miracle and other stories, by – strangely – Save the Children
And so on and so on for five shelves of books or until I was asleep, whichever came first. All fiction, of course. Actually, there was a single non-fiction volume on my bookcase Bits that grow big – not a book on pubertal changes but a children’s text on plant experiments. I looked at it often enough but it never spun my wheels. In contrast to my father’s absorption in the
worlds of biography, history, philosophy and theology – and perhaps because of it – my immersion was in purely imagined worlds. Not a “true” word anywhere – but, of course, words deployed so magically and by such wise sensibilities and in the complete service of story, that truths by necessity abounded and entered my mental and emotional hemispheres, lodged in me at a profound level.
In the speech I mentioned earlier I described how in a very real way that library of books made me what I was, constructed me, if you like. That reading, those stories, that library, distinguished me to myself – if not others – in a way nothing else quite did. Those fictions fashioned a world, certainly, but the act of reading them also fashioned a self for me – and gave it a name – Reader – a christened self with which I was deeply comfortable. (Just as well. Apart from some musical talent I wasn’t good for much else – an unpredictable school student, no sportswoman, no good at womanly arts like sewing – you could say reading was a safe harbour, a lifebuoy seized in the choppy seas of a wayward school career). Or to look at it another way – my parents’ way – you could say it was a temptress that lured me off-task so often I managed only three School Cert subjects, no accredited UE, no Bursary. This alternative schooling isn’t for everyone, but it’s not at all a bad education for a would-be writer. And I see the fingerprints of many of those well-loved Puffin authors all over my own work.
For the purposes of this talk I’ve been selective about influential authors and titles – a difficult business given how tenderly I regard so many of those people and stories. You will have all recognised the authors’ initials in my title – and the not-very-subtle tribute to EL Konigsburg’s wonderful Newbery-winning book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and me, Elizabeth – but LM Montgomery, KM Peyton, EL Konigsburg and ME Kerr are just the tip of the iceberg, are in a sense symbolic (and conveniently, for the purposes of the title, they all published under initials).
And I need to acknowledge in the interests of fairness, that between Roads to everywhere and The hundred and one dalmatians were all 48 titles of the inimitable Bobbsey twin series. I owned them all, read them all, not once but many, many times. I’m not at all sorry about that part of my reading history – especially since I’ve long since decided it was Laura Lee Hope, not Dickens, who taught me the beauty of the hanging chapter ending. Nan and Bert, Freddy and Flossie, also Nancy Drew, Dick Julian Ann and George, also Sue Barton, Ginny Gordon, Cherry Ames and the Hardy Boys – all those series characters populated my bookcase and entertained me off and on for years in much the same way the thirty or so Babysitter Club books on my daughter’s bookcase came down at regular intervals between five years and ten (usually when she was sick or tired), to offer that great reading service – comfort.
Drawing a long bow you could say that the doings of Anne Shirley make for one of the early children’s series – albeit a rather superior one. Thankfully, I met Anne early enough to find her eternally enchanting – rather than teeth-grittingly saccharine and impossibly wholesome – as the occasional curmudgeon has suggested. Actually, I understand this completely – timing is everything. My sisters, reared on and addicted re-readers of the Little House books, have evolved in their adult years a special game testifying to their affection for the Ingalls family: Telebingo Little
house on the prairie, a means by
which they test each other – in person, by phone, fax, post and email – on the most arcane pieces of Little House minutiae. My daughter, Luciana, a veteran now of three reads-through of the series, has recently joined the game and sends her questions and answers on postcards. But I can’t play because, coming as I did to the books at fifteen or so, I have always loathed Laura, Mary, Nellie, Almanzo and, especially, Ma – racist, sanctimonious old bat that she is. Ingalls Wilder does great food (especially in Farmer Boy) but I always found the stories too soaked in bigotry and nauseating Baptist pieties to accord them the affection I have for Montgomery’s sacred texts.
What is it about the Anne books? A cast of memorable characters, for a start, stories rich with incident, a strong vein of humour, a wide and challenging lexicon, wonderful evocations of friendship, a powerful sense of place (no small thing for me – the colonial Montgomery had a message about new world geographies and particularities for a New Zealand storyteller). The timeless seductiveness of the near-changeling is part of Anne’s pull, too, I think – and the beautifully rendered journey-to-love of Matthew and, particularly, Marilla for their funny, skinny, redhead foster child. But above all, for me it is the absolute privileging of imagination that Montgomery espouses. The imaginative capacity to adulterate, transform, herald, excite, organise, that LM gives her heroine is not just her most charming feature, it is her defining one. Seeing Prince Edward Island, the past, the future, the politics of friendship, the romance of clothes, a prospective dinner, love, anything, through Anne Shirley’s highly receptive eyes is a glorious reading experience, without doubt, but more importantly, Anne’s untrammeled imagination – the trouble and joy it brings her – has always been loaded with what I’m sure Montgomery intended as a radicalising message: creativity is all. In the short term Philistine preoccupations, provincial mores, the dictates of fashion, may have their day, but ultimately, God and the angels favour literature, idiosyncrasy, spontaneity and imagination.
And possibly red hair.
I’m very aware of wanting to name book after book in the Puffin Choir (as I’ve come to think of it) as, not just favoured, but significant in ways big and small. I want to remember with affection Noel Streatfeild, her long list of publications. Streatfeild wasn’t, perhaps, the most subtle of writers, and her ear isn’t particularly acute, but her ability with story and character is undoubted and her heroines’ inevitable triumphs in the name of performance art are awfully satisfying. I could get lyrical about Elizabeth George Speare and Barbara Willard (two writers I regularly re-read), both of whom evoke character, time and place with the most dense, musical prose. Along with Mollie Hunter, Cynthia Harnett, Barbara Softly, Geoffrey Trease and Leon Garfield (to name some) they fanned and fed a passion for historical fiction. CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Jane Langton, Ursula Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander did it for fantasy and magic realism. Peter Dickinson occupied a territory of his own. I could talk at length about The family from One End Street and Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn or the Mary Poppins books, or the teasing, demanding fictional world of Jane Gardam, or the legions of writers on both sides of the Atlantic who documented so wryly and fondly late twentieth century suburban and family
life – Betsy Byars, Jennifer Wayne, Madeleine L’Engle, Louise Fitzhugh, Beverley Cleary – the list is potentially endless.
One writer I come back to again and again – who, inconveniently, didn’t fit into my title because she didn’t write under initials – is the American, Elizabeth Enright, and particularly her matchless quartet about the Melendy family. Amazingly the series was written and published half a century ago but, like all great stories and great writing, it slips free of temporal and geographical moorings and speaks to today’s child, I reckon, as powerfully as it did to the child in post-war America. I know this for a fact because my daughter – a thoroughly modern girl – has read and re-read the books a number of times.
Actually, recently, reading with Luciana the third of the quartet – Then there were five – I was brought face to face with an hilarious misapprehension I’ve been labouring under for some thirty years. One of those lovely loony misreadings that every reader’s history is dotted with – patent nonsenses that are somehow logically accommodated and give, consequently, a rich edge to life.
We were at the chapter where Mark joins the family after the death of his mean stepfather, Oren, in a house fire. Enright has a big heart but never sentimentalises; she has a sharp eye for the minutiae of childhood and family and the apt but surprising image. Crucially, for me, she has an unfailing ear for the most propulsive and lilting prose rhythms, for the right vernacular cadences and the staccato of dialogue. With this formidable armoury she builds a steady and most satisfying sense of Mark’s embrace by the family, his quiet, happy settling into that reliable embrace.
Riding a bicycle was not the only thing that Mark was interested in learning. He drank new experiences like a thirsty weed. He was intoxicated by the Melendy books, and sat hour after hour on the floor of the Office, surrounded with crooked columns of books that he had taken from the cases. Bowed over a volume, cheek in hand, there was no sound from him except the frequent, dry turning of a page.
…Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood, Mowgli, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Uncas, Long John Silver, all of them were new to Mark. Even the girls’ books interested him: Eight cousins and Castle Blair, and Sara Crewe, even the old outgrown fairy tales with their coloured pictures: Water Babies, Hans Andersen, The Land of Oz, the hundreds of satisfactory legends concerning the simple lad who wins the princess; the thoroughly-punished stepmother who dances in red-hot shoes, the witches, the godmothers, and emperors, and ogres.
Music fascinated him. Rush was astonished and gratified at such an audience. Mark would sit beside him on the piano bench by the hour, gazing at the hieroglyphics on the music book which were so skillfully translated by Rush’s fingers. ‘Play that one again,’ he’d say. ‘I like that one fine.’
He liked them all; even the old chestnuts that caused the rest of the family to dash screaming from the room. And because they
were new to Mark they became new to Rush too, and he loved them again as he had in the beginning.
There are many reasons why I think that’s a wonderful passage – its use of language, its understanding of character, its subtle metafiction, its rhythmic perfection… – but I quote it to illustrate the misunderstanding. Though I’ve read this book – and that passage – perhaps twenty times, and often as an adult, it wasn’t until I read it to Luciana that the phrase “the old chestnuts that caused the rest of the family to run screaming from the room” took its proper shape and the word “chestnuts” in this context meant, quite clearly, hackneyed, overdone piano pieces.
Somehow, though the sense of the entire context is against it, I had understood, visualised – especially visualised – that passage to mean, that while Rush played the piano, sometimes a strange (and perhaps peculiarly East Coast American) natural phenomenon occurred: plagues of elderly overripe chestnuts flew through the window and bonged the family on their collective head, causing them to run – screaming – from the room.
And God knows why this happened – it was a seasonal thing, perhaps. There’s a lot in the book about the gorgeous piece of rural New York the Melendys live in to lend weight to this interpretation – a particular wind blew, maybe, or squirrels caused it. Or maybe, lunatically – given what the paragraph is actually about – maybe it had something to do with Rush’s frenzied piano playing. But anyway, it did happen, it all made a kind of half-caught sense. I saw it quite clearly and what’s more – against the odds – I knew Mark loved it happening; he loved being assaulted by a volley of old chestnuts descending at speed and so, because of him, did Rush – it said so later in the paragraph: because they were new to Mark they became new to Rush, too, and he loved them again as he had in the beginning.
I’m fairly certain there is no such American chestnut. A pity, really. But what a rich detour of misunderstanding it’s been. What an eccentric addition to my (admittedly limited) botanical knowledge. What a vivid picture: the Melendys all exiting hastily, holding their hands over their curly brown and straight blonde heads, a storm of malign chestnuts raining on them.
The Melendys were an early prototype of a breed of liberal, cultured, middle-class post-War American story family that I developed a strong taste for in my reading childhood and adolescence. Madeleine L’Engle did them well, too (a little more piously, perhaps). But the blessed EL Konigsburg did – and does – them best of all, I think.
Konigsburg’s families have generally far more recessived and less benign parental figures. Certainly the children, rather than the adults, are more likely to be the repositories of wisdom, learned in the course of truly singular narrative journeys. And the narratives bristle with quietly acid social commentary; her families live in an America that has come a long way – in every sense, not all good – from the settled, semi-rural Eden of the Melendy world, and against that quite dark social canvas she develops plot and
character arcs that are always absorbing, subtly nuanced and, best of all from my point of view, written with an abiding sense of irony.
Father’s arcane daughter remains one of my favourite books of all time. Sadly, I don’t own it – I have to scrounge it from various non-public libraries from time to time. A couple of weeks ago I persuaded the College of Education library to lend it to me and I marveled all over again at how deftly Konigsburg paints Winston’s family culture, how acute are her psychological insights, how immensely droll she is, how tightly the book is structured; and how sparingly it is all done – not a redundancy anywhere, but still a rich experience of character, plot and language – all in just over a hundred pages.
These days I see Konigsburg – though she is a true children’s writer – occupying a place on the young persons’ literature continuum not too far distant from some of the best American exemplars of the Young Adult genre. It’s something to do with the ironic narrative voice, I think, and the flawed or banished adults, and the social issues lurking beneath the story line.
The flourishing and contentious YA sub-genre probably needs several speeches all of its own, but I mention it here only to usher in ME Kerr whose work loomed very large for me when I first sat down to write my own first YA novel.
I first met ME when I was working as a library assistant. Well past childhood, now, aged 18 in fact. I’d read all the usual suspects (we’re talking late seventies here, so the wide and loose and heavily populated world of YA fiction’s last twenty years was at this stage unknown). I’d done Robert Cormier, Jane Gardam, KM Peyton (who I’ve cavalierly decided not to talk about tonight because I haven’t time; suffice to say I hold her in high regard), John Rowe Townsend, Paul Zindel, Irene Hunt. But Kerr’s first title Dinky Hocker shoots smack particularly caught me – and for all sorts of reasons.
Kerr, in my view, has neither the psychological nor social-historical range that say Cormier and Garfield show. Her East Coast American world is both narrower in focus and generally more anodyne; she doesn’t have the linguistic range and density of Peyton, nor the same aural complexity; she has much less imaginative reach than, say, L’Engle, and none of the intertextual and metafictive complexities of Jane Gardam. But she does stitch a good story, she has a bead on parental frailties, class insecurities, the miscuings of emotional relationships; she has a sharp ironic humour, an ear for dialogue and vernacular and a large heart beating hard for the countless nightmares of adolescence.
Above all, what she has, and has in spades, is Voice – a singular, idiosyncratic, utterly identifiable, insistent narrative voice, a voice that, when I first read Dinky Hocker, made me sit up and pay attention, made me excited in a slightly unspecific way, made me consider, shyly and secretively, the possibility of writing myself.
Kerr’s fictional voice had me smitten right from the first paragraph of Dinky Hocker. I find it interesting now that my ear was won so immediately and
comprehensively by a third-person narrative. These days I’m more of the view that a narrative will struggle to win an attentive ear unless it’s written in the first person; at any rate it will struggle to win mine unless it’s very deft – the
artificiality of story, the machinery of story-telling are, for me, too evident, too often, in third-person narrative. I can’t suspend disbelief. I can’t, finally, understand why the story is being told to me if there is no “I” guiding, needing, insisting on the narration.
Dinky Hocker is at a remove from the throat-grabbing intensities of first person as is consistent with the slightly anxious, slightly retiring, sensitive and cerebral protagonist, Tucker, who is negotiating parental mid-life crises, painfully tender first love and a fat friend bent on self-implosion. But Kerr’s fictional voice is no less beguiling and persuasive here than in her later first person stories. The first page presents, with all the confidence and authority of writer of twenty years experience (she wrote crime and underground lesbian fiction through the fifties and sixties) all the ingredients which make up the wonderfully dead-pan, mordant, sharply localised voice of the story:
Don’t tell people we’ve moved to Brooklyn’, Tucker Woolf’s father always told him.
‘Tell them we’ve moved to Brooklyn Heights.’
‘Why? Brooklyn Heights is Brooklyn.’
‘Believe me Tucker, you’ll make a better impression.’
Which was very important to Tucker’s father – making a good impression. That fact was one of the reasons Tucker felt sorry for his father now. It was hard to make a good impression when you’ve just been fired.
The voice is, as Bill Manhire has written, “an almost unanalysable fusion of tone, cadence, texture, language and subject matter” though I’d suggest that Kerr’s ironic tone and her flat, though curiously fetching cadences contribute largely to the distinctiveness and allure of that voice.
So it was Kerr’s voice that rang loudest in my head when I sat down to write Sanctuary, my first YA book. But I see very clearly now that my writing self, the books I’ve done, come from a pool fed by tributaries as different as the Catholic Liturgy and skipping rope rhymes, oral storytelling and letter-writing, and fictional tributaries as far apart as the Bobbsey twins and Bilgewater. And, just at the moment, it’s the combined voices of that earlier massed Puffin choir that I’m hearing most clearly.
All the same preoccupations that fed Sanctuary, Love, Charlie Mike and Closed, stranger are there as I write my current book. I want to anchor the story in the geographic particularities imprinted on me; I want character development always to reflect the complexity of any issues at hand; I want history – geographical, social and familial – to be an animating presence in all the stories; I want symbolic frameworks and metaphoric underpinnings to give the stories more than one dimension. And I usually find myself – because it is my own particular psychological, and therefore fictional, ostinato – with subject matter that is concerned with the mappings of family, the inter-generational
negotiations families engage in, the internecine salvos exchanged, the uneasy détentes achieved.
But I want to understand the business of language, too – its descriptive capacities, sure, but its slippery, sinuous, tricky, other possibilities, too, its multiple resonances and lives. I want to write all my stories with as rich and mesmerising and multi-referenced a lexicon as possible. I want to use the known intonations which make the reader start with recognition, the words that make fiction comforting and confirming, but I want to use language that extends and surprises, too, that makes the reader linger and question, that takes them beyond what is known; language that is playful and pleasurable, that is layered and exotic and sometimes, even, puzzling.
In short, I want to serve up story in the kind of gourmet fictional stew that has always fed me, has made me a writer – the kind of gourmet fiction that is exemplified by the work of the writers in my title – and the dozens and dozens of their tribe.
In my current book I find myself wanting to write to a younger audience (I think actually, I generally avoid thinking about audience, who they might be, how old they are). At any rate I’m telling myself that it’s a children’s book – as distinct from a YA – that I’m writing. It’s called Monumental mason and it’s narrated by an eleven year old girl. And as I write it – very slowly, because it’s much harder than the previous books – I have at my shoulder EL, LM, KM, PL, CS, L Frank, Lucy M, Dodie, Barbara, Susan, Hugh, Peter Paul, I can’t possibly name them all. But going out on their names seems the only way to end.
….Eve, Anne, Clare, Madeleine, Lloyd, Alan, Jennifer, Elsie, Irene, Vera and Bill, Beverly, Betsy, Elizabeth, John, Joan, Jan, Jane…
Kate De Goldi
19 June 2000
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Edmonds Ltd, 1909
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easy-to-do experiments. NY: William R Scott, 1949
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(Ready to Read)
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