NZF Writers & Readers: Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée

Sarah Forster reviews Looking Back – Elspeth Sandys and Renée. 

Elspeth_Sandys_and_Renee_Looking_B.2e16d0ba.fill-300x250.jpgI decided to come to this because I saw Renée at Litcrawl last year and thought what a woman. And I came out with the same opinion, and a much better knowledge of Elspeth Sandys than I had going in.

Mary McCallum was chairing, and had them both read their opening chapters of their memoirs (in Elspeth’s case, her second one). Both dealt with their love of reading. Renée states, ‘Reading was a drug, a spell under which I fell willingly.’

Elspeth’s memoir is about her teenage years into her years in the UK: ‘I’m the bad news my parents never wanted to hear.’ She read Trollope, Dickens, The Cruel Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Moby Dick, Georgette Heyer. Shakespeare. She notes, ‘Is it any wonder I’ve become an expert at pretending I know what I’m talking about?’

Both women were missing parents – Renée’s dad died when she was only two. Renée’s mum had to marry because Renée was born, which saw her seen as inconvenient, while her younger siblings were loved dearly and given opportunities galore. Renée says, ‘She taught me to work, and she taught me to read. And how to manage personal disasters.’ She regrets not having the chance to know her as an adult, as her mum died at 42.

Elspeth’s adoptive mum turned up to her first wedding on tranquilisers – dressed entirely in black, with bold lipstick. She stood out, with her big lot of lipstick. Elspeth learned much later she was extremely intelligent – had topped nursing school and ought to have been running a hospital, rather than a home.

Mary then brought up a story Renée tells in her book – there was a man on her bus who noticed she was a reader, and began giving her his old John o London’s Weekly’s, which opened her mind up to the idea that there were people who wrote books, plays, performed in theatre. At this stage she was 12, and starting paid work, but now she had a possibility.

Elspeth’s source of books was more straightforward – her father was in publishing, and they had all the great writers available to her. However, in her teens she was with three different foster families in the space of three years, so they became more important to her.

We moved, then, from reading to writing. Elspeth married an actor and moved to the UK and wrote on scripts for radio and TV. They moved to the Cotswalds, where anyone who had moved there since the 1640s were seen as interlopers. Their presence there attracted many others – John Hurt, Sam Neill, among others. Hurt bought one of the manor houses and came with his partner. They bought horses, but neither could ride. His partner died after being thrown from a horse during a storm.

Elspeth notes that they entertained every weekend, and it was exhausting – being a mother, writer, wife. Mary asked more about who she learned from – she said Ben Kingsley taught her the most, despite being one of the most difficult people she’d ever known: ‘he was enormously imaginative.’ Meanwhile John Hurt was a ‘devil-angel’.

Living in the village, as the kids make friends  at school, they slowly become part of it all – and all goes well until Mrs Whittaker – the upper class – labels them ‘communists’. The upper class counts as Mrs Whittaker. The longhouse they live in is painted as a communist cell.

Back to Renée – a proud lefty. Renée’s explosion of creativity happened when she was 50. She left her husband, became a lesbian, and an activist. She started writing, revues and plays centred on women. Prior to this she had worked doing everything in Napier’s theatres, directing, down to the jobs nobody else wanted. She says, on moving to Auckland, ‘It was like releasing something that had been damped down all those years.’

She had a lot of luck – sent a script to Mercury Theatre on spec, only to be asked for something else – she wrote her play ‘Setting the Table’ in four days. From there on, she was asked to do revues, commissioned for plays, and more. Her play ‘Born To Clean’ was a musical play. She says of the period, ‘I was very very stroppy. I hadn’t had an adolescence. I regret nothing.’

‘Born to Clean’ is about three young women who meet at school, drift apart, then reconnect. It includes a tampon scene – the characters read the wording on a pack of tampons – which Renée was concerned was too far out for people to accept. People laughed so hard, there was a queue for the box office for the rest of the run. It did well all over New Zealand – then filled the theatre every night for a month in Sydney, despite a negative review from a male in the SMH. In Renée’s words: ‘so tough shit’.

Mary then asked Renée whether she thought she would effect change. Renée noted on her two plays where she presented the female POV, that she’d read maybe two things about how women survived in the 1930s: she could see what they did, they went hungry. This is who she wrote about in ‘Wednesday to Come’. And she wrote ‘Pass it On’ about the Waterfront Lockout. She noted this was a tough one to research – the stories were hard to find.

Mary noted for Elspeth and Renée that the nexus of real life and fiction was ‘slippery and fertile.’ She then prompted Elspeth to agree that yes, her novel Obsession is based on she and Maurice Shadbolt’s relationship – Shadbolt enticed her back to NZ to live in the bush. She then said ‘I don’t see much of a difference between memoirs and fiction writing. All fiction is autobiographical.’ For those of you waiting – there will be no third memoir.

The two women held different opinions on whether you ask permission to write about others in your family. Elspeth hasn’t written about her children or her first husband, at her childrens’ request; while Renée doesn’t ask permission.

One last word of wisdom for the genuinely fascinating and wonderful Renée: ‘As soon as you give mothers a name, they become people’. She refers to her mother by her first name throughout – and her sons began doing the same for her once she explained her logic.

I would 100% go to any event featuring Renée in any festival this year. Don’t miss her!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

 

Book Review: Casting Off – A Memoir, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_casting_off_a_memoirCasting Off begins on the eve of Elspeth Sandys’ first marriage in Dunedin in the 1960s where she says, ‘Presbyterianism is in the air you breathe in this town. It is also, and always will be, in my bloodstream’.

This is the second volume of her memoir, the first What Lies Beneath, explained her interesting and challenging background and childhood.

I checked the the difference between an autobiography and memoir before I could write the review, and I learned the autobiography is a chronological recording of the person’s experience while the memoir relies more on the author’s memory, feelings and emotions
Sandys herself says, ‘I will try to stick to the facts, avoiding invention but guided, as I cannot help be, as I have always been, by imagination’.

I have not read the first volume but found this an interesting read and was able to pick up the facts of Sandys early life as the book progressed.

After her marriage the couple left New Zealand to live in England where they enjoy the arts and theatre scene. However, work is intermittent, and by 1968 she is divorced and back in New Zealand with a daughter.

The book is supported with photographs supporting many of the significant events in the author’s life. Many of the earlier photos are black and white but there are also a number of more recent coloured snaps, including The Long House, a home she lived in London during her next marriage.

I enjoyed the inclusion of poems appropriately slotted throughout the book which shows the versatility of Sandys writing.

She has published nine novels, and two collections of short stories as well as numerous original plays and adaptions for the BBC and RNZ, as well as scripts for film and television. She now lives in Wellington, has two children and six grandchildren.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Casting Off – A Memoir
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522551

 

 

 

Love Letter to Ekor Bookshop, from Elspeth Sandys

Go into your local bookshop & write a love letter, and be in to win $500 in Book Tokens! 

Dear Ekor Bookshop,

You arrived in Wellington without a lot of fanfare but in just over year you have succeeded in endearing yourself to a community of readers, writers, and lovers of good food and coffee. Small but perfectly formed, your shop, with its comfortable chairs and sofas, and the smell of fresh coffee, positively entices people in off the street. I love it that you’ve collected relics of ‘Old Wellington’ – your cafe counter is from Kirkcaldie and Stains; your desk from Beggs Music shop – to link this modern gem of a bookshop with what has been lost in our city. Frieda Kahlo paintings (a personal favorite) cover the wall by the entrance. A mural by illustrator Phoebe Morris decorates the children’s area.

Once in, it is impossible not to be drawn to your books, displayed so that the latest editions are what is seen first. But they are only the tip of the iceberg. A wide range of New Zealand books, the latest overseas fiction, children’s books and classics, fill your shelves. Anyone entering your shop to buy coffee is probably in for a long stay. Even if all you’ve come in for is to buy a card – there’s a wide range to choose from – chances are you will be tempted to stay and browse.

My own novel Obsession was launched in your shop earlier this year. A happy occasion with people spilling out on the pavement (it was March: summer was still around). Niki, your stylish and beautiful owner, had cleared away the daytime tables and chairs, as well as the children’s toys, to make room for the guests. Wine cheese and nibbles were served, speeches were made, books were sold. I can think of no nicer place to launch a book.

Thank you Ekor. I love you.

Elspeth Sandys
Elspeth Sandys has published eight novels, two collections of short stories and a memoir. She has written extensively for radio (BBC and RNZ), television, and theatre. Elspeth was born in Timaru “towards the middle of the 20th Century”. (Bio from The Spinoff)

Ekor Bookshop & Cafe
Ekor’s staff will be treating their wonderful customers to a little day of Scandinavian wonders! Beautiful Scandinavian books (some Scandinavian books in their original languages) and food – including our ever popular Moomin range and traditional hot Danish pancakes made specially on the day by our resident Danish Ekorian, special cold Flat Whites on sale one day only from People’s Coffee, with the best Swedish barista in town, Lars Bringzen serving up wonderful coffees all day, and gifts from all over Scandinavia!

Come and experience a little Scandinavian magic for NZ Bookshop Day at Ekor Bookshop & Cafe!

Going West Writer’s Festival: Events featuring Stephanie Johnson, then Elspeth Sandys

10am, 12 September: Take That!

stephanie_johnsonStephanie Johnson has her finger in many literary pies, co-founding the Auckland Writers’ Festival and writing numerous novels, short stories, poetry and screenplays. So it is that she has many a yarn to tell about the institutions within the writing world, and the characters that inhabit it. Today, Stephanie took the stage alongside Harry Ricketts to discuss her latest novel, The Writers’ Festival, which is a sequel to her 2013 novel, The Writing Class. What unfolded was something hilarious and penetrative.

It seems Johnson’s latest book has conspicuous parallels to the local, real life festival scene. Ricketts and Johnson had us in giggle-fits describing writerly antics on the festival run. There are writers who refuse to breathe the same oxygen as their fellow authors, let alone sit at the same stage (in real life, Johnson found cookbook authors and historians to be among the worst for this). There are moments of ‘cultural cringe’ as a character, returning from New York, beats more experienced locals to assume a job in festival organisation. Johnson tells us about festival politics, the obstructive trepidation of festival sponsors when a Chinese dissident is set to attend as a speaker. These things spill from life into fiction and back again.

Johnson tells Ricketts about the importance of performance as a writer, and the privileges of being young and pretty in the industry. There was also some discussion, in question time, about heckling from audiences at festivals, which again drew some wonderful anecdotes.
…..
12 noon, 12 September: What Lies Beneath

pp_Elspeth SandysElspeth Sandys is a novelist and short-story and script writer, whose novel, River Lines, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. At noon she spoke with Murray Gray about her 2014 memoir, (as distinct from autobiography, she stresses) What Lies Beneath’ She tells us that people become writers so that they can live out  alternative lives. She speaks about the nature of memory, its lapses, and suggests a non-linear description of time.

Her quest is to flesh out the characters of her birth-parents. She describes her discovery that her mother (who, at one point, she imagines was a ballerina) is a very different, and rather stronger, woman than she had depicted. Asked whether the process of writing this was cathartic, Sandys replies that she had already processed much of her life issues through her fiction novels. But she says it was ‘surprising’, insofar as her memoir was accepted for publication, and in that people were interested in her memories.

It is not so surprising, hearing her read a couple of excerpts from her memoir. Her writing is lush and transportive. I’m keen to get my paws on a copy.

Now for a lunch break… when I will probably spend far too much money on books!

Events reviewed by Elizabeth Morton for Booksellers NZ