Six years ago, Barbara Anderson started writing her autobiography. Why? “Why indeed?” she wonders. “It’s rather an odd thing to do.” After a dozen novels and short story collections, Anderson began work on the book destined to take her much “longer than anything else I’ve written”. She decided that the ideal autobiographer had either “led a very interesting life” or was inspired by changing times. “I’m old and things were different then,” was Anderson’s starting point, though she does admit to having spent time in “some interesting places”.
We’re sitting in her sun-filled flat on Oriental Parade, overlooking Wellington Harbour. Anderson is striking – wavy fair hair, bright blue eyes – and is dressed in dark, tailored non-granny chic and her favoured chunky jewellery. There’s an appealing softness to her that her publicity photographs fail to capture. She likes to laugh. She’s extremely tall. At 82, she’s hard of hearing, though I’m hesitant to reveal this. In the autobiography, Getting There, Anderson tells the story of a student attending one of her rare “How to Write courses”. On a feedback form, the student suggested the day “would have been better if Barbara had a hearing aid”. Anderson “could have kicked her”.
She’s not in kicking form today, luckily, but is nervous and solicitous, offering cups of tea, the use of a heater, a ride back into town. There’s something about the auto-biography, I tell her, that suggests she’s a reserved, private person who’s holding something back.
“Obviously, some people do write about themselves and all their wonderful, exotic times flinging around with men or something!” Anderson is laughing. “But what’s the point?” Not to mention the fact some of her ex-boyfriends are “still around”, and she has a life-long dread of “skiting”, which she describes in the autobiography as “that long last lingering shadow of youth”.
Born in 1926, Anderson grew up in Hastings, with summers spent on Waimarama beach; her parents met at the Napier Public Hospital, where her gregarious, capable mother was a nurse and her father, “a tall, polite man who … came home smelling of ether and Craven As”, was a medical registrar. She grew up “hopelessly shy”, cheerful and dreamy, escaping into books and growing to over six feet tall, “a terrible mistake” for girls at that time. It was the era of shotgun weddings and men who came back from the war and never spoke of it, drinking whisky while the girls were confined to cups of tea. Anderson evokes the “totally different world” of her childhood in superb detail. “I have a very good memory of my parents and about growing up,” she says, “but I don’t have memory for last week!”
Her younger brother, Colin, survived the 1931 earthquake but not a childhood illness. His early death is a cloud over the autobiography’s first section, just as the death of Anderson’s elder son, Jeremy, from colon cancer in 2005, darkens its final pages. Between these sad events lies an account of a lifetime of experience, from a science degree at the University of Otago and work as a teacher, to marriage to young naval officer Neil Anderson and motherhood in Britain, to a peripatetic life of travel to Europe, Asia and America, to learning how to become a “Hostess” as Neil rose in rank (he’s a retired vice-admiral), to deciding, in her mid-50s, to return to university in Wellington to study English literature.
This decision was fateful. In her final year at Victoria, Anderson won a place on Bill Manhire’s undergraduate creative writing course, in the same class as Anthony McCarten, Dinah Hawken and David Geary. She tried her hand at writing poems and radio plays. Soon she was writing short stories, and her first collection, I Think We Should Go into the Jungle, was published by Victoria University Press in 1989, when Anderson was 63.
Anderson’s writing life began when those of her contemporaries – Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare – were already long established, and in some cases – Maurice Duggan, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, James K Baxter – already at an end. Even fellow Hawke’s Bay-ite Lauris Edmond, who didn’t begin publishing her poetry until middle age, had won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, sailed off to the Katherine Mansfield fellowship in Menton and nabbed an OBE before Anderson emerged. There’s little in the auto-biography about literary New Zealand, aside from a few enigmatic cameos by Manhire, and Anderson is clearly not writing to stake her claim to a place in the New Zealand literary pantheon, such as it is. “That,” she explains, “would be ski-ting. It would never occur to me.”
Her late start could be responsible for what some see as her relatively low profile. In the UK, she’s one of our most-respected writers, her books widely reviewed and lauded, but at home she’s more a writer’s writer, perhaps. Shouldn’t she have won a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement by now? Shouldn’t she be Dame Barbara?
“No, thank you very much,” she says, laughing. “I don’t think in those terms.”
She “would have liked to have gone to Menton”, she says a little wistfully, but issues with Neil’s health at various times made applying problematic. And now “we’re a little old”, she says, laughing again, explaining that VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman warned her about the French town’s dauntingly steep hills.
This isolation has had one major bonus: Anderson has never taken part in one of New Zealand’s favourite activities, the literary feud.
“I’m not in a position to do that,” she says, bemused at the prospect. “If I was very cross about something, I would say it was iniquitous …” But she can’t think of an example. “I love writing, that’s the main thing. The joy of writing – it’s marvellous, isn’t it?”
The gleeful delight Anderson takes in her writing life is apparent in the autobiography, where she describes her needs as a “scrubbed kitchen table … a chair and a blue Bic”. Nowadays she’s a little more demanding, saying she can’t write at home at all. “I’ve always had rooms down there”, and here she gestures towards central Wellington, where she’s rented office space for several years.
Home is the province of Neil. Anderson never discusses her writing with him, even though he’s her amanuensis, fact-checking for her, and typing up her handwritten manuscripts on the computer.
“Neil retired quite young and thought, ‘I’ll do this.’” He types all her books? “All of them.” Does he give comments? “Never.” Even with the autobiography, he was a silent partner. “He certainly didn’t say, ‘Goodness me, this is magnificent!’”
One of our most accomplished short-story writers, Anderson feels slightly depressed when people tell her they don’t like to read stories. An avid reader, her influences are largely North American. “That marvellous Carver,” she says, enthusiastically thumping the table. “Reading his short stories was a revelation. He was the first person I ever read who didn’t have a nice, tidy end. And you think, cor – what’s he doing? He’s the greatest.” She also likes Margaret Atwood (“not cosy in any way”), Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro, even though Munro is more of a maximalist than Anderson. Munro “tells you every pot inside the oven”, Anderson laughs. “I like a bit, you know … not mystery, not puzzle, but delight.”
She reads “masses” of New Zealanders as well, but doesn’t name names. The subject of her slot in a literary pigeonhole confounds her. She’s just not bothered.
We leaf through the photos used in the book; the very idea of 16 pages of photos is, she says, “too much”. Almost every photograph makes her laugh. “I think, if it doesn’t sound too ridiculous, I get a lot of fun out of life. Things amuse me.”
Some things make Anderson “furious, like the state of the world, that sort of thing. As long as I can keep reading, going for a swim, seeing a few friends – you’ve got to have a few good mates …” Anderson trails off, worried “maybe this will sound very soppy”.
This hesitation isn’t surprising: Anderson resists sentimentality in her books. And she’s so modest, she’s included little in the autobiography about the writing (and reception) of them. “I should have, I suppose,” she says, though “I don’t quite see how I could have written about them.”
Anderson seems to imply that the books will speak for themselves. As for the 20 years she’s spent writing, she has nothing but good memories.
“I’ve been very lucky, enjoying what I’m writing,” she says, beaming. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
GETTING THERE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Barbara Anderson (VUP, $50).
This article was originally published on November 28, 2008, with the headline “I think we should go into the past”.
Watch a short video to mark Anderson’s Arts Foundation Icon award here.