Anna Anderson has newly arrived at writing following a mid-life crisis at 50. She wrote herself a bucket list of 8 things, and “write a novel” was on the top of that. She has always been a voracious reader and a member of a book club. When not slaving away at the keyboard she milks her cow “Willow”, works in their veggie garden and supports her husband with their business. She loves her family dearly. They have four children, two who have now left home, but they still have a 13-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy who sings soprano like an angel.
Tell me about farm life – it’s a rare experience for most writers.
We live in a part of New Zealand called “North Canterbury”. It is in the rain shadow of our main dividing mountains. So our land is very dry. We keep Coriedale sheep which do well on the dry land.
We also keep chickens for eggs, cattle for beef, and every year my milking cow Willow has a baby who we raise for two years. Quails lay tiny speckled eggs for eating. And we have pet rabbits for playing with. We get up early, as the animals require feeding and watering before heading off to town with children.
Is farming something you are passionate about, and why?
I’m more passionate about being as self-sustainable as possible than I am for actual farming. We only have 20 acres so it’s not a financial decision to farm. We do it to be reliant on our own hard work. The animals and vegetable garden and the large orchard are work, but with a reward – food!
What’s the most important thing that you have taught your four children?
To be themselves, and to follow their own paths. In consequence, they have challenged gender stereotypes. This was not an expected outcome! But my 11-year-old is a singer in our cathedral, where he works 5 days a week after school. He also does ballet. My 13-year-old daughter is a boxer and is training for fighting in the ring. My 23-year-old was not so sure of himself but is now at university and my 25 years old became a computer game artist against our advice, which was to aim for a career in graphic design. But he stuck to his guns, and it worked out.
This is so wonderful! Tell me about that book you wrote?
For many years I have been interested in Genealogy. I have spent hours and hours tracing different branches of our family tree, which is quite a feat since our families are so big – my grandmother was one of 16 kids, for example. Along the way, I found many different people, interviewed elderly relatives and delved into Papers Past for information. Most of this work was on my Father’s side.
I was going through photos with my father when my mother asked: “What about my terrible Grandfather?” She only knew 2 things about him, one that he had married a Chinese woman with 6 kids after my Gt Grandmother had died from a botched backstreet abortion (this was about 1910), and the other, that my Poppa (her father) had been sent a photo of a man, and he put it into the fire, saying “I don’t know that man”.
Well, he sounds like the perfect antagonist.
It sent me investigating. What I found was a man with a strong will, three wives, and his third wife was a singer. The Songstress, Malvine. Her songs and antics with men were recorded in the newspapers of the day.
I pieced together their respective timelines and then fictionalized the whole story…The botched abortion, the children in the Receiving Home, the songs, the benefit concerts, the drinking, the child abandonment, and their sad endings.
It has become a novel, of two hectic lives which intersect with disastrous consequences.
And neither is conforming to the morals of the day!
So did you write the story with compassion to your perished relatives, or with other feelings?
Both compassion, and revulsion, but treating them both as the human beings they were. Dynamic, flawed, wonderful yet terrible…
I was quite ashamed of my Great Grandfather, (there is child abuse in there also, I’m afraid). And my mother’s family never spoke of him because my Poppa was left by him at age 6.
My poppa was 6 when he was sent outside with his brothers to fetch a bucket of water, and when he came back inside his mother was dead. The abortionist had accidentally killed her. I found all this out during my research phase.
The Scoundrel, his father, Charles, just left the kids and moved on to The Songstress.
My Gt Grandmother was the 2nd of his 3 wives.
But you have never witnessed their lives – it means most scenes are creations of your imagination?
Actually, no. But a lot of the scenes are not a complete fabrication. Our “Papers Past” has scanned in all newspapers from 1850 to about 1930. And most of the incidents are written verbatim in the court pages. Also, I was able to access many advertisements for the New Tivoli Company, which is the Theatre group that The Songstress, Malvine, was a lead singer for. The songs she sang, what people thought of her voice, the clothes she wore, some of the things she said are in the papers. Her actual words are in the court transcripts, and I have a couple of photos of her, and one of Charles along with a court sketch.
But yes, I did have to imagine dialogue, scenes, and what the places they lived in looked like back in those times.
Tell me, when you write a scene, do you imagine it vividly, or you have other methods?
I imagine it vividly. I try to see the houses and streets as they were, smell the horse poo and beer, the pipe smoke, and coal fires.
I also try to put myself into their clothes, the wool jackets, the cotton shifts, the heavy boots.
I drew on some of my own experience of visiting my grandfather, who still wore pink longjohns daily, with a suit overtop.
What is your greatest accomplishment as a writer?
The greatest accomplishment was getting my first story published. It was a short story, only a few pages long, and it had to be about golf. Now, I’m not a golfer, and the story I wrote didn’t exactly paint golf in a good light! But they loved it and published it in their book. I was SO proud.
Tell me five good things about your Grandfather – the Scoundrel character, and five bad things.
Ah… 1. He was an intelligent hard-worker, he worked as a Pilot in the Nelson Harbor. 2. He loved women. (wait, that might be a bad thing too!). 3. He provided well financially for his families while they were in his care. ….I can’t think of 2 more good things LOL.
Bad things….1. His character got in the way of his work ethic, and his distractions with women meant the jobs he could keep were less skilled as time went on. 2. He loved women just a bit too much and was not discriminatory with age or marital status. 3. He was selfish. 4. He abandoned his children once a woman wasn’t about to look after them 5. He had no morals.
Interesting…What morals do you have as his descendant?
I have Christian morals…Don’t swear, don’t sleep with your friend’s wife, be generous, be kind, be patient..etc. Don’t be like your Great Grandad!
What does your book teach its readers?
It teaches us that there is both good and bad in everyone.
Nothing is clearcut.
Along the way, it also teaches you about the realities of living a turn of the century life. About buying milk from the next door neighbor’s cow, traveling by cart, the hard work that men have put into fashion farms out of bushland.
Back to your great grandfather. I have to admit he is a very vivid character and you have immersed me in your story.
Do you want to read what another critic said about my treatment of the characters?
There are tenderness and compassion for the often harsh and fragile lives embedded in the way Anna writes this novella. Anna has a fantastic eye for detail, and I learned a great deal about the everyday, gritty realities of pioneer life: the smells and sights, fingers raw from doing laundry with Sunlight soap, violets and wet wool, a baby’s swollen hand with small unformed fingers bursting like tiny sausages, the constant breeze which brought with it the biting, puckery astringency of salt; the scent of the sea wafted along the street mingled with the smell of horse shit and beer, damp leaves collected in rotting piles; draughts whisked through the gaps in the door jamb, bustling about with the dry leaves and pipe ash which nestled in the corners of the floor of her carriage as Malvine draws her woolen cape close around her legs and wished for an end to the ride.
Descriptions of weather, landscape, food, clothing, sewing, and conversation are all poignantly rendered by Anna.
These are the mundane realities hauntingly evoked by Anna in her writing, an homage to the past, to the present of our recent forebears. They set the scenes for the unfolding drama of The Scoundrel and The Songstress, their hopes and fears, their enjoyments and their disappointments; their lives. Interlaced throughout, which is what makes this story so much more than good descriptive writing, is the steady attention Anna pays to the psychological currents pulling her characters forward, and backward.
Anna brings insight to the story of an all too ordinary pedophile, coupled with the lovely Malvine, whose talent and family of origin childhood in the entertainment halls of northern England brought her fame of a sort; but with it, the instability, insecurity, and disconnect which we see align with the alcohol-fuelled and good-time-Charlie ways in which people sought to escape hemmed in lives and soak up promises and reminders of beauty and creativity.
Anna’s ending of their tales, her rendering of their deaths, are among the more touching treatments of death and dying I have read. Fitting ends to a pair of lives so interestingly explored and shared with us
It’s not a novella, by the way…81,000 words…
That’s a wonderful critique.
How do you like your story as a reader?
As a reader, I find it hard to view it critically because I have been immersed in the lives of The Scoundrel and The Songstress for over three years now. It’s too close for me to be able to read it with a dispassionate eye.
I don’t think your readers can be dispassionate about it either…
Do you want to become a very famous author?
I would love to be a very famous author! Whoever writes and says that they don’t, is lying!
How about your kids – does any of them share your passion for writing?
The older ones, no, they have followed their own passions. The younger ones are not yet formed in their ideas. Though they both enjoy a good book.
Recommend your favorite books.
I have a couple of books which are my favorites. “The Handmaid’s Tale”, which is now a famous series. And also “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby. An editor of a famous French magazine, he dictated the short chapters using the blink of one eyelid, after a stroke left him with locked-in syndrome.
What’s the finest thing your family possesses?
Hmmm. The finest thing we possess is a sense of belonging. And they say that you only know who you are by finding out where you came from.
How does a writer of historical fiction feel about fantasy and romance?
I LOVE some fantasy, though the vampire genre leaves me a bit cold. Give me a good Zombie Apocalypse and I am hooked. Romance, I haven’t read so much of, but I am a huge fan of Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon
Your wish for my audience?
I wish your audience enjoy the sense of history in my book, and that they enjoy the characters, flaws and all…
Many thanks to Anna for a wonderful walk in the world of her family past…
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