- Publisher: Otago University Press
- ISBN: 978-1-98-859240-4
- Published: May 1, 2020
By Diane Brown
Dunedin author and creative writing teacher Diane Brown has gone against the advice she gives her students, but she simply could not resist for her latest book. She talks to Rebecca Fox.
Diane Brown is wandering the streets of Auckland with a baby strapped to her front in the middle of a riot.
Waking from an incredibly vivid dream, she can remember an ‘‘old-fashioned’’ fireman asking her to move out of the way and her refusal because of the baby.
The ‘‘complex, plot-driven’’ dream also featured a ‘‘down on her luck street woman’’, a version of herself putting her hand in Brown’s pocket and a man who came to her rescue with a cup of tea and baby seat.
‘‘It was really interesting, so I recorded it all before I forgot it and the title just came to me.’’
Brown has had baby dreams before, so she was not disturbed by it.
‘‘Baby dreams are quite common. In my case, I’d just finished one book, so maybe the baby is a symbol for another book, perhaps, but I wasn’t quite sure if the baby was alive or dead.’’
The dream was the inspiration for Brown’s latest book and its title: Every Now and Then I have a Child.
She initially wrote about the dream — something she tells her students never to do as it’s ‘‘usually tedious to everybody’’ — in a poem and got a positive response from those she read it to.
‘‘What it all meant? See what happens? The rest of the story … it developed from there.’’
Brown started investigating. Who was the baby? Who was the doppelganger?
‘‘Why did I have a baby? I’m too old to have a baby.’’
She started to write. The story starts off in Auckland and is narrated by Joanna who, when she hears a baby cry in her hotel room, picks it up and takes it home with her to Dunedin.
A section of the story is set in Alexandra — inspired by the time she spent in the town with her husband, writer Philip Temple, when he held the Henderson Residency.
‘‘It all becomes slightly sinister with the doppelganger.’’
A subplot emerges about the narrator’s mother who walked out of the house never to be seen again when Joanna was only 10.
Joanna has two grown sons, similar to Brown, and visits one in London where she sees a woman wearing a dress, the same as one her mother had worn.
‘‘It unsettles her in a big way. She decides to find out what happened to her mother.’’
It is a rather ‘‘complicated’’ tale with many twists and turns and character surprises, Brown says.
‘‘I really enjoyed myself. It’s a bit surreal in places. Apart from all the peculiar happenings, some things are a little bit like myself — Joanna is a creative writing teacher and her students come in to the story every now again.’’
Brown wanted to insert poetry into the work as well. She calls the work a ‘‘poetic narrative’’ and each chapter is introduced by a poem.
‘‘It’s on the borderline between prose and poetry. It uses a lot of fictional techniques — that is it’s got a story — and a normal structure of a story with crisis points and a plot of a kind. And the poetry, a lot of it verges on slightly prosy style.’’
Given the new book is 160 pages, it needed more than just a collection of separate poems to keep the reader engaged.
‘‘You need to give readers something that encourages them to keep reading… to turn the page. But there are poems in there that can be read by themselves.’’
She hoped the story would make the prospect of reading the book less daunting than it would be for some if it was simply a collection of poems.
‘‘I’m very keen to open up more peoples’ eyes to poetry. For people to realise they do not need to have an English degree to read poetry. This makes it more accessible, less scary perhaps.’’
Added to that, all of her books — a novel (If the Tongue Fits), a verse novel (Eight Stages of Grace), a travel memoir (Liars and Lovers), a prose/poetic memoir (Here Comes Another Vital Moment) and a poetic family memoir (Taking My Mother to the Opera) — have some form of poetry in them.
‘‘I quite like the compression of lines, and not having to have the detail you do in prose. You know, the boring bits.’’
She also admits to poaching the storyline about the mother disappearing from a novel she tried to write a long time ago — her only unpublished work — which was rejected and mothballed.
‘‘For a long time I thought about what I could do to sell more books, so I wrote this novel and it didn’t take off. It was kind of average, so when it got rejected at the first publishers I went to I thought ‘That’s it. I’m not going to bother’. I buried it and thought I’d pick it up again another day.
‘‘I think I’ve killed it now. That was me trying to please publishers really and that didn’t work.’’
When people start out writing they have a freedom to express themselves how they wish but, once published, there are expectations on you which does not always work out well, she says.
These days, Brown writes what she likes. She has also published two collections of poetry (Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland and Learning to Lie Together).
‘‘I decided to blow the expectations, but I can do that at this stage of my life.
‘‘It was such a liberation doing this thinking it might be a bit weird, but this is what I want to do.’’
The Covid-19 lockdown delayed the book’s release until this month, and being busy teaching online has meant her writing has been slow.
‘‘I’ve done a little bit in response to someone asking and a lockdown poem, but I do go long periods not writing any poetry if I’m not in the mood or not inspired.’’
These sorts of turbulent times could take a bit of processing before people began to write about them, she says.
‘‘It can be hard to settle down.’’
Next she plans to continue her interest in her mother’s family by tracing her entire maternal line.
‘‘It’s a bit daunting. I’ve written about my mother, so I don’t need to do that again … But I don’t know them [my ancestors]. They weren’t famous or educated. There is no information on them, so it’ll be fiction in poetry form.’’
A link to a radio interview with Vanda Symon.