- 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.’’
Every Now and Then I Have Another Child by Diane Brown
THE FRIDAY REVIEW
Every Now and Then I Have Another Child
by Diane Brown
PAGE EXTENT: 164
FORMAT: Paperback, 150 x 230mm
Reviewed by Alison Wong
What is real and what is imagined or dreamed? It can be difficult to tell in this at-times surreal verse narrative. Can the reader trust protagonist Joanna, a poet, novelist and creative writing teacher? Can Joanna trust herself? Is she sane? Have her imagined worlds, her dreams, her creative practice crossed over to become her reality? Is this a murder mystery or are unexplained deaths a matter of misadventure?
Readers who favour fictional prose over poetry should not be put off. These crafted short poems are as effortlessly consumed as flash, together making up a coherent short novel. Largely set in Dunedin, but also in Alexandra, Auckland, London and Alice Springs, the poems are told from the perspectives of respectable baby boomer Joanna, homeless doppelgänger Anna, a baby, a boy in a mural, and a mother. Other characters include Joanna’s two millennial sons, one a geek ‘on the spectrum’, the other a sensitive surfie; a friendly ex; a creative writing student; a couple of cops; a stepmother and an alcoholic father.
Like many of the educated political left, Joanna contemplates climate change, Australian bushfire smoke, floods, Iran, China, Trump, North Korea and the potential for World War III, riots, refugees, and the tragedies of the Grenfell tower, mosque attacks and children taken from their mothers. She has an ongoing duel with sly, street-smart, mouthy Anna who challenges Joanna’s comfortable hypocrisy.
Joanna is a window into the mind of a writer with her acerbic observations of creative writing students, younger well-published academics with their narrow foci and short histories, and the insecurity of male writers: “‘women writers are emasculating,’ a male writer once said to me. ‘I’d be hung out to dry on a day with no sun.’” She provides insights into the writing process: ‘Outside, fruitlessly waiting for words to drop like walnuts/into my lap’, describing the pattern of memoir, ‘The way your hands…start searching for trouble again,/unearthing that old thing in the back/of the wardrobe just itching for a makeover,/a whole new life.’
As she stalks Joanna at a book launch, Anna is cutting of the literati ‘masking insecurity/with false cheer, small sips of wine and nibbles/of cheese, as if they’re mice/released into a large room inhabited by cats.’ ‘You may be the writer,’ she tells Joanna, ‘but that doesn’t mean you own the plot or even the characters.’
As you’d expect of a poet, Brown has a lovely turn of phrase, from the wry understatement of ‘the cat and I are not friends’ to the confession I can personally identify with: ‘I have never possessed an inbuilt compass./Every trip a matter of faith.’ She provides clear-eyed descriptions of everyday life, shopping malls, for instance, with their ‘shops stuffed full of poorly made, absurdly/cheap and ugly clothes.//Diners are sitting in the food hall, eating unhealthy lunches,/laughing or silent and miserable with each other.’
Brown plays with the reader and her characters. Joanna advises a student that ‘all the characters you invent, or dream, are part of you,/disguised sometimes, as stalkers intent on invasion…’ Are the portrayals of Joanna and Anna an argument between two possible sides of self? Alter egos? If life had taken a different path? Is Anna the creation of Brown the author or Joanna the character? Has Joanna ‘slipped into another life, running/on a parallel track/one layer behind’?
Conflicted Joanna can’t help herself. She plays smart with detective Dave, even as she recognises this only raises suspicion. Anna has her own sad, tough wisdom: ‘keep your mouth shut/until you’re sure no one else will shut it for you.’
For all Joanna and Anna’s sharp edges, central to the story is loss and the missing: mothers, children, daughters, sisters. Joanna recognises: ‘There comes a time they must slip/from your grasp… My sons have moved away, coloured in their own edges’. The title of the book is perhaps explained in Joanna’s ‘ache/for the children I forgot to have’, the gap between parent and grown up children observed by the comment: ‘The verdict would come down hard,/as it always does if your offspring is doing the judging.’ The baby is afraid her mother will abandon her, float ‘her downstream like Moses’. ‘Like all children, I want a parent who takes time to listen/to me breathe.’
Brown’s portrayals of the sons, the ex and Joanna’s relationships with them ring true with the complexities of long troubled histories, tenderness and longing, hurt and incisive realism. Joanna, her children and Anna are haunted by questions that can never be fully answered.
This book asks wider questions. In a world of social media, trolls, conspiracy theories, fake news, fake people, bot phone calls and spam callers, what is the place of dream and the imagination, of fiction, of created characters and narratives? Perhaps it’s a question of art, of authenticity, of integrity.
Alison Wong is a poet, fiction and creative nonfiction writer based in Geelong, Australia. Her novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, won the 2010 NZ Post Book Award for Fiction. She was a poetry judge at the 2018 Ockham NZ Book Awards. Alison is currently co-editing an anthology of creative writing by new Asian NZ voices.
A link to a radio interview with Vanda Symon.