How did you become a writer? Did you come from a literary background?
Not at all. I was brought up on a small farm in a remote part of the United Kingdom – many of the local people had never been more than 30 miles away from home in their entire lives. Apart from breeding sheep, nothing much else went on. We didn’t have electricity or television at home, but my parents had lots of books. I read and read and then began to write. When I was about 9 years old, one of my teachers sent off a poem to a magazine and it was published. I knew then that I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have a clue how you became one.
Katherine Mansfield felt she had to leave New Zealand to become a writer. Was that why you left home as a teenager to go to London?
Absolutely. I loved the landscape and the isolation of the Lake District, so it was difficult to leave, but I knew I had to go if I wanted to succeed. Like Katherine, I had the romantic idea that London was where it all happened!
Would you do it again?
Yes. I think you need to get away to get some perspective on your own life. You also need ‘input’. If you stay in a small community there’s always a danger that you become a big fish in a little pond and never really achieve what you’re capable of. And you need to find your way around the world of books so that people know who you are. The days when you could write and keep a low profile, relying on publishers and bookshops to sell the product are over – publishers expect you to go out and network to publicise your books. We have to learn to be ambassadors for our own work. The shy, reclusive author is at a disadvantage.
Your previous biographies have all been about women writers, including Margaret Cavendish, Christina Rossetti and Catherine Cookson. What drew you to Katherine Mansfield as the subject for a biography?
I’ve loved her work and been fascinated by her life story since I was a teenager. I found the John Middleton Murry edition of her Journal in a second hand book bin when I was 17, and I’ve carried it around everywhere even though it’s in pieces now. Even then I was aware that there was a lot of myth-making, and everything I read about her just made me more determined to find out what really happened. There were mysteries, and Katherine herself was portrayed as either a rather waspish good-time girl, or a sentimental heroine wasting away like someone in a Victorian novel. I wanted to know what she was really like.
Katherine Mansfield is a major figure in 20th century literature and has been the subject of a lot of biographies and other non-fiction books. If someone asked “Why should I read your Katherine Mansfield biography rather than one of the others?” what would you say to them?
I would say: Read mine because it’s the only biography to be written since all the documents relating to Katherine and her husband John Middleton Murry became available in the public domain. Katherine’s letters and notebooks have all been transcribed and printed and the diaries and letters of John Middleton Murry are now also in the Alexander Turnbull library in New Zealand. Additionally I’ve had the help of the family who still have quite a lot of material relating to both Mansfield and Murry. There’s a lot of new information. It’s significant that most of the leading figures in the story are now dead, so information is less likely to be withheld to protect people. I’ve also tried to write a book that’s good to read. I want my characters to live in the mind of the reader and come off the page as vividly as they would in a novel.
Why do you like writing biographies?
I’m fascinated by people’s lives. You could say that biography is a kind of up-market ‘Hello!’ magazine – there’s an element of voyeurism, literary lace-curtain twitching about it however scholarly you are. But nothing beats the buzz you get, sitting in an archive, reading a love letter – perhaps Wordsworth to his wife – or turning the pages of Katherine Mansfield’s journals. You’re touching the same paper they touched, reading the words they inked on the page all those years ago.
You write poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction. Which gives you most satisfaction?
I like all the different genres, though I’d probably have been more successful if I’d stuck to only one. What I choose to write depends on the idea – some ideas are only suitable for a poem, other will stretch to a short story, non-fiction projects demand a much greater investment in time and research and have to be chosen quite carefully. If you’re going to write a biography you have to like someone enough to spend a couple of years in their company.
Which writers have influenced your own writing, and which ones are your personal favourites?
Apart from Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, I also read Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as a teenager and it taught me a lot about getting away from traditional narrative. The other really influential book was Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…..’ and for the same reason. They taught me a lot about multiple narrative threads and parallel texts. If you put two – or more – stories together in the right way they can double up on the meaning in the same way that poetry does. It will sound a bit weird, but the other book that influenced me was ‘Chaos’, by James Gleick because it demolished the traditional way we thought about the universe and how it’s ordered. I suddenly realised that everything – absolutely everything – is made out of beautiful numerical patterns that keep evolving and changing because they are Imperfect and Incomplete. It seemed to offer ideas about the patterning of words in poetry and prose – and it reinforced the conviction that a narrative or a poem has to be open ended with a sense of evolving, not rounded off and complete in a dead-end sort of way that offers the reader no way of carrying the story on. It taught me that creativity comes out of chaos. Does this make any sense?
What are you working on at the moment?
The Mansfield biography has been very hard work – so I’m taking a rest and concentrating on fiction for a while. I would like to publish more fiction – it’s too easy to become ‘pigeon-holed’ in a particular genre. Just now I’ve got a couple of plots burning away at the back of my head and I need to see if I can get either of them to work.