Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
1996 Jane Tolerton
1996 Jane Tolerton
Getting over Ettie
Just after I had finished Ettie, my biography of Ettie Rout, I felt as if I had walked into a room which was my life—and switched on the light. Suddenly I was back in the middle of my own life. For almost a decade, almost a third of my life, almost all of my adult life, someone else had been there. Ettie had been my focus—as I had been trying to get her into focus.
I came back to Wellington to write the book. Wellington is the place to write such a book—with the Alexander Turnbull Library; the General Assembly Library, where I copied out articles from old, unphotocopyable newspapers; the National Archives where Ettie's banned letters lay in folders; Victoria University, where I spent time at the Stout Research Centre; and the spirit of the place—brisk and thinking and collegial for a writer.
I had left eight years before, to go to university in Christchurch and had stayed away for a newspaper job in a provincial city. There I had won the news award of the day which, ironically, saved me from having to do news reporting—something I found it hard to get a grip on; it was so transient and mindless of past or future. So I could go off into the past and my future, knowing that if I ever had to come back to the present and a job, I had a piece of paper which made me look attractive to a newspaper editor.
But having come to my own time and place (I always wanted to be in Wellington; circumstances had led me out and kept me away), I was never quite in either. How could I live properly in my own time when I read more newspapers from her time than I did from my own? When I was more interested in any account of any social function she had gone to than to go to one myself? When no visitor was the one I most wanted to see and never could—just for five minutes, to ask questions no one but Ettie could answer, to which I needed answers to make sense of the rest. And when almost any living person was less interesting than the dead people who populated my mind. On the occasions when I met up with others who had known these people, we fell to what seemed like gossiping about mutual friends and relatives, while to the living I was quite capable of saying, 'Oh, but I do not have a social life' meaning, don't bother asking me.
The social mores and social arguments I was thinking my way round were not those of my own day—to which I paid little attention. I actively avoided things that would excite my mind in other directions. I often did not go to a movie because I didn't want it in my mind. I read few novels, watched little television, and had practically no interest in the 'news' I had once made my living by.
HG Wells (who was one of those who populated my mind as he had been a friend of Ettie's) once said of his wife that she stuck to him so hard that in the end he stuck to himself. And I felt like that about Ettie. It was only when I became riveted to her, at the expense of practically everything else, that the project stuck to me and flowed in my head and onto the paper. When I went page 83 out to earn money—in journalism, publishing and teaching—or tried in other ways to live my own life, it just didn't happen.
Writing a book is hard, but not writing it is worse. At those times when I was trying to do something else, I felt as if there was a child I should have been attending to, but had locked in a cupboard in the meantime. Did I have the key to the cupboard safely in my pocket? What if I could not get back in? For lack of my active attention, it could die. A piece of written work can die—just go cold on you, to the point where you cannot resuscitate it.
So active attention, feeding it every day, was the only way. The analogy I thought of at the time was a bath. You can stand in it with the water around your ankles, but it won't do any good until you have lowered yourself into it and the water is all round you. With a book you have to immerse yourself in it to a certain level before it will flow. You are in it, it is in you.
For me, going to sleep with it and waking up with it was important because that's when I found ideas came, especially the ones that made links. Making the links is what fires the whole thing. You could put all the facts of a person's life in date order and join them together with dots—but you wouldn't have a biography. You start with hundreds of bits of paper all containing clues—often indecipherable and contradictory—which have to be studied, deciphered, understood, and then stuck together, not in order necessarily, but married one bit to another to include explanation and background and give a bigger meaning than the sum of the parts.
To do this I had to have the whole thing in my head, so that I was able to scan backwards and forwards. There's endlesschoice about where to say what. I was constantly swapping bits of information from the beginning to the summing up at the end. With someone about whom the reader will know very little, as in Ettie's case, you need information at the beginning which forms an argument as to why the reader should bother even knowing about the subject. With Ettie an additional problem was that for many years—between her time and ours—the great issue of her life, the spread of venereal disease, was a non-issue. Unfortunately for the world, but fortunately for making Ettie's life a relevant story, AIDS appeared just before I began the book.
Not only had the cause that fuelled her life become a non-issue in the meantime, even in her own day it had been studiously ignored or concealed —there were not, for example, adequate figures on how many New Zealand soldiers had contracted venereal diseases in World War One when she staged her campaign so there was an enormous amount of research to do even to understand what she had been on about. And even if you could discern 'the facts', you had to understand the thinking of the time. You had to know the odds to see how desperate was her bid to beat them. It was the thinking of the time, the strength of views of those who opposed her that cornered her into tragedy. But how much of a mountain of research do you put in? How can you make that tip of the iceberg stand out clearly for the reader without freezing them to death with the huge bit hidden in the research sea?page 84
Grappling with such things was misery-inducing at first. But when I was feeding the child in the cupboard daily, immersed in the bath which had been cold around my ankles but was now warm and up to my neck, the project became a delight. I was in the project; it was in me. I had no choice about what I did, and I didn't want to do anything else anyway.
If you are actively engaged on a creative endeavour, I learnt, you have to do the creative thing first—and everything else comes last. I trained myself out of housework and administrative tasks that did not have to do with the biography. (There's a lot of admin in a biography: writing and answering letters to and from informants and potential informants and libraries holding archives of other players in the story, setting up interviews, paying for photographs, asking an MP for a signature to get a card for the British Library's manuscripts section, filing . . .) You could tidy up first—but that could go on forever. You could do all the research first—and never write the book because there's no end to how much research you could do.
If I sound sentimental or self-sacrificing, don't read me that way.
I was living an adventure. I knew I was sacrificing things—such as what is generally referred to as 'making a living'. But I did not keep count of the cost. (When I did do the roughest add-up later I decided the sum of the relatively small grants I'd had and the award I won and the royalties for the book would have covered only the cost of materials and travel—no wages for time spent.) And next to what Ettie had sacrificed for her project I wasn't losing much. Money was the least of what she spent in her campaign; she lost reputation and the chance of remaking a life in New Zealand afterwards.
Actually my reputation seemed to be on a downward spiral as the years rolled by. More people asked me in that time, 'How's Ettie?' than asked, 'How are you?' as if I were to be judged solely on production of the book, as if they were somehow put out by the fact that it wasn't out last year. I was cheered to find when I picked up biographies that their authors had often taken between eight and ten years. (I took nine—and did another book in between: an oral history of World War One, which allowed me to ask old soldiers for the information I couldn't have found out any other way).
I loved the time I spent fixated. I learnt an enormous amount about myself, being riveted to Ettie, and not only how to write outraged letters—for which I borrowed Ettie's sarcastic style. Any big project teaches a lot—and so does trying to see the world through someone else's eyes.
There was never a time when I felt all the decisions had been made. I had no feeling of fait accompli—always of fait en progres. But I did finally call a halt and so came to a point where, having delivered it to the publisher myself (by hand, via car journey, with breakdown so that after a night in the Cambridge Hotel I walked the streets hugging my manuscript to my bosom, waiting for the mechanic to let me go on) I walked back into that room which was my life, and put the light on.
I did my tax for the first time in three years and went out in search of income, lurching to the opposite end of the work-income spectrum, by going down to The Terrace and taking a public relations job for a corporate. When page 85 I left that job, I had an 'exit interview' with a young woman from Human Resources. 'Before I came here,' I told her, 'I never would have thought that looking the part and playing the game could be more important than doing the work.' She gave me a look that said, 'My God, where have you been?' Well, I'd been in my own house, but in other decades, and with someone whose integrity would have staggered her much more than my statement seemed to. I was not a candidate for life in the corporate world.
I had lasted nine months there before I was caught by the need to produce something myself again. For when you've done a book, you've tasted a narcotic. But the books I've done since—Convent Girls and Sixties Chicks Hit the Nineties—have been short, swift pieces of work compared with Ettie.
So would I enter the fray of another biography? Oh, yes. But I'd be putting up a stiffer battle in fighting for my own life next time round, trying harder to keep the light on in that room which is my life.
Jane Tolerton (b. 1957) is a biographer, journalist and teacher of journalism, whose life of Ettie Rout, Ettie (1992), won the New Zealand Book Award for non-fiction. Her other books include Convent Girls (1994) and Sixties Chicks Hit the Nineties (1997).