Writing in bed
For the last few years, poet and writer Rosetta Allan has nurtured an enviable habit – she stays in bed. To write, that is.
The world gets to enjoy the fruits of her labours on May 30 when she launches her first novel Purgatory, based on forgotten murders in her own family history.
Renee Liang asked Rosetta about her writing and what seeded the novel.
Why do you write?
I write because it is the best way for me to speak. I have never trusted my tongue to deliver the right message, and I don’t blame it really. My head is simply too full of ideas, thoughts, and imagined scenarios that refuse to behave. The only way I can get them in order is to write them into one neat line at a time.
Do you have a favourite genre, and why?
I enjoy anything that opens a window on human behaviour and experience, especially if it’s wonderfully written. If it captures my imagination, I’m in love and in awe of that writer, that story, and those characters not matter what the genre is.
Tell me about your writing space.
I always had my own office until we moved into Kingsland. Our space is small with no office now so I write from my bed. It’s great because everything’s within arms reach. I have two shelves beside me that harbour all my notebooks, laptop and books of interest, with a bedside cabinet that holds my cups of tea and reading lamp. The view out of my window faces north, toward the greenbelt of Arch Hill, and beside me my dog snores until she decides it’s time for walkies.
How did you juggle the demands of your family and other work when writing?
I have a very supportive husband. For years I would make sure our world functioned in the smoothest possible manner so he could achieve his goals, and now he does that for me. Most nights now I arrive home from work around 6.30 and he has dinner ready for me. How lucky is that? And he’s a good cook too.
It wasn’t always like that though. Our youngest child was only 12 when I ventured into university study. They were hard years. Both our children were competitive swimmers, which meant being in the pool by 5am most mornings. Then there were the other sports, their music, homework, housework, pets, part time work, teenage shenanigans, assignments, and my husband worked very long hours.
After a while I started squeezing poetry into the schedule, and found the ideal time for that was 3am. These days I get a little more sleep, though I’m often up at 4am reading or writing. Mornings are always the best time for writing. I believe in giving the writing the very best of me, and then I go to work and it gets the rest of my energy. By the end of the day I can hardly string my sentences together and have learned to steer clear of the emails, least I lament my nonsensical dialogue the following morning.
I write for three solid hours each day, including weekends when I can. While writing Purgatory I became seriously focused and everyone knew that if my door was shut they were to keep it quiet or a disheveled, dressing-gown-clad mad woman would come out and do some serious stomping around.
Tell me about the historical context for Purgatory - how did you come across the story, what's your link to it?
Purgatory is based around the ‘Otahuhu Murders’ of 1865. A mother and three of her sons were murdered and buried in the garden. After several months the mother and two of her son’s bodies were found. The youngest son, John, however, wasn’t discovered for another four years.
I am a descendant of the older sister Eliza, whose name was changed to Nellie in the novel. All this came to my attention after the death of my father’s second wife, who coincidentally was my mother’s cousin.
My father’s wife had spent a great deal of time on the family tree, and after she died the family tree found its way to me through my brother. I had been trying to get my hands on the tree for years, and I was completely unaware of the murders until I read for the first time, at the top of the tree, the first family to settle in New Zealand were the Finnegans, and next to four of there names were the words ‘murdered 1865’, along with the murderer’s name and the date of his hanging.
I started investigating and a story developed, initially from James’s point of view. He was fascinating. He lived through the great Irish famine and although there’s no recorded history for him prior to becoming a 65th soldier and boarding a ship for New Zealand; I was easily able to develop a past for him from the research of the times.
It was a rich time of history – a time of true poverty and oppression in Ireland. Through James I explored convict transportation to Australia, the Waikato wars, early Auckland, the Mt Eden Stockade, the 65th regiment, Pakeha/Maori relationships, love and murder.
Then I discovered an article written in 1997 in the Women’s Weekly, written by another ancestor. The article mentioned the ghost of ten-year-old John lingering inside the old cottage. I immediately went to the site of the cottage, only to find it burnt down just a few years earlier. I peered over the fence at the new house and tried to imagine where John was buried. An elderly man came out of another house down the back with his barking pitbull. She was a beautiful dog and I soon won her over. I told the old gentleman about the story I was writing, and he spoke of the abandoned cottage. He said the neighbourhood kids would dare each other to stay overnight and see if the ghost of John appeared. He did it once himself, but John never appeared. He said it was all a load of old hoo-ha.
While I stood there talking with him I felt John’s presence. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I don’t believe it was. It was as if he slipped his hand into mine, his family, come back for him. I went to the cemetery, but the plaque with the Finnegan name on it had been stolen. It didn’t matter, I had what I had come for, and young John came home with me. From then on he was the hero of Purgatory, and I know he would be delighted about that.
Do you become a different person when you write?
I do get into the mind space of the character I am writing. To be inside the head of John, the ten-year-old ghost was easy – I simply streamed what I remembered of my brothers when they were that age.
Writing James was an adventure. He took me to Ireland and Australia before New Zealand came into the picture. I never got to go to Ireland, but I had the help of a Dublin historian, and I think that was much better than actually being there physically. I was able to keep my mind in the Ireland of the early 19th century, without the distraction of modern day improvements.
Writing the murders was a challenge though. I have to admit there were times I cried while writing Purgatory. I felt it all. And I suppose that’s because you do become your characters during the writing process.
It's exceptionally difficult to get a novel published in NZ, even more so as a debut novelist. Tell us about the process you went through. Any tips?
I truly believe that my years of writing poetry helped. Poetry is such a wonderful discipline. It taught me the magic and beauty of words within the tightest constraint of form – each one a small story of its own.
Initially Purgatory was my jump into the short story structure, and when I realised it was too big for a short story I immersed myself in learning all I could about the craft of novel writing. I now own over 30 how-to books, and they are all really helpful.
Writing a novel was a painful process. I never simply wrote something.
I wrote it, then re-worked it over and over and over. Much as I would when I worked a poem into shape, but on a much larger scale. When I thought I had finished I got in touch with an agent. Initially he was reluctant. I spent weeks proving my ability to this agent before he would even look at my manuscript. And again, I really believe it helped that I had a history of proactively getting my poetry out into the world on my own.
All this doesn’t matter though if the work is no good. And lucky for me, when he finally asked for the first 25 pages, the hard work had paid off and the story stood on it’s own feet. Having said that he changed the title and had me rewriting a section before he presented it to Penguin, and even then it took another six months of edits before it was ready to go to print. I learned so much throughout that time, and I’m so very appreciative of all the advice I was given by people who really know their stuff.
The best tip I can give anyone is to never give up. Yes I can hear Churchill too. But it’s true. We all get the rejection letters. In the end it’s all about doing your homework, and perseverance.
What are you working on next?
I have been planning the next novel for two years now. I have notes all over the place waiting for me to jump in and give them some structure. I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing too much, in case some of the energy escapes. What can I say, I’m Irish and the superstitions run deep. At the moment I’m completing a 3000 word personal essay that’s taken weeks of research prior to writing. But research is so enlightening I can’t complain.