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Anne Fine: the Author Who Talks In Pictures

… is here in NZ to promote her latest children’s novel FROZEN BILLY - a chilling tale about a ventriloquist’s dummy … I hate Frozen Billy - his painted, staring wooden eyes, the way his eyelids click when Uncle Len pulls a string, his long thin legs and his bright red wooden mouth … and the paperback edition of THE MORE THE MERRIER… " Anne Fine at her wittiest"

She’s a true storyteller. How can I tell? Because, as she spoke, she conjured up images as vividly as if they’d been painted and slapped down in front of me. There’s a lot to be said for clichés and I’m going to use one, or maybe even two here, as the situation warrants it … I was glued to my seat and I hung on to her every word as she talked and I listened from across the breakfast table in the Millennium Hotel, Christchurch. The staff clearing away croissant crumbs and coffee dregs faded into the background as this author’s rich voice and equally rich vocabulary transported me into her world for a precious hour or two. It was just me and Granny Fine … gracious, warm and welcoming.

I’m not sentimental. I was born 40 - a realist and a worrier. Most of you will, no doubt, have heard of Madame Doubtfire but did you also know this about Anne Fine - that she’s …

And what’s even more interesting is that she:

  1. Believes it is a writer’s job to interpret the world to children and that one can be comforted by characters in a book
  2. Does not like Christmas - "It squats on our lives from October but my children can sing Carols"
  3. Thinks that parents have a dreadful habit attributing their feelings to their children … ( you know the one - where your mother or father will say something like "I don’t think about it anymore so I know the kids don’t either" - when in fact you simply can’t STOP thinking about it!)
  4. Rewinds and replays videos consistently until she’s sure she heard the dialogue properly
  5. Believes we read because we need to know "how ought we to live"
  6. Has only just stopped biting her fingernails! (which makes her wonderfully human and helps me understand how she writes such compelling novels)
Anne FineHow long have you been touring?
Several weeks now. It’s the longest I’ve ever been away and I’m looking forward to getting back -even if it is to several in-trays overflowing with matters to be seen to. I do feel certain nostalgia for the way it was when I could live, breathe and write a book until it was finished. So many things interfere with the actual craft of writing. After I finished being Children’s Laureate I simply said no to everyone and everything. I didn’t want to talk I just wanted to write. Consequently, I had no interruptions when writing The More The Merrier, which is probably why it’s so good.
I’m off to Australia next but I’ve really enjoyed being in New Zealand. Do you know that I can do whole interviews here without Madame Doubtfire and Robin Williams even being mentioned once!
With regards to interviewing - is there a question you’ve never been asked and wished you had?
Yes! Why do publishers allow their authors to be chewed up by all this touring! It would be good to have a body double, someone who actually enjoyed staying in hotels and travelling around. Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of it I do enjoy but it would certainly be handy to have an intelligent look-alike who could put on the costume and go out there and do it. Sometimes I love getting dressed up and being in the spotlight as it certainly makes a change from the jeans and sweater - oh, but it does interfere with my writing.
About your books …
My first four books were very introspective. Round Behind the Ice-House is my favourite, although no one else’s, probably because it’s the one that’s so like me. You know, when you’re a writer certain things just hit you. We were in the States and these children were busy showing their parents their work - lines of writing and printed letters and words, and the parents were enthusing about how wonderful it all was and how wonderful the children were and that they were going home straight away to put it up on the fridge for everyone to see. Well, a few days later here we were in England with exactly the same scenario but with totally different reactions! The parents, this time, were saying things like 'Oh my gawd, look at that, you’ve left the stick off the p and that bit’s not joined up properly.’ It just made me realise there’s a huge difference between the American and English cultures - the English tend to be terribly critical. My mother was a grand master at it.
What I'm getting at is that there are certain stages and experiences in your life that you might not understand at the time but further on down the track you could find they'll fit perfectly into a novel or whatever. It’s all grist to the mill really - a bit like the anthologies of poetry I edited (A Shame To Miss) - you often don’t fully 'get’ a poem until a long time after you first come across it. You may study or even learn it by heart - usually because someone makes you. But only when you fall in - or out - of love, lose someone, travel, can’t sleep for a week, stand in a snowstorm, get bitten by a dog or whatever, do the chosen words spring to mind and then you can truly understand how brilliantly the experience was captured … a kind of timed release.
You write adult fiction as well. Is it difficult to swap from one genre to another?
Not at all. It’s a bit like having a conversation in a family group. You talk in one language to the adults but then modify your tone to the children. It’s exactly the same with writing.
What are your adult novels about?
I call them 'sour comedies.’ There have been furious discussions and disagreements over some of my characters - especially from 'Telling Liddy’ - book groups have come to blows apparently over whether Liddy should have behaved the way she did! I think it was Adam Haslett who said 'Nine times out of ten good nature is simple idleness.’ I have to go along with this. Say for instance, there’s someone who’s had too much to drink at a party - there are those who will turn their backs and not want to create a scene and only one or two perhaps will stand up and say 'You can’t drive.’ A lot of people don’t like to make a fuss but our social conscience needs to be pricked so that we do take action - we all need to be held accountable. My next adult novel 'Raking the Ashes’ is due out in February. I write a new novel perhaps once every four to five years - just when my name’s being forgotten, people then start murmuring Anne Fine, who is this Anne Fine …
Have styles changed? Has your style had to change?
No. All my books are still in print or in the process of reprinting and always have been. My first book, 'The Summer House Loon’ was published in 1978 and is currently being made into one volume with its sequel - 'The Other Darker Ned’. The only thing I’d change is the titles - back then I was on artistic license and determined to keep to these titles in spite of some wonderful, contrary advice. The only things I’ve had to change in my books are things like measurements and currency … oh, and not having midwives on bikes any longer!
As an author, though, you can be unthinking of your time. Take Enid Blyton for example, should we get rid of her altogether - this author who taught so many of us to read, or should we just edit the bad bits out? Then there’s Hugh Lofting (Dr Doolittle) who has since been accused of sexism and racism and yet his son has said that his father would have been the first to remove anything that could have been regarded as offensive. You see, all authors really want is to be read.
Quality will stay. If you discover someone like Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Forster, Edna O'Brien, Iris Murdoch, Thackeray you will read the backlist. These days we have too much instant gratification from celebrity authors but they don’t stay around, they don’t stay in print. Not like quality classics. Children have already lost books in England but here, in New Zealand, your prolific readers are still just that - they talk to you about the books they’ve read and they ARE well read.
Is there one book that has made an indelible impression on you
Oh yes! The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. It was published around World War 2 and was gobbled up in all the war news. This novel really showed me what was behind the green, baize door. It is such a powerful depiction of true family dynamics … it strips away the public personae and shows us what people are truly like and this author was someone who could set it down … you know, just like in Eliot … Set Down This! And This!

'All this was a long time ago, I
remember
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: …’
From Journey Of The Magi by T S Eliot

Anne FineAbout writing - sometimes it feels like the 'magic’ inside gets lost when trying to put it down on the page.
I know what you mean. It’s like the fairy stories with the beautiful, magical, sparkling castle in the distance and you travel up hill and down dale and trudge along and you write something down and it’s a case of no, no, no - it’s not like that! But funnily enough, when you leave something, let it cool, and come back to read it much later on - it can be good, a lot better than what you initially thought and it really is a little of how you meant it to be. But let’s be honest here - you can write and write but you have to have talent as well! You simply can’t fool people.
How do you feel about television?
British kids are, on average, watching telly FOUR HOURS A NIGHT. Over the space of a working week that’s TWO DAYS spent watching rubbish. There are parents who wouldn’t dream of letting their children eat junk food but allow their kids to watch hours of crap TV. It makes no sense. Let me tell you about the school fish tank experiment - they replaced the fish with a pair of red gumboots and do you know, 22 out of 24 kids didn’t even notice and guess what - they were the TV addicts. Nobody chooses to be an addict whether it’s nicotine, heroin, whatever - I mean, when we start the bag of crisps we don’t really mean to finish the whole lot, do we? How did P. J. O'Rourke put it? Ah! "It’s a casting call in America as to who will be the parent".
And computers, cell phones …
An unfurnished mind is tiresome and dangerous. TV, texting, computer games they all produce unquestioning minds when not regulated.
You’re quoted as saying ’Children are often situated in reconstituted families and stuck with people they don’t like. They need to learn new skills to cope with this.’ What sort of skills are you referring to?
Not only are children stuck with people they don’t like but they are also, very often, given new sets of values and priorities. Say, for example, in their original family telling lies may have been the worst way they could offend but then suddenly here they are with another family whose first priority may not be about lying. It could be about tidy bedrooms and appearances. They need to learn new skills to cope with all of this, as it’s so very confusing. They need to find out what makes people tick and, to me, the best and safest way is through books. Literature is a safe way to explore other people’s feelings and to learn how others cope and deal with similar situations. It is such a relief to realise that you’re not alone and that others have the same problems and have survived and learnt how to deal with it … and then you’ll have kids saying things like "I could be like him or her" … "I could do that" … or maybe … "I wouldn’t have been that brave or silly or scared."
We read to know we are not alone. - C. S. Lewis
Finally, what do you think is the most important ingredient of a book?
Let me quote Browning but don’t ask me where it comes from -
If you want your songs to last, base them on the human heart.