Three cheers for cronehood

Tessa DuderForget chick-lit, it‘s sooo last century. In her latest book, Is she still alive, Tessa Duder says she has started a new genre – “crone-lit”.

Written in France in 2003 during her time as recipient of the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield fellowship, she says she consciously set out to write stories about strong female characters and situations where people make life-changing choices.

“There‘s a new genre here. For quite some time we‘ve been talking about chick-lit and someone told me the other day there‘s something called hen-lit. Hen-lit is the extension of chick-lit. I think this book fits quite nicely into the idea of crone-lit.”

“After all, crone is a very respected medieval word which means an old woman of wisdom and experience. It doesn‘t mean the toothless old hag – it has a wonderful history, the word crone. If anybody accused me of being a crone I would see that as a compliment, not otherwise.”

The themed collection of adult short stories, her first, was a deliberate choice.
“They were definitely written as a collection of stories about older women. I was in Menton, and I was there by myself – feeling quite isolated actually. I wrote two fairly quickly, then a third. I thought there was a themed collection there if I kept going.”

She says she chose women characters because there was more potential – they live longer, have children and for the women born after World War II, saw a great deal of social and cultural change.

The mana of the award was something she was acutely aware of, she says.
“I didn‘t feel it as a weight … I felt it as a privilege and an inspiration. You are literally are working in the room that‘s underneath the patio … where she used to sit and write. You know that just up there some of the greatest stories in the English language were written.”

An intervening project on author Margaret Mahy meant that the book a while to reach the publisher – but when it did the response was lightning fast.

“I gave it to my agent and he gave it to HarperCollins – (they) let me know within three days. That‘s unbelievably fast. Publishers are not known for their speed.”

But publishers know a winner when it lands on the desk, and writing fiction for older women who are keen readers of fiction is good business sense.

“We know that fiction is largely read by older women,” Duder explains.
“ They certainly support the book festivals, they buy the books and they go to the book clubs. I‘m not saying that they‘re aren‘t a lot of men or younger people who do this as well, but I suspect the great majority who is keeping the flame of fiction proud are these older women.”

Writing for a living isn‘t easy in New Zealand, she says, but this is not something to be bemoaned – it gives Kiwi writers great skills.

“It‘s characteristic of New Zealand writers that they are versatile. They have to be because for any one work you‘re not earning large sums of money. There are one or two exceptions, but by and large income comes from a number of books, speaking engagements, some journalism … you build up an income from particular sources.”

Characters and Twelfth Night

Characters are a special passion of Duder‘s, and it shows in the way they are portrayed in dense flashes of great colour and detail. They range from family tyrants, to immigrant grandmothers to authors and students.

“I do spend a lot of time thinking about my characters – all the biographical details, but it also includes their favourite music, what clothes they wear, their favourite foods, eccentricities … I do get to know them very well.”

“I would like to think that the characters are presented in a way that people get to know them and understand them – even though they mightn‘t like them. It‘s a bit like an actor playing a part of a villain – actors say that they still have to love them; they have to understand them. Otherwise it just won‘t work.”

One story – Maria – centres around a heavy drinking journalist, Toby Wynde, and his memoirs, which he writes with the ‘help‘ of Maria shortly before he dies. Duder, who started off as a cadet at the Auckland Star, had first-hand knowledge of the world of newspapers and magazines. It seemed the right setting for what she wanted to do with the piece.

“That story is a modern retelling of Twelfth Night. The character‘s names are the same. The first half of the story is the story that‘s covered by the play. I have always wondered what happened to Maria and Toby after that. Maria is not a likeable person, she‘s an opportunist of extreme subtlety. Maria is a very ruthless person, utterly impervious, malicious to a degree that is uncomfortable.

“I was trying to catch her essential ruthlessness in a modern magazine office. I always wondered happened when they left, in disgrace, after being revealed as the perpetrators of this really horrid joke (in the original story).

“I felt that there was plenty of potential there for Maria, even though she married a penniless drunk … she realises that far from having a liability she‘s in fact got an asset. She can use this asset and get him to write his memoirs before he dies and maybe she‘ll be set for life – and that is exactly what happened.”

The story rockets along at a great pace and has a fantastic scene combining a funeral and a book launch that is a lively and engaging piece of writing.
“I had a lot of fun writing that story and I must say the name of the book that he wrote … it is scatological; great fun.”

On librarians and writers

“I do make references to librarians as the most helpful people in the world. My experience of libraries has been utterly positive. With all the research that I‘ve don over the years for close to 30 books, I‘ve had the most positive experiences. (Librarians) know their stuff, they‘re passionate about their jobs.”

Duder says she didn‘t decide to become a writer, as some do, and was a latecomer to fiction.
“I was chosen by a story to write it. It sounds a bit weird, but that‘s exactly what happened. Night Race to Kawau was published four years after I spent a very sleepless night thinking I could write a book about a family that goes sailing and gets into trouble. So that story literally did choose me to write it. And I sat down the next morning and I started the process. I fumbled for four years through stops and starts, but ever since then I‘ve been working on stories in one genre or another.”

Her early training as cadet has paid off throughout her career as a writer she says.

“I do have one basic characteristic of journalists and that‘s curiosity. I‘ve always been somebody who likes to go out and find how things work or something about the person I‘m talking to …

“I really am terrifically interested in what drives people and what motivates them and what choices they make in life. In fact, that is what storytelling is all about. Storytelling is about people making choices and dealing with the consequences.”


Tessa Duder - Is She Still Alive? and more of her works in the library catalogue.

Richard Liddicoat interviewed Tessa Duder for Christchurch City Libraries at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, May 2008.