The 27th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the July 1993 issue, and from memory was one of the stories that won Tim Wilson the inaugural Commonwealth Writers Prize. The portrait of Shonagh Koea is by Marcus Williams.
The intro read:
Last year Shonagh Koea produced a best-selling novel, Staying Home and Being Rotten. This month, there’s a new short story collection with an equally odd title, Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight. “You never get any better,” she tells Tim Wilson. ”You just have more equilibrium about being worse.”
A FUNNY CORRECT LITTLE GIRL
For the last hour I’ve been dying to ask Shonagh Koea, author of some very polite, ornate and nasty tales, a slightly nasty question. Beside me stands a large antique clock, broadcasting the demise of each successive half-hour. Time is running out.
I fix my bravest stare on the writer. One well-informed guesser estimates that her last novel, Staying Home and Being Rotten, sold between 6000 and 7000 copies, which for a local book is very good. A new collection of short stories, Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight, is out this month. She writes and lives formidably. She has excommunicated two friends for making racist remarks. One chance, you feel, is all you get.
“This is my last question,” I stammer. “I have to ask it. . .” Her irises are like the points of two pins.
“Oh,” she sighs. “It’s not that old chestnut about me being Henry Blofeld’s secret bride, is it?”
“Yes,” I squeak.
She laughs loudly and unguardedly, the second or third time she has done so today. “That’s an old one,” she says, gently reproving.
So Blofeld wasn’t the model for the swinish James in Staying Home and Being Rotten?
“No. Not at all. . . I’ve never seen him in the flesh. I’ve watched his ads for barbecues, but they’re not on now. I have never been in the same room with him, or the same building. I have never been to a cricket match. I don’t even know how you play cricket. That story’s been around for years.”
Four years, in fact. When Koea attended the 1989 Wellington International Festival of the Arts to read and perform, it seemed that everyone she knew had mysterious, more pressing engagements or, worse simply ignored her. “I had thought, oh well, I’ll be able to have lunch with so-and-so and dinner with so-and-so,” she recalls. “But everyone was in a hurry.”
All was revealed at a cocktail part final day of the festival. “Andrew Mason [then literary editor of the Listener] shook my hand gravely and said he wished to congratulate me on my marriage. And I said, ‘What marriage?”’ Her “what” resounds like a cannon volley.
Prior to Koea’s arrival in Wellington someone had told her friends that she had wed cricket commentator Henry Blofeld and would be preoccupied with her new husband. The timing was perfect. Blofeld was in Wellington that week, accompanied, word had it, by a new bride. No, he wasn’t saying who she was. “It actually caused me a lot of damage. Some people never spoke to me again, because they thought he was so awful and they didn’t know how I could marry him,” says Koea. “It was a beautiful bit of mischief.”
But whose mischief?
Michael Gifkins, she says. Gifkins, a literary impresario (he writes, edits and is an agent and publishing consultant), once represented Koea.
No, it wasn’t my mischief, says Gifkins. His version is more akin to that of the butter knife than the knife-edge of malice. He didn’t spread anything around. He simply passed it on. “She’s a great fan of cricket. She talked to me about meeting someone nice at the cricket who was something to do with the English team, who had a beautiful voice and who had similar tastes in food. Then Henry Blofeld announced that he was getting married. I honestly don’t remember whether someone said, ‘Oh God, I wonder if Shonagh’s marrying him,’ or whether I put two and two together.”
How spiky. How elegant. How very like a Shonagh Koea story transpiring in a parallel universe. Much of what Koea writes is informed by this general rule: individuals can, whether intentionally or not, behave in a beastly fashion towards each other. Men are often oppressive, rendering the women around them mortified and helpless. Don’t expect any fashionable moral spicing. The combatants on this battlefield are adults and quite beyond innocence. It doesn’t sound nice does it?
Koea agrees. She isn’t sure that she really likes some of the things the stories in her new book are about.
About? Doesn’t she mean the way they were written?
“No,” she answers firmly, “I mean what they are about.” She supplies the example of “Your Father, The Bird”. In this tale a widow and her son walk through their home town at dusk, taking turns at carrying a heavy package. The package’s contents turn out to be the cremated remains of her husband and his father. “It was very horrible to write that,” Koea shudders. “I felt quite ill.”
“I felt quite ill” is the sort of shrieking judgment you’d expect from a prim maiden aunt, not the person who wrote the story.
The reaction shows exactly where Koea’s affinities lie: courtesy, tact and decorum; virtues prized by the upper ranks.
Twenty-five years of Koea’s life were spent in New Plymouth. With her husband George, a Maori journalist who edited the local paper and was 20 years her senior, she dwelled in a two-storey house on a hill. I say dwelled, because that is what one does in two-storey houses on hills in such towns.
He died suddenly in 1987, while in the garden. Three years later she moved to Auckland. Her home now is a cottage perched on a hillside. It is named “Grandiflora”. Her first novel, published in 1989, was titled The Grandiflora Tree. In it the protagonist’s husband expires under one such tree, while raking leaves. Her New Plymouth house was also called “Grandiflora”.
The writer appears at the cottage door and waves me down a hallway lined with paintings to the kitchen/dining room. Later Koea will proclaim that she is “vividly unattractive”. She’s nothing of the sort. She has cheekbones like tangerines. I’ve yet to see a bad photograph of her.
A brown fur is draped across her shoulders. She apologises for any offence I might take because of this and then gives me coffee. An antique tin is opened, revealing biscuits as large as fists. The cottage seems to resound with memories.
Her books lead you to wonder if some of these are not quite fond. She came from a poor and unhappy family. What does she miss about New Plymouth? She misses the sea and her garden there. That’s all.
“I’ve often wondered, I hope you don’t mind me asking, does it worry you that the boys took after their father’s colouring?” asks one of her characters. The next sentence runs, “Isolation seemed a less exhausting alternative to such laboured tact.” George Koea’s death must have been a devastating blow.
“Burdened with remembrance” is Koea’s diagnosis of the inhabitants of her stories. Mood rather than plot galvanises her writing. What moods? “Sometimes you sit in places and you look around and you feel almost sick because it all seems very nice, but you’ve got nothing in common with anybody. Nothing applies.
“You get that awful feeling of almost homesickness, like when you’re a child. Ashes in your mouth. An awful sense of nameless desolation. You might remember some small incident where you felt deeply unhappy, when if you’d fallen down dead you wouldn’t give a damn.”
Style is something Koea does give a damn about. Her likes and dislikes are pronounced. Black pudding and tripe put her off. White wines are preferable, dry of course. Antiques invite what she calls “my orphan complex”. If they are broken and need some care, so much the better. Overly structured clothes make her dismissive. The importance of things, of silks, good food and artifacts is curious.
“I know how silly they are. They don’t really mean that you’re any better or worse, but I think sometimes that it’s a form of mental and physical discipline to cling not so much to correctness as niceties.”
Niceties, again. The discipline of finding something she likes is attractive to her. Why? “That’s what I know. That’s what I think myself. You choose.”
Koea has always written. As a child she put her thoughts down on paper because “people didn’t used to be much interested in what you thought and I used to think
things”. Aged eight she won two guineas in a competition run by the Woman’s Weekly for a piece declaring that at Christmas she had been given a white donkey with a red saddle which she rode in the paddock behind her house. There was no donkey or saddle, and, in suburban Hastings, no paddock.
The money went on a red-and-white striped dress with a Peter Pan collar, a play dress. “Other little girls had clothes to play in. I didn’t,” she remembers. “I was a funny correct little girl.”
When she left school, Koea became a reporter. She married. Writing fiction kept her amused during her 20s and she produced two novels. They provoked encouraging noises from Reed, though not publication. In her late 20s, she grew disenchanted and ceased writing altogether. Ideas for stories still came. “I have this, what I call a tick-tock, inside my head. I’ll see something or hear something and it will kind of echo in my head.”
To silence it she would sit and beat her head with her fists. If that failed, or if she was particularly upset, she would walk down the hill to the library and stand amid the stacks of books. “I would think, ‘What could one possibly add to that? What did it matter?’ How stupid it was to fret that one couldn’t do that.”
Ten years after the decision to stop, she wrote a story and sent it to the most notable literary contest in the country at the time, the Air New Zealand short story competition. “I’d been down to the library and done the cure before I wrote it. It’s just like burning yourself on an old burn. The scar tissue is so thick you don’t feel it. I thought I’d burn myself one more time. I’d fail one more time and I’d laugh, and I wouldn’t care at all, and I would see that it all meant nothing. And it was a disaster, because I won the competition.”
At the prize-giving luncheon she overheard someone say she was merely a housewife from New Plymouth and wouldn’t be heard from again. Koea went home, cried and wrote two stories for the Listener, on the premise that at least one might be accepted. Both were. Nowadays editors ask her for contributions.
Other changes have accompanied success. The six or seven revisions she used to submit her work to have contracted to three or four. “You never get any better,” she says. “You just have more equilibrium about being worse.”
Her short stories are now written to greater length than the 3500 words the Listener liked when it published fiction. The paragraphs in Fifteen Rubies by Candlelight are meatier than her first collection. Exchanges of dialogue sound more realistic. Her characters too seem not quite as overwhelmed by the world. Reading some of her earlier work often made you wonder, are men this barbarically shallow, are women really so passive?
The answer of course is no. Refreshingly, those sometimes dowdy widows and boorish males who populated her work are starting to mix it up a bit.
Meanwhile, in the so-called real world, ghastly behaviour continues. But, as in her books, humour helps to deaden its worst effects. She tells of one occasion when she and another novelist were invited to a dinner party. Most of the guests were doctors or lawyers and they sat in the dining room. The two writers, however, were hustled off to a small room at the end of the house. From time to time other guests would appear, but after making strained conversation they would always leave.
Finally Koea and her friend confronted the host and hostess in the dining room. Dinner had been and gone. Shortly thereafter, they too left.
Koea considered the evening for a few days and reached a conclusion. She always writes thank-you notes after dinner parties. This was no exception. “I said that I had found it most puzzling that I had been put in another room for the party, but it had been extremely informative because I had enjoyed watching the other guests and their proprietorial gestures towards each other.“It was my pet hate,” she reflects. “I like to be left out, but I hate to be left out.”