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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Helen Ellis talks about Being a Distance Grandparent

Helen Ellis is a New Zealand researcher, writer, anthropologist and a veteran of Distance Grandparenting. Three of her four children and five of her six grandchildren live 16 to 30 flight hours away in America, England and Scotland. Helen talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Being a Distance Grandparent – a Book for ALL Generations

It is a gentle read about a subject that is tough for some and not so tough for others. One million New Zealanders live outside the country. Therefore, 20-25% of the NZ grandparent population have grandchildren overseas. No one asks to be a Distance Parent or Grandparent - it’s what has happened as a result of globalisation. In the meantime COVID-19 has been the great disrupter. The book is an easy read combo of the ‘how it is’ and the ‘how to do it’.

What inspired you to write this book?

My research and personal experience have taught we that each generation experiences Distance Familying with its own unique set of joys and challenges. Some they share with their family from afar, and some they don’t. My passion with this book, and the next two in the Distance Families series, is to give a voice to each generation. When we understand ‘how it is’ for the other, empathy is generated… and empathy is a good thing for Distance Families.

What research was involved?

I have always had an interest in how and where people live and inhabit, in relation to who and what is important to them. For years I have listened to podcasts and generally plugged into the world of expats, migrants and all things mobility. Separately, I completed a BA majoring in Social Anthropology. This all progressed to doing my masters. As no New Zealand scholar had previously researched Distance Grandparenting it was a ‘no brainer’ to make it the topic of my thesis. My qualitative research consisted of interviewing a number of New Zealand Distance Grandparents, asking them ‘how is Distance Grandparenting for you?’ These interviews formed the framework of my thesis and the broad outline of my book. Added to that was my continuing research outside of my academic studies. Lastly my observations of over 20 years as a Distance Grandparent and 30 years as a Distance Parent gave me much food for thought. During the writing process I also founded This enabled me to build lasting connections and relationships in the world of mobility which has delivered my message to a truly global community.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I treat writing like a job and head to my home office each morning and write whenever I can, in between the other demands of life. I would describe my writing process as completing a messy jigsaw. Chapters and topics were drafted and a Word document created. Into it I fired thoughts, references to articles and conversations I have enjoyed. In time, I then attacked each chapter and made sense of it. Lots of rearranging happened deciding what should go where. I slotted in sections of my thesis and of course the language style of that text needed to be changed. Once I had the bulk of the book written many layers of refining happened. I learnt a lot from the process. I am writing my second book now and I am finding I am repeating the same process.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane would have to be on the playlist but I think my favourite is Michael Bublé’s Home. This song is also about a couple’s love but there are many emotions and lyrics that are very much ‘at home’ in the world of Distance Families. When Distance Sons and Daughters who have left home think of their left-behind parents they likely relate to Bublé’s line “… this was not your dream, but you always believed in me”.

What did you enjoy the most about writing ‘Being a Distance Grandparent – a Book for ALL Generations’?

I have enjoyed achieving something that was never on my ‘bucket list’ but feels so important. I care about Distance Families and I receive huge enjoyment and satisfaction giving them a voice and helping them better understand each other. When a reader says, ‘I never thought of that before’ – I know I have done my job.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

There were no grand party or fireworks. I was pleased to be DONE! My husband and I grabbed a bottle of champagne that had been patiently chilling in the refrigerator and strolled down the road to our local BYO Indian restaurant for a quiet, reflective meal. As I sat there it reminded me of the feeling when you first learn you are pregnant. No one around us knew that something big had just occured.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I mainly live on a diet of migrant/expat/mobility focused books. There’s always one or two expected in the post and others queued up on my bedside cabinet. In time many get promoted to the lounge coffee table and are attacked with a red pen and highlighter markers.

Lately one of the most impactful books I’ve read is Rules of Estrangement by Joshua Coleman. Sadly many families, including Distance Families, experience estrangement and Coleman’s book is so insightful.

When I feel the need for something light my first port of call is Alexander McCall Smith. The latest in his 44 Scotland Street series satisfied that need. I love the wonderful way he observes life through his characters, who often say, what we’d all love to say, but in such a diplomatic way. His writing style is delicious.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I am presently working on Being a Distance Son or Daughter – a Book for ALL Generations and it will be followed by the complementary grandchild book. These will appear over the next year or two.


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