Interview: L.J. Ritchie talks about Monsters of Virtue
Congratulations on your new book – it is a significant contribution to exposing a hidden chapter of New Zealand’s history. What inspired you to write Monsters of Virtue?
I was researching for a different story and stumbled onto a paragraph about the eugenics movement in early 20th century New Zealand, which I had previously not known existed. A few days later, I dropped everything else and started planning and researching for this story. I tend to find that’s the best thing to do when writing: if an idea stands out, follow it wherever it takes you.
Can you tell us about the research that went into forming the book?
The most difficult thing about researching eugenics in New Zealand was that relatively little has been written about it. There’s no single book you can read to get the whole story. I had to piece it together from many different sources – from academic articles to 1930s newspaper stories to the records of parliamentary debates. This meant that for the first year and a half, I was constantly replanning and rewriting. I would find a new piece of information and have to completely change the story to accommodate it. For example, I had been working on the book for almost a year before I found out that New Zealand had come close to passing a eugenic sterilisation law in 1928. None of the other sources I’d read had even mentioned that.
Beyond the topic of eugenics in New Zealand, I had to research the international eugenics movement, the Great Depression, and all the other big ideas covered in the book. I read Darwin and Plato and Machiavelli – all fascinating, but not the easiest books to read. Even the details of everyday life in the ‘30s could be a challenge. It’s easy enough to learn about the big events in history or what prominent figures said and did. It’s a lot harder to get a sense of the lives of ordinary people, especially those who were young, working class, or female – and some of my characters are all three.
How did you balance the amount of research and detail you uncovered without losing the narrative of the story?
I had to be strict about only including details that added to the story or characters or sense of place. The key was thematically tying any historical events I wanted to explore to the plot, so that any mention of them helped further the whole story rather than simply being an indulgent aside.
Do you have any specific stories that you uncovered about eugenics in New Zealand that might shock or amaze us?
I was shocked to learn that we came so close to passing a sterilisation law, in the form of the 1928 Mental Defectives Amendment Bill. What’s more, the government had the numbers to pass the law and intended to do so. The removal of the sterilisation clause was a last minute compromise, done for political reasons rather than ideological ones. The Minister of Health explicitly said in Parliament that they were simply putting aside the issue of sterilisation until public sentiment turned in their favour.
I was also surprised at the breadth and depth of support for eugenics in New Zealand. It was a minority perspective, but a prominent one. Several prime ministers and many MPs expressed eugenic views. The 1924 Commission into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders (which ultimately led to the 1928 bill) received some horrific submissions, including suggestions that ‘defective’ children should be sterilised or even executed – and these were coming from people in the education and healthcare sectors. They weren’t necessarily popular opinions, but they were opinions you could express at that time and still hold a job which put you in a position of power over the very children you claimed you wanted to maim or kill. That, to me, is shocking.
Please tell us about your writing process. Do you set aside time every day, or do you write when the inspiration strikes?
My routine differs depending on where I am in the process of writing the book. Research and planning involves a lot of reading and a lot of walking – the aim is to get ideas to collide in interesting ways. Once I actually start writing, it can get intense. To get this book up to scratch by the deadline, I worked six- to seven-day weeks for over seven months. I tend to do my best work in the mornings – but when I need to, I’ll work up to fourteen hours in a day. It gets pretty exhausting!
Eugenics is a word inseparable in public consciousness with Nazism. Yet Galton’s idea of eugenics was as much about class as it is about race, as Monsters of Virtue reveals. How was eugenics used to justify social policy in New Zealand?
While it’s true that Galton’s idea of eugenics had heavy undertones of class, I’m not sure that that’s how he would have expressed it. Before he coined the term ‘eugenics’, one of his projects involved collecting and studying the family trees of prominent individuals and tracing to what extent their ‘genius’ was inherited by their offspring. He would have argued that his vision was of a meritocracy, but his idea of what counted as merit was influenced by class.
Similarly, in New Zealand, the language of eugenics was often used to promote whatever traits its proponents admired – it gave the veneer of science to people’s existing prejudices. The actions of eugenists didn’t always logically follow on from what they claimed to believe. Truby King, the founder of the Plunket movement, is often called a eugenist, but Plunket’s actions helped to improve the health of all babies, not just those that conformed to eugenic ideals. Eugenic language was used as justification for public playgrounds, P.E. in schools, children’s health camps, and so on. All of these are related to the eugenist focus on fit, healthy bodies, but they’re about encouraging fitness through nurture. Strictly speaking, eugenics should only be interested in nature – the genes, and how they’re passed on.
A strict focus on nature can be seen more clearly in policy on crime and mental illness. In the parliamentary debates around the 1928 bill, there was much talk about the need to segregate criminals and the mentally ill from society in order to prevent them passing on their genes. The Minister of Health argued that many prisoners, once sterilised, would no longer pose a risk to society and could be released. The implication is that many people remained institutionalised for the eugenic purpose of preventing them from breeding.
New Zealand is admired as a liberal and socially progressive country. How do you think readers will react when they discover the influence eugenics had here?
To many of its proponents, eugenics was deeply progressive. It’s important to remember that liberal and conservative meant very different things eighty-five years ago compared to today. Although it was a conservative government that tried to pass the 1928 sterilisation law, support for eugenics was not cleanly split between the left and the right. Today, it’s impossible to separate out the issue of eugenics from fascism and the atrocities of the Nazis. New Zealanders in the ‘20s and ‘30s didn’t have the same associations. To many of them, eugenics seemed like a forward-thinking way of using science to make humanity better.
It may be a shock to learn about this part of our history, but we can’t cherry-pick our past. The ‘socialist paradise’ view of New Zealand is at odds with much of our history, as well as with the reality of many people’s lives in the present.
Monsters of Virtue seems very timely. Today, we are on the cusp of the 'editing out' of genetic diseases along with selecting desirable features such as height. Is genetic engineering the new eugenics?
I have mixed feelings about genetic engineering. On the one hand, it has the potential to address some awful medical conditions and prevent the suffering of many individuals. On the other hand, our species as a whole needs genetic diversity, and the artificial selection of fashionable genes could threaten that. Natural selection works best when there’s a wide variety of traits to select between. It’s a mechanism that involves a lot of redundancy – we all have genetic traits that prove poorly suited to our individual lives – but that redundancy is insurance for the future of the species. A trait that’s inconvenient today may hold the solution for a future problem we can’t anticipate. All sorts of traits that have worked out well for humanity – from standing on two legs to the ability to consume dairy – are results of mutations which our ancestors might not immediately have seen the value in. We’re not very good at predicting our species’ long-term needs.
Genetic engineering isn’t the only way eugenics is still with us. Remember when the previous government toyed with the idea of subsidising birth control for beneficiaries? Birth control is great, but the targeting is a problem, whether well-intentioned or not. When a government tries to discourage a particular group from reproducing, that’s a form of eugenics, and we need to be aware of the historical pitfalls associated with that line of thinking.
How did writing this compare to writing your previous novel, Like Nobody’s Watching?
Like Nobody’s Watching drew heavily on my own experience of high school. Even though the plot was fictional, I knew what it was like to be a teenager in a modern New Zealand high school. Writing historical fiction was a whole other beast. Placing myself in the shoes of a teenager in 1932 meant I had to wrap my head around a very different worldview – the way my characters think the world works, their expectations for the future, the language they use, the way they relate to each other, the influence of religion, the politics of the day, and a hundred other things – and getting there involved a mammoth amount of research.
It was rewarding, though. I had to step outside myself more, so this book changed my perspective far more than the last one did.