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Interview: Lisa Williams talks about Grandzilla


A native Floridian, Lisa Williams immigrated to New Zealand in 2002. She is a research fellow in the School of Nursing at the University of Auckland and a member of the bi-cultural palliative care and end of life research group, Te Arai (tearairesearchgroup.org). She is the author of two other novels, Drifting at the Bottom of the World and Death on a Long Winter’s Night, both set in Antarctica where she worked for several years. She talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Grandzilla.

Grandzilla is the story of Tillie Barnard, a small-town civic leader in the American west, and her granddaughter Tessa, who is fifteen. Tessa comes to live with Tillie for the summer when her mother goes off to South America to do some research – she’s an academic. The problem is, Tillie and Tessa don’t really get along. Tessa calls her ‘Grandzilla’ and much prefers her grandpa, Ed. Unfortunately Ed just died of Lou Gehrig’s (motor neurone) disease. Tillie’s answer to having Tessa around is to get her a job at Betta-Mart, which is a lot like Wal-Mart but worse. This is the status quo that sets up the book but things go haywire when Tillie’s past literally shows up on her doorstep in the form of her cousin, Dawn Farber. Dawn rakes up the scandal that nearly destroyed Tillie fifty years ago when she, Dawn and Ed were student activists in West Berlin during the German student protest movement.


What inspired you to write this book?

Older women are written out of history! Tillie is 75, Dawn is 69. I wanted to write a book where the older women were the central characters and not simply defined as being wives, mothers or daughters. They have autonomy, they have lived through interesting times, they are in control of their lives. Also, I became fascinated by the German student movement, an explosive time in the late 1960s, as it was in other places around the world. The students were rising up against repressive, authoritarian conditions and their dismay over their parents involvement in National Socialism during the Second World War. They were also protesting the Vietnam War.

What research was involved?

Lots of research about the German student movement, its antecedents and what it became afterward. Many of the students became involved in the anti-nuclear movement and then the Green Party. In fact, Joschka Fischer, prominent in the student movement ended up as Vice Chancellor under Gerhard Schröder. Of course some of the other students took a darker turn and ended up terrorists a la Baader-Meinhof. I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Berlin and a local showed me around Kreuzberg where some of the novel is set. She informed me about the feminist movement – how it had its roots in the student movement and how women faced the same issues as they faced in other countries. Very, very difficult to get their concerns taken seriously by the men in the movement. One thing the women did in West Berlin was form creches so that female students could finish their degrees rather than drop out when they became pregnant.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I wrote mostly before work and on weekends. For the last several months, I cut my work hours so I could get the book finished. Otherwise, I think I’d still be dinking along.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters? Jane Fonda is Tillie Barnard. Lily Tomlin is Dawn Farber. No question.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel? The research into the German student movement and surprising myself by what I wrote. Some characters just wrote themselves into the book and I thought, “Well, let’s see what you’re doing here.” I liked the challenge of trying to fit all the puzzle pieces together. I don’t know ahead of time what I’m going to write. It’s like taking a walk on a dark night with a weak flashlight. I can see maybe one or two steps ahead. I just have to trust that I’ll get there. It’s not the most efficient way to write, but what can you do? I tell myself that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next then neither will the reader. I also really enjoyed having Mandy Hager as my mentor, provided by the New Zealand Society of Authors. Her advice was invaluable for shaping Grandzilla.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book? My partner Leonie took me out to dinner. I was going to buy myself a cool steampunk brooch as a memento but the shop went out of business before I got there.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why? Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. So original, Eleanor is such an endearing character. What a clever book. I want to be that clever!


What’s next on the agenda for you? I don’t think the characters in Grandzilla are finished with me yet. I don’t know for sure but I’m thinking about some linked stories with different characters being at the centre of the stories. Funnily enough, Jo Crowder, a minor character in the book, has taken a holiday in New Zealand. I’m not sure what she’s doing here and I don’t think she knows either. I guess I’ll have to finish writing the story to find out. I’m also a fan of writer/photographer Teju Cole and, inspired by him, am trying my hand at short essays linked with photographs – photography being a big interest of mine. We’ll see.

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