Interview: Rosetta Allan, author of Purgatory
NZ Booklovers recently caught up with Rosetta Allan, an Auckland based novelist and poet, to talk about her debut novel Purgatory. Based on the 1865 Otahuhu murders, Purgatory is a unique and powerful depiction of nineteenth century life in Ireland and New Zealand.
Purgatory is your first novel – you have previously published a couple of volumes of poetry – tell me about your transition from writing poetry to fiction writing. What made you want to write a novel, and what were the challenges for you?
It was a huge learning curve, to be honest. I never pictured myself writing a novel, so when my husband suggested I take some time off work and do some writing, I thought I’ll have a go at some short stories. And then I discovered this story, and it just wouldn’t fit within the form of the short story, so I enrolled in a fiction course – I had joined it for short stories, though it was generally for beginning fiction – but I had to figure this out a lot quicker than the course offered, so alongside that I bought about thirty books on ‘how to’, and how other authors have done it, and really threw myself into figuring out the structure of a novel. With poetry you can’t just ‘dip in’ – the poems are a complete little story on their own, they are like little starbursts. But this story took two years, and I couldn’t write poetry that whole time, because it just felt like a completely different discipline. What I did learn was to try and bring the poetry through with me, so I still felt like a poet writing this book. So in a way I think I’ve been able to have the best of both worlds.
Do you think you will go back to writing poetry?
Yes I hope so – I want to continue to write fiction, I really have the fiction writing bug, but I hope I haven’t lost the knack for writing poetry. I’m going to keep plugging away at it every now and then, because I do love it. It’s a very difficult art form, and I admire the people who have done very well at it.
Have you had a lot of good feedback from readers about Purgatory?
Yes, I’ve been quite overwhelmed actually. It’s really not what you expect, especially for a first novel, so I am absolutely thrilled that people are connecting – not only to the family side, the interest in chasing your own roots – but also to the history of Pakeha in New Zealand, and what it was like from that side too. I’m really intrigued to see what people find in it – they all find something different, and I’m liking the layers that people are seeing. So I’m thrilled, you couldn’t ask for more.
You got the idea for the novel from your own family tree, when you saw the Finnegan names?
Yes, the names were right at the top of the tree, the four Finnegan family members, with a note saying “murdered” on it – “Otahuhu murders 1865” – with the murderer’s name and the date he was hung. Everything else was just standard on that family tree, with little dates, and arrows, no information at all apart from that, so I thought ‘that is rather interesting.’
Had you thought of writing a novel about your ancestry before that discovery?
No, not at all. The family tree came to me in a peculiar way – my mother and my father’s second wife are cousins, so their family trees are the same – so it was my father’s second wife who did the tree, and I never got hold of it until she died. Both her and my mother are unfortunately no longer with us, and my brother had the family tree, and I saw it there and swiped it. So I’d never seen it before that – I’d known it existed and I had tried to get it, but was unsuccessful. So I went home and unravelled it, because it was all in this funny little scroll, and it was the first time I saw it. Then I was researching straight away and I thought this would be a short story. The interest wasn’t initially around the family thing, but the story – I wanted to know who these people were and their times. Both James Stack and the Finnegan family were Irish Catholic, so they had come out from different parts of Ireland – one south, one north – and I wanted to know what brought them out here, who they were and what it was like here for them; that really was the basis of my research.
Once you had made the discovery of the murders, did you have a plan for how you would write about them?
No, again I sort of stumbled along. I was writing form the perspective of James Stack initially – I had tried writing it from the mother’s point of view, but it didn’t work. So I was halfway through the novel with James Stack, when I discovered the story of the ghost of John Finnegan, and I started looking into that. Then I went to the site and found the old cottage and got talking to an elderly neighbour who had lived there forever, and he was telling me about the ghost, and as the house was abandoned for two years the neighbours would dare it each other to stay overnight to see if the ghost appeared. And this elderly gentleman had done it himself, but he said ‘it was all hoo-ha, he didn’t appear.’ But I kind of felt something while I was there – I really felt this connection to the little boy – it really intrigued me why he was still there. And so I went home and I left the second half of James behind and I wrote John’s section all in one go, and then wove it throughout the story. John became the hero from there. So it was all sort of piecemeal, it all came together as I discovered things.
Does it feel like you have reclaimed part of your family history with this novel?
Yes, definitely, and you think about all the different branches and stories that must be in your family. I have since discovered that there is Jewish and German heritage as well, and I’m thinking, ‘what other stories are there’? I think it’s really important to know where we’ve come from, because now I can actually identify with my Irish-ness, and I can understand.
Have you been to Ireland?
No not yet, but looking forward to it.
Yet your descriptions were very vivid, like you did know the places?
I had the help of a fellow from the Dublin historical society – he was sending me pictures and information and I did a lot my own research – so it wasn’t hard to imagine what it was like.
You’ve depicted it as quite a tough, raw kind of place, both Ireland and New Zealand – is that how you found it in the research or was that your sense of how it would have been?
It’s all come through stories that I read of the time. The young girl being arrested for stealing a handkerchief and being put on the ship – that was a real twelve year old girl. And the famines, and the cottages being bowled over to make way for new crops and sheep while it was all going over to England – that was all happening at the time. And the same in New Zealand. The character of Abel is a ‘Pakeha Maori’, he didn’t actually exist in the story with James, but my research on Pakeha Maori – I based Abel on one particular fellow – they intrigued me. And this one that I researched in depth actually did become a mediator in the Maori land court in Auckland, and to me that was just too much richness to leave behind. There was a whole parallel going on between the Irish and the Maori, and I wanted this affinity to be shown, and also the different perspectives of these two Irish guys that came out, and the way it changed them and how they reacted to it – perhaps not as you would expect they would. And at the time someone like Abel would have been perceived as being lost, gone off the rails – but he wasn’t. He had that sprit ritual call. And again, while researching that time, the Kingitanga, there was that spiritual call that was much wiser than a lot of the European ways. In the research I also came across one of the men who was in charge of the 65th, and he resigned because he refused to accept the way the Maori were being treated – so that really was there too. There was a lot going on.
In Purgatory you present a very meshed way that Pakeha and Maori related – it was not a simplistic depiction.
No, and I don’t really think it was like that back then, in the early nineteenth century. I think the two sides at times really did reach out to each other – especially the lower class Europeans.
I was wondering whether that was a theme you were thinking of with the novel – where nothing is black and white, or absolute, especially in regards to your characters?
Exactly – we can put people inside a box and say ‘your this sort of person for doing this, you’re that sort of person.’ I don’t like that at all, so I think you’re right – there is this whole middle ground that people forget, that we all move between.
So was that your idea with the character of James?
Yes, very much so. I wanted to know what made him do what he did – because there is always a story. Maybe some people are born bad but a lot the time its circumstantial, and I can kind of understand. But in the end we are formed by the choices we make.
Do you know of stories within your family of how they were affected by the murders?
No, I was quite isolated from that part of the family. My mother was an only child and her father died quite young, so there was no contact. My grandmother went on to have many more children to her next marriage, as they did back then, so that was the family. But having said that, there is a relative I have been in contact with recently, just through the novel coming out, and she has described how members of her family were horrified at her delving into this, as they didn’t want the dirty linen brought out. But I haven’t really gone there – the family was much more notorious than I have written, I knew about that.
I was wondering about the significance of the title ‘Purgatory ‘– on the face of it it’s the Catholic concept of the “holding pen” after death, but what else does it mean in the novel?
Of course they are both Irish Catholics, so they would have had this sense of purgatory, and praying loved ones out of purgatory. But again, there is that whole grey area, and I really wanted to play with that whole idea. I have this quote from Pope John Paul, which says “heaven and hell are primarily eternal states of consciousness, rather than geographical places of later reward or punishment”. I thought that means that in life we are able to put ourselves into a state of purgatory, because it’s a state of consciousness – and therefore the punishment and reward can be cause and effect. I overlaid that on James – he has placed himself inside a state of purgatory and try as he might he just can’t seem to get himself out, whether through his own choices or through circumstances – really it’s a bit of both – and in the end he chooses his ultimate fate. And for John, still being here as a ghost, to me it made sense that he was in a state of purgatory too. Maybe for him it was choice, maybe it was literally that he was anchored to the ground somehow – to the cottage that he was born in. Then I started looking into Maori mythology, and how some return to watch over their mokopuna as birds or trees, and I thought that that was really very beautiful. They have the choice of going home – and with the Irish, home was either going back to your original home, or heaven – whatever that is for you. And so to me, that whole place of purgatory opened up opportunities, rather than being restrictive. And I thought, ‘what if we have a choice?’ We could become the brightest star in the sky so that our family could know that was us, or we could become an owl that comes to visit, or we could go home– they are all beautiful stories – why not choose?
That is a nice meshing of spiritual beliefs.
Yes, and it’s also that ghostly side – it’s not a scary thing, or death not being a scary thing, it’s just a part of everyday life, that perhaps we are not aware of as much. So to me there were all these openings that I could play with, and explore. For personal reasons too – so I really enjoyed it.
Did you know early on that you were going to call the novel Purgatory?
I didn’t. It was originally called ‘Mother Mary under a Bed of Carrots’ – that was my working title. But my agent thought it was too whimsical, and he gave it the title ‘Purgatory’, which I struggled with for quite some time – because it was so serious, and scary, and a bit daring – but I absolutely love it now, absolutely couldn’t imagine another title – so thank you Michael!
You left work to concentrate full time on writing – which would have been a big adjustment for you – so what are your writing rituals, how do you do it?
You do become quite ritualistic as a writer, and very precious about your time. Because I have no office in our house I write from my bed – so it’s a crazy little set up – I have my bed and my shelves all around me and I get up very early, kick my husband out, feed the dog, then I come straight back to bed before doing anything. I close the blinds, shut the door so it’s a darkened room, and I find that helps me focus because if it’s a beautiful day, or the wind is blowing its very distracting. So the dog usually snuggles next to me and I do this sort of head clearing thing, which seems to be a necessity, which I never realised I was doing until half way through the book when I was sort of breathing and feeling something starting to percolate – and then I would start. And I would start by reading what I had written the day before, and maybe editing. And there is always this push into the new prose – I don’t know if other writers feel that, but I actually sort of have to kick myself up the bum and say ‘go!’ It’s almost like you have to be brave and say ‘just go!’ and then you’re off.
Are you one of those writers that has to get the sentences right the first time, and so it takes you ages, or do you just write and write and then go back and edit?
I just write and then I go back – and I am hideously painful at going back and back and back, and then I give it to my husband to read, and he will go “hmmm” and so then I go back again. But initially I just let it out. And I cut big sections out, where you’ve just ‘walked into the forest to pick daisies’ – after a while you become more disciplined at seeing those parts and chopping them out. Then when I’m done I feel great – there is no other feeling that equates to that.
Are there any particular writers that have inspired you?
Yes, I have a few favourites. Tim Winton is a favourite; I just love the way his language is so beautiful and the way he crosses that line too into magical realism, where you are in this normal place and this strangeness will waft in, whether it’s a ghost or whatever – I have much respect for that. At the time I also read Hamish Clayton’s Wulf and that inspired me a great deal – again the language and the story – I found him to be extraordinary. And I’ve always loved Janette Frame, and she does similar things. At university I tended to lean more towards sort of gothic novels, so it will be interesting to see what my next one is like. I’m not planning it to be dark or scary in any way, but definitely explorative – just see where it takes me. It’ll be interesting to see whether this dark, slightly gothic thing is me – I’m not sure. Maybe it was just this novel.
Purgatory doesn’t really fit into one particular genre – it could be a crime novel, a ghost story or a historical novel?
Apparently we Kiwis are really bad at that, not sticking to genre! We must have a real creative freedom – I like it.
Are you planning your next novel already?
Yes, I have a story pretty much mapped out, but again they change as you are writing it. It’s centred around another murder that I know of, and that I’m quite intrigued with, and its more contemporary. So it think possibly I will explore contemporary issues through it – I’m quite looking forward to it.
So back to the bedroom?
Back to the bedroom, very soon! As soon as all this settles I will be incognito again – for the next two years!