Monday, November 24, 2008

Stephanie Johnson

This piece by Nicky Pellegrino appeared in the Herald on Sunday yesterday, 23 November, and now appears here with her permission.

Faithfully writing New Zealand stories isn’t likely to win an author either international acclaim or great riches and yet that hasn’t stopped Stephanie Johnson. The Aucklander has just published her eighth novel, Swimmers' Rope (Random House, $29.99), a compelling and original tale that is very much a love letter to her hometown.

It frustrates Johnson that New Zealand-based literature doesn’t seem to travel particularly given that we are so accepting of fiction from other cultures.
It’s very hard to get your books past the equator,” she says. “One of the things I’ve learnt over the years is that literature is provincial. The Americans like to read about Americans, the Poms like to read about Poms but New Zealanders are a funny kettle of fish because we like to read about the rest of the world. We’re more outward looking, we want to feel like we’re part of this big discussion.
“It absolutely infuriates me because you go to bookshops here and they are swamped with fiction from Europe and the States. Some of it is very good but some total rubbish. We get the whole gamut here. Whereas for those of us who set our books in New Zealand and write about our history…who we are and how we came to be who we are…it’s like a handicap.”

Some of Johnson’s books have made it into overseas bookshops but they’ve tended to be those with plotlines that passed through countries like Fiji or America. Swimmers' Rope is so much a New Zealand tale that it’s likely to be enjoyed solely by us.

It’s an unusual story about the lifelong friendship between two men, one heterosexual and the other homosexual. If you were going to put the novel in a box you’d label it “historical fiction” as it takes us from the turn of last century through to the 1970s. Norman is an only child, entranced by the big sprawling, intensely religious family next door particularly by one of the sons, his boyhood friend Lyn Comfort. But while Norman grows into a young man confused by his sexuality, Lyn becomes a Kiwi bloke secure in his role in life.
Most of my novels are historical and one of the things I love writing about is any period in history before Freud,” explains Johnson.

Prior to all the post-Freudian navel-gazing and self-awareness men like Norman did their best to suppress their sexuality. He finds his release in the physical man-on-man sport of wrestling and furtive couplings with strangers, eventually marrying and never admitting his true nature, even to his best friend.
It’s not a flag waving book,” admits Johnson. “Norman doesn’t come out and then live a glorious life as a homosexual. But then I think there are many people, even now, for whom sexuality is ambivalent and who settle at some point in their lives for the comfort of being married even though sexually what pushes their buttons is their own gender. I’ve always been a bit that way myself so writing Norman was easy.”

At the launch of Swimmer’ 'Rope fellow author Peter Wells, to whom the novel is dedicated, described it as: “a novel of incidental love, accidental love, the pity of love, the problems of denying love.’
“I was so touched by that because it is
,” says Johnson. “All of the characters do love one another. Norman even loves his poor wife who’s put up with him for all these years.”
But as well as being a love story, Swimmers Rope is also a mystery. The reader learns early on that Lyn and Norman have a secret shame that drives them apart for a while yet ultimately binds them for the rest of their lives.
“To me the book isn’t about homosexuality
,” says Johnson. “I was really trying to write a book about friendship and conscience – what can you forgive yourself for? I was writing about two people who are fundamentally good, who do a very bad thing and get away with it. How do they go on living? How do they deal with the way it will weigh on their conscience.
“There is this idea at large now that there’s no such thing as guilt and you can do something absolutely frightful and as long as you go and have therapy for it you will be absolved. But I don’t believe there is absolution for certain things. If you’ve done something then you have to live with it for the rest of your life

Johnson herself has led a full life. She began writing early, producing poems, plays and short stories and had a stint as an actress in Australia that included appearing with the late Michael Hutchence in a movie called Dogs in Space.
I was playing a lesbian in a pink boiler suit with my hair shaved off and I think my character whizzed off with his girlfriend. It was a terrible film.”
Perhaps part of the reason literature has been Johnson’s lasting passion is that she has had a lifelong disability. Periods of her younger years were spent immobile after surgeries on her feet and lower legs.
I’ll be grateful to my mother until the day I die,” she says. “When I was in hospital she’d bring me books and read to me. She instilled that in me as a child.”

At 47 Johnson still has a lot of pain and can’t walk long distances. She confides she likes to think that if it hadn’t have been for her disability she’d have been a professional tennis player. Instead she’s become one of our most inventive writers, a teacher of upcoming talents and a champion of our home-grown literature.
I love it,” she says. “I just love it.”

Nicky Pellegrino is a New Zealand novelist whose next novel - The Italian Wedding - will be published here by Hachette Livre in April 09

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