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Author QandA Crazy Love - Rosetta Allan

Q&A with Rosetta Allan

READ CLOSE: Crazy Love is your third novel – tell us about how you and your writing have changed or stayed the same in that time, and if/how this novel differs from your first.

ROSETTA ALLAN: My first novel, Purgatory, was published seven years ago. The second, The Unreliable People, was two years ago. Both were stories drawn from historical events and characters, and required vast amounts of research, which I love, and can easily get lost in. Crazy Love, by contrast, is the first time I have drawn from my own experience to create a story. For me, that’s a significant change. I think I have become a braver writer because of it. I remember Witi Ihimaera in a ’97 documentary talking about the Katherine Mansfield ‘Risk! Risk anything!’ quote as an inspiration to write his book Nights in the Garden of Spain — his first book with a gay theme. At the time, he said he wondered what he had done, but looking back two years later, he was proud of it. That’s the power of personal truth finding its way onto
the page.

The blurb mentions this is based on your own experiences. Is this auto-fiction, or simply memories reworked into fiction?

I enjoy good autofiction. I Love Dick, and The Bell Jar, are favourites. I admire the way these authors investigate themselves through their work. Crazy Love does not sit inside this category because I am analysing more than one character in the story. Yes, it is based on my own life, but I’m also exploring things external to myself in it, such as the endurance of love, the anguish of living with a partner with a mental disorder, the nature of New Zealand over the past 40 years, and the concept of home and belonging. Memories in this novel are not so much reworked, as written in a fictional style. Crazy Love was written as fiction, which was how I managed to expose so much personal detail. It’s like puppetry — the real ‘us’ safely tucked away inside the characters of Vicki and Billy. They enabled me to distance myself enough to write honestly and objectively.

At its heart, Crazy Love is romance, a great love story, that features letters to Muldoon. How do you see the political informing the personal in your work and in society?

Political decisions always have consequences that affect personal lives. That’s just the way it is. So many dramatic changes occurred locally and globally during the 40 years of the novel that directly affected our lives. Some, more indirectly, but experienced, nonetheless, such as the Dawn Raids. In ’84, this racism was a real threat to people we knew who lived in the shadows trying not to be subjected to the early morning police raids, to not be one of the families dragged out of their homes and deported. Then, in 2010, we cleared out the little house before renovating it to move in and found partitioning walls and fake floors under the house and in the ceiling. In neither place could you stand up. There was no power, no insulation against the cold, or heat in summer that beat down from the corrugated roof. Yet there was this labyrinth of tiny rooms, still scattered with personal items that had been left that way since a sudden decamp. Clearly, our earlier occupants were subject to these raids, and I felt so bad for them. So it was heartening to see in this week’s news that a governmental apology was offered in a historic Auckland Town Hall event for the racist Crown policies of the ‘70s and ‘80s. And that the apology was accepted.

What’s the best writing advice you have ever received?

Ricks Terstappen, a Hawkes Bay artist and dear friend, told me once just to keep doing it. ‘If you keep doing it long enough, things will happen.’ I have often thought about his advice over the years and realised it’s a form of putting one foot in front of another and not being anxious about the speed of progress. As long as you’re still doing the work, you are heading in the right direction.

I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like Crazy Love to be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation for your novel?

I adored Craig Silvey’s Honeybee. Even though the story is entirely different to Crazy Love, the book starts with a bridge and thoughts of suicide. I was delighted to see this similarity to the start of my novel when I came across the book recently. But more importantly, the two main characters save each other through the years. And that’s what loves does, no matter the form it takes. Billy and Vicki do that for each other and continue to do so. Tom Sainsbury’s New Zealanders is a compilation of favourite kiwi characters that make you laugh with recognition. I can’t help likening it to the hyphenated names I give my characters that describe them in a few words, at least how I perceive them, like dork-the-landlord’s ditched wife, or sick-but-sweet dollybird, or sledgehammer hoon. There is a definite thread of humour that runs through the novel. David Vann’s Halibut on the Moon is an exploration of a man held captive by mental illness. The torture of the mind is beautifully expressed, the searching, the desperation. Crazy Love offers more hope in the end, I think, but the journey of self-evaluation while trying to rationalise a situation that is not rational in any way — feels the same. There is a progression of ways that couples manage mental illness, from Bronte’s Jane Eyre to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (her answer to Bronte) to Crazy Love. In other words, there’s a long tradition of mental illness in fiction, but social attitudes have changed so that it works very differently as a theme. None of these earlier books are particularly similar to Crazy Love, so it is a conversation of very disparate approaches to a theme.

What are you reading right now? What is on your TBR pile?

I just finished Sarah Winman’s Still Life. It’s a book Carole from The Women’s Bookshop hugged as she recommended it to me, and I’m glad I took her advice because it now sits on my favourite’s shelf. Airini Beautrais Bug Week and Tayi Tibble’s Rangikura were both recent reads that inspired me. Incredible writers they both are. Finally, on the top of my TBR pile is Sue Orr’s Loop Tracks. I’ve been waiting for this, and I can’t wait to open the cover.

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Book Reviews Crazy Love - Rosetta Allan

Book Review: Crazy Love by Rosetta Allan

Published by Penguin Random House, NZ RRP $36.00

Auckland based writer Rosetta Allan has mined her past for her third novel, Crazy Love. It’s a punk love story set against the political backdrop of economic policies that keep us down and out, a brutally dark novel about poverty, second chances, and mental illness. Written in language dripping with violent desire and undercut with a savage humour, it’s Allan’s own life redrawn as fiction.

Structured into three parts, ‘Before’, ‘During’, and ‘After,’ the novel follows Vicki’s attempt to reinvent herself. First, a quick prologue gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead. Reader, it’s grim. Written in the third person, from Billy’s point of view, it sets you up for something a little different from what we end up navigating. After this short sharp reveal of his perspective, the novel shifts to Vicki’s recollections in her diary.

In the Before, Vicki yearns for a better life. Only she’s stuck with Loser Boyfriend in Napier, living in Dire Straits, the Commercial Building, with a rag-tag bunch of misfits struggling to get by week to week. The characters in this section are bright and distinct, and I would’ve liked to read more of that time. But Vicki doesn’t want to stay there, stagnant in gritty poverty. She tries to escape a few times, but she’s stymied by abortion and illness. Until she meets Billy Cooper, and the escape route suddenly appears.

Billy’s charismatic and intelligent, brilliant and offbeat. Vicki writes him poetry on scraps of posters. They share a particular aesthetic sensibility, and the attraction brings them together despite the consequences. After a series of mishaps, bar fights and robberies, they take their chance and leave Napier for Auckland.

Soon they’re pregnant and getting married. The novel skips then, from the early 1980’s to 2012, for the During. Vicki and Billy have experienced huge success – a mansion by the sea filled with art by celebrated New Zealand artists – and then it all fell apart in the global financial crisis. They’re forced to sell the mansion, and buy a tiny house in Kingsland, mortgaged up to their ears. And Billy’s not good: he takes to living in the garden, stealing road signs, spray painting John Key’s Kumeu office demanding the IRD pay back the 1.2 million they owe him. His increasingly erratic behaviour isolates Vicki from many friends, and it’s here the real themes of the novel come into play.

Vicki loves Billy. Their love has plenty of passion, but it’s full of lies and deceits, omissions and deliberate distractions. When Vicki’s pregnant and waiting for their wedding day, she discovers Billy Cooper isn’t his real name. Later, Vicki lies to Billy, luring him into a false sense of loyalty, pretending she buys into his plan of suicide so he feels supported. She doesn’t feel like she can tell him the truth, even when she wants to convince him not to do it. She remains silent, because ‘so much could be undone if more were said…Love is endurance. Love lies, too.’

Is love endurance, though? And what exactly should it endure?

Should it endure manipulation? And is manipulation okay, if it’s due to someone having a mental illness? Should it endure threats and insults? Should it endure domineering, controlling behaviour?

At a dinner party, a friend suggests Vicki’s co-dependent, that she can’t live without Billy. Vicki defends her love as interdependence, as mutual support. That they both give the other what they need to thrive and survive, in safety and with love. There is a lot of submissive behaviour, though: Billy chooses Vicki’s clothes, he determines when and how she works, and when she gets a job without his knowledge, she hides it from him. When Vicki wants to piss him off, she considers buying a pair of black Levi’s, because she knows he doesn’t like them. She details the things she gave up for him, but they are all material: leather, mini-skirts, jandals. She never calculates the other things she gave up for him, the intangibles, though it becomes clear Vicki would give up anything and everything for her love. It’s admirable and romantic, in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way. Vicki would die for Billy. It’s romantic love to the extreme. How many of us have loved in this way? Should we love this way?

Some of it’s difficult to read. At one point, he rails that she’s not more proactive, more aggressive. Then, he’s telling her that the thing he loves the most about her is that she is ‘so compliant.’ He loves that she is his ‘little sheep.’ He threatens to leave her many times, and yells at her, ‘There are plenty of women who would show me the respect I deserve.’ You want Vicki to leave him, to not endure anymore. And then, every time, Allan rescues you from the darkness with acidic humour that cuts through even the most morbid of circumstances. When Billy talks Vicki through his plan to hang himself from the avocado tree, taping his mouth shut so his false teeth wouldn’t fall out, she says, ‘ ‘Well, fuck…How would I ever enjoy making guacamole again?’ ‘

We don’t want to give up on our loved ones, ever, especially those who are suffering from mental illness. But how much should love endure? Other people would’ve buckled under the pressure of Billy’s sadistic outbursts a lot earlier, and he would’ve been on his own, with no one to help. Her love saves him, and in the act of loving him, she opens herself up to an understanding of love that many of us would shy away from.

Vicki’s experience seems to blame the system. She can’t get the compassionate help and care for Billy that he needs. The healthcare system in New Zealand, driven by political agendas, is always in desperate need of more funding, and it lets Billy and Vicki down again and again. Their story would be different if Vicki could’ve accessed help for Billy easily, in a way that wasn’t as brutal and extreme as an armed offender call out.

Crazy Love is about music, fashion, wealth, poverty, love, and betrayal. It’s about true commitment – through thick and thin. Allan writes with a rough-edged lyricism, her prose pointed like a knife, ready to pierce when necessary, and at other times angled just so: and you slip away from the edge, into deep reflection about how much you would, or should, endure for the ones you say you love.