Interview with Annaleese Jochems

Baby is described as a psychological thriller – are you a thriller fan? There’s something of Daphne du Maurier updated about it – complex women behaving badly...

Yes, absolutely! I love the frankness of genre, paticularly of thrillers. I appreciate art that’s forthright about the way it wants to make me feel. Stoker, my favorite movie, is about a girl getting stalked by her sexy uncle, and Basic Instinct, my other favorite, is about a very sexy lady novelist who kills men with ice picks. I think often fictionalists are too coy and clever to deliver the sort of fun I’m after, and it’s a shame.

Du Maurier I really must read! I worked for a while at a retirement home and one of the ladies there was adamant that I must get on her, and I still need to. Other writers I need to read more of are Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.

You wrote Baby during your Masters year at the IIML – how did the process of the workshop help the novel come to fruition?

Well, Baby was set to be a bit of a shitter, actually. But the workshops were ridiculously helpful. My classmates asked me difficult questions like, where is the love in this? Why is it so cold? Why is it so condescending towards Cynthia? I took it all very personally and got very upset – it was personal, actually – but I was forced to think really hard about it all; about my relationship with Cynthia, which really means I had to think about my relationship with myself, and my generation, other women, and race.

I understand that some people can write fabulous books without any help from anybody, but I don’t see why they’d put themselves through that.

The main character Cynthia is a complicated mixture of immature naivety and solipsistic cunning – a completely beguiling character, (although I’m pleased she’s fictitious!) Did the novel start with Cynthia? How did you go about developing her character?

Solipsistic cunning is lovely! It didn’t start with Cynthia at all. I started with a sense of social geometry, game theory and such. In the beginning the characters were just devices for me. Or, that’s not entirely true, I was doing weights classes in 2015 and having a lot of feelings – it started with those feelings. With lust and pent-upness. She’s not as fictitious as you might hope.

To continue what I was saying in the question above, I think the book started before Cynthia, but it was pointless until she arrived in her fullness; till she arrived as someone I identified with. In early drafts I’d been hiding behind a sort of authorialness. While I was writing at that stage I imagined it with the ceiling sliced off, and me looking down and in, from a superior vantage point where I’d have equal vision of every room. But it was quite boring. I think you could sense from the prose that I didn’t believe the story. There was no personal risk. I was trying to impress my class, I think. But, no, they were unconvinced, and what they helped me figure out was that I needed to have a vested interest in the story and be open about it. I owed that respect to Cynthia and to the reader. In each draft after my first workshop I got closer to loving Cynthia, and finally I did. It was very good for me in my relationship with myself.

The other thing to say about Cynthia is that she’s without a moral compass, yet the book has one – the reader understands how and where Cynthia crosses a moral line. How did you negotiate this line between the character of Cynthia and the book?

Gosh! That’s a difficult question. I think Cynthia does have a moral compass, but I think she’s like anyone, she doles her empathy out in different measures to different people, depending on her position in relation to them. She has values, but I think she’s very extreme in her way of valuing some things over others – which I think is what it means to be a romantic figure. In the book she comes to feel that extreme action is required, and she’s willing to take it. Then she enjoys taking it.

The line between Cynthia and the book definitely exists, however! Cynthia’s moral logic contorts to fit her situation, but I think the reader’s can only be stretched so far. Sometimes it was necessary to make other characters available for the reader to identify with while still telling the story from Cynthia’s perspective. In some parts it’s a little like when someone’s telling you a funny story about how someone said something stupid to them, and they said something clever back – sometimes you think the person you’re talking to happens to be the one who said the stupid thing. I needed to loosen things for the reader sometimes, so they’d be free to acknowledge when Cynthia was being silly or hideous.

There’s this delicately balanced humour/horror in the book – was this hard work to achieve?

Nope. This was one easy thing! I suppose it was like, I’m telling you a story, and so I’m imagining your face in front of me and your body either wincing or laughing. You can only hold a wince so long, or laugh for so long, but what I need to maintain is your feeling of vigor, so I have to switch between them. I don’t want to disgust you too much or have you dismiss me as a total moron, so it’s natural for me to tease you for wincing, or to punish you for laughing at me.

Can you talk about the role reality TV plays in the book? Why you chose to include it?

I adore reality TV, that’s the essential reason. But it did become crucial structurally. For me the joy of reality TV is watching myself watch other people. I wanted you to watch Cynthia watching reality TV because I like the way that knots you in with her, you’re complicit. I like books that make readers choose between hypocrisy and daring. Part of the point of reading for me is to be forced to make admissions. Anyone who watches reality TV is complicit with absolute heinousness, unless you’re into cooking shows or the block or something, but what’s the point in that? The point is heinousness!

Where did you grow up? When did you think you’d like to become a writer, and why?

I grew up on a farm in Northland, between Kawakawa and Kaikohe. I decided I wanted to become a writer when I was about fourteen, because I was solitary and melancholic and I wanted those things to mean something. They didn’t, it didn’t help. I didn’t enjoy writing at all, really, till I was about seventeen, or maybe sixteen, and I found some poetry journals online. Sixth Finch was my favorite. Life’s been a treat ever since, really.

You’ve done a lot of creative writing courses – can you tell us what the greatest value has been in doing these towards helping you reach publication?

It’s very good to have a bunch of people around to ask you that one extra question when you think you’ve got everything figured out. I have to thank Anne Kennedy, Sue Orr, Eleanor Catton, Emily Perkins, and Pip Adam for doing that, and then for doing it again and again. My classmates last year were amazing. For me it’s about having people I can ask for help with my work and people whose work I can get involved in when my own is under-stimulated.

I had an excellent English teacher (Ms Evans!), and one of my mum’s friends read all my poems when I was a teenager and wrote me feedback for every single one of them (Jill!). My mum herself is superb. I’ve been immensely lucky.

Baby by Annaleese Jochems is released on Thursday 14 September. p/b, $40.