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‘Write from your own vulnerability’: Elspeth Sandys on obsessive love

Auckland writer Elspeth Sandys has published a new novel, and one of the themes is obsessive love. Please, we asked her, tell us the real-life story behind that…

Being asked to write about one of your own novels is rather like being asked to take your clothes off in public. Because you know what you’re being asked to do is not to talk about the structure, or how many drafts you wrote (in the case of my novel Obsession it’s in double figures), or how long it took you to arrive at a version you were willing to let out of your hands (about 15 years!), you’re being asked to expose yourself. To get naked. To strip away the clothing of fiction and reveal the skin and bone and sinew of a lived life.

“Write from your vulnerability” I was advised early on in my career. I took the advice to heart. With sometimes painful consequences. But I have not changed my belief that the best writing is done from that damaged and bleeding place where life in all its violence and beauty is laid bare.

So what am I going to say about Obsession? Yes of course there are echoes of my own life in the story, including aspects of my marriage to Maurice Shadbolt.

Maurice Shadbolt (Alexander Turnbull Library, Alastair Grant Collection, Reference: PAColl-8110)

But they are echoes, not re-tellings. What really matters is what comes from the imagination, whether it be the transformation of lived experience, or the invention of something entirely new. When the public events – the Springbok Tour; the birth of Rogernomics – described in this novel took place I was living in England. I wanted to know what I might have done had I been living here.

The politics are necessary because they influence the lives of my characters. All my three main characters are writers. There’s a poet, a novelist, and an all-purpose writer who tries her hand at children’s writing, plays and novels. Politics is not what obsesses my characters, but it is the vehicle chosen, by one character in particular, to express the tangle of anger and idealism, lust and love, ambition and need that drives him to act as he does.

The narrator of my story is a poet of Dalmatian origin whose particular obsession is with the couple who are his friends. Thinking about it now I realise that the inspiration (if I can use such a show-offy word) for this character was Turgenev in Robert Dessaix’s wonderful tale Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. The Turgenev of Dessaix’s story is a man hopelessly in love with the married diva, Pauline Viardot. He follows her around Europe, attending all her concerts, forever devoted, forever shut out from the intimacy he craves but also knows – he is an artist too – would probably destroy him.

I had no idea when I was writing this novel, over many years and many drafts, that Dessaix’s Turgenev was the seed that planted in my mind the idea of the passionately involved outsider, but having been asked to write this piece I begin to see things that were (thankfully) hidden from me while the story was still half-baked.

Of course not all outsiders are obsessed. In my novel the poet starts out as merely intrigued. There’s a hint of sexual attraction but that’s all it is, a hint. But since nothing ever stays the same, it’s inevitable that the nature of his involvement will change. What was initially a mildly prurient interest becomes, with the passage of time, “obsessive”.

The dictionary defines obsession as “the state of being obsessed with someone or something”. So the poet is obsessed with his friends’ marriage; the wife is obsessed with her husband; the husband is obsessed with his island home, and the stories he writes about the country he loves. Three strands of a single theme.

As I write this I’m struggling to find the words to explain my interest in obsessive relationships. The implication is that such cloying involvements, whether with “someone” or “something”, are not healthy. I only have to think of the film, Elvira Madigan, which ended in a double suicide – surely enough to put anyone off the desire to love and be loved obsessively – to be convinced that obsession can be deadly. And yet, and yet… Within the claustrophobic boundaries of obsessive love you can find meaning, purpose, an answer to every difficult thing the world throws at you. Above all you can find safety, or rather the illusion of it, since that very safety can lead to violent death.

So why did I agree to write this piece? Was it vanity? I hope not, but I have to acknowledge the element of self-promotion behind these words. It’s what writers are expected to do these days.

The paradox is that writers are essentially private people. They tend not to talk about their work. Like spies they operate in secret. Only when their work is published (or performed) do the blinkers come off. So having to promote your work is a bit like swimming against the current: instinct warns you not to do it.

Perhaps I would not be writing this at all were it not for a conversation Maurice and I had with Doris Lessing during her visit to New Zealand in the 1990s. It was clear to us that she was hating every moment of her public exposure, forced to answer often inane questions from eager fans. “Why do you do it?” I asked her. “You’re Doris Lessing. You’re world famous.”

She fixed me with one of her intimidating stares and answered, “It’s in my contract.”

I hope people who read Obsession enjoy it. If it’s not a good story well told then it’s worthless. And where it came from, its origins in literature and in life, will be of no account.


Obsession by Elspeth Sandys (Upstart Press, $34.99) is published tomorrow, and will be available at Unity Books.

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