BooksJanuary 11, 2016

Summer Reissue: How to Write a Book with Your Husband and not Want to Kill the Sonofabitch


Wellington author Linda Burgess gaily set out to write a book about churches with her husband, former All Black Bob Burgess. Would their marriage survive?

‘Oh how lovely,’ people said. Even people who knew us. ‘How lovely, to do a book together.’

We’ve done it twice now. In 2007 Random House published my book on historic houses. Notice the proprietorial ‘my’. I remember the house book as fun. He had a day job. At weekends, during holidays, we would take off around the country, looking, in memory’s movie, like one of those couples who advertise funeral insurance.

We laughed a lot – showing teeth exceptionally white for our age – wore natural fibres, listened to talking books in the car, I chatted to strangers, he clicked away with his camera, we went home, I wrote it up. And he, as dawn broke, went off to work.

It sold well. Random were keen for us to do another one: churches this time. I took some convincing. And by this time he’d retired. He had moved into my territory.

In my territory there was just one computer. If you spend more than a month discussing getting a second one it’s already too late. And anyway, there was the ipad, best known for not being a real computer when you most need it to be. Early in the morning, when essential things called – checking my email, reading the Guardian, playing solitaire, typing numbers into Sudoku Solver – he’d have left the marital bed, unplugged my laptop from its charger, and be a shadowy shape in the next room filling in spreadsheets.

Sometimes – the cheek of it – he’d be researching. For a man who can’t remember what I told him five minutes ago he has an infuriatingly excellent memory for who belongs to which iwi, which church is in which town, and which town is in which part of which island. He uses phrases like ‘the western side of town’ as if normal people have a clue what that actually means.

When I reclaimed the computer he drew maps by hand. It always pissed him off that we didn’t have a map in the house book and he was damned if he was going to let them get away with that this time. At least if he was drawing maps he couldn’t ring people up. You can’t shut me up at a dinner party but he’s the one unfazed by ringing up total strangers to impose on them. I go into a funk at the thought of it. I could hear him charming them. ‘3 o’clock Thursday?’, I could hear him saying. ‘Thank you! That is so kind of you!’

‘How many is that then?’ I’d snarl.

Brought up in a decent Presbyterian household, one in which you never take a smear of butter without first asking if anyone else would like some, he likes to help. Brought up in a noisier, argumentative household where laughter was a given, I have to remind myself that not everyone who needs butter has the gumption to just reach for it. In this way we are chronically mismatched. Two major problems were emerging: sometimes I needed help and was grateful that he offered it. Yet help offered when I don’t need it stirs up an almost feral response in me.

On top of this, he was in my world and I wasn’t sure I wanted him to be. In the night, seething beside him while he slept the good sleep of the kind and unbothered, I listed the things he’d done that I hadn’t wanted him to do. Anything to do with the bookish side of the book, was mine. I was the writer, the reader. How dare he not know the boundaries? One minute I’d be reminding him of this, and the next, in a spineless fashion, I’d be asking him the name of some Methodist missionary or Maori seer.

He expected me to have his stamina, without understanding how exhausting human contact can be, especially for someone used to working at home. While I didn’t want him to do my job, I wanted him to understand what my part entailed. If he was happy to make contact with people, great, but I didn’t want him to get carried away. I did not want him to arrange to see more than two or at the most three churches in one day. As we pulled up at the fourth church, I’d be wanting to knife him for omitting to tell me what he’d actually organised. We’d get out of the car, one of us genuinely affable, the other smiling the smile of the utter hypocrite. I could feel myself morphing into the Vicar of Dibley.

For the next hour, while he was off in the distance checking that the light was shining on the copper steeple, or that the wild horse wandered past on cue, I was becoming a total stranger’s new best friend.

You never know what people are like till you start talking. Most people I met were fabulous, the sort of people who, when you live in a city, you can forget actually exist. They love their church, their community. They’re generous with their time and information and best of all they are intelligent, insightful, interesting. After an hour or so in their company, I was wanting to spend Christmas with them. Why am I not the sort of person that they are, decent to their bones, doing the flowers, weeding the graves, tirelessly caring for increasingly decrepit buildings?

St Gabriels church, Pawarenga, Northland. The graveyard includes a headstone remembering a loved father and grandfather – aged 32 years.

I learnt over the months that the ones to avoid were not the locals but the experts; the academic types. Fool, their faces would say as I asked them questions that they clearly found not only appallingly trivial but idiotic in the extreme. My revenge in such circumstances was as petty as the best revenge often is: I told them their church was going to be in a coffee table book.

Meanwhile we were constant companions: we slept and ate together, went to movies together, and we worked together. While I couldn’t bear his attempts to manage me, my cavalier attitude was clearly driving him nuts. In a rare retaliatory moment he pointed out that it was no wonder I hadn’t had a proper job for 20 years: I was unemployable.

‘How many churches have you written up?’ he asked, so pettily, and I learned to lie. If I’d said 15 last time, well, by now 23 sounded about right. The thing was, I’d sort of frozen. The deadline which was once well beyond the horizon was moving towards me like the comet in that repugnant movie Melancholia. I had the notes, but I had to start the actual writing. I did the unthinkable. I sat down, making a list of all the churches. It was not his way of making a list; shouldn’t I put them in order? It had not a hint of the geographical. But it was my own list: it did not match his spreadsheet. I wrote DONE beside those that had been. It was pathetically few; barely in double digits. And I’d signed a contract saying there’d be at least 50. I put the finished ones at the top – if that meant St Luke’s in Little Akaloa sits next Christ Church in Russell then so be it.

Your organisation,’ I said, getting in first, ‘disempowers me.’

‘Have I ever missed a deadline?’ I say next time he asks me that annoying question ‘How many..?’

‘Go back to your spreadsheets,’ I say, witheringly. ‘Most of my work is done in my head,’ I add, because that’s impossible to contradict. Good, I think when he goes off to tennis with his fit old codger friends. To his free Wednesday lunchtime concert. I can read my book, I think. Go for coffee with a friend. I can watch Escape to the Country. Or…I can write up a church. Annoyingly, I’m almost starting to enjoy it.

We learned something about working as – shudder – ‘a team’. I’ve always known I can be difficult. He’s learnt that for all his goodness and decency, in his own micro-managing way, he’s bloody difficult too. Surely he’s learnt this: I never stopped pointing it out.

Keep going!