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Interview with Jackie Ballantyne

Interview with NZ author Jackie Ballantyne...

What is a typical working day for you?

Nothing in my life feels typical to me, least of all my working days. My husband and I travel quite a bit and the structure of my days keeps changing. However, things of consequence, like writing, tend to happen in the morning before distractions undo my intentions.

That said, though, I’m a binge writer. When I’m on a roll I flow with it. I can walk around doing everyday tasks for days while below the surface of apparent normality an entire scene of mayhem is fermenting. And when it’s ready to blow I head for the keyboard and stay there.

Just for the record – I’m also a binge reader.

Whatever my day includes I always try to walk – lots of striding and stomping, up and down hills – “a woman on a mission”, the bus driver once said when he saw me. Little does he know what’s going on in my head as I smile and wave.

What are your three favourite books of all time? And why?

I’m a dictionary freak so they have to top the list. After that it gets hard. But here goes:

A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

I read this book in my teens and fell in love. I loved the story, the characters and the settings. It simmered away, distracting me, intriguing me, captivating me until I dropped out of university (Melbourne), hopped on a train - well, several trains - and headed for Alice Springs. There I tried to live the life of Jean Paget (Shute’s protagonist). I worked in a milk bar (dairy) in town and later moved out on to a cattle station as a governess. I was always on the lookout for the ringer, Joe Harman.

It was years before I returned to Melbourne and the entire experience was indelible. Wherever I have lived since, there has always been a copy of A Town Like Alice on my bookshelf.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles

One summer holiday I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It changed storytelling for me forever. Parallel stories, narratives with footnotes, multiple endings, unfinished threads – Fowles took me into new writing terrain that I wanted to explore.

Years later I found myself living in Fowles’ territory, a small village in England where, I was told, he wrote The Magus. It was there I began my writers’ life. I like to think there was a connection.

The Shipping News - Annie Proulx

Dialogue. That’s what I learned from The Shipping News. For me, Annie Proulx

makes her characters live through language. It’s the same with her stories. From the day I discovered her work I wanted to write dialogue like Annie Proulx.

In recent years I was fortunate to come face-to-face with her when she was on a book tour here in New Zealand. Like an unhinged teenage fan I gushed about her influence on my work, told her I wanted to be just like her. And Annie Proulx shook my hand, smiled and said: “Then keep on writing.”

Which author do you admire most? And why?

Now this question really is too hard. So here are some of my current favourites (not forgetting the three authors already mentioned above):

Donna Tartt, Vladimir Nabokov, Peter Carey, Janet Frame, Raymond Carver.

I admire them because they tell great tales. They also write well.

What tips would you give aspiring writers?

I wrote this recently for an article on the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. It’s what I say to any aspiring writer.

“Read widely and write. Make notes. Listen. Travel by public transport and eavesdrop. Sit in cafes and bars and tune in to the conversations going on around you. Listen for topics under discussion, voices, colloquialisms, inflections. Read the trash mags in waiting rooms. Read widely and write. Watch. Note what people wear – and wonder why? Note their oddness – and wonder how you can use it. Look at the ordinary world around you and find the extra-ordinary. Listen. Watch. Read widely and write.”

What’s your most memorable experience at a Literary Event?

There are two:

Some years ago I sat in on a session of Young Writers of Promise at the Melbourne Writers Festival. One of those young writers was our daughter Perrie who read a short story she had recently written as a student at university. Her demanding life in London does not allow much time for creative writing at the moment. But I’m sure she’ll get back to it in time.

About the same time our son William entered a short story in the Open section of a literary competition of note. He was 17 at the time. His story was short listed and on the night of presentation he was highly commended and encouraged to continue writing by the judge, John Marsden.

Any memorable moments I have had in my career are eclipsed by these two events.

If a movie was made of your life, what three songs would you want on the soundtrack?

Mythical Kings and Iguanas – Dory Previn


In 1971 I began work in advertising in Melbourne - fashion advertising. Throughout that decade I worked with people of style who went to Paris each year for ‘the runway shows’, who ate linguini in Italian bistrots and who talked about arthouse film directors like Herzog, Bogdanavich and Altman. They listened to cool music, too – Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. I tried to keep up, but at heart I was different. I preferred hearty family meals or pasta from the pizza shop around the corner. I listened to The Weavers, to Don McLean and Dory Previn. And I read books. I think I was probably a closet hippie.

The Dance – Garth Brooks


In 1991 we took our kids (then aged 16 and 12) on a road trip through the United States. Careening from one state to another like National Lampoons (Aussie style), we stayed in seedy, no-star motels, ate in dodgy diners and negotiated highways, freeways and parking lots that tested everyone’s patience. Through Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas we lurched from one incident to the next, from one coffee and donut to the next. Finally we made our way west through the Great Smoky Mountains and on to Tennessee. Nashville Tennessee - home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Now it wasn’t so much that we were fans of country music in particular, but there we were and there it was – The Opry, venerated institution, legend. “We might never pass this way again” one of us might have said, encouraging the kids to at least give it the thumbs up. They didn’t.

It was the last time we went as a family to a concert. The kids complained – they wanted Violent Femmes or Dead Kennedys. They got Garth Brooks. And much to their chagrin/embarrassment/mortification I bought the T shirt.

These words were printed on the back:

“my life is better left to chance I could have missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance”

I wore the T shirt until it fell apart.

You’re Innocent When You Dream - Tom Waits


The movie Smoke is one of our all time favourites. The story of Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel) and his corner tobacconist in Brooklyn is a gem.

‘The plot of this movie, like smoke itself, drifts and swirls ethereally. Characters and subplots are deftly woven into a tapestry of stories and pictures which only slowly emerges to our view.’http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114478/

Great stuff for a writer.

And then there’s the music. From the night I first saw Smoke and heard You’re Innocent When You Dream I went on a journey with Tom Waits. We’ve been travelling together ever since.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t forget to laugh. And never give in to fear. It’s such a waste of time and energy.


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