Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Silence has found a voice

Janet chats with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Arts, Culture & Heritage, 2003

Janet Frame's supposed 'silence' for her last 15 years of life isn't really surprising, once you realise she was already 65 years old when in 1989 she published the last of over 20 titles released in her lifetime.

65 is generally regarded in NZ as an appropriate retirement age. Unlike many authors who earn their living doing other jobs, and look forward to their retirement so that they can concentrate on their writing at last, Janet Frame had achieved her ambition of living as a full time writer. Her publishing career had been very prolific.

From her mid-60s onward, she had increasingly bad health, successfully battling cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. But despite poor physical health she was blessed with extraordinary stamina, and she was kept very busy administering her extensive oeuvre, including overseeing new editions, translations, permissions and adaptations, and engaging in publicity both for her own work and for the King and Campion projects. She gave many years of effort to cooperate with her biographer, and also consulted on film-maker Jane Campion's fictionalised version of her life.
Janet meets the three fictional Janets on the film set

The 2 books on Frame produced by King, and the Campion movie, including the publication of the film script, all depended on Janet Frame's intensive input, and can hardly be called an indication of 'silence' on her part. Her collaborations required much time, interaction, and generosity in providing published and unpublished material for the biographer to quote, and in consulting on and approving the film adaptation of her autobiography.

But even if one subscribes to the point of view that Frame's full and active retirement could have been described as 'silent', then she is making up for her own publishing hiatus now!

In the less than 5 years since her death her Estate has released a posthumous collection of poems, a novel, and two magnificent formerly unpublished stories. Janet Frame herself set up the conditions for this return to publishing.

Janet Frame had always found the publication process unpleasant; she didn't like being the centre of attention and she didn't like being distracted from her writing. She had been especially disillusioned about further publication by the initial mixed reception to her last novel The Carpathians. An unpleasant audit by the tax department had also left her feeling alienated.

She did several times over those 15 years seem to be close to supplying a new title - but always pulled back. It was no secret that she had a store of unpublished work, and that she was also still writing. By this stage she didn't want to revisit the older manuscripts - they could wait till after her death. She was being pressured to produce the much more saleable prose work, but she preferred to work on her poetry. This clash between the work she wanted to publish and the the more marketable work her publishers wanted, may also have contributed to a stalemate that meant nothing more was published saved a few individual poems.

In any case, she didn't have to publish any more, to survive - she didn't need the money, and she didn't welcome the sometimes hostile reviews her work attracted, especially in her home country, and especially when there was non-local content.

She liked the thought of posthumous work appearing; the life beyond the grave seemed to her to be a fitting continuation of the career of a serious writer.

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