IN THE WEEKS before I flew to New Zealand, I was having a hard time explaining the reason for my trip, which had nothing to do with backpacking, surfing, hobbits, or sheep.
I was going to trace the life of one of my literary heroes, Janet Frame, who is perhaps New Zealand’s greatest writer. Her inspirational story was recounted first in her masterful autobiography, and then in the moving film adaptation An Angel at My Table by another extraordinary Kiwi artist, director Jane Campion.
One of five children in a deeply poor family in rural New Zealand, Janet Frame was a bright but extremely introverted young woman who was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic while in college during the 1940s. After enduring eight years in various mental asylums, during which she was treated with electroshock therapy, Frame was slated to receive a lobotomy when her debut book of stories won a major literary prize. Shortly thereafter, the lobotomy was canceled and Frame was released from the hospital and left to rebuild her life. She went on to become a world-renowned novelist who was twice shortlisted for the Nobel Prize.
What is it about Frame’s work and writing that strikes such a deep chord in her devoted admirers? In part that was what I was looking for when I flew to Auckland.
Back when I was 18, Frame’s Autobiography (and Campion’s film) gave me the courage to pursue writing as a career. In particular, I was inspired by Frame’s determination to express herself creatively through language, in spite of an environment that seemed at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile.
For several years, I worked diligently to fulfill my dream. And after graduating from a master’s program in creative writing, I had managed to sell two books of fiction of my own, as well as several bits of writing here and there. It was enough so that when people asked what I did for a living, I felt I could say “I’m a writer” without too much shame. Unless they then asked, “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?”
Lately, though, I’d been feeling that the vocation for which I’d been trained was disappearing. In the age of the iPad and the iPhone, it seemed as if the world had less time or care for prose, or what increasingly was becoming known as “content.” What was the point in telling stories if you were not a member of a select anointed few who gobbled up the last bits of media and crucial attention accorded fiction writers these days? Why work so hard to craft a sentence if no one would read it?
In short, I was seriously considering giving up, chucking aside everything I’d worked so hard to achieve.
But first, I had to travel to New Zealand and pay tribute to the remarkable woman who’d helped me start my literary journey.