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Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Jean Louise Allen describes the Birth of a Writer

My childhood memories of books are dim.  
I’d like to say I was a child prodigy author but I that would be a lie; because when I went to school books and toys were both in short supply. The Second World War had got underway and we were supporting Mother England. The first book I remember stands out because it had stand-out scene pages about Cinderella - with words underneath. No, School journals were the mainstay for my generation.
My memories of sounds are clear. Prior to starting school I had been trained that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ and could not kick the habit. So, during my first 6 months of school I did not speak. I listened: to voices talking, singing, and joking; to voice timbre, quality resonance. Sounds became my telepathy. Sitting on the classroom mat cross-legged, arms folded, we 5 year olds chanted (c-at cat, m-at mat, d-og dog) our eyes following the Nun’s pointer along letters and to bedazzling illustrations on the glossy canvas chart. I loved it.    
During the Second World War my mother and my four older sisters would sit around the fire on winter evenings - knitting (often socks) for soldiers. One at a time they would lay down their knitting and take a turn to read aloud from the current book. I loved, those sounds, that loving family atmosphere.   
Later, in my Standard Classes writing didn’t feature greatly either. I especially detested the Essays about “What I did on my Holidays” for by then we lived in Auckland. Holidays were barren hours. Through those two years, living beside a road of car and tram noises my ability to enjoy the sounds deserted me.
However, during my 4th and 5th Form years at Secondary College I wrote, and illustrated by hand, a family magazine. I still have 3 copies of those stapled papers called, embarrassingly, We Us and Co. Most of the contributions were mine. Yet some submissions were sent in by a sister or brother-in-law. I know it kept me safely occupied as there had to be at least 5 copies made with each issue!
In my last year at College I won the Cup for English but was persuaded to accept the one-off English Essay Prize instead. That year being the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth Second, Secondary Schools here were given Elizabeth First Coins as prizes for English Essay, and -   “Yours, Jean, were bright spots in my hours of correcting,” Sister Mary Veronica informed me. I still have that 1953 prize, thin as a wafer, minted in 1574, still in its original little maroon box, lies ‘the romantic coin’, an Elizabeth 1st sixpence. My name is beautifully penned in tiny, cursive writing, in Indian ink by my teacher. I left school to become a student at Teachers Training College, Auckland.  
However, those years of Secondary College and Teacher Training gifted me the words of writers such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde, Lady Barker and Jane Mander. Kind teachers and Professors fostered my acting ability, coerced me onto the stage and into a whole new world. Sounds melded with words, blossomed and became books, poems and plays. I am so grateful to my teachers and although offered an acting scholarship, I continued with teaching.
The years of teaching, marriage, children and teaching again – flew fast. I did manage to have several magazine articles accepted during those childbearing/childrearing years. In the 1960s I wrote a children’s Reader and took photographs for Kathleen and Jongolly which went through Price Milburn and into schools for many years.   
At retirement I decided to give fiction a go and wrote a NZ Short Story - The Flatty. This story came from two sentences my father mentioned once or twice about flounder spearing. Both my parents had died in the 1980s so I consulted Dad’s old River charts to find a suitable setting. I had by then completed extramurally, through Massey University, Palmerston North, some papers in ‘NZ Women’s Studies’ and had a library of valuable books on the subject. As I wrote, long forgotten images of river excursions and summer river nights drifted up from my early years in an extraordinary, dreamlike manner. The characters, although based on my parents, took on a life of their own and the time is many years before my birth. 
I had heard of the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards and without a thought of winning, in 1993 sent that story to the Novice Section of the Awards - which I won. As well The Flatty was published in The NZ Listener. Robin Dudding, the then Editor, being so taken with my story, went so far as to visit and compliment me making sure I had support. Since then I have mostly written NZ Historical Fiction, 90% of which is set on the Northern Wairoa and Kaipara Rivers. I am becoming known as The River Writer.
In 2008 I published Bitty by the River; a novella sized book of ten short stories. Two of these, The Flatty and Fancy Work were also accepted by Radio NZ and read over that station just after I had done a tour of the North with Bitty by the River.
I kept on writing and in 2012 brought out my first novel River River Raupo Rye. This historical fiction book features Iona. It is set from 1900 to 1932 and features Iona’s courageous life amid such events as World War 1, the1918 Influenza Epidemic, the ascendency of the motor car and Economic Depressions.
I am currently half way through River at War, about Miriam, which opens on New Year’s Eve mid-1930s. My book, Women of the Old River or (Called to Courage) also keeps me busy. It is 10, maybe 12, long, short stories set from 1840 to 1950 and is nearing its final edit. At the same time I am working on my story in conjunction with my family history. Doing this alongside my fiction keeps me in centred on both the facts of my life and the fiction of my own creation.
This is Jean L Allen hoping you are enjoying your reading or writing, today.

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