Zoë (Ann) Fairbairns Biography
Zoë Fairbairns comments:
Nationality: British. Born: Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1948. Education: St. Catherine's School, Twickenham, Middlesex, 1954-67; University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland, 1967-72, M.A. in modern history 1972; College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1969-70. Career: Editor, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament newspaper Sanity, London, 1973-74; freelance journalist, 1975-82; poetry editor, Spare Rib, London, 1978-82; fiction reviewer, Everywoman, London, 1990-93. Since 1993 subtitler, Independent Television Facilities Centre, West London. C. Day Lewis Fellow, Rutherford School, London, 1977-78; creative writing tutor, City Literary Institute, 1978-82, Holloway Prison, 1978-82, Wandsworth Prison, 1987, Silver Moon Women's Bookshop, 1987 and 1989, and Morley College, 1988 and 1989, all London; writer-in-residence, Bromley schools, Kent, from 1981, and Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, 1983, Sunderland Polytechnic, Tyne and Wear, 1983-85, and Surrey County Council, 1989. Awards: Fawcett prize, 1985; British Council travel grant 1990. Lives in London. Agent: A.M. Heath, 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA, England.
Live as Family. London, Macmillan, 1968.
Down: An Explanation. London, Macmillan, 1969.
Benefits. London, Virago Press, 1979; New York, Avon, 1982.
Stand We at Last. London, Virago Press, and Boston, HoughtonMifflin, 1983.
Here Today. London, Methuen, and New York, Avon, 1984.
Closing. London, Methuen, 1987; New York, Dutton, 1988.
Daddy's Girls. London, Methuen, 1991.
Other Names. London and New York, Penguin, 1998.
Tales I Tell My Mother, with others. London, Journeyman Press, 1978; Boston, South End Press, 1980.
More Tales I Tell My Mother, with others. London, JourneymanPress, 1987.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Relics," in Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind, edited by Jen Green and Sarah Lefanu. London, Women's Press, 1985.
"Spies for Peace: A Story of 1963," in Voices from Arts for Labour, edited by Nicki Jackowska. London, Pluto Press, 1985.
"Covetousness," in The 7 Deadly Sins, edited by Alison Fell. London, Serpent's Tail, 1989.
"By the Light of the Silvery Moon," in By the Light of the Silvery Moon, edited by Ruth Petrie. London, Virago, 1994.
Details of Wife (produced Richmond, Surrey, 1973).
Study War No More. London, CND, 1974.
No Place to Grow Up, with Jim Wintour. London, Shelter, 1977.
Peace Moves: Nuclear Protest in the 1980s, with James Cameron, photographs by Ed Barber. London, Chatto and Windus, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, Merrimack, 1984.
Editor, Women's Studies in the UK, compiled by Oonagh Hartnett andMargherita Rendel. London, London Seminars, 1975.
I don't want to comment on my own work, but I'm always pleased and interested to receive comments from readers. (How will I know who you are or what you think, if you don't tell me?) Write to me c/o my agent—I will do my best to reply.
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Zoë Fairbairns is, deservedly, one of the most popular feminist fiction writers working in Britain. Her pacey novels are very much a part of mainstream fiction, making their appeal much broader than that of many more overtly polemical books. At first glance her work seems straight genre fiction; science fiction in Benefits; the multi-generational family saga in Stand We at Last; the crime thriller in Here Today. However, what Fairbairns does is to take each genre and transform it for her own use.
The main theme underlying each of these works is the gradual, irresistible raising of feminist consciousness. Other themes are the complexity of relationships between the sexes; loneliness; the powerlessness of need; and the ever-changing yet somehow constant problems faced by women, whether they be women of the future, the past, or today. Fairbairns approaches all her characters with realism, sympathy, and a great deal of wit. Though her male characters tend to be lightly sketched, her women make up for this lack of depth; they are humorous, deep-thinking, and self-critical; and whenever a character seems to be slipping close to social stereotype, the author quickly steps in with a touch of irony.
Take, for example, the two main characters in Here Today. On the one hand there is Catherine, a 30-year-old virgin, feminist, and teacher who, having been made redundant, finds herself thrown into the world of temporary office employment. Shocked by the exploitation of her fellow temps by the employers and job agencies, she sets about undermining the temping system. On the other hand there is fashion-conscious Antonia, one-time self-satisfied "Temp of the Year," who is shaken out of her complacency both by the advent of word-processing which threatens her livelihood and by a bad case of genital herpes which brings about the end of her marriage. Drawn together in an uneasy alliance through their loneliness and their common need to earn a living, the two women embark on an adventurous road to self-fulfillment, fraught with contrasts between the traditional middle-and working-class attitudes to love and work.
The concept of romantic love, though not a central theme, plays a part in Fairbairns's novels. Men tend to be either saints or sinners—and, surprisingly, the saints predominate. In Here Today, Catherine forms a close relationship with Frank, a union leader who's extremely sympathetic to the women's movement. In Benefits, in many ways the most pessimistic of her books, we are presented with the enlightened, too-good-to-be-true Derek, who bends over backwards not to oppress his journalist wife, Lynn. However, the cold dictates of a superbureaucracy intent on controlling the reproductive rights of its women drives Lynn away from "the women's pages of the Guardian " towards a more radical feminism epitomized by Collindeane Tower, an abandoned block of council flats which has become home to a leaderless feminist community. As Lynn struggles with mixed feelings about her marriage and her own fertility, the women of Collindeane form ranks against Family, a political party dedicated to restoring so-called "family values" by methods of giving or holding back government benefits to those women who do or do not reproduce. The novel takes us from the late 1970s through to a twenty-first century where family planning has become government planning and the fabric of a once-prosperous society is, like Collindeane, crumbling away. Though Benefits is a science-fiction novel, the futuristic views of post-industrial Britain depicted in it are, at times, too close to aspects of then-present reality to be comfortable. Poverty and decay are rife in all aspects of society; the Family Party eventually brings about its own destruction; and leaderless feminism seems to lead nowhere. The result is a powerful, chilling, somewhat depressing book.
Despite her preoccupation with the present lot of women, Fairbairns seems more at home when writing about the future or the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in Stand We at Last, perhaps the most ambitious of her novels. In her own words "a family saga with a feminist background," it traces the lives of a succession of women, starting in 1855 with the adventurous Sarah who emigrates to Australia hoping to make her fortune as a farmer, and ending with Jackie, a single parent living on a hippie commune in 1970s England. As in her other books, the writer remains true to the genre she has chosen: all of Life is present in this 600-page saga—births, suicides, miscarriages, abortions, raised hopes, dashed ambitions—not to mention love, passion, and sexual guilt. But this is no ordinary rags-to-riches saga; as in all Fairbairns's novels, ambitions are spiritual rather than material; children and men seem to be the rocks on which women's ambitions founder; and in order to break out of the cycle set up by her predecessors, the modern heroine must give up her man rather than get him in the end.
Though the themes in Fairbairns's writing are constant, each novel remains quite distinct in style. Her female characters, who are primarily ordinary people with ordinary problems, manage somehow to be extraordinarily interesting. Her plots are imaginative and gripping, yet as Fairbairns revealed in a 1998 interview with the Independent, after her initial success with Benefits, she struggled for many years to find her voice. Also in 1998, Fairbairns produced a new novel, Other Names.