Sue (Montgomery) McCauley Biography
Sue McCauley comments:
Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Dannevirre, 1941. Career: copywriter, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Napier, 1959-61; journalist, New Zealand Listener, Wellington, 1961-62, Taranaki Herald, New Plymouth, 1963-64, and Christchurch Press, 1964-65; writer-in-residence, University of Auckland, 1986. Awards: New Zealand Book award, 1983; Mobil award, for radio play, 1982; New Zealand Literary Fund grants. Agent: Glenys Bean, 15 Elizabeth Street, Freeman's Bay, Auckland.
Other Halves. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1982; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983; New York, Penguin, 1985.
Then Again. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1986; London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1987.
Bad Music. Auckland, Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.
A Fancy Man. Auckland, Vintage, 1996.
It Could Be You. Auckland, Random House New Zealand, 1997.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Alternative Life," in New Zealand Listener (Wellington), 1976.
"Mothers Day," "John Harrison Is a Drip," "The Puzzle," and "Pansy," all in Thursday Magazine (Auckland), 1970s.
Waiting for Heathcliff (produced Christchurch, 1988).
Other Halves, adaptation of her own novel, 1984.
The Obituary, 1967; The Evening Out, 1968; ABC, 1970; Robbie, 1972; Crutch, 1975; Minor Adjustment, 1975; Some Without a Sigh, 1975; Letters to May, 1977; The Ordinary Girl, 1978; When Did He Last Buy You Flowers?, 1980; The Voice Despised, 1980; The Missionaries, 1981; Isobel, God and the Cowboy, 1981; The Ezra File, 1982; Thank You Buzz Aldrin, 1982; The Man Who Sleeps with His Mother, 1983; Family Ties, 1986; Waiting for Heathcliff, adaptation of her own play.
As Old as the World, 1968; Friends and Neighbours, 1973; The Shadow Trader series, 1989; Shark in the Park (episodic), 1991; Married, 1993; Matrons of Honour, 1993; Marlin Bay, with Greg McGee, 1993.
Escape from Bosnia, Aza's Story. Christchurch, New Zealand, Shoal Bay Press, 1996.
Editor, Erotic Writing. New York, Penguin, 1992.
Writers for screen and radio are never asked to provide an introduction to their work. That may be why I feel more comfortable in the role of script writer—being taken seriously is a terrifying thing. Another plus about writing for screen is that, providing you have an IQ over fifty, you can sample the genre and feel needed. But (and I say this after many years in journalism) prose fiction is still the only medium I know where a writer is allowed to tell the truth (at least as s/he perceives it). And every so often that freedom feels hard to resist.
All three of my novels have been about modern social attitudes and personal relationships. They have focused on people of low-to-average education and limited financial means—not by way of a political statement but because, as a person of low-to-average education and limited financial means, these have been the kind of people I know best.
However, in style all the novels are, I believe, unalike. I was attempting different things and driven by different motivations. Other Halves grew out of personal anger and Then Again out of generalized fear. Bad Music, my third novel was, I suspect, something of a reaction to the cultural circles that had been prepared (somewhat diffidently) to embrace me on account of my having written two novels. Bad Music I wrote just to please myself and other people with bad attitudes.
I've been writing for a living for thirty years and I don't think I've yet got the hang of it. But I do have one simple philosophy—the reader is a friend and should not be subjected to boredom, posturings or … I would say lies, but lies are a kind of fiction. I'm afraid the only word that suits it is … bullshit.
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Sue McCauley is from a younger generation of New Zealand writers who are influenced as much by popular culture as by the classics. On the other hand, post-colonial culture must rethink the stereotypic images that abound in the pop dimension, so McCauley's fiction takes on the dual role of bypassing academic chauvinism in literature and the pop chauvinism of mainstream culture's portrayals of minorities. In New Zealand, the Maori are the primary focus of the political correctness McCauley's generation has been applying to revise old attitudes toward oppressed groups that fall to disadvantage within the outdated hierarchies of contemporary society. In her debut novel, Other Halves, which received the 1983 New Zealand Book Award, McCauley draws parallels between the oppression of women and that of the colonized, indigenous people.
The protagonist in Other Halves, Liz Harvey, admits herself into a psychiatric hospital after her husband, Ken, convinces her that he has been busy growing while she has been, unfortunately, regressing. The clear-headed husband progresses at the expense of the supportive wife whose subservience to his goals becomes deafening. In time, the wife loses her sense of self and, ironically, even loses her usefulness in the one-sided partnership. The downward spiral of the disenfranchised begins. Liz leaving behind her marriage and acquaintances is due to the lack of respect shown for her remaining, burned-out shell. Liz's story can serve as an appropriate allegory for the effect of colonial rule on indigenous culture. McCauley implies this comparison when Liz befriends a sixteen-year-old Maori boy, Tug, who is also dislocated from his previous associations when forced into treatment at the same psychiatric facility.
Liz and Tug's problematic relationship encapsulates the rising challenge to the dominant discourse by both women and Maori. The discomfiture that results from the increasing awareness of social injustice indicates the push out of complacent official policies that result in privilege for some, and lack of education, and job opportunities, poverty and homelessness for the rest. In Other Halves, McCauley's characters are less comfortable with the process of improvement than the privileged in society are by the major political movements Liz and Tug's personal stories represent. One of the institutionalized women tells Liz, "I dunno how the fuck I'm gonna manage here. It's not really my chosen environment."
Reform and progress for the disenfranchised requires suffering by both "halves," which, in Other Halves, takes on a multitude of double entendre implications. More than a novel of suburban neurosis or of women and madness resulting from the exploitation by her "other half," the husband, and more than the revelatory friendship of a white, middle-class woman with a streetwise but illiterate Maori boy, McCauley's first novel indicts the institutions that render both powerless. The prescriptive story is not couched in the elegant, academic language of feminist Betty Friedan, instead, it demonstrates an acute ear for the vernacular while offering a clear understanding of the social issues which inform her fiction.
In Then Again, McCauley's second novel, her use of the Maori word "Motuwairua" is indicative of McCauley's corrosive wit. One literal translation for "Motuwairua" is Island of the Spirit/Soul, a place where the characters from a motley cross-section of society choose to live in order to escape from the pressures and demands of a materialistic, self-absorbed, corrupt and corrupting "civilization." Despite the name's meaning, the novel's location is less utopic than representative of the underbelly in a microcosm of the larger society.
The protagonist, Maureen, is a single mother who escapes a sadistic marriage with her three small children to a tumbledown shanty only to find herself under the scrutiny of an impersonal welfare system and an anonymous, vindictive neighbor. She is worn down by economic and emotional uncertainties in addition to the demands made upon her by her children. Her response to her younger son's query about a beautiful artifact of nature describes her complete exhaustion: "a large, perfect, transparent shell of which once may have been a cicada or a cricket," which she cruelly names for her son as "a mother" because, she tells him, "See how her children have eaten her all away."
In contrast to the faceless Maureen, the seismic, ebullient Josie, who is "fair, fat and forty-six," refuses to marry her lover of seven years because she doubts that marriage is a guarantee against unhappy endings. Josie keeps her relationship alive with occasional partner swapping and frequent fantasy. Despite her amorous nature, Josie is well aware of the negative effects of patriarchal power in the henhouse, so to speak. McCauley describes a procreative rooster ramming the hens against the netting or trapping them in corners while duty to "Mother England" is served. Josie's rejection of male exploitation supported by the system makes a stronger political statement than Maureen's, the victim who is forced into rejecting it.
McCauley is careful to give her characters credible inner lives which provide suitable motivations to explore a variety of emotional concerns. The characters rage, hurt, long for empathy and friendship, are embittered and sensitive or outwardly secure in fringe communities, such as the stroppy group of lesbian feminist separatists found in Then Again. She eliminates the stereotypical by rarely allowing her characters to become pompous or didactic, and avoids overkill by diffusing statements with varying doses of self-knowledge, wit, and humor.
McCauley's third novel, Bad Music, has a deceptively simple premise, the expression of yearning for the Golden Age of innocence. It's selective reminiscence for a time when Elvis Presley ruled the air waves and would-be pop stars acted out rebellion in fantasy shoot-outs at the local cinema or played at the Town Hall reflects a clouded nostalgia. Bad Music is an investigation of the power of myth and the mechanism of popular culture when it persuades our perception to accept broadly drawn stereotypic images. This novel speaks, as do McCauley's previous two novels, for the inarticulate, and dissects with skill and elegance a society renowned for its taciturnity.
Hal, a musician, admits to becoming an "old codger" because time has wrought his creative expertise. He no longer plays with a band that sounds "like a pack of uncoordinated roosters." Age and experience, however, come with a price and older musicians lack the verve that youth experiences as "hearing" music with the heart, when everything seems bigger, faster, and freer. The protagonist, Kath, supplies an appropriate metaphor for the phenomenon of recycled dreams with her business of selling used clothing. In the end, nostalgia produces tatty and unfashionable garments to cover reality. In Bad Music, the reality of the popular music business comes with rag-tag groupies, the drug subculture where a "muso" will inform on his mate in order to avoid a bust. Because her reality deals with fringe societies, her realism is often unfamiliar ground for most readers.
McCauley has been called "a boundary writer" because of Other Halves, which was made into a movie in 1985, and her more recent book, A Fancy Man (1996). In another 1996 book, Escape from Bosnia, she writes about the power of transcendent love in war-torn Bosnia based on a true story told to her by Aza King. The nonfiction account of the Serbian-Moslem betrayal in Bosnia and the love that blossomed in that setting benefits from McCauley's appreciation of social concerns and social change, and her general irreverence toward sacred cows. In addition, her ear for the vernacular and understanding of human nature provide verity and texture in the fictional explorations of her characters' inner lives. McCauley's writing discusses a politically correct revision of society with a characteristic wit and humor from the entertaining perspective of unlikely but real worlds.
updated by Hedwig Gorski
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