Annaleese Jochems created a protagonist that's been called 'vacuous' and 'possibly a psychopath', but the young novelist says the character is her role model.
When I go to interview her at a cafe, I walk through its courtyard, looking for someone who might look like the small, square author’s photo I found online. I spot the faux fur and think if I was writing fiction about the 23-year-old author of the novel Baby - a story about naked, open female want and the shameless pursuit of it - this is exactly what I would imagine her wearing. I look around for the real-life Jochems and it is her - the woman in that coat.
The internet has mostly killed the Bob Dylan-esque tradition of an artist making their own myth. These days, when a journalist meets a writer, there is a digital trail laid out from previous interviews: you feel like you know the person before you meet them. Jochems is that rare interviewee for whom Google turns up surprisingly little: she has written her first book; it has been shortlisted for the prestigious Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in the fiction section; she is 23.
“It’s given me a sense of license,” Jochems says of her visually striking debut novel, Baby, which is published in surgical pink with the picture of a sandwich on the cover, bright red jam carving a suggestive swathe between the slices of bread.
Its writer enjoys “quiet eating establishments” and thinks she’s “a bit conservative.” She happens to be young, she says, but has never really felt like it.
“And then, just when I’m about to grow out of it, I feel like I’ve embraced being a young woman. I’ve started using little heart emojis in emails!”
She thinks that’s why she bought the coat; that sense of license from her shamelessly pink book.
At a time when women writers lament being confined to a particular section of the bookshop, and a particular readership, by what Jochems called the “shit, pink” covers forced on them by publishers, the cover of Baby is so over the top it somehow defies that categorisation.
But while she loves the visuals, the book’s title, bequeathed by Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman, pissed her off at first.
“I thought you took me seriously,” Jochems remembers thinking, affecting a mocking whine. But soon the name, too, felt like the perfect fit.
Baby is prodigious and precocious, a startling and blackly funny book. Its main character, Cynthia, steals her father’s money, and she and older fitness instructor Anahera run away together to the Bay of Islands. The spoiled Auckland princess spends her days lounging on a boat called Baby, watching reality TV, and obsessing about herself and Anahera. Throughout the sparse, taut novel, a simmering cauldron of grotesque sexual and violent tension bubbles up, threatening to explode.
It is worldly and knowing, a book that speaks of life experience. Jochems assures me she has absolutely none.
“I’ve never been dumped and I’ve only had one boyfriend,” Jochems says. “I don’t really go anywhere. I don’t do stuff and stuff doesn’t happen to me.”
Living in a shed
She grew up in the settlement of Pakaraka in the Northland area of Maromaku. She describes the settlement as “five farms, a church and a school.” After high school, Jochems completed a creative writing degree at Manukau Institute of Technology, and a Master’s at Victoria University’s prestigious International Institute of Modern Letters, during which she wrote Baby.
In between the degrees, and unable to find work, Jochems reluctantly returned to Northland, where her parents were thrilled to have her and told her she was more than welcome to a bedroom. She stubbornly took up residence in the shed.
“I was like, ‘I’m not moving back into the family home!’ Then the shed turned out to have asbestos and I had to move into the house,” she says.
The short history of “nothing” happening makes the fact that Jochems, at 21, wrote the story Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton called “hilarious and demented… Heavenly Creatures for a new generation,” seem all the more astonishing.
“I sort of voyeur on myself a lot,” Jochems says when pressed on where her fiction originated. “I have a lot of feelings that I’m ashamed of and fantasies that I’m ashamed of. I think shame is probably my main mechanism.”
From those abashed feelings and fantasies sprang her protagonist Cynthia, who reviewers have called “a millennial-pink monster,” “vacuous,” and “possibly a psychopath.” Cynthia’s every action is designed to serve herself and get exactly what she wants: a lifestyle of leisure and a relationship with Anahera.
“I think of Cynthia as a bit of a role model for life,” says Jochems, who referred to the book as “a manifesto” for taking your pleasures where you found them and “just going on as you are” rather than succumbing to pressure for change or redemption.
Jochems isn’t bothered by the reviewer who “hated the book and thought it was boring.” “Too bad!” she says, laughing. But she finds charges from other critics that Cynthia was unlikeable harder to swallow.
Roxane Gay’s essay Not Here To Make Friends questions the pressure on writers to make female characters appealing.
“I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologising for it,” Gay writes. Jochems agrees.
“Cynthia’s not trying to win universal affection, she’s trying to win specific affection,” she says of her character’s manipulative ways.
“That’s what would help my life, I think, if I stopped trying to win over everyone, and started trying to win my mum, my dad and my boyfriend. That would be ideal.”
“I wasn’t terribly unhappy but I was putting a lot of effort into projecting that"
A few days after we speak, I ask Bridget Jochems, her mum, what she made of the book. Bridget and Jochems are shortly to go into business together, having decided to open a second-hand bookshop on Riddiford Street, in the Wellington suburb of Newtown.
Once she’d got past Baby’s swearing and sex, and the ill-treatment of a dog who was clearly based on a beloved Jochems family pet, Bridget was delightfully protective of Cynthia, the Frankenstein’s monster her daughter had created. Cynthia is, according to Bridget, the “worst possible version” of Jochems.
“People say Cynthia’s just this terrible, self-centred person who only watches reality TV, but at least she’s honest with it,” Bridget says. “When you think about all the frivolous things that we somehow think are acceptable… Reality TV has a bad name, but watching sport is considered fine.”
Spending time with Jochems make you realise what there is to like about Cynthia. When Jochems tells me she occasionally works in a cafe, for example, she adds breezily that she “can’t make coffee” and “just tweets” and someone else does that part.
And like her protagonist, Jochems takes delight in the performative; her childhood was spent making diagrams showing the various grievances she held with other kids, and her teenage years writing dramatically unhappy poetry that she left around the house in the hope that her parents would find it. She was “inspired by Ginsberg,” the American poet who wrote about his mother and ensured she received a copy of his work.
“I wasn’t terribly unhappy but I was putting a lot of effort into projecting that,” she said. “It was like, ‘Why Do I Have To Be Alive? 20 Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Be Obliged To Be Alive.’”
“I wasn’t depressed or unhappy or anything. I was just attention seeking and I didn’t have very much going on.”
“Annaleese has always been quite unsubtle in that way,” says Bridget when I asked her about that period of teenage angst. It didn’t hurt that as a trained teacher, Bridget was aware that kids only wrote poems about “spring or really unhappy emotions.”
On May 15, mother and daughter will attend the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, where Baby will compete with three other novels for the fiction prize. The books include The New Animals by Jochem’s Master’s supervisor, Pip Adam.
“I'm so fine with it, because I don’t think I've got a chance of winning,” Jochems says.
She is writing a paragraph a day on her second novel, setting a deliberately slow pace because she doesn’t feel she has read enough books yet to finish it. Aspiring writers often use the excuse of not having read enough to put off starting to write themselves, but Jochems, at 23, has had fewer reading years than most.
I am still trying to figure out what made the girl from Pakaraka head off to creative writing school at 18, but Jochems said it certainly wasn’t self-assurance.
"I had pretty low confidence and high artistic ideals,” she says.
Her parents, however, were encouraging; so much so that Jochems almost wishes she’d had the chance to become a writer as a form of rebellion or defiance, rather than because she had been lavished with permission to do so.
“I think it's a bit obscene, very disgusting to be like, ‘yes, I'm a novelist,’” she says.
“I would do poetry readings and they were really bad. But my parents and everyone were like, ‘This is great, you're following your dreams, you have to tell your stories to the world.’
“I was very ashamed about it, but I think if someone had said, ‘Annaleese, this is disgusting,’ then I could've been like, ‘Yeah, well, I'm doing it anyway though!’ And then I would've had less shame.”
I put this to her mother, who says perhaps her daughter - the first on her Dad’s side of the family to go to university - had felt guilty for not picking a tangible, practical sort of career.
“It’s a frivolous thing to do, it’s not a farming thing to do,” she says. “Writing can be seen as a luxury. But she was good at it and she really liked it.”
Jochems says despite her fantasies about having to fight her way back to writing after being forced into accountancy, she is grateful for her mother’s support.
“I definitely don’t regret that I was encouraged,” she says. “I think I’m very lucky and I hope other people will be lucky in the same way.”
But with a gleam in her eye that suggests Cynthia might not be so far away after all, Jochems tries another tack.
“You know how they do shit transplants? Where you get someone else’s shit?” she asked.
“I think it’s so good! Like if I ever need a poo transplant, I’m so glad that option’s available to me.”
She can’t stop laughing.
“But, you know - it’s disgusting!”
This article was originally published by RNZ.