Joanne Drayton wasn’t even born when Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker committed the murder that propelled Drayton to the New York Times Bestseller List and landed her an elite writing fellowship.
Anyone growing up in the city in the 50s and 60s, as Joanne Drayton did, was acutely aware of the murder and the hushed talk of the girls’ “unnatural” devotion to each other. After their convictions for murder, Parker and Hulme were jailed for five years, and later both left New Zealand to start new but separate lives.
Drayton says that for many years later, “it was a case of every female principal getting the high-pressure hose out to douse any intense female friendships, because they could be dangerous”.
For decades, Hulme hid her original identity, writing popular crime novels under the name Anne Perry. Her cover was eventually blown when Peter Jackson produced 1993’s Heavenly Creatures, a movie about the murder. Drayton’s 2012 book The Search for Anne Perry made it to the New York Times Bestseller List and the film rights were recently optioned.
A bubbly extrovert and self-described overachiever (a triple major and a PhD in art history), Drayton teaches at Auckland’s Avondale College and is working on two new books – one about 1970s and 80s TV cooks Hudson and Halls, the other her memoir.
Both books have bittersweet elements – Hudson and Halls died within 14 months of each other after taking New Zealand by storm with their funny, flamboyant, wine-fuelled cooking show. In Drayton’s case, a decision made 20 years ago led to estrangement from one of her children. She lives with her spouse, Sue Marshall, who’s an artist and a teacher. Between them they have four adult children.
Drayton recently returned from the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York, where she was one of an elite group of long-form, non-fiction writers given the chance to develop their writing with the benefit of experts from a range of literary disciplines.
What is the Carey Institute?
William Carey was a philanthropist. His motto was Doing Good While Doing Well. He died in 2012 and left an amazing place. It’s historic and funded by billionaire Jon Logan. There’s a lot of land and it’s gorgeous.
How were you chosen?
I think the New York Times listing of Anne Perry did it. I had applied to the institute, but the thing that got me on its radar was the bestseller listing – No 3 for the hardcover in Crime and Punishment and No 9 in Non-fiction: quite an achievement. In my application, I included a sample of Anne Perry, some of my book about Frances Hodgkins, some from my Ngaio Marsh biography and a bit from my memoir.
Who else was there?
There were several journalists: from the New York Times, the New Yorker; a former editor of Harper’s; a Syrian woman who was an undercover reporter for Reuters and wrote most of its Syria stories from 2014 to 2016 – she is now writing a memoir; a guy who had been a prisoner of Somali pirates for two and a half years – he never knew if he was going to lose his head; a woman writing about the lives people lead in the rubbish dumps of India; a lawyer writing on elder abuse; someone on raising children; and another journalist, Adrian LeBlanc, who is writing about American stand-up comics and male humour. And there was Emma Beals, a New Zealand war correspondent now in Beirut. They loved New Zealanders and I think I was a bit of a revelation for them, because they asked me to stay longer – I was there for 12 weeks. That was quite a big dose of me. They knew me inside out and decided they loved Emma Beals as well.
You developed a new and rather eccentric writing technique while in the US – can you describe it?
Every day, I thanked God I was in that place – that was always my starting point. At the beginning, I would walk the roads – sometimes it was -16°C – and I found that words came to me when I moved. I would go back to a desk, but all I could think of was walking – the words wouldn’t come when I sat still. So I got out there on the road, I got my pad out, I had three pairs of gloves on and it was hard to turn the pages. When it got warmer, people would stop and say, “Howdy, I’ve been watching you the past two months, walking on this road in the middle of nowhere. What you are doing?” There was a section of highway where they’d cruise by slowly and look at me and I thought, “Oh my God, I will be the next serial-killer victim.”
Are you using that technique back in Auckland?
Yes, I have my pen and I have enough peripheral vision to see. I’ve only walked into a bus stop once. I write with a fluid ink pen in my little notebooks.
Searching for Anne Perry is your biggest success to date – how did you track her down?
It was time-consuming. Sue spent hours surfing the internet until she found Anne’s private address. It was a huge breakthrough. Ironically, we thought we had it in the bag – you know that Kiwi cockiness – but we hit a brick wall in Anne’s minders. There’s no way they’d get involved.
So what was the next step?
I let the idea go, even though I believed I was made to be her biographer. Months later, I realised I had to have another shot and HarperCollins accepted my proposal. But then the most extraordinary thing happened. I couldn’t read another book of Anne Perry’s: I couldn’t make any progress. It just didn’t feel okay to write a book about someone who was alive but not involved. After the high of getting a contract, I was depressed, unable to proceed. Sue told me to email Anne’s agent, Meg Davis, and tell her I had a contract and ask again if they would participate. Their response was unexpected. Meg congratulated me on the contract and asked me to send a copy of my proposal: they’d reconsider. I rejigged and sent it. The next day, I heard back. Anne would meet me in London.
And what was that meeting like?
I met Anne Perry in July 2010. The meeting, with her agent present, got off to a shaky start. I was tense. She was suspicious. It quickly felt like things were slipping into the abyss. To fill an awkward gap, I started rambling on about ancestry and told her I was of Scandinavian descent. She asked me how I knew. I said it was because I had the “curse of the Vikings” – technically known as Dupuytren’s contracture – and I showed her how the syndrome affected my hands. She then asked me if she had it. I took one of her hands, then the other, and checked them for signs of the syndrome. Amazing what you can do with a doctorate in art history. As far as I could see, she had a clean bill of health, but this contact was certainly a game changer. I settled down, she became more trusting and things jelled from that point on.
Do you think some people resent Perry’s success at writing, especially crime fiction, given the notoriety of her own crime?
Probably, but she has earned what she has. She has not had or done things other people have. She has no children; she has friendships but no significant relationship with anyone; her sentence to some extent continued. Her isolation in the world and her almost singular existence has been part of her. The same with Pauline Parker. They are people who have been successful, and it is a measure of their own redemption that they have been able to go on and do something for the world. They have also been isolated by it.
Do you think there ever is redemption for such a crime?
Yes, but that you have taken a life must be the heaviest cross to bear. It doesn’t matter how old you are – to have done so deliberately is a huge weight. I don’t think people escape the weight. Perry hasn’t thrown it off.
Anne Perry found God – what about you? Are you still religious?
St Matthew-in-the-City in Auckland is liberal-minded and I am on the vestry. They have an expansive attitude, but I have told them that if they don’t bless same-sex unions in the next synod, I’ll leave. The Church has been very discriminating and uncharitable towards gay people and not the best to women.
So why do you stick with it?
It gives you a base values system that is supporting of a good life. And I love the bells, smells and music.
You left your husband after 12 years’ marriage and two children for Sue, and you’ve been together for 27 years. Your life together has come at a cost, hasn’t it?
I haven’t seen one of my sons, Andrew, for 20 years because of the lesbian stuff. At 12, he made a decision about that. That part of my memoir is about the losses you sustain when you come out of the closet.
How do you deal with that?
Not well, all of the time. It is sad. I write to him, but on the occasions when I have enough heart to send something, they just disappear into the ether and I never hear back.
The Hudson and Halls book will also have some sadness about it, but what’s the general outline?
It is a look at their career and life together. It follows each of their childhoods. It is a biography of a relationship to some extent. It has a great resonance with New Zealand society. It is the baby-boomer decades when food changed dramatically: what we chose to eat, the way we cooked it, the way we entertained and the way we imagined food might be. And what we drank. Remember when there was no wine? It was sherry. Their story is also about television. TV turned New Zealand on its head, in a way; it completely changed people’s lives, altered the geography of the lounge, where people sat, where they ate their food. So it’s food, it’s TV and it’s also homosexual-law reform. The whole deal about changing attitudes and what kind of life you might have.
When you get the chance, what do you read?
I enjoy 19th- and early-20th-century classic novels. I am reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the moment. I like crime, detective and mystery novels, and biography, which I adore when it’s done well. I am captivated by puzzles and most of all I am fascinated by the puzzle of life.
This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.