Helen Brown: Columnist and author

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image-helenbrown200Helen Brown is a newspaper columnist and author originally from New Zealand and now living in Melbourne. She has published 10 books and has written regular columns for papers such as the Christchurch Star, Marlborough Express and LIVE Magazine. This year she was awarded the Qantas Columnist of the Year for her work in Next Magazine.

Her latest book is Cleo. It’s the story of the cat Cleo who entered her life one week after her oldest son was killed, and stayed with her and her family for 24 years. It will be released in Australia in September this year.

Click play to listen. Running time: 22.06

Cleo

 Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
So Helen thanks for joining us today.

Helen
Well thank you for having me Valerie.

Valerie
Now Helen you are a journalist by trade but you have published many books. How is the process of writing as a journalist different to writing a book in your opinion?

Helen
I think writing columns for newspapers and magazines is a bit like going swimming testing lengths at your local swimming pool and writing a book is like swimming the Tasman. There is a difference but there are similarities in that both forms of the craft demand a structure. A column or a piece of writing for a newspaper isn’t very interesting if it hasn’t got a shape, in the features section anyway. It’s certainly the same with a book but expanding on the same techniques really.

Valerie
Do you have a preference because obviously one is much shorter than the other? Do you enjoy one more than the other?

Helen
I foolishly thought that I would take a few months off writing my weekly syndicated column and have a rest and write a book. That was a very foolish idea.

Valerie
A few weeks?

Helen
Because a book, as any writer listening to this I suppose, a book takes over your entire life whereas a column probably only takes over a day or two a week.

Valerie
What are your columns about?

Helen
I’m very fortunate that in our household we have a representative of every decade from the 50s onward so it is partly because I have had a messy life but it has worked out really well from a writer’s perspective in that I have got someone from each generation for half a century so I get lots of different perspectives of what its like to be living in the nearly getting on for almost quarter way through the 2000 and what it’s like to be alive. I suppose that is what I like about it. It’s very banal really.

Valerie
I’m sure that it’s not especially if you have been awarded Qantas Columnist of the Year. I’m sure it’s far from banal but tell us about Cleo. How did Cleo enter your life and why did you decide to write about Cleo?

Helen
In 1983 my oldest son, Sam, was run over and killed in Wellington and obviously it was a devastating experience for us all. About three weeks before the accident we’d gone and seen these kittens and he’d actually chosen this kitten that he wanted to have. We were so traumatized by his death and everything that I had actually forgotten all about this kitten.

About three weeks after the funeral it turned up on the doorstep with this kitten that Sam had ordered. It was the last thing that I felt like that I could handle another small thing to look after. But my other son, Rob, really wanted this kitten and so I thought, “Oh, gosh, well, I’ll let him have it for a little while and they don’t live long anyway and we’ll just get on with it.”

And Cleo lived to be nearly 24 years old. She saw our family through a long journey of healing and recovery. She was very much a part of that. I guess that’s kind of why I wrote the book, to honour her but also to help other parents who have lost children realize that it’s not the end of your life if your child dies and you have to go through this tragedy. But that you can survive it. But it’s a long journey.

Valerie
I’ve read that you claim that you weren’t a cat person when you first got Cleo. Is that correct?

Helen
No, I came from a semi-rural upbringing with a mother who despised any form of pet really and we had wild cats living under the house and they had short and very tortured lives. No, I wasn’t a trained cat person at all.

Valerie
Trained cat person.

Helen
But over the years Cleo trained me very much to respect cats and animals of all kinds and what pets can do for people. You know we live in very fearful times now. Everyone is so frightened of terrorism or growing old or their lover leaving them. We kind of latch onto fear and animals are in a different space all together and they offer us a kind of healing that isn’t found in pills or surgery.

In fact now that more research is being done they find that just stroking a cat lowers your blood pressure. They are putting more animals into hospitals and retirement homes because they do have a physical effect on people.

The other thing that we seem to be searching for is unconditional love and things no human or very few humans can provide that for us. But animals do and I guess in that sense they are a very valuable part of our lives. Since I have written this book I notice that more and more. I notice that people’s dogs and the way that people’s faces light up in pet shops, the way that animals serve us. It’s amazing really.

Valerie
Have you had any other pets since Cleo?

Helen
Interestingly last year I had a brush with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and my sister came to look after me when I came out of hospital. She went for a walk one day and she came back and said, “Look I know that you are not getting another cat but I’ve just been down to the pet shop and there is this really hilarious Siamese kitten. You should come and have a look at it.”

Of course we went down there to look at it and now we do have Jonah who actually has been very help. He is wonderful again with the healing process from that surgery, just that he brought so much light and laughter into the house. He’d jump on my bed every morning and just to stroke him and feel the vibration of his purring and stuff. It was really helpful and he is also been very helpful in the writing of this book because I’d forgotten how outrageous kittens can be.

Valerie
What’s his name?

Helen
Jonah. It’s a cross between Jonah Lomu, the famous All Black and Jonah of Summer Heights High because he kind of seems a clumsy misfit but he has since become very elegant and beautiful but very mad.

Valerie
Is there going to be a book on Jonah as well?

Helen
I don’t know, I think probably not. I think he’s a work of art in himself. He doesn’t need any translation.

Valerie
Take us back to when you decided you wanted to become a writer. How did you pick writing as your vocation?

Helen
I never picked it. I never picked it. Actually my mother was a journalist. During the war all the men went overseas and women suddenly got these plum jobs and she just loved journalism and talked about what a great job it was. I just ignored all of that because you never want to be what your mother wants you to be.

What I really wanted to do was to become a painter, an artist, but Mum also had great hang-ups about sex and she sort of drummed it into me that I shouldn’t have sex until I was married. I looked up the course for fine arts and that was four years. I thought, “God I’m going to have to wait four years before I have sex if I do that course.” So I took the journalism one which was only one year. So that’s how I kind of ended up doing the journalism course. It was easy because of Mum I had grown up with it.

I kind of fell into it really. When I was at journalism school I remember the teacher saying, “Now my dear there is one aspect you must never become a columnist because your writing style is far too chatty. It’s like something from the Women’s Weekly.” The New Zealand Women’s Weekly at that time was very much despised as a publication. That was like a red rag to the proverbial bull. I’ve been a columnist for 30 years now.

Valerie
Wonderful. When you wrote what was your first book and why did you decide to move from columns into the longer form?

Helen
Most of my books have been collections of columns so they are cheat books really. Really this Cleo book is probably the first one that I have written that is a proper book. So I was very naïve when I started this about 18 months ago, this book.

Valerie
In that case you must have had to change your writing routine considerably because you had to write so many more words for the book. Can you tell us about that?

Helen
Yes and that was a very lonely journey as they always say but I mean I was sort  of hoping that I would find someone who would read what I had and help me through that. But the family are never interested in anything that I write because they are sick of being written about for 30 years. I couldn’t think of a friend that I could inflict this on. So I was never sure if I was on the right track or not.

I’d just get up in the morning and have my coffee. Fortunately I live across the road from a good café. I’d get my take-away coffee and go for a walk. Really I can’t write for more than three or four hours a day. I’m exhausted after that. I’ve been living like a mole basically underground doing this book.

Valerie
How long did it take you in the end?

Helen
I suppose you could say either two years or 25 years depending upon your perspective. There were sort of stops and starts. I had given up on it all together because I found it hard giving a good skeleton for the story. You know that took months really and I gave up on it.

Then I went to a Melbourne writers’ group course just over a couple of days which I always think that no matter how long you have been writing there’s always something to learn because it’s basically a craft. Then I kind of at the end of it, it was a non-fiction writing course, at the end of it I kind of writ up my idea for this Cleo book and I could tell on everyone’s faces that it was a story with legs.

That was really heartening and so I sort of felt boosted by that and sent the idea off to Allen & Unwin Friday Pitch which is really for fiction. So I knew I was being very disobedient. The next week I had an email saying that they were interested. That’s what got me going and got me finishing it.

Valerie
Fantastic and so what would your advice be to people because obviously there is an element of therapy when you have written about Cleo, would you say? Do you think that writing is therapeutic for people?

Helen
I think it might be therapeutic for some people but I don’t know if it is therapeutic for professional writers. My doctor said just the other day and having been through this breast cancer, she said, “Is it cathartic?”

I said, “It’s not because the sort of writing that I do anyway and it’s probably because I come from a journalistic background, I’m continually thinking up the reader and is this going to work for them. If they have lost a child or if they have had breast cancer are they going to relate to this? Is this going to help them?” So I think that I have to look for my therapy elsewhere.

Valerie
So when you write a regular column as you have for so many years, do you ever get to the stage of oh, my goodness, is there really enough going on in my life for me to write about something else?

Helen
Yes, constantly. Constantly and so I guess it’s a bit like walking along the beach and turning over pebbles. You hope to find something every week under a pebble ultimately if you keep looking. It’s keeping faith really that something is going to turn up but I don’t know I’m at a bit of a crossroads at the moment whether to just keep writing books or go back to writing weekly columns because I have had a break from them while I have been doing a book. They have both got their challenges, you know.

I don’t know about the future of newspapers anymore. They seem to be going down. The Bugle internationally is so you have no choice but to keep open and adjust to changes as they are happening.

Valerie
Do you think that it is possible for you to do both in parallel?

Helen
Yeah, it could be. I mean, yeah but then sometimes it’s nice to have a day off.

Valerie
Of course. So what is next for you? Do you have another book in your head or on your computer for that matter?

Helen
Certainly not on my computer but I’ve got a couple of ideas. The Qantas award that I had was probably for the series that I wrote on, the breast cancer journey. And I know that probably a lot of people find that boring because so many people get it. That’s a fascinating journey and a great reminder to live life to the full, to appreciate every moment.

I’m just sitting her in my study at the moment looking out at the remaining leaves of autumn and just to see them out there. And that is another thing that animals teach us, to totally absorb the present. I’ve learned a lot in the last year about that or been reminded of it.

It may be that there is another book there. I’ve got a few ideas but ideas are cheap. They are like words aren’t they? Ideas are cheap. It’s manifesting them that is the hard part.

Valerie
Well maybe you have another book in you but maybe if you follow in the footsteps of Marly & Me and turn it into something on the big screen.

Helen
I gather one film company is looking at the moment so who knows. It’s done incredibly well at the London Book Fair. I wrote this book knowing that I would have a market for it in New Zealand because I am very well-known there and just hoping that it might sell 2 dozen copies in Australia.

It’s been taken up and it is going to be published in six languages. So I am just over the moon about it and Allen & Unwin have been just fantastic. I’ve never had support like that from a publisher and it has just been a really joyous journey actually once most of the hard work is over. At the moment I’m having to do additions for London and I’m back chained to the computer. But it’s already had a wonderful reception and I’m just thrilled and surprised.

Valerie
Why do you think people respond so well to stories about animals or pets like Cleo?

Helen
I think that it goes back to what I was talking about earlier. It’s just especially in these sort of complicated times that we live in that animals remind us what life really is about, you know. They offer the healing and a level of affection that we often just can’t get from other human beings. So I think the more complex and difficult that life gets the greater the role that pets have.

Valerie
Absolutely. I have two cats and as soon as I heard about your book I knew that I had to talk to you.

Helen
Are they Moggies or are they?

Valerie
They are Australian Tiffanie so they are long haired Burmillas.

Helen
Oh, that sounds high-maintenance.

Valerie
Oh, no they are gorgeous and very easy.

Helen
That is something that I have noticed since I have told people I’m writing a book about cats. So many people just open up with their wonderful stories and it is so obvious how much cats mean to people.

Valerie
That’s why I’m not surprised at all that it’s done so well already.

Helen
They are very difficult animals to write about I’ve found because they are so subtle and so much of their life is internal that I think dogs are probably easier to write about because they are more emotional and on the surface. It’s pretty hard.

Valerie
So how did you ever come that?

Helen
Just observing them as closely as I can and that’s why it was helpful to have this new kitten and seeing and watching him and trying not to use the same words again. Velvety fur, you can only use that once and they are so soft. Just don’t get me started, it’s very complicated.

Valerie
You need a cat thesaurus.

Helen
Yes, I do. In fact maybe that will be my next book.

Valerie
Well if you release that there is no doubt that I will be buying that one as well. Finally what is your advice to aspiring writers or writers who are listening to this who want to put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard and get their book done, get their book out there particularly in a non-fiction genre like this? What is your advice to them?

Helen
Well, the first advice is to get some glue tape and stick it to your bottom and sit on your feet and stay there. I think the second advice is to remain humble and keep learning and don’t be afraid to structure because I do think that is important.

But also be a bit cheeky. I had no right really to send my idea to Allen & Unwin’s fiction Friday Pitch but I got a wonderful outcome from it. So you know I would say all of that but it is a very tough world to get into, writing, isn’t it?

Valerie
But sometimes it’s worth it to bend the rules or break the rule.

Helen
Absolutely. Yeah.

Valerie
And on that note, thank you so much for your time today Helen. Really appreciate it.

Helen
Thank you Valerie. It was a pleasure.


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