Art Imitates Life…

Coverline of a recent tell-all interview with Nene King in New Idea

One of the subjects I cover in the book is the intensity of emotions Robin’s characters feel. Hate is a more relevant currency than love. There’s no disguising how the narrator feels from the start of the poem ‘Revenge’ (from Snakes and Ladders):

I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, Anne Scully!/I hope a gorilla traps you in a gully!

Titles such as The Princess Who Hated It and The Enemies make each book’s agenda starkly clear. Another terrific tale of conflict resolution is ‘Sitting Next to William’ (in Ratbags and Rascals). The story begins: ‘The trouble with Oliver was that he was very depressing.’ Next we learn: ‘At school nobody wanted to sit next to him because it was like sitting next to a glacier or a blizzard.’ But he meets his match when William joins his class and is obliged to fill the vacant adjacent seat. Soon the boys set about trying to out-gloom each other.

But the most famous ‘hating’ story is Hating Alison Ashley. Erica is one of the most glorious monsters of twentieth-century literature – up there with Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole and Jessica Vye in Jane Gardam’s A Long Way From Verona. Her relentless campaign of self-validation is unforgettable, and admirable for the breadth of emotions she employs in her defence. In the first three chapters we witness contempt, hubris, derision, arrogance, resentment, jealousy, truculence and ridicule.

Her reaction to the new girl, Alison Ashley, plunges from charitable approval when she alights on Alison as a kindred spirit to acute inferiority, then veers into dislike and loathing with moments of indignation, jealousy and mortification.

There isn’t really much to hate about Alison Ashley, of course. You can envy the fact that she is careful with the things she is given, that she thinks before she speaks and respects others’ opinions, but you surely can’t resent these qualities?

Part of writing Letters from Robin involved revisiting my teenage years as a reviewer of children’s books – something Robin’s friendship gave me the confidence to do. Robin’s first paid appearance in print was in New Idea magazine when she was 16 (see Timeline). My first paid appearance, aged 14, was in Woman’s Day magazine. From the late 1980s, when Robin and were corresponding, the two magazines were edited by the fiercest rivals in Australia’s publishing industry – Dulcie Boling at New Idea and Nene King at Woman’s Day. Both had formidable reputations and inspired both loyalty and fear in the people who worked for them.

The story of the editors’ long-standing rivalry was dramatised in the ABC TV mini-series, Paper Giants: Magazine Wars (2011). The depiction of Nene King (as scatty and outspoken) and Dulcie Boling (a steely reserved ice maiden) is more than reminiscent of the early stages of Erica and Alison’s relationship.

A (c) still from the ABC TV mini-series, Paper Giants, staring Rachel Griffiths (left) and Mandy McIlhenny (right)