Sixty years ago (almost), I insulted one of New Zealand's best-selling authors, writes David Hill
Easter 1962. I was on the Napier–Wellington railcar, heading back to Victoria University, when the small, white-haired woman got on at Dannevirke. I was reading an English text (I liked reading them where people could see me doing so) and, as she sat down beside me, I sensed her gazing at it.
After a bit, she asked something about Tennyson or Conrad or whoever it was. I never minded impressing people with my literary knowledge, so I began talking about the book and myself. Especially myself.
She had genuinely interested questions, so I guessed she belonged to a Women's Book Group or suchlike.
Then came such a quaint query. "Have you thought of becoming a writer?"
How laughable. This was 1962, remember. You could do an MA in Eng Lit then without hearing a single New Zealand name. The only ones I knew were Katherine Mansfield and some Auckland guy called Sargeson.
I broke the news to her gently. "You can't make a living as a writer in New Zealand."
She smiled. "I have."
I presume I stammered something. Then I asked the obvious question: "What's your name?"
"Nelle Scanlan," she replied.
I'd never heard of her (see earlier paragraph). I didn't dare admit the fact, so I took a desperate plunge. "Oh, my mother likes your books."
I must have hit the right note, because she smiled again. We talked while I frantically tried to work out what sort of author she was. I know I asked if she was working on a book. I hope I didn't ask where she got her ideas from.
Now that I'm almost the age Nelle Scanlan was then, I feel pretty sure she'd registered my ignorant flounderings, and was dealing with them gently. I remember she asked for some reason if I'd ever been to Pencarrow Heads. I said no, and she smiled again.
She was getting off north of Wellington, she'd said. Later, when I learned more about her, I realised it must have been at Paraparaumu.
I wanted to somehow acknowledge her, and emphasise my own literary sensitivities. "Would you mind giving me your autograph?" I asked, knowing how crass it sounded.
She wrote "Nelle M. Scanlan" (The "M" meant Margaret, I eventually learned) in a strong, flowing script.
Then my mouth severed all contact with my brain. "Thank you," I burbled. "Mum will be delighted, even if I'm not."
She stared. "What?"
I lurched into an apology. So sorry ... Wasn't trying to ... Didn't mean ...
I suspect I sounded so utterly gormless that she took pity on me. She may even have been amused by me. She got off soon after, and I buried my face in Conrad or Tennyson, so I couldn't catch her eye as the railcar moved on.
Time to say something about my first live author. Ellen ("Nelle") Scanlan was born in Picton in 1882, became a journalist, earned her living from words for six decades.
What an achievement for a woman then. What a woman she was. She travelled to the US to report on the League of Nations, and published a collection of society interviews unhappily called Boudoir Mirrors of Washington.
She visited The Soviet Union, lived in the UK for 25 years, writing for papers there and in New Zealand. Back home, she helped found our branch of the writers' organisation PEN.
And she wrote best-selling novels. Her first couple were set in London; then came the Pencarrow quartet (no wonder she'd asked me about the Heads), that made her our best-selling fiction author of the 1930s-1950s.
The four books follow a dynasty of prosperous Wairarapa farmers through lives as equally prosperous Wellington entrepreneurs. They're family sagas, crammed with births, marriages and deaths, estrangements and reconciliations.
The couple I read long after meeting the author had strong, conventional plots, authentic-enough people. They were the work of a professional, a craftsperson. I read part of one again a few weeks back, and they can still hold you, in spite of the stately prose and conservative viewpoints. Scanlan hated "socialism"; her characters rant against the First Labour Government.
My mum was pleased with the autograph. She knew of Scanlan; had read and liked her books. That irritated me; I was supposed to be the literary expert in the family.
Scanlan was a popular broadcaster during World War II; retired to a cottage in Paraparaumu, where she was presumably heading at the end of our bus ride. She received the MBE soon after; died in 1968 and is buried in Palmerston North's Terrace End Cemetery.
When we had our brief encounter, she hadn't published a book for more than a decade. Her orthodox, Galsworthy-type chronicles were already going out of fashion. It's a fear all authors have known. Was she wistful? Resentful? She seemed contented enough.
I still want to crawl under the table when I think of my autograph blunder. And I still remember Scanlan's question about whether I'd ever thought of being a writer, plus my dismissive response.
I was wrong, of course. Even an arrogant, uninformed young university student can eventually make a living at the trade. Nelle Scanlan didn't start me, but that conversation stayed, and helped me. Thank you, ma'am. I'll find your grave some day, and apologise out loud for my long-ago Easter utterances.