Having the Last Word: Anita Mason by Christine Cohen Park

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Christine Coen Park

By Christine Cohen Park

The novelist Christine Cohen Park on the Complexities of Writing about a Fine Writer who Was Also a Close Friend

Following the death of her friend Anita Mason, the novelist best known for Booker Prize nominated The Illusionist, author Christine Cohen Park did not anticipate the challenges of compiling her biographical entry…

Just before I took off on a summer break this year I received an email from Alex May at OUP asking me if I would write the novelist Anita Mason’s entry for the Oxford Dictionary of Biography.

I had qualms. I wouldn’t do her justice. I would be having the last word, in effect playing god: an idea I found more burdensome than appealing. How to honour Anita’s life, to get it ‘right’?  I was pretty sure if I did attempt it I would have the ghost of her sharply intelligent, intellectually exacting spirit on my shoulder all the way, tweaking my ear at any inexact phrase, or date a year out. What about if I missed out something that she considered important, or worse – I could almost feel the plume of blue smoke blown my way if I included something she did not! And then what about her life-guarded privacy, would anything personal I wrote be an intrusion?

I spent some weeks on a remote island in British Columbia. The sun was hot, the nights were full of stars. There were starfish at the ocean edge and hummingbirds on the deck. Bald eagles soared, and the red bark of the Arbutus shimmered in the light. I’d just written the last chapter of my novel and was beginning to relax. The time for the forest fires was still in the future. Why risk a small forest fire of my own?

Was a writer her work, this is the question. If my close late friend the Booker runner-up novelist Anita Mason was her work, if it was through her work that she showed herself to the world and that was how she would have wanted to be remembered, then surely I could pass this task on to the astute literary critic who had already written about her work with such perception. Wouldn’t he be more equipped?

But, no, those around me argued, Anita was more than her writing – ‘you were her friend, you knew her life, you must honour her this way. You’ll kick yourself if you don’t.’

And I would have kicked myself. I think. Because in the writing of her entry I discovered so much. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, re-discovered.

As I prepared myself for the task, assembled the large array of dates and facts a biographical entry requires I did indeed feel Anita’s steely eye on my burgeoning draft, scanning my notes for inaccuracies: a mis-spelling of her mother’s maiden name, three Fellowships or four with the Royal Literary Fund, was it 2007 she travelled to Haiti and shortly afterwards developed the muscle-wasting disease, polymyositis, or was it 2008? Get it right, C, I heard her impatient voice in my head. And then any loose phrasing received her exasperation. What a finely-honed sentence she herself used to write: crisp, well-balanced, dry: Oxford English. How she’d pounced on my long sentences, on my wanting to get too much in, on any perceived ‘wooliness’ of thought. Clarity is what she’d sought. And it was the clarity she achieved even over the most complex ideas which made her so readable.

You have a thousand words to speak of someone’s life. Everything has to be finely balanced. So then do you say it was the English department at school who supported her desire to write, or the teachers in the department, those living people who opened the first doors for her? Do you say that after a childhood she remembered as deadly dull, at St Hilda’s she finally found the stimulation she sought – or, at Oxford and at St Hilda’s, indicating the broader stimulation beyond the College gates?

There is the getting the balance right, the emphasis right. Where detail is helpful, where it isn’t? I drew heavily on quotes from others about Anita or about her work. And I was fortunate to be able to include her own trenchant words in recordings by the Royal Literary Fund.

Anita Mason

The sequence of Anita’s novels emerged, and the trajectory of their themes. For a while I almost felt that I was on solid ground. But then came time for the decision I’d cast to the back of my mind, but knew that I would eventually have to tackle. Given that she had been a deeply private person, how far was I to intrude into her personal life?  Leave well alone, the voice in my head growled, alarmed, breathing that blue smoke from its mouth. Don’t you dare! And yet without some talk of her personal life, the whole thing would surely feel lifeless, unfinished?

This is where I had more than one sleepless night, and felt a sympathy for all other biographers, albeit writing in longer form, who, on one level or another must always be wrestling with this conundrum.

I had long conversations with others who’d been close to Anita till gradually I found a line between exposure and privacy that I could live with – and I hoped so could she. Did I have the last word? Well, yes, in some sense I did. I like to think she might have agreed with what I wrote, and that it wasn’t too exposing. But ultimately however you try to sum up, pin down an author’s life in a thousand words, you know it is only a pale shadow of what her books convey.

I felt a certain sense of relief when the piece was done and sent off. Would I rush to write a further friend’s entry to the ODB? Not for a while, so you out there, please don’t die on me soon! But I am pleased that I wrote Anita’s in the end.

The last years of her illness were a struggle for her. She died during the first year of Covid, a death that was collaterally hastened by the isolation of the first Lockdown and her difficulty getting the right food and attention at a critical point. I lived in Sussex, she in Bristol. My journeys up and down the motorway for visits to the hospital are seared on my mind. Since she died, it is these last memories that have been most present. Her brave fight against odds that won out on her, the erosion of her strength and stamina to write creatively: sad images.

Then something rather wonderful happened. As I was gathering the facts of Anita’s life, as it unfolded before me like a hand of cards, it was so clearly a hand full of aces, of kings and queens. What I was staring at was a life richly lived, with verve and creativity, generosity, and engagement. Like an unexpected gift, in writing Anita Mason’s biographical details, behind the sad end, she came alive again for me as a vital, rare and talented being.

(c) Christine Cohen Park

www.christinecohenpark.com/

@ccohenpark

About the author

Christine Cohen Park is a novelist and award-winning editor of short-story collections, including Close Company (Virago). Christine is a former tutor on the University of Sussex M.A.in Creative Writing & Personal Development, is a freelance writer and facilitator of Shared Reading Groups. She lives in Lewes, Sussex. www.christinecohenpark.com/ X: @ccohenpark

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