The book launch for Megan Nicol Reed’s novel One of Those Mothers was not the kind of quiet, low-key, scantily catered book launch that takes place in quiet, low-key, scantily catered ways every week in New Zealand publishing. For a start there were a lot of people, and also it was terribly glamorous (it was more like the launch of a new eyeliner or a BMW event), and it took up two whole floors of one of those unbearable bars in Grey Lynn, and there was decent food to eat and prosecco to drink, and you could tell that there were many, many guests who earned terrific amounts of money and lifted many, many boring weights and had a fierce love for their (usually two) children. In short, it was a bonfire of the middle classes. It was Grey Lynn but it was also Karori, Hamilton East, Martinborough, Kerikeri, Havelock North, Merivale, Opoho, the Coromandel in January – it was the kinds of New Zealanders who the author writes about very knowingly and entertainingly in One Of Those Mothers, and the kinds of New Zealanders who will surely go out and buy the book in droves. I saw one matron leaving the bar with four copies and talked to another guest who bought one, misplaced it, and promptly bought another.
I have known the author for many years but never very well. We worked at the Sunday Star-Times together as journalists and on the few occasions I swanned into the office I would almost never recognise her: she had a strange chameleon quality about her, a face that seemed to change in the light, a pretty woman with a faint, discreet presence. But you could always tell her writing a mile off. As a columnist, especially in her later incarnation at Canvas, she was a must-read – actually, for her haters, a must-avoid – who wrote about herself and the surrounding concerns of the middle classes with a light but sure touch, satirical, observant, careful. Her farewell column spoke of love and I was moved to tears. All or some of these qualities are evident in her debut novel. Not a lot happens and her characters are ghastly in a blameless way and they all talk too much. These, too, are middle class characteristics; I interviewed the author over email last week on the clothing, objects, parenting and anxieties of New Zealand middle classness.
Where did you get that skirt you wore at the launch? Or was it a duvet cover?
Much to my eternal shame I can’t seem to kick my love of shopping. I would like to say I thrifted my skirt – or, as you rather unkindly suggested, eiderdown – but the truth is it’s by this extraordinary Colombian designer [Agua Bendita] and I bought it online, adding hugely unnecessary air miles to my carbon footprint. I try to be as mindful as possible in my purchases but I know the sheer fact I so frequently indulge my inner-consumer makes me a big fat hypocrite.
Was it your choice to have the launch at a Grey Lynn bar?
Half of my novel is set in a neighbourhood called Point Heed. Readers who, like me, reside in Auckland’s inner-city leafy suburbs will no doubt find it familiar, however it is fictional. I did this deliberately because so many of the middle-class concerns I address are not unique to New Zealand and I wanted it to feel recognisable yet undefined, comfortable but with a slight edge. In the same vein it felt important to have the launch on my stomping ground. I chose Romulus & Remus because it was big enough to fit everyone.
I met a costume stylist and a landscape designer and someone who teaches people how to say no in the workplace, and a couple who own an advertising agency. What other occupations come to mind of your guests?
Two property developers, a real estate agent, a fashion designer, a hairdresser, a builder, two teachers, three artists, a Watercare worker, several journalists, several stay-at-home Mums, several lawyers, two architects, and a GP.
Are you a stay-at-home Mum?
I guess I can officially call myself an author now, but in all honesty there definitely are/have been days/weeks/months/years when “stay-at-home mum” is/was my most accurate job title. It pisses me off, actually, that these days women feel the need to defend their choice to be at home, as if somehow it isn’t enough. Of course, usually families can only afford for one parent to stay home if they enjoy a reasonable level of income, but, even so, most women I know who don’t have a paid job lead incredibly full and busy lives. They’re the ones schools rely on to come on camp and run sports days. They’re the ones picking up the slack for working parents when they’re stuck at the office and their child needs collected from dance or cricket. They’re the ones organising a meal roster to help out the woman in their neighbourhood who’s recovering from a mastectomy.
Grey Lynn and Westmere are the poor white trash cousins of Herne Bay. Discuss.
I once met a woman who lived in Westmere and her lifegoal was to get to Herne Bay’s Northern Slopes, which is pretty sad when you think about it. I think she only got as far as the Southern Slopes, which is even sadder.
Do you shop for groceries at Farro? What do you make of Farro? Farro gives some people I know the screaming shits.
We try to get most of our groceries from the local farmers market. We’re not good gardeners so it feels like the next best thing to growing it ourselves. However, we do live pretty handily to Farro so inevitably we end up there more often than is good for our bank account. Mum calls it The $400 Shop. When you can easily drop 50 bucks on a nice cheese, a box of crackers and a bottle of wine it’s definitely a good reminder that you occupy a very privileged position. But does it give me the screaming shits? No, not in and of itself. I mean what’s not to like about good quality, delicious food? What gives me the screaming shits is that each week I pay $11.99 for a loaf of really tasty and nutritional sourdough bread to feed my family with, while others are struggling to even buy a loaf of the cheapest white bread for theirs. Meanwhile, my family, who have insurance should something awful befall one of us, stay healthy because we eat really well and live in a warm, dry house, while those who can’t afford good, fresh food and live somewhere cold and damp, get sick and then have to depend on an underfunded healthcare system. It’s the most vicious of cycles and I don’t know what to do about it other than vote with my conscience when it comes to the issues I consider most important – child poverty and the environment – and donate as much I can to charities I know actually make a difference.
A few years ago a friend told me about this new-fangled vibrator, the Womanizer, that had literally changed her life, and there was definitely a sense that you were missing out if you hadn’t managed to get your hands on one
Do you have a Dyson?
I do have a Dyson but I haven’t taken it out of the packaging because I’m very waste not, want not and my original vacuum cleaner, which I thought was about to die, hasn’t given up the ghost yet.
Do you have a Bosch dishwasher or fridge?
I have Fisher & Paykel Dish Drawers but I’m opposed to the idea of rinsing your dishes first – it just seems like the most almighty waste of water. I also have a Fisher & Paykel fridge but our washing machine and dryer are Bosch.
What did you mean in your recent Canvas interview about “the hypocrisy” of the middle classes?
I should preface this by saying that any criticism I might make of the middle classes extends to myself. Anyway, I have this half-baked theory (based purely on observation) that when it comes to the rich or the poor, there’s a kind of honesty about your situation. Either because you’re so desperately trying to survive you don’t have time to worry about much else, or, at the other end of the spectrum, because you’re so financially comfortable you don’t have to worry about a sausage, let alone prove anything to anyone. Whereas if you’re middle class you possibly have a mortgage you can’t really afford, maybe you’ve chosen to send your children to schools you can’t really afford, perhaps you drive a car you can’t really afford. You’re on tenuous ground and need to do everything in your power to protect what you’ve got, so you do and say things, judge others in different positions, in order to bolster your own. Like the guy who bangs on about “benefit bludgers” while happily paying the bloke building his new outdoor fireplace cash.
What are examples of middleclass anxiety?
I think the most telling and pervasive example of middle-class anxiety has to be around our children. I mean of course any half-decent parent worries about their offspring, but there is a modern obsession among the relatively moneyed about providing your child with every single possible opportunity under the sun (and yet, quite often, shirking on your parenting duties at home because you’re too shattered by your big, important job). The irony is that most of us probably had fairly bog-standard educations and never had an overseas holiday or a private tutor and yet we turned out fine, but for some reason we’re terrified unless we give our children more, pushing them and moulding them, they’re going to turn out to be failures.
Are there are examples of middleclass anxiety around sex?
A few years ago a friend told me about this new-fangled vibrator, the Womanizer, that had literally changed her life, and then suddenly it seemed like half the women I knew had one, and there was definitely a sense that you were missing out if you hadn’t managed to get your hands on one.
Quite a few men at your launch look like they work out. What is the place of the gymnasium in middle class society?
Possibly what you observed at my launch was as much an age thing as a class thing. It was a largely middle-aged crowd, so most of us are probably doing what we can to turn, or at least hold, back time.
Where was your last overseas holiday?
During the first lockdown I did a lot of soul searching, as many of us were inclined to, about our unsustainable way of life. A change I decided I would make is to try and avoid overseas travel unless it was for good reason. Primarily because of the cost to the planet. But a very good and old friend invited us to celebrate her 50th with her in Rarotonga last June, so we did. It felt important to be there and I was glad we went but it did make me feel rather hypocritical.
Are you on a wellness journey?
No. I’m kind of irritated by the worried well. It seems so indulgent. Although, having said that, a few years ago I went into this horrendous peri-menopausal downward spiral of anxiety and I tried some pretty weird shit in my desperation to claw my way out of it. In the end a very dear friend, alongside a very sensible doctor, convinced me to go on medication, which has been life-changing.
What do you mean, “I tried some pretty weird shit”? What kinds of crazy?
Well not all of these are strictly crazy, but in no particular order I:
– visited a clinic where they taught me how to breathe
– attempted to follow the Wim Hof method of submerging myself in freezing cold water every morning, all year round
– underwent regular Network Spinal Analysis
– saw a Zen shiatsu practitioner who told me my panic attack was induced by the spirit of an evil man whose presence I had sensed at a party.
Please discuss some aspects of the most unbearable middleclass person you know.
I think ultimately way worse than the kind of keeping up with the Jones’ type are the middle-class people who pretend they’re not. Intimating they’re still down in the trenches even though they actually lead a very comfortable life. I find this sort of lack of self-awareness deeply unappealing. Although my politics definitely sit very much to the left of the spectrum, as I get older I can understand where that loathing of the liberal elite comes from. I think that assumption that having money automatically makes you a bad and selfish person is really reductive and unhelpful.
And some of the best virtues of a middleclass person you know.
It would have to be generosity. And by that I don’t mean shouting your mates a round of drinks just because you can (although that’s a perfectly admirable thing to do), but true generosity. The person I’m thinking of forwent a pay rise so that his staff could get a bigger one. Not the middle managers, but the women in the office and the blokes in the yard, the ones who are really feeling inflation’s bite. He absolutely embodies that duty of care to others which can be so rare these days. I find it quite heroic.
One of Those Mothers by Megan Nicol Reed (Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom is devoting all week to this novel set to roar up the bestseller charts. Monday: the explosive opening chapter. Yesterday: the author’s thoughts on sex. Tomorrow: we conclude the week-long coverage with a review of the book, by another sharp observer of middle class life, Stephanie Johnson.