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Writers at Work – Rachel J. Fenton interview

Rachel Fenton: writer/artist

Today I welcome writer, artist, poet, graphic novelist, and all round Renaissance woman, Rachel Fenton, for a Writers at Work interview. Rachel was born in Yorkshire and now lives in Oamaru, in Aotearoa’s South Island. Co-author of Island to Island (Dala/ Upstart Press), co-editor of Three Words, An Anthology of Aotearoa Women’s Comics (Beatnik), her work has appeared in English, The Rialto, Magma, Landfall, The Stinging Fly,and other journals and anthologies. Beerstorming With Charlotte Brontë in New York is published by Ethel Zine and Micro Press.

Welcome, Rachel, what joy to have you here with your new book, Beerstorming With Charlotte Brontë in New York.

Kia ora, Nuala, thanks so very much for having me, it’s a genuine treat to visit while you have your new book out – the superb Nora!

I love the title. Firstly, tell us, what is your history (herstory!) with Charlotte Brontë?

(Nice!) I had a meandering sort of introduction to Charlotte Brontë, having read Jane Eyre yonks ago and not feeling strongly about her writing, to be honest. But when I found out about Mary Taylor, her best friend and a writer, who lived in Aotearoa for as long as NZ’s most famous writer Katherine Mansfield, yet was almost unheard of, I came smack bang back to Charlotte and saw her in an entirely new light. I also discovered that my grandmother’s best friend from my hometown in Yorkshire is the great great-granddaughter of John Robinson who was present at Charlotte’s wedding (Juliet Barker’s biography of CB recounts the wedding, PP 757-8).

Explain the title, especially Beerstorming – is this a Fentonism?

Ha! I wish. No. I had written all the poems, returned home to NZ from New York where I’d been researching Mary and Charlotte’s friendship, and was actually searching the internet for the name of a craft beer I’d had, thinking I could incorporate it into a title for the chapbook (Daisy Cutter, if you’re interested – too summery, I decided) and I came across Beerstorming.

There’s a wonderfully meta quality to the way you layer library life with Charlotte, with your own home, with the strangeness of New York, and the act of researching itself. Tell us why you decided to record this research process in poems.

Thank you. I’d been awarded a grant from Creative New Zealand, a requirement was to report back, and probably because of how jet-lagged I was – I find I gravitate towards writing poetry when I’m tired – my journal took the form of poetry. What essayist A. Clutton-Brock calls an “absence of mind” when writers are “called into another state of being and carry us with them.” You do heaps of research for your brilliant historical novels, and perhaps you found this with your Nora too, that as much as you’re taking from an archive, you’re putting in something of yourself, not deliberate, but it’s an exchange, and I love that idea of inhabiting the archive, particularly as a working-class woman given that our herstories, our friendships, even, aren’t recorded so much, or aren’t thought as important as the likes of Mansfield’s and Woolf’s for example.   

It is an exchange and one that grows and is sustaining, I find. I’d love to hear more about this research trip to New York, how it came about etc. How did it feel to be in the NY Public Library and the Morgan? What were you hoping to find and what did you find?

I had been awarded the grant to research and write a graphic biography of Mary Taylor. I discovered New York Public Library held some of her and Charlotte’s correspondence in their Berg Collection, and The Morgan Library and Museum too. I had an invitation to Northwestern University in Chicago, arriving the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Women’s marches. People were jumpy. I kept my map in my breast pocket and I realised I must have looked like I was pulling a gun every time I asked for directions. From there I flew to New York. Jet-lag. Snow. Yorkshire lass that I am, I only took a windbreaker. I don’t know how to express how insignificant and out of scale I felt in New York. Lost. Even the size of the teas: the first morning I was there I ordered two large ones, but I thought, there’s no way I’m wasting one. I’m cripplingly introverted and felt ridiculous carrying them in the street, held away from me the way you return other people’s babies. Then the eye-popping awe of beautiful libraries, lions, art floor-to-ceiling, clouds inside, the woodwork, the colours, so much beauty, and serenity, but security. Guns in a library! In the archives, I felt like an intruder. I had expected to find Charlotte reserved and Mary a gobshite, only Charlotte was more anxious than I’d imagined and she re-narrated what Mary had written when passing on news to their other friend Ellen Nussey. What I didn’t expect to find was how reading their handwriting would affect me. Charlotte’s is disarmingly untidy. When Mary writes of her sister Martha’s death, her perfect mechanical-looking writing becomes child-shaky. I was in bits.   

That’s so beautiful – I was hugely affected by things found during my own research, especially with Emily Dickinson and Belle Bilton (locks of hair, handwriting), so I get this. // There’s an alien feeling to the poems in your book, a process for the narrator of trying to get to grips with cold weather, homesickness, and an unfathomable city. But there’s friendship too, with a woman called Charlotte. I’m curious if that’s really her name but, also, can you talk a bit about your writing and art practices, and how you achieve your creative work?

Yes. I was lucky enough to meet ‘Charlotte’, Loredana Tiron-Pandit, a writer, translator, and illustrator. Our letter-based relationship helped me access Charlotte and Mary’s, and our first real-life meeting was a portal into the research. I also met writer and hip-hop artist Jamez Chang in person for the first time, having collaborated on various projects, and he helped with Beerstorming too. I have children, I work in an op-shop, so I have a lot of gathering time, but only small windows of time to write in. I start with structure. For Beerstorming, the archive dictated the form and the poems flowed from there; for Taylor’s biography, which is a colonial story, the frames and gutters of each page are informed by map grids, so you can take each even-numbered page and put them together to form a map of Gomersal, Taylor’s hometown, and flip them to form Te Whanganui a Tara Port Nicholson, Wellington. It represents the act of colonisation the overlaying of one culture on another. I selected elements of Taylor’s biography to work within that structure, so the research came after the pages were designed, which was a huge risk and made the work difficult, but I like puzzles. And all my work is connected in some way, because I have dyscalculia and systems that don’t rely on numbers help me remember. My practice at the mo is carrying a notebook everywhere, then it’s a “feverish attempt rather than a deed accomplished” when I get an opening.  

Lastly, tell us about your launch on the 29th June and how people can attend.

New York Public Library would have been my dream launch venue, but I’m very lucky to be having a physical library launch here in Oamaru, in The South Island of Aotearoa, where we are incredibly fortunate to be Covid-free. The lovely library staff have made me a smashing launch poster, and the launch is a public event on the anniversary of Charlotte’s wedding day. I plan to have some access for people to attend online too, I’ll post about that on my social media.

For those who can’t attend, limited copies of Beerstorming with Charlotte Brontë in New York via are available via Ethel Zine and Micro Press. Check out my blog Snow Like Thought for more.

Rachel, there must be something in both the Yorkshire and New Zealand air – both places produce fine, interesting, innovative writers like you. Thanks so much for popping by with your beautiful, atmospheric work.

Thank you so much for having me, Nuala, and thank you for supporting my writing. You champion so many writers and don’t shout your own praises, yet you’re showing how it’s done – Nora – you’ve set a very high bar!

Aw, thank you. (Blush blush.) I hope to attend your launch online on the 29th. Meantime good luck, go well, and may your ink flow.