Patrick Evans Talks 'Gifted'

1) Why did you write the novel about Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson?

Writers are attracted to mysteries and absences, and now Frank and Janet are gone, no one knows exactly what happened in the 16 months she was in his army hut at his Esmonde Road property in Takapuna - although Frank made it clear at the time and subsequently that he found her difficult and exhausting to be with occasionally. I found nothing to get in the way of imagining what went on with the purpose of showing something of a transition in New Zealand writing at the time from socially-based fiction and poetry to an art that was more imaginative and subjective. I wanted to compress all of Janet's development as a writer into that brief period of 16 months, and to show why Frank's writing changed in the same period. And I thought - probably more than anything else - what a plainly-and-simply good story it was - a kind of love affair between an older gay writer and a lost young woman who needed the right kind of love, and got it freely from an unexpected source.

2) How did you adapt it for the stage?

The book is 110,000 words and the play is 20,000, so I shaved 90,000 words off it. This is in fact to some extent what I actually did, just stripping back the thread of narrative that goes through and putting Frank at the front of the stage, so to speak, to give it to the audience. I'm grateful to Carl Nixon, the Christchurch writer and a friend of mine, first for suggesting that the novel could become a play (something I had to be persuaded of before I started), and, second, for very succinctly telling me how to do it - 'Frank narrates the play by talking to the audience'. As the text went through the stripping-back process and then was workshopped, it became more and more a play and less and less an adapted novel, as actions replaced words and what is read became what is seen and heard. At some stage I 'gave it up' to the director, Conrad Newport, and his team to make it 'theirs', as they have the responsibility to get it on stage. I consciously withdrew from the production at a point where I felt that, as the writer, I had become irrelevant. If it is an achievement, it is theirs at least as much as it is mine.

3) What are the main themes of the play?

Janet is 'gifted' in the well-known sense of that phrase - the most remarkable and distinctive writer we've had, in my view, and one who, for all the difficulties her writing presents, is much loved and well-remembered nearly ten years after her death. In both novel and play I wanted to bring out the some of the distinctive nature of that gift, particularly its linguistic aspect - her belief in the redemptive power of language and its capacity to create our sense of who we are and all the magic in the world around us. But Frank had a gift, too, and I wanted to remind people of that as well - a gift for loving and nurturing friends unconditionally and in a way that brought out a sort of creativity in them - in Janet, her first novel, and in Harry, his life-long comedy routine and the art of his survivor's life.

4) Everyone has heard of Janet Frame but Frank Sargeson seems a very distant figure - why is this?

We remember Janet because we remember the film of her autobiography and the very palatable narrative of her life that came out of it - what I call 'the myth of the misdiagnosis'. This appeals to our liking of the underdog, but it doesn't seem to make many people read her writing - Janet called herself 'New Zealand's greatest unread author'. This reflects the minority status of New Zealand literature in the country that produces it - we have a small reading/viewing population. All members of Sargeson's generation of cultural nationalists began to fade away as 'literature' began to occupy a different status in our lives as New Zealanders - we read less to find out about what it means to be a New Zealander and more to be entertained and stimulated. A great irony of Sargeson's neglect is that he was a really significant (undercover and often very funny) gay writer who ought to appeal to our liberated contemporary sensibilities. I hope people read him more as a result of seeing the play - and read Janet more, too, of course.

5) If you could ask Janet and Frank one question each, what would it be?

Janet: 'Is it true that you you used to sneak through the hedge at night and use the next-door neighbours' outside toilet, as they accused you of doing?'
Frank: 'What did Lemora really taste like? Was it really as bad as people tell me? And what was your own home-made wine like, that you made in a pumpkin?'

6) What does it mean to you to have the premiere of Gifted as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival?

It's a thrill to have it as part of this festival and the others that are coming up elsewhere later in the year. Of course, it means that it's open to a wider audience of festival-goers, and it might also get a little attention overseas as well. I'm really grateful to the people who first thought of putting 'Gifted' into the programme and who have somehow got it onto the stage. I hope it makes a lot of people happy.