With Janet Parmely author, At the Butcher Counter of Life
SPOILER ALERT: This interview might reveal details you’d prefer not to know before you have finished the book.
Come on, did you really have a masturbating cat?
I did. The love of my life and I found a stray kitten roaming the back forty of his farm. She was barely weaned and could not have endured much hardship, being so young. Early trauma, therefore, could not have accounted for her deviant ways. (Meaning public masturbation. I’m all for pleasuring oneself in private.)
We named her Nellie, and she lived in luxury, for a calico, in my bungalow in Kansas City. She was the kind of cat that would let you pet her a few minutes, purr, then turn on you in a wink and claw her way up your arm.
At a certain age, Nellie began reclining on my antique, pink-velvet settee, propped up on her front paws, hind legs stretched out, head tucked between her legs. In this position, she licked herself to ecstasy, or maybe into a trance. The settee was on the sun porch and first thing you saw upon entering my home. When my dear friend, Tim, visited, his ritual greeting was, “Why don’t you just sell that cat to a fraternity and be done with her?”
To this day, if you mention Nellie, my family and friends just roll their eyes and say, “That awful cat.”
Can you elaborate on your relationships with the men of God’s Holding Paddock?
During my tenure at God’s Holding Paddock, I was always attached, first to Jack and then Adrian. Our interactions were never muddied by romantic availability. (In this sense, I am well aware and grateful that I got exactly what I needed at the butcher counter of life.)
I was talking to Dick’s son Richard, one night in Aratapu Tavern, which he owns over Dargaville way. It was shortly after Dick had died, and I told him how surprised I was that these old Kiwi guys accepted me into the fold at their traditionally male bastion.”
“Surprised, really?” he said. “They went to the same old pub without fail, and suddenly this sweet young thing shows up and wants to listen to them night after night.” (Twenty years their junior, I suppose I did seem like a sweet young thing. It’s something to remember: no matter how aged you feel at the time, twenty years on, you’ll appreciate how young you were.)
I listened, I admired them, and therefore, they admired me. At heart, they were shy, especially with women. Over the years, this grew into an unspoken, mutual fondness and respect. The closest Dick ever got to I-love-you was to say, “I wish you were a little older, girl.” A poignant contrast to Adrian’s intimacy laced with control. Safe from the choppy waters of sex and za-za-zu, they could be as young and dangerous as they wanted, without any pressure to deliver. It was perfect and complete, it was.
It’s an interesting title. How did you come to it?
It took me a long time to get there. When I was invited to take my manuscript to the New York Pitch Conference in 2014, I hadn’t settled on the title. That’s a major hitch in any pitch.
Stuart Horwitz (founder of Book Architecture) probably never noticed me in the audience at the Tucson Festival of Books, but he played a central role in deciding on a title. One of the main tenets of his philosophy is that your book can be about one thing, and only one thing. My manuscript was finished except for fine tuning, but I had no unifying idea to tie all these messy bits together: midlife, obsolescence, crazy parents, dying parents, landscape of the soul, finding “the village of your true birth,” as Clarissa Pinkola Estés puts it.
That’s when it hit me. The guys at the pub were right. Life is like a butcher counter. You can have whatever you want, but you have to ring the bell. If you’re not sure what to order, however, the universe will give you, for better or worse, what you need instead.
There seems to be a lot of drinking in this story, beer at the pub, Niederburg wine, gin, piña coladas.
Yep. But please note, I never saw the inside of the Booze Bus. Touch wood.
Your story is laden with detail. Is your memory really that good? Or did you embellish?
There are certain moments in life that go straight to your heart and stick. For the rest, you may need a photo or notebook to pique your memory. I’ve been taking notes for years. Morning pages in big, orange-covered Rhodia graphic pads, tiny spiral and bound notepads for out and about.
I hesitated at first to pull out my notepad at the pub, because I didn’t want to jinx the spontaneity of the evening or violate the sanctity of God’s Holding Paddock. In my early visits to Parua Bay Tavern, I scribbled down the night’s stories and wisdom under the dome light of my Toyota Tueno in the parking lot when the evening was done. Then I’d rush home to Taurikura and flesh it out in emails to family and friends.
It was an inefficient system, especially after three or four beers. At some point, I pulled the pad out of my purse and jotted down a few notes surreptitiously at the table. I got more brazen, recorded more, and it being New Zealand, and people generally liking to talk about themselves, pretty soon the guys paid no attention to me and adopted a “there she goes again” attitude. (Much like “put back the sand in the cat box” got incorporated into our nightly routine, whenever I got up to go to the Ladies.) Poking fun at your mates is very much a British trait, and Kiwi, although it was gentler at God’s Holding Paddock.
In the end, the guys would take the notepad and write down things themselves because they worried I wasn’t getting it quite right. (When I was a journalism intern at University of Missouri at Kansas City in the 1990s, they did this very same thing in Haiti, Guatemala, and Cuba.)
I think they were flattered that anyone was interested in their country and their lives, which seemed altogether common to them, but certainly not to me. Although, make no mistake, they were unanimous in their appreciation of New Zealand as God’s Own, especially as it was in their day, when Parua Bay was full of fish for the taking.
Certain themes pop up in the story. Did you plant them?
Like the view from a window and what that implies about the opportunities for engagement with the life outside? (Certainly the ultimate involvement is to climb right through it.) At the very least, a window can offer a connection with the beauty of nature, like Dad’s fallback to an office with a better view of the Catalina Mountains.
And there are the shoes: dancing shoes, Mom’s ratty sandals, Dad’s Dutch shoes, Adrian’s supreme freedom—no shoes at all. Shod or unshod, moving on is such a basic fact of life. No, I didn’t contrive them. The themes planted themselves. And, of course, there are the underpants. Here’s to the underpants!
Did you experience some relief once you set this story to paper?
You are talking about one aspect of catharsis, I think, easing pain by expressing emotion, often through writing or drama? No, definitely not.
There is, however, another take on catharsis—Aristotle talked about it—and that is the intellectual pleasure of inference and learning. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” That’s as close as it gets for me. A bit of illumination, a broader perspective, but the ache and nostalgia remain.
I’m woefully bad at letting go. I have a pretty good memory, and my notebooks, so that probably doesn’t help. Maybe it’s part of the bargain for being a writer. Anyway, if I could wipe the slate clean by dashing off a story or two, there doesn’t seem to be much grit or honor in that.
Your daughter is now thirty-seven years old. When you first left for New Zealand, she was nineteen, a sophomore in college. How did she react to her mother bolting over the equator?
Initially it was more of a lark than a bolt. I planned to be away for only a year, the length of my contract with Bay Audiology. Laura herself was full of puff, wind, and rabbit tracks at the time, like me. We have always been close, but she was born independent. “Self” was her first spoken word, not “Mommy,” not “Daddy,” but essentially, “I will do this all by myself, thank you very much.”
My father’s uncle was sent to America from the “old country” (Germany) to pave the way for the rest of the family to emigrate. He was nine years old. High time to leave the nest, son! After the repeal of Prohibition, my father delivered spirits for Seagram’s Distillery. He was fifteen. Laura was itching to strike out on her own. I suppose I figured that if Uncle John could expatriate as a mere child and Dad could run liquor when he’d barely hit puberty, Laura was more than ready to go.
She was the first person to visit me in New Zealand, on a budget ticket that required a twelve-hour layover in LA. The airport at that time was full of panhandlers and saffron-robed Hare Krishnas who accosted travelers with flowers and begging bowls. She locked her suitcase to her arm (you could still padlock luggage back then) and slept entwined in one of those dreadful banks of airport seats until it was time to board the plane.
We emailed and phoned regularly that first year. Then she met her future husband. You know how that goes. Corresponding with Mom is far less engaging than new love, as it should be. She settled in a town where I didn’t have roots, got occupied with her own life, marriage, family. That said, as we both mature, our geographically disadvantaged relationship has become more problematic, especially as there is a stellar grandson in the equation now.
What would you like your readers to take away from your story?
Foremost, I want them to be entertained, then heartened. We are all in this glorious, ratty, fragile dinghy of life, sailing through much the same waters. Personally I find solace in that. I enjoy reading about people who rocked the dinghy, hadn’t a clue how to navigate that dinghy, washed overboard, hauled themselves back on and kept sailing. It gives me hope.
Would you recommend that someone else embark on a quest like this?
Mmm. I was lucky enough to tackle this adventure a bit at a time (like eating a three-legged pig). I set out with a one-year contract and the comfort of a brand new marriage. (Certainly nothing like Joan’s steaming eleven and a half thousand miles from home, with no illusions about returning to quotidian life in Wales.) In my mind and Jack’s, in twelve months, we’d pick up where we left off back in Kansas City. That plan fell apart—through my own choices and carried along by the momentum of a reconfigured life.
If you asked me this question on a really bad day, I would say hell-no. Having a piece of my heart in each hemisphere has seriously complicated life. That busy gremlin, Choice, has a cousin, and his name’s Regret. He’s a waste of time but hard to ignore when he pipes up: “Next time stay home by the fireside with your illusions!” When you give your dreams wings, you’re likely to lose them, at least those particular ones. But then, I would have missed out on the New Zealand experience, one of my life’s richest and most pivotal.
Georges Remi, pen name Hergé, never left his native Belgium, but he immersed his creation, the intrepid Tintin, in a world of cartoon adventures. I think I might have liked that, to retain my hearth and home, strike out vicariously. But I can’t draw a stick figure, so it was never an option.
I will say this: if you choose to embark on your own adventure, you can be certain it won’t be what you thought it would. It will be more miserable, and it will be more sparkling, in turns. Whether it’s a crazy big leap to New Zealand or smaller scale—take a vacation, learn a new map, make new friends—you will get just what you need at the butcher counter of life.