The importance of research…and pitfalls for the unwary

Image retrieved from

Image retrieved from

I recently had to complete an assignment on the subject of the importance of research for writers.  Two examples that we were asked to consider were those of an article published by Rolling Stone magazine last year, titled A Rape on Campus, and the 2009 novel The Trowenna Sea by respected New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera.  At first glance, one might think the two instances are very different.  However, on closer analysis, it seems that both authors were driven by the same motive – to tell a good story. And in this they both succeeded, albeit by different means and for different reasons.

The Rolling Stone journalist, Sabrina Erdely, set out to write an article about a rape on a prestigious US university campus – that was her goal. Her previous work had included a number of articles about sexual abuse and rape, a subject about which she clearly feels passionate and she seems fated to have come across the supposed victim of a gang rape by seven ‘frat boys’ at the University of Virginia. At least one source that I have found states that ‘Jackie’ (the name Erdley gave the victim) may have devised the rape story as a way of ensnaring a male friend into a romantic relationship. Erdely broke the basic rule of journalism by failing to verify her sources and interview all parties, including the alleged rapists. The article was later discredited and withdrawn by Rolling Stone, who commissioned an independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism which labelled A Rape on Campus as ‘the worst piece of journalism of 2014’.

Rolling Stone Magazine's story, 'A Rape on Campus' was published in December 2014. Photo: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend retrieved from

Rolling Stone Magazine’s story, ‘A Rape on Campus’ was published in December 2014. Photo: Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend retrieved from

In the case of Ihimaera’s book, the author was accused of plagiarism after a journalist writing for the NZ Listener magazine googled passages from the book and found that some matched the work of other writers.  It seems, from a Sunday Star Times interview with him on, that he made the mistake of deciding to use unchanged passages of others’ work in his narrative because  “One of the issues was I could easily substitute word for word, those words, and that way cover up what they were and nobody would know. But as I thought about that, I thought, `no, I really loved the way people were saying these things, and if I do that, am I really solving the problem?” 

Witi Ihimaera Photo: Lawrence Smith, retrieved from

Witi Ihimaera
Photo: Lawrence Smith, retrieved from

Ihimaera also admits that the mistake amounted to ‘a diminution of my own standards as a researcher.’  

Shortly after the plagiarism was revealed, the author received a $50,000 Arts Foundation Laureate award, which he voluntarily offered to return. His offer was refused, signifying the high regard in which he was still held in NZ literary circles.  
Ihimaera states that 0.8% of the work in The Trowenna Sea was unattributed. In contrast, it seems that the main event upon which Erdely built her article was fabricated.

To give Erdely her due, she may not have known that ‘Jackie’ had invented the rape, but she must surely have suspected that certain facts did not ring true. The crazy thing is that, having read the full, original Rolling Stone article, I believe that Erdely would have had a good story even without ‘Jackie’s’ case. Another student mentioned in the article, Emily Renda, was also a rape survivor (though apparently that, too, is now in question) and talked to Erdely. The UVA was, at the time the article went to press, one of 86 colleges under federal investigation and one of only 12 singled out for a compliance review by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. A strong narrative could have been built on these facts.

Sabrina Erdely Photo:

Sabrina Erdely

Ultimately, both A Rape on Campus and The Trowenna Sea received far greater attention than they might otherwise have done because of the controversy surrounding them.  Erdely’s article succeeded, in that it brought the issue of rape culture at American colleges and universities into the spotlight.  

Although my personal belief is that Ihimaera’s motives for failing to credit the plagiarized passages in his book were mistaken, I don’t think he had any specific agenda. Had I been one of the authors whose work he had failed to credit in The Trowenna Sea, however, I would have been annoyed that he, as an acclaimed author (he wrote The Whale Rider), was passing off my work as his own.

Conversely, I believe that Erdely had a quite specific agenda and manipulated (partially by omission) facts – and possibly people – to suit her planned article.  She has apparently taught journalism, so surely she should have known better? Rolling Stone magazine says it will continue to work with her, which I find strange. How will readers react to future articles written by her?  According to her Wikipedia entry, she is now “best known as the author of a discredited article in Rolling Stone describing the alleged rape of a University of Virginia student by several fraternity members.”  This can hardly have been what she was hoping for when A Rape on Campus was published!

'The Trowenna Sea' by Witi Ihimaera and 'Rolling Stone' Magazine (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

‘The Trowenna Sea’ by Witi Ihimaera and ‘Rolling Stone’ Magazine (photo ©Tanya Lunn)

There is an interesting little postscript to this story.

After completing my assignment, I went into a book shop in town where I was sure I’d seen The Trowenna Sea for sale. The publishers, Penguin (under its imprint Raupo Press), had initially said that they would be bringing out a revised version of the novel with full attributions, but later it was decided not to reissue it for unspecified reasons. The book was never withdrawn, but Ihimaera bought Penguin’s existing warehouse stock of 1800 copies, which he put into a storage unit in Auckland. He said he could not destroy them because he was still proud of them.

The book was indeed for sale in my local bookshop, and they told me that they now buy their copies direct from the author, from his personal supply!

I bought a copy ⧠



Glass Castles vs. Rainbows

Diana Cooper - Autobiography (Faber Finds, 2008) and The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)

Diana Cooper – Autobiography, Faber Finds, 2008 and The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

I’ve been interested in biographies and autobiographies for as long as I can remember; the first one that I read, when I was aged about 12, was The Moon’s A Balloon, by David Niven. Here, I’m considering two very different but equally engaging accounts of unusual lives.  The book on the left, Diana Cooper’s autobiography, is one that I bought after I’d read The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, about her elder brother, the 9th Duke of Rutland. I read the book pictured on the right, The Glass Castle, at around the same time, as it was the selection of my book club. They describe lives that could not be more dissimilar.

The author of The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls, was brought up by extraordinary parents, who chose to live a nomadic, poverty-stricken life even though this was not strictly necessary. Jeannette’s mother owned a house in Phoenix, land in Texas worth $1m and valuable antique jewellery. Her father was a hopeless alcoholic who never wanted – or managed – to hold down a job for more than a few months while her mother, who had a teaching qualification, preferred to paint rather than work or even cook meals for her children.

Jeannette Walls (John Taylor)

Jeannette Walls (John Taylor)

Time and time again, the family had to ‘do the skedaddle’ from one dusty desert town to another as either creditors or the authorities caught up with them. In the end, they wound up in a severely depressed mining town in West Virginia, living in a collapsing shack where the four children were social outcasts, learning to fend for themselves and look after each other as their parents failed to provide regular meals or warm, dry beds. And yet, both parents were highly intelligent, articulate people who passed on their intellectual gifts to their children which, coupled with the survival tactics that they had to learn, resulted in them growing up to have surprisingly successful lives.

Jeannette Walls became a journalist and was living on Park Avenue, interviewing stars like Nicole Kidman, even as her parents were squatting in an abandoned building and rooting through rubbish bins, refusing hand-outs from their children.  The book opens with the author, aged three, suffering severe burns while cooking hot-dogs for herself over a gas stove in a trailer park and then being removed from hospital by her father before she was properly healed. In contrast, the opening paragraph of Diana Cooper’s memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes begins:

 ‘The celestial light shone most brightly at Cockayne Hatley, a house in Bedfordshire that must always be remembered as the place where the clouds cast no shadows but were always fleecy white, where grass was greener and taller, strawberries bigger and more plentiful, and above all where garden and woods, the house and the family, the servants and villagers, would never change.’

Lady Diana Cooper, (E.O. Hoppé, 1916)

Lady Diana Cooper, (E.O. Hoppé, 1916)

In spite of many tragedies besetting her life, such as the death of her 11-year-old brother and then the loss of almost all of the young men in her ‘Coterie’ during the First World War, Lady Diana’s life was one of pampered privilege, of grand houses and parties, holidays on the Continent and fairly minimal education. And yet she, too, went on to have a successful life, marrying Duff Cooper (who later became Ambassador to Paris) and starring in some of Britain’s first silent movies.

In comparing the lives of these two women, the obvious old chestnut, ‘Nature or Nurture?’ rolls around. Certainly in the case of Jeannette Walls, it’s obvious that the struggle to overcome hardships in childhood gave her the drive to succeed in her adult life. The Glass Castle is compelling reading and makes us question every way of bringing up children, from the proverbial ‘helicopter’ parenting to the ‘free-range’ parents at the opposite end of the spectrum, condemned by society for their neglectful behaviour. Although the Walls children suffered in many ways, they always felt loved and had a very strong sense of family, whereas Diana Cooper was brought up as most children of the British aristocracy were in the late 19th and early 20th century. She saw little of her parents as a child and, when she grew older, had a strained relationship with her mother. Though she loved her father dearly, Diana later discovered that she was in fact the biological offspring of her mother and the Hon. Henry Cust, who owned a neighboring estate (and of whom, I’m glad to say, she was also fond!)

'The Silver Star', Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2013)

‘The Silver Star’, Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2013)

Jeannette Walls has also written Half-Broke Horses (2009), a novel about her grandmother’s life – which I have yet to read – and The Silver Star (2013), a novel that resonates with The Glass Castle in that it is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s, about two young girls who have essentially been abandoned by their mother. I found it a good read and it was well received by the New York Times Book Review. Walls has stated in an interview with that she was inspired by people, places and situations that she has known: “One of the inspirations for the story is the power of sibling love, how so often when a parent is irresponsible, one of the children rises to the occasion and becomes the adult so that the other siblings can be kids. That can make the child stronger and he or she goes on to become a CEO or a political leader, but if the pressure is too great, the child may crack under the pressure.”

The Glass Castle is slated to be made into a movie, with Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, American Hustle) playing Jeannette ⧠

Scandalous – or Scandal-ridden?

'A Scandalous Life' - The Biography of Jane Digby, by Mary S. Lovell. Fourth Estate, 2003.

‘A Scandalous Life’ – The Biography of Jane Digby, by Mary S. Lovell. Fourth Estate, 2003. (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

Recently, while revisiting my book reviews on Amazon, I was reminded of one of my favourite books – A Scandalous Life, the biography of Lady Jane Digby, by Mary S. Lovell. I first heard of Jane Digby while visiting Damascus in 2008 and was immediately intrigued by her story so, having enjoyed an earlier work by Mary S. Lovell, I bought A Scandalous Life on the recommendation of a friend.

Like Straight on Till Morning, the author’s biography of Beryl Markham, this is a thoroughly-researched, entertaining and compelling portrait of a woman who lived an extraordinary (for her time) life. The book also contains a number of interesting black and white photographs and portraits of the people and places that featured prominently in the subject’s life. It made me want to travel the ‘Jane Digby trail’ from her childhood haunt of Holkham Hall in Norfolk to Paris, Munich, Weinheim and Athens where she followed the succession of men who in turn captured her heart; on to Beirut and at last to Damascus and Palmyra where she finally found lasting happiness with her Bedouin sheikh, Medjuel el Mezrab. In later life she exchanged adventures in the bedroom for adventures in the desert among Medjuel’s people, for whom she cared and provided generously. She learned to ride and care for camels as expertly as she did horses – seeming at times to possess more love for her animals than for most of the numerous children she bore (her last – beloved – child died tragically young).

Lady Jane Digby El Mezrab by Carl Haag, 1862. Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait.

The author hints that after she settled in Syria, Jane Digby may have regretted abandoning her surviving offspring along the way as she did and to me, that speaks of a constant youthful yearning for ‘something more’ (she was married off for the first time at just 18 years of age to a man considerably older than she). We should bear in mind that 19th century gentlewomen were not nearly as involved with the day-to-day upbringing of children as are modern women. The Victorian age provided the wealthy with wonderful opportunities for adventure and exploration though it was not generally expected that these opportunities would be grabbed by women. Originally seeking lasting love rather than adventure, Jane eventually found both and must have been a remarkable woman (and a talented artist). I would like to have met her!

by Brigid Keenan, with photographs by Tim Beddow. Thames & Hudson, 2000

‘Damascus – Hidden Treasures of the Old City’ by Brigid Keenan, with photographs by Tim Beddow. Thames & Hudson, 2000 (Photo ©Tanya Lunn)

As an aside, I should mention here another book that I found interesting at the time and which had fuelled my interest in visiting Syria: Damascus – Hidden Treasures of the Old City by Brigid Keenan, with photographs by Tim Beddow.  Keenan had lived in Damascus for several years while accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting there in the early 1990s (which she wrote about in her highly amusing autobiographical account, Diplomatic Baggage). During her time there, she had become interested in the old courtyard houses of the city and was involved in the restoration of Bait Mujallid. The book documents many of the architectural treasures of the city, as well as the way of life in the narrow alleyways of the old souks, which I very much fear may have suffered irreparable damage as a result of the dreadful conflict in Syria over the past few years (quite apart from the appalling human cost).  The book is one of the few photographic records of the courtyard houses of Damascus as they were at the end of the 20th century, which, together with Keenan’s well-researched prose, makes it a valuable historical account in today’s context.

Why ‘The Moonlit Door’?

Walter de la Mare by Walter Tittle, lithograph, 1922 (©National Portrait Gallery, London)

Walter de la Mare by Walter Tittle, lithograph, 1922 (©National Portrait Gallery, London)

My first post on WordPress!  And so, without fanfare or further ado, I’ll explain why I have chosen this particular name for my blog. It came to me late last year, when I was talking to my high school-aged daughter about poetry, that this would be a good name for a blog concerning writing, and poetry in particular.  The inspiration comes from the poem The Listeners, by Walter de la Mare.

The aforementioned daughter had been worrying  that she was not being taught any enough poetry in English. So she had started dipping into poetry books on the shelves at home, on one occasion taking a copy of the works of Byron to school (she was rewarded by being labelled ‘pretentious’ by one of her friends, perhaps not entirely surprisingly!).I decided that if she was serious, I should perhaps make her learn a poem every week, as I had to do at school. It’s amazing how lines come back to me even after 40 years – on that day last year, as we looked out at the rain sweeping across the choppy grey sea, my husband suggested jokingly that we should take the boat out and I found myself replying:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack

Butting through the Channel on a mad March day

With a cargo of Tyne coal,

Road-rail, pig-lead,

Something, something and cheap tin trays!

This prompted me to get down The Collins Book of Best-Loved Verse to look up the missing words (which turned out to be ‘Firewood, iron-ware’; these lines are, of course, from the poem Cargoes by John Masefield) and naturally I started re-reading long-remembered favourites.  The Listeners has always been among them and rereading it was a joy; making my daughter learn it by heart was somewhat more of a challenge, however.

Wood engraving, titled and annotated in another hand in pencil in lower margin, estate stamp verso, 9.7 x 9cm.  Annotation reads

Wood engraving, titled and annotated in another hand in pencil in lower margin, estate stamp verso, 9.7 x 9cm. Annotation reads “The Listeners. 1 only.” Illustration for Walter de la Mare’s poem The Listeners. No signed and numbered edition is known. Illustrated in Butler, Raymond McGrath Prints, 1979. I remember this illustration from the poetry anthology in which I studied the poem at school.

The Listeners

Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Walter de la Mare (1873 – 1958)