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Reinvention at any age
06 December 2013
What’s an octogenarian to do? Write novels about the mad world of advertising in which she worked when she was younger, and raise a few eyebrows along the way with her characters’ antics.
Five years ago writer Marion von Adlerstein’s cat died. Somewhat perversely, it triggered in her the need to see if she could live without another living creature in the house.
“I’ve always had someone or something around - a husband, an animal, something,” she told Ruby on the eve of the launch of her new novel, One More Slip (Hachette Australia, rrp $29.99).
What Marion (pictured above) discovered was once she had a purpose - like writing – she had no problem living all on her own.
Her first novel, The Freudian Slip (2011), marked the beginning of that purpose.
The two books, explains Marion, came about because of TV’s Mad Men – the period drama set in America’s advertising industry in the 1960s.
“Everyone was obsessed with the show. I’d always thought fiction was just too hard to write, because you had to have a plot and I could never think of one, and then it occurred to me, I can write about advertising in Sydney in the 1960s. I was there. I did it. I could also write about it from a woman’s point of view at the middle management level, not that top management, blokey, end of the spectrum with which Mad Men deals.”
And so, drawing on her long and successful career writing copy and working in advertising both in Australia and in London, Marion began her new career as novelist when she was 79.
Now 81, and with her second novel published, she knows she wants to sit down and start writing again soon.
“I have a rudimentary idea, but I find the process of extending that daunting,” she admits.
However, thinking about how much work she has ahead of her is not constructive.
“The characters I make up are wonderful company. They’re not like real people. They don’t offend you and you can make them do what you want. It’s the ultimate control,” she explains, admitting they “fill her time and give her purpose”.
Marion grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs. Leaving school at 15 and landing in advertising, she worked in Sydney and then London before returning to Sydney in the early 1960s – a divorcee, which she has noted was something rather unusual back then.
In 1967, she married her second husband, a German Baron, Hans von Adlerstein.
“Hans was older than I was. He directed and produced TV commercials and I wrote the copy. We were working in Melbourne and planning our move back to Sydney to set up our own little production company.
“The best business decision we made was coming back to Sydney in 1976. We bought a place in Surry Hills and I am still there. I also began writing for Vogue – travel, fashion and beauty,” says Marion, who explains that her choice of house was predicated on the fact that it was one of the few places open-for-inspection on a Sunday, the only day she and Hans had time to look.
“I like to be close to the city. I don’t drive. I tried driving once but scared myself so much because I’m not a great judge of distance that I’ve never done it again. I get around on buses. It’s fascinating for observing people: what they do, how they act and react. I often write snippets of description down.”
Marion’s first novel (Freudian Slip) took her two years to write and her second a year. She feels One More Slip is a better piece, although the characters are more limited… “they were formed by the process of the first book and so have ways of behaving - of being.
“I’ve also read a great deal of fiction over the past few years and that has helped me immensely. The endless, wonderfully clever and beautiful ways writers have of getting to a point, describing a situation, a person, an action, never fail to impress me.”
Explaining her own work-day process, she confesses to being “a morning person” and “liking to have a clear day ahead with nothing to do and nothing on in the evening. I’m no good at multitasking. I like to think and get one thing done and if the words aren’t coming, I stop and leave off and go and do something else. I usually finish by about 5pm. I don’t work in the evening.”
Marion’s evenings if she has her way are devoted to cooking something “simple and delightful” for dinner.
Keeping a diary is something she wishes she’d done all her life: “I used to write one when I was sad and if anyone saw it now they’d think what a terribly unhappy life she must have had. There was never time nor a need to write when I was happy, but a diary is an invaluable source for a writer,” admits Marion, who also agrees that memories and experience play a large role in providing inspiration.
One More Slip was launched by Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edwina McCann on a warm, muggy night in late November. Edwina spoke glowingly about Marion and her fascinating career and related a story about a piece Marion had written for Vogue on ageing.
“I had asked Marion to write on ageing, because she just flies in the face of it,” Edwina explained.
“She emailed me saying she was having terrible trouble writing the piece. Not because of the topic, but because she felt she could no longer write in the style magazines’ demand. She had a solution, however. She had uncovered a piece she wrote in 1983, called ‘How to cope with age’. It was perfect and so we published it in our November  issue.”
What are Marion’s views now of that piece written 30 years ago: “I was in the middle of growing old then. I was 51, so I was very aware of the process. I’ve been old so long now I don’t even think about it.
“It’s very strange, I don’t remember the stages of getting old, but what I can’t believe is that I’ve reached 81. I couldn’t imagine myself at that age then or what I’d be like. I never thought I’d be as active as I am. You have to pace yourself, of course, but I do get around. It’s important to look after yourself and stay as healthy as you can,” says Marion, the hint of a knowing smile in her voice.
Her advice on getting old goes like this: “Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can go in for surgery if you want but it doesn’t make you young. You can’t change the year in which you were born and I really don’t understand why anyone would make an effort over something you can’t do anything about.”