One of Aotearoa’s most recognisable actors, Michelle Langstone is also an award-winning writer whose debut novel, Times Like These, is released this week. The book of essays covers her past few years, including the death of her father, getting married and going through an IVF journey to have a child. It’s clever, witty and honest – just like its author – and here, Michelle talks to Emma Clifton about writing through such an event-filled time.
The protracted processes of releasing a book and having a baby are often so similar that the language of birth is sometimes borrowed; authors referring to their books as their “babies” and mention of birthdays, etc. For actor and writer Michelle Langstone, this language isn’t just a metaphor – in the next few months, she is due to have her first baby, and this week, she has just released her first book. Quite the turnaround for someone who, this time a year ago, was reeling from losing her writing job at North & South and was also in the midst of both tedious and emotional journey that is trying to get pregnant via IVF.
“It feels like a really big year but a really big year in a different way from last year,” Michelle says, sitting at her local café and sipping on a chai latte. “Releasing the book… I find that quite intense; I find it much more intense to be releasing it than to be writing it. Taking something that’s been internal for so long and giving it to other people is a really interesting concept to me that I still haven’t really got my head around. And then having a baby a few months later, I’m like, ‘oh, okay, just all the big things.’ But it’s nice – it’s a year that I will always remember.”
Michelle’s book, Times Like These: On Grief, Hope and Remarkable Love is a series of essays capturing an extremely eventful few years in her life. Written over 18 months, the book was born out of the loss of her father, Dawson, from terminal cancer in 2018 and finishes at the time when she and her husband Arun were trying to have their first child via IVF. “I wrote from the inside the grief of losing my dad, outwards, as I saw where it was taking me and the things I was reflecting upon,” she says. “I was examining the before and after of my life in a really acute way and what my dad’s passing had seeded in me about what the next part [of my life] would be.”
As one of New Zealand’s most recognisable actors, Michelle, 42, has been on our screens for half her life and has done much of the publicity that comes with being a working actor. As someone who has interviewed actors for 14 years for magazines, I can tell you that I was surprised by the level of honesty featured in Times Like These, but Michelle says she was never worried about people knowing more about her after reading the book. “I’m a really open person – with the exception of women’s magazines, where, if you’re being asked constantly about relationships, that just doesn’t interest me. But I’m always happy to talk about other stuff and this book is a rumination on those other things, really.” Her husband Arun is extremely private, Michelle says, and he has no issues with anything in the book. The pair met in 2019 and married in a small ceremony last year just days before Covid-19 shut such celebrations down. Early on in the book, Michelle talks about going to a fertility specialist to talk about having a baby and how initially she and Arun had decided they wouldn’t go through IVF. By the end of the book, it’s a different story.
“The IVF was just… awful,” Michelle says, shaking her head. “I wanted to wrap up every single woman I saw in those f—king lines to get blood tests and hold them to me and say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ It was a horror to me, as well as a marvel. It’s horrifying having no control and all the not knowing, and the variables. And wanting something so badly and trying so hard and none of your efforts make any difference.”
“We’re always taught in life ‘work hard and you can achieve the things you want.’ Whereas fertility is the complete opposite of that. It’s like ‘Yeah, cool – do whatever you want. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t, and we won’t know if what you did was the reason it worked and we won’t know if it’s the reason you failed, and you might not ever have a baby. Sorry.’”
Trying to conceive in your early 40s adds another entire level to this, she says. “When you get to the age that I am, where time really is down to the final grains of sand, there is a ‘never’ hovering, that could be attached to any sentence anyone says about your fertility.”
And yet, here she is. Very pregnant, looking fully in bloom the way expectant mothers do: glowing skin, rosy cheeks, a baby bump wrapped up in a jumper. The first IVF transfer she and Arun did, the one she writes about in the book, didn’t work. The second one did. The day of that transfer, she says there was an air of magic to the entire experience. “Everything was right, it was Diwali – the festival of lights, and my husband is Indian. We were there in the weekend and the clinic was so quiet and my favourite Lionel Ritchie song came on when the transfer happened… I didn’t feel any anxiety, I just felt real peace.”
Michelle describes herself as an anxious person and it’s fair to say the last few years haven’t been easy; from her beloved dad dying, through to trying to go through fertility treatment during a global pandemic. But as devastating as her dad’s death was, she says it ‘fast tracked’ some lessons she needed to learn, having come from a job that’s as image-focused as acting can be, particularly when it comes to the expectations placed on women. “I just had this startling clarity, watching his body decline, about what a healthy, living body is,” she says. “And how so many of the aspirations of my youth, and so many of the pressures of the culture, are to look the opposite of it. To look the way my dad looked while he was dying. I just went, ‘this is so disgusting, this is perverse… I’ve had enough.’ I found so many of the thoughts I’d had when I was younger just treasonous. I was quite angry – and I’m so grateful for that. It’s such a gift from my dad that I would never have expected; of all the things you think you could learn from death.”
For all of the intense content in the book, it’s an absolute joy to read – beautifully written, deeply personal and well-paced. It also has the twisted honour of being one of the first books I’d read that featured Covid-19 and it feels both bizarre and fascinating to read about such recent history. The essay ‘Where I walk’ covers Michelle’s daily treks up Maungawhau (Mt Eden) in an attempt to outwalk the strangeness of our autumn spent in lockdown last year. “It was the only writing I did during those days, the only other thing I was doing was reading things on the internet about why I wasn’t having a baby,” she laughs dryly. “I wrote a lot of it at 5 o’clock in the morning, at the kitchen table with coffee, and some mornings I would just write from the bed with the cat, see what the day was like, go for a walk, come back and keep going.”
“I found it quite a peaceful time… I always found it beneficial; in a way because the whole world had to slow down with me and I really felt the sense of connectivity and community within people; people caring for each other. Despite what was raging on around the world, I felt very soothed by seeing the beauty of people wanting to look after each other.”
Times Like These: On Grief, Hope and Remarkable Love is available at all good book stores