Sandys, Elspeth

Sandys, Elspeth


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Upstart Press; Playmarket
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In Brief

Elspeth Sandys has published nine novels, two collections of short stories and two memoirs. Her most recent publication, A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley combines travelogue, family memoir and biography. She has written numerous plays for BBC Radio and RadioNZ as well as writing for stage, television and theatre. Her novel River Lines was a finalist in the Orange Prize in the UK in 1996. Her short story collection Standing in Line won the Elena Garro PEN international prize in 2005. Her play Rogues and Vagabonds was chosen for the London International Playwriting Festival in 2005, shortlisted for the Columbus State Theatre playwriting competition in 2006, and short listed for the Adam Prize (NZ) in 2016.

Elspeth has received many awards and fellowships in recognition of her work, and in 2006 was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

Image credit: Helen Mitchell


Sandys, Elspeth (1940– ), is known in New Zealand as a writer of both historical and contemporary fiction. Her long previous experience in Britain as a stage and radio playwright, author of adaptations and series for the BBC, and as an actor in New Zealand and the UK, is evident in the crafted dialogue of her fiction.

Born in Timaru, she spent her childhood in Dunedin, where she was adopted into the Somerville family (Sandys is a pseudonym). Rewi Alley, her mother’s cousin, was an occasional visitor, a fact which influenced the writing of her 2019 book, A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley. Her early working life was mainly as an actor, divided between the NZ Broadcasting Service and London. She then lived in England 1969–89, becoming a full-time writer and editor. Her first three novels were published there: Catch a Falling Star (1978), based on the life of the poet John Donne; The Broken Tree (1981), published in the USA as The Burning Dawn; and Love and War (1982), republished in New Zealand in 1992.

Her novel Finding Out (1991) she has described as ‘a daydream from the Cotswolds about my Otago childhood in the 1950s’. Strongly evocative of the Otago Peninsula, and of the era of near-traumatised returned servicemen and repressive communities, it deals with the sexual awakening of two schoolgirls and the community’s thwarting and exclusion of an idealistic young male teacher.

Exclusion is also central to Best Friends (1993), a collection of loosely linked short stories set mostly in contemporary London. Sandys has referred to the experience of living between two cultures as ‘geographic schizophrenia’.

River Lines (1995), probably her most substantial achievement, long-listed for a UK award, interweaves the histories of two contrasting Canterbury families in a dynastic plot rich in strong action and emotion. The hard-won bond of settlers with the land is particularly well established. Well-reviewed, it was called ‘an instant modern classic’ by Quote Unquote.

Riding to Jerusalem (1996) deals somewhat polemically with the repression of early unionism in the nineteenth-century Cotswolds, the victimised ‘white slaves of England’ eventually freed to emigrate to New Zealand.

Enemy Territory (1998) shines a light on 1960’s Auckland, with its money-based class structures and its response to the sexual revolution taking place in its midst.

A Passing Guest (2002) tells the story of a naive but idealistic woman's experience as she struggles with the challenge of teaching creative writing to a Māori inmate in Paremoremo prison.

Obsession (2017) maps the territory of obsessive sexual love. Set at the time of the Springbok tour of 1981 it shines a harsh light on the politics and passions of the time.

Sandys was the 1992 Sargeson Fellow, the 1995 Burns Fellow, the 1998 Waikato Writer-in-Residence, and in 2004 won a place in the Island of Residencies programme, run by the Tasmanian Writers' Centre.

In 2005-6 she held the Sarah Hosking Arts Trust Residency in the UK, followed in 2012 by the University of Otago Wallace Residency in Auckland. In 2016 she was awarded the Michael King Writers Residency in Devonport.

In 2006, Sandys was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

Her memoir, What Lies Beneath, was published by Otago University Press in 2014 followed by a second memoir Casting Off published in 2017. Her novel Obsession was published by Upstart Press the same year.


•RNZ Nine to Noon

•Academy of New Zealand Literature profile

Interview on The Spinoff Books

•Playmarket profile

•Upstart Press profile

•Elspeth Sandys' review of Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones in NZ Books Pukapuka Aotearoa

Requiem for my Mother by Elspeth Sandys in the NZ Listener

Review by David Hill of What Lies Beneath in Canvas Magazine

•Elspeth Sandys' review of Landscape with Solitary Figureby Shonagh Koea in Landfall Review Online

Elspeth reading from What Lies Beneath

Elspeth talking about What Lies Beneath with Katherine Ryan on RNZ

What Lies Beneath, Capital Times October 2017

Elspeth reading from Casting Off

Elspeth talking to Lynn Freeman on RNZ about Casting Off

Review from Booksellers NZ blog The Reader

"An honest tale of uncertain memory". Review from Otago Daily Times

"The Interrogation of Memory". Review from Landfall

"Casting Off: No Secrets". Interview with Sarah Lang from By The Book

Elspeth reading from A Communist in the Family: Searching for Rewi Alley

Newsroom Reading Room extract July 2019

Elspeth talking to Duncan Garner on the Newshub AM Show 24 July 2019

Elspeth talking to Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday 27 July 2019

Sunday Star Times feature 28 July 2019

Elspeth talking to Andrew Dickens on NewstalkZB Sunday Sessions 4 August 2019

Otago Daily Times Life and Style Magazine feature 5 August 2019

Review by Lesley McIntosh in Booksellers NZ The Reader Blog 15 August 2019

Review by Peter Stupples in Otago Daily Times The Weekend Mix 17 August 2019

Review by Jeremy Rees in NZ Listener 31 August 2019

Feature on The Academy of New Zealand Literature / Te Whare Mātātuhi o Aotearoa website September 2019

Lisa Finucare's review of Obsession on RNZ

Elspeth interviewed on RNZ about Obsession

‘Write from your own vulnerability’: Elspeth Sandys on obsessive love in The Spinoff

Updated March 2017.