Monday, 23 May 2016

Interview with Tracey Slaughter

Tracey Slaughter's Deleted Scenes for Lovers is already gathering rave reviews at The Spinoff, 'note-perfect, plentiful', and in NZ Listener, 'self-assured, forceful'. Deleted Scenes for Lovers will be launched at Art Fusion Gallery, Waikato University on Thursday 26 May, 5.30pm.

Tracey Slaughter (photo: Catherine Chidgey)

Tracey, you’ve been publishing short fiction and winning prizes for many years – but you're only just publishing your book of short stories now – what took so long?
‘Tell me what ever happened to Tracey’? That’s the archetypal tough question. There’s the obvious struggle to reach book-length form in a market which dislikes the intense fix of short fiction, which craves the chunkier comforts of the novel. But the real answer is: I lost some years. In between writing these short stories life was teaching me how to live through long ones – a slow recovery from illness, a car crash, further damage, a harder walk back to health. What that meant was that every story I did manage to finish was oxygen – and when my work did win prizes it was a lifeline, adrenaline, hope. I don’t like looking back on the years I missed, when there should have been more output – but I was forced to spend time turning more human…which has got to help any writer in the long run.
The style that you’ve developed through these stories is very lyrical, sensual – sense-based. I think that your prize-winning Landfall essay last year, ‘Ashdown Place’ is an excellent example of how you explore experience and bring the past back through sensory detail. Can you talk about how you’ve developed this style?
I started as a poet, and poetry is still in my bloodstream, narrative can’t wash it out. So the challenge in moving to prose was always to find a style which could unfold a story but still let language be musical, be animal – those are the books I love to read, where the sentences are rhythmic, the sound atmospheric, the language not just delivering story but absorbing the senses, making skin contact. I like writers who use sound and image to make us taste the scene with our bodies. But I’m very aware that the fiction writer can’t afford to let their sentences just swim around after lush sound effects – they have to push ahead, into the concrete action, the forward momentum of the story. The dog has to run after the stick, as the writer Sarah Hall says, describing what she calls the ‘cat-dog’ hybrid of poetic prose. But the cat…well, the cat is a sensual creature, that does whatever feels good to its wayward fur...

Many of your characters are what we sometimes call ‘bogans’ in this country. Where do they come from?
Was I born in a black tee? I guess I grew up in coastal, smalltown New Zealand with its blend of bogan and surfie culture; my first jobs were in takeaways, service stations and pubs watching that waxhead/petrolhead world go by; I play in a covers band now which works the smalltown circuit (sometimes even the same old pubs!), so I still get to see the stories of that world spinning out, hear its voices. But the term bogan brings with it the taint of stereotype, a beer-chugging Holden-revving comedy which limits responses – it’s too easy to cartoon a group, stamp them ‘bogans’ and write their stories off. I think it’s the writer’s job to see past labels and hunt the pulse of the human story dwelling beneath, whatever social group a character might seem to fall into. 
I don’t set out to write self-consciously ‘bogan’ stories – it just happens that the drama of lower decile life often stands out in the sharpest relief to me, and I never turn those stories away because they’re not decent, representative or seemly. Short stories also, have always been a home for the ‘lonely voice’ – it’s a form with its roots in the underbelly, haunted by outsiders. As a writer you don’t chase the poor from your doorstep, I remember Flannery O’Connor saying, because the poor have nothing left to shield them from raw life – and that’s what should interest any compassionate writer.

Your stories often deal with sensitive topics such as domestic violence or sexual abuse; ones that we often struggle to talk about. What’s your approach towards the ethics and angles of writing trauma?
Does anyone still agree with Brasch that Frame’s ‘Gorse is not People’ was ‘too painful to print’? A writer’s job is to say the unsayable – it’s a travesty to call yourself a writer and then refuse to face the full range of human experience. Outcries that subjects are too dark, extreme, personal, risky make zero sense to me – those hard realities of life are what writing is for. And every writer knows their own ‘black block,’ that dark mass under your chest wall that holds your deep material, the stories you must speak of. If you don’t listen to that, your stories might stay clean, but the page will, in effect, be empty.

Deleted Scenes for Lovers is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
$30, p/b

Monday, 9 May 2016

Interview with Tusiata Avia

Tusiata Avia's new poetry collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House will be launched during the Auckland Writers Festival on Wednesday this week. Tusiata is taking part in a number of sessions at AWF, see their programme for details.

Tusiata Avia ((2016, Hayley Theyers Photography)

 You travel the world in your latest poems – Samoa, Christchurch, Gaza, New York – and your poems are not romanticised, ‘travel’ poems, they’re political and tough. Do you find your work getting drawn into the politics of wherever you travel?

For me the personal and the political are intertwined: the politics of the places I’ve lived in or visited effect me on a personal level in some fundamental way. For instance, the friends I had/have on both sides of the Israel/Gaza wall; I have an emotional connection to them, even the ones I strongly disagree with. I still love them.

One of the things I’ve learned from all the years of travelling: for me, it is all fairly meaningless unless I am making real connections, heart-connections, with people. Some people expect me to be like my poems in that way – political and tough – I’m not. I often don’t and/or can’t express things (particularly things that upset me) immediately. I’m not quick on the uptake. But I feel things – emotionally and intuitively –  immediately. I often feel much more than is comfortable to feel, I have a very ‘porous’ skin. Writing is one of the ways I have to process and express how I feel about things and then send that out into the world.

Some of the poems in this book make for confrontational reading. I’m thinking of ‘Demonstration’, which I heard you perform in Dunedin. It was hard to listen to, but I also couldn’t help but be filled with joy at how commited you are to not flinching from difficult topics, in this case, rape. Can you talk about the process of writing such a poem and then deciding to perform and publish it?

I’ve only performed that poem twice. It requires the right audience, people who kind of know what they might be getting themselves into. And I have to do some preparation to perform a poem like that. That poem in particular is very confrontational but in an unexpected way – it sneaks its way in and then really slams you. Some times you have to break the wounds open.

I wrote that poem after attending an anti-rape protest rally, it made me think about my own experience of rape as a young woman, and what I’d done with it, how I’d buried it. I was questioning myself during the rally: was it REALLY rape. Then I went home and I had to write the poem pretty much straight away. Most importantly, I had to reclaim a position of strength. I had to find that strength for myself. I guess the invitation in that poem is to consider how we might be with our traumatic, buried experiences. They don’t have to stay that way.

I’ve always the need to bring the skeletons out of the closet (my own and ours collectively, as a society) and bring them in to the light so we can all examine them. As I see it, that’s part of my job as a writer.

There’s a voice in your poems that’s been there from day one – this Samoan/Palangi voice – for which you are rightly celebrated. Is this a voice from your family and neighbourhood growing up? How has this voice developed over your three collections?

I think it’s really hard to pin down your own voice. I think it’s like identity: not static, always fluid, sometimes has its feet on one side of the border, sometimes on the other, sometimes straddling both camps, sometimes in neither, in another place altogether.

I wrote much of my first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, in a number of Samoan voices. Sometimes they came from particular members of my extended family and sometimes they came from the voices in my head that (even though they expressed themselves using Samoan vernacular and accents) are universal to the kaliedescope of the human condition: bouncing from love to cruelty to rebellion to humour etc. 

I don’t use that specific ‘Samoan voice’ so much now, I don’t really know why. I’m not trying to consciously use any particular voice. I think I just write whatever is there inside me – it finds its own mode of transport out.  

The new collection is called Fale Aitu | Spirit House – and there are aitu all over the pages of the book. Can you talk about the role of aitu in your poems, are they a character, guiding principles?

Aitu are spirits. And I guess spirits can inhabit all kinds of things and take the form of all kinds of things. Sometime I feel them physically as actual presences. In modern Samoan culture aitu tend to be thought of as scary, dangerous things (like ghosts or demons) and best avoided, but they played an important and less negative role in our misty pre-Christian past. Whether we believe they’re there or not, whether we feel their presence, whether we’ve buried them, they still walk along just behind us.

Fale Aitu | Spirit House is a selection from a much larger number of poems written in bits and pieces over the last 6-8 years. I didn’t sit down with a project or a narrative (like my earlier books) and write a body of work. These are a distillation from poems I wrote when I had no time to write; I had become a single mother and then a full-time-working single mother. Believe me, there is no time to write, let alone write anything cohesive! That worried me when I finally put together a manuscript, it just seemed like a disparate bunch of stuff to me, until I gave it to Bernadette Hall ( a friend and mentor). She handed a bunch of the poems back to me, and said, “Look, there it is.” And then I could see that the book had been there all along. I think my subconscious knew what it was doing all those years;  the aitu knew what they were doing all along. Now I read it and am surprised to see how it works, the shapes it makes and the echos Some shapes are a bit clunky, but then I think I probably am too.

Fale Aitu |Spirit House by Tusiata Avia.
Released Thursday 14 May, in quality bookshops and at VUP's online bookshop
p/b, $25.

A launch for Fale Aitu will be held at Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, Level 1, 300 K-Rd, Auckland on Wednesday 11 May, 5.30pm–7pm. All welcome.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Kate Camp's launch speech for Bill Nelson's Memorandum of Understanding

Kate Camp gave this speech at Bill Nelson's launch last week. Thanks Kate for letting us reproduce it here. 
Kate Camp giving her launch speech

 I used to like annoying Bill by referring to him as my ‘mentee’ – because I was his mentor on a poetry course. I guess I still like annoying him by saying that.
Of course it’s because I want to take whatever credit I can for him and his great poems.
(It’s also because ‘mentee’ sounds a bit like ‘manatee’ and manatees are just really weird.)
Even though now we have moved on from our mentor/manatee relationship, and I really can’t take any credit for Bill’s poems whatsoever, it’s still a real pleasure to be able to launch Memorandum of Understanding.
To me, as a poet, there are two tests of a really great image or phrase:
1.     It suddenly makes me see something that was under my nose in a completely new way, but which seems obvious and inevitable as soon as I hear it.
2.     I wish I came up with it.
The title of Bill’s book meets both criteria.
It’s clever, it’s surprising, it feels good to say aloud, it’s both technical and tender.
I think it’s a great title for the collection that really captures some of the book’s themes: memory, understanding the world and each other, and how both of these things are problematic when we attempt to codify them in language.
I also really like the poem, and maybe Bill’s going to read it tonight so I’ll just quote from it:
Understand, that this is a bridging agreement / just a placeholder / until the full programme of individual projects that need to occur to realise the full potential of the programme which addresses all the individual and specific concerns and develops a full and proper understanding of all the aforementioned concerns, is in place. / Understand, / that there are no placeholders.

Now this is a bit of a weird thing to say, but I find this a very masculine book. It’s manly.
I guess what I mean is that its subject matter covers a lot of traditional male territory: one day cricket, John Coltrane, big screen televisions, “I first touched your breast / accidentally”, “How to change the oil in a 1979 Ford Escort”....
And of course there is fantastic sequence of poems about the grandfather ‘How to do just about anything’.
But these masculine tropes always appear in new guises, in a new tone. If I was an academic  I’d be talking about contemporary masculinities.
But the way it feels to me as a reader and as a woman is just really great, like yay I’m so glad we’re past the John Mulgan / Barry Crump kiwi bloke, and can just enjoy being in the company of an intelligent New Zealand man who is comfortable in his own skin, even if it’s the skin of John Coltrane.
Bill Nelson reads from Memorandum of Understanding

I once gave a Masters tutorial presentation titled ‘My favourite bits of Moby Dick and why they are so great’ and I just want to finish off tonight by doing the same for Bill’s book.
I absolutely love the final sequence of poems in the book, about the poet and his grandfather.
As one of the poems says: “Sometimes it seems you’re the only two people / in an absorbing, character-based mystery.”
I love the way the poems in this sequence are like tiny short stories, even like miniature novels – when I re-read the sequence I’m surprised how short they are, because they seem to contain so much.
How’s this for an opening of a poem:
One-day cricket
Like origami, oyster soup
and obscene phone calls
this is something your grandfather
was never into. 
Origami, oyster soup and obscene phone calls! God that’s good!
And even more clever in context of the sequence, which has a guiding principle which I won’t reveal – because the book has a fantastic ending which I don’t want to give away.

There are just so many wonderful lines in these poems:
“listening in the dark like icebergs”
“Listened to the clock
click its thin metal parts
into place, each second
finding its home
and then leaving it.”
“trying to read the road signs
all you see is a diamond
stuffed with impurities”
I think that last one sums up the particular magic of these poems. It’s only once you hear “impurities” that you go back and re-cast the diamond shape of the road sign as the other kind of diamond.
So the moment you recognise the flaws is also the moment you recognise the value.
I know Bill finished this manuscript a year ago and it probably feels like ages since he really inhabited these poems.
But hopefully now that everyone will be reading it, and finding those lines that make them think – I wish I’d written that – Bill, you’ll get a chance to appreciate what a great body of work it is. 
Congratulations to a very talented manatee.
Memorandum of Understanding can be purchased in quality bookshops or through our online bookstore. $25, p/b.
Sarah Jane Barnett, Nick Ascroft and Bill Nelson

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Four questions for Bill Nelson

Bill Nelson's debut poetry collection, Memorandum of Understanding, is launched tonight at The Southern Cross (all welcome!). We asked him four questions about his new book.

Bill Nelson 2016 (Grant Maiden Photography)
In ‘Vocal’ the speaker is getting singing lessons. Is this an autobiographical poem? And if so, has learning how to sing influenced your writing – or your poetry readings?

I did do singing lessons for a couple of years. It was a real struggle, like trying to unlearn and then relearn how to walk. I was taught by a man named Charles who was fantastic at coming up with strange new exercises to shock my voice into forgetting itself. It was slow going but I did learn early on that singing is a physical act and if you place your body in the right position it all just flows from there. That struck me as something to say about poetry as well. His favourite saying was 'sing into your boots.' I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that means.

I'm sure learning to sing has influenced how I write. In the dedication to practice and training if nothing else. Writing is a craft that takes muscle memory and patience. It's easy to forget that when reading a finished poem. It's the same with singing, people get discouraged when they hear a great singer but they had to practice too!

As for readings, I do try and slow down as much as possible. And the rhythm is important thing to concentrate on. Actually singing in a reading though? I'll leave that for others to do. Although I should try and figure out how to read a poem into my boots.

There are quite a few love poems in the book (‘All the love poems’, ‘Pins and needles’, the title poem, and, ‘In geological time') where you seem aware that you're writing a love poem, but you’re careful to avoid making any outright declarations. It’s almost a discomfort with the whole idea of the love poem. What is that discomfort about? 

I would describe 'In geological time' as more of a rocky sex poem than a love poem. And 'Pins and needles' is about the discomfort of a failed love more than anything else. I guess love can be a complicated beast and the poems reflect that.

Hinemoana Baker said to me once, when talking about one of my poems, 'Where is the love?' By which I think she meant that the intention of the poem should be celebration. I like that idea and I think that's true of the poems in this book. They are all in love with something and all declaring that love one way or another. Even if the L word doesn't appear directly, it's in there somewhere. I think that's how love works in real life too; it slips in when you're not looking for it.

'All the love poems' started out as a deliberate attempt at mockery. But then a reference to one of my favourite love poems, 'Strawberries' by Edwin Morgan, derailed the whole thing. So I guess that poem fell in love with me despite me doing my best to give it the cold shoulder. I feel redeemed by that one.

There are lots of characters in the poems (John Coltrane, Chalky George, Russell, the goats, Charlie in ‘Charlie’s shed’, the grandfather), and some poems in which you take on someone else’s character (e.g.  ‘Giant steps’, 'Starbuck Island’). Do you consciously borrow from fiction or drama? 

A lot of those poems are like little biographies. I'm interested in biography because the speaker often gives away more about themselves than the subject. In the John Coltrane poem that happened quite literally. I became him, or he became me. My Mum keeps asking me why it had to be so dark though. It's a good question and I think John Coltrane should answer it.

Russell is a place, Chalky George is a tortoise, and they both have great sounding names. Poems often start with nothing more than a phrase or a name that hooks me in. When I started the Coltrane poem, based on it being the coolest name I'd ever heard, I made the deliberate choice to do absolutely no research on him. I later found that I'd scribbled something years earlier that also had John Coltrane in it. I'm obviously obsessed with John Coltrane.

‘Starbuck Island’ borrows from a memoir that my great-great-great-grandfather wrote about being left on that island for a year. He was there to collect bird shit which was used as a fertiliser at the time. I later learnt that the man who named the island (after himself) came from Nantucket where Moby-Dick was set. So I had to throw some Moby-Dick style drama in there. My great-great-great-grandfather was an old man when he wrote it too and I like to think he added a bit of fiction and drama himself.

‘The pigeon history of New Zealand’, sets out an alternative, but kind of baffling version of NZ history, told in a variety of voices (e.g. there’s one where Jesus gets shot between the eyes). How did you go about writing it? Do any of the poems in that sequence have a source text, i.e. are found poems? Where did the voices come from?

That one definitely went to places that I wasn't planning on which is always a good thing.

The section titles came from The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King; 'Prehistory', 'Settlement', 'Consolidation', 'Unsettlement' and 'Posthistory'. I used those as launching points for little language experiments, some of which were modelled on the tone of King's prose and others I tried to take in a completely different direction. It was the language and the novelistic prose that drew me in. In the end I think it's a little shrine of language in dedication to that book.

Memorandum of Understanding is released today! April 14, 2016. Available at quality bookshops and through our online store. $25, p/b.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Rachel Bush

It is with great sadness we learned that our good friend Rachel Bush died yesterday. Rachel was a wonderful poet, an astute reader and a warm supporter of other writers. She will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with her family and close friends.
Thought Horses, Rachel's newest collection of poetry, will be published in April. We are so pleased that Rachel was well enough to work on her book with editor Ashleigh Young, and that she also got to see and hold her book. 
We will be holding a reading and celebration of Rachel at Vic Books on Tuesday 19 April.

Sing Them

Because I need to sew me 
a composer and knit me 
a singer who will wrap me
in the sounds of the words.


Because in this house I hear
sparrows in the fan palm and tui that
hang out in pink camellia flowers but
these voices have no words.


Because we lived with their questions 
when our mothers sang to us.
Who is Sylvia, what is she?
When our mothers sang,
the words became us
and the songs became us.
Where have you been
all the day, Billie Boy, Billie Boy?


Because this was a congealed
day at the cold leftover end 
of the rind of winter but when 
you said you’d sing the poems,
they put on their warm clothes
and went out walking.


Because every day the poems 
stay folded and pressed flat in 
a suitcase of their pages 
till the composer unfolds
them in sound lines and when
you sing them, they float.

From Thought Horses by Rachel Bush (VUP, April 2016)
Rachel is also the author of The Hungry Woman (1997), The Unfortunate Singer (2002) and Nice Pretty Things (2011).

Monday, 14 March 2016

Fits and Starts – an interview with Andrew Johnston

Andrew Johnston (photo supplied)

In your day job you work both as an editor and as a teacher of ‘plain English’. Poetry is the opposite of plain English isn’t it – thinking here of the way you play with words and their sound, with language’s slippery meanings?

It’s all about language, that’s for sure. I guess you could say that the day job, unlike poetry, is about making things happen – I teach people in the United Nations and in aid organisations how to write policy that is more likely to get results with decision-makers. Plain English is part of it, because they have to learn to ditch the jargon. But I take them up close to language, too – we talk about Shakespeare! We talk about noticing the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin inside English, about saying things as simply as possible.

When it comes to poetry, I’ve always been more interested in language as substance, as sound and form, rather than any idea of language as a transparent, purely utilitarian medium. I like listening to the way language pushes back when we want it to say something. It says less than we want it to, and it says more than we want it to. I’m interested in the “more”. Like many poets, I love what Wallace Stevens said: “There is a sense in sounds beyond their meaning”. Language is incredibly musical. It’s a whole orchestra. Some poetry sticks to just one instrument – the speaking voice, the narrator. I like poetry that tries out lots of instruments.

In ‘The Otorhinolaryngologist’, a light in the speaker’s mouth gives them a god-like perspective, before they’re pushed into the ‘hollow places’ of the street – does poetry give you a scope to move between the sublime and the mundane to a certain extent?

The light-in-the-mouth thing actually happened, in the sense that I went to this old-fashioned specialist who stuck a light bulb in my mouth that apparently illuminated my sinuses. It was a bizarre experience, because the light was coming out of my head. It felt like knowledge, and it felt like delusion, so I put the two together in the poem (Perhaps knowledge is always a kind of delusion.) It’s partly a poem about imagination. Imagination has to cope with the mundane, too – I think that shuttling between imagination and reality is one of the engines of poetry.

Echo, the Greek nymph, is a recurring character in the book – walking through poems named after Old Testament characters. What made you want to write these characters from ancient literature into your new poems?

It’s all a bit accidental and obsessive so I think the only true explanation is in the poems themselves. But this is how it happened: I started a sequence based on the radio alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc) because I like the words. When I got to the E word, Echo, I started reading about the Echo myth. Echo is condemned to repeat the last words of what others say. And then she falls in love with Narcissus, who as we all know was in love with himself, so that wasn’t going anywhere. She wastes away till all that is left is her bones and then just her voice.

What was it that drew me to the Echo myth? Perhaps I thought I could use Echo to evoke the sense that something extremely important is missing from your life but you don’t quite know what it is (I tend to have this feeling most of the time, in spades). As a poet, it’s easy, too, to have a sense that you’re condemned to repeat what others have said.

Then I started another sequence, based on the books of the Old Testament. Echo wanted to be part of that, too. I’m not a believer, but I’m intrigued by the ancient weirdness of the Old Testament stories, so full of loss and exile. Perhaps I’m interested in how missingness is part of being human. Also, the Old Testament is at the root of both Judaism and Christianity – and living in Europe, you can’t get away from that. The Holocaust never went away. But that’s another story.

You’ve lived in Paris for a number of years now. Has becoming fluent in another language affected the way you write in your native English? And has French poetry had any influence on your own poetry?

France has a strong myth of integration – the idea that if you do things right, you too can become French. (“How’s your integration coming along?” my wife’s great-grandmother used to ask me.) Whereas the experience of migration is more often one of realising how much you have been formed by the place you came from – and the language you came from. So being in France has pushed me deeper into English, paradoxically.

As for the influence of French poetry, I just don’t know. I like poets such as Jacques Roubaud and Jacques Jouet who can shift from being playful to being serious (and back again). But much French poetry is just deadly serious, even fatally so. It’s terribly abstract and philosophical – whereas the great precursor for much New Zealand poetry is William Carlos Williams, who wrote “No ideas but in things.” I love the thinginess of New Zealand poetry.

I like John Ashbery’s response to the same question (he lived in Paris for 10 years – and the scene he describes hasn’t changed):
“I found my poetry being more influenced by the sight of clear water flowing in the street gutters, where it is (or was) diverted or dammed by burlap sandbags moved about by workmen, than it was by the French poetry I was learning to read at the time.”

Fits and Starts by Andrew Johnston is available from good bookshops and through our online bookstore now.
p/b, $25.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Dad Art – an interview with Damien Wilkins

Dad Art is Damien Wilkins eighth novel. It will be launched on Thursday 10 March during Writers Week in Wellington.

Damien Wilkins (Grant Maiden photography)

I heard I rumour you wrote this book in a matter of weeks? How did you do that? What influence did this rapid writing have on the shape of the book?

If I knew how I did it, I’d do it all the time. At the moment I’m not sure if it was a lightning strike or a working method. But let me just praise speed for a moment. I teach creative writing and one of the themes of that world is that it’s very hard to write a book. You’re working with people for whom writing is new. They struggle. You struggle with their struggle. I believe in that struggle. But there are other ways to go about things. I was impressed that César Aira says he never revises. He’s published something like eighty books. The other thing on my mind was the work of painter Euan Macleod. I’d written a piece for Art New Zealand on his big retrospective show. One thing amazed me: the speed of his composition. I really envy painters their brushes and their splatter, their approximateness. Language isn’t paint. It’s a world of care and creeping along. But what would it be like to run ahead instead of go my usual sideways?

My one rule was that the action of the book had be commensurate with the time in which I was writing it—meaning the main character and I lived through the same day, the same news cycle, the same weather. Which, come to think of it, makes it sound like a diary. It has more shape than that. Anyway I wanted it to be unabashed about its contemporaneity. Partly that was helpful in overthrowing the disabling idea that I was writing A NOVEL. People can start to stiffen up when they think of writing a novel, as if you’re entering a fancy Great Hall with Henry James at the top table—mentally you put on a bowtie, your best shoes. No, I was just writing. When I sent it to Fergus, my publisher, I said it was ‘ranty’. By the way, I do actually have Henry James at the top table.

Dad Art takes as its main character a recently divorced, white, middle-aged, middle-class man – who is very aware of his middle-ness and tries to open himself up to new experiences by taking Te Reo classes, trying out online dating. Michael’s certainly quite self-aware of where he sits in society, and his daughter’s art project goes someway to upsetting his perch a little. Was the ‘middle-class/age’ issue very much on your mind as you wrote this?

Yeah it’s a great burden to be the repository of so much historical advantage! The world needs more novels from dudes like me.

Actually what interests me is the dynamism of New Zealand society, the feeling that things aren’t static. I’m talking about changes in the wider culture and the ways they register in our lives. Our national life turns out to be very much like our private life in that the things a lot of us want ‘to put behind us’ are exactly the things that keep popping up. Let me give you a tiny example which doesn’t come from the world of politics or talkback. Last week my father-in-law stayed with us. He’s a retired South Canterbury farmer who left school at age 15. He was in Wellington to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo with his daughter and was in a suit and tie—unusual for him. Before they left for the event, he showed me the tie which had a pattern vaguely like a koru. ‘This is pretty cultural, isn’t it,’ he said. Then at the Tattoo there was a moment when the large choir sang ‘Pokarekare Ana’, and my wife turned to look at him and he was wiping away a tear. I don’t want to be silly about it but I do think that the path from his slightly uneasy joke about the tie to his helpless emotional response to the song describes a dynamic that’s worth thinking about, even dramatising. I think that would make a very New Zealand short story. My father-in-law, like me, lives a basically contented life with a pulsing vein of anxiety; or maybe we both live basically anxious lives with a pulsing vein of contentment. Anyway, this is the sort of territory I was trying to get at in Dad Art—the push and pull of change; how, for instance, a big idea such as biculturalism shows up in what we say to each other about some tie we had to put on for a show.

Your writing in this novel is funny and I’m always interested in how writers approach humour – it’s not something you want to come at head-on, I reckon. Is humour an important part of what you want in a novel?

It’s an important part of what I want from life. I remember Colm Tóibín at the Auckland Writers Festival saying that in his family you could be the worst person, a real reprobate with a very bad history, but the greatest crime was to be boring; that was unforgiveable. I’m with him. My favourite fiction doesn’t have to be ‘a laugh riot’—Herta Müller and Christa Wolf aren’t full of jokes—but I think the best novels dissolve solemnity. It’s something to do with fiction’s relationship to authority. Power of course doesn’t like humour. A national flag can’t be funny. (Dad Art features a running gag about the flag debate.)

Your last novel, Max Gate, was set in the early part of the 20th century but you generally focus on contemporary times, like you do in Dad Art. What have you noticed as the differences or restraints between writing ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ fiction, aside from the research you might have to do for historical fiction? Do you have a preference for contemporary settings?

The difference is this: you don’t need to get anything right in historical fiction; whereas you need to get everything right in a contemporary story.

One of my favourite passages about fiction comes from Charles Newman, who was my workshop teacher at Washington University for a semester back in the early 90s. He wrote a great bad-tempered book of criticism called The Post-Modern Aura. In it he talks about fiction’s uniqueness being that it remains ‘ineffably amateur’: ‘It violates every principle by which responsible interpreters try to legitimize a subject matter by limiting its scope and thus make it epistemologically responsible.’ Newman says that fiction doesn’t limit itself in advance. That’s why it’s amateur—it’s sloppy and that’s its strength. In Montaigne’s words, you’re ‘an investigator without knowledge’. I re-read this passage regularly whenever I feel too dumb to write something. What did I know about Thomas Hardy? Who cares! I am an investigator without knowledge! However, I always notice that Newman is no simple cheerleader for the imagination’s wildness. He points out that because fiction can’t limit itself in advance, it has what he calls ‘an unprededented failure rate’. Yep.

Dad Art is available for purchase at good bookshops and through our online bookstore from Thursday 10 March. p/b, $30.