Monday, March 2, 2015

Denis Edwards on David Marr

The 77th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue.

The intro read:
David Marr wrote the acclaimed biography of Patrick White, and recently published his selection of White’s letters. Denis Edwards talks to him about writing, leading the life you should, and the great, gaunt ghost hovering over his own.
Looking back, it isn’t that difficult to see how and why David Marr became a writer. It’s easy to see why he became anything except a lawyer. He’d graduated in law and had started work as an articled clerk at one of Sydney’s most prestigious law firms. It was a job dozens, even hundreds, of graduates would have killed to get. Not long after he got there, Marr was initiated into the legal profession’s great secret: that while the law can be fabulously lucrative and judges can come to enjoy near-limitless power, as often as not legal work is mind-bendingly boring.
Marr was having this truth hammered into him. Because he had shown promise, he was rewarded with a move up to “more interesting work”. This turned out to be processing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise agreements. The thought of a lifetime of this made him shudder.
If that thought didn’t kill any interest in the law, there was his office, which had a view out over Sydney Harbour and its ever-changing tableau of ferries, yachts, cargo ships – all of it the lure of a real and interesting life out there somewhere.
Behind all this was a niggling call to writing. The signs were there, stop-start fumblings of various writing projects. None got far, but the thought remained. “Back then you could reasonably describe me as extremely restless,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to make up my mind about the law.”
He could see senior lawyers in the firm hitting their mid-40s and wondering whether they had spent their lives misspending their talents and suddenly, brutally, becoming aware they were running out of time for other things. These people were not comfortable to be around, particularly when their doubts were being publicly and intensely expressed.
The final note in writing’s siren song to Marr was a journey of his own, ending with his decision that he was homosexual. This was the final grace note. Marr farewelled the world of gown and wig and was off. He wonders how he lasted as long in the law as he did.
From there he went into journalism. “I don’t write fiction because I can’t invent. I don’t think in terms of inventive characters and stories. What interests me is to work out why things happen. That’s journalism. I am fascinated by character. I have an unshakeable belief that we are shaped by our character. Of course, other things shape our world as well, money and weather and so on. But it is ultimately the character of our leaders which determine so much of what happens to and around us.”
If Marr’s journalism was being described in sports terms, it would be as a dream run. He got and kept the cream of Australia’s feature writing jobs, first on the Bulletin and later at the now-defunct National Times. Marr and the crusading National Times were a nice match. He went from staff writer to editor, from being fired to being rehired as a staff writer again.
“It was perfect for me, because I was never trained as a daily journalist and thus never got into the habit of always writing short stories and always looking to cut. We would have a long time to research and write our stories, and then we’d have about 10,000 words to tell the story. It was a very, very good place to work.
“I used to go around interviewing all these high-profile people and corporate crooks, who were often the same, and quickly learned that if they rang up and said, ‘It was a good story,’ it meant you had probably missed something.”
In 1985 Marr moved on to something that we can only dimly remember over here, a government-funded and commercials-free television network. He worked on the ABC’s Four Corners current affairs programme, where his high point was reporting a story which led to a Royal Commission, which in turn ended the recurring phenomenon of Aboriginal prisoners dying in the cells of rural police stations.
Marr knew he had hit the target when the West Australian police mounted an exceptionally vigorous defence against sharp allegations that they were killing the Aboriginal people. They sued the ABC, which stood firm. The police case wouldn’t get into court. Instead, it petered out. Both sides paid their own costs and went home. A win for the ABC.
Marr’s books came from his journalism. First were a biography of ex-Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick and then a long look at the Australian security services, especially through the exceptional, and sometimes farcical, Royal Commission into the links between David Combe, a former Labor Party official, and Valeri Ivanov, a Soviet diplomat and spy. It was 1983 and Marr had won few friends in Bob Hawke’s brand-new Labor government.
Those two books have been outshone by his jewel, his definitive, and massive, biography of Patrick White, the only Australian to win a Nobel Prize for literature. It runs to 644 pages, with notes and bibliographies on top. The book won numerous awards, including the NSW Premier’s Award and Age Book of the Year, and was a bestseller.
White had been on the very edge of Marr’s childhood, although they didn’t meet until Marr was an adult and discussing doing a biography. “My parents met him. My father did not like him, although my mother did. Dad found him awkward personally and didn’t like the work. When Voss appeared, my father read half the first page and threw it across the room, saying, ‘This man is mad.’
“We have had the usual crop of small errors surface, but nothing serious, which was very pleasing for a book of that size, and when, especially early in White’s life, there were few records as guides to when he had been at various places.”
Those considering tackling a biography of a complex personality, especially someone who lived a long life, might consider Marr’s comment: “I thought it might take two years. It took six.” Then, the biography written, he pressed on with the collection of White’s letters. “I expected that to take four months. It took four years.”
Yes, he has other projects sitting out there waiting. No, he doesn’t want to talk about them, at least not at this stage. “I think it would be interesting to look at the life of a simpler person. I like that idea because it would be interesting to search deep in their lives for the drama.”
Lives are much on his mind these days, his own in particular. Marr is giving some thought to his own. He’s in his late 40s, having reached the same stage as those Sydney lawyers were in the days when he was slogging through his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise agreements.
“Those people were thinking about, at their age, suddenly starting to lead the lives they should have led. I thought to myself I should lead the life I should, which was writing.” Now he’s wondering whether that’s what he’s been doing.
The interview changes direction. Marr becomes the interviewer and begins asking me about my life this far. He is a smoothly efficient interviewer, not surprising since he runs a daily arts programme on ABC Radio, a sort of Kim Hill restricted to the arts.
A recent guest was Alan Duff, a man Marr admires. “Does he stir things up here?” Yes he does. “I assume he finds himself getting support from the people he least needs it from, the rednecks?” Yes he does. Marr files this away. New Zealand writers lined up for an appearance on Marr’s show should perhaps prepare a position on writers and their role as spokespeople for this country’s fast-changing racial politics.
This interview took place a week after the street confrontation in Wanganui, the one in which it looked as if the City Council was going to call on the police to turf out the Maoris occupying Moutua Gardens. The pictures had been dramatic, and accordingly had been given generous play on television news across the Tasman. Marr is very keen on a reading of the likely direction of race relations here, particularly in light of the long promotion of New Zealand as a racial paradise.
Having drifted off down that interesting path, Marr is too experienced an interviewer not to return to the work at hand. He wants my highlights and gets them: Irish-Catholic upbringing, travel, sport, working in the emergency services, journalism, marriage, divorce and so on. Once in the driver’s seat Marr is frighteningly quick and incisive. It is a salutary lesson in what it is like to be on the receiving end of a probing interview. Then, the assessment.
“I am wondering now whether that is the life I should have lived. Yours is the life that I theoretically envy but could never live myself. You see, I just don’t know whether sitting writing was everything I could have done.”
While I breathe a silent sigh of relief at having got off this easily, Marr moves on. How one should conduct one’s life is subject matter he has been over before. It also brings the conversation back to Patrick White, the great, gaunt ghost hovering over Marr’s life. “Patrick told me that is why writers write. They do it because the lives they lead at their desk are always much more interesting than the lives they lead away from it.
“My breaking away has been an extremely bourgeois version of a personal revolution, and I wonder whether I have really broken away at all.” This internal debate, one doubtless shared by other writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, is as yet unresolved.
Marr is casting around and giving a working definition of indecisiveness, but only in this area. He is very clear about other matters. He is keen for a list of things to see in Auckland. He has a single afternoon and wants to get off the beaten track. Forget Kelly Tarlton’s and Victoria Park Market. He’s interested in windows into New Zealand’s soul.
He’s already picked up a feeling of optimism in the air here, unlike his previous visit when recession hung in the air and when the national mood occasionally soared upwards to being able to be described as gloomy.
He gets a list I hope will be quirky enough, a grim Once Were Warriors street in Otara, the architectural mishmash of St John’s Park and the twee villa-land of St Mary’s Bay. Add Karekare beach, so he can see where The Piano was shot, and it seems to cover the range.
The drive from Ponsonby to his Parnell motel takes him through the Domain. “My God, what’s that?” It’s the Museum. “What an absolutely vile building! I have been in Northern Ireland and seen Stormont, their Parliament and it’s just like that. It’s horrible.”
I quickly decide not to take Marr anywhere near the Britomart area, where the City Council wants to skittle a row of attractive old buildings for another round of mirror glass. Marr likes the old and established. It’s his background.
“My parents were very generous and very enthusiastic about getting us all into sensible trades. Fortunately one of my sisters is still practising as a doctor. She is the best return on investment for my parents, because the rest of us are doing other things.” 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mark Broatch on Chad Taylor

The 76th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue. Mark Broatch, currently the Listener’s books and arts editor, reviews Chad Taylor’s first short-story collection The Man Who Wasn’t Feeling Himself (David Ling, $19.95).

Chad Taylor isn’t afraid to take risks, open­ing his career with books featuring transves­tism, physical abuse and pathological lying. He is also extraordinarily prolific, particu­larly for a New Zealand writer. Three books published in two years, a produced screen­play, two others on the go, and he’s several thousand words into his third novel.

This new book of short stories is front­-bumpered by two pregnant quotes and a tribute to an unplaced woman, “likewise insane”. They have clever, inviting titles. In “From Soup To Nuts” (the title is an American expression denoting all-inclu­sive, from the first course to the last, though here it means something different), an ob­noxious, overbearing skin doctor takes his young date to a swank restaurant. Desper­ately needing to impress, he corrects her dining faux pas and the waiter’s. The reader is allowed to explore the thoughts of the young waiter, and the unlikeable Dr Hasby, popping in or stepping away as necessary to gather detail — detail which tells us, for example, that the young woman is not as naive as Hasby supposes, and that medical training has strengthened his ability to dis­tance himself from his actions, to horrific result, when the girl departs in disgust.

Taylor is not afraid to push his readers, be it with sickening violence or explicit sex. Or to vary approaches: changing person, style, speed, genre. This collection demonstrates his range, yet the stories share a voice, a smooth finesse that’s not always reassuring, because it’s hard to find a moral tone. There is, in a few stories, an unsettling violence towards women, though this is counter­poised by an overwhelming love in others.

Back to the sex. A lovingly sado-maso­chistic couple swap dis-pleasure in “Archie and Veronica”, characters from an American comicbook (as well as software tools for trawling the Internet, though I won’t accuse him of that obsession, even though the title story displays a useful knowledge of computers). They live out a fanciful life, inflicting one insult upon their bodies after another, from childhood, told in a style reminiscent of his novel Pack Of Lies.

“Oilskin” throws up the subject of abso­lute obsession. Nigel feels ambivalent to­wards flatmate Warren for the latter’s predilection for whipping young women — can it be justified by one victim’s claim that unless you want something above all else, you can’t be sure you’re alive? “Running Hot And Cold” tells an unusual and prob­ably offensive tale of brutally honest sex, including a golden shower, in which the participants find satiety by separate routes.

Arguably the best of the collection is “No Sun No Rain”. This murder mystery en­gages within a paragraph — a Taylor strong suit — displaying well-controlled humour as it spins out the travels of a keen sleuth tracking the connection between a missing Austrian landscape artist and a trail of waterlogged corpses found in Auckland harbour. Taylor displays a keen knowledge of art history with which he pricks the pre­tensions of the visual art world.

There’s hardly a weak card in the pack, despite occasional small errors — like the aircraft that accelerates as it comes in to land in the title story. These are accom­plished, fluent, believable stories. The worst that could be said of them would be that they are lightweight. But that wouldn’t really be fair. They suggest unspoken depths (psychological, cultural) but simply don’t ever get caught in them. They skip over their world’s waves like sharp bright shells, just occasionally reflecting light down — which reveals, if I read it right, that not only is much of evil banal, but so is much of its kissing cousin, pleasure. By pitching them this way, Taylor suggests that it’s not the surface of life which is interest­ing, but the undercurrents that drive our basic emotions that are worth thinking about.

UPDATE: The book is now available in a digital edition. More here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In praise of: Piopio

I have just finished editing a book by Bruce Ansley about the back roads of New Zealand. The first time I worked with Bruce was on Coast, which won its category, Illustrated Non-fiction, in the 2014 NZ Post book awards. So far, so good. Proven winning combination. And it’s a dream job editing him because he is such a good writer and also, I discovered when I met him last year, a top bloke. But!

But in the manuscript Bruce, who is, frankly a South Islander, said something dismissive in passing about Piopio, which is in the King Country (North Island) and I admit is not a thing of beauty. But my father was born and raised there and the half of my relatives who are not buried in Canvastown (South Island) are buried there. So I intervened.

Editing is not all about grammar and punctuation, you know. Sometimes it’s about sticking up for one’s turangawaewae.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #45

From the 23 February edition:
Same old, same old
Both opinions of Joe Bennett and Peter Dornauf are the same old gurgitation, ever seeking to calm their consciences before death and then judgement for all.
Nearly every day, the Bible is prophetically proven, rightly describing mankind’s pathetic endeavours these latter days. Pagan UN’s seeking a One World Government, currency and religion.
Did Peter Dornauf not know of Darwin’s dilemma – when asked how to relate a peacock in full mating splendour to evolution, honestly replied it made him “feel sick!”
Again all archaeologist who have buried their enmity of “Truth” readily reply Earth is all evident of a catastrophic flood with sea shell deposits on the Himalayas.
Of course these facts are not found in Educational text books, this partly to blame for the World’s rapid decline from social order.
Te Kauwhata 

As always, spelling, punctuation and grammar are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The best New Zealand crime novels of 2014

Amazing that we can have a longlist of nine for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. All hail Craig Sisterson for organising these awards and keeping them going. Here is Wednesday’s press release:
Three debut novelists and two established authors dipping their creative pens in the crime and mystery well for the first time help bring a fresh look to the longlist for the the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, revealed today. “It is fantastic to see more and more talented New Zealand writers bringing their unique voices, perspectives, and interests to one of the world’s most popular storytelling genres,” said Judging Convenor Craig Sisterson. “Crime fiction is a broad church nowadays, and this year’s excellent longlist illustrates that well. It will be very interesting to see which of these books the judges prefer.”
The nine longlisted titles are:
Drowning City by Ben Atkins (Random House)
Five Minutes Alone by Paul Cleave (Atria)
Databyte by Cat Connor (Rebel ePublishers)
The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing (Head of Zeus)
A History of Crime: the Southern Double-Cross by Dinah Holman (Ravensbourne)
Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer (Oceanview Publishing)
Swimming in the Dark by Paddy Richardson (Upstart Press)
The Children’s Pond by Tina Shaw (Pointer Press)
Fallout by Paul Thomas (Upstart Press)
The judging panel (crime fiction experts from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, United Kingdom and Iceland) will announce the finalists in May. The winner will be revealed at a special event held later this year in association with WORD Christchurch, which has supported the Award since its establishment in 2010.
The last three on that list were all (modest cough) edited by me, and all made the NZ bestseller list. Paul Cleave, Barbara Ewing and Dinah Holman also have form. Don’t know anything about the other two but they must be very good to be in this company.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A cry for help from Sebastian Faulks

In his Spectator Diary of 14 February, novelist Sebastian Faulks, author of Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, writes:
When I last had a job, I spent all the time longing to be released from it so I would have time to write books. My wish was granted in 1991. I have now spent almost a quarter of a century alone in a garret staring at a blank wall and I think it has driven me a bit mad. I’ve done my stint. I need to have a job again now. I want colleagues, gossip, promotions, lunches and a PAYE packet in a grey windowed envelope, with tax and National Insurance deductions already made. So that’s my resolution for this year: find a job. I can still write books at night and at the weekend, as I did in the early days. So if anyone has something for a chronically unemployed middle-aged non-smoker with no qualifications at all, here I am.

Faulks is now on Twitter, “to the disdain of my smarter friends and the horror of my children”. Follow him at @sebastianfaulks: prepare to be amused.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Headline of the month

It is only the 10th of February but there will not be a better headline in the next 18 days than this in the Economist about driverless cars:
Car, where’s my dude?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Best comment about Wikipedia ever

Tim Worstall, Portugal-resident author of 20 Economics Fallacies, expert on scandium (he does 60% of the world’s trading, according to Theodore Gray), nephew of a Northland avocado orchardist and a very amusingly foul-mouthed blogger on economics, writes
So, I went to Wikipedia to check up on something. And I read what they had to say and thought, yes, that’s about how I would say it was. Only to realise that they were quoting me.
And, you know, I’m not sure I trust a reference source that is getting their information from me.
Quite. Which is why the motto of this blog is: “Friends don’t let friends link to Wikipedia.”

This week I am mostly editing a book about New Zealand back roads by a great journalist so he should be correct about everything. He isn’t. As I do even with fiction I spend more time fact-checking than I do worrying about grammar: there are loads of Department of Conservation etc websites but books are quicker. To my surprise, the best book I have handy with which to quickly check place-names is one of mine.

Diana and Jeremy Pope’s Mobil guides are great, but I have to say that the 1998 Reader’s Digest Motoring Guide to New Zealand rules. I did the North Island; Tim Higham did the South Island. I trust Tim's South Island references more than my North ones, but the index is brilliant. It is probably the best book I have ever contributed to.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Russell Brand, revolutionary

Previous posts here and here. And now this, from the 20 December issue of Private Eye:
In 2010 the media reported that Jemima Khan, associate editor of the New Statesman, socialite and daughter of the late tycoon Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, acquired Kiddington Hall, a ₤1.5m stately home in the north Oxfordshire. In fact she didn’t acquire it; a Cayman Islands company called Kidslane Ltd did. […]
The Cayman Islands company is owned, Khan’s accountant explains, “by a trust established by [her] father for the benefit of future generations of his family,” a classic inheritance tax-avoiding ruse for a wealthy non-dom. The terms of the trust “prevent capital being distributed…” However, “as a beneficiary of the trust [she is] able to live at Kiddington Hall”.
The Eye understands that Khan’s recent former boyfriend Russell Brand also lived for a time at Kiddington Hall. Indeed, he wrote a chunk of his anti-capitalist Revolution diatribe at the Cayman Islands-owned stately home funded by one of the 20th century’s most ruthless capitalists.

So here are the Beatles, “live” in 1968 with “Revolution”. Note the guitar parts: who plays the solo bits? The liveness of this clip is every bit as authentic as Brand’s status as an anti-capitalist revolutionary:

Friday, February 6, 2015

Holiday in Berlin

Creative New Zealand is calling for applications for the $40,000 Berlin Fellowship, Closing date is 6 March. Full details here.

The skinny: it is for an established writer to work on an “approved project” in Berlin between November 2015 and September 2016, and the $40k covers travel, a monthly stipend and accommodation: 
A one-bedroom, 60sqm apartment in the district of Friedrichshain in former East Berlin, which has a reputation as a lively and dynamic district. The Creative New Zealand apartment is close to the last standing section of the Berlin wall. The apartment can accommodate a partner but is not suitable for additional family members.

Everyone I know who had the fellowship loved being in Berlin. The only possible drawback is that at least three of them had a long-term relationship breakup while there.

So here, from his 1970 album Burnt Weenie Sandwich, is Frank Zappa with “Holiday in Berlin” (the score is here):