At the Copyright Licensing NZ awards event on Thursday night, Steve Braunias, fresh from his triumph at the NZ Post Book Awards where he won the non-fiction prize for Civilisation, was the main speaker. He talked about the importance of his earlier CLNZ grant which enabled him to write the book. He also talked about journalism, fiction versus non-fiction, and how important grants and awards from the likes of CLNZ and Creative NZ are to writers. He made some jokes, too.
It was a good speech, so here it is:
One of the drawbacks of journalism is that it trains its practitioners to be something a professional jackass. I’m a long-time practitioner: 33 years in a fascinating, stressful and highly comical trade. I’ve seen how it trains you to respond, rather than think. How it trains you to talk, rather than read. But I’ve loved every moment of it, apart from the moments when I’ve been sued and sacked.
I’m proud to be a reporter. I’m all good to be a professional jackass. The book that I wrote as one of the grateful winners of the 2010 CLNZ award is the work of a journalist. I went to 20 small towns and reported on who I met and where I drank and what the weather was like and what the psychic charge may have been like. I made notes on landscapes and pathologies, interviewed soldiers and drunks and little old blind ladies and a man who tattooed a face on the back of his shaven head. I wasn’t sure which face was doing the talking. I wasn’t sure about a lot of things. I wasn’t in it for the definitive analysis of each place; I was passing through, swept up, guessing, unsure, humbled by so many decent and inventive people living in strange compressed places, full of light and beauty, but also very often claustrophobic and seething.
I began it as a series of photo essays with Jane Ussher for North & South magazine. The first place I chose was Waiouru. I wanted to be at the dead magnetic centre of the island, on New Zealand’s most profound stretch of road, the Desert Road. I got there and it was thrilling and weird and lonely, and that photo essay series immediately became the work that fascinated me the most. What themes might develop, what kind of portrait might emerge?
But I needed to write about and explore these places at a length that was beyond North & South’s already generous allowance. As such, I came knocking on the door of CLNZ. The door, amazingly, opened. With their backing and their loot, I was able to chuck in other work, and by coincidence there was one spectacular case of work chucking me in, when I was removed from the Sunday Star-Times by an editor who was himself inevitably and subsequently removed. Editors come and go.
And so I set about mapping out more and more places to write about exclusively for my book. It was made possible by CLNZ and I want to thank them for their patronage. We live in a small country and it seems to me that our cultural life depends on the benevolence of your CLNZs, your Michael King Centres, your CNZ allowances and stipends. It’s deeply unpleasant, then, to note this government’s blithe dismantling of state-owned creative enterprises such as TVNZ7 and, this week, Learning Media.
One sometimes thinks of these times in New Zealand as an age of stupidity, with its masticating Prime Minister, its endearing Stan Walker, its not at all endearing 7 Sharp. One can only trust that this, too, shall pass.
Anyway. About my book and that. I spent the first half of 2011 travelling and the second half writing. Throughout the note-taking and interviewing, and later the composing and decomposing, I owed everything I was doing to journalism. I love journalism’s endless and highly improbable narratives, like nonsense heard in a dream. There was one the other week, a classic News in Brief, in which Auckland’s harbourmaster warned passing vessels of a dead cow floating beneath the harbour bridge. Did it fall? Was it pushed? We may never know.
The principles of journalism are the same as any form of non-fiction: an accumulation of discovered facts presented in a readable and intelligent manner. Emily Perkins did me a wonderful favour when she provided a compliment that my publisher Awa Press put on the front cover of Civilisation. She wrote, “It’s like a series of great New Zealand novels bound up in one extraordinary book.”
Thank you, Emily. You’re way too kind. And yet . . . Who else notes the implication that fiction is the higher form, the superior art that my book has done very well to resemble? Will someone say on the cover of Emily’s next book, “It’s like a series of great books of New Zealand non-fiction bound up in one extraordinary novel”?
Because of course that would be high and superb praise. Imagine a novel with the lyricism and exhilarating ideas as expressed by New Zealand’s greatest living non-fiction author, Martin Edmond. Imagine a novel with the vision and daring of Bill Pearson’s essay “Fretful Sleepers”, that first document of the New Zealand identity, its “Heartbreak Hotel”.
There has been so much fantastic non-fiction written in this country. In fact I’d moot that our most accomplished literature is our history and biography. You can read old, dated studies by Keith Sinclair and JC Beaglehole today for the sheer pleasure of their prose. The biggest loss New Zealand arts and letters has suffered in the past 10 years was the death of that scholar and gentleman Michael King. Janet Frame’s To the Is-land is perhaps her best book, which is also of course to suggest that it may be the best book ever written in these is-lands.
Then, too, there’s the work of those put-upon knaves, Key’s knuckleheads, the national’s journalists. They tell the story of New Zealand in instalments. Is there any writer in the country funnier than Diana Wichtel? Well, apart from Shelley Bridgeman?
We have here in this room a fellow who in circa possibly 1985 wrote a story in the Listener which I read with awe and an open, gaping mouth and my hand over my nose. It was a story about Auckland’s sewers, by Geoff Chapple. It was a kind of travel story. He took his readers on a tour of a sewer’s canal. To Geoff, it was a holy place, mysterious and final, sacred and profane. To readers, it was a piece of brilliant and transcendent writing.
I don’t know who the author was of another Listener story published in circa maybe 1983. It wasn’t a name I’d seen before and it wasn’t a name I ever saw again. It was an incredible story. It wasn’t topical and it wasn’t indicative of any kind of wider issue. It was a story about a man who lived with his mother in an old house in the country. I think it was somewhere in the Manawatu but equally it may have been Southland.
I’ve stored it as a precious, blurred memory these past 30 or so years, of a story I read that was poised and delicate, and simple and gothic and moving, and which also had a powerful affect on other people. I remember the way they talked about it, their disbelief at just how beautiful and sad it was, the way they felt they were in the presence of art.
In 2009, I dedicated my book of newspaper profiles, Roosters I Have Known, to former Listener editor Tony Reid, in small appreciation of his genius as an interviewer and prose stylist. The secret dedication of my book Civilisation is to that unknown author of a gothic masterpiece published in an issue of a magazine three decades old. The quiet and unremarkable lives, the sense of tragedy and what it revealed about this place, the underlying bonds of love – it helped lead my way to Winton and Hicks Bay, to Wainuiomata and Collingwood.
The kind of journalism I practise falls into the relatively new category known as long-form or creative non-fiction. Never mind the nomenclature. We’re all here in this room because we all practise or read writing which is about life. Life written as natural history, as biography, as Pacific saga, as satire, or whatever discipline. We say to the five finalists of the 2013 CLNZ award, bring out your accumulation of discovered facts told in a readable and intelligent manner. We say to them, give us life.Winners on the night were Margaret Pointer and Geoff Chapple, who each receive $35,000 from Copyright Licensing’s cultural fund for their writing projects. Pointer’s Niue: a history 1774-1974 will tell the story of 200 years of contact, interaction and change for the people of Niue. Chapple’s Terrain will trace the Te Araroa trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff with travel stories from around New Zealand – and a lot about geology. Full details here.