Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Carroll du Chateau on Alan Duff

The 17th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the May 1994 issue.

The intro read:
The film of his first novel, Once Were Warriors, is released this month; his latest novel, State Ward, is a bestseller. You’d think he’d be a happy man. Carroll du Chateau talks to Alan Duff.
Alan Duff is on his guard. Last time his name appeared in Quote Unquote (“Considering Alan Duff’ by Nigel Cox, August) he thinks he was shafted. This time he’s not taking any chances. “I’m not talking about family, nothing,” he says in a slightly menacing, defensive growl. He’s medium-sized with a stocky strong frame and slightly hunched shoulders. The kind of guy, like Jake Heke the antihero of Once Were Warriors, who can look after himself in a fight.
“I’ve a message to people,” he begins. “But it’s to all people. You’ll recall that the guy in One Night Out Stealing, Jude McColl, was a white guy. And he was a rapist. So why do people never, ever say, you’ve also got a message for Pakeha people. Charles Dickens had a message, didn’t he? It was anti-poverty. I’m anti-poverty of spirit.”
By anyone’s standards Duff is a difficult interview. Of the 21 questions I’ve prepared he’ll only answer about half because he considers he’s been given a hard time by the press. Partly he’s right. There have been times when he’s been needlessly savaged. But on the other hand Duff can be so thin-skinned he considers even intellectual discussion of his work as attack.
Already his light brown shirt, worn with blue jeans and leather brogues, is blotched with sweat after a run-in with a politically correct teacher at Northcote College down the road. (“That guy hijacked the entire meeting – we didn’t talk about Warriors – nothing. I said to him, ‘Mr Coogan, I’m telling you, right now, to your face, you hijacked that.’”)
Things like this happen to Duff all the time. Coogan, it turns out, is the same Phil Coogan who reviewed State Ward in the Herald and said Duff wrote it to pay his daughter’s private school fees. He appears to be strongly opposed to Duff’s political stance and although on sabbatical from his job as Northcote College’s head of English, made a special trip back from Gisborne to attend Duff’s speech to a seventh-form English class.
Half an hour later, Duff is ready to fight another round. But he’s jumpy. Every time he settles down and relaxes he’ll sight an imaginary trick in the question and up go the hackles. It’s a response of a man who’s lived most of his life attacking – or waiting to be attacked. However, he’s confident too. Between retorts he pats the dog, surveys the garden, talks about the curse of his ever-threatening waistline.
He settles into the sofa, shoulders hunched, mouth set and begins to yawn: “I only had two hours’ sleep last night.” When he’s away from his home in Hawkes Bay, Duff’s schedule is punishing. Last night was a session with Bob Jones (“he drove me to the airport”). Today there was Northcote College to be followed by an after-dinner speech at the Poenamo Tavern in Northcote. Tomorrow night is dinner with Douglas Myers.
But despite the rich white friends, Duff, a child who observed the spiritual poverty of lives like those featured in Once Were Warriors close-up, is no Uncle Tom. More likely the new friends whose names he drops so casually into the conversation are a by-product of his raw drive to do three things. One, write so brilliantly the literary fraternity will take him seriously. Two, push both Maori and Pakeha liberals into shaming Maoris into taking responsibility for their own actions and own families. Three, make sure his six children, from the eldest boy who is studying law at Victoria in Wellington to the two youngest girls from his second marriage, get all the help (excellent education, help with homework, attention) so many Maori kids are denied.
For all his reticence it’s important to place Alan Duff, the writer, in his landscape – both literary and personal. Both his grandfather and grandmother were writers: “Grandad was the first editor of the Listener, editor of the Christchurch Press and wrote a couple of books.” His grandmother also wrote a novel and was a patron of Janet Frame’s: “In one book of Janet Frame’s there’s a photo of my grandmother, Jess Whitworth, with Janet.”
Duff’s own much-loved father, Gowan, who died two-and-a-half years ago, was a Pakeha research scientist. His mother, Kuia Hinau, a Maori woman. Although he won’t say much about either of them except to fiercely defend his father (“My father was wonderful – just a wonderful father – all my books are dedicated to him and always will be”), the dedication of Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge reads: “To my mother ‘Kuia’ Hinau, for her fearless individuality, her fire.”
Duff also had four brothers and one sister, Josie. One Night Out Stealing is dedicated to Josie and her husband Dee Walker. Kevin, his oldest brother, died in a car crash at 24. Nick, two years older than Alan, is a successful financial consultant: “Nick and his wife Pam have been a great influence on me – they’re wonderful parents, a good couple.”
So what sort of an upbringing did Duff have – the white middle-class life of a Pakeha scientist’s kids, or one filled with pubs, boozing, fighting and the marae? The answer is a bit of both. He was born at Ohinemutu just out of Rotorua and as a little boy dived for pennies at Whakarewarewa with his cuzzies. By 13 he was a state ward; a couple of years later he was in borstal from which he emerged “lost and confused” at 16. But at the same time, he had the background, the guts and the drive to pull himself back on track.
First he got a job as a sheet-metal worker: “That’s how I learned the work ethic, from my first boss.” Three years later he was working for himself and, at 20, was hooked on literature. “Nick gave me Gerard Manly Hopkins,” he remembers. From there he moved onto Faulkner, Doctorow, Selby, Steinbeck, Hemingway (“The English don’t do much for me”). And soon he was writing seriously himself.
“I’ve been having regular attempts at trying to get published since I was 28,” he says. “And I didn’t get published till I was 40 so it was a reasonably long apprenticeship.”
What made him carry on? “I don’t know why, I’m just driven,” he says. “I am, of course, a very competitive type. I want the world. . . But there’s a little bit of talent required too, eh?” he smiles.
By anyone’s standards, Alan Duff is one of the most successful writers in the country. Once Were Warriors was on the Booksellers New Zealand bestseller list 28 times and is thought to have sold some 30,000 copies. One Night Out Stealing made the list 12 times. Then there’s Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge, which sold out almost in days, and his latest, State Ward, which topped the bestseller list in March and, he says, sold 7000 copies before it was even published: “I think I’ve sold between 70 and 80,000 books including non-fiction. I’d like to add another nought on that.”
There’s also the bread-and-butter of his weekly column syndicated to 10 newspapers, the movie of Once Were Warriors which opens this month, the idyllic Hawkes Bay lifestyle most New Zealanders can only dream about, the dinners with millionaires, the speeches all over the country.
But still Duff is not satisfied. “I’d like to say that Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge is compulsory study at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua,” he says, his eyes flashing. “Nigel Cox and Ranginui Walker are not the only opinions out there, despite holding themselves up as self-appointed oracles.”
Although he’s very different from Warriors’ Jake Heke – particularly in his attitudes to women, to whom he behaves with genuine respect and even deference – you can’t help wondering if what Duff wants is the kind of respect that Jake craves. Something much more primitive – and unattainable: “Jake’s bent elbow on the outer door with the sleeve rolled high to remind any might-bes and likelies what they were up against in terms of sheer muscle. . .”

Duff’s problem is that he wants to be taken more seriously as a writer, but his message gets in the way. It’s all too easy to overlook the painstaking effort and the brilliant technique that lets the narrative slide so effortlessly from the head of one character to another in Once Were Warriors.
“It’s always been the literature [that’s most important],” he says. “The message is almost incidental. I didn’t want to make a political message in Warriors, I just wanted to get published. The subject matter can only be what I know, and I didn’t go to university so how could I write about that sort of thing? The book is literature, literature, literature – period!”
The critics, for their part, complain that Duff can’t stop sermonising, even in his novels. And that his message is too heavy-handed. Duff explains his side of the argument in Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge: “They [the critics] were unsure because – amongst other, lesser reasons – they had been fed a diet of Maori as an oppressed race, a tragically misunderstood race of a colonised people; they had been saturated with media, with educative political correctness that the Maori could essentially do no wrong since he had been grossly wronged in the first place by the whites. A message of one-sided guilt, one-sided culpability, a message that was hammered and hammered from every angle, everywhere you went. Unsure, these white middle-class book reviewers because they had a belief they wanted to maintain of the Maori being a bit on the rough and tough side, sure, but still nice people.”
Maybe his second stumbling block is that because his books are so aggressive, chilling and relentlessly written, readers cannot help but be outraged. They also cannot separate the man from the writer. Listen to Once Were Warriors: “the parties raged all over Pine Block they raged, man. And people, every man and woman jack ofem, they were thinking this must be life because it is life, you know? But not yet, something not quite equating. Ah, but who gives a fuck? Drink up and be happy. And if you wanna fight go to it bro. Might even join you if it looks good. . . And the wives screaming, or taking their beatings in pain-grunting silence. Or the sexual without feeling. Or hatingim for it.”
The film version of Once Were Warriors will probably only exacerbate this problem. Translated onto the screen, the story of Jake Heke, wife Beth, family and whanau, achieves a brutality and solid-wall sordidness that will stun audiences up and down the country. And despite the fact that it wasn’t written by Duff and moves substantially away from his storyline, he will no doubt get the blame if it ignites another round in the anti-Maori backlash.

Even when he moves to the softer, child’s voice of State Ward, Duff still can’t win with the critics. “Then Mr Dekka handed Charlie folded pyjamas which had, to Charlie’s astonishment, a pair of slippers on top. . . The feel so unfamiliar and nice he almost forgot what had brought him to change in the first place. He just stood there turning, twisting his body this way and that to get the tingle of fluffiness and warmth against his skin; the aroma of cleanliness, nice-scented washing stuff still lingering on the blue-striped garments. Ahhh.”
Says Duff resignedly, “Those pyjamas’d cost what it costs to go to the pub and buy four jugs.”
lain Sharp reviewed the book in the Sunday Star-Times under a headline that snarled “Duff hammers his bullying short sermon”: “Written last year to be broadcast on National Radio, it reads like a very hasty job. . . a sloppy, predictable and disappointing book.”
Has success and criticism damaged Duff, the writer? Maybe. Since One Night Out Stealing, his career has had several major setbacks. His third novel, Dreamboat Dad, was rejected by Tandem Press, publisher of his first two novels – a slap in the face for any writer, let alone one as sensitive as Duff. Even though the publication date had been set, galleys ordered, probably even the author tour booked, the book couldn’t be salvaged.
“Realising it wasn’t good enough was awful. But, you know, even Michael Jones has an off-day,” Duff smiles ruefully. “If you chance your arm a bit – you try things and they don’t come off. So you’ve spent a year doing nothing and that’s how it goes.”
And what’s happened to the third novel now? Has he hawked it around other publishers? Is he attempting a rewrite? That’s not the Alan Duff style. “Do artists try and repaint their paintings or just throw them away and start another one?”
Then there was the knock-back of Riwia Brown being hired to take over the film script for Warriors. “I accept that doing books and scripts wouldn’t be the same. Now someone else has done the script and good luck to them. I gave them the springboard for the original screenplay. . .”
He acknowledges that there is a real difficulty in writing the internal voices of the book into a movie. “You can’t do it. They don’t do it.” And how does he feel about that now? “I accept the realities of the world.”
Duff is also stung by some of the criticism. When his name came up during a panel on Maori writing at last year’s Writers’ Week in Dunedin, someone – a Pakeha, naturally – shouted, “He’s not a real Maori.”
“I think it’s so pathetic. It doesn’t bother me,” says the clearly bothered Duff. “If I said to them, ‘Unless you sell over 10,000 copies of every book you’re not a real writer’, how would they feel?”
Later, with a great deal of pride, he explains that for the TV documentary on Maori: The Crisis And The Challenge, he’s going to be filmed on the marae speaking Maori. That, as he says, will surprise a few people.
So what about a little acclaim for the pugnacious Maori battler who has hauled himself from the wrong side of the tracks to do two things that no other New Zealanders have had the courage, talent or sheer determination to carry off?
First, Duff has exposed the Maori crisis and the challenge from the inside. Second, he is making a living – a good living at that – from writing books, not an easy thing to do. “I now know why the best novelists are feted the world over – it’s hard,” he says. “For Warriors I wrote a lot of drafts. How did I survive? I lived with my wife. I make good money because I’m good at it and that drive goes into the work. I’m a tremendous worker physically.”
So what’s next for Alan Duff? “I’ve decided to get into scripts for a while, but I may have another novel up my sleeve in the immediate future,” he says. “Then there’s probably a sequel coming up for State Ward. I’ve got a fantastic storyline. Once Were Warriors is coming out in May with the University of Hawaii Press.
“I want to be a success and I’ve always wanted to be a success far beyond these shores with my literature.”
And what’s his ambition? “To be a great novelist. If I measure up.”


Keri H said...

An academic mate of mine has a fascinating series of taped interviews with Alan Duff wherein Duff reveals himself to be extremely aggressive towards women (especially some female writers.)

And "Dreamboat Dad" was waaay back there in 1994 eh? Hmmmm.

"To be great novelist. If I measure up."

Keep working on it, mate.

(For the record, I've never wanted to be 'great': I just want to tell stories, sing song/poems, and contribute to ANZ literary/mind life...)

Stephen Stratford said...

Keri, I have seen Alan confronted by stroppy women and him behaving exactly as described in this article. He might have been aggressive verbally about other writers, but in my experience - I have known him for nearly 30 years, i.e. pre-dating "Once Were Warriors", and I also know two of his sisters-in-law, who are kind of whanau - he has always been a gentleman.

Keri H said...

Stephen - that emphatically has not been my experience: I've met Alan only one time, in Wellington - he sneered once when he learned who I was, and badmouthed me thereafter in the Picador party (to which - as far as I know - he had not been invited.)
Then, he wrote a totally erroneous version of that meeting.
Gentleman? Ptui.
the tapes exist-

Stephen Stratford said...

Keri, I believe you, just saying what my experience has been of seeing Alan with family/friends and others. Fair to say that he can be very chippy about what he sees as "the literary world" and anyone in it. No excuse for him behaving to you the way you describe, but that would be the motor.

Keri H said...

Fair enough. Bit ironic though, seeing I'm not totally enrmoured of the lit. world either: parts I love, and parts I loathe...A Denizen From a Literary Island

Anonymous said...

I got to know Duffy during the 14months we spent together in Te Awamutu correctional facility. He was definitely not a scraper but he was a stirrer, always mouthing off but never prepared to back up his BS