Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nigel Cox on Ian Cross and Damien Wilkins

The 19th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1993 issue.

The intro read:
Wellington writers Ian Cross and Damien Wilkins both found early success in the US, three decades apart. They talk to Nigel Cox about the twin effects of dollars and distance upon their work.
“I’m working on my best sustained piece of writing now [but] I can’t make a living from this kind of writing. . . so the novel I’m working on now is likely to be my last... I’m married and have three children. . . like eating and drinking, and a reasonable degree of comfort, and must provide these and other satisfactions for five people. . . Nobody asked me to be a writer and I enjoy being a father much more.” Ian Cross, Landfall, 1960.
So many New Zealand novelists have abandoned literature after a promising early book or two – but are the reasons purely economic, as Cross suggests, or is “life in New Zealand” insufficient as raw material? Is it just that the fiction market here is so small?
Cross solved the small-market problem by finding an American publisher for his first novel, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich – who by coincidence will also publish Damien Wilkins’ first novel in the US later this year. “Will being a New Zealander hurt me?” Wilkins asked his New York agent, Candida Donadio. “Whaddya talkin’ about?” she said. “It’s your strength.”
It wasn’t a strength Cross played on back in 1957. The God Boy is often described as a New Zealand classic but re-read now all the specifically local detail that Americans wouldn’t understand seem to have been written out – there are no names of real places, no Maoris, no rugby – and the novel might more accurately be said to be set in “Catholic-land”. Asked if he had an actual town in mind, Cross replies, “Castlecliff – but most people thought it was Patea. I must have given a rather dreary version of Castlecliff.”
He began writing The God Boy when he was at Harvard on a fellowship for journalists and has acknowledged that its “innocent teenager tells us adult readers things he doesn’t understand” narrative style was borrowed from American sources. Cross saw James Dean in a television adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s story “I Want To Know Why”. This was before Dean became famous as a film actor. “He was about 17, I think. He seemed to be oblivious of everything, as though he was standing in the dark at noon. He just stood and looked into the camera. And to some extent Jimmy Sullivan was born in that portrayal by James Dean.”
So the God boy had an American model – and perhaps Cross also picked up the American ability to suspend the everyday world which surrounds us in favour of a fiction-world made of words. Told with a teenager’s slanginess that isn’t afraid of Americanisms, The God Boy seems delightfully free of any trouble about how to write the New Zealandness in. His second novel, The Backward Sex, edges closer to detailing the New Zealand it says is its setting, but it wasn’t until After Anzac Day that Cross embarked upon a novel that insists that its readers accept they’re in “Adelaide Road, Wellington”, or that the waterfront confrontations of 1951 are the same ones as in the history books.
By this point Cross had scored a major international success with The God Boy, having signed for Penguin UK to follow the British hardback with a 40,000-copy reprint. French, Finnish and Italian editions were pending: “Jimmy Sullivan’s bike got all the way back to Rome,” he laughs. There was talk of a stage play. In England, the UK edition of The Backward Sex sold out in a month and was immediately reprinted. It was then that Cross announced he couldn’t make enough money to continue writing.
After Anzac Day is an uneven, often stiff book, and truncated. “I terminated it,” Cross says. “I had a grander plan, in which the characters and theme were more fully developed, but I had three children and a fourth on the way.”
If he says he wasn’t making what he considered a living, we must accept that. But when pressed, he acknowledges that being a writer here wasn’t easy. “There was a kind of underlying disbelief and resentment. People couldn’t believe that you were what some people were saying you were. There was that sense of the way male prisoners would view a woman walking through them. Of a possession denied.”
Cross, who at 67 has the air of having cast a benign gaze down on parochialisms of this sort (he’s six foot four) for a lifetime, rocks back in his armchair to laugh, answers questions with the relaxed skill of the bureaucrat he once was. In his wide-windowed, back-from-the-beach house, it seems churlish to probe. He’s agreed to be interviewed because after 31 years a new novel, The Family Man, is being published and we should really be talking about that. But I can’t help dragging him back to what seems a remarkable decision. There’s a sense, I suggest, of a writer finding he’d written himself back home to the seat he was sitting on. Finding the New Zealand out the window a restrictive subject.”
He studies the ceiling, remembering. “Yeah. I think that’s a fair observation. I would have continued as a writer if my circumstances had been different, and if I’d been out of New Zealand. If I could have got away.” To write about New Zealand? “To write about New Zealand.”
I’m to see Damien Wilkins next and so I ask him what he would say to a young writer with a good first novel under his belt and contemplating his future. There’s no hesitation. “Leave New Zealand as fast as you can.”

Damien Wilkins entered fiction, so to speak, in The God Boy, via the 1976 teleplay he had a part in. Wilkins was auditioned for the title role – “We were told Ian Cross was behind the one-way glass, watching” – but eventually played Jimmy Sullivan’s best friend Hector. “Who wasn’t actually in the book. I looked it up. There’s no Hector here? Oh, that’s nice, they made a part for me,” he wisecracks.
Now, at 29, Wilkins is approaching the point in his career where Cross, 33 years earlier, decided to abandon fiction. He’s been overseas, to London in the late 80s, where he was an editorial assistant at Roxby Press and, more recently, to Washington State University in St Louis on a two-year writing scholarship. There he attended the classes run by short-story writer and novelist Stanley Elkin. “I didn’t know the campus very well, I’d never seen Elkin before, didn’t know he was in a wheelchair. I was waiting around the room I thought the first class was going to be in and then this woman with white hair wheels this guy along and I think, that’s him. I said, ‘Oh. Professor Elkin?’ ‘Yeah,’ he sort of snarled, and I said, ‘Oh. I think I’m in the graduate writing programme – is this where it is?’ Elkin exploded. ‘I dunno! They tol’ me this was where, I dunno!’ He was in a bad mood because the toilets in this block were downstairs and he couldn’t get to them in his wheelchair, really angry. And I thought, how am I going to survive an hour with this man?”
Elkin turned out to be a wonderful teacher. The classes of five, all male, were held in a locker room – “Elkin was a real locker-room guy”– or at his home. “He taught fiction by indirect means, anecdotal. He’d read what you’d written and then tell stories, a very brilliant way of teaching which could only be done by him. He had the stories and he had that Jewish facility for narrative and funny stuff.”
It was on that course Wilkins began what became The Miserables, his first novel, whose central character is a New Zealander. “In his past he’s had a trip to America to do a thesis, which he doesn’t complete, comes back for his grandfather’s funeral and becomes a book review editor in Wellington.”
In 1957 Ian Cross simply posted his first novel direct to Harcourt Brace and had it accepted. These days you need an agent. Getting a good agent is as hard as getting a publisher, but Wilkins managed to get a very good one. The fiction editor of GQ liked one of Wilkins’ stories, and wrote him a letter of introduction to Candida Donadio.
“She was very intimidating to meet. I sat in her office, and you’re surrounded by the National Award plaques Thomas Pynchon didn’t pick up, and on her desk there’s a couple of copies of Mario Puzo’s new novel because she also represents him. I knew she was Gaddis’s agent, that she’d got Philip Roth his $250,000 back in 1969. She’s five-four or something, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, this dark Italian hair, and a deep voice like a man, sits up in her chair and smokes with a dinner plate for her butts.”
Donadio must have liked his prospects to have bothered with him; it’s possible she also liked Wilkins himself. Elkin certainly did. Wilkins is a likeable man. With his faint pallor and the kind of ear for voices and stories that makes you want to keep him talking, he seems likely to make friends with interesting people wherever he goes.
Donadio and Elkin submitted The Miserables for one of the nine writers’ awards made annually by the Mrs Giles Whiting Foundation, and the novel was tried on various publishers.
American publishers were definitely interested, “but a couple of the rejection letters said there was a kind of weight of explanation that’d had to be put in for an American audience. Maybe I was over-explaining New Zealand and making it exotic in that strained way you sometimes feel writers do to their own country.”
And the story GQ was considering also ran into problems. “The fiction editor hit me with things like, ‘And what is this, the betting on the horses – the handicapping? We don’t have that in America, that’s gonna cause problems, I think.’”
But writing about New Zealand is what our writers want to do overseas. It’s a tradition that goes back through Shadbolt to Mansfield, and Wilkins is no exception,
saying he wouldn’t have written The Miserables if he’d stayed at home. “There’s a lot of thinking about New Zealand in the book; the sort of thinking that doesn’t get done while you’re here. It’s like Bill Manhire’s stories in The New Land – he said he couldn’t imagine writing them in New Zealand. That mixture of homesickness and distance, there’s a lot that you can only see clearly when you’re away.”
Back in New Zealand, the scholarship ended, Wilkins found it hard to wait while the novel was tried on other publishers. He forced himself to look for work. “I applied for a position writing ads for a real estate agency in Upper Hutt, didn’t even get an interview.” The QEII Arts Council turned down his application for a grant. Depressed and bored, “stale on prose”, he began writing parodies of local poets. The parodies turned to poems and in eight weeks he had a collection, which VUP snapped up. The Idles – 55 poems, 112 packed pages, in eight weeks!
“I remember, one night in a hotel, I was staying there alone, I wrote five poems,” he laughs. “I wrote them in the weirdest way, I had them all in my head. I was just lying there, it was about two in the morning, and I’d make them up: okay, that’s one – then I’d think of another one. Then I got up and wrote them down, on the little hotel pads, and that was five poems, in a sort of frenzy. They’re all in the book.”
The hotel was in New York, where unexpectedly Wilkins was making a flying visit. “What happened was, we were in bed at Waikanae, six in the morning, the phone rang. My wife answered, it was Dad: ‘They’re trying to reach Damien – good news from America.’ I thought maybe Candida found a publisher – but she’s got my home number. So I got up and washed my teeth. Then I saw myself in the bathroom mirror: What am I doing here? I thought it was all a dream, one of those silly moments, and I was on my way back to bed when Dad rang again: ‘Have they rung? Well, you’re to ring them then.’
“So I rang this New York number and immediately they said, ‘Did you make this collect? No, well the first thing you must do is send us the phone bill,’ and that’s when I knew it was good news.” He’d won one of the Whiting Awards, worth $US30,000.
The award produced an opening for Candida Donadio and quite shortly after Harcourt Brace offered a $US10,000 advance for The Miserables. It will be published in the US in November (and simultaneously here by VUP).
Gee, Frame, Mahy, Shadbolt and Stead, among others, have for a couple of decades published their books overseas before here, but in the last 12 months books by Lloyd Jones, Barbara Anderson and Peter Wells have sold later to British and US publishers: a new generation of writers is sending stories about us into the world.
It seems easier than it was in Cross’s time to write about this country, partly because television and film have dethroned the book as the primary carrier of national mythologies, and partly because the huge increase in the number of novels and stories published by New Zealand writers means that one book doesn’t have to strain to tell the whole story any more.
“I think that in a way our position with regard to, say, America or England gives us a leverage that Naipaul for example has used,” says Wilkins. “There’s a subject right there, and it’s perhaps not been exploited that much.”
Maybe we don’t always fully explore our condition. And if we aren’t always perfectly confident that the rest of the world will find us sufficiently interesting, then outgrowing these problems now seems only a matter of time, and not much of it.
But Cross’s other problem – money – still remains. With the exception of Mahy, our best writers – respected and widely read as they are – wouldn’t be able to live by their work without state funding.
State funding is a question which vexes both Wilkins and Cross. Cross has always opposed it, feeling that the arts is one area that should remain free from the influence of bureaucrats.
In his new novel, the family man of the title is a journalist who writes an article denouncing funding of this sort, only to toss it away when he realises that if he ever finishes the novel he’s also working on, a grant from this source will be just what he’s looking for.
Adapting Fairburn, he tells a poet, “But you don’t believe in artists taking handouts from the State. Only toadstools grow in the shade of a tree, remember?”
State influence doesn’t worry Wilkins – he thinks that no one in the bureaucracy reads carefully enough for it to matter. Both writers agree that until we have a bigger population, we have either funding or part-time writers only. Both would rather see such money as there is divided into a smaller number of bigger chunks, providing three to five years of support for a handful of the best.
When Cross was president of the writers’ organisation PEN he persuaded the Kirk government to create the Authors’ Fund, which compensates writers for sales lost as a result of their books being borrowed from libraries. Once a significant source of income, the huge increase in the number of writers and the way successive governments have shrunk the fund have since seen it reduced to something closer to a none-too-generous Christmas bonus.
Cross thinks the same principle as state funding should apply here too, with larger sums going to a smaller number of writers. But there are changes afoot in the library world: Wellington City Council, for example, is proposing that borrowers should pay an annual fee to borrow books. Will it pass any of this revenue back to the writers who earned it?
Earnings, mortgages, lifestyle, literature; it remains a delicate balance for our writers. Cross, who says that The God Boy still haunts him, seems nevertheless to have no regrets about having to postpone writing fiction until his retirement. When Wilkins is asked if it will it be possible for him to sustain an international career from here, this most clear-sighted of young men can only say, “I don’t know.”


Fergus said...

This is a terrific article and absolutely fascinating reading 17 years later when the New Zealand problem -- which seemed to be receding at the time: “Will being a New Zealander hurt me?” Wilkins asked his New York agent, Candida Donadio. “Whaddya talkin’ about?” she said. “It’s your strength.” -- is right back on the agenda. I hope some other writers respond to this.

Thank you Stephen for putting these great pieces back into play.

Stephanie said...

I loved this post. Still relevant after all these years, and it moved me strangely. Thank you for the re-publishing.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks for your thanks, Fergus and Stephanie. Isn't it interesting to see what has changed in nearly two decades, and what hasn't.