Wednesday, June 17, 2015

An hour with Steve Braunias and David Slack

The Auckland Writers Festival has put online a bunch of videos of sessions from last month’s 2015 festival: Noelle McCarthy with Helen Macdonald, Noelle McCarthy with Irvine Welsh, John Campbell with Eleanor Catton, John Campbell with Carol Ann Duffy, Paula Morris with Ben Okri, Catherine Robertson with David Mitchell, that sort of thing. Sessions with Lloyd Jones, Patricia Grace, Tim Winton, Amy Bloom, Alexander McCall Smith, CK Stead, Helen Garner, Anthony Horowitz…

But, unaccountably, not the session on satire I chaired with Steve Braunias and David Slack. (We’re in good company: superstar editor John Freeman’s session with superstar novelist Haruki Murakami isn’t online either.) Here is a review of our session by Christchurch Libraries (quote unquote: “what a sharp-witted triumvirate they were”). Just so it isn’t entirely lost to posterity, here are my rough notes of the event. Regular readers are familiar with my Stratford Theory of Numbers: here follows my Stratford Theory of Satire. It’s all about Feilding.

Friday 15 May: As is traditional, my weekend in Auckland starts with lunch at the Mai Thai with the poets Bland, Brown and Ireland and assorted journalists. I don’t remember much after that.

Saturday 16 May: The only part of these events I enjoy is when we are backstage waiting to go on and the sound technician says into her head-mike, “The talent is standing by.” And then, “The talent is moving to the stage.” The talent. Yes.

Just before this Steve Braunias leaves the green room to see Noelle McCarthy across the corridor. Understandable. We are all a bit tense. Which is good – I don’t trust people who are not tense before a performance. Noelle and I talked about this earlier and agreed that being tense means you take it seriously. David and I discuss whether he should read his satirical obituary from Metro (an Auckland monthly magazine) of a Cabinet minister and a sibling’s incoherent letter of rage in reply. I say yes. David says, “I won’t identify the sibling.”

Once on stage we are all relaxed as. I kick off with: “Prepare to be disappointed. People who are funny in print or in performance are often dull in conversation. Woody Allen is famously not a barrel of laughs. Rowan Atkinson, same. Why should these two be different?” This got a laugh but I wasn’t joking.

“So dial your expectations back a bit, and off we go. Meet the panel: Steve Braunias is the finest satirist Mount Maunganui has produced.” I always plug the authors’ books so say that his Mad Men is for sale at the bookstall: “If you ask him nicely, and if you have bought a copy, he might sign it.”

And then: “David Slack is, by common consent, the finest satirist to come out of Kiwitea. His latest book, Bullrush, is due from HarperCollins in July.”

I quote Juvenal and Jonathan Swift. I quote Danyl McLauchlan of the Dim Post and Francis Wheen of Private Eye. Danyl and Francis advised by email: Juvenal and Swift were off-line.

“New Zealand has produced a good crop of satirists,” I say. “John Clarke is a genius, obviously. The hit TV series A Week of It in the 1970s and McPhail & Gadsby in the 80s were co-written by a couple of lawyers, Chris McVeigh and AK Grant. Alan died in 2000, but Chris is still with us. He is with us right now, in fact, in this room, checking out the younger generation of satirists. I use the word ‘younger’ loosely.” That got a laugh but I wasn’t joking.

And then I got to my Stratford Theory of New Zealand satire:

“What many don’t realise is that Feilding is the epicentre. David Slack is from Kiwitea, just out of Feilding. Tom Scott was raised in Rongotea, just out of Feilding. John Clarke is from Palmerston North, just out of Feilding. AK Grant was from Wanganui, which is not really just out of Feilding but is still in the Manawatu/Rangitikei region.”

My first question to the satirists was: “Steve Braunias, from Mount Maunganui, does it help to be a provincial?” The temperature seemed to drop a degree.

We talked about the work/time involved, the magazine/newspaper editor’s input (if any). There was a nice moment when David Slack said before answering a question how pleased he was that Chris McVeigh was in the room because he had always admired Chris’s work.

I asked, “How do you select your victims? The reader has to know enough to get the jokes – the Metro obituary of Dean Barker was lost on me because I have no interest in the America’s Cup.” That got a laugh but I wasn’t joking. Good answer from David.

I asked, “You can dish it out but can you take it?” This was because Steve Braunias had tweeted on 25 March, “A prominent criminal lawyer has sent me a ‘secret diary’ of myself. It’s cruel, exact & unflattering, & I’m very impressed #noworries #sob.” Good answer from Steve.

I asked, “New Zealand satirists seem to be mostly leftish. Is right-wing satire possible? Asking for a friend.” This got a laugh but I wasn’t joking: I really was asking for a friend. Evasive answers from both.

I asked, “Do the victims take it well? Tell us about some who didn’t.” David was serious for once when he talked about how satire should punch up, not punch down – that is, attack the powerful not the weak. He talked about a Metro obituary of a Cabinet minister and read out the sibling’s letter in response. He repeated what he had said in the green room: “I won’t identify the sibling.”

Steve Braunias interrupted: “Judith Collins’s sister.” Punching up or punching down? You be the judge.

Subsequently there have been discussions online about chairs at the festival talking too much and over the talent. Yes, this is annoying for the audience (one chair was heckled for it) but it can be hard to know when the talent has finished speaking – some speakers leave l-o-n-g pauses in their replies to questions. This could be because they are thinking Deep Thoughts, or because they have lost the thread, or because they are drunk. The chair doesn’t know. If you panic and jump in, you can end up talking over the talent and look like a plonker or, worse (when the talent is a woman), a mansplainer.

This must have been a challenge for John Freeman when chairing Murakami, the master of the Deep Thought pause. It was a challenge for me with Steve Braunias too, because he speaks slowly anyway but likes to say something outrageous, pause, then deliver the punchline. And you really, really don’t want to get between Steve Braunias and his punchline.

Later that night: dinner at Coco’s Cantina on Saturday is for us as traditional as the poets’ lunch on Friday, and then the writers’ party at the usual secret location on Karangahape Road. I caught up there with John Freeman, with whom I did a session in 2010, Helena Brow and others, including the husband of the designer who made my wife’s wedding dress in 1998. How New Zealandy is that?

Sunday 17 May: In the hotel lobby before check-out a big-name NZ author confessed to me that she fell asleep during the Murakami session on Saturday night because she was still hungover from Friday. Saturday is the large night for authors at the secret location, but she had peaked too soon.

Over the weekend I didn’t meet any international stars new to me apart from Damian Barr, a very nice man who introduced himself in the minibus to the venue, but was in the presence of David Walliams (seems nice) and Helen Macdonald (also seems nice). She spent more than an hour signing books after her session. At Walliams’ signing session the queue extended out into Aotea Square. He spent about two hours signing and was patient and charming with the children. I have children: I could not do that.

Aftermath: Despite all the doom and gloom in the book trade, the festival was a great success. The room for our satire session seats 620 and was sold out: people were turned away. Overall there were 60,000 tickets sold, which is 20% up on 2014 when for the first time since we started the festival in 2000 I did not chair a session. This year I did. Coincidence? You be the judge.

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