Saturday, December 31, 2016

A new selection of my holiday snaps

Taken at 6pm on New Year’s Eve, for this is the season of pleasure and self-indulgence.

The novel in question features a man who sleeps with breadfruit. Pretty sure this is a first in New Zealand literature, if not the world’s.

Happy new year, everybody!

Thursday, December 22, 2016


The great thing about being a freelancer in the New Zealand book publishing industry is that one is always optimistic. There is always something to look forward to. “I haven’t been paid today,” one thinks, “but surely I will be paid tomorrow.” Tomorrow never comes, but that does not impair the optimism.

So here are Los Lobos in 1993 performing a Beatles song from the 1966 LP Revolver:

Friday, December 16, 2016

Robert Browning fluffs his lines

Recorded on 7 April 1889, the year of his death, on an Edison cylinder, reciting “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix”. Well, the first five lines, until:
“I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t remember me own verses.”
Then he praises Edison’s “wonderful invention”. Possibly it was all scripted – which would make this the first advertisement recorded by a poet.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Wintec Press Club: Rachel Stewart edition

The Wintec Press Club lunch is staged by the Wintec School of Media Arts three times a year for the benefit of the journalism students. The guest list features big names in politics, media, entertainment, sport, business, law and the arts. And me.

Most tables have one or two students who get to meet industry veterans. It’s a brilliant idea and I have always enjoyed talking with the students. I try to discourage them from entering the profession, suggesting they instead do something useful or lucrative. The speakers are usually eminent media types – last year’s speakers included Paula Penfold from TV3 and Mihi Forbes, then at Maori TV – but once it was Pam Corkery and the time before that Rachel Glucina. This year the first two, bafflingly, were Dave Dobbyn and Hera Lindsay Bird, neither of whom are journalists. But this time we had a real live writer for a newspaper: Rachel Stewart, who has a column in the NZ Herald.

Media star guests included Paula Penfold, Rachel Smalley, Emily Simpson, the poet Sonya Yelich, Adam Dudding, author of the brilliant memoir My Father’s Island (here is my review for the Listener), Sarah Stuart (who, on being introduced to me, said, “Are you the blogger?”) and a visitor from the Manawatu Evening Standard.

Political star guest was Tim McIndoe, MP for Hamilton West and National’s chief whip. He was very funny privately about the previous day in Parliament when they had to congratulate Donald Trump on winning the US presidential election. What he said publicly was, “The motion of congratulations felt like a funeral. Don’t quote me!”

Our host Steve Braunias, a journalism student in 1980, began proceedings on a note of despair: “Thank you for coming today but what’s the fucking point?” There was an empty table in the room, which, he said, seemed to be a metaphor for the redundancies among journalists expected if the proposed merger of NZME and Fairfax went ahead. “Two journalists who have left the Herald have become Uber drivers. And isn’t that a metaphor for what all journalists have become?”

To further lift the students’ spirits, he mentioned the Donald Trump campaign T-shirt: “Tree. Rope. Journalist.”

Before the main event were the annual Wintec Press Club awards. Winner of “Student most likely to achieve world domination” was Dileepa Fonseka. Winner of “Best writer in New Zealand journalism” was Adam Dudding, author of the brilliant memoir My Father’s Island (here is my review for the Listener).

About this time the empty table filled up with some of the cast of Desperate Housewives of Auckland. I had no idea who they were and nor, it seemed, did many others present. On the other hand, our waiter looked like Rick Astley.

There was a raffle ticket at every place setting: the prize was a meat pack (“locally sourced organic sausages”) and a bag of books from VUP. I did not enter: I thought, let someone else enjoy these delights.

Best-dressed woman on the day was won by Noelle McCarthy, resplendent in gold shoes. This was presented by Ann Batley and Rachel Smalley. Best-dressed man went to a student who had gone to a lot more trouble than me: this was presented by Gilda Kirkpatrick. According to Braunias, he narrowly beat “glorious but defeated” Waikato Times editor  Jonathan Mackenzie, “a vision in pink going on puce”.

And so to the speaker, billed by Braunias as the star of this “Eating Media Lunch special lesbian edition gab-fest extravaganza”. She basically told her life story.

Rachel Stewart was born in Wanganui in 1962. When she was 11 her parents split and she went with her mother to the US. There was a bad stepfather, she came back to the farm in 1976 to live with her father. The mother came back, the stepfather hit her (the mother) and Stewart broke two of his ribs.

She doesn’t vote, she said.

There was a lot about floods in the Manawatu, insurance, and even more about falconry. This was less interesting than the insurance: “The four main causes of death in the wild are…”

The falconry helped her cope with grief, she said, and then she segued into opinion writing, describing herself as “a misfit with a lifetime of anger-management problems”.

Question time was lively – she was clearly popular with the room. She was funny and open with her answers. It is rare to hear the word “obfuscation” used off the cuff.

We learned that she hasn’t spoken to her brothers for 30 years. We heard even more about insurance. We learned that when she dies, she would be happy to be eaten by a hawk.

She talked about her grandfather murdering “a Chinaman” which caused a sharp intake of breath at the Desperate Housewives table and the loud remark “Chinaman? What the fuck?”

She said, confusingly, “I do vote. I will vote.”

Asked why she writes, she said, “In the act of writing something, I feel a part of a community, a tribe.”

Veteran journalist Kingsley Field asked, “What do you think of 1080?”

“I believe in science, and it tells us that’s what we need to do right now,” she replied, to great applause. The Waikato is 1080-friendly. Also science-friendly.

Noelle McCarthy told her, “You are a force to be reckoned with on Twitter.”

Yes, she is. Which brings us to my Unasked Question: “Do you still want to break David Farrar’s legs?”

In her Herald column the previous month she wrote that she “had numerous rape and death threats merely for expressing an opinion”. Here is the Manawatu Standard report of 24 January 2015 about this. I remember it because David Farrar supported her, writing on his blog at the time: “There is no room for such threats in our country… entirely unacceptable”.

On 17 September she wrote on Twitter, “Apropos of not much, I just wanna say that David Farrar is a little wee tool that I’d just love to meet in a dark alley somewhere. Not kidding.”

She followed up with: “Read this and tell me why I shouldn’t break his little legs”.

The background: on 10 June Farrar wrote this on Kiwiblog, the post Stewart tweeted about:
Makes the Greens look moderate
The Herald reports:
New Zealand needs to get rid of 80 per cent of its dairy cows because dairying is dirtying our water.That was the message delivered to the annual meeting of Wanganui Federated Farmers by its former president.Rachel Stewart, president of the group for four years in the early 2000s and guest speaker at Friday’s annual meeting, is an “ardent critic” of farming.
Dairy off memory is around 7% of GDP. So an 80% reduction is likely to reduce GDP by around $11 billion or $2,500 per capita.
Ms Stewart predicted there would be synthetic milk in five years, and people wouldn’t be eating meat in 10 years.
Her predictions seem as robust as her policies. I’m very very confident people will be eating meat in 100 years’ time, let alone 10.
I can’t see why this should make her wish to “break his little legs”. Nothing personal in it. So the longer version of my Unasked Question was: “We all agree that it’s not OK for anyone to threaten you for expressing your opinion, but why is it OK for you to say want to hurt someone else for expressing theirs?”

But after her confession of anger-management issues, the Unasked Question seemed redundant.

So here is the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein performing Charles Ives’s brief “The Unanswered Question”.

In the comments, reader Agnes Day writes: 
“Rachel Stewart has been rather rude about you on Twitter, saying you must be deaf because she never said she doesn’t vote. What’s the story?”
Several other people have mentioned that she called me old, deaf, past my use-by-date etc because she never said she didn’t vote, and suggested I should respond. I won’t on Twitter because that way madness lies, but here is my blog-standard reply to Agnes Day:
Has she? I don't know why she would deny saying she doesn’t vote, because she did – I recorded it in my notebook because it was so surprising. The later quote, “I do vote. I will vote,” was in response to a question after her talk, obviously from someone who was as startled as I was by the remark. Maybe it was an impromptu joke that didn't come off so she doesn’t remember. We must be charitable.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

In praise of: Karyn Hay

Photo by Chris Skelton for Fairfax.

To Auckland on Wednesday for the launch of Karyn Hay’s new novel March of the Foxgloves at the Women’s Bookshop in Ponsonby. Launches there are always good and convivial. The only drawback with this one was that I was the launcher. This is more or less what I said:
We all know Karyn as a brilliant broadcaster on radio and TV. She is also a fine journalist – the interviews she did for last year’s New Zealand Women in Rock on Prime were a model of empathy – she knows the territory – but she was firm with them too. Nobody was let off the hook.
With all these talents, can she also write fiction? I’m sorry to say it, but. . . yes she can. Please don’t hate her.
Her first novel, Emerald Budgies, published under a pseudonym – she is the Artist Formerly Known as Lee Maxwell – was a cracker and won Best First Book in the 2001 Montana awards. A few years later she was awarded the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship. It’s been a bit of a wait since for March of the Foxgloves – for all of us – but it has been worth the wait.
The novel is intelligent, sexy, witty – just like the author – and is beautifully written. There is sparky dialogue, lovely descriptions of place, and the two women Frances and Dolly are great characters. You’d want to meet them.
It’s about women’s independence, how new technology can enable that, narcissism and obsession, there’s sex and drugs and music, and a whole lot more.
It was especially interesting for me because it is set in London and Auckland, cities I know, but mostly in Tauranga, where I grew up. So I knew the streets and buildings. I felt right at home.
I learned a lot while editing it. I do a lot of fact-checking when editing fiction, just as much as I do when editing non-fiction – but this one was really hard. Because much of the factual material wasn’t in my reference books, not even in the Centennial History of Tauranga. Karyn had dug it all out of old newspapers, all sorts of obscure places. When I could check something, she was invariably right. That was impressive – and very unusual in historical fiction, in my experience.
But the best part, apart from the pleasure of working on such a terrific novel, was how much we laughed during the process. Even though we both take writing and editing very seriously, it was a lot of fun. I have edited many authors – Lauris Edmond, Vincent O’Sullivan, Paddy Richardson, Graeme Lay, Lloyd Jones, Kelly Ana Morey, loads – but Karyn is, I have to say, by far the sweariest.
And now here is the published novel. The paperback looks good but the hardback looks fantastic. The illustrations by John Constantine are lovely and the photos Vicky Papas Vergara took of burlesque artist Miss Sina King are brilliant, exactly as I imagined that the photos Frances took of Dolly would look. It is a thrill to have been involved in such a superb publication. I know you will enjoy reading it when you have bought your copy. And now, here is Karyn Hay!
 After the launch Karyn and I went with friends for a drink, as is customary after a book launch. Then dinner at SPQR, as is customary in Ponsonby. Then she dragged me to a bar (The Golden Dawn: Tavern of Power) to see Voom. They were much louder than my band was when I played that venue, and better. Good drummer, which is the main thing with a band. And a good night, which is the main thing with a book launch.

Stephanie Jones’s review of March of the Foxgloves for Coast FM was enthusiastic: “Hay is a sly and delightful wordsmith, a grand raconteur of the page, in whose hands historical fiction feels utterly current, even urgent.”

David Herkt interviewed Karyn for Stuff here. She tells him: “We think of history as with people who were entirely different, but often that's a misconception. We have the same motivations – and foibles, of course – and the same ambiguities.”

Radio Live plugs the novel here.

Plutocrats can order the hardback here; paupers can order the paperback here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Nigel Cox on Kinky Friedman

The 102nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
Kinky Friedman introduced the Frisbee to Borneo, where he ate raw monkey brains. He made his name as a country singer in the 70s with his band the Texas Jewboys and songs like “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”. Now he’s a bestselling author of six wise-cracking mystery novels featuring a former country singer called Kinky Friedman who, like the author, keeps his cigars in a bust of Sherlock Holmes. He recently toured here with Rita Jo Thompson, Miss Texas 1987, and told Nigel Cox, “Course, in Texas we consider anyone a homosexual who likes girls better than football.”
QU: How come you’re called Kinky?
KF: My real name is Richard Kinky Big Dick Friedman, you can just call me Dick, if you like. Kinky came basically from my moss, which before I got my most recent haircut looked like a Lyle Lovett starter kit — moss being hair.
QU: And are there a lot of Jews in Texas?
KF: They’re kind of like leprechauns, there’s actually a bunch of us, but it’s hard to pick out who they are because Jews tend to — it’s like a survival thing, like a chameleon — get very much like the kind of people that they’re living around. The Jews in Texas would just be these big guys with the pickup trucks, you know, and the gun racks and everything else.
QU: One wouldn’t normally ask that, it’s just that you’re a very Jewish Jew. 
KF: Well I’m not a religious Jew. I’m not a religious person. I believe in Tom Paine’s credo “The world is my country, to do good is my religion”, being serious for just a small moment in time there. But being Jewish in Texas is interesting, because you can pass for a Texan if you want. I think both have this in common, they’re both independent-minded kind of peoples, and both are vanishing breeds, at least the Jew and the cowboy are, I would say. And I also like the way that they stand a little bit apart from people, from the world as a whole, look at things from the outside in, which is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from being a Jew. It’s real helpful as a writer, gives you a kind of interesting slant, that a member of the country club might not have.
QU: Texas has a wonderful musical heritage, but you wouldn’t necessarily think of Texas as the home of country music.
KF: I think Hollywood is what did it. Even though the movies were shot in Hollywood they all appeared to be emanating from Texas. By the time Anne Frank found out about the cowboy, it was Texas, and that’s why she had pictures of cowboy stars on her wall in her secret annex. The cowboy has reached a lot further than he ever dreamed, thrown his lasso to the sky quite a ways, to have captured the imagination of children all over the world. Texas means something. Texas is a very progressive state and a very primitive state, simultaneously. Makes it very, very interesting. A lot of wide open spaces, in general and between people’s ears, and out of that sometimes comes a creative thought, an original thought.
QU: Who’s your favourite Texan?
KF: Jack Ruby, the guy that killed Oswald. He was a very glamorous, flamboyant type, he was the first Texas Jewboy I would say, and he kinda got a bad shake. People don’t realise, Jack Ruby was one of Hank Williams’ last friends on Earth. Although Hank had the biggest funeral in the world — both of his wives set out on the road immediately afterwards, calling themselves Mrs Hank Williams, with bands, quite a tribute — nonetheless, Hank had very few friends, and in the last few months of his life nobody would book him, nobody would play in his band. Jack Ruby was one that stuck with him; continued to book him, took him on trips. I believe they went to Cuba together. I’d like to know more about that, that is something I might like to research myself, just as a historical thing, Hank Williams in Havana.
QU: How long did your musical career last? You’re playing some gigs on this tour, but you’re not playing so much.
KF: No. My career with the Texas Jewboys was almost exactly as long as Hank Williams’ recording career, which was a little under four years. Following that I toured with Bob Dylan and with Willie Nelson but that was mostly without the band by that time. I think the really good music, the good work is usually created by people who are under-appreciated at the time. It makes me wonder about some of these guys like Tom Clancy or Stephen King or Garth Brooks — they must, inside, be asking themselves, Am I really worth a shit, if this many people like me? Do I really have much to say?
QU: What was it made you wind up that career?
KF: When ]oseph Heller said in the mid-70s that “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” was his favourite country song, that was my warning flag that I might not be a mainstream country artist. After that — Damon Runyon said that all of life is six to five against. That’s basically it: if there’s a way for people to misunderstand you, they will. Like my old friend Doug Kenney, who started National Lampoon, said, you’ve got to learn to roll with the bullets.
QU: What happened between the Jewboys and the books, which didn’t appear until 1987?
KF: I was in a liberal arts programme at the University of Texas, a highly advanced programme mainly distinguished by the fact that every student in the programme had some form or other of facial tic. I graduated from there, went on to the Peace Corps, and the 70s were big with the Jewboys. Late 70s the Jewboys were already on the wane, and the 80s was pretty much between cases, as Sherlock Holmes would say. But it was out of that emptiness and that unhappiness, I think, that I started writing. My first piece was for a magazine called High Times, a drug magazine my friend Ratso edited. It was called “My Scrotum Flew Tourist: A Personal Odyssey”, about my Peace Corps experiences, and that was my first prose. Now I think of myself more as a pointy-headed intellectual mystery writer, the Raymond Chandler school of writer, though maybe that’s limiting, for him, or me. . . I’m surprised that more of these clever writers in music don’t or can’t write prose. When I was 43 I found out I could do it. There was a voice there, I suppose.
QU: You named your hero after yourself, so I’m talking to a character out of a book here. Do you have to walk around and be that character?
KF: That’s fatal. That’s what happened to a lot of people. I think it happened to John Belushi, Iggy Pop — you have to be real careful with that. You’ll die if you try to be a character. I’m very close to the Kinkster, in the books, and most of the people in the books are pretty accurate, but there is a casino of fiction and it’s a wonderful place, and often deals with the truth, more often than the real world does. I often quote the old Turkish proverb, “When you tell the truth, have one foot in the stirrups.” Because it’s murder. But in fiction it isn’t.
Of course, I’ve been accused of not beating myself to death inventing new characters, but why bother when you’ve got these guys? You’re stuck with these old friends and as I’ve often said, you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your friends off on your saddle.
QU: Do they mind being in the books? Was Chet Flippo pleased with the picture of him in Lone Star?
KF: I think Chet now is pretty flattered to have passed into fiction. You walk a close line when you’ve got a character that’s evil. I’ve seen Chet since then anyway, he speaks to me. I spoke to the class he teaches on writing in Tennessee, so he must be relatively flattered to have passed into the casino of fiction with Robin Hood and Sherlock and Ivanhoe.
QU: I read that something specific started you off on the writing.
KF: Yeah, there was an incident in New York, in January ’83, where I rescued a woman from a mugger in a bank in Greenwich Village. She was being stabbed to death, it looked like to me, at least when I got into the bank, so I held the guy, the assailant, until the police arrived and in the morning there was a newspaper headline, “Country Singer Plucks Victim From Mugger”. And the girl turned out to be Cathy Smith, the woman who’d been with John Belushi when he died. She gave him the drugs. Well, she looked vaguely familiar. See, I’d lived with Belushi for a while when I first came to New York. I thought that was really weird, that out of 12 million people I would rescue this one — not to tarnish my role as a hero at all, but that I would rescue Cathy Smith. Tom Waits later commented that he thought that was the baby Jesus telling me to stay away from drugs, which is possible also.
Anyway, I went home from that experience, the randomness of it just blew me away, the whole thing, and I started writing the first book in a Georges Simenon-like style, starting with just an address on the back of an envelope and flying by Jewish radar, never having written anything before. And also Shel Silverstein helped, telling me, “Just write, ‘He said’, ‘She said’. Keep it really ruthless.” That worked, for me, anyway. The voice seemed to be there, and the characters I knew, and I loved mysteries.
I fancy myself as a sort of country-and-western Dorothy Sayers. So it’s worked, particularly like in England, where the books are now bestsellers, maybe because the British cherish eccentricity, I don’t quite know why it is, but the Australians have now really picked up on it big, and I think we’ll do well in New Zealand. Probably all that means the kiss of death in America, but we’ll see. Americans may be coming around too — we're a little slow out of the chute, to use a rodeo term.
QU: So you think you're a bigger star as a writer in England than you are in America?
KF: No, we’re selling more books in America, because it’s bigger. Remember Chandler was a bestseller in England, but he was not that big in America until after his death. Elmore Leonard’s written how many, 60 novels? Now somebody is finally making him a bestseller. ]ohn D MacDonald is another great writer that went through that, and Rex Stout is another one, with Nero Wolfe. All of those three guys are as literary and as great as the other kind of authors that are lionised by the New York Times, except we’ve always considered them mystery writers until very recently.
QU: Who are your heroes in the crime-writing world?
KF: I like Robert B Parker. He and I are adult pen pals — he commented that anybody who dots their i with a Star of David can’t be all bad. I like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, of course, and I like Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter. I like those British guys, and I don’t go for too many of the smart-ass American types like myself. Chandler once said that the business of fiction is to re-create the illusion of life, which is a rather laborious way of saying, you forget you’re reading a book. Dick Francis does it well. Dick Francis is a guy who doesn’t have a great deal of lyrical talent, his books are formulaic almost, one after another, they’re pretty dry, but somewhere in there you forget that you’re reading a book, and this is his genius.
The really good writers, Chandler, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Crumley, don’t write too much, they’re not real prolific. Elmore Leonard, he’s a real pro. He’s pretty even. It’s almost incredible how long Elmore Leonard was regarded as a pulp kind of guy. It goes back to what F Scott said: if you write one book, you’ve written one book. If you write two books, you’re an author. And to that I always add, if you write three books, you’re a hack.
QU: There are six Kinky novels all set in the Greenwich Village, but the new book is going to be set in Texas.
KF: It is. Tragic mistake on my part. [Lights another cigar.] You never take the detective out of his milieu. I hoped we could conduct this interview without using the word milieu, or genre, but, it’s happened.
Simon & Schuster, I signed a three-book deal with them and they said, do two mystery novels and a, ah, real book. Forget the Kinky stuff and the mystery stuff, and really stretch, let’s try and write a really great novel. But Elvis, Jesus And Coca-Cola, the first one, has done so well that now they’ve said, forget the real book, stay with the Kinky thing. Moving to Texas was a device at the time we thought might widen the audience, before we realised that the book was doing real well.
When I moved to Simon & Schuster from my first publisher the sales jumped about eight times over, it became very close to being a bestseller in America. It would have been if they’d printed enough books — one of those deals. Catch-22 was never a bestseller. Sold 20 million copies, has never been a bestseller. .
An author is probably the worst person to ask certain questions of. I’ll just point out Conan Doyle’s belief that The White Company was his great masterpiece that the world would long remember him for. We all know that seven people in New Zealand have read it, if that many, and seven people in North America: that’s about it. And likewise Heller thinks that Something Happened is his great work. Bob Dylan probably has no sense of what he’s done. So all I can do is look back down the hill and I’m amazed that I have six books out and Armadillos and Old Lace coming out of the chute. I think the books are getting better, which is good, and I’m not that tired of the Kinkster where I have to kill him off yet. When it happens it’ll be a little uncomfortable. I’m very close to the character.
QU: I’m amazed at how you keep going.
KF: I have a brilliant pharmacist.
QU: I think I’ve just about used up my questions.
KF: And I’m fresh out of charm, Nigel, so it works out very nicely. You’re a fine New
Zealander. I’ll give you a good-luck guitar plectrum. Did you get one? Have two.

So here is Kinky Friedman in Dublin in 2003 performing Joseph Heller’s favourite country song, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More”: