An Interview with Martin Edmond
Martin Edmond was born in Ohakune in 1952, and from there, he grew up in a string of small North Island towns. After graduating from Victoria University with an MA in English, Edmond joined the Red Mole theatre troupe, with whom he travelled and performed internationally in the mid to late 1970’s. In 1981 he moved to Sydney, Australia where he still lives, writes and teaches.
He's an award-winning poet (Streets of Music – 1980) and screenplay writer (Illustrious Energy – 1988; The Footstep Man – 1992; Terra Nova – 1998), but subsequently became most well-known and acclaimed for his prose works. These include The Autobiography of My Father (1992), The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont (1999), Chronicle of the Unsung (Montana Award for Biography – 2005), Luca Antara (2006) The Supply Party (2009) and Dark Night – Walking with McCahon (2011). In 2013 Edmond won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in non-fiction, and in 2014 was a New Zealand Society of Authors honours recipient. His next book is Battarbee and Namatjira, forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing in October 2014.
In early 2014, while working on an essay about his prose works, I briefly met Edmond at the launch of Alan Brunton's posthumous collection Beyond the Ohala Mountains (a book he had co-edited with Michele Leggott). As he had to fly back to Sydney shortly after, we agreed on an email interview.
Can you remember your first ever creative endeavour? How long had you been writing poems before you finally published a collection in 1980?
I published a few nondescript poems and pieces of prose in school magazines. I remember the summer I left home I was reading Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and in a kind of frenzy one Sunday afternoon when I was alone, I lay scrawling pages and pages of writing while stretched out on the white shag carpet on the sitting room floor of my parents’ house in Ferguson Drive in Heretaunga. Those sheets of paper disappeared and I no longer recall what was on them. A kind of automatic writing I suspect.
I started keeping poems in folders during my first year at University, 1970, and that was something I did for the next quarter century or so. I still have most of those folders and among them is the last one, with the last poem, in the last place in it. Mostly the poems are an embarrassment but I keep them because they constitute a sort of diary and remind me where my head was at any particular time over those twenty-five years.
One way to view your trajectory as a writer is that you 'found your voice', as it were, when you finally sidelined poetry in favour of prose for the writing of The Autobiography of My Father. But did you believe this voice? Were you comfortable with it? Did it take a while for you to trust it? I ask this because I understand it to be tied in with your father’s passing and the speech you found yourself making at his funeral with unexpected ease. In fact, did you find your voice or did your voice find you? It strikes me it's not enough to just 'find your voice' as an artist. You also need to be able to live with the voice you find.
Well, whether I found my voice or my voice found me is a moot point although I do remember that moment in the church in Greytown as a descent from above of something into my body and then it coming out my mouth as a voice. And I was comfortable with that and I still am. I consider it to be the voice of my prose and perhaps also the one I’m using now. But the context for its arrival, the preamble, is the twenty years before that happened, during which my attempts to write were desultory, even futile and led me to feel frustrated and unhappy most of the time — I don’t mean personally so much as professionally, except I didn’t even really have a profession then, just an ambition. I mean I wasn’t necessarily unhappy in a personal sense but I was definitely unhappy about my writing, which I already considered central to what I wanted to do. Twenty years is a long time to wait for something to happen. And when it did, it came out of the blue. And there was also a kind of letting go or giving up involved. It was unexpected, and for that reason strange; but I accepted instantly what had happened. There are some iwi among whom the son may not speak on the marae so long as his father is alive and, while I don’t claim anything like that was part of my family or my experience, I do feel that the voice I was given was in some sense given to me by my father. Or, certainly, enabled by his passing.
I was always working from the outside in, trying to make poems by thinking what they were and then approximating the shape, or shapes, I imagined. Whereas when I started writing prose the words just seemed to flow into shapes that were interesting in themselves and so I began to follow where they led—rather than trying to make, by force of will perhaps, the words go somewhere
Further to this transition, your decision to stop writing poems during the writing of The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont proved “irrecoverable” according to the notes you penned for your final collection of belatedly published poems The Big O Revisited. Was it hard to let go of the form? You have written of the sense of liberation you felt, but did you at all feel a sense of failure, or a sense of grieving, or of having to let go of something you had tied up with your sense of identity? I imagine it to have been something akin to a young adult slowly saying goodbye to youth. Liberation and loss in equal measure perhaps.
I have no regrets in that area. Once I understood that was what I had to do, it was easy—not just easy but, as you say, liberating. And I wasn’t letting go of a form because one of my problems was that I couldn’t understand the form. I mean in a practical sense, so I couldn’t really do anything with it. It was problematic from just about every point of view. I was always working from the outside in, trying to make poems by thinking what they were and then approximating the shape, or shapes, I imagined. Whereas when I started writing prose the words just seemed to flow into shapes that were interesting in themselves and so I began to follow where they led—rather than trying to make, by force of will perhaps, the words go somewhere. I remember saying to Jack Ross once that I gave up writing poetry because I never could figure out where the line breaks should go and that’s true, I couldn’t. You don’t have that problem in prose.
Very occasionally over the 20 years since then I’ve felt an odd, fugitive desire to write a poem and, while there’s no real reason not to, I usually don’t do it. Maybe once or twice I’ve succumbed but, if so, I haven’t kept the result. The only exception I can think of is a very short poem that came to me when I was waiting in my cab on a taxi rank up in Bondi Junction, of all places, the day Dave Mitchell (the late NZ poet - Edmond co-edited an anthology of his work in 2010) died. I wrote it down on my mobile phone and sent it to his daughter. It might also be on a blog somewhere. As with The Big O Revisited, some of the ones I wrote before might become relevant in the future and if so I’m pleased about that.
There’s another thing: attempting to write poetry over an extended period of time is good training for other kinds of writing, because the writing of poetry does tend to focus the mind on the precise uses and meanings of words and also upon their inherent musicality or the music you can make with them.
Why do you think you struggled to find satisfaction in poetry? Do you think your mum being a poet somehow affected your efforts? My own sense is that the form tended to compel you into a serious elegiac tone, perhaps based on what you thought a poem should be, and it somehow constricted your ability to portray life in the prismatic way you manage to do so in prose. You seem to have found it easier to mix the 'high' diction of art and 'low' diction of the everyday world into something multi-faceted when writing prose.
I’m sure your analysis is correct. With regard to my mother, it’s tempting, but probably too glib, to say that she was poetry while my father was prose. There is no doubt that she encouraged me to write when I was young, and specifically to write poetry. I remember once, when I was going to be travelling somewhere by myself to stay with relatives, and realising I would have time to kill on a railway platform; so I asked my mother what I would do for that half hour or so? And she said: write a poem. Which at the time I thought was just dumb and of course didn’t do or even try to do it. But I remember the advice because it indicated that here was an activity that was, in her mind at least, autonomous and of intrinsic value.
The whole question is complicated by the fact that when I was growing up I didn’t know that she wrote poetry and wanted to be a poet. It just wasn’t ever mentioned. My father taught, my mother looked after six children and ran a busy and complicated household. When I was a bit older, she resumed university study and later started teaching herself. She was my English teacher in my last year of school and, while I knew she loved literature, I still didn’t know she wrote. It just never occurred to me. So by the time I did learn that was her thing I already possessed, or was possessed by, the ambition myself.
I don’t know if she offered the same sort of encouragement to my sisters. It may be that her attempts to influence me were a diversion of her own thwarted ambitions. That sort of thing isn’t uncommon in families. It may also be that she sensed something in this dreamy boy child and tried to nurture that. I don’t know. What I do know is that, much later on, I went through a period where I felt I had to reject the presumptions behind the kind of poetry she and others of her ilk wrote. Quite a violent rejection of what I called the lyric I. That’s in Chronicle of the Unsung, which was written after she died.
I still have reactions like that when I read her poems. I resile from their mode. It just seems limited and it gives me a feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped within the confines of an ego, with all its sensitivities and its modulations of feeling and acute responsiveness to the world: trapped is still trapped. As if in a story by Katherine Mansfield. I get this feeling from her autobiography too, which I sometimes consult looking for clues, but it always seems that the actual information is missing, though not the emotion it evoked. However, there are poems of hers where that isn’t the case. There are true poems. Kendrick Smithyman wrote a piece about that.
I remember being ticked off by the head of the English Department over a literary magazine I edited which, in his terms, didn’t include enough work by people affiliated with the university. The phrase ‘town or gown’ entered my vocabulary and I knew, irrevocably, that I was town.
You left a junior lecturing job to join the Red Mole theatre troupe. Hindsight is an unfair privilege, but do you ever wonder if your life, and your artistry could have turned out very different if you’d not upped sticks the way you did? How did that decision affect what you came to write? Can you imagine your prose having the same drift (or dérive as Guy Debord would say) if you’d ended up in academia instead of breaking with that and joining Red Mole?
At the time it was a no-brainer. From what I recall, the university hadn’t actually offered me further work anyway but what you were meant to do in that situation was go on to study for a PhD, perhaps overseas, and then take up university teaching, perhaps at your alma mater, after that. I was only dimly aware of this and it never occurred to me that it was a serious option. The year of my junior lectureship, 1977, in Wellington, was the year of the Cabaret Capital Strut at Carmen’s Balcony, which began in the early months of autumn and worked up to a crescendo in September. I’d started performing with Red Mole for their nativity play, Towards Bethlehem, the Christmas before and then went on to do various roles on stage at Carmen’s. So I was tutoring at the university at the same time as this was going on downtown. I remember being ticked off by the head of the English Department over a literary magazine I edited which, in his terms, didn’t include enough work by people affiliated with the university. The phrase ‘town or gown’ entered my vocabulary and I knew, irrevocably, that I was town.
I was transfixed by what was going on at Carmen’s, it was fascinating, all-consuming, Weimar Republic meets Dada meets political theatre meets rock ‘n’ roll, just wonderful and so, when the opportunity to join the cavalcade came—when the entire enterprise moved on to Auckland—I took it. From there we went on the road, first around New Zealand, later in the States, a summer in England, then back to the States. They were extraordinary times and I wouldn’t have missed them for anything. There were periods living in San Francisco, with the band, and then in New York, when the actors and the musicians re-united, side trips to Amsterdam, a cross-country tour of the States, Mexico for an afternoon. It was very intense, always, and often quite fraught, and there was never enough money – but, although it sounds like a cliché, every day was an adventure. I used to say I ran away with the circus and in a way that’s true.
Years later, when I was struggling financially, living here, wondering how to make ends meet, I did sometimes think about the academic career I might have had – but really only in terms of the material comfort it might have afforded me. You know, a house, a car, a VCR or whatever. In terms of my writing, it’s impossible to say what the effect might have been. I would have had to have lived that life to know. I suspect I would soon have become bored and unhappy. I think I probably needed to do that wandering, to live that sort of vagabond life on the road, to spend a few years never really knowing what tomorrow might bring. It was liberating.
Perhaps most important of all is that, despite its vagaries, it was actually a disciplined lifestyle, in that everything was predicated upon the next gig, the next show, whatever it was. We were dedicated to performance and one of the great pleasures was when a performance worked, when you had a great gig or did a brilliant show. Nothing really compares to the satisfaction of that.
I tend to think of prizes, like grants, as lotteries but for a lot of people they are not that but genuine accolades and so from that point of view I’m also happy about the PM’s award. But it doesn’t change the work and it doesn’t make the next book any easier to write.
Various strands of previous efforts and styles seem to contribute to your main body of work - how have writing about art, your early books of poetry, writing screenplays (not to mention your brief stint writing soft porn as mentioned in Chronicle of the Unsung) helped or hindered your prose writing?
I began publishing art reviews in Wellington in 1974. And the odd theatre review. Roger Steele was then editor of Salient and he became my first publisher. He still claims the credit for that and why not? He was generous and encouraging. He was also in the Maori Club and for a while I learned Te Reo and went up to the East Coast on occasion to help restore marae. Anyway, the work Roger published in Salient led to various other journalistic opportunities, which culminated in working for the Red Mole publication, Spleen. Which in turn led on to my participation in the theatre and was, in its way, as revelatory. Spleen was home-made, at Alan Brunton’s place, and I participated in that and learned all about how to put a paper together, the technical stages of that.
There was a hiatus on the road, we were in New York, we’d finished a season of The Last Days of Mankind at the Theatre for the New City and were planning to go over to London. And this diktat came down from the 12th floor of the Consulate that everyone who wanted to come along needed to find the money for the airfare. And I didn’t really know what to do. Some of the women in the group had started working waitressing or dancing in strip clubs and that perhaps turned my mind in the direction I took – anyway, I answered an advertisement in the Village Voice for a writer of adult fiction, as it was called, wrote an audition piece and was employed there for a couple of months.
The interesting thing about that was you had to write. You went in, you sat at a machine, you wrote. And then, each time you finished a book, you got paid. I wrote six of them. It was in some ways an invigorating process, you were free, so long as your work was salacious enough, you could write whatever you wanted. I quickly found a fluency that was quite seductive, and I also found that I enjoyed the work. Plus there was the camaraderie with the other writers and the mission the publishers were on, which was a project to do with sexual emancipation for gay and lesbian and bisexual and trans-gendered people, what’s now called LGBT. And they liked my work for its literary as well as its pornographic qualities, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
These are the stages of my apprenticeship . . . the last phase was when I set myself to learn how to write movies, under the assumption, which turned out to be mistaken, that I could earn a good living doing it and thereby buy time to do my ‘real’ writing, which in the 1980s, still meant poetry. I left Red Mole after we returned to NZ in 1980 and spent a year in Auckland working with various bands as a lighting guy. The next summer I was offered a job on an American film being made locally and then, on the back of that, when I moved to Sydney in May of ’81, my idea was to go to film school and learn screenwriting. They declined my application, but it didn’t matter because I started working with Leon Narbey on the screenplay for what became Illustrious Energy and so learned on the job rather than in a classroom. I knew Leon because he had come in to light Slaughter on Cockroach Avenue, the first show Red Mole put on in Auckland in 1978, at the old Ace of Clubs.
Leon was a very exacting person to work with, highly disciplined, a trained artist, a cinematographer, with a detailed understanding of machines and technologies, a man of great integrity and, really, a wonderful human being. And he and I worked closely together for the rest of that decade. We made two films and almost made a third. In screen writing you have limited options. You have dialogue and you have description, that’s all. The one becomes what the characters say, the other, what the camera photographs. The third component is a structure of dramatic action and that is the hardest thing to learn and also where I was weakest. Descriptive prose was my strength. And writing film was in one sense like writing pornography in that you had to just do it. And I did a lot of it. Most films go through draft after innumerable draft. And I did it with Leon, who was going to direct the resulting film and who would not accept anything other than what his eye, or his mind’s eye, saw. It was almost like a process of translation, out of his head and onto the page. We used to sit side by side at the typewriter, with me working the keys and him reading as it went down on to the page and commenting upon it. For hours and hours, day after day.
So, when I started writing literary non-fiction or whatever you want to call it in the early 1990s, all of those things fed into it. Although I’d published very little I was in some sense quite an experienced writer, in that I had written a lot and I had done it in different genres and in all sorts of circumstances and often to deadlines or at least to satisfy a pre-existing demand of some kind.
Ruby Brunton was telling me about her father (Alan Brunton’s) contention that you were a prose writer rather than a poet (and I had of course read your own mention of this in Chronicle of the Unsung). I put it to her that it must be a rare thing, given that you had actually won a poetry prize, that an artistic confidante would tell his pal he was not much chop in the medium he had won a prize in. She replied, to my delight, that Alan “did not care much for prizes.” And so that leads me to the question of what your recent awards mean to you, if anything? Is it simply a matter of the prize money helping you keep doing it, or is that type of validation a welcome thing now that you have been writing these non-fictions for two decades?
Did Ruby say that? Good on her. She’s funny, she’s quite like Alan in some ways. He never once alluded to that prize I got for Streets of Music. It was a travesty, really, that I would get an award for poetry when Messengers in Blackface and Black & White Anthology and Oh Ravachol had been ignored. I remember him, on another occasion, when the Clairmont book was short-listed for the 2000 Montana awards, saying that he believed ‘congratulations are in order’. Alan was never honoured in New Zealand by any award, which is a scandal. Nor was he invited to any of the mainstream literary festivals. He had offended too many of the literati, usually inadvertently and, as I said earlier, they don’t forget or forgive. He knew it, too. It amused him, but it hurt him too.
As for the PM’s award, it came at a crucial time for me, I was flat broke and facing the prospect of signing up for another stint at a job I hated. And once I got the phone call I knew several months ahead of time that this big whack of money was coming so it got me through a difficult time. There were other factors at work – I had just won a major literary prize in Australia, for Dark Night, and then the book was disqualified and the prize withdrawn, and that was traumatic and hard to handle from a number of points of view. So both the money and the validation were timely.
I was quite surprised how seriously people took it over here and how it has opened up a few chinks in a few doors for me. I tend to think of prizes, like grants, as lotteries, but for a lot of people they are not that but genuine accolades. So from that point of view I’m also happy about the PM’s award. But it doesn’t change the work and it doesn’t make the next book any easier to write.
In The Autobiography of My Father (p.28) you describe your mother Lauris as having “that commitment to what is called ‘the inner life’ that she has spent her time exploring.” Is this where your commitment lies? Closer to your mother than to you father’s “involvement with the practicalities of life in small communities”? That said your father did write poems, and his research for his M.A struck me as not too far removed from your own research requirements - not to mention the discomfort his M.A on Ohakune caused some residents. Do you think your own artistic DNA came from both sides of your parental line?
Yes, undoubtedly. But these things are complex and perhaps better left un-disentangled. There’s literary people on both sides of my family. My cousin Rod Edmond is a fine prose writer, his younger brother Murray is a well-known and respected poet and dramatist, they’re the sons of my father’s older brother. On the other side, there’s Lauris, also a poet and an autobiographer. So the impulse certainly comes down both parental lines. As to a commitment to ‘the inner life’, I’m not so sure. I’m more interested in getting things out into the world, albeit in the form of publications rather than direct action. I think the time for cultivation of the self in that narcissistic way has now passed. It’s a luxury we can no longer afford.
I think the time for cultivation of the self in that narcissistic way has now passed. It’s a luxury we can no longer afford.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility in advocating for such artists as Philip Clairmont, Alan Brunton and David Mitchell? Do you see them as under-recognised for what they achieved artistically? You mentioned at the creative non-fiction workshop that you had learnt writing by imitation and that Brunton was significant in this respect. What makes his voice an important one to preserve?
I certainly felt a sense of responsibility towards Phil Clairmont, who was treated very shabbily at the end of his life and even worse after he died. And whose work is still in some sense neglected, in that there isn’t anywhere you can go to see a representation of the full range of what he achieved. That was what I set out to do, to make an art book, but circumstances conspired with my own inexperience and that didn’t happen.
Mitchell was a slightly different case, because when Nigel Roberts and I tracked him and his lost work down in Sydney, it turned out to be rather less substantial than we had supposed. In that Dave had published most of the really good stuff already. But that was still a worthwhile thing to do, because before he died we were able to put into his hands a generous, handsomely produced collection of his poetry and also make it available to his admirers. Plus we solved a minor literary mystery.
It’s more complicated with Alan. I first came across his work in Freed, the second one, a copy of which I bought when I went up to Auckland in 1970 to study at the university. It was a translation from the Anglo-Saxon, a poem called Deor. And I was instantly beguiled by his voice and by his facility with language. So our griefs a distance go was Alan’s translation of the refrain, which has been rendered more literally, or more prosaically, as that passed away, so may this. I think I realised immediately that here was a consummate poetic intelligence. He was away travelling through those years but he’d send back dispatches that were published in little magazines. So I’d read everything of his that I could find and in some quite profound sense it satisfied my appetite for poetry and accorded with my ideal of what poetry was or could be.
Editing his selected poems with Michele Leggott was a privilege and an honour. I didn’t change my view of his work. I still think his was a magnificent voice, that he was a great poet. Of course I was privileged in that I saw and heard him perform a lot over those seven years and in some sense he was at his best during performance. The words on the page are left over scripts from performances and that perhaps makes my view of him different from that of someone who has only read, not heard him.
Why should his voice be preserved? There are a number of reasons but one I think paramount is that Alan was a conduit for much that is both immemorial and archaic in us and in human language. He had an enormous range and he could encompass multitudes; which means he could encode in his work continuities and disjunctions that are as old as humanity. His long poem Moonshine is an extraordinary thing. It needs to be more widely known. And it will be.
What I most like about the act of writing is the surprises that come along. I love that sense of something unfolding before me, like a road. Hopefully, if the writer has that sense, the reader will too.
Even in your books primarily focused on artists that mean a lot to you, Colin McCahon and Philip Clairmont, you have never shied from weaving your life into the text. I wondered if this just comes naturally, or if you have philosophical or aesthetic reasons justifications for doing so?
I’m essentially a naïve writer in that I learned by doing it and also in that I don’t elaborate philosophical or aesthetic justifications for what I do. I don’t see the point of that kind of thinking until after the fact. Even then, I’m dubious. It took me a long time to find a mode of writing I’m comfortable with and it was arrived at experientially, not theoretically—almost serendipitously. And what I most like about the act of writing is the surprises that come along. I love that sense of something unfolding before me, like a road. Hopefully, if the writer has that sense, the reader will too.
Also regarding the Clairmont book, you told Hamish Keith in a Cultural Icons interview that it was in one sense a failure, as it had not managed to help push Clairmont’s work back into regular circulation at the major galleries. In Dark Night you find a bright side to the poignant failure of McCahon’s quest to be a prophet through his art - “a prudential wisdom does emerge” from the failure. I wondered if you had developed over time any different feelings about the Clairmont book - despite its failure to achieve that goal. And do you still see his work as largely undervalued and under-exhibited?
There are paintings and drawings I’ve seen that should be in the public domain and they aren’t. There are paintings and drawings that should have been conserved, which may now be beyond repair. There are lost works that a proper book would have brought into view again. A major painting, more or less undocumented, was lost in a fire earlier this year, along with several significant works on paper. I think Phil’s oeuvre is remarkable enough that it should be conserved in its entirety. And it’s fragile and it’s fugitive and all the rest. An art book would have acted as a counterweight to the inevitable disintegration. The book I did publish has certainly done some of that work, it’s a lot better than nothing and, in its own right, has some merit as a kind of skewed biography. However, to answer the question, yes, I do think Clairmont’s work is undervalued and under-exhibited. I still think there is a need for a proper retrospective. I imagine it will happen one day. Or at least I hope it will.
One thing you said at the creative non-fiction workshop was that writing is engaging a “ghostly listener.” You also wrote an essay called Ghost Who Writes. With all these ghosts, I wonder what, if anything, is tangible in this exchange between the ghost who listens and the ghost who writes - and does it even matter?
What I was trying to get at there is this strange process whereby, in the act of writing, we become both the one who speaks and the one who listens. There’s a splitting that happens, there’s an I who is writing and another who is reading/listening to what the first one says. Perhaps there’s even a third presence, who monitors both writer and reader, speaker and listener.
When a piece of writing is read by another person, they become that second I, the one who listens to the voice of the first. But the reader will themselves be split, they’ll have other parts of their mind which are monitoring that act of reading, for instance that part of us that is aware that we are sitting on a sofa reading a book.
But when a reading experience is particularly intense, we lose those self-conscious parts of the mind and become immersed in the story. We forget ourselves. We even say it like that: I lost myself in a book. The strange thing about that is that when you are writing well, when you are immersed in the writing, something of the same sort happens, time disappears and you enter a pure zone where only the writing, unfolding before you, exists.
It’s easy to forget what complex psychic functions both reading and writing are. They’re akin to mind reading: the mind of the writer, the mind of the reader, communing via the interface of words on a page. To speak of this phenomenon as ghostly may be a little romantic but it is an experience that is somehow disembodied and also exists outside of time.
You could perhaps take it a little further and say, when the writer is writing, s/he is addressing a future reader. And when the reader is reading, s/he is communing with the writer as they were in the past, with his or her former presence: in each case a real person interacting with an entity which is imaginary: a ghost. It’s become even more interesting now with our pervasive interactions over the web, where we are simultaneously bodied and unbodied, ghostly and real at the same time.
The first song that gets mentioned in your first prose work is a Tom Waits track, and he also gets a mention in your most recent major work Dark Night, and this seemed apt as I imagine you collating interesting anecdotes, esoteric historical stories and interesting words the way Waits does for his songs. You both lead “Second Hand Lives,” to reference a recent blog post of yours. It also makes me wonder what kind of system you have for collating and keeping track of so many interesting stories, anecdotes etc - do you just keep humble notebooks, or have you developed some sort of system that helps aid your weaving these things through your work?
I’ve seen Tom live twice, once in Berkeley in California and once in Sydney, when I went along to the old Capitol with my father. When Dad died in 1990 I’d just been doing the sound for a Red Mole show called The Book of Life at the Belvoir Street theatre in Sydney and in the sound booth was a battered old cassette tape of Frank’s Wild Years, which I used to play as walk-out music after the show was over. And that song, the one I quote lyrics from, Innocent When You Dream, appears twice, in different versions, on that album and it was in my head the whole time I was flying back to New Zealand for my father’s funeral. Beautiful piano melody, beautiful lines: And it’s such a sad old feeling/ All the fields are soft and green / It’s memories that I’m stealing / But you’re innocent when you dream.
To answer the question: I don’t as a rule keep notebooks or any other kind of paper or screen based archive that I might want to draw from later. I work almost entirely from memory though I’m not shy about consulting sources when a memory needs bolstering in one way or another. When I’m beginning a new project I do sometimes start on a notebook in which I might record things I’ve read, seen, thought – just notes to myself that might later turn up in the book. Sometimes I’ll use the memo feature on my mobile phone for making notes too. And I’ve certainly kept travel diaries and used them when writing up trips. But these notebooks and diaries never seem to end up with much in them and, further, anything I think is worth noting down generally remains in memory anyway.
Someone, I can’t remember who, said that memory is a muscle and therefore, like any muscle, can be exercised and made stronger. I absorbed this advice when I was quite young and have always tried to cultivate the faculty; it now means that I can usually commit something to memory in the knowledge that it will be there when I want it later on.
I was telling my father how you seemed to have such good recall of your childhood when I read your books , and my father said that he had that too - that it was “a small town thing.” I wondered if you go along with that, and, to what else you might attribute your ability to retain events, place name and people from your childhood. Is there more research that goes into this than the reader perhaps realizes?
That’s an interesting point. Maybe small towns are so dull that we remember every untoward event? Although I don’t actually believe that. Memory is a function of attention so if you are paying attention, you will remember. Life was so interesting in small towns, so full of incident, so full of mystery. And you would get to know the whole community, not just one strata of it. Perhaps too the fact that we grew up before television had an effect – I didn’t see a TV until I was twelve years old. I’m just now putting my memories of childhood in order and I find I have no difficulty recalling things but may need now and again to corroborate a detail or recover a name and the Internet is great for that. I was thinking the other day about a kid I knew in Greytown called Renley Bennett and I went online and there he was: first, his wedding photo, in Nelson, in 1972 and, second, his listing as a deputy manager of a Honda franchise in New Plymouth, where it seems now he works .
Of course (the internet) has its distracting qualities and its trivializing functions and so on but those exist in real as well as virtual libraries. You can go down to the State or the Mitchell library to research the voyages of Quiros and still end up at the magazine rack.
You write eminently readable posts on your blog, many of which could easily contain the genesis of a longer form book. When do you know that something is pulling you towards writing a whole book on it? Is it just a stronger pull?
I remember the inception of the McCahon book, Dark Night, really well, because the whole thing came into my mind over a period of about a quarter of an hour one hot January afternoon when I was home alone and just idling, really. The book I’ve just completed a first draft of, about the convict artist Joseph Lycett, took a bit longer to germinate but it arose out of seeing some paintings of his in a gallery in Newcastle, wanting to know more about him and then learning there was no place to go where I could find out. It was the same with Rex Battarbee, who’s one of the subjects of my next book, Double Lives, which Giramondo will bring out later this year. In general I would say my books are the records of inquiries into some subject or other which I myself wish to learn more about.
You write in Luca Antara that you need to have a quest in your life. I remember reading a favourite artist of mine (the songwriter Bill Callahan) once lamenting in an interview that "the internet has killed the quest." Obviously you utilise the internet for both research and promotion, and you have your own blog for posting shorter pieces. How has the internet affected your own ability to stay "questing"? Has it ever proved too convenient or compulsive? I ask because there is a developing phenomenon of authors taking drastic measures to protect themselves from its compulsive enabling. There’s Jonathan Franzen supergluing shut his ethernet cable, not to mention Zadie Smith thanking the ‘Self Control’ app for computers in the credits to one of her novels!
I find both Franzen’s and Smith’s strategies absurd. The Internet is a wonderful resource for writers; it’s like having the entirety of the planet’s libraries at your fingertips. The great circulating library of the world. Of course it has its distracting qualities and its trivializing functions and so on but those exist in real as well as virtual libraries. You can go down to the State or the Mitchell library to research the voyages of Quiros and still end up at the magazine rack.
A quest in this sense is the attempt to put together disparate pieces of information in order to solve a mystery or tell a tale and that sort of thing is clearly enabled by the Internet—so I can’t agree with Bill Callahan either. I mean, it's different to a physical quest, like the one I went on to find Ludwig Becker’s grave, out of which I wrote The Supply Party—but surely we may have both kinds?
Another thing you mention in Luca Antara is the way driving taxis will demystify a city. I’ve not read you say too much positive about the job. I wondered - have there been any pluses to driving taxis? Aside from helping pay the rent, has it contributed in any positive way to your writing life?
I kept a taxi driving blog for a while and it’s still up on the web. Its title is dérives. It was my place to debrief. There were times I loved the random way in which a night of taxi-driving unfolded, the bizarre or tender or maladapted folks who climbed in the door, the exotic or unusual destinations, the sense of freedom you got after dropping off, rolling through the city at night with no-one telling you what to do or where to go. There were emblematic encounters with individuals that stay in the mind and there are sights which, once seen, cannot be forgotten. I wrote an essay about this called Winged Sandals, it was published as an e-book by Rosa Mira in Dunedin.
But the plain facts can’t be avoided. You’re a blue collar worker. The hours are long and the pay is poor. It’s often boring. It’s a stressful job too, both because of the exigencies of driving in traffic and the possible dangers posed by rogue passengers. A lot of people, while not dangerous, behave badly in taxis. Drunks are never fun, no matter how funny they think they may be. The worst aspect of the job, for me, was the way it ate into my writing time. I became quite resentful of that and began to feel a kind of bitterness towards my fate. I should have been writing but I wasn’t, I was driving. Bitterness is no way to go. I think I’m fortunate in that I haven’t had to drive for about two years now. Though I note that my Driver’s Authority remains current.
You finally went and did a PhD in creative writing focusing on two watercolour artists, Rex Battarbee and Albert Namatjira, and in a recent National Radio interview you spoke of wanting to tell their story in a detached sober manner without the usual need to use it for polemic. I’m interested in your thoughts on politics and art - whether they are ever a good mix. Does politics tend to distort the so-called “truth”? Sometimes I wonder if our need for a “left” and “right” is as much of a vulgar error as the distinction between poetry and prose. To me your own work seems concerned with not committing this vulgar error, even if it does display anger towards inequality, and leans towards a humanitarianism, equal rights and tolerance.
With that book I felt that the need for an accurate summation of what actually happened in their lives was far more important than any interpretation or polemic could be. You can’t base polemic on poor information but that is in fact what often happens: the political stance one takes pre-determines the information you use to support it. I believe that documentary truth has to take precedence over, and inform, political action.
But there is a larger question, a larger problem here, which is that we live in a dysfunctional polity, and one which cannot admit its dysfunction. You only have to look at the idiocies surrounding policies, or the lack thereof, to deal with climate change, to understand that. Democracy is one of the pieties of our age but we all know that power in our societies is not wielded democratically. I do believe in liberty, equality and fraternity, to use an old phrase, but I no longer see how, in a political sense, they are to be attained.
I’m a person of the left, I suppose, but there’s no political party that represents people like me anymore. Certainly not the Labour Party, though possibly the Greens might come to. It’s hard not to despair when it comes to practical politics. However, even though my work is not overtly political, in that it doesn’t espouse agendas for action, I do hope that it unfolds in fealty to certain values, which are hard won and permanent and which we will need to keep alive during and after the catastrophes that seem to be looming for us.
Difficult texts encouraged the possibility of being difficult yourself, or at least the possibility of taking risks; and also you could find in the interstices of their thought places to set up your own shop as it were. Plant the flag of your own nascent ideas.
Walter Benjamin turns up more than once in your work as a reference point. You consider him in your essay Ghost Who Writes, and a quote of Benjamin’s opens your Holloway Press book The Place of Stones. His essay style is denser and more difficult than yours, but concepts central to his identity such as that of Baudelaire’s flaneur, and the related idea of psychogeography, seem relevant to your work. Have your travels been as invaluable to your writing as having a desk and some solitude? Has one proved more necessary than the other in the long run? I wonder if all the time spent driving taxis has given you an equivalent instinct about the emotional flow of a city like Sydney - a sort of driver’s instinctual notion of various Sydney suburbs that is equivalent to the strolling flaneur’s sense of the arcades of Paris?
I came across Benjamin for the first time in Wellington in the mid 1970s. A volume of essays called Illuminations, like the Rimbaud prose poems. At the same time I was reading Claude Levi-Strauss, Triste Tropiques; they taught a version of French Structuralism in the Anthropology Department there when I was finishing off my BA. Both books were illuminating, and they still exist together in my mind, though I’ve lost my copies of both of them. Later, when I was travelling with Red Mole, I bought a companion volume to Illuminations, Reflections, and I still have that. Benjamin’s density, his difficulty, the sometimes contorted nature of his thought, were a direct provocation to me when I was young; it was the same in a way with Levi-Strauss, not so much Triste Tropiques, which is a sort of autobiography, but his more technical writings like The Raw and the Cooked. That worked in two ways: difficult texts encouraged the possibility of being difficult yourself, or at least the possibility of taking risks; and also you could find in the interstices of their thought places to set up your own shop as it were. Plant the flag of your own nascent ideas. Benjamin isn’t always difficult anyway; I think the essential thing in reading him is to understand that he doesn’t have a fixed position but is using his research and his writing as a method of thinking. He’s thinking with his text, if you like, and that’s what I try to do as well. He’s actually a very fine prose writer and among his works are some enviably good prose poems.
In his 1929 essay on the Surrealists, which he called The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia, there is this passage: The Surrealists' Paris, too, is a 'little universe'. That is to say, in the larger one, the cosmos, things look no different. There, too, are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic, and inconceivable analogies and connections between events are the order of the day. That’s beautifully put and it’s also accurate as a summation of any large city these days. And, yes, I have a strong visceral sense of the city of Sydney, I feel I know it in my bones and that I can sense its moods and its shifts, its emotional flows. And sitting behind the wheel of a taxi is in some sense analogous to sitting at a desk writing. In both cases you hope you are going somewhere. And there is for me a definite oscillation between the two modes, of travel and of reflection, if you like, or solitude and engagement. I like nothing better than traveling to some place I haven’t been before—any country town in Australia will do—and then writing a report upon the experience afterwards.
You allude to Peter Ackroyd's novel Hawksmoor in Dark Night, which, along with the works of Iain Sinclair and the columns of Will Self have brought the concept of psychogeography to a larger British audience. Many of your books have psychogeographical aspects to them – a sense of travelling for the sake of exploring the psychic effect of shifts in geography rather than for the destination - even if it is only overtly acknowledged in Dark Night. I’m interested in how and when you came across the concept. It seems to have informed not just the way you go about finding material for books but also the very structures of the books themselves, particularly their digressions.
I love that book. I’m an admirer of Ackroyd generally and I think, insofar as his fiction goes, that’s one of his best. It’s so dark and threatening and has such a strong and twisted sense of the ways in which the past might inflect the present. I’ve read a bit of Iain Sinclair but his prose style is a little too baroque for my taste. And I find his insistences claustrophobic. He always has an agenda. His book on John Clare was the last one I read and it was a disappointment. It seemed to me that he’d lost the crucial balance between self and subject in that he’d used Clare to write a book about himself rather than the other way round. I’ve never read anything by Will Self except odd pieces of journalism so I can’t comment upon his work in detail but he seems a bit insistent too.
The psychogeographical aspect is perhaps after the fact for me, in the sense that I was doing it before I ever knew it was a thing with a name. I’m quite uneducated in some ways. I’ve never read Debord or any others among the Situationists either. I haven’t read a lot of theoretical writing. Hardly any, in fact. As crass as it sounds, I’d rather read a book by someone who has been somewhere and done something.
And, when you look hard at it, the idea of psychogeography is probably a new name for an old thing. An old faculty. We’ve all walked into a house and shivered and wondered what has happened here? Or gone to some place in nature and felt haunted. There’s a related concept, hypnogeography, which has an association for its study in the United States but, by the same token, people have been exploring dreamscapes for a long time, arguably since the time of the shamans – which, as someone recently pointed out, is probably the only pan-human religious faith that has ever existed. Shamanism, I mean. We might need that again soon.
Digression is another question. When I was writing Chronicle of the Unsung I felt uncertain about the validity of presenting myself as a central character, as a subject worthy of autobiography, however partial or fragmentary that autobiography might be. So I came up with this idea of the “I” as a locus to leap off from, a place from which to depart into digression. It was quite conscious and it was a way of not writing too much about myself. The publisher’s reader for that book, Anne Kennedy, sent it back twice, saying this doesn’t work because the central character isn’t a strong enough presence, so twice I re-wrote it, putting more of myself in each time. And I guess in the end that worked. But I was much happier writing the digressions, if that’s what they are—in fact, for me, they are the point of the book and the autobiography, such as it, just a spine to hang them from.
I recently read a wonderful discussion between Aleksandr Hemon and Teju Cole, where Hemon says that he's always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing annoying and troubling, given that it creates two exclusionary zones, and in particular that it assumes that narratives can easily be pegged as 'true' or 'fictive' based on what we define the text as, when narrative is always a more subjective experience.
I was immediately put in mind of your own work. Are there any distinctions between fiction and non-fiction as you see it that are valid and not merely constructs borne of a certain presumption? Is there any kind of pragmatic need to hold on to this distinction? Is "truth" a useful word? And have you come up with a better term for what you do than "creative non-fiction" (a term I know you're not particularly fond of)?
W G Sebald described his books as prose works of indeterminate form. I like that. I’ve sometimes called mine enquiries or excursions. I’ve also used the phrase quest memoir, which again I like. Creative non-fiction and literary non-fiction are both bastard terms which exist in a kind of forelock tugging relationship to the great god Fiction...which is most likely already dead as a form. If you go back to someone like Daniel Defoe, who is sometimes cited as an early exemplar of the novel, his work is mostly reportage but along the way he will invent and set running imaginary characters in order to tell stories that are most likely stories with a basis in documentary fact. Saying, what if? Which is a classic technique of non-fiction. You could make a case that Shakespeare did the same, with an added emphasis upon the invention of character. There they were, upon the stage in front of you. And, this is often forgotten, in drama every performance is different and every performance is real: not really a fiction at all.
Why we have been compelled into this hard distinction between the fiction and the non I don’t know. Fiction in our tradition may have evolved as a mask for fact, in the sense that you could say things about people by pretending they didn’t exist when, actually, everybody knew they did. A sort of reflex constructed out of middle class pieties and anxieties.
The story-telling function is much older than that, it’s ancient, and there probably are two main modes: the story about what you did today and the story about how we got here in the first place. The documentary and the mythic. One is a daylight mode; the other, night time. Looking up at the stars around the fire, telling stories about the heavens. To try to assert that one is true and the other not is to misunderstand who we are.
What Hermon says in that article: "Narration is the creation of truth" - is a good way of putting it because it encompasses multiple forms of writing. Joseph Conrad would give his endorsement. It can be as easily applied to a fragment of a lyric by Sappho as to Gibbon’s great work. And equally to a work of fiction—many of which, these days, would fail that test. Rather than creating truth, they actually replicate, in a debased form, the ‘real’ life or lives of their author and his or her friends.
I’ve just finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which is a formally beautiful work, with a time structure worthy of Borges, but in terms of content it's really a documentary. And it actually doesn’t matter if some of it is made up and some of it isn’t. Even memory, we now understand, is a form of fiction, in the sense that it is an imaginative reconstruction of past events. It’s the truth that we are able to create through writing—and reading—that is important, not some a priori definition of what is fact and what is fiction. I think we will get over it. I was immensely encouraged by The Savage Detectives. It was like reading Defoe.
Martin Edmond's new memoir, Barefoot Years, is released this month by Bridget Williams Books.
Edmond joins Kirsty Gunn and publisher Tom Rennie for two discussions about Barefoot Years and Gunn's Thorndon next week:
Auckland Central Library - Monday 6 October, 5.30pm
Unity Books Wellington - Thursday 9 October, 6pm