Hidden Romantic: A Conversation with Dominic Hoey about Iceland
Jackson Nieuwland talks to Dominic Hoey about his debut novel, Iceland.
I’ve been following Dominic Hoey’s rap career since I was a teenager. I was always struck by his complete originality. He never seemed to be trying to be anyone else but himself; his dense, nimble, and emotional lyrics coming at you in an unashamedly New Zealand accent. When I heard Hoey had written his debut novel Iceland, I was intrigued to check it out, but I never expected it would be the biggest page turner I’ve read in years. It’s one of the best portrayals of living as a creative that I’ve come across, period.
I talked to him about the novel, the transition from music to literature, and the other projects he’s currently working on. It was great to get a chance to connect with him for the first time since I transcribed the lyrics to his song ‘Dead Babies’ and posted them to the HipHopNZ forums (and he told me I’d done a great job and then messaged me a bunch of corrections).
My first exposure to your work was through your music, but over the last few years you've been making art in a lot of different fields: poetry, film, theatre, and now the novel. Have you always been working in multiple disciplines or did you branch out as time went on?
I always wrote rhymes (raps) and poetry, and used to play drums in bands. I wanted to get into film making but, being broke in the 90’s, it seemed as likely as becoming an astronaut. I also think that now with the net and technology being cheaper there’s a lot less gatekeepers getting in the way, so you can just do shit.
As well as expanding into different mediums, do you think that the ability to just do shit has effected the nature of the work you’re making? You’ve put your last few albums out yourself without a label, and the music seems a lot freer, not strictly rap anymore, but bringing in spoken word poetry and other genres of music.
Yeah totally. Nowadays it’s pretty easy to have an idea and turn it into something without too much fucking around. Even if I was still doing music, I can’t imagine going with a label these days. It’s great to not being answerable to anyone or even feeling like you’re fucking someone around if you say something stupid.
How was the process of writing Iceland different from other projects you've done in the past, like putting together albums?
It was much more isolated. With all my albums I worked with beatmakers, engineers, other rappers, singers etc., but with this it was just me and my ideas until I got to the third or fourth draft and started sharing it with some close friends for feedback.
The other thing is it obviously takes ages. If you change something on page twenty four you have to go through the whole book to make sure it didn’t fuck up something later on. I think I did like eighteen drafts in the end, so that’s a lot of going over the same writing. Safe to say, I’m pretty sick of the novel!
You wrote the first draft of the book back in 2012. How different was that version from what ended up being published?
It’s the same structure but basically it was a big mess. Also some of the devices, like the way Zlata speaks weren’t as strong. It was pretty awful until the fourth draft to be honest.
You self-published your two poetry collections. Why did you choose to go with a traditional publisher for the novel and what was that process like?
I think with self-publishing it’s pretty hard to get people to take it seriously. Like the second collection of poems Party Tricks and Boring Secrets, I’d say we’ve sold more copies than 80 percent of poets in this country, but lots of book stores wouldn’t stock it and it was hard to get much press. Plus a publisher handles all the editing and production, which is amazing. It was a nightmare coming up with production costs for the poetry book, and there are a few poems in it that could of done with editing, that’s for sure.
Have you found there’s much difference between putting out albums on your own and self-publishing books? Is one cheaper than the other? Do people take the music more seriously?
People take the writing way more seriously. Well certain people at least. I don’t even bother putting the fact that I made rap albums on my bios now if I’m going for funding or press in certain circles. Money wise it’s about the same I guess. Maybe writing is cheaper in that you don’t need a producer or engineer or whatever, but then a book takes so long.
I think with self-publishing it’s pretty hard to get people to take it seriously... I’d say we’ve sold more copies than 80 percent of poets in this country, but lots of book stores wouldn’t stock it and it was hard to get much press.
Did you know the story you wanted to tell in Iceland before you started writing, or did you figure the plot out as you went?
I knew the kind of people I wanted to write about, the setting, and that it would be a tragic love story, but not much else. A lot of it came as a surprise when I was writing it.
In a piece for The Spinoff you wrote about taking a bunch of books you were ‘too stupid to understand’ with you to help you write ‘a novel [you] wouldn’t read,’ and then abandoning both the books and your initial idea. I’d be curious to know what some of those books were, how you had imagined that first novel, and if any different books (or other forms of art) ended up being significant influences on your writing?
They were a lot of academic books about space and memory and how this affects people. Some books on architecture and philosophy. I didn’t have any idea how to write a novel and I kept reading people talking about research, so I thought I had to read all these really dense books. But my research was the thirty five years I’d lived in Auckland, making music, working shitty jobs, and living a life. God I hate to think what kind of book I would of made had I kept to my original plan!
When I first started reading Iceland I was surprised to find it was a love story. As I continued reading, I found that as well as the story of Zlata and Hamish's relationship, the book feels like a love letter to Auckland. Did you set out to write a love story in the beginning and do you think that structure gave you the space to discuss other things?
A few people have said that about it been a love story, but if you listen to my albums or read my writing, 60–70 percent of it is about love or human relationships. For whatever reason people only remember the more political stuff, which is cool. I had just come out of a long term relationship which probably influenced it to some extent.
I don't think I would say it’s a love letter to Auckland cos I don't really know how much love I have for the city, but I wanted to document the Auckland I knew and the people I grew up around; give an alternative to the dominant narrative.
My relationship ended I just wanted to get as far from Auckland as possible, and as Zlata says in the book, Iceland is ‘as far as you can get from here.’
I went back and listened to some of your early music after reading the novel, and yeah, a lot of your stuff is about love and relationships. Why do you think you primarily get labeled as a political writer?
I guess people just remember your most recent work, and most of my stuff that has gotten attention lately has had more of a political bent.
Why did you go to Iceland to write a novel about Auckland?
To be honest, after my relationship ended I just wanted to get as far from Auckland as possible, and as Zlata says in the book, Iceland is ‘as far as you can get from here.’
For the most part, we get the feel of Auckland, specifically Grey Lynn, through dialogue and from the personalities of the characters we meet, rather than from descriptions of the physical city. When you do describe the characters’ surroundings, the city seems like it could slip into apocalypse or dystopia at any minute. Why did you focus more on character and dialogue than setting? Is the way you paint the city in the book the same as how you saw it in your own life?
All the really dystopian stuff is from Zlata. It’s coming from her memory of the place and it symbolises how she feels about the past.
I wanted the story to be easy to follow for people who don't read, who don't have education, or who have learning disabilities. I often think literature can be very elitist, and I didn’t want this book to be only read by academics. I wanted it to move fast and to throw the reader straight into the heads of the characters and their idiosyncrasies. Some of it probably comes from been a poet and rapper too; both art forms tend towards minimalism.
The book deals a lot with the expectations of society and how people choose to live in the world. Zlata and Hamish come from somewhat different ways of life and their relationship affects how both of them see the world. How would you describe their relationship? It seems like it had a positive effect on both of their creative work, but was it good for them in other aspects of life?
Without giving away too much, I think it's pretty dysfunctional. They come from different classes and so their life experience and values are quite different. But at the same time they love and inspire each other. The romantic in me likes to think there’s an alternative novel where they made it work.
I’m definitely with the romantic in you on that. Why do you think this version of the novel didn’t go that way?
I guess it’s what the characters did. Like they really took on their own life after a while. I wasn’t totally sure they wouldn’t stay together until I got near the end. But it got to the point where I was like, there’s no way Zlata would put up with this.
People who are familiar with your poetry will recognise themes of class, gentrification, and politics in Iceland, but you approach these issues differently in the novel. Instead of speaking explicitly about them, you let us experience them through the characters. Did you intend to tackle those subjects in the novel or do they just come through in everything you write? How do you think the extended novel form changes the impact of these ideas on the reader?
I think growing up the way I did, and surrounded by the people I did, these issues will always be important to me. We have this awful way of pretending class doesn’t exist in this country. But if you’ve been poor you see it everywhere, even if maybe you don't know what it’s called.
It would be cool if the book gives a human face to people who are doing their best to get by, whether that’s drug dealers, beneficiaries, people working for minimum wage, or artists. It broke my heart with what happened to Metiria this year. It really shows how disconnected from reality a lot of middle class people are in this country.
It would be cool if the book gives a human face to people who are doing their best to get by... It broke my heart with what happened to Metiria this year. It really shows how disconnected from reality a lot of middle class people are in this country.
I thought the structure of the novel was really strong. The short chapters alternating between Zlata and Hamish's perspectives, numbered in descending order, gave me the sense I was counting down to something inevitable. How did you come up with that structure? Did you have it from the start, or did it change throughout the process?
Thank you. It was always there, which is surprising cos when I look back on it now I’m like, ‘Isn’t that clever.’ It’s also divided people a lot too, which I guess is a good thing. I think the numbers came about from thinking how can I build the tension other than just within the prose.
There are points in the novel where Zlata takes a step back and makes philosophical statements about art and life – ‘Though [songs] are the children of memories, they age differently.’ Do you think these asides were a way for you to insert your own thoughts feelings about these subjects, or do those thoughts belong completely to the Zlata?
I hope they’re in Zlata’s voice, but obviously my voice will always creep in. Both the main characters are pretty different from me so a lot of the drafting was making sure they stayed consistent.
In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, you mention how, as part of the crowd-funding campaign that helped you write the book, people could pay to have a character named after them. You also say that these characters resemble those people in name only. Are any of the characters based on other people in your life? If so, to what extent? I know he’s a minor character, but I couldn’t help wondering whether Jay in Christchurch was based on Jay Roacher.
Yeah that’s Jay, and there’s maybe three or four other characters who are real people, but I don’t think any of them actually paid to be in there. And they all have their real names.
I tried not to base any of the main characters on people too much. I think its more fun to just let your imagination run wild. So many people have hit me up and been like, “This character is this person eh?” As if I just changed people’s names and put them in the book. There’s even a couple of narcissists going round telling people certain characters are based on them!
I feel like I need to apologise in advance for mentioning this, but I thought about your song ‘Loveable Losers’ a couple of times while reading the novel. The first time was early on; I thought how the characters in this book seemed like the same people you were talking about in that song. Then when Zlata’s single was a success and she ended up hating it, that reminded me of you saying you hated ‘Loveable Losers.’ Were the parts of the novel involving music based on your own experiences?
Haha, I’ll tell you a story about that song. When I put out my first solo album The Misadventures of Johnny Favourite the label was like, ‘We need a single.’ And this was around the time that New Zealand hip hop was really big. So we all thought we had to have videos on TV and shit. So I wrote that song and we put it out and it got picked up. And the whole time there’s a voice in my head saying, ‘This song fucking sucks.’ When I listen to the album now I’m like, ‘What was I thinking?’ First and only time I listened to the label.
To answer your question, the music industry parts are totally based around my experiences both good and bad.
It’s weird to me that Breakin Wreckwordz would push so hard for a single. I loved the albums they put out but none of them seemed like they were trying to be commercial smashes or anything. Do you think that was partly because yours was the first non-compilation album they put out? I mean, Cyphanetik’s album was literally called Commercial Suicide.
I think it was as much from Shock as Breakin Wreck. But yeah, being the first proper album played a part. Like we didn’t know anything about making albums really until we did it. So I think a lot of lessons were learnt from my one.
There are two descriptions of creative processes in the book which really struck me. Firstly, Hamish working on paintings in the chaos of the studio with people always coming and going, and then, at the end, Zlata writing songs in isolation in Iceland. Both methods felt very real and are appealing in different ways. Are either of them like your own creative process?
The studio where Hamish and Rapley do their art is a combination of heaps of different art studios I used to hang out in back in the day. They were all around K Road and were places that everyone came together. It was cool cos it was a space where people could hang out that didn’t revolve around money. I’m much more like Zlata, needing to be in isolation to really get work done though.
In the novel, Zlata describes her album as being ‘full of ghosts’ and she wants to escape from it. How do you feel about Iceland now that it’s been out in the world for a while?
I’m really blown away by how well it’s been received. It’s totally reached the groups of people I wanted too. Almost every day I get emails or messages from people saying how much they liked it, which is super humbling. Almost all the bad reviews/feedback have been from middle class dickheads which is validating.
As well as releasing the novel, you recently performed in your first theatre show. What was that experience like? How different was it to performing music and poetry on stage?
It was amazing. The show was really well received; we sold out the whole run and people laughed and cried. Only one person walked out and I’m pretty sure they needed to take a piss. It was really cool getting to do the same show over and over. Plus I got to work with an awesome team of people – shout out Nisha, Taylor and Ruby!
What are you working on at the moment? Is there another novel in your future or any other projects for us to look forward to?
I’m working on a poetry book that is slowly taking shape. I have the outline for a new novel which will be a black comedy set between Melbourne and the Hokianga. Me and my good buddy Eddy are shooting a web series called 50 dollars a week. And I’m doing an New Zealand tour in November with Skyscraper Stan.