Photo: Robert Cross
David Geary is sad he didn’t see Kraftwerk when they came here. In another life, David would have been a roadie for them. In another life, David got one of the very few As in his BA (English Lit.) for Electronic Music. David wrote an essay on ‘time’ in electronic music, opening with the statement that amplification had allowed a lot more people to have a good musical time at the same time. This wondrous course comprised of cramming into the tiny VUW Electronic Music Studio with the incomparable Ross Harris and having mind, heart and ear expanding experiences.
David particularly recalls listening to all of ‘Kontakte’ by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who would go on to say, somewhat controversially, that 9/11 was ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’. Another, more traditional, composer was once asked if he’d ever heard Stockhausen. He replied he wasn’t sure, but did think he’d possibly stepped in some. But David was always impressed by the ‘contacts’ the likes of Stockhausen, Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock (in his ‘Rockit’ phase) could make with him. David is a bit over talking about himself. He fears he talks a good game but is all mouth and no trousers. He would rather his work spoke for him… Oh, and this interview…
David was the 2008 Writer in Residence at Victoria University. His principal project during this residency has been the play Mark Twain & Me in Māoriland, about Mark Twain’s tour of New Zealand in 1895. His poem ‘Janet Saws Off Her Legs (for Miss Horowhenua 2008)’, written during his year at the IIML, concludes this interview.
While initial questions were compiled in the light of day by Tom Goulter and Hannah McKie, the interview took the form of a series of late-night exchanges between part-time insomniac Tom and full-time child-anticipator David. Rambling ensues.
These days it’s a compulsive behaviour. It helps me make some sense of the chaos. And I’m glad if others see some sense in what I put out there. We’re nothing without stories. We make them, share them – they create community.
Well then, why write in NZ?
Cause we’re young…ish, and need a good stock of our own stories to battle with the ones we’re constantly bombarded with from overseas.
Is there a ‘typical path’ Kiwi writers can or do follow?
No. But studying Law, then dropping out, seems to help. I was going to be a farmer, vet, architect, psychologist, lawyer, shearer, muso, actor, before becoming a writer.
You’ve said that one good reason for writing is to find your ‘tribe’ and communicate to the world what makes it tick. Do you want to talk about how that notion relates to what you’re working on at the moment?
I belong to a lot of tribes really. Each tribe has its rules of conduct, membership, creation stories, etc. You don’t always consciously document each tribe, but it happens: Pack of Girls documented Amazonian women rugby players, and Lovelock’s Dream Run documented boarding school boys.
At the moment I’m trying to document the town of Wanganui in 1895, in which the tribes were Kupapa vs. Hauhau. And with Mark Twain, I’m definitely doing one of my core tribes – writers.
Do you write differently – dialogue, particularly – when your words are to be spoken, instead of read?
I agonise over how much dialogue to put in fiction, but good dialogue is good dialogue. I really prefer stage writing modelled on Pinter: his minimal pauses and silences say so much. But you end up putting in more to help readers ‘get it’.
I kind of resent that in fiction you feel you should put in more to explain the tone, but that’s the challenge – to do it elegantly. And I got over my hang-ups when I read Roddy Doyle, who has so much great dialogue.
What form do your writing adventures take? Do you start with a plan then write, or start writing then close in on the plan you’ve unconsciously created?
My most common way is to write and collect bits of story, research and dialogue, until I reach a critical mass. Then I bash out a rough-as-guts plan, which I hone until I’m happy to either write it up as script, or do more research and write in the gaps I’ve exposed. I re-write The Plan a lot. You must keep telling yourself the story. It is a drag but really helps you get the story clear, and see how you connect with it.
That said, I do like giving myself the licence sometimes just to write whatever comes out. It can be a very therapeutic blood-letting, and take you to crazy places. I love how Mamet, supposedly, sometimes just writes 100 pages of dialogue to see who his characters might be, before thinking about a plan. You got to have fun. Then it’s back to the plan.
To what degree do you find your characters being influenced by the people in your life? Or, to wax mystical-authorial, do you write the characters, or do they write themselves?
I use myself first, then people I’ve met – but they’re all me. I can channel my Mum and Dad’s voices pretty well. I steal voices or lines from wherever. Weirdly, when I write Twain now I sometimes hear Groucho…
You sit at the back of the bus, listen, get some snippets then extrapolate and amalgamate bits from other sources. Ultimately, you want all your people to seem unique, but they are all you – that’s what Man of the People is about on one level.
The scary thing is that the characters don’t all appear at once fully formed. They come out of the mist one by one. And, even scarier, sometimes they can slip back into it. But, usually, once one is well-defined it helps the others firm up.
Writing collaboratively: enriching exercise or quick way to lose faith in humanity?
I like teams. But the quote I always use about collaboration is from making Backstage With the Quigleys with Mick Rose and Tim Spite: ‘It’s a shit-fight the whole way.’ ‘Oh, it’ll be good then.’ And it was.
I’ve done a few collaborations now. Most notably in recent years Penumbra at Toi Whakaari and then the Auckland Festival 07 - both enriching and faith-testing experiences. TV is also very collaborative: Shortland Street writing can be a lot of fun because it’s such a huge team effort.
The best thing is the team can take you places you’d never get to by yourself. And it’s great to have a break from being alone in a room with a blank screen and a humming machine.
On the other hand, collaboration can involve compromise, dilution, distortion, and in the worst-case scenario, destruction of your vision.
How much do you think you should cling to that vision?
A lot: fight for it, but be open to others’ visions too. Hopefully, you’ll end up making something else unique together. Sebastian Barry, a cool Irish writer, once said our plays are first performed in a little theatre at the back of our skull. When we write them in our room, that’s the real world première. Everything after that involves others’ ‘visions’.
We all enter these relationships with our eyes open… to challenge ourselves, to work with others and share the pain and glory. I’ve found collaboration way more of a positive experience than a downer.
What words do you have for writers stuck in the trenches with a project they wish they’d never embarked on?
How much are you getting paid? Why did you start it? Can you get the magic back? Or recommend another writer? Go for a walk, solvitur ambulando: it will be solved by walking. Or, at the very least, you’ll get some fresh air, exercise, and change of scenery.
My big break in film turned into 5 years, 10 drafts and a trip to Development Hell. I really wanted to work with the people involved, and the money, and felt sure I could work out how to like these characters I was writing, but I don’t think I ever really got inside them, so failed.
But you need some good ‘trench warfare’ stories, to make you a battle-hardened writer. I saw Rob Lowe having someone list how many failures he’d been involved with, and he just shrugged: it showed how much he’d put himself out there, taken risks, worked his ass off, and also had some big successes.
Have you ever worked on something where that awful feeling never leaves?
No, it comes and goes. And we’re very good at deluding ourselves, it’s a survival mechanism. So even on a turkey you will find a way to soldier on. I like the phrase, ‘nothing is ever as good – or bad – as you think’.
And, honestly, I kind of wear the fact I worked on Melody Rules as a badge of honour now: as Nietzsche said, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. It’s still regarded as the benchmark for bad New Zealand TV, but I went on and did other stuff.
I remember a scene where a chick walks in on a guy who’s practising his cuddling technique on a chair, and she tells him, ‘you’ve got to stop treating objects as women’. That’s a good line. I hope you wrote that.
Yeah, that’s funny. One day, I’ll lift the lid and tell the real Melody Rules story…
It’s said that ‘films are never finished; they’re released’. Do you have any thoughts on this conundrum?
True – in that I still want to cut/change some lines in stuff I did years ago, and I do update my plays occasionally. Pack of Girls has had at least two updates as rugby laws change, and I ‘clean it up’. But I’m loath to tamper with old stuff too much as it can capture me as a writer, in that period, with all my flaws.
We all get to the point where we could do one more trawl through but we’ll just mar as much as we fix, and try to get too clever. As Ogden Nash said, ‘a good rule of thumb – too clever is dumb’.
I’m coming to see this is one of the worst writing sins, especially for me. Nothing is perfect, not even Citizen Kane. And that’s life.
What’s floating your boat lately in terms of narrative? Styles, forms, media?
I’d like to get back to reading graphic novels, as I want to write one. And I really want to write a novel that is a magazine – where all the stories, articles, adverts, horoscopes, agony columns, etc, make a whole narrative, and call it Magazine. With my son I’m reading a lot of kids’ books, over and over and over... ‘Go dog go dog go dog go’… There’s some very cool narrative and artwork in them. I’m going to try to write one called The Witch with the Orange Hat.
And I love music to write to. I drive around with the Twin Peaks soundtrack on. Angelo Badalamenti is a genius. I can listen to it over and over. I also love Michael Nyman and Philip Glass – it’s so driven.
What can you say about the relationship between building a character as an actor and as a writer?
Both are all about objectives. You have to play them, and write them, very strongly. But an actor has to really get into a character’s body, their voice (I do mouth lines as I write). But I think writers are always a bit more intellectual about it. Great actors are insects, instinctive.
What benefits does a background in acting bring to the craft of writing?
Acting helps: objectives, characterisation, developing a natural feel for what is dramatic and comedic. If you’ve been on stage you get a feel for leaning into that fickle beast, the audience, riding the wave… or being dumped.
Still, Samuel Beckett, my fave playwright, didn’t act. But he did play county cricket… and Pinter is a cricket nut.
Would you advise writers to try acting, dear boy?
Yes, if only to see how hard it is, and terrifying being in front of people, and how crushing it is when they don’t get it. And after the show how people avoid you ‘cause they don’t know what to say. Writers can get a bad review but it’s more anonymous.
And you can make weird money as an actor. My TV adverts have saved my ass. I hate to think where I’d be without them. And hanging out with actors is fun. When I was doing bit parts on Xena and Hercules it really was like being paid to fulfil all your boyhood dreams – running around with swords, playing make-believe. Some of my best friends are actors. They live more on the edge, and they have good parties.
Many of the characters in Man of the People seem to occupy the second-to-bottom rung on the ladder of desperation. They’re fellas who’ve only just got enough substance to afford the luxury of shame, and they cling to that tenaciously. I’m interested in your feelings on shame and embarrassment, because they’re emotions we see a lot of in our entertainment and I think your take on them is quite unique.
Thanks. Certainly, comedy has really hit a rich vein of shame/embarrassment in recent years. I’m thinking of Larry David, Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, Borat, The Office(s), Arrested Development… Drama? Not so much.
That’s a very good point. Did you see The Woodsman? I remember being struck in my gut in one scene near the end, because it was that same mortified feeling you get with The Office, but in an entirely dramatic scene. It was really powerful and something you don’t see often at all.
Now I’m thinking of Todd Solondz’ Happiness, which has that excruciating scene where the son asks the dad if he’d ever molest him like he did his friends. Outrageous! Outstanding.
I once told Ken Duncum that I was more interested in losers than winners. I love that phrase, ‘Beautiful Losers’. Man of the People has its fair share of them. It’s no wonder a bus runs through it bearing the destination ‘Sorry’. And I really like how in the story ‘Retro’, our hero is told, ‘you don’t need to tell jokes any more, because you are one’. Ouch!
But the public likes their rags-to-riches stories, and there’s very few downbeat stories that make it big. So that book was me going, ‘no, there’s little heroics in the desperate and shameful, too’.
Your Mark Twain project draws together a lot of material: the historical facts of Twain’s tour of New Zealand, his potential assassination and replacement with an actor for the rest of his ‘career’, Māori-Pākehā conflicts in Whanganui in the late 19th century, your own ancestral history – how has it been tying all these strands together?
Hard. We just pitched the show Mark Twain & Me in Māoriland to the International Festival 08 with Taki Rua Theatre. At the start of 8 days of workshopping, I said I felt like I’d been up and down a long river for a long time, and it was great to have some more crew on my boat, though I was now wondering if we could all fit on! And, of course, they all have other directions they’d like to go exploring. I think the reality is I can’t do all the things I want to, but that’s okay.
The play was cannibalised from the novel Henare VIII (hopefully published in 09) ’cause it couldn’t hold it all. Now I think the play can’t hold all I want to say either. I’d like to make a doco of Twain’s trip, too. And I don’t think my own ancestral history will make it all in. I can feel certain influential rellies creeping in, but… they’re all me.
I lost my wedding ring in the Whanganui river while on a canoe trip with my wife back in 2002, so I consider myself also married to the river. It owes me. Thankfully, it seems to just keep giving, so long as I keep paying it tribute.
The New Zealand Book Council calls you an ‘occasional poet’. What occasions draw you to writing poetry – do poems present themselves and demand to be written, or do you have a poetic hat that you like to put on from time to time?
I write lots of scraps, and occasionally they form into something short and contained. They often become poems. This year, in Victoria BC, Canada, for Waitangi Day, I helped organise a tribute to Hone Tuwhare and Ed Hillary. That’s where I first really heard Hone T’s ‘Rain’. Then we moved back to NZ, and a friend’s son cried when it rained and his big rugby game got cancelled. So I riffed on that and wrote the poem ‘I Hate Rain! (4 Hone 2-Far-Eh)’, which I quite like and was Scoop Poem of the Week.
Last year in Turbine I wrote a Joni Mitchell inspired poem. Since then I’ve become interested in creating a Songbirds of Canada poem series. That other Twain – Shania – met Helen Clark this year, which tickled me immensely: what would they talk about? How to go from Country to Pop, Socialist to Centrist? Now, of course, Shania has split from her man and Helen is out of the top job, so I wrote a poem for them… ‘They were just lonesome girls/with broken hearts/looking for a song/make ’em feel all right’.
Poems are some of the most fun. I had a great time this year when Laurice Gilbert invited me to do a gig at the New Zealand Poetry Society in Wellington. It’s an awesome supportive environment with good people who have regular get-togethers around the country.
If you could be remembered for one piece of work, what would it be?
Eeek… I don’t know. This interview?
Seriously. Seriously, whatever I’m creating at the mo seems the most important. I fear Lovelock’s Dream Run, as that would mean I don’t write anything in the future that makes such a mark. But I feel blessed to have ever written that. Sometimes I think someone else did it. And maybe they did – some 29-year-old don’t-give-a-shit, just-pumping-out-stuff, jumped-up country boy who never knew his place, complete with Morrissey gladioli sway.
But I’m really proud of my short story in this year’s Six Pack: ‘Gary Manawatu (1964-2008): Death of a Fence-Post-Modernist’ (only $6 at all good book stores – solve all your Xmas pressie probs now!) and Man of the People, and ‘Marton’ as a poem, and… I love them all.
And, seriously, I don’t expect to be remembered for anything really. You’re fucked if you get into that state of mind, kind of like presidents and prime ministers who can see the writing on the wall and are itching to leave ‘A Legacy…’.
How do you measure success?
Every day that I can get up and write… and not sweat the dollars, the future, the industry, the little niggly stuff. Success is the ability to put that aside – be in that moment – and write, I’m really happy then. And… marrying well. That really helps.
How has your time as Writer in Residence at the IIML served you?
A gift from the Gods. I’ve done a lot of work, but also really got into the Uni – the marae kai & kōrero, Continuing Education courses in Te Tiriti, Tikanga and Te Reo, all the awesome seminars. I love opening my staff inbox and seeing so much stimulating stuff is on campus. And I can bowl along, and be a good student… as opposed to the layabout I was here in the 80s.
Also, Otago Uni Physio have really helped with my lumbar regions, and the OSH Nurse has been great keeping my hands from OOSing up. Then there’s all the sublime staff at the IIML, who are a great team to be in. But, most of all… I love the free photocopying.
During this year you ran a workshop at the New Zealand Post National Schools Writing Festival. What advice do you have for young writers in Aotearoa?
Be nice to everyone. You never know who’s going to end up giving you a job, a good story, a good character, a good line. And/or become a good friend.
Don’t bitch. It’s a small country. And, ultimately, self-destructive. But, of course, we all do bitch, but be mindful that loose lips sink (fellow)ships.
Sit at the back of the bus. Give everyone a jolly good listening to. It’s all there.
Get a business card. It makes you look professional, and shows that you take you and your writing seriously. If you don’t have one and want to impress, look in your wallet then exclaim – Sorry, I just ran out. It makes you look like you’re a mover and shaker. A bit like how Warhol put cockroaches in his portfolio so potential clients would think he was a starving artist and give him work. Andy was a good businessman. Get a good accountant, they’re worth gold. You can claim a lot more than you think – home office, reference materials, etc.
Ask me for my Lesson Plan. I give it away – it’s good karma. I was inspired by a Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation guy I saw speak in Canada called Richard Van Camp. He said if anyone wanted his collection of stories he’d gathered from Elders then just email him, as they were for everyone to share. Check him out at Nativewiki and his myspace site with his ‘20 Music Videos That Changed My Life’. In his spirit, contact me through email@example.com and I’ll send you my storytelling & scriptwriting plan – STORY, STYLE & STARDOM for FREE! And if you want me to come teach it, then my people are only to happy to talk to your people.
Would you rather live in the garden of Eden but be permanently without a pen, or have a pen always primed and ready, but lack the time to use it it on account of pulling weeds and mowing lawns?
Don’t mention lawns. The grass grows insane in Paekakariki, as do the weeds in the front that the landlord said would be ‘no maintenance’… yeah right. I really miss our old apartment in Canada that way.
But, to answer your question, I’d write whatever. If I was stuck without a pen in the Garden of Eden, I’d rip out another rib, sharpen it up to make a quill, kill the snake, and use its blood to write on parchment made from its serpent skin. Then edit it down to something snappy that I could tattoo on my naked butt, like… ‘Johnny Depp Forever’!
Janet Saws Off Her Legs (for Miss Horowhenua 2008)
by David Geary
Musing at the Landfall desk in the IIML* foyer
startled by the report in your drawers –
Nothing remarkable about the design
ordinary, comfortable, rimu
dark stained finish.
A well built piece of New Zealand joinery
possibly dating from the 1930s.
The most dramatic thing – in two pieces
cut from one side. Then the other.
And did not quite meet in the middle.
Janet sawed off her legs
to accommodate her squatness
didn’t stop her telling tall stories.
A record of its history and ownership –
Worn and serviceable
and use in the fabric
the torn leatherette
of another Brasch edit.
What brilliant boys, and odd girl, he had
across this desk. Landfall
laid out here – for all to see.
Then he passed it on to Janet.
She went away, they say,
in more than one way
and the new tenants, supposedly, sawed
her desk in two, to get it through
something… something... something.
But I suspect it was wobbly beforehand
and she threw one... a wobbly, that is.
And these tenants… the ones she speaks of
are the kind that never pay the rent.
Boarders in back rooms
with their own access
who don’t need a key.
Yeah, Janet Clutha kung fued it – AIIIIYAHHH!!!
She had Martial Arts
as well. Didn’t know her own strength.
What a loss to carpentry and kick-boxing circles
she was. They’d have billed her as – ‘Miss Horrorwhenua!’
No. Really, really, double-glazed Janet
returned and put up a FOR SALE sign
when the new neighbours unpacked
a baby, a dog, a lawnmower.
A good fence makes for good neighbours.
But she was moving on, and gave it away,
the desk, to a Mr Levin to do the accounts
for his bookselling business.
She wrote The Carpathians and
her three autobiographies here –
To The Is-land, An Angel at My Table
& The Envoy from Mirror City.
I’m tempted to carve my name underneath
and something obscene about Ginges.
Hey, what about the chair?
What happened there?
It has no story?
No record of cauliflower farts
through holey bloomers.
It just… it just matches.
It’s mine! On the bookshelf,
Geary comes between Frame & Gee –
Auē! I will always be a slim volume.
*FOOTNOTE: IIML – the International Institute of Modern Letters.
A front for something, if ever there was one.
Secretly, we’re all made men and women –
Manhire’s Mob. And he’s the Godfather
Brando stuffing his cheeks with William Carlos Williams’ poems
which he occasionally hoicks into his Emperor Penguin spittoon
with a resounding – kerdooonk!
and a mechanical – SQWAWK!
A gift from ‘Howard Hughes’ – the mysterious Benefactor.
I’m taking the piss, in a nice way.
He’s the Spruce Goose that flew.
Comeback Elvis shaking his poetry
in your face, singing ‘Viva Las Vegas’
somewhere on the mezzanine.
He lives, between things…