One of the reasons for creating this web site was to have a forum where I could give fuller, more complete answers to the questions I am often asked by students during my school visits.A key one is; ‘How did you become a writer?’
Part of becoming a writer is through the inspiration one gets from reading the works of others. I have listed all the books I could think of which impressed me over the years so, in terms of other writers, the answers probably lie buried there.
But writing is a very different activity to reading and I believe that in my case the seeds were sown well before I learned to read. I come from a family who have a considerable number of Irish swinging around in their family tree. Perhaps this is where the art, and the desire, to become a raconteur comes from.
From an early time we children were told stories. We listened to stories and we were encouraged to tell our own stories. I can remember so many stories and the people who told them. My parents, my grandmother, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, friends of the family. There were early recorded stories played on 78 records, spooky radio plays like ‘street of secrets’, yarns told by the blokes who wound up in my grandmother’s kitchen.… it is impossible now to remember them all so I suppose my nearest and dearest were the most influential.
One of the reasons we were told stories was to suppress our bad behaviour during long car journeys. In those days all car journeys seemed long, but the trip from Ruatoria to Otaki in a 1938 De Soto was a long one by anyone’s measure. It had all the added torments of dusty winding roads, smoking parents, (the inevitable car sickness) breakdowns and punctures. (in those days cars had a tremendous number of punctures), long waits on the side of the road while the car’s radiator hissed and bubbled at the top of some endless hill. Journeys in those days were never straight forward.
What were these stories?
Everyone has their own specialty when it comes to story telling. My grandmother used to tell us about family lore, in particular the exploits of her ne’er do well father. Spun out the detailed plots of novels she had read long ago. Told us about her study of philosophers, Robert Ingersoll and McNeil-Dickson, a pair of atheist contrarians popular in the 19th century. She was particularly fond of matching our behaviours, physical features and things of this nature with famous antecedents in her family. Flaws such as a lack of patience or nerve, a tendency to outbursts of anger, snobbishness and low class behaviour inevitably seemed to have been brought into the family through marriage, while failings which weren’t really failings, sly dealing, infidelity, and poor financial management she would own with a certain amount of pride.
The stories which really took root in my head were those that concerned her travels around the world in the 1920s. She had married an older man who was by the standards of those days ‘fabulously well to do’. It was the time honoured trade-off between youth and beauty on her side with wealth and security on his. As part of the deal she had finagled a trip to Australia with her mother before the wedding, and a year long odyssey/honeymoon following the marriage where the two of them sailed to England via the Suez Canal and visited the continent. It supposedly cost 10,000 pounds, which I guess was about the cost of a substantial house today.
During this trip my grandmother did and saw many amazing things. She learned to drive a motor car in Piccadilly Circus, picked up a fugitive murderer on the Dartford Moors, visited the blue grotto on the island of Capri, and even Ceylon where she was pulled up a mountain to the city of Kandy in a rickshaw by a relay of sweating coolies. Sometimes the more ‘adult’ aspects of the trip would emerge; her refusal to sleep between the sheets with her husband and how he negotiated an armistice. The hilarity when an Arab man, goaded by the sailors as they travelled through the Suez Canal exposed himself to all the assembled gentle folk who were lured over to watch. “It was long… like a snake!”
Other stories were centred around the feats and mis-deeds of her prize-fighter father, George Fisher. I have retold one of these stories in my section of unpublished stories. It is called “The land of giants.” The famous Uncle Dahn, played tennis at Wimbledon with Michael Wilding, absconded with an heiress, then a French spy. His final words to her as an old man shortly before he died. “I married four times Rewa, and I never throttled any of them!” There was a Dickensian pathos about her tiny mother, who had to raise she and her brother, while her brawling alcoholic father was off having adventures before finally disappearing while still in his thirties.
My others relative had their own stories and these were delivered in their own signature narrative style. Peter D’Ath could tell long tales where little happened but these were delivered with a sense of drama and excitement that held us spell bound. His love of cars and motorbikes was only paralleled by his love of getting one past someone. Sometimes, sitting between two of us cousins on the couch he would deliver the punch line at the same as he pinched our thighs with an agonising horsebite. Our screams lent zest to the story telling. It was he more than anyone who knew how to milk an audience. Tales would grow in the telling, digress down interesting side roads and then hurry towards conclusion. The same story was different every time it was told. It came alive.
His son Jak was a story teller in the same mould. What made him different was his propensity for stories that bore little or no similarity to reality. He regarded a fixation with the ‘truth’ as evidence of a lack of imagination. I still remember him explaining to an elderly woman who had been staying at their house as a chaperone while his parents were absent, that a ring of love-bites around his neck were the result of a gang who tried to hang him on the way home from a party. How he had to lie low for a few days because they would be sure to try it again. She became so frightened at this point that she left the house and they were unsupervised for a couple of days.
My parents’ stories were gentler, more literary, depending on nuance rather than bravura. Stories of their school days, of growing up, of incidents arising from their jobs as rural school teachers. They were avid readers and strangely enough this seemed to stifle the love of story telling.
Once I was at school and my formal education began I never seemed to be able to connect how the idea of story telling could be translated into the more passive activity of writing. For many years I would sit before a blank page with no idea how to proceed. This uncross-able desert lay before me and my pathetic offerings were invariably marked with failure. It wasn’t until much later that I ever realised that these two pursuits were of a similar currency and how one could easily be translated into the other.
Sad to say that this persisted right through a university degree in English as well. I could argue a thesis, analyse writing, do all things required to pass my assignments but as far as constructing any sort of narrative was concerned, I had no idea. This might have persisted indefinitely if it were not for the instigation of my grandmother. It was she who finally had me proceeding in the right direction.
After I had completed my BA at Auckland University, spent a year in Christchurch at the Teachers college, taught at Auckland Grammar for two years, I finally achieved my childhood ambition of pushing off overseas. Like so many at that time I headed to London.
In London my life seemed to step up a number of gears and I began to experience a multitude of new things. They inundated every aspect of my life and challenged all my perceptions. New ideas, experiences, sights, relationships seemed to pour towards me like snowflakes rushing towards the windscreen of a speeding car.They demanded expression.
At this time I sorely missed the contact with my grandmother, who at this stage was in her seventies and living in New Plymouth. In the days before cheap phone calls and emails distance was truly a tyrant. One really knew the meaning of 12,000 miles and the world was in no sense a ‘global village’. I began to write weekly letters to her on a Sunday night. It soon became a routine. At first these were three or four pages and took most of the evening to write. Later, as I became more adept they grew to 10 or 12 pages and were produced quickly and with far less agonising and searching for the apposite phrase.
My grandmother was my audience. It was my responsibility as a writer to show her London, the UK and Europe fifty years after her epoch-making voyage all that time ago. It was here that I learned what was for me, the key aspect of writing, something I had never properly achieved. Connecting with an audience. When your purpose is to entertain, this is the most fundamental attribute, the key to effective writing. Most bad writing happens when this axiom isn’t observed. Authors who leave the story in order to vent their opinions, describe something irrelevant, venture down some tedious side alley, indulge themselves in what they imagine to be beautiful writing, show their learning, their research, their authority. This is a trap which experienced writers often fall into because their editors are reluctant to ‘mess with success’ and beginning writers because they lack an adequate forum for feedback.
When I arrived home I discovered that my grandmother had photocopied these letters at the library and clumped them together like a book. This ‘book’ was given out to any of her many visitors and it was only later, when relatives referred to some barbed comment I had made about them that I learned the importance of knowing the extent of one’s readership. There is an aspect in most writing of self-disclosure. This is essential if what you are to write about is to have any personal truth or risk about it.
Those who can, do…
Six years later I was back in New Zealand, teaching at Aorere College. Here writing and the teaching of writing became a focus for me. I was teaching students from ‘difficult’ backgrounds who believed that not only did they lack the tools to write (‘I can’t write for shit!’) but also that they had nothing to say. I was determined that they were wrong on both counts. Working with these kids I developed my own method of teaching writing based on the Canadian educationalist Donald Graves who was in vogue at that time.
I would gather up my class and we would retire to some quiet place where we were unlikely to be interrupted. Then I would take them through a series of exercises that meant the ‘schoolness’ of their environment would drop away. We had creative visualisations, trust games, anything to break down their adolescent inhibitions. Then we would sit in a circle and I would insist that every one told a story. There were only a couple of provisos. One of these was they either told a story or said the words “I don’t have a story at the moment’. The other was that the story had to be true and had happened to them either directly or indirectly.
Some students found this extremely difficult. The performance and the self-disclosure aspects, in front of their peers, are both very challenging for secondary school aged students. This process could take as many as three or four periods before everyone in the group had told a story and the more fluent story tellers were ‘talked out’.
Then it was back to the classroom for these stories to be translated into written expression. In the classroom there were a number of new inhibitions to be overcome. The fear of committing a story to paper, the inability to find the words to bring a story alive on the page, the self-belief that one can actually do this thing called writing. My only exhortation/self-evaluative measurement was: ‘Does this do justice to the experience? Was that what it was like? Does this account create the same sorts of feelings in the reader that you experienced when you were there? Are you ‘Telling it true?’
The writing my classes produced utterly changed my attitude to teaching. I felt by doing this for my students I was giving them a life skill that they would always carry with them, like teaching a person to swim, or ride a bike. It could be developed, made more sophisticated, taken to new levels, neglected, but in essence it would always be there.
I gathered up their stories, typed them out and photocopied them into books. (This was before desk-top publishing) With their permission I distributed these collections among new classes beginning the process. These stories enriched and sped up the progress of the classes I taught after them. Students who had written sensitive ‘confessional’ style stories were able to objectify these and in a sense ‘move past’ something painful.
Ultimately I managed to persuade a small scale publisher, the Kohia Teacher’s Centre to print these off. The stories were extensively edited, stripped of the sort of specific detail that could trace them back to the author. They were brilliantly illustrated by an Art teacher friend Dianne McKissock-Davis and, as an aid to writing developed a second life in other schools around Auckland. Some of the stories were picked up by anthologists, one in particular, appearing in an avant garde university publication called ‘And’. This collection of students’ writing was called ‘Telling it true’.
It is one thing to teach others to write, every English teacher does this, it is quite another to write oneself. I made it a habit to write while I was having my students write. Modelling was an important part of this method. As well as this I would subject my stories to their critique in the same manner as they submitted their stories to mine. The stories I wrote under these limited conditions just tended to be written versions of the stories I had told many times before. Simple ‘unvarnished’ stories from my childhood and adolescence. Satisfying though this was, I longed to embrace something more challenging, more extended. I longed for a wider audience.
It was during this time that I wrote a musical based loosely on the Rocky Horror Show called ‘Original Sin.’ It featured various kinds of music from rock bands to orchestral and a series of loosely connected skits which allowed the students in the school at that time to express themselves dramatically for their local community. It had a four night run beginning with a dress rehearsal for family and friends and rapidly growing through word of mouth until we had an audience that packed every nook and cranny of the school hall.
Writing dramatic scripts is an honourable and well-trodden pathway to becoming a writer. Ask Shakespeare. You learn not to be precious about your material. To cut back ferociously, things that fall flat, or for one reason or another simply don’t work. You learn how to build your material around the talent you have at your disposal. How to impose a dramatic structure on the most unlikely material.
Some years later, when teaching at Dilworth School, I reconfigured Hamlet into a two act play, retelling the familiar story in the form of a flash back. The four hour play was reduced to 90 minutes, more in keeping with the stamina of the players and audience alike.“Hamlet in hindsight” (refer ‘freebies’) was a writing challenge that took nearly a year to complete. Whereas it is very satisfying to see actors performing your work it was all over so quickly I longed to create something more enduring.
Stumbling into print
In the mid-1990s I began work on a novel. I felt that my strengths as a writer lay in structure rather than tone or nuance so I began to write a story told from multiple points of view and centred around a car accident. I called this work ‘The third law’ and it referenced Newton’s third law about every action producing equal and opposite reactions. The convenience of this structure meant that as a writer I was able to throw all my attention at one particular character’s dilemma at a time rather than trying the more conventional routine of integrating it into a single, coherent, whole.
As I came to the end of the writing of this book I came up against the problem which many first time writers will know about; what now? Who will proof-read and critique this book? How do I go about getting it published? Is it any good?
It is not difficult getting ones short stories read, it is only an undertaking that takes a few minutes and the invariable response tend to be along the lines of ‘Yeah, quite good.’ Or ‘I don’t get it?’ Sometimes “Why don’t you do this?’ Having a short story published is not as difficult either. There is little financial risk in publishing a short story amongst other short stories and this is where many novelists get their first work in print.
I notice in the publicity material published about me there is the tendency to mention the variety of jobs I have worked at during my life journey. Life guard, hot air balloon pilot, teacher, builder’s labourer… as if this was the apprenticeship I served in the real world. (A contrast to university fellowships and early brilliance.) While there is a proud tradition of writers turning their rugged lives into fiction (Ernest Hemmingway, Mark Twain, Jack London) the essence of turning those experiences into stories, transmuting them into literary fiction comes from somewhere else.
In the case of the Third Law, my motivating impulses were twofold. The first of these was the challenge to become a ‘published author’. This is seen as a goal in itself by many people, but later you soon realise that being published is just the first step, publishing something which other people will actually want to read, is something else.
The other purpose is probably the more useful in terms of other people ‘who want to know how do it’.
I wanted to make sense of powerful events in my life. Everyone’s life has these, they are turning points often where you begin to view things differently. In my case it was the death of my cousin and best friend Jak D’Ath. This seemed to mark some sort of transition in my life between the first and second part. It wasn’t quite the transition between childhood and growing up as much as it was a defining moment in my life.Everything in my life seems to have happened either before of after the moment I heard about his death. Hence the third law.
Writing this book was an exhilarating release and at the same time clarified many things that had been swirling around and around in my head. There is a clear therapeutic function to writing and this is the objectification of intense experiences. However merely getting these onto a page does not necessarily make one a writer, anymore that singing in the shower makes you worthy of performing in public. Where the ‘writer’ comes in is creating a discourse with your audience. Connecting with them in a satisfying and meaningful way. Gaining an audience (who are not reading your writing out of a sense of duty) and keeping them because of the engaging quality of the narrative is still the greatest challenge confronting a writer.
I sent a letter asking for ‘The Third law’ to be considered for publication to all the publishers I could locate in new Zealand at the time. Many of them responded almost immediately with a form letter telling me that what I proposed was not part of their brief and suggested other avenues. Most didn’t respond at all which I guess is a fairly definitive response. A few asked for an extract. And one asked me to forward the entire manuscript having read the extract. That was an exciting moment, but it was short lived as a week or so later a reader’s report arrived saying that the novel deteriorated fairly rapidly after the first extract. (I believe, deep down, that I knew this.)
So where to from here?
About this time J M Coetzee’s novel ‘Disgrace’ was published. I had never read anything by him before, or indeed anything by a South African. It was a revelation. This book had a clarity, a moral thread, and engaging thesis that I found utterly compelling. There was something in this book that I had been trying to capture in the Third law’ but it was realised so powerfully and so completely that it made my book seem instantly redundant. On an impulse I put my battered copy into a posting bag and sent it to Professor Coetzee at Stellenbosch University.
What a wild and desperate thing to do! I cringe now at the thought of it.
About eight or nine months later a letter arrived. It was from the great man himself. He apologised for the lengthy delay in responding to my manuscript, but he had been travelling the world on a never-ending speaking tour to support his book. He told me that he had read my novel and had enjoyed it. It had a number of flaws, the principal one being that there seemed to be no coherent focus and, as a result the readers sympathies were dispersed and diluted. This diminished any impact.
What this brief critique did for me was it freed me of this albatross of a book once and for all, and it allowed me to throw myself at my new project, which had been gradually coalescing during the preceding months. It was an endorsement of sorts, that I was already a prospective member of this exclusive club known as ‘the writers’ and that I should stop trying to prove myself and just get on with it.
Towards Thunder Road
I had come up with all the specifics for a novel I proposed to write. It would be about boys, and cars, and drugs, and fights, and swearing, and sex, and gangs, and girlfriends and friendship and…
In brief, about all the things which boys were interested in.
I began to write a story in the third person about a young guy moving to Auckland and getting involved in a new life there. Just as I had done when I was nineteen. He had a relationship with a charismatic guy of about the same age. Not entirely unlike the one I had with Jak… and so it goes. It didn’t follow any of the direct paths that led back to my early life but it certainly happened in a similar neighbourhood. The characters all had their beginnings in people I knew, but they soon took on a life of their own and became individuals in their own right. I chose to write in the first person to deliberately distance the events from my own life, but after a while I realised that there was no need for this and that having the story told in the first person allowed an immediacy that made it much more exciting.
When asked these days why I wrote Thunder Road I often say it was to memorialise my relationship with Jak. And this is true, sort of. It is true in the sense that it memorialises the essence of the relationship, but it doesn’t memorialise any of the events. I think this is the safest guide to writing. Ask yourself; Is this true in essence. Not; Is this true in fact. Believability is the most important truth when it comes to fiction writing. Literal truth rapidly becomes tedious and clunky.
I needed the time and opportunity to write this novel. It had to be written as one non-stop writing blast to maintain its own frenetic intensity. I was approaching the long summer holidays. We were intending to spend the summer break up in Whangarei Heads. At this time my son Oliver