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Sport 1: Spring 1988

Some Questions I Am Frequently Asked

page 39

Some Questions I Am Frequently Asked

Q. Through here? Are you sure? Through the wardrobe?

A. Yes, mind your head. It's quite low in there. Just push on through.

Q. Oh, I see, there's a door at the back.

A. Yes, it's like a secret entrance. It's like having to enter a Boys' Own adventure story before you can sit down and start writing.

Q. And you actually write through here?

A. Yes. It's private, obviously: no one bothers me. But it's also a good spot in summer, lots of sun and the big blue curtains. And then in winter it can be quite cosy. The starbelly stove makes a big difference.

Q. Do you follow a strict routine, then? Do you come through here every morning?

A. Well, I'm usually at my desk by nine each day. I write in a painstaking longhand, in exercise books bought for me by my son Pablo expressly for the purpose. I work through to about one o'clock, all things being equal, and by then Mrs Austen has prepared me a light meal of green peppers and sasquebette.

Q. Is part of that time spent revising? Do you revise much?

A. Oh, revision is certainly important. After I have eaten a light lunch of peppers and sasquebette, Mrs Austen clears away. We chat for a while perhaps, and then usually I stroll along the cliff tops, Punch comes with me, and I might stare out at the islands. Phrases occur to me, they always do, and I try to remember them. I have a superstitious feeling that I must not write these phrases down at the moment they come to me, that they are not given for this purpose. Perhaps this is something that will interest your readers? Then in the evening, if the thought appeals, I make my way across the paddocks to the local hotel. Some of the regulars are real characters. Occasionally I take notes.

Q. I've read somewhere that there are quite large sasquebette plantations page 40on some of the islands. Have you written about them? The islands, I mean?

A. Not yet, but I would like to.

Q. Have you written about the hotel? I can't recall anything. Actually, let me just play that back. It would be terrible if the batteries were flat or something, just the sort of thing that happens to me.

A. Not yet, but I would like to.

Q. Sorry about that, I just had this feeling all of a sudden that I'd better check. I see several yellow exercise books on the table over there. Does that mean you're working on something at the moment?

A. Yes. A novel.

Q. Can you say something about it?

A. I don't think I wish to talk about it, because that might be to take the whole enterprise for granted. One of the great rules in this business is, never discuss work in progress.

Q. Oh well...

A. But I can read you a little. Here is how it starts.

The coup leader calls around. There is a small evening breeze, it shakes the bamboo at the bottom of the garden. Birds cling there — at the centre of the grove, hidden from view, they sleep and sway.

It is hard to go on thinking of him as Malcolm. It is strange how the uniform makes a difference.

He has brought me a Dennis Wheatley novel: The Devil Rides Out. It sits on the table between us.

'What would it be?' he says. 'Twenty years?'

The book has my name in it. The handwriting is mine. Malcolm says he borrowed it when we were both at school together.

We sit on the verandah and watch the stars above the bamboo, the southern constellations. We talk about Monsoon Asia with Bully Ferguson, the coloured chalk maps he made on the blackboard. Classmates. Far off days. Have I seen anything of Gary and Jim? Do I know how they are doing? Tom is in Hamilton, still pulling teeth, have we kept in touch? And so on and so on and so on.Then —

'We need you, Philip.'

My fame as a newsreader. As a media personality.

'If it would make things easier, think of it as a personal favour — old times sort of thing.'

My skills with the autocue. My knowledge of current affairs. My reassuring manner. My air of quiet authority. My Liberty tie. page 41     'You have a way of reading the news,' says Malcolm, 'I don't know how you do it but you do, so that every single viewer feels included. Did you know that?'

I say nothing. He makes a mark on his clipboard.

He offers me Antarctica, sections of Australia, mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs. . .

Or am I imagining this?

I agree to think it over. We walk down to the gate together.

The woman next-door is out on the footpath, calling the name of her dog. Fairburn! Fairburn! Men stand at attention, they salute Malcolm as he climbs into the waiting limousine. The stars above. The southern constellations.

Malcolm drives away beneath an evening moon.

That's just short of an A4 page, single spacing. I'm not sure about the present tense, now that I read the thing out loud. It sounds a bit mannered, perhaps. How does it come across to you?

Q. Fine; it's really good.

A. I hope you're not just saying that.

Q. No, I really thought it was excellent. Actually it's the names in there that fascinate me. Why do you use names like Malcolm and Philip?

A. Well, why anything, I suppose. They're just names, it isn't something I've thought about a great deal, I must say. . .

Q. It's just that they seem so ordinary, the names themselves. And I don't think of your writing as ordinary. So I thought it must be deliberate.

A. Well, probably not for me to say — though I don't wish to reject your observation out of hand. But Fairburn, for what it's worth, turns out to be the absolutely crucial character in there.

Q. The dog?

A. Yes.

Q. Fascinating. Do you have a dog yourself?

A. I used to have one, but alas I shot it by accident a few months ago — I was firing at an intruder. So that was the end of Michelle. I haven't had the heart to replace her. Still, I winged the intruder, I'm pleased to say.

Q. Right. . . let me just look at this list of questions here. . . Ah yes, do you have a favourite work?

A. Of my own?

Q. Yes.

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A. I think that Banks is probably the most successful thing I've done. There was the film and so forth.

Q. That's the novel about Sir Joseph Banks and his ten servants?

A. Yes.

Q. The thing I like about it is the way you have the ten chapters, you know, with each one being from the point of view of one of the ten servants. But Banks himself isn't even named in the text, is he?

A. No.

Q. I think it's really clever, the way that works.

A. Well, you're very kind. They turned it into cheap costume drama, the film people: sea and sailing ships. But I can't say that it interests me very much any more. The thing I like best is a little poem called 'Murihiku Wagon Music', which Landfall rejected, did you know, years ago. Now they beg me to send them things, of course.

Q. Would you like to be Māori?

A. Pardon?

Q. Would you like to be Māori? It's a question I'm asking every writer, well all the Pakeha writers. The Māori writers, the ones who'll talk to me, I ask them if they'd like to be Pakeha. I get some interesting responses.

A. Well I actually have a little Māori blood. . .

Q. But how do you identify? That's the real issue.

A. On days that are merely overcast, I think of myself as Māori. But when it rains I am Pakeha, soaked to the skin.

Q. That's it? That's what you're going to say?

A. That will have to do. I shall have to disappoint you. I used to be all for the joys of simple sunbathing, of course, back in the days when we still had an ozone layer.

Q. Fair enough. But what's your location. As a person. Imaginatively speaking. I know you travel, I know you speak a lot of languages. think of yourself as a specifically New Zealand writer?

A. Ah, that is a question I am frequently asked, and here is my answer, which is a little oblique and takes the form, more or less, of a letter. Someone is being addressed but you will have to imagine this person. This time, no names.


I'm sorry!

I forgot that we were engaged to be married

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I forgot that just for a while there
we were seeing something of each other. Yes I got drunk and played around, well of course. Yet just for a while there it was all courtship phase, we were on a ship's deck, singing our way to land, we courted each other word by word, we went up or down the charts, I don't remember. You stood and I stood: we gazed at one another across the sitting and kneeling members of the gamelan orchestra, the farmyard full of dark, metallic birds, a pair of shadow puppets who watched the quality of the light, who waited for the light to fade, mere tourists struggling with the view, and people put their hands together in the usual fashion, there was applause, I remember it well, and that was the very moment that I fell in love.

But what about you?

Q. Me? How do you mean?

A. No, not you. Not in this tiny narrative sequence. This is still the letter.

Q. Oh, sorry.

A. I'll continue.

Q. Yes. I'm really sorry.

A. Then, just last week, long after you were gone, long after you were gone, I heard a repeat broadcast of your ten-minute radio talk on the current state of New Zealand English. There was your voice again, it spoke of tag phrases and commas, it discoursed upon its own rising inflections. Did we really speak like that? But you were my beloved, you were supposed to treat me well, where were you? Late at night I listened to the silence in the radio, the noise of rain after the station closes down. Where were you? Then I went to an old friend's funeral, and at the crematorium, cream and gold, after a few sad words, they played both sides of Astral Weeks. Beloved, oh beloved, those are the sort of people I used to go around with. The living feel rejected by the dead — not so much left behind as pushed away. That is something I have come to think. As for Astral Weeks, the truth is that some of it lasts and some of it doesn't.

There we are.

Q. Pardon?

A. That's it. I've finished the letter. The answer to your question.

Q. I have to admit I haven't taken it all in. It's very rich. Were you inventing it as you went along, or is it a thing you do by heart?

A. Oh, I extemporise each time. But you can use your machine to play page 44it back later, you'll find it makes some sort of sense.

Q. Well, it's an astonishing view from up here.

A. Yes, on a clear day you can see the outer islands. There's a tree on one of them — Little Tartan or Big Tartan, I don't know which — and people say that if you climb it in the right weather conditions, after 24 hours of rain is one of the important elements, I seem to remember, you can see Australia.

Q. Australia. Really?

A. I don't know if you saw a man with a rifle in the gardens as you came up?

Q. Yes. He stared at me ...

A. Well that would have been my brother-in-law, Punch. He's a useful fellow. Anyway, it was Punch who planted the tree — about ten years ago. It's just a young South Island rata. But the thing is, it was Punch who started the story, he put it around quite deliberately. And now it has a life of its own. It just goes to show. Of course, people qre very gullible.

Q. This is probably a rather obvious question, but did you always want to be a writer?

A. I don't ever remember making a conscious decision. The rainy days came and went. But I don't remember a time when I thought I would be anything else. I wrote the usual little tales and rhymes when I was a child.

Q. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. Oh yes. Certainly as a young child, until I was ten. But then thing changed.

Q. Changed? How do you mean?

A. My mother lay seriously ill. She sat up in bed at the transplant hospital, her hands crossed over her breasts. She rocked a little. Weakness, weakness: she needed a new heart. Photographers came and went. There was the public appeal, you see. She gave a wan smile at appropriate moments.

My father drove to the hospital. He had made a list of cheerful things to say. He was a gloomy man in his early forties, hair already grey yet plenty of it, and he rehearsed his list of cheerful things as he turned right into Murihiku Road, not particularly looking to see what was coming. His last words were: 'new vacuum cleaner.'

Q. New vacuum cleaner?

A. Yes, he was planning to buy one. I was in the back seat with my page 45two sisters. None of us were hurt. I think Glenys had bruised ribs, something like that.

Q. Your father died, then. . .

A. My mother lay waiting at the transplant hospital, wondering if there was some delay. Meanwhile the organ transplant unit took my father's heart to the hospital, they opened my mother's chest, sawing through the bone with a small handsaw which is kept expressly for this purpose. They wedged her ribs open, a breast on each side of her body, and they removed her heart and replaced it with my father's. The operation took six hours, and two days later she was sitting up in bed drinking a cup of tea.

Q. Amazing. I don't think you've written about any of this. . .

A. She came home for Christmas dinner. The newspapers carried photographs of her in a party hat: mother opening a box of chocolates, mother pulling a cracker, mother smiling broadly. Then she started to slip. They can do a lot more than they used to, but eventually everyone starts to slip. My sisters and I sat at her hospital bedside, intensive care, she was singing her way to shore, her skin was golden, jaundiced, and the bottles above her bed filled slowly with yellow phlegm, they were draining her lungs as part of their attempt to manage her condition. It was essentially a management problem. My sisters and I sat and watched her. The look on her face! I have spent my life trying to describe it. She was rejecting my father's heart.

The doctors issued a press release which said she had died of 'uncontrollable rejection'. There was a big funeral service, lots of people from the press and radio and television, and even a representative of the then Minister of Health, who made himself known to us afterwards. Of course, this was in the days when we still had a Minister of Health.

Q. So you were made an orphan at the age of ten. Your sisters, too.

A. Yes. The way I think of it now, we were the victims of uncontrollable rejection. For years after that, I went to my room straight after tea and slammed the door. My aunt thought I was crying, but I was singing. I was listening to the radio, I was learning the songs of uncontrollable rejection. All those sad songs you sing along to, all that obvious music. The golden oldies. The blasts from the past...

Q. Well, I don't know what to ask you next...

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A. Come and look at this, then.

Q. I've actually got lots of other questions.

A. But come and look all the same.

Q. The poster on the wall? I was wondering actually, earlier on ... all the diagrams and things.

A. The whole thing is a kind of prophetic chart, it tells the future. It's something Napoleon used to consult, or so they say.

Q. That's why his picture's there! I was wondering.

A. Yes. There's a whole set of questions, you can probably see, and the idea is you ask a question and then work out which answer, applies to you. Would you like to try?

Q. Well, yes, if you're sure. . . It sounds interesting.

A. All right, make five rows of dashes, if you would please, on this sheet of paper — roughly twelve marks to a row, but don't consciously try to count to twelve or anything. All right? Here, use this pencil.

Q. Like this? Is this right?

A. Yes, that's it. Okay, and now I can work out that your code mark looks. . . like this. . . and now all you have to do is cast your eye over the questions and choose one you'd like to ask.

Q. This column here?

A. Yes, any of those.

Q. All right. Let's see . . . Will my name be immortalised, and will posterity applaud it? Shall I ever recover from my present misfortunes? Are absent friends in good health, and what is their present employment? Shall I ever find a treasure?

A. Sorry, I thought I said at the start: you can only have one question.

Q. Oh, I realize that, I'm just deciding. Thinking aloud. All right... Shall I be successful in my present undertaking?

A. That's your question?

Q. Yes. Shall I be successful in my present undertaking?

A. Hang on then. . . let's look. . .

This is a question I am frequently asked, and here is my answer: 'Examine thyself strictly, oh luckless wight, whether thou oughtest not to abandon thy present intentions. For thou shalt be turned away, and never know it.'

Q. Well!

A. Sometimes it can be a bit discouraging.

Q. What does wight mean?

A. I believe it's an old fashioned way of saying person.

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Q. Oh . . . All right, then. Does the person whom I love, love and regard me?

A. Just one question, remember?

Q. Sorry, I forgot. Well, I'd better ask you a few more questions before the tape runs out.

A. Fine. Off you go.

Q. Do you revise a lot?

A. Not really.

Q. Do you have a favourite piece of work?

A. Always the piece I'm currently working on.

Q. Do you read reviews of your work?

A. Hardly ever.

Q. What happens to Philip?

A. Pardon?

Q. Philip, in your new novel.

A. I wish I could tell you. But I mentioned earlier, I have a policy about work in progress.

Q. Sorry, I was forgetting. . .

A. Oh, turn that thing off a minute then.

Q. The tape recorder?

A. Yes.

Q. Okay, it's going again. That's fascinating. The Ministry of Rain idea. Do you think Philip deserves to have all that happen to him, though?

A. Well, Philip says: 'I'm sorry, Malcolm, I'm going to have to say no.' And Malcolm says: 'You're saying no?' And Philip says: 'Yes, I'm going to have to say no.'

Q. End of Philip.

A. You could say that.

Q. He's certainly a very tedious character.

A. Pardon?

Q. I said, do you get many visitors here?

A. People turn up. I usually turn them away.

Q. Do you believe we are put on this earth for a purpose?

A. Sorry?

Q. Do you believe we are put on this. . . Look, what are you doing now?

A. Sorry?

Q. What are you doing now? With that thing?

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A. I am coming towards you in a threatening manner — the manner I adopt when confronting intruders.

Q. Why? Look. . . Stay away from me!

A. It's all right, calm down. Just my little joke. That is how I t1. away unwanted visitors. It works rather well.

Q. Oh.

A. But you will have gathered that I am tired, we must bring this discussion to an end. My son Pablo will be waiting to see you to the door. Punch will be waiting to see you to the gate. And I expect your editor will be waiting for you to return with all this splendid material you must have.

Q. I'm sorry, I thought you were serious.

A. I wasn't.

Q. No.

A. Well, time to be going back through the wardrobe.

Q. Funny, I can't actually see where it is. Whereabouts did we come in?

A. Do you see that tall black painting, the one on the sheet of corrugated iron?

Q. Over there? Yes. Isn't that a painting by. . .

A. Yes, that's the one. Well, that painting masks the door through to the wardrobe.

Q. Really! That's ingenious.

A. Punch rigged it up, he's a clever fellow.

Q. One last question. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

A. Don't be put off by the first few rejection slips. They're part of the normal way of things.

Q. One last question.

A. Yes?

Q. What do you think of these starbelly stoves? Has yours worked out all right?

A. That is a question I am frequently asked, and here is my answer: They save space, give out a great deal of heat, and are extremely fuel efficient.

Q. That's good to know. I've been thinking of getting one, but it's quite an outlay, and you hear all sorts of conflicting reports.

A. Well, I will say one word to you. Fuel. You have to get the length of the logs exactly right. I like to saw my own. Each autumn I have a truckload of wood dumped down at the bottom of the garden, just behind the bamboo grove.

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Q. So you saw the timber up yourself?

A. Indeed. Why, Punch and I were working down their earlier in the day, before you arrived. I was quietly working the handsaw back and forth when suddenly a weta fell to the ground — in two neat pieces. Sad, ugly, damaged creature.

Q. Ugh!

A. I had sawn it in half somehow. The two bits lay there for a moment. Then the head ran furiously from the body, scuttled away under the woodpile. But the body. . . the body stayed quite still, didn't budge — as if it knew there was absolutely no point in trying to give chase. That made me feel odd. . . I had to sit down. . .

Q. Uncontrollable rejection!

A. Sorry?

Q. The bit of body that was left behind. . .

A. Yes?

Q. It was suffering from uncontrollable rejection.

A. Yes...

Q. Your old friend!

A. Yes. Probably. Now, if you think you might need a photograph, ask Mrs Austen on the way out, and she can let you have something from the box.

Q. Thank you. Just one last question.

A. Yes.

Q. Will you sign this for me?

A. This?

Q. Yes.

A. This?

Q. Yes.

A. No.