Ian Richards on New Zealand literature, Japanese whaling, and the economics of exile
Richards, who has lived for many years in Japan, has complemented To Bed at Noon with studies of Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, and Duggan's old mate and drinking partner, Kendrick Smithyman. In recent years he has maintained a website calledNo Frills New Zealand Literature, on which examples of both his critical essays and his short fiction are reproduced. I chatted to Ian recently about exile, silence, cunning, flying, and whaling...]
Your biography of Maurice Duggan is extraordinarily rich in details about that writer's historical and social context - it opens a series of windows on subjects like the history of the North Shore, the relationship between sports and the arts in New Zealand, and the relationship between the Roman Catholic community and the rest of the country. Were you conscious of writing about social, as well as literary, history?
No, I had nothing so grand in mind. Mainly I was aware of an intimidating responsibility to real people--and to a real life, which I had somehow to assemble from thousands of bits of information. On the first day I sat down to write, as opposed to gathering research, I spent all morning working away at an opening paragraph and by lunchtime I had completely failed. I had no idea what to put in and what to leave out. At that point I got so panicky--because I was heavily committed to this project--that I started suffering heart palpitations. This sort of thing went on for several days of struggle until I reached the paragraph where my subject was finally being born. Then it dawned on me, at last, that what I was writing was a novel, and that I had a character and I had to tell his story. And that’s what I did--I wrote the book as a novel, with a timeline, characters, motives etc. I was surprised later to discover that not all biographers do this. But I guess that there’s a naturally novel-ish inclusiveness to the form of biography that may explain its current popularity, because I think it’s possible to write an interesting life of absolutely anybody.
With his ornate prose style and unabashed intellectualism, Duggan was perhaps seen as the odd man out, or one of the odd men out, in Kiwi literature during his lifetime. How do you see his reputation now? Do you think your book has helped spur interest in his work?
I think To Bed at Noon did stimulate some interest in Duggan’s work for a while. Elizabeth Caffin told me that AUP even sold some backlist copies of the Collected Stories. But all the male writers of mid-twentieth century New Zealand literature are neglected at the moment. It’s a situation no one could ever have imagined when they were active, and it’s thoroughly unbalanced our view of our own literary past. They’ve become like the ‘fly-over’ states in America. People study the late-Victorian writers and deconstruct them and show why they couldn’t handle this or that, and then…whoooosh, we’re in the seventies and it’s all about women and Maori. Now, I’m not about to put down the emergence of women and Maori writers. But Duggan is a perfect example of why it’s a mistake just to ignore the mid-twentieth-century males and not apply to them the standards we use for the writing of the present. ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’, for instance, would make a wonderful case-study for a feminist critic: Fanny Hohepa is plainly a lot more empowered by Duggan than she appears to be in the eyes of Buster O’Leary. And to fail to ‘get’ Duggan is to fail to get his contemporary, Janet Frame, because both of them were stylists who spent a great deal of time matching the form of what they were writing to its content. You wrote a long, wonderfully well-researched essay on Kendrick Smithyman's 1966 poem, 'Flying to Palmerston'. What made you want to write about this text, rather than about one of Smithyman's thousands of other poems?
It wasn’t really supposed to happen at all! I got to know Kendrick a few years before his death, when I was researching the Duggan biography. Kendrick’s occasional outward bluster did nothing to conceal a heart of gold, and he was immensely kind and helpful as the book grew into shape. I think he also supplied a lot of behind-the-scenes assistance to the Michael King biography of Sargeson and the Keith Ovenden biography of Davin. Anyway, being from Palmerston North myself, I remember teasing Kendrick on one occasion about the poem ‘Flying to Palmerston’--that’s a bit like poking a bear with a stick--and when Peter Simpson published the Smithyman Collected Poems online I re-read ‘Flying to P’ and made the acquaintance of a lot of other Smithyman poems. I’ve probably only read a small fraction of Kendrick’s oeuvre--as who hasn’t?--but it dragged me in and I thought I’d like to write something. William Broughton and Margaret Edgcumbe were both very forthcoming with background information.
You have created a website and placed a generous amount of your writing there. What is behind your decision to publish in this way? Do you feel that the book and the offline journal are becoming less important, in the twenty-first century?
The reason why I placed my material online was simple survival--no more than that. Living overseas kills any chance you may have of making the contacts necessary for publishing, and it ruins the ones you may already have. But over and above that, the economics of publishing in a market as tiny as New Zealand’s is pretty screwy anyway. Without government grants almost nothing would be published and with no library purchasing almost nothing would be sold…so everything starts to look uncomfortably like vanity publishing after a while. I think the Internet is one natural solution to this problem. My own little website is completely homemade and costs me nothing at all--even though I’m very un-web-savvy. But I rather like the cheek of its obvious amateurishness. There’s a long tradition of fine printing in NZ that’s always struck me as a bit precious, and it seems to me that if One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is photocopied and stapled together, then it’s still a great novel. Anyway, to be completely honest, I just meant to put some unpublishable literary essays on the website, and then egotism took over and I thought, why not put unpublishable fiction on there too?
When did you take up residence in Japan, and what motivated the shift? Is living in Japan a help or a hindrance to your literary endeavours?
I gave up a lucrative career as a waiter to come to Japan in the early 1980s, then went back to NZ and spent time on the dole and a number of years working for less income than a primary school teacher. Finally I came back to Japan again in 1996. I work at a university here, and that means I get long holidays which are good for writing activities--although the glory days of the Japanese economy are gone, and I suspect that if I was starting out now I’d be going to China. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed at how disconnected I am from the life around me in Japan, but I suspect a part of that is my personality anyway. Being resident in Japan does hurt any sort of literary career in a way that, perhaps, being in Britain or America might not, but…all right, I’ll say it: I think there’s a certain visceral resentment in NZ towards expat Kiwi writers wherever they live, unless they manage the trick of success overseas. But I know that if I’d stayed in Palmerston North I never would have written another word, and yet oddly, from a distance, I can write about it as home.
Do you take a strong interest in Japanese literature? Are there trends in the writing of your adopted homeland that New Zealanders ought to know about?
No…and I think not.
Was it tricky being a resident of Japan during the Peter Bethune trial?
No, not at all. I think there’s a strong fund of goodwill towards NZ in Japan that seems very resilient. Also, I think Japanese people feel they can’t influence the politics of their own government very much--certainly, not in the direct way we do. Active involvement in politics can come at a high price in a country were you may be stabbed by a rightist, there’s little social welfare and the law is erratic. As a result, for better or worse, ordinary Japanese people often seem very disconnected from politics, which may explain all those Japanese tourists who happily go whale-watching in Kaikoura and then casually watch the minke sushi going round on the conveyor belt in the sushi-bar in Tokyo. It’s often been said that one of the reasons why ordinary Japanese people are honest, intelligent and well behaved is because the Japanese authorities take care of being corrupt, stupid and immoral for them.
What are your current research interests and plans?
I’m working on a novel, and have been for a long time, which means that everything else in life is just displacement activity.
Footnote: since we've been talking about whaling, I wanted to recommend an opinion piece which Dougal McNeill, another Kiwi writer who has sojourned in Japan, published recently in the Japan Times. Dougal's argument that the anti-whaling movement has a 'racist undercurrent' seems all too credible to me, especially given some of the nasty rhetoric that the anti-whalers used back in 2006.