Monday, 7 March 2016

Dad Art – an interview with Damien Wilkins

Dad Art is Damien Wilkins eighth novel. It will be launched on Thursday 10 March during Writers Week in Wellington.

Damien Wilkins (Grant Maiden photography)

I heard I rumour you wrote this book in a matter of weeks? How did you do that? What influence did this rapid writing have on the shape of the book?

If I knew how I did it, I’d do it all the time. At the moment I’m not sure if it was a lightning strike or a working method. But let me just praise speed for a moment. I teach creative writing and one of the themes of that world is that it’s very hard to write a book. You’re working with people for whom writing is new. They struggle. You struggle with their struggle. I believe in that struggle. But there are other ways to go about things. I was impressed that César Aira says he never revises. He’s published something like eighty books. The other thing on my mind was the work of painter Euan Macleod. I’d written a piece for Art New Zealand on his big retrospective show. One thing amazed me: the speed of his composition. I really envy painters their brushes and their splatter, their approximateness. Language isn’t paint. It’s a world of care and creeping along. But what would it be like to run ahead instead of go my usual sideways?

My one rule was that the action of the book had be commensurate with the time in which I was writing it—meaning the main character and I lived through the same day, the same news cycle, the same weather. Which, come to think of it, makes it sound like a diary. It has more shape than that. Anyway I wanted it to be unabashed about its contemporaneity. Partly that was helpful in overthrowing the disabling idea that I was writing A NOVEL. People can start to stiffen up when they think of writing a novel, as if you’re entering a fancy Great Hall with Henry James at the top table—mentally you put on a bowtie, your best shoes. No, I was just writing. When I sent it to Fergus, my publisher, I said it was ‘ranty’. By the way, I do actually have Henry James at the top table.

Dad Art takes as its main character a recently divorced, white, middle-aged, middle-class man – who is very aware of his middle-ness and tries to open himself up to new experiences by taking Te Reo classes, trying out online dating. Michael’s certainly quite self-aware of where he sits in society, and his daughter’s art project goes someway to upsetting his perch a little. Was the ‘middle-class/age’ issue very much on your mind as you wrote this?

Yeah it’s a great burden to be the repository of so much historical advantage! The world needs more novels from dudes like me.

Actually what interests me is the dynamism of New Zealand society, the feeling that things aren’t static. I’m talking about changes in the wider culture and the ways they register in our lives. Our national life turns out to be very much like our private life in that the things a lot of us want ‘to put behind us’ are exactly the things that keep popping up. Let me give you a tiny example which doesn’t come from the world of politics or talkback. Last week my father-in-law stayed with us. He’s a retired South Canterbury farmer who left school at age 15. He was in Wellington to attend the Edinburgh Tattoo with his daughter and was in a suit and tie—unusual for him. Before they left for the event, he showed me the tie which had a pattern vaguely like a koru. ‘This is pretty cultural, isn’t it,’ he said. Then at the Tattoo there was a moment when the large choir sang ‘Pokarekare Ana’, and my wife turned to look at him and he was wiping away a tear. I don’t want to be silly about it but I do think that the path from his slightly uneasy joke about the tie to his helpless emotional response to the song describes a dynamic that’s worth thinking about, even dramatising. I think that would make a very New Zealand short story. My father-in-law, like me, lives a basically contented life with a pulsing vein of anxiety; or maybe we both live basically anxious lives with a pulsing vein of contentment. Anyway, this is the sort of territory I was trying to get at in Dad Art—the push and pull of change; how, for instance, a big idea such as biculturalism shows up in what we say to each other about some tie we had to put on for a show.

Your writing in this novel is funny and I’m always interested in how writers approach humour – it’s not something you want to come at head-on, I reckon. Is humour an important part of what you want in a novel?

It’s an important part of what I want from life. I remember Colm Tóibín at the Auckland Writers Festival saying that in his family you could be the worst person, a real reprobate with a very bad history, but the greatest crime was to be boring; that was unforgiveable. I’m with him. My favourite fiction doesn’t have to be ‘a laugh riot’—Herta Müller and Christa Wolf aren’t full of jokes—but I think the best novels dissolve solemnity. It’s something to do with fiction’s relationship to authority. Power of course doesn’t like humour. A national flag can’t be funny. (Dad Art features a running gag about the flag debate.)

Your last novel, Max Gate, was set in the early part of the 20th century but you generally focus on contemporary times, like you do in Dad Art. What have you noticed as the differences or restraints between writing ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ fiction, aside from the research you might have to do for historical fiction? Do you have a preference for contemporary settings?

The difference is this: you don’t need to get anything right in historical fiction; whereas you need to get everything right in a contemporary story.

One of my favourite passages about fiction comes from Charles Newman, who was my workshop teacher at Washington University for a semester back in the early 90s. He wrote a great bad-tempered book of criticism called The Post-Modern Aura. In it he talks about fiction’s uniqueness being that it remains ‘ineffably amateur’: ‘It violates every principle by which responsible interpreters try to legitimize a subject matter by limiting its scope and thus make it epistemologically responsible.’ Newman says that fiction doesn’t limit itself in advance. That’s why it’s amateur—it’s sloppy and that’s its strength. In Montaigne’s words, you’re ‘an investigator without knowledge’. I re-read this passage regularly whenever I feel too dumb to write something. What did I know about Thomas Hardy? Who cares! I am an investigator without knowledge! However, I always notice that Newman is no simple cheerleader for the imagination’s wildness. He points out that because fiction can’t limit itself in advance, it has what he calls ‘an unprededented failure rate’. Yep.

Dad Art is available for purchase at good bookshops and through our online bookstore from Thursday 10 March. p/b, $30.

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