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Book of the week: the Spinoff live email interview with Adam Dudding

Steve Braunias conducts the live email interview – the revolutionary journalistic practise trailblazed exclusively by the Spinoff Review of Books – with journalist and author Adam Dudding. Feature image credit: Noah Ferguson-Dudding.

Adam Dudding is a feature journalist with the Sunday Star-Times, and his first book My Father’s Island was longlisted on Tuesday morning for the 2017 Ockham national book awards. He’s one of New Zealand’s most pleasing writers – he has an easy, amusing style, a light touch, a cheerful intelligence. The writing is the writer: he’s one of the nicest guys in New Zealand letters, sunny, well-balanced, equanimous, who doesn’t have a bad word for anyone except, on occasional reflection, himself.

He’s also a natural story teller. His book is the story he lived: it’s a memoir centred on his eccentric, foreboding, culturally significant father Robin Dudding, who founded the exceptional literary journal Islands. The dad sacrificed conventional New Zealand life to publish his quarterly journal; the son writes about his strange upbringing in a tumble-down home in Torbay, where his parents slept in the lounge and the toilet was an outhouse. Money was short, and so, increasingly, as Islands slowly collapsed, was Robin Dudding’s temper.

Much of the book is an inquiry into folly and failure. But the last thing anyone would say about My Father’s Island is that it’s a dark book. It’s possibly even a feel-good book. To be precise it’s an intimate and affectionate portrait of family life, sometimes moving, very funny, and the pacing of it requires that you stay with it to the end. Reviewers and normal people love it. No one has ever had a family quite like the Dudding family but everyone can relate to the book’s portrayal of parents and children trying to get along in a Kiwi landscape of school, beach, and vegetable garden. It’s shot into the best-seller lists of Unity, the independent booksellers chart, and the Neilsen general release chart. The first print run has already sold out, and it won’t be a surprise if a third run is whistled up before Christmas.

And so to the Spinoff live email interview with the author, conducted on Tuesday night for close on four hours. Dudding got in a sleep before the interview began at 8pm. He tires easily and jogs constantly. Two beers and he’s the life of the party, three beers and he’s under the table. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore with his wife and two children, has won numerous awards as a journalist, and was born in 1970. 

Adam Dudding, welcome to the live email interview, the practice which has the potential to revolutionise journalism or what’s left of it, and let me immediately offer you congratulations on your book My Father’s Island being longlisted for the 2017 Ockham national book awards. Only a week or so ago you were presented with the 2016 Wintec Press Club Best Writer in New Zealand Journalism Award. You are quite plainly on a roll and it’s all due to your continuing and indeed rapidly developing excellence as a writer of non-fiction.

Because the thing is – you haven’t been writing all that many years, have you? I first came across you around about 2005, and you were a section editor at the Sunday Star-Times, someone who seemed to be coasting, sitting around in a comfortable desk-job, not getting their hands dirty. You hadn’t come from a writing background and I assumed the paper just liked having you around. Everyone remarked on your charm and your affable manner. But then you seemed to throw it all away and venture out as a writer. What happened? Was there a leap of faith?

It was a minor mealtime epiphany that started it. I was at a dinner with SST people, sitting next to the then-editor Cate Brett, and she said I seemed a bit bored in my work. I said uh yeah, I guess I might be, and then went home and lay in bed thinking yeah I am really bored, and I’m a little sick of putting headlines on other people’s stories (which I was good at), and of commissioning stories (which I wasn’t very good at), and the bit I liked most was rewriting bad stories till they were better, so perhaps I should have a bash at writing things myself. So around 2am I wrote a slightly delirious email to Cate saying I reckon I could be a feature writer with a bit of practice, so will you please let me have a go.

I had to wait for the next time there was a spare role for a writer, and a spare body to take over from me, and for Xmas to come and go, but after about four months of anxious waiting I shuffled sideways, and then Cate and Donna Chisholm started sending me off to do some reporting, which was something mostly alien to me but which I found I liked a lot. There were a lot of things I didn’t know, like where story ideas come from, or how to do shorthand, or how to make people answer questions if they didn’t want to.

Interesting. So there was no standard journalism background, no polytech course, no roundsman work at a provincial newspaper where you drank pints in strange towns – it’s like you stumbled into it, and I think this says something about your character that emerges in the book, which of course is about you as much as it’s about Robin. What I mean is that the Adam in the book seems such a diffident fellow. Is that you? There does seem to be a supreme and over-riding diffidence about you. Why is that?

Well, there is a little bit of career development missing in that précis: I did pay my dues in the UK, working on a tiny local, then a midsize provincial, then large UK papers, with much beer along the way, just it was as a subeditor/production journalist rather than a reporter.

But I did feel quite ambivalent about what I was doing with my life and career for much of my 20s and I certainly didn’t feel that journalism, or even writing, was something I had a burning desire to be doing. Which is why when I realised on October 18 2005 (I’ve just found the email I wrote Cate) that I was actually quite excited by the idea of writing, I thought aha! this is a strong feeling so I should probably act on that, because for me strong feelings don’t come along that often. Perhaps that diffidence you see is an expression of my general under-excitability.

But also, when writing in the first person you get to choose how you’re going to present yourself: how honest, how modest, how self-flattering, how self-revealing. Perhaps as I tried to find the right balance I ended up over-stating the diffidence…Hmmm.

Kevin Ireland, a visitor from Hawkes Bay and Robin Dudding up to no good one night in Auckland, c1956 (Image: supplied)

Kevin Ireland, a visitor from Hawkes Bay and Robin Dudding up to no good one night in Auckland, c1956 (Image: supplied)

No, I think you got the diffidence about right; that’s the Adam I know; and it’s interesting that you mention the word “ambivalence” just now. The man who had no ambition, the man who sailed along, for whom “strong feelings don’t come along that often.” There has always been this kind of surface amiability about you. Which isn’t something I would ever have said about Robin. Is your manner a reaction to his heaviness of spirit? The other thing though is you’re now, what, in your 40s; what ways are you turning into your father?

I don’t think my amiability is a reaction to anything in particular; some character settings are just how you are, aren’t they? Mum says I was a very contented kind of kid. But yeah, Dad was awfully grumpy for quite a few years, and horrid to my Mum, and certainly from my teens onwards I was conscious of trying to avoid being too much like the bits I didn’t like.

As I hit my mid-40s (same age as when Dad got seriously gloomy) I wondered if I would turn into the version of him that he became, but I think I’ve avoided it mostly. We share a sense of humour, and a certain cynicism, and I inherited a lot of his tastes: Charlie Brown comics and Kinky Friedman books, but I’m a lot less anxious a person than he was, which spares me many of the stresses which brought out his darker side.

I worked with Robin long before I met you, and you describe his years at the Listener, but I just want to say to you how hugely respected he was by the writing staff. I mean it was just amazing to enter the sub-editing room and there was Kevin Ireland, one of the finest poets in NZ, and Robin, who had a kind of legendary status as the former editor of Islands and such. They were like sleepy demi-gods – Kevin actually snored off quite a lot at his desk.

You write in the book about interviewing people such as Bill Manhire, who tell you how brilliant Robin was as a literary editor. Was it becoming clearer to you during the research just how valued and admired he was? Are you proud of him? And to add a question to that: was he proud of your own writing? Had you started to write the really terrific things published in the SST before he died, and had he read them? Robin was a man of few words of praise; having a compliment from him would have meant a lot.

Sleepy demigods. I like that. Yeah I knew how much he was respected at the Listener. I always knew that Dad had been and perhaps was still a big deal in the literary world, but with being busy with my own life, and living in another country, and seeing he hadn’t actively done anything very dramatic for years, it sort of slipped my mind.

So it was a huge pleasure when researching the book to gain a broader perspective of his significance, as an editor and publisher. I learnt a great deal from talking to the likes of Manhire, or Ian Wedde, or Patrick Evans, but it was also fantastic going through Dad’s correspondence – thousands of letters where he’s having these intensely engaged, but  also funny and touching and personal, interactions with all these artists and writers. The 1950s and 1960s in particular had been distant history as I grew up so there was a lot I didn’t know about.

I was always quietly proud that he’d been someone of note, and it was lovely to learn about it more fully. And I asked the same question of everyone in those interviews, to try and make sure I wasn’t just getting platitudes: so was Robin Dudding really such a big deal? And yeah, it felt nice when everyone said yes, he was, actually.

My own writing? He was extremely encouraging and nice about everything I did – that was one of the things about him as an editor in general wasn’t it, bringing people along, encouraging them. He nudged me into writing a few stories and reviews for New Zealand publications while I was still in the UK, and I’d show him drafts and he’d make useful suggestions, which I’d take.

But no, he died before I’d started really getting the hang of feature writing. Several times in the past few years I’ve thought – Oh I wish I could show Dad this, he’d probably appreciate it – and felt a bit sad that I couldn’t.

Robin Dudding with his beloved journal Islands (Image: Adam Dudding)

Robin Dudding on  a good day (Image: Adam Dudding)

“A bit sad that I couldn’t” – that brought a tear to my eye. And while you were in your North Shore home replying to that last question, I was fishing about in my Te Atatu home for old copies of Islands, and one I found was from June 1981 – DOUBLE ISSUE, it says grandly on the front, and there’s a note from Robin on the very last page in which he mutters, “’Quarterly’ as a description of Islands’ publication pattern has been less than accurate recently…The lateness is mainly due to the need to reduce indebtedness…There isn’t a simple solution…We shall keep trying.” And it’s desperately sad because the journal was a doomed enterprise, it later collapsed or just sort of didn’t get out of bed, and that failure was surely central to his breakdown or whatever gloom he fell into. The sense of futility: all those years of intense engagement, of bringing out beautiful little literary objects, and for what?

And that issue, June 1981, there you were, 10 or 11 or something I guess, probably unaware that the whole Islands edifice was sinking into the sands of Torbay. My Father’s Island is a lovely, gentle, fascinating, artful book, but it’s primarily, I think, a sad book, isn’t it?

I was 10 or 11 but not at all unaware, because the production of Islands was pretty thoroughly woven into the fabric of life at 4 Sealy Rd, Torbay. When there was an edition going out there’d be a couple of thousand copies of Islands in the living room being bundled up in white envelopes for the single issues, and brown paper parcels for the bulk orders. I licked a lot of stamps (actually that’s not true, they were preprinted with postage paid, but you get the idea). Also, we kids were proofreading all the journals with Dad in his office at home. So we were pretty conscious of missed deadlines, and we could see in his office, the foot-high piles of incoming correspondence, and the souring mood.

So yeah, it is a sad book, because it’s about things falling apart, and about failure. I worried about that a bit at the planning stage, because I didn’t especially want to add to the crowded bookshelf of downbeat, gloomy, NZ Lit. But I figured there were many funny things, and lovely things, and moments of grace, that might mean it could be sad but not necessarily depressing.

Plus also I can’t see you doing depressing any more than I can see you writing assassinations of people. Which isn’t to say you’re bland or anything like that, but once again I’m reminded of your seeming ambivalence and ingrained, protective, slightly arrogant diffidence. The man who couldn’t be bothered being depressed or having “strong emotions”.  

Now the problem with all this diffidence going on is that it can lead to heartlessness; and I have to say I was really shocked at the part in your book where you describe your mum and dad about to visit you in Britain, and you kind of off-handedly telling your girlfriend that your relationship with her wasn’t worth the candle and was, accordingly, over.

It’s a deeply personal revelation, all the more so because of course you got back together, married, have children, live the good life on the North Shore – it’s a skeleton that you could have kept in the closet, but didn’t; and, yeah, it just seems such heartless behaviour! Are you all good with it appearing in the book, in public? Is it a secret shame, revealed?

Am I all good with all that appearing? Not exactly. It is indeed a secret shame revealed, but I revealed it because if I was going to be honest about Dad – and especially the domestic unpleasantness of the 1980s — I didn’t want to do it from some pious moral high ground. I’ve done things I’m ashamed of, so talking about one of them with the same frankness that I applied to Dad’s story felt like it was balancing something out.

I think it was Blake Morrison who said something very similar about this book And When Did You Last See Your Father, which I read with close attention: if he was going to betray his father he had to betray himself also.

As for my heartlessness in the first place? I think (hope?) everyone has done things they’re not proud of, and I think I was slightly more tortured and self-flagellating and unhappy about it all than you might think from the way it’s told in the book. This is non-fiction, but you still get to choose what to put in and leave out as you figure out how to tell a story.

And there were other little reasons, aesthetic I guess, why I included that story: the echoes between the horridness of the father and of the son were structurally interesting;  awful events and first-person confessional are compelling to read; there’s a  slightly mysterious instinct you develop when you’ve been writing for a while that tells you that here is the right place to throw in a powerful word or sentence or paragraph because it will make the right shape or rhythm.

Robin Dudding dressed for work (Image: Adam Dudding)

Robin Dudding dressed for work (Image: Adam Dudding)

Haw I can imagine Robin reading that last part of your answer (“a slightly mysterious instinct”), and sneering: “Bullshit!”

Anyway, Jesus, all this “me, me, me!” business! You and your “I revealed it”, “I’m ashamed”, “I think…” Memoir can be so monstrously self-involved, can’t it? And then there’s the whole thing of roping in other people’s lives, and stories – the story about your temporary break-up is as much your wife’s story as it is yours, and equally the story about your family is a story about your siblings. But the main person captured here of course is Robin. It’s funny – we’ve both gone to the Turnbull or National Library and got staff to retrieve folders on our fathers, and sat there and spied on their past lives. I went there years ago to locate the file the government and the military kept on my father when he was a prisoner of war on Somes Island. Put it this way, if he was still alive he’d probably be cheering for Trump.

Is it an invasion of privacy, do you think, to reveal Robin the way you have done in your book? Is it even worse, a kind of patricide? “Father, I want to kill you!” Or just the old thing of journalists and authors seeing everyone as just material. What d’you think?

Yeah, it’s an invasion of his privacy, and I’m not sure I can provide a decent justification. There’s certainly a bit of the journalist seeing everything as material, but people have been revealing each other’s secrets ever since humans learnt to talk.

It’s definitely not an act of patricide or malice though; I don’t feel I had scores to settle or a father I wanted to kill.

I just realised at some point that there was an interesting story to tell, and part of what made it interesting was the contradictions in there: the publisher of feminist writings who was awful to his wife; the successful man with a knack for self-sabotage and so on. Then I started researching and writing, and waited to see where it took me. If you get too careful about privacy there is no story – just like in journalism.

 I sense a wariness or drowsiness in this answer. Maybe even a hostility, who knows? And so I want to step aside completely from questions about your motives, and return to one of my other themes in this interview – your casual progress through life, your shiftless existence.

Specifically, I wanted to ask you about something you refer to fleetingly in the book. You went on the road in your 20s as the piano player in the cabaret act of Marcus Craig, also known as female impersonator Diamond Lil. Please, tell me more.

Wariness perhaps. I had a dream last week where I was sitting at a table with a bunch of people and was about to read out an extract from my book when I noticed that my father was sitting in the chair to my right and I though “Oh shit. Busted.” If I’m not careful he might visit me again.

But Diamond Lil. Oh Lord. Maybe that’s the next book. It was a gig I inherited from a piano-playing friend at short notice, driving around New Zealand in a van driven by a ferociously grumpy and increasingly unwell Marcus, along with the rest of his troupe – a duo, maybe trio of cabaret singers. My memory of it all is a bit hazy.

I did it for maybe four months, and the longest stint was a three-week tour that took us from Auckland to Invercargill, playing every two-bit RSA and Workingmen’s Club along the way.

I’m not exactly a first-rate piano player so I always muffed a few bits, but it kind of fitted in with the general shambles of the trip: repeated van break-downs, Marcus’s multiple attacks of kidney stones, budget blow-outs and screaming tantrums.

Marcus was an amazingly talented, funny, interesting guy, but I came to utterly detest him because he was (in striking parallel to Dad around the same time actually) a petty tyrant and he was in the twilight of a previously illustrious career. The rest of the crew, I’ve forgotten all the names, were lovely though, and I did develop a huge repertoire of mildly off-colour jokes, and learnt how to play “Hello Dolly”, so it wasn’t all bad.

“Maybe that’s the next book”, you say! Funny you mention it, because I wanted to ask you about that, in a roundabout, preambling way, to close our interview – which started at 8:07pm, and it’s now 11:52pm. The preamble is to do with a bit in the book where Ian Wedde talks to you very admiringly about Robin, about how he set an “example” – that the eccentric, kind of crazy household you grew up in was also noble, that it represented freedom to do what the hell you wanted with your life as a creative, thinking New Zealander. In other words Robin was hugely inspiring, and indeed I think of him sometimes as editor of the Spinoff books section; he once sent me a fabulously generous letter, when I was books editor at the Listener, commending me on the selection of poetry in the magazine. That meant a lot to me and I think of him when I consider the kinds of verse I’m selecting now for the Spinoff, and especially the need to be open to new writers.

You’ve become sort of like Michael J Fox in Family Ties – you  know, the well-heeled, middle-class son of a wildly unconventional parents. But are you inspired by Robin, too? Not in terms of “example” – I can’t see you quitting your job, and living on freshly laid eggs – but in the sense that he obviously saw an importance in devoting his life to literature. Is this something you’d ideally like to do? Hey and: what’s the next book?

That’s such a complicated question it’s quite hard to answer, or maybe it’s just that it’s now 12.05am. Inspired by Dad’s example? Definitely, though largely in ways that aren’t directly to do with a life of literature: his attitude to nature, the way he could treat people (sometimes) with huge kindness and generosity (like that letter to you), his suspicion of bullshit, his distaste for wasteful materialism, his love of reading, the way he related to kids.

Interested in devoting my own life to literature? Maybe. I’ve hugely enjoyed working on this book, partly because I’m coming to really love writing, but also because of the places it took me during the research. But I’m not really interested in starving along the way, because I don’t actually believe that is an essential part of the equation.

The next book? I dunno, but I’m gonna start thinking about that quite hard.


 My Father’s Island (Victoria University Press, $35) by Adam Dudding is available at Unity Books.

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