Murdoch Stephens from the anarchist publishing firm Lawrence & Gibson,on working with Brannavan Gnanalingam, a finalist in tonight’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards.
Some of our authors come to us with a title that encapsulates the concept of their book and which we’re instantly sure of: Milk Island was an example of a title arriving perfectly, as was On the conditions and possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her Young Lover. Those books’ very existence began with a title which was also a concept: the plot would unfold from that very fixed idea crystallised in the title.
Brannavan Gnanalingam has never worked like that. From the publisher’s vantage point, I see Brannavan as someone who always has a concept he wants to explore and who sets his characters from there. These characters are given something like a dossier: back stories, education and career highlights, quirks and other qualities. Or, in You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here, it was his experience of being a Francophile but feeling unwelcomed by Paris, merged with a broad reading of the history of that city, that created what I like to call New Zealand’s greatest second-person novel.
When I think of editing with Brannavan I think of sharing pints of bitter at Crumpet in Wellington and dredging our minds for a title to his latest work. We’ll sit back on their cane chairs, stare out to Manners St as the buses hurry by and the public servants walk home and throw around ideas. The majority of his book titles have come from these exchanges: a book about a failed and fraudulent finance company in a fictional South Canterbury town got the sobriquet Credit in the Straight World during a session at Crumpet – with a nod to Young Marble Giants.
It was also where we fished up the title Sodden Downstream. The title was dredged from the waterlogged feeling of the Wellington province after significant rainfall (as well as that of a country over-saturated by National’s recent reign).
The real joy of Sodden Downstream was in walking from the Hutt to Wellington with Bran. This was the key scene from the novel and we thought the stroll might help his writing of this section. I hadn’t grown up in Wellington and Bran had never done the walk before, but it seemed like something we might have done if we’d been friends in high school – a desperate trek into the city to some party of a friend of a friend. When we walked in it was June, a day of rain had ended and we had a six pack to keep us company. The night was almost warm, and the wind almost gentle, which made it a pleasant journey – unlike the one taken by Sita in the novel.
There’s little more pleasurable for me as a publisher than getting drunk with an author and coming up with a name for their next great thing. Some of the titles for his books were phrases from the proposed novel, see You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here. Twice (twice!) he has tried to convince me of using a French title for his novel. While it would cheer both our continental leanings to do so, as well as the anti-commercial spirit of Lawrence & Gibson, I’ve never quite been able to accept his challenge.
How would it sell, Bran, how would it sell?
Over the seven years of being his publisher I’ve slowly got to know the Brannavan behind his works. The first thing many people notice is that Brannavan is a phenomenally productive human. Hell, I do a lot with the publishing, double the refugee quota campaign and completing a PhD all at the same time, but Brannavan’s ability to get shit done is impressive. He excels at his full time job as a lawyer at Buddle Findlay, has had five books published in seven years, is raising a daughter with his wife, Alida, and still goes out to gigs, films and parties. He’s one of the most informed people I know on politics and beltway gossip, as well as keeping up a constant stream of reading of new novels and political philosophy.
He’s travelled a lot of the world too – from Central Asia to the Caucasus and West Africa. And apparently he even sleeps – though I have heard anecdotes of him sitting up in bed to write as his partner drifts off. Much of Sodden Downstream was apparently written from a hotel bathroom in Lisbon so his tapping would not disturb his toddler sleeping in the next room.
The acknowledgements at the back of Sodden Downstream offer a rich insight into the book’s creation. I’m humbled that he wrote that the book was his contribution to the double the refugee quota campaign. While he has sometimes been described as a refugee in the press, Bran did not actually come to New Zealand as an asylum seeker or a quota refugee. He immigrated as a boy, grew up in the Hutt, and as the acknowledgement to his family reads, they “had to decipher this country together”.
An editor has an unspoken pact with the author to never reveal any of the clangers that they prevented from going into the book. Our job is to be invisible. Brannavan has never needed an enormous amount of editing of his work because (a) he is fairly meticulous in his own editing and (b) he also works with among others, Robyn Kenealy, to edit his text into shape. So while there might be some changes, it is fairly rare for the plot to arrive incomplete.
That’s not to say we’ve accepted all of his books – there is an unpublished novel out there which I thought needed some substantial changes. But Bran was very accepting of those criticisms and the book was that difficult second one. Maybe it’ll appear some day in the future – hell, everyone’s gotta have an unpublished oeuvre for the estate to rifle through after their demise.
When a book arrives without excessive complication the editing process sometimes slips into a straight reading and enjoyment. Pages pass with few little red bubbles that indicate an editorial comment. This works for Bran as neither of us are perfectionists: I’m grateful to receive a fully formed work; he’s grateful to not have substantial changes to make.
Good enough is good enough for us when it comes to correct grammar and sentence structure. We’re far more interested in the richness of language and conceptual acuity than the Chicago Manual of Style. We’re also more interested in thematic coherency and intellectual rigour than in a perfect sentence. Just as you don’t need permission or a degree to write a book, nor do you need anything other than the love of books to become a publisher. There are institutions that offer degrees in writing and publishing and they lead to some great work, but if punk and independent music taught me anything, it was that you don’t need the major labels to make art that will endure.
I’ll be sitting with Bran, Alida and friends at tonight’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards, hoping he scoops the Acorn Foundation fiction prize. As for his next book, we’re sharing reading suggestions, plot lines and related political notions with the hope of a 2019 release. As of publication of this article, it remains untitled.
Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam (Lawrence & Gibson, $29) is available from Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.