Auckland writer Dean Parker backgrounds the making of his novel – a kind of sequel to a classic of New Zealand fiction, Man Alone.
I started writing my novel Johnson in 2008. Originally it carried the more effusive title, Hooray, Fuck.
I know the year when I started it because of the date on an early file on my computer. But the file date doesn’t tell me why I started it. I guess it would have been one of those occasions when I got fed up with playwrighting, fed up with rattling my tin cup outside the stage door, fed up with that crushing feeling of imposing on busy people.
Some 45 years ago I picked up a pleasant job—pleasant enough—standing on the line at Gordon & Gotch, the magazine distributors. There was an old bloke there who would come in for a few hours a week and fold into quarters the large glossy posters that would go out with bundles of magazines, the posters you see standing in wire frames outside dairies. Part of my job was to include so many posters per lot of magazines being sent out. It was an irksome task which I alleviated by simply dumping most of the folded posters in a large industrial waste bin. One day the old bloke who did the folding came in and found the posters dumped in the bin. He went away and never returned.
I’ve always had the feeling with my writing that I’m being eternally paid back for that particular cruelty. I actually once had a fellow-writer come up to me and say, “Read an interesting script of yours, Dean. Found it sticking out of a waste bin on West End Road.”
I’ve seen Tom Stoppard quoted as saying, “To be a playwright is to have your heart broken every day.” You could argue that’s a good thing for playwrights and their precious little hearts, but it could never happen here, for here the first requirement of a playwright’s survival is a heart of stone.
Thus it was I would have started writing Hooray, Fuck / Johnson, fed up with my dumb life playwrighting. Hooray Fuck / Johnson was to be the ambitious sequel to John Mulgan’s classic Man Alone, whose movie rights according to New Zealand legend (Ian Mune) were once held by the blacklisted Hollywood director Joseph Losey. I figured, why not start at the top? Carry on where Mulgan left off?
Mulgan was awarded the Military Cross for outstanding bravery in World War II. He fought in Greece, and took his own life in Cairo. But he’s not the most endearing of blokes. He could be priggish and Protestant. When at university his girlfriend collapses drunkenly into him and says she’s in love with him, what does he do? Says, “Steady on, old girl.” Which seemed pretty characteristic of his dealings with women. A dud root, if ever there was. And when he goes into army camp in the Six Counties at the start of the war, who does he befriend? The Royal Ulster Constabulary, biggest, thuggest, sectarian paramilitary grouping in the north of Ireland.
But Mulgan as a writer is a different kettle of fish. So lucid and unaffected. So honest. So dogged. The sort of writer you’d never find at a Readers’ and Writers’ Festival.
There are pages in Man Alone which unleash the quite extraordinary: the description of the 1932 Queen Street hunger riot, the account of a heart-of-darkness journey in winter onto the Rangipo plateau; above all, the dreadful monologue delivered by the tramp in the box-car south of Huntly, as dramatic as anything you’d hear on the New Zealand stage.
I carried out the necessary research. The story was all go. But it came to a halt. The reason was a familiar combination of factors: a loss of confidence and a loss of direction. To be fair, there was one other factor, a very welcome factor that was becoming increasingly unfamiliar: and that was suddenly being offered a good paying job for TV.
I put the novel aside for a month or two and, inevitably, the months drifted into years and I came to look upon the chapters I had written as a useful warning that anything outside of the length of a playscript was beyond me. I didn’t think I’d be returning. And then the frustrations of writing for theatre came down upon me once more, like crows at dusk.
In the 12 months of 2015 I’d written an awful lot of drama—including a stage adaptation of Man Alone—and no one seemed interested. Of course there always lurks a very good reason why theatres may not be particularly interested in one’s relentless output and I’m well aware of this, but I felt once more it was time to take a break from Act I, scene i. I’d finished the last draft of a really interesting TV job, the first to come my way in seven years, and there’d be a few months before any decision was made on that, so the immediate time ahead was my own.
The first movie job I’d ever had was an adaptation of Came A Hot Friday that I did with Ian Mune, and Ian would pick out a scene I’d done with dialogue sprawled over several pages and ask me, “What is the key line? What is the one line of dialogue this scene cannot do without? That’s all we need.” There is so much compression that goes into a screenplay. So much is unsaid. And, as a writer, you learn from this.
I returned to these chapters I’d written, chapters I’d felt were going nowhere. Sometime into 2016 I had done about 10,000 words and happened to get an email from an old friend, Roger Steele, who runs the Wellington publishers Steele-Roberts. He was in the process of publishing a couple of plays of mine, a process that characteristically takes him two years.
When Roger emailed, I asked him if he were interested in reading a book I was writing. At this time I was writing Johnson simply for my own pleasure and not with any determined view to publication. Well, not serious publication. I thought I might print off a few copies myself and pass them round friends. That’s if I actually finished it. I had a friend who’d been working on a book for 12 years with absolutely no end in sight but it allowed him to make exits with the refrain, “Must leave you; working on my book.” Reminded me of an old joke about a merchant who returns home with a crate of tomatoes. One of his children filches a tomato and bites into it and lets out a loud wail: “These tomatoes are rotten!” The merchant responds in horror: “Those tomatoes aren’t for eating! They’re for buying and selling!” Similarly some books aren’t for publishing, they’re for writing and researching.
Roger politely responded that he was always interested in anything I was writing. I sent him the 10,000 words on a Friday afternoon and had a form-reply saying that I’d hear back from him in due course. Early the following morning, Saturday morning, I opened my emails and discovered a message from him which went along the lines of, “Fuck, Dean! What happens next? I’ve got to know! Send more!”
David Hare talks of the best type of writer’s agent: the one who gets a script late one evening and at 2am the following morning rings you with a deluge of enthusiasm. My experience of most New Zealand theatres is you’d be lucky to get a reply.
But to return to Roger and my 10,000 words—I had to say to him that there was, in fact, no more.
I have a tiny office space that I rent at the Auckland Trades Hall on Great North Road and I leave home and walk there every day like a normal person. The desk I have there I assembled from a Warehouse Stationery kit. To its left hangs a painted bamboo curtain, partly covering an open-plan entrance through which a nun used to appear. To the right is a window that gazes at a blank five-storey wall rising up like a vast Imax screen.
The computer on my desk doesn’t have a modem, so I dwell in myself like a rook in an unroofed tower (to quote Seamus Heaney) and can’t be distracted from the writing task in hand.
That task, in the case of finishing Johnson, was to do a steady 500 words a day between 9am and 12noon. At midday I’d do a wordcount and if I’d written only 482 words, I’d stick around until I’d come up with another 18.
In the past my writing office was downtown and I would have lunch in a nearby cheap Chinese eatery. One day the owner asked me what I did. I said I was a writer. He asked he how much I wrote each day. I gave the automatic reply, “Five hundred words.” He went away and must have picked up a magazine and counted out 500 words because the following day he came back up to me and said, “That’s a good job.” (I remember my good friend and fellow scribbler Geoff Chapple telling me of being approached at a Chinese Embassy reception in Wellington and asked if he would write a children’s book on Rewi Alley. “How many words?” said Geoff. The functionary disappeared, then returned with, “Hard to say. Some English words are very big. Some are very small.”)
But you do 500 words a day, they mount up and, encouraged by Roger’s response, I tapped away at my grubby keyboard and when I’d turned out a further 40,000—half a book—I sent them off to Wellington. Roger flew up and shouted me lunch in SPQR on Ponsonby Rd, a café I go to because Tom Scott always takes me there and charms the waiters who in turn associate me with him and are always pleasant to me. Or maybe they’re just pleasant to me because they all know they’ll get an enthusiastic response to their luring question, “Another glass, sir?”
I actually live in the neighbourhood of SPQR having, 35 years ago, with Isabel, purchased the worst house in possibly the worst street—decaying, semi-industrial. Cost us $48,000 and I’m sure we could have bargained it down to a fraction of that figure, but we weren’t very property-savvy. Of course the dilapidated dwelling is now Minutes Away From A Lifestyle—that is, it’s in the vicinity of SPQR—and worth $48billion. So when Roger offered me an advance to prevent me running off to Penguin, I simply wrote and signed a napkin saying that the book was his and I didn’t want an advance, for what is a publisher’s paltry offering to a $48billion Ponsonby property owner?
In all, the writing took me six months. I had to take a couple of weeks off in the middle to write a further draft of the TV feature I’d been working on. This was a dangerous break as when I returned I re-read what I’d written and lost confidence immediately. As other writers will tell you, any form of sustained writing is a process of holding your nerve.
But I dutifully put my head down, did my 500 words and the following day another 500 and that is how the book came to be written, a piece of pre-postmodernism told to us by the same unnamed narrator confided in by Johnson in Man Alone, humble in style, lacking in irony or cleverness, with some occasional flights of fancy to liven things up and the odd brilliant passage lifted verbatim from Mulgan.
Once it was written and handed over, I waited to hear from Roger. After a silence that was reaching theatrical proportions, I emailed him and got back the reply, “I’m in the Azores, Dean. We must have a meeting.” I had to get my atlas out.
What’s so wonderful about the experience of writing a book is the gentleness of losing yourself in it. When you’re writing a playscript, you’re writing with the accelerator flat to the floor. You don’t ease off. Drama is unrelenting. You’re always inside someone’s head, making choices. With prose, it’s different. You can ease off, look about the countryside, change gear, cruise. “What country, pray, is this…?” Such fun.
I read somewhere of Anthony Burgess being asked if he’d ever write a play and replying he was interested in “what happens between the dialogue” and that this was what made him a novelist. Of course, in one way playwrights are just as interested in what happens between the dialogue. But what Burgess was talking about was not silence but a flow of words. Finish a play, you’re exhausted; you’ve actually worked yourself up into a sweat. Finish a book, you’re deeply contented.
When I set to with Johnson, I set to methodically as I would a play. Now, looking back, I’m stunned at the breathtaking freedom I was presented with. Writing for theatre you’re always aware of practical constraints. The budget. The balances round credibility. The limits that possible audience confusion places on the speed of story-telling.
With novels these constraints evaporate like morning mist and you are free to conjure up what you like at will. Every dimension is yours to play with. And the more you get into your sorcery, the more exhilarating it becomes.
I remember my time with books as one of the best I’ve had and when with wearied heart I returned to the ritual humiliation of rattling my tin cup outside the silent stage door, I felt nostalgic for those six months of pure pleasure.
Johnson by Dean Parker (Steele Roberts, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.