Antony Millen of Taumarunui was runner-up of the 2016 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency in Association with The Spinoff Award – and used his time at the spacious and splendid Grey Lynn hotel to write 28,000 words of his next YA novel. Yowsa!
My Surrey Hotel writing residency really started and ended on the train to Auckland. I live in Taumarunui, and needed to travel south to board the Kiwirail train at National Park station before heading north. Still, this meant I could listen to Kiwirail’s audio commentary about the King Country and travel over the Raurimu Spiral for the first time. It also meant I had more time to write while on board — and write I did, completing an entire draft of an essay I’d been struggling with. I put my head down in Ongarue and finished the draft by Hamilton.
The location of the Surrey couldn’t have been more idyllic for me – a church for Mass over the weekend, the wonderful Grey Lynn library with Arch Hill park behind it, and the shops round the corner including a Countdown and, of course, the Dominoes at which I was obliged to buy my spectacular $5 value pizzas as part of the residency award prize pack. I recommend the garlic and mozzarella.
Grey Lynn was an experience in itself. Behind my flat, every night without fail, a woman stood on the corner of Coleridge and Crummer, caterwauling at the top of her lungs. At first I was certain she had escaped from some facility, and she may have, but upon further inspection (peering from behind the safety of my curtains) I read some words adorning a huge smock she wore like a canvas sandwich board, reading, “1 rule 4 Who?” So, she was protesting something. I began to look forward to her appearance each night, and found I could write better with her serenading nearby.
And write I did. More than 28,000 words in all, over half the intended length of this novel’s first draft. It was an incredible opportunity and I was not going to waste it. A routine developed: breakfast at the Surrey, skip over to the library and take care of correspondence, including updating Steve Braunias on my word count (He didn’t ask for this, but welcomed it and always provided cheer-leading support and advice), and return to my room around noon, and write in 1500 word blocks with breaks for junk food, V8 juice, and coffee. I wrote as late as I could, often past midnight.
Writing in this fashion was new to me. It’s something every writer dreams about when you’re squeezing in hours around your work and home life. At the same time, it was not possible for me to write non-stop and, without family matters or work tasks or Netflix, what was I to do with the time between sessions? I listened to the caterwauling protestor. I watched a man pace up and down the sidewalk for 25 minutes yelling over the phone, defending his performance as a father. I opened the front door to appreciate the hail falling one evening. Sometimes, I just paced and imagined myself to be a wise hermit atop my little perch, communing with my inner spirit and the energies of the universe drawn to my creative enterprise in Grey Lynn.
The lesson I learned is that the person you are at home is the same person you will be during the residency. Often, I feel that my job as a teacher, my role as a husband, my standing as a resident of Taumarunui, are all manifestations of myself in this life that sometimes mask the real me, and that time on my own, hermitted away with only my thoughts and my choices will enable me to discover more about myself and lead to a higher level of self-actualisation.
It turned out that all the anxieties, ambitions, delusions of grandeur, penchants for reflection, propensities for procrastination, and every other aspect of my personality accompanied me to Grey Lynn. I am thankful for this revelation. It means I can stop deluding myself when I return to ordinary life.
Oh, and if you ever stay at the Surrey Hotel, ask after my book, Te Kauhanga.