Katherine Edmond asks her brother about growing up and being a writer. Martin Edmond appears at the Hastings Festival of Writers, March 20 – 22
Ohakune, where we lived as a family for 13 years, features strongly in your writing. Why do you think you have such a strong sense of place about the town?
First impressions are very powerful. George Simenon, the writer of Maigret and many other fine novels, said that we absorb material until age 18, after that it’s just recapitulation. Not sure if I entirely agree with him but the memories I have of growing up in Waimarino County are persistent and emotionally resonant. Once when I nearly died in a dentist’s chair in Sydney, I came back via Ohakune.
I remember much more about our years in Greytown and then in Huntly. You were a little remote from me, you being 3rd and me being 6th and also because you were the only boy among five sisters. What was that like?
It probably augmented my tendecies towards the kind of solitary megalomania that goes to make a writer. But it’s also meant that I enjoy the company of women and have good women friends. Of course, when you’re a kid, you take whatever your circumstances might be as normal. I remember being asked quite often when I was young: What’s it like being the only boy? I used to reply that I didn’t know because I’d never been anything else. Ditto when people asked what was it like being the Headmaster’s son. But I did a lot of solitary roaming as a kid, and later spent lots of time out and about with gangs of boys.
I can remember hiding books that I was reading which I knew wouldn’t make our mother’s grade of ‘good literature’ (like the Bobbsey Twins). Do you think what you read and reading generally when you were young set you up well to be a writer, or was it more what you came to discover yourself?
There’s books that never leave you and often they’re the ones you came to first. We were lucky in that there were always lots of books around. I loved things like Kipling’s Just So Stories and kid’s versions of the Greek myths. It was learning that there were mysteries within as well as without. A lot of my reading, when I was a bit older, came from the library, especially in Greytown. I read whole shelves of Biggles and William books. Rider Haggart too. Mary Renault. I don’t remember being censored, apart from not being allowed to read comics – I got around that by reading them in the local newsagency in Greytown while waiting for copies of the Wairarapa Times Age to arrive from Masterton for my paper run. Maybe the habit of reading is just as important as what you read?
You started out writing poetry, then stopped, but recently published a small volume of poems. Do you think of yourself as a poet?
No, I don’t. But I came across a quote from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry the other week that I like: ‘The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.’ I’m with Percy on that.
What about a film writer?
Despite strenuous efforts over a number of years I don’t feel that I ever really mastered the craft of screenplay writing. And now it’s too late – I’m no longer prepared to put in the huge amount of time and energy required of projects that may never come to fruition.
Actually what kind of writer do you think of yourself as? The genre you mainly write in is hard to categorise – you’ve been described as New Zealand’s most practised boundary blurrer. It’s a mix of memoir, travel, history and imagination. In awards, your books tend to go in the non-fiction or the biography categories. Is there a name for it and if not, what should we call it?
W. G. Sebald, a writer I admire, once described his books as ‘prose works of indeterminate form.’ I like that. There are various other categories people use – literary non-fiction is popular in Australia – but they all sound vaguely apologetic. Or trying to define a form by what it’s not. It’s a vexed area of nomenclature that can’t conceal or explain away a real problem i.e. the increasingly unserviceable distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Two Australian reviewers of Luca Antara insisted that, no matter what I thought I was doing, it was a novel. One hated it and the other loved it. I don’t know how my books should be categorized and in a way I don’t care. The main thing is that they exist.
Where do your projects originate and how do they develop? Luca Antara for example, what set you off exploring that tangent of Australian history?
I was going to write something about the Indian Ocean for Alan Brunton’s imprint, Bumper Books. Then Alan died … I just kept on reading in the area and my fascination grew. Eventually I started to get a sense of the shape of a book. For me that’s the crucial thing – getting a feel for the shape of a book, its length and breadth and height and also how curvaceous or jagged or fragmented or whatever it might be. Sounds odd but I do first see a book as a shape into which some sort of subject matter might be formed. Then the task becomes to make that shape.
You are very revealing about yourself – and sometimes those close to you – in your writing. Do you agonise about this and do you ever feel exposed by people knowing about your life?
My days of telling secrets are over! And anyway I never told the most crucial ones. I made a vow when my sons were born that I wouldn’t write about them or their lives and I’ve kept to that. Also I’m far more careful about family matters generally than I was once. I don’t feel that I expose myself uncomfortably in what I’ve written. The choices about what to reveal and what not are after all my own, and made willingly. Part of the literary endeavour is construction of a public self and I can’t see much point in doing that unless you take a few risks, even if they are only psychic risks. Or maybe they are the biggest risks of all.
Is there a dilemma around showing people what you have written when it is inspired by them or mentions them? Where do your ethics lie in this respect?
It’s always a dilemma. I try to do the right thing, whatever that might be. This next book that’s coming out, The Supply Party, tells about a road trip I made in 2007. I went with a companion, an artist who was going to take photographs for the book, and she appeared in the first draft. I sent it to her to read, as per our agreement, and she gave her consent, but reluctantly I felt. Then the publishers said that there either had to be more of her in it or she had to come out. By that stage I agreed with them and so I took her out. When I told her what I’d done, she was actually grateful – she’d been annoyed that there wasn’t more of her in that first draft and felt absence was better than a half portrait. She was probably right.
Lots has been made by reviewers and interviewers about the fact that you partly support yourself by driving a taxi in Sydney. Do you find it demeaning to have to do a job like that or is it simply the price of being a full time writer?
I mostly dislike taxi driving, while enjoying some of the residuals of the job. It does keep me in touch with some of the many different kinds of people there are, which is probably a good thing, given that too much isolation is a peril of the writer’s life. And I like adding to my knowledge of the intricacies of the psychogeography of a big city, which is a practical infinity. Also it’s one of the few jobs left where you’re free to come and go, to work or not, as you please. But it’s often boring and isn’t very well paid. The somewhat prurient interest some people have in what they see as a romantic occupation never fails to irritate me, though I try not to voice that irritation too often.
Does being a writer involve spending a lot of time alone?
Oh, yes. I’m not one who can write with others around. I have to be alone.
What memories does Hawke’s Bay hold for you?
Many wonderful early memories of summer holidays in Napier. Do you remember? We’d pitch the tent in Kennedy Park and spend the days mostly by the sea – Marine Parade, West Shore, Cape Kidnappers. Napier was my first taste of the exotic. My most compelling memory is of a place called the Iron Pot that was around at the port. Don’t know if it is still there or not. It was a great big oblong dock-like area that was tidal and when the sea drew back all sorts of things were revealed, from old strange bits of iron that were maybe from the whaling days, to creatures like hermit crabs that lived in their rented shells in the mud. I spent many happy hours there exploring with the complete absorption that is the same kind of concentration that writing comes out of.
Do you like taking the stage at events like the Hastings Festival of Writers or is it intimidating?
I love taking the stage. I’m a real tart that way – can’t get enough of it.