Chad Taylor

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Interview: 95bfm Culture Bunker

Peter McLennan: You're on the Culture Bunker and it's 14 minutes before 11. Joining us in the studio is local author Chad Taylor. His latest book is Shirker which is also published in the Italy and the UK and the US and he is currently the Sargeson Fellow - is that right?

Chad Taylor: It's the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship.

What does that allow you to do as a writer?

It's a residency, a local residency just in a building near the university. It's something that allows writers to work for between two and five months at a time. It's just money to write and a place to write from. And it's great. It's very, very quiet. I thought it would be good and when I got it I was very pleased to receive it. I've been there since August 31st and the amount of work I've done is a huge amount of work to the point where I was actually thinking last night maybe I should slow down a bit because I'm getting a bit tired... You get to work on what you need without the phone ringing and people asking you to do other things, which is great.

Is that a luxury for you?

I think it's a luxury for everybody now. I was talking to some people [who work] in TV last night and they were saying their jobs are like anyone else's - they have a contract and then [the jobs] disappear. It's something about New Zealand now - everybody's doing two or three jobs at once. Nobody's working a nine to five, it seems, and getting time off. So when you're writing you'll have a day job for long periods and then you'll write part-time and do other things. Everybody's stealing time from everything else just to get some work done. So yes, It's a luxury. It's a good thing to have.

Who else has received the Sargeson Fellowship previously - what other writers?

Lots of people. Janet Frame was I think the inaugural fellow - I'm saying I think because I should have memorised all their names in alphabetical order before I came up here but I haven't. Vivienne Plumb was before me this year - she's back down in Wellington now. Lots and lots of people - writers who've written quite a bit and are quite established and writers who are starting off. Which is the good thing about it - it's quite egalitarian.

How did you go about finding out about it and applying for it?

They advertise it. There are several grants available from Creative NZ and other sponsors. The Sargeson is a private trust from the estate of Frank Sargeson, the New Zealand writer, and it's maintained with the help of Buddle Findlay who are a law firm in Auckland and Wellington - who I think are very nice people for doing it, you know?

With the last book Shirker I understand you tried to get it published here but didn't have much success - how did you go about getting in published?

I literally got on a plane and went to London and knocked on doors. Looking back on it it was quite a flukey series of coincidences but I think it's always like that when you go overseas and do things. It's that thing that New Zealanders do: just stupidly say "I'm going to go and do this".

Through various people I ended up being introduced to an agent at William Morris in London and she was great - Stephanie - I gave her the book to read and she liked it and said they'd represent me, which they still are, so they're the ones that found the publisher, Canongate, in Edinburgh and later Walker & Company in the US, in New York.

So what does that mean in terms of your own work - in terms of getting it out there? Comparing it to say a New Zealand band who might go overseas and hook up a series of distribution deals - does it work like that for you?

Yeah. Publishing works by pretty set rules. Now it's as confusing as the recording industry in that lots of different publishing names are owned by the same conglomerates. There are big owners and independents - Canongate is an independent.

It's nice because you can write here and have it published remotely and that takes a little pressure off you in the sense that NZ is a very small country and you need privacy in which to write and in which to think about the work and regard the work, and so having someone take it away is like posting a letter to someone - it gives you more objectivity. So when you're looking at the galleys and the finished work you can see it more objectively than you would if it was a process you were closer to.

With the analogy of bands going overseas it's one way for them to tap into other markets and generate enough money to be a musician for a living. Does having your work released in other territories by different publishers allow you to do it for a living?

I think for about a third to half the time now... It's definitely more money. And the exchange rate is good. So suddenly you're an exporter in a small way. It gives you wider exposure, it's a bigger machine.

It's just worked out well to have written Shirker and for people to go, yeah - we like this - there's never been anyone questioning the fact that I'm from New Zealand - that's not an issue. It's just "we like this, we'd like to publish it".

What sort of response have you had from the UK and the US?

It's been really good. I've had good reviews in the UK and the US. I'm technically a first-time author there even though I've had two novels published here and a collection of short stories. Shirker is the third novel, but I'm a first time author over there. Again, it's like music, you get small notices.

And you can also release your back catalogue at some point.

That's the secret plan. We hope so. But you can't remix to make it more fashionable or anything.

You can spice up the cover though.

That's true. Get a younger photo.

Get a bit of Photoshop on it, make it look better.

Yeah. A computer-generated version of the artist.

Speaking of computers, I notice you've also got your own web site. Why did you decide to put up a web site?

It was originally shirker.co.nz. When the book was going to come out overseas I wanted people in New Zealand who knew my other books to be able to find out about Shirker. It's a private thing, but I think that writers in particular should be registering their own site names. There are obvious benefits in that. I think it's going to be more of an issue as the world gets smaller and more people go on the web. I'm not sure who owns Katherine Mansfield.co.nz but somebody should be looking after it. It's as important as somebody looking after a writer's manuscript after they die - people should have those addresses and look after them. It only costs $40 a year. The actual site is very basic - I think all writers should do it. It's great when bands do it. I've grown up around music and pop bands and I don't see much difference between musicians and writers, really.

Is that an opinion that you find other writers sharing, the relation between the two?

I'm sure that other writers in my generation do think that, yeah. If Richard Ashcroft has an album you type in Richard Ashcroft.co.uk and see what's there - it's a reflexive thing now. I think it's more common now. My site's been up for two years. Two years ago people commented on it and now no-one blinks. It's a sign of the times.

And also it's a way to control what's out there about yourself - being able to put out accurate information.

Anything where you're hearing directly from the author or the artist or the musician is interesting to me. I remember there's a great book of interviews with the painter Francis Bacon by David Sylvester - these long transcripts of interviews. It's invaluably interesting: you want to know how people do things. Like "making of" album documentaries - I know there are a lot of those about but I always want to know how people do things, how people make things, how people work and make art and how people write it. It's a good platform for that.

How does music connect with your writing? I notice in some reviews there are quite a few pop culture references in terms of song titles and album titles.

Shirker is set around 1987 but it's about the passing of time and how things have changed over time and how difficult it is to mark time - how the landscape changes and buildings get knocked down and people disappear. But one thing that seems to mark time very well is music. Not slavishly - it is mentioned in the book but you still have to write the book and expect the pop references to do the work for you. It came a nice way of touching on that with the book.

And for me music became an important way of thinking about narrative, a story with a beginning, middle and end, not necessarily in that order as the [Jean-Luc Godard quote] goes. I think that's as important to writing as melody is to music. I think there have been some very unmelodic books published and that's regarded as enigmatic. I feel like going back the other way and making things more narrative-based. So my books have a very strong plot and story. That really interests me.

And that's why Shirker overlaps with crime writing and those sorts of narratives. There was a lot of talk as the world's got more digital that people would go to a more non-narrative based art; that you'd essentially throw your notes at people and they'd sort it out for themselves. I don't know if I'm just getting old and grumpy but I don't like that. I would like to have something that has a stronger line to it.

That can be quite a fragmented experience - somebody else's ideas.

You were talking about overseas publishers - when you're talking to Americans, you write this book and you have all these impressions of what you want it to be and capture and it's very close to you. But then you have that American thing that they will talk about the book as a narrative; break it down purely as a narrative and that just hits you in the face: the narrative was something you always knew was there but you suddenly realise how important it is. It's a priority for that culture and I quite like that.

How long is the Sargeson Fellowship going for you?

It finishes December 31st, five months.

And what are you working on at the moment?

I've finished a new manuscript called Electric, a new novel, but with international events being what they are I suspect nothing will happen with that for a few months now. And I'm working on a new novel which has just become this vast and unmanageable thing which is quite fun. I thought I'd just run with it and see how long it went for, and it's going for quite a long time. So I've got a nightmare editing job to do - probably in October.

Well thanks very much for coming in. And the song we're going out with is your choice.

That's Portishead, 'Glory Box'. The quickest thing I could think of - second choice. [First choice Bjork's cover of Like Someone in Love - could the BfM person who borrowed Post from the stacks return it please?]

What sort of things are you listening to at the moment?

I'm listening to lots of jazz, tediously, which might also be a sign of age. I like a lot of the dischordant modal stuff John Coltrane did. I've just bought the new Air album and I've got to get the new New Order album. I think I've got quite mainstream tastes - I don't know. I was listening to dance music solidly for two years and I think it did my brain some damage. I needed something with guitars in it.

What's it like as a work environment, the Sargeson Fellowship flat? Is that affecting what you're listening to do you think?

I haven't been listening to anything. Because I was working at home prior to that I used music to drown out the noise from the neighbours or to distract yourself and then the CD finishes and you keep on writing. But up at the flat it's very quiet - it's wonderfully quiet and I've been writing on the morning with nothing playing. So I can go back and enjoy music for what it is again.

– 16 September 01


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