He moved into the Frank Sargeson Centre just three weeks ago but already Chad Taylor has produced a chubby pile of manuscript. "I knew it would be productive," he says "but it's been even better than I expected. I'm getting a lot done."
The manuscript is likely to change shape many times, however, before Taylor's finished with it. An obsessive refiner and reviser, he'll write 200 pages, then cut them down to 20.
"It can be really hard chucking out passages you like and feel proud of, but sometimes it's necessary for the sake of the overall shape and intent. The best stories work like an iceberg - only one-tenth shows."
Awarded annually, the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Writer's Fellowship allows New Zealand writers to live and work in a studio flat on the eastern edge of Auckland's Albert Park, rent-free and with a stipend to cover living expenses. Taylor is grateful for the chance to get on with a new novel without encumbrances.
"Writers need privacy and quiet to write. That's never going to change. Writing is f–ing hard work and you get nowhere if people keep interrupting."
The monastic atmosphere of the Sargeson Centre is mitigated somewhat by Taylor's CD collection. Miles Davis' 1967 album Sorcerer is a current favourite.
"I mainly listen to jazz these days," he says. But he's knowledgeable about most forms of popular music from the 1950s on.
Musical references abound in his fiction. A recent short story, Close to You, was named after the old Burt Bacharach number made popular by the Carpenters.
An earlier story, Calling Doctor Dollywell, borrowed its title from a children's song performed by Burl Ives in the mid-'60s. "It's the scariest song ever recorded."
Calling Doctor Dollywell was part of Taylor's 1995 collection The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself. He says of that book: "It was meant to be like a record. Some things are short, some are long and intense; some are just one sustained chord, some are crappy little pop songs."
Taylor's most recent book - his third novel, Shirker - has many allusions to the "golden oldies" heard on easy-listening stations - Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street, the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, Steely Dan's Peg, Smokey Robinson's 'Tears of a Clown.'
Although recognised in the early '90s as one of our most promising young writers, Taylor had trouble finding a local publisher for Shirker. He went to England, found an agent and eventually sold the book to the small Edinburgh-based Canongate. Since then, there have been American and Italian editions. The book will soon be translated into German and French.
Reviews have been glowing. The English Sunday Telegraph called Shirker "a beautifully written and skilfully constructed nightmare from a writer of great imagination".
Named after one of the off-ramps on the Auckland motorway, Shirker's central character, Ellerslie Penrose, is a part-time futures broker, with an office in the Dilworth Building in downtown Auckland. He finds a junkie's body dumped in a jumbo bin, steals his wallet and tries to uncover his past. This leads to contact with a welter of sleazy, bizarre and mysterious figures.
Shirker is a book that defies easy categories. Taylor has no problem with its inclusion in Canongate's "crime" series, but he winces when he hears it described as a "thriller". It has closer affinities with film noir, he suggests. The stylish gangster films made by Parisian director Jean-Pierre Melville in the late 1960s and early 70s were a big influence, especially Le Samourai and Un Flic.
Taylor has completed a fourth novel, Electric, which should appear in 2002. It's set in Auckland during the power blackout that crippled the CBD in late February and early March, 1998.
"Auckland is a really good city to write about," says Taylor. He enjoys making references to specific buildings in his books. "You have to nail down particulars if you want to get away with more surreal aspects successfully.
"Electric is very clean and dynamic - a refinement of what I was doing in my earlier novels. I think I can see more clearly now what I want to achieve, build from the existing base and go wider. The novel after Electric - the one I'm working on now - will be longer and go in more directions."
– Iain Sharp, 26 August 2001