"Early and avid" Chad Taylor fan Mr O'Neill wrote in his rave NZBC review of Departure Lounge that he'd been "a bit disenchanted" with some of Chad's more recent books because he likes his realism, well, you know, real. The author commented "Man, you're gonna hate the new one." That means I'll like it, I guess… Elsewhere Chad has said, "My stories are very real, but this surreal aspect to the stories continues to emerge. I wouldn't describe it as fantasy." He was born in 1964 and grew up in gritty, hyper-real Manurewa. He read English and Art History while doing a Fine Arts degree at Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts. After writing music and film reviews for (and then becoming assistant editor of) Rip It Up while he was meant to be studying, he nevertheless graduated with a BFA in 1988. In the same year his first fiction was published. In 2001 he was awarded the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship. His short stories have appeared in Landfall, Sport, Metro, Other Voices, and the anthologies Tart and Juicy and Lust. Of his short story collection The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself, Chad says the two weakest stories are the most popular. We asked him for five minutes of his time and he gave us his insights into the eternal value of books. You couldn't ask for more. We did ask him a lot of odd questions.
You're not Mad Chad Taylor the Chainsaw Juggler (who has appeared on Jay Leno's Tonight show) or Chad Taylor the guitarist (who has a Wikipedia entry). Are you deliberately keeping a low profile or do your agent and publisher need a kick up the arse?
"I was online after the chainsaw juggler but well before the guitarist. When I was growing up in Manurewa no one else in the world was called Chad except Chad Everett, and he wasn't cool either. I don't like my name."
Literature certainly no longer gets the mindshare among the young that other art forms such as music and film enjoy. Is this a temporary glitch or a more lasting trend?
"Do we crave mindshare among the young? The kids who are hip to books are the kids who are hip to books. They'll always be around. I have faith in the young. It's people my age I'm worried about.
"There's a technological reality here: books don't need batteries. You can get them wet, pass them on to your friends, tear them in half and they still work. And they're cheap. It was the maxim of Java programmers to 'write once, read anywhere'. Books have always done that. They're the wheel, the lever, the inclined plane. Basic technology. If industry could replace that with a proprietary, unreliable, fussy technology then it would have happened by now.
"Things come and go. Books don't have a stranglehold on culture. They could vanish tomorrow, in which case I'd happily evolve—maybe… but stories work. Stories are still around because stories work and novels are the purest way of transmitting those stories, and the form is like pop music—influenced by everything other than itself.
"I was having a discussion with someone the other day: we were talking about the DVDs we'd have or the records we'd want to own, and we could easily run into 100, maybe 200 of each that every person should see or hear. But when it came to novels, really, we started running out of steam long before that. Because in terms of 'great' novels—novels you simply must read—we're not looking at a surplus. Novels are precise and delicate things.
"Here's a curve ball: the only things that separate us from animals are a written language and a linear perception of time. If that's true, writing stories is our definitive function."
Are you still a Paul Auster fan and what else is in your mix of literary and other influences?
"You might not respect the things I read. Faves: going by the bookshelf it's Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Philip K. Dick, André Gide, Anaïs Nin, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Pete Dexter, Delacorta, Joseph Conrad, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, Jim Thompson, Edgar Allan Poe, Barry Gifford, Hammett, Graham Greene (End of the Affair and The Quiet American), Bram Stoker. I read anything. Almost. If you read the first short stories that came out in 1988 you'll see everything in there.
"'Influences' are different. What influences you is more private and fleeting. You're chasing a moment. I was influenced by terrible people. The really good writers you look up to. The bad writers—you can approach them and nick something from right out of their pocket. We learn from the worst."
The author Will Self's study wall is a scaly skin of Post-it Notes. What do you use for plotting novels, note-taking and capturing ideas? Are you a proponent of pencil and notebook, or do you favour software and keyboard?
"When I'm starting a novel I'll try anything. Notebooks, tape recorders, chunks of plasterboard torn from the ceiling (which is a Jack Kirby joke—no one will ever get that). Once it gets going, it doesn't matter—when you're writing well, you can write on anything. I read a great interview with Woody Allen where he said he can write anywhere on anything—the back of an envelope. Sometimes his movies feel like that. But I really respect anyone who just gives in to the flow. We all do, eventually. When you're going, you're going.
"With a novel, however, I would say that you need to develop some sort of system to keep track of everything. The quicker you can find that note you scrawled early in the morning, the better. The more you need to be able to find stuff… but really there's no definitive process. You muck through and that's the delight of it, really. You number stuff. Or use letters. And then lose it and find it again. I think I have a process. I carry a Moleskin sometimes. The way to guarantee inspiration is to leave it behind. You live with it and live with it and then one day you wake up and it's you. Like Cary Grant."
Do you keep regular writing hours every day, and are you a morning or a night person?
"I worry regularly. I pay bills regularly. Inspiration shifts by an hour a day. I swear the latter is true: it moves with the tides. If you're doing good work at 9 am on Monday then it'll be 10am on Tuesday and 11 on Wednesday and so on. (Does this make me a hippy?)
Naming the protagonist of your novel Shirker Ellerslie Penrose, was genuinely inspired. Were you a fan of British experimental rock band Hatfield and the North, and do you have any advice on naming conventions for other writers?
"I knew Ellerslie worked when Alison Mau interviewed me for TV and referred to him as "Ellie". I thought, hello: he's become real. You have to be careful with names. Aptronyms are good but can tangle with the actual prose… You have to get it right. I wrote a short story called 'Supercollider' that introduced a girl called Carrie Factor—that worked.
"Names are hard. The new novel has some really, really good names in it but I can't tell you because it won't be out for a bit."
Why is the New Zealand setting so important to you and are you ever tempted to set a novel overseas?
"I'm in conflict about this. Who gives a fuck about Auckland? I don't know if I do any more. Write what you know and so on, but I don't want to get stuck here, thematically or creatively. Not least of all because it's disappeared—the good spots have all been knocked down. The new novel was set largely overseas and then it changed… the real part of the story came back to here. I don't know why. I travel a lot and my characters are travellers, outsiders… I don't think they're tied here. Auckland's nice to write about because it's a port town and people are always passing through. It's soulless, so the characters' souls become, conversely, exposed. People here are really fucked up. And not in a good way.
"I do think that novelists should be able to write about anywhere. There's a little too much emphasis placed on this by NZ critics and reviewers and so on. You want to go to Iceland, go to Iceland. All that matters is if the story works, if the book is real—if it happens on the page. But I do think you have to really feel that. You need to be truly into it. The cracks show very quickly if you're not.
"Electric finishes in Japan—I love that part of the novel. It's two pages long or something but I love it. I love getting away. But I don't want to write about being a tourist—not in that instance, anyway. I don't feel like I belong here but I don't feel that I belong anywhere else."
If NZBC readers read only one book this year, which book should it be?
"Um… One? This year? Two years ago I would have said Pete Dexter's Train. Actually, the other night I had a coffee in a book store and read Hunter S. Thompson's letters and found them to be very good… This year? Jesus, what's been published this year? I'm scratching around. Go read Poe or Heart of Darkness or something. Like I said before, there aren't that many really you have to go through.
What's on your iPod's 'On the go' playlist at the moment, or are you an iPod refusenik?
"Recently played on the Powerbook: Warren Zevon, 'Excitable Boy'; Jane's Addiction, 'Jane says'; The Go! Team, 'Ladyflash'; Liz Phair, 'Somebody's Miracle'; P.J. Harvey, 'We Float'; The Killers, 'Bones'; Róisín Murphy, 'The Closing of the Doors'.
"The CDs beside the dining room stereo are: The Doors (The Doors), Kraftwerk (Trans-Europe Express), The Bird and the Bee (The Bird and the Bee), John Coltrane (Kulu Sé Mama), Nick Drake (Pink Moon), Of Montreal (Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer) and Beck (The Information). Don't hassle me about Liz Phair."
– Chris Bell, 2007