I Just Want a Sentence: An Interview with Steve Braunias
Lance Roberts, Chapter 1 of Civilisation. Photo courtesy Jane Ussher, 2012[/caption]
Over Steve Braunias’s right shoulder, a portrait of Corporal Willie Apiata glares manfully from the wall. I can’t help but feel the old boy from Mangakino is appraising me. He’s a reification of the New Zealand condition: solemn, laconic, moustached, trusted and multiply-awarded by foreign powers. He is parable made flesh, made portrait.
“And I can’t fucking stand myth-making!” Braunias exclaims, banging the heel of a hand against the table.
Braunias, 52, grey-haired, dark check-shirted, emphatic and full of vitality — comparatively, at least, as we sit drinking from a jug of beer in the quiet hall of the Point Chevalier RSA. When I contacted him to talk about his recent book, he suggested three venues: the RSA, the KFC in Ponsonby, or a bar at the top of a hotel. Who can resist striped burgundy carpet?
His book — Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World — came out at the end of last year, and was my summer reading. Braunias visits 20 locations in New Zealand (well, 18; he also travels to Antarctica and Samoa), speaks to the locals, sucks in the atmosphere and reports back. He talks to the people who own the cafés, farms and houses on the outskirts of the towns you drive through on the way between places, uncovering their allegiances and conspiracies, their loves and melancholies. That their interior lives are no less rich for living in the wide spaces between cities is both deeply obvious and profoundly shocking.
Civilisation is a book only secondarily concerned with conveying the feel of a place, though it does so readily enough. “I found them really disconnected from the rest of New Zealand,” Braunias says. “There seemed to be many republics. Take Tangimoana – there are no motels there, so we stayed in nearby Sanson instead. And every time we went back there seemed to be a little less joy. All these complete separations and makeshift societies. There were certain New Zealand themes that permeated every place – but they seemed to be quite separate and distinct republics nonetheless, with their own codes.”
It is, foremost, a book about people. “Is there a kind of ‘type’ that you read about in New Zealand non-fiction?” he muses between sips of beer. “They’re kind of characters, you know. And they’re all sort of treated whimsically, like nothing really matters. Nothing’s important, everyone’s just a good joker. It’s like foundation myth-making is perpetually going on. But there’s something more interesting and something better going on just next door, really. Nothing deeper, particularly, but these people who for whatever sort of reason are ignored, are just really interesting – sort of irresistible.”
These people Braunias writes about are real, and he pulls no punches. Willie Seabrook, 54, Tangimoana local and damaged drunk: ‘My youngest has some kind of brain disorder. I don’t know what they fuckin’ call it – motor neuron or something. His skull never grew. He’s normal, he just can’t read or write.’ Graeme Ingils, unemployed Winton resident: ‘Bitter and monomaniacal, behind closed doors and shut windows and drawn curtains, moving among the junk and the rust.’ And on.
Whenever Braunias introduces a new character, he gives their name, age and occupation. It’s the probably strongest hint Civilisation was written by someone trained in print journalism, but the details also serve to remind us that these are real people, not ideated manifestations of a novel’s themes. Braunias investigates motives, not motifs. But how do you ask someone’s age without sounding like a jerk?
“We never had an appointment with anybody. I can’t drive, so Jane Ussher, who’s a friend of mine and a photographer, drove me everywhere. It was always just go there and drive around. I’m excruciatingly shy and would just freeze up and be paralysed at the thought of going across to somebody and saying ‘hello and can I speak with you?’ It would get to the point where I’d be rehearsing in my head what I was going to say. Sometimes I’d ask Jane, who had no problems doing that kind of thing, to make the introductions, and I’d come along afterwards.”
I try to imagine Braunias as a shrinking violet, but somehow can't.
“Well, you can’t be pathetic about it. You can’t be so self-indulgent that you don’t talk to people. Very quickly it becomes not about your own shyness and social unease. Very quickly it becomes about how nice they are, or funny they are, and all these kinds of qualities. And you forget about yourself. And you’re there hoping for one thing, really.
“There’s this great book by this South American football writer, and he talks about going to a football game for years, sitting in the stands, praying. He says to himself, 'I just want a pretty pass, please, for the love of God.' And when I’m interviewing people, I just want a sentence, just one, out of thirty minutes talking to me. Just one sentence.”
I ask whether he used a dictaphone to record his conversations, but he shakes his head and says he takes them all down with a pad and pencil.
“And then the writing. Over half of [the chapters] were written specifically and exclusively for the book. Eight or so were written for North and South, in a series that Jane and I have been doing. We did it for about three months, and it took about six months after that to write.
“It was really very difficult, the writing. I had so many reasons… failures of confidence, tedious self-loathing, that kind of thing.” Even as he says this, months after the work’s done, he sounds exhausted and exasperated with himself.
“Anxiety of influence, as well. I’d been reading a lot between the trips, reading altogether the wrong things. I should’ve been reading simple things that were not going to have any connection with the language I wanted to use or the places I wanted to write about. I should’ve been reading bad New Zealand fiction.
“Instead, I was reading Clive James, Paul Theroux, Janet Malcolm – I was reading a lot of non-fiction. Entirely the wrong things. I can’t write like those people anyway, but it did make me think that after you’ve been reading the world’s best exponents of non-fiction, where does it leave you? So that was a long dark period, and the writing I was doing, I was really afraid it was full of… Cyril Connolly has this phrase, ‘euphonious nothings.’ I was using too many words to express absolutely nothing. I was very wary of this cheap lyricism – this patently false epic flight, and wanting to break it down, but on the other hand not wanting to make it Jack and Jill.
“I’m a journalist, I’m used to writing fairly short pieces. Eight hundred words. These were as long as they should be, certainly no longer. I worried my sentences are getting subsumed by the narrative structure. Whereas for years, my approach was I may not have a very good story, I may not have conducted a very good interview, but I may be saved by the language I’m going to employ, which will dig me out of the hole. These days I’m far more interested in doing a good story, getting a good interview. I’m putting so much thought into that, and less thought into sentences.
"It’s a shame really," he says, finishing a glass. "I’m not playing to my strengths at all.”
Another book I read over summer was a historical novel, HHhH, about the exploits of Nazi SS officer Heinrich Himmler. The author, Laurent Binnet, agonises over primary documents, letting us in on his every embellishment and supposition, no matter how minor. Binnet descends into a kind of mania as his frustration at the limits of historical certainty rubs against what he sees as the inherent dishonesty of literature. He writes,
‘This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I’ve discussed all this: It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.’
How far does Braunias’s responsibility extend to those he’s co-opted? Real people, reduced to words, become something different from human: as enduring as the books they’re stored in, and as inflexible. People become characters when they’re put in literature, ineffably less complex and contradictory and motile. I put this to Braunias.
“There’s that thing – Graham Greene said: ‘It’s necessary to have a splinter of ice in the heart.’” Braunias measures his words carefully. “There would seem to be some evidence that I might be, to some degree, you know, pathological. That I’m really caring 100% about the narrative and about its integrities, and within that the people you write about have to be written with an exactitude of a care for where they fit into the narrative, or don’t fit. And you’re writing this quite coldly, often. If I have the luxury of a day to walk away from it and go back to the story, that’s where the compassion will return, and gratuitously unpleasant remarks about people will be taken out. But obviously some will be left in.
“My main responsibility is to accuracy in how exactly you feel about them. A lot of these people in the book – and notice I say people, not characters – I view with extreme affection. They were just very nice, really interesting people, and there was not an intent or pursuit in portraying them in any other way.”
It’s true. The majority of Civilisation’s characters – people – are kind-hearted, open, even brave. The fact so many are damaged in some way speaks more to the frailty of human nature and Braunias’s honesty in reporting it than some innate misanthropy. He pauses for a moment.
“There were several experiences that shook me up quite badly. One was in the caravan, with Ata. I was sitting on one of the beds and there was a little strip between that bed and the next, so you could sit on the bed, and if you wanted you could literally put your feet up on the next one, and I stupidly did that. And this woman Ata said, quite politely, not angrily or upset, ‘do you mind taking your feet off my bed?’ That was really excruciating. And I wondered if that was a metaphor for the way I was treating people on this trip.”
Treating them how?
“Trampling all over them, I guess. Just using them for stories. Likewise in the slum in Samoa. You go in there, you see something really upsetting, and you’re there very briefly, and you leave. Are you just taking? What are you giving?”
There comes a point in a writer’s career where they embark upon some grand project, a skilful distillation that attempts to capture the essence of a subject that’s got stuck in their soul, lodged sideways. Sometimes it’s even the work they’re best remembered for. Is Civilisation Braunias’s version of a ‘New Zealand’ book?
“Yeah. I really don’t wanna write anything like that again. Oh, I won’t be remembered. I’m a minor – very minor – figure in New Zealand letters. I’m a poor man’s Martin Edmond. Not a particularly chilled out entertainer. A sort of anxious, bumptious entertainer. This one – Civilisation – would be the so-called achievement.”
How do you differentiate false from genuine modesty? Later, when we talk of his stint teaching at Wintec, I ask why they chose him to be writer in residence. He replies pointedly, crisp and precise, and I feel I may have trod on his pride. "I’m a senior practitioner of journalism. I’ve written for a lot of places and done a wide range of things." Is good, affecting and effective journalism – the sort he writes on a monthly basis – really so fleeting that his work will be discarded? Surely he must hope that’s not that case.
“I’ve become particularly interested since then in news stories and newsgathering and news reporting, and how to take those kinds of things and write long about them. More and more I’m becoming aware that you need to write about something, and I want my reporting to be a lot better than it’s ever been.”
He says about the book he spent nine months crafting: “I dared to think maybe I was doing okay work.”
‘The paradox of satire is that it is narrow-minded. It assumes that it represents common sense. It scoffs at modern art, rolls its eyes at green politics - it's intolerant of anything radical or challenging. It plays to the crowd.’
- Steve Braunias, Secret Diary for 19 January, 2013.
As we start on a second jug, I suggest there’s a certain disconnect between Braunias’s attempt to honestly and directly relate his experiences talking to people in Civilisation with his satirical column, in which he writes amusing lies about the fool of the week. He doesn’t agree.
“Is that a contradiction?” He shakes his head. “I don’t think so… I’ve been having a real problem with satire’s narrow-minded view, that everything modern is rubbish, and it’s stupid. That would presuppose that I’d have to write witheringly and dismissively of… Occupy. I dig Occupy! How do you be funny about something, and then not be predictably dismissive? It’s simply trying to be accurate about it, and not betray yourself too much.”
He thought it came down to a question of honesty. “You see it in this country, where satirists are plainly playing to the peanut-munching gallery, they’re not being honest at all. And in fact they may be totally betraying whatever ethics they have, because they need to come across as ‘the good joker’. Well fuck the good joker!”
If his main responsibility truly is to accurately convey how he feels about people – rather than, say, accurately conveying people themselves – then perhaps there isn’t any tension between his roles as author and columnist. When we get into an argument over whether satire serves a conservative function (you’ll know when Braunias disagrees with you, because he’ll ask “Is that what you think?” and widen his eyes just slightly), he says “Doesn’t it depend on the way you feel about the person? A good case would be Barbara Sumner-Burstyn.”
Documentary maker Sumner-Burstyn gracelessly found herself receiving Facebook death threats last year after she wrote a poorly thought-out tirade labelling New Zealand soldiers serving in the Middle East ‘killers.’
“She said something extreme, and was condemned for it. And I waded in as well, but that was based on a very honest opinion of thinking ‘actually you are frankly an appalling person, you really, truly are.’ The point she was trying to make – about our involvement in the Iraq War – I agreed with it, actually. And this was a textbook case of how do you write about this, make satire out of it, without betraying what you actually believe, and go yes, I too am an advocate of New Zealand’s military role in Iraq — when I’m absolutely not, passionately not.”
I ask whether it’s easier to write satire about someone you genuinely loathe, and he scrunches up his nose. “Mmm. Nah. I’m not really an angry person – my loathing is more shallow. I don’t like – I don’t like Hekia Parata, the cut of her gib. You know, I think she’s a cunt.”
Braunias has been in trouble before for calling women cunts. In 2011, the then-editor of the Sunday Star Times fired him after an email exchange with a woman turned nasty. The woman – a member of the police force – had sent him an email saying he was ‘not the most handsome of men,’ but complimenting his writing. He responded, saying that she was an example of why he hated his readers, which she then replied to in turn, calling him an ‘ugly fucker.’ Inexplicable, as Braunias is surely comely by any objective standard. It’s the eyes. Anyhow, this was hardly Paglia V. Wolf. Braunias effectively ended the conversation with ‘Oh now I get it, you’re a cunt.’ A Herald article on the incident invokes a euphemistic turn of phrase: ‘It was "not out of character", he admitted, for him to use the C-word.’
“I was totally in the wrong. I’m the blunderer.”
I didn’t realise at the time, but this was probably a reference to a Patricia Highsmith (she wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley) novel that Braunias has admitted to reading in other interviews. In it, due to his own ridiculous circumlocutions, the hapless protagonist is blamed for the death of his wife – a murder he has fantasised about, dreamt of, but not actually committed.
In the ensuing fallout, Braunias apologised to the cop – sent her flowers, even – but exchanged public, bitter words with SST boss David Kemeys. Full of beer, I asked “When shit like this happens, do you think ‘God, Steve! What’ve you done,’ or are you tempted to fight it always?”
He sighed. “Both. I fought it. Yes, I fought it. From craven and patently insincere apologies, to then waging war against the editor of the Sunday paper for dismissing me. When I say wage war, it happened in the silly season, and there wasn’t a lot going on news-wise. I think after the third attack I got this really quite nice – admirable – email from Tony Wall, who’s this really great writer at the Sunday Star Times, saying: ‘You know, we’ve worked together for years, but cut it out, mate. You’re embarrassing yourself.’ I thought it was really admirable he was moved to write that. But I wrote back saying, ‘This is just what I do.’”
Braunias has a kid he raves about, five years old now, a little girl. When he talks about her, his defences and affectations drop and he speaks with a straightforward enthusiasm that’s almost disconcerting. I’m not saying he’s usually indirect or unforthcoming. But you just know if you asked him the one person he’d take with him to a desert island out of all the world, he’d pick her. I ask whether having a daughter has made him less of a mongrel. Worse at his job, I’m actually saying, and we both understand.
“No, probably more,” he says.
He speaks slowly at first, then faster, as if slotting together the pieces of an equation and then locking them into place to derive a solution: “Honesty again. The devotion and love and admiration that I have for my daughter is such that I therefore must have an equal amount of feeling towards things and people that I don’t admire.”
I don’t buy it.
I say, “A different branch of logic goes that you don’t want your daughter to grow up reading that her dad’s shouting about people in the papers.”
He chuckles, and reaches across the table to fill up my glass.
“The worst kind of thing you can read about the book,” Braunias tells me as we get ready to leave the RSA, “and I have read it, in the Otago Daily Times, is that it’s ‘a book you can dip into!’”
Again, it’s true. I spent hours between chapters, working up the courage to read the next one.
“Was it painful?” Braunias asks.
I hesitate. Civilisation is an excellent book. It eschews the vague myth-making Braunias rightly despises for hard, real truths about the people who literally live in this country over the people who literately occupy it. It’s not a bleak book, but it’s a true book. There is no reification of the New Zealand condition, because there is no New Zealand condition – only myriad lonely republics, some as tiny as two people sitting together at a table, some even smaller. He has been honest. With himself, with his readers, with his characters.
Was it painful?
“Sometimes,” I say.