Monday, May 16, 2016

Interview on the occasion of the imminent publication of a forthcoming book


Detail of draft of cover

On June 3, Lawrence and Gibson will release Brannavan Gnanalingam's new novel A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse. Murdoch from Lawrence and Gibson asked Brannavan a few questions about the new book.


I thought to ask questions of you because I was reading Animal Shelter 3 the third of four (so far) journals put out by Semiotext(e) under their new incantation under Hedi El Kholti. The current interview is from 1975 and is with Jean Eustache. Tell me: The Mother and the Whore spoke to your second book, are there any films that speak to or are spoken through A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse?

This one was less film-influenced than some of my other ones. If I had to name any, I'd say Miguel Gomes' Tabu and Christian Petzold's Phoenix in terms of tone and political commentary.  I also really want to prop Tim Wong's Out of the Mist, a documentary about New Zealand cinema that asked some really interesting questions about nationhood and cultural malaise.  I thought it was fantastic.
The period when I wrote this ended up being a very productive period of going to shows and feeling like I was part of the city. I think that helped in capturing a sense of Wellington-ness in the book.  I went to a number of shows that really nailed shifting between tones, and were at once political / satirical / carried an emotional wallop: Eamonn Marra's Respite, Adam Goodall's Knifed, Richard Meros' Hillary Clinton/Young Lover, and Kate McIntosh's All Ears. OK maybe, Meros didn't have an emotional wallop, but that's because he's such a rogue.
I also ended up seeing a lot of music, with this sense of people just playing because they make great music (which to be honest is more inspiring than any advice that people give as to how to be an Artist).  This was all happening despite fewer venues and less mainstream coverage. During this period of writing, I saw amazing shows from the All Seeing Hand, Dobermen, Echo Beach, Eyeliner, French for Rabbits, Glass Vaults, Grayson Gilmour, The Happy Plaster, HEX, Lontalius, Orchestra of Spheres, Phoenix Foundation, Pikelet, Ruth Mundy, Seth Frightening, Shocking Pinks, SJD, TAB, Tigers of the Sea, Vorn, Waterfalls, and Womb, for example. There's so much good stuff happening around the place, that being part of it helped inform the book.  I also reckon New Zealand music is doing a far better job at being political and incorporating different voices than most other Kiwi art-forms.



There's a review of your third book about to come out in this quarter's copy of Landfall. I was contemplating some witticisms from Eustache in that interview and it made me reflect on ‘serious’ readers. Do you feel like there have been serious readers of your catalogue? How do you feel about the reviews?
I am very grateful for any coverage I can get, and I feel like I've been taken seriously.  I'm particularly grateful for the likes of Landfall for ensuring that there continues to be a conversation. I'd like to think my books are able to be analysed in critical ways.  
Arts coverage has been declining rapidly. Mainstream media organisations seem to think by having less content they'd get more readers or maintain their current readership. In fact, they're giving many people even less incentive to read them.  I remember seeing a study that bookstores that sell a diverse range of titles books 'weirdly' sell more books. To me it's a no-brainer. If I want a book and I don't know which one, I'm going to go to Unity, not Whitcoulls. I don't think it's too different with media / reviews. 
I've gone off-track here. But it's also to say that there are fewer reviews and less coverage of writers than ever before, and it's harder for us all to get our work out there. But it's the same across all art-forms, particularly if you're doing something that you consider worthy of serious consideration.


Is there any part of the new book that you're most concerned could be misread?


It's a book of white people, has a female protagonist, and is about Muslims. I am neither white, female, nor a Muslim, so yep, plenty of cause for concern. I'm well aware of the limits of my own knowledge, which I think is a theme that comes up in all of my books, and which structures the way my characters interact with people that they don't know anything about (even if they don't know that they don't know anything about them). I have hopefully transmitted my lack of knowledge onto the way the characters are structured in this one too i.e. McManus is objectified rather than personalised, and Suleiman well, I won't reveal how I treat him. The jerks / toxic masculinity is something that's not too hard to do research on. I'm happy to take any criticism on the chin though, except if any dudebros get offended.


You seem to know an awful lot about the New Zealand security intelligence services. Is it mostly made up, or did you do a whole lot of sleuthing?
It is almost entirely made up. I'm far more interested in creating a world that has its own realistic internal logic than capturing something that is word perfect and 99.95% accurate. Creating a brand new spy agency gives me far more freedom than being pedantic about the specifics of our real-life spy agencies.
The one exception is that I heard at one of the spy agencies, whenever a spy answers the phone, they have to stand up to show everybody else they're on the phone. That strikes me as hilariously paranoid. In fact, that story was where my entire book came from. I don't know if it's true or not though.
That said, I am very familiar with bureaucracy. I'm of the Max Weber school, which assumes that bureaucratisation is a normal process. I'm not a libertarian after all. But I think structuring a spy agency around bureaucracy, rather than whatever Snowden described, seemed to be far more interesting approach to take for a spy novel. The novel is more about how banal our Islamophobia is – i.e. we've set up an entire spy / bureaucratic apparatus because of Islamophobia. I suspect if it wasn't targeted at Muslims though, there'd be some other "existential" threat like we've always had – socialists, Marxist, anarchists, other ethnic minorities). 
So it's an everyday spy book. There'll be no exciting chase sequences on Lower Hutt train lines or anything like that. Or will there be?
John Key's favourite movie is Johnny English, so he may like it too.


What, the Rowan Atkinson film Johnny English? Do you think he likes it because he's always aspired to be a 'Johnny' himself? 
I've never seen Johnny English, I'm far too much of a film snob. I have no idea why Key likes it: it could be because he's as bland as a mild butter chicken.  


Do you have a technique for rounding out your characters before you write them? Is there a notebook with pages for each person or achetype you want or need? Or does it come out as it is written?
I create an extensive back-story for all of my characters, no matter how small they are. I use that as a base for when I get around to writing them in.  I suspect every character has an element of me in them too.  I also adopt that Charles Dickens approach of having a "straight" lead character, and then using caricatures / archetypes as my supporting cast. I think it makes for funnier characters and hopefully richer satire.

This is fascinating. Can you tell me one of the details of this extensive back-story that doesn't make it into the book, and is the most oddball?
Paulsen tried to do the Hippie Trail the other way around in the 1980s, but couldn't get into Iran. So he decided to pretend that he had gone there by stealing a bunch of photos from a drunken Dutch man who had gone during the Shah's time, whom Paulsen had met in Pakistan. Everyone believed Paulsen had gone there (Paulsen had a stock answer to "what did they think of white people?") until he met an Iranian from Mashhad in Wellington who instantly picked up that Paulsen hadn't even heard of Persepolis. Paulsen told the Iranian he would tell the "authorities" that the Iranian was on the wrong side of the Civil War (he kept the "authorities" vague as to whether they were Iranian or New Zealand), and then went home and burned the photographs. Paulsen subsequently changed the subject whenever Iran came up.


That's great! You've been to Iran right? At least, I saw some pictures on Facebook...
Yes! I spent nearly a month in Iran in 2012, starting in Tehran, working my way south to Shiraz, then via the west up to Tabriz and then on to Armenia. I had planned to come to Iran via the East but I couldn't get a visa to Turkmenistan. Turns out they don't give those to googleable writers, so I had to fly to Tehran instead. Iran was amazing. I can still taste the date shakes, the sohan, the fesenjan, the baklava. And there was of course the incredible hospitality. By far the friendliest country I've ever travelled in (just ahead of pre-Civil War Syria).  


I just watched that "viral" video of NZ Police dancing and couldn't help but be cynical about it given the run of bad publicity they have been under for the last decade. In your book the law enforcement seem fairly gung-ho with guns blazing - do you think we need a radical new look at the way policing is conducted in a liberal, 21st century society?
Ooh I get to put my criminology degree into practice! "Criminality" has so many factors to it: how it is defined (cf Credit in the Straight World), who gets to define it, structural issues such as class differences, racial profiling, moral panics etc.. People seem to think they know what crime is, but they don't really. When you have a group of people who are deemed to be criminals irrespective of what they've done, then the institutional reaction is going to be far more heavy-handed and irrational than you'd hope from law enforcement.
I'm also interested in the way moral panics operate. Terrorist moral panics touch on a bunch of contemporary ideological problems e.g. racism / xenophobia (a fear of brown people & immigrants e.g. we saw the Boston bombers get their skin darkened for example in media), presentation of women & teenagers as prone to being easily manipulated (jihadi brides! teenagers being convinced by people on the technology to do bad stuff), Islamophobia (check out how the discursive frameworks around Muslims is pretty similar to how Europe has talked about Muslims for centuries).
As for the police themselves, it seems like they are extremely stretched and morale is low. Successive governments have been desperate in seeming like they're cutting crime, when to be honest all of the stats comes down to how it's measured. So, when you've got all of that as day-to-day factors, especially when as an institution you're already the ambulance at the bottom, it's not going to help with decision-making.  
What do we need? Less need for policing rather than simply fewer police.


Can you unpack that last line a little more for me. I'm torn between asking you whether this is some anarchist commitment to communities, or something a little less liberal?
Now Murdoch, I'm a post-structuralist, so I'm all about fighting hegemonic battles to change discursive frameworks so that those frameworks no longer perpetuate the status quo dominant ideological positions. I er, mean, fuck the police coming straight from the underground. Or something.


In September last year you wrote a compelling story of hospitality extended to you in many Muslim countries during your travels, as well as the protection of your family in Sri Lanka by Muslim neighbours. You know I share your views on this matter. But I'd like you to draw out a little more on our discussions about New Zealand writers and their response to the refugee crisis, and if you'd like, xenophobia in general.
In terms of the refugee crisis and the fear of the Other, the two I could think of from recent times would be Lloyd Jones' Hand Me Down World (2010) about an "African" refugee and Emily Perkins' Novel About My Wife (2008).  Jones' book talks about the refugee crisis far earlier than many have, and I think it's a better, more interesting book than his more lauded Mister Pip.
Novel About My Wife is really, really great, and captures this dread about the Other (amongst other things). Interestingly both were set in Europe, and I wonder if these issues are more apparent when in Europe. Xenophobia as a theme certainly came out in You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here, and I felt like I couldn't escape the topic when writing about Paris.
In terms of New Zealand-set novels though, from what I know, there has barely been a discussion about race (excluding Māori) / refugees / xenophobia in New Zealand literature.  I'm happy to be corrected though, as I'd genuinely love to read more New Zealand writing about non-white subjects.
How much of our literature from white folk would pass a racial Bechdel test?  The Luminaries is the only one I can think of. And the fact our literature is failing to do so, what does that mean for the ordinary person on the street, and therefore the perpetuation of racist myths / xenophobia that certain populations in New Zealand face? Maybe people think our Islamophobia is benign, but I've been called a "terrorist" enough times on the streets of New Zealand to think that we're pretty complacent about it.     
In terms of xenophobia, I should also mention Chris Tse's great How To Be Dead in a Year of Snakes is a great piece of poetry.

Do you think New Zealand writing, in general, has much - or any - flow through to the person on the street?
I dunno. Reading is so wonderful but it's also such a middle-class pursuit. There was never a golden age in which everybody read. I think back to how growing up, so few of my friends' families and wider family had books anywhere in their house. It's not as if our grandparents sat in coffee shops and talked about Gertrude Stein and Nabokov. And if your grandparents did, then you probably grew up in a bubble. A wonderful bubble, but a bubble nonetheless. Also I have no interest in reading a book about the struggles of being an artist or an academic - despite having come close to being an academic, and being a writer - so I can understand why the person on the street has no interest in great swathes of contemporary fiction. I'm generalising, but you know, if I can't generalise in a publisher run interview, when can I generalise?

Does this excuse literature, then? I mean, if we're all about wonderful bubbles - in the Sloterdijkian sense ;) perhaps - then what does it matter that our novels don't reflect life?
As an ex-post-structuralist, I believe in the transcendent, utopian power of literature to break down social barriers. Ok maybe not. But hell, with a rise in fascist dialogue around the world, climate change and other environmental disasters looming, a ridiculous rise in inequality, a major global financial crisis that is still having an impact, the Refugee Crisis, war being waged in the Middle East, and a Terminator due to travel back in time any day now, in fifty years' time, would I really want to look back at what I wrote in 2016 and go, "I'm really glad I explored the fraught nature of memory and how difficult it is to be an artist for the fifty billionth time?" So yeah, we need to burst literary bubbles that don't engage with the contemporary world. 
I've also been reading a bit of Polish Catastrophism recently, so indulge me.

The podcast of your ode to the Olympics in the What We Talk About podcast is almost ready for release. How did you find that process of delivery of something very close to you - an autobiographical insight of sorts - was similar or differed to the public readings of your books? If you were to try to convince a reader to listen to that podcast what would be the five words you'd use?
It was very different from the public readings, as I wrote my Olympic speech as a speech. I don't know how effective it was, but it had a different focus on the timing of gags. I enjoy the public aspect of using language though, but that maybe because of my legal training.
In terms of five words to make you listen to the podcast: passion, drama, glory, failure.
I know there are only four words above, but once you get to fourth when talking about the Olympics you might as well not bother.

And finally, you're prolific. Everyone says so. Do you use drugs or alcohol when you write and if so which ones and in which quality and combination and what, shall we say, percolations do these enhancements bring forth?
I spent a good chunk of last year drunk. So let's say alcohol. I follow Hemingway's advice of write drunk and edit sober.
In terms of quality and combination, I wouldn't be what you call a decadent Huysmansian bon vivant. I'll take whatever I can get.
I also drink a lot of oolong tea.
And in terms of being prolific, I guess I am, but if I don't write my books for me, no-one else will.