Prize-winning author Stephen Daisley: "If you jump, the net will appear"
As far as slow-burning careers go, newly anointed lit-star Stephen Daisley has got most of his contemporaries beat.
He wrote secretly for decades; not even his father knew he was preoccupied — obsessed even — with writing stories inspired by his life as an odd jobs man, inhabiting a world of mateship, hard graft and plain speaking.
A bit of shearing, truck driving, construction work, newspaper delivery, five years in the military. Never a career that would get in the way of the writing, though he did take a couple of stabs at stability because he had five kids to raise.
And now at 60, Stephen Daisley has arrived.
He was clearly astonished to win the fiction section of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards last week, which came with a cheque for $50,000. In that moment, he not only became a known Kiwi author, albeit one who has lived in Western Australia for 25 years, he bought himself the ability to write fulltime.
He wants to follow up his award-winning second novel Coming Rain with a book on how New Zealand's Vietnam veterans are faring, and he has another project on the go as well.
After kissing Patricia Grace, another nominee in his category, and kissing his book publicist, and shaking some hands, and nearly splitting open with the joy of winning the country's most prestigious literary prize, Daisley made his way up to the stage.
He accepted the "golden acorn" trophy and held it aloft like an Olympian. He thanked the judges for their "bravery", but he didn't make a speech. At the end of the ceremony, he went off and met a whole bunch of writers he has admired from afar, and he drank too much and he went to bed too late. It was a good night.
"I pick up a bit of casual work here and there, but we're really struggling, we don't have much money," he says the day after the ceremony, still in a state of pleasant shock. "We live pretty much hand to mouth."
Sometimes he and Sylvia, his Taihape-born wife of 29 years, don't know if they will be able to keep the phone on. She runs a small shop called Elsewhere Clothing, and is the main income earner. They still have two children at home in Kalamunda, in the hills behind Perth, on a one-acre section where they grow veges.
"I say to her, 'you should have married an accountant', and [she says], 'I love you, you bloody loser'."
After earning degrees in English literature and philosophy as a mature student at Murdoch University, Daisley worked at the University of Western Australia for a time, a "nice bureaucratic job" that paid the bills and kept him out of trouble. But it didn't allow him to write, which he felt driven to do, especially after studying with respected Australian writer Gail Jones, who told him: "I think you're the real thing, don't ever give up."
So he threw it in.
"I said, 'I've left my well-paying job Syl, and I am going back to delivering papers at night so I can write'. And she said, 'What?' I said, 'If you leap, the net will appear'.
"And she said, 'F..., is that another metaphor? Is that another one?'"
But she went along with it, as she always has, supportive and full of clear-eyed good humour.
"She once said when I got drunk, 'Look at him, you kids, look at the state of him! If he can't be a good example at least he can be a horrible warning'."
Daisley's parents Ken and Lal ran the pub at Raetihi, a settlement of 1000 people near Ohakune. "We come out of a very practical heritage and culture," Daisley explains. "Someone who could shoot a deer or cut an acre of bush was much more valuable than someone who could write a poem. As a result of that you tended to just keep it to yourself a bit.
"We were also raised to never speak about what you do, but to do what you do. I never told my father I wrote. I told my mother when I was in my 20s and she said, 'Don't worry dear, you'll grow out of it'."
The few writers the family came across didn't make the best impression. In his youth, Ken Daisley used to serve heavy drinker Ronald Hugh Morrieson, who wrote Came a Hot Friday, at a Taranaki pub. Later on, "James K Baxter was down at Jerusalem. My father didn't like him much because he thought he was having sex with the girls in the commune down there, but he was probably jealous."
Exposure to the beloved and influential poet was formative for Daisley: "It was like discovering treasure when I found books of poetry," he says.
When he was working for the New Zealand Army in Malaysia in the 1970s, Daisley began writing long letters home to his parents. He fell in love with storytelling, describing events such as being given a can of peaches for his 21st birthday while working in the jungle, and thinking it was the best thing he'd ever tasted.
He started to write made-up stories about people like those he worked with, and the environments that he was accustomed to. About fairness, and racism, and getting on with the job, and tough men who didn't know how to express their emotions. He had plenty of examples around him.
He offers a personal one. "I never told my father I loved him. In my 40s, I rang him on Fathers Day. He says, 'Gidday, boy'. I says, 'Dad I want to tell you something. I love you Dad'.
"There was silence and then he says, 'Have you heard Canterbury won the football, mate?'
"Now when my youngest bloke goes out the door, I say, 'Don't forget, Lachie: Canterbury'. And he says, 'I love you too Dad'. So it's a good completion of the circle."
Even after 30 years of writing on the sly and a decade of pursuing it openly and wholeheartedly, having won the Australian Prime Minister's Award for Literature worth $80,000 for his first book, Traitor, and now this, Daisley is humble about his talent to the point of near shame.
Maybe that's because he was rejected and ignored by publishers so many times before he was finally published at the age of 56.
"I tried to [stop writing], but I couldn't leave it alone," he says. "I just seemed to fail at everything else. I was failing at this too, but I was failing better. I was slowly getting better. I have a very democratic approach to writing. I think the readers are better than the writers, because you are making sense of it. When I put my ego in there, it was no good, and that took me about 20 years to figure out.
"I had to allow the work to speak for itself and allow the world to come to me and just quietly wait."