Books: Get a decent haircut and move to Auckland

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Four years ago a group of top Auckland writers and publishers noticed a problem: Why was it that the City of Sails was producing so few new novelists, while in Wellington, there seemed to be an embarrassingly steady supply?

Writers such as Elizabeth Knox, Catherine Chidgey, Damien Wilkins, Emily Perkins, Barbara Anderson, were publishing books that were achieving national success, and in some cases going on to be published in the UK and the USA to similar plaudits. Wellington had cracked a difficult problem: how to provide a nursery or seed-bed for talented new writers, and to nurture them to the point where they could publish literary books that people wanted to read.

It wasn't that Auckland didn't have its own successful writers, it was just that on a population basis, Wellington was punching so far above its weight that the group concluded that the Windy City must be doing something special. A quick survey of the origins of these writers provided the answer: a writing centre in Wellington, outside the institution of the University (but still attached by a fine umbilical cord) in which a small group of tyro fictioneers were nurtured to literary take-off.

Bill Manhire's writing centre is now a national literary phenomenon; but what isn't quite so well known are the reasons for his success. The group of Auckland writers and publishers, decided to find out: Their goal to establish a similar centre in Auckland. Creative writing courses are enjoying spectacular growth internationally, and the Auckland group wanted to get its own formula right. After several years of hard work and planning, that goal is now a reality: the Centre for Modern Writing at AUT University opens in March with an intake of up to 10 creative writing students, who will develop manuscripts of their own choice under the expert tuition of Auckland's top fiction writers.

The group of Auckland writers and publishers behind the centre Michael Moynihan, head of Random House publishers; playwright Roger Hall; writer Kapka Kassabova, and Mike Johnson, a representative of the Auckland Society of Authors, decided to look closely at Manhire's remarkable success, with the intention of replicating some of those conditions at the AUT centre, while also giving the local variant a distinctively Auckland flavour.

Part of the key was found to be in Manhire's own personality: a modest and unobtrusive man, who combines a deep love of books with an insistent desire to uncover the idiosyncratic voice in each of his students. Manhire puts his success down to his early years as a barman in a Dunedin pub, where he learned, he says, "To listen to patrons without interrupting, and then send them on their way with a minimum of astute advice." Not a bad formula for any teacher.


Manhire realised instinctively that the first flowering of a literary seedling requires a special kind of environment. He set about creating a supportive rather than competitive atmosphere, in which the weight of literary theory (modernism, post-modernism, deconstruction) is mercifully absent; where the literary canon (the Brontes, Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, et al) are not treated as august and fearsome ancestors to be lionised; but are part of a smorgasbord that new writers can go to for delight and inspiration when they need to.

Another ingredient of success in the teaching of creative writing is class size: a small group allows the development of a dynamic that is collegial and supportive. This can open courses to the criticism that graduates all have the same stamp. But the occasional whiff of commonality in the styles of graduating writers is outweighed by the overwhelming and self-evident advantage: writing fiction, in the early years, is a lonely and unrewarding business that can benefit from collegial support.

Isolation in the garret can cause new talent to wither and die on the vine. Anything that can provide supportthrough the apprentice stage is invaluable, and connection to a centre of excellence or literary stimulation can be invaluable. The American novelist Edmund White, speaking here at an international literary festival a few years ago said: "The advice I give to new writers? Get a decent haircut and move to New York."

Although a sojourn in New York or London may not be possible for all new Kiwi writers, the message is clear: good writing usually occurs in a galvanising milieu; in a subculture of like-minded artists, where views can be exchanged, literary passions shared, peers berated, feuds conducted. An excellent local example of this was the benign court of King Sargeson, conducted at Frank's house in Takapuna, where Janet Frame learned to write, and where writers as diverse as CK Stead, Kevin Ireland, Graeme Lay and Maurice Duggan came to call and to argue. .

Many new writers have failed because of the difficulty in sustaining the depth and continuity of concentration required to complete the first draft of a book.

The key is often economic, and the new Auckland centre, although a full-time course, is designed to accommodate students who will need to work some of the time, to ensure their financial survival.

Often new writers lack connections to established publishers in the case of the new Auckland course, Random House publishers, through head Michael Moynihan (who also chairs the Auckland Writers Festival) has formed a partnership with the Centre.

Graduate manuscripts will be assessed by Random House and where possible developed to mainstream publication standard.

Getting the first book published is the first major hurdle for new writers, and thereafter most writers have a much better prospect of going on to a professional career.

Sunday Star Times