WORD: Ask A Mortician, Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Caitlin_Doughty_in_red_evergreen_background-copyDeath is an odd thing to be chipper about. LA-based mortician, ‘death positive’ advocate and YouTube star Caitlin Doughty is definitely chipper, though: she has that extreme chirpiness that I’m going to assume is compulsory for anyone living in Los Angeles. And yet she is not flippant: in amongst her ebullient humour is a serious intellectual and moral engagement with issues of death, grieving, funeral customs, end-of-life care and spirituality. I felt immediately drawn to her. If it were possible to pre-book one’s own mortician, I would consign my corpse into Doughty’s hands without a second thought.

Doughty was interviewed by local coroner Marcus Elliott, who did a good job of asking interesting questions and then giving Doughty plenty of space to answer them. (I must also give him props for his dapper blue cravat.*) Doughty entered the death industry as a young woman fresh out of her medieval history degree. “My relationship with death is the best relationship of my life.” When she was 8, she had seen a small child fall from a balcony, and “the spectre of death began to haunt me … [but] dialogue with my parents [on this topic] was not open”. She spoke about the ways in which children are curious about death, but we tell them that their interest is dirty, or weird, or wrong. This is one of the many things Doughty wants to change.

Another is the way that the professionalisation of death has distanced us from the dead body. A century ago in the Western world, the family cared for the corpse; dead bodies lay in state in the home and then were carried out for burial. Only in the 20th century have we developed a professionalised class of death workers, who come and remove the corpse from the home (or, more likely, hospital) and take it away. “Nowadays, being around a corpse causes terror and confusion … We have a weird, ‘uncanny valley’, creeped-out relationship with the dead body.”

One of the many things I learned from Doughty in this session – and I look forward to learning more from her book that I bought, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – is the history of embalming. “Originally embalming was an American thing – you’re welcome – and was used during the civil war to keep bodies preserved long enough to transport them back to the north.” Embalmers would follow the battles and set up stalls, sometimes embellished with a heavily embalmed unclaimed corpse to serve as advertising. And then, after the war ended and the demand threatened to dry up, the embalming chemical companies invested heavily in training people as embalmers and selling their services. And so the funeral industry developed. “New Zealanders are the second most regular embalmers after Americans, you’re welcome for that as well.”

One of the most common objections to embalming that Doughty hears from mourners is that it makes the corpse look strange, which interferes with the grieving process. This is something else Doughty wants to change. “Sitting with the corpse is always difficult and beautiful … There is a sacred quality to caring for the corpses of those we love.”

One thing Doughty warned us about, which reminded me of Atul Gawande’s talk at the Auckland Writers Festival last year, is that “the good death isn’t handed to you … you have to have the conversations and do the planning.” Particularly under our current medical system, which will try and keep you alive as long as possible, even when quality of life has deteriorated horribly. Doughty worked on the campaign that led to California recently passing a law that allows for assisted dying.

Recently Doughty has opened her own business, “the only non-profit funeral home in LA”. She offers a service of coming to your home to look after the corpse, but is finding that “once you explain to people that it’s safe and legal and how to do it, they do it themselves. It turns out they didn’t need a professional at all.”

Elliott asked about alternatives to traditional burial and cremation. There’s composting: “composting bodies is really quite a beautiful process … they turn to soil in 6-8 weeks”. And aquamation, using very hot water and lye, which “flash decomposes the body down to something like ash.” Or conservation burial, whereby you have yourself buried on some land in order to prevent it being developed, “like chaining yourself to a tree, but you’re dead”.

There was the inevitable audience question about the afterlife. Doughty says she visualises her life being like a film reel, which flaps off at the end into an empty white nothingness: “that brings me comfort”. And comfort, overall, is what I took from her session.

* I think it was a cravat. The names of different kinds of clothing isn’t really my area of specialty.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty interviewed by Marcus Elliott

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 9781782111030

 

WORD: Work / Sex, with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff and Julie Hill

Event_WorkSexIf Ivan E. Coyote did one of the best things a literary festival can do – broke my heart and then put it back together again made better – this session did another: forced me to examine my own unconscious bias and realise I was wrong.

Sex work is something I’ve never really thought much about, which means that most of the ideas I have about sex workers are those I’ve passively absorbed from the society and media around me. And, if there’s one thing feminism has taught me – and as Debbie Stoller said on Friday – it’s that received ideas, particularly about women, need to be carefully rethought. So thank you to Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, and especially Kate Holden, for prompting me to do some important rethinking.

They were on a panel chaired by Julie Hill. Conversation was lively, intelligent and stimulating (as per the usual very high standard of WORD), and all three women read from their latest books, which I tried in vain to buy from the bookstall afterwards (they had sold out).

Hodgkinson was working as stripper at the same time as editing student magazine Canta while studying. “I found the unregulated vibe of the industry really alluring … Writing is more difficult, it requires an element of emotional truth in order to succeed. With stripping, you can fake that.” For a long time she kept her stripping life secret. “I regret not having owned that part of myself publicly earlier … It annoyed me that people were making judgements about me based on what I did for a job … I was not personally ashamed, that shame got put on me from outside.”

Doff is a New Yorker who told us tales of working the champagne hustle in strip joints and bars in Times Square in the 70s and 80s: “I always wanted to be a hurly burly girl … I probably qualified as a drunk by the time I was 13 or 14.” She spoke unflinchingly of the danger of those times and the brutal rape she suffered that went practically unpunished: her rapist was just banned from the pub for a couple of weeks. “The mafia owned all the strip clubs and gay bars, the places where people couldn’t complain … Women were very, very replaceable … We formed foxhole friendships [with each other], under fire in the front lines of the war.”

Holden, an Australian author, says she was “such a dork” as a teenager, “really intimidated by other humans”. She had “a grand fantasy of doing something radical … Grunge was the making of me because it didn’t matter what you wore, I could just leap in and fake it … I wanted to do something that scared me … Heroin led me into sex work through force of economics.” Holden spoke eloquently about the custodial side of sex work, and how a lot of it involves caring for men who are lonely – and educating them about sex. She also spoke of the consorority: “In some ways it’s a perfect female society … We had such a range of womanhood on any shift [at the brothel] … It was exciting to see women experimenting with different kinds of boldness.”

I was particularly struck by Holden speaking about “the assumptive public discourse about sex workers … Whenever there’s violence against sex workers, the emphasis is always on their work … If plumber comes to your house they don’t need to bring a bodyguard in case you ravenously sexually attack them. It’s so arse about face that we think a sex worker is in charge of not being raped … Sex work is rated as a separate, exotic category of work. We’re not having panels about writers who have also been sandwich makers!”

I felt that tingle in my brain when you hear something and agree with it, but believing that new thing requires you to let go of a pre-existing idea you weren’t even aware you were holding. I felt some old ideas dissolve. I will be tracking down Holden’s book for sure.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Work / Sex
with Kate Holden, Leigh Hopkinson, Jodi Sh. Doff, chaired by Julie Hill

Under My Skin: A Memoir of Addiction
by Kate Holden
Published by Skyhorse Publishing
ISBN 9781611457988

Two Decades Naked
by Leigh Hopkinson
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733634833

WORD: Making it Overseas, with Ben Sanders, Tania Roxborogh and Helen Lowe

Event_Making-it-OverseasAll New Zealand authors dream of making it overseas – these three have. Tania Roxborogh has her historical novel (set in the time of Macbeth) Banquo’s Son in the UK, USA and Asia. Ben Sanders is Auckland-based, and his fourth novel, American Blood, is in the Australian, NZ, US and European markets. Helen Lowe is Christchurch-based, and all of her fantasy books have been published overseas, rather than in New Zealand. They are in the USA, UK, Australia and NZ and European markets.

Lowe was told straight out of the gates, that nobody in New Zealand would publish a fantasy series. After trying to sell her series to publishers in Australia and the USA herself, she gave up (she stopped counting rejections after 15) and realised a full series from an unknown author was too much of a gamble for any publisher to take at that point. She needed to write a stand-alone book. An Australian editor she had spoken to with her series advised her that she should try the US market, and find an agent. In response to a later question about how she found her agent she said – I looked at who the writers who wrote in my genre used: this triangulated at The Writer’s House, so that’s where I started and lucked out. Her new agent sold Thornspell in just three weeks, and the series sold after that, after about 4-5 months. Being published in the US opened up the world.

I had seen Ben Sanders’ rise over the past couple of years and thought he must have just been plucked from obscurity when Warner Brothers saw the unpublished manuscript of American Blood and optioned it. Oh no, it was a bit deeper than that! He had an agent offer to represent him after his first three books were published through HarperCollins NZ, and checked them out before accepting (note to readers: if somebody is offering to sell your book, always check them out first). His agent is through Wordlink. It took three years to get a book accepted, and happened mainly because he met an editor at Pan Macmillan personally while on holiday in New York. He had to set this book in America – hence American Blood, which was published last year in the US.

It took Tania Roxborogh seven years to be an overnight success. Her super-enthusiastic agent came on board in May 2009. It took until October 2014 to have any luck placing the novel with a publisher: by 10 January in 2015 she had a contract, with an advance of $10,000 US. It took a lot of persistence, and a lot of trust on both her agent’s and her part; but she got there!

Things she has learned: the Australian market is more accepting if NZ writers come via the UK publishing houses. And the sales are so much bigger than the NZ market: by the end of its run in 2015, Banquo’s Son had sold 5,600 copies. Internationally within 2 months in the UK market, 9,500 copies had sold. Vanda quipped, “You have finally harnessed the machine.”

All three of our guests have found having an agent essential, though none have experienced the ‘dream agent’ experience. The most helpful things with agents is they know what is being pitched, and they know what is being published by whom. Sanders said his agent was essential to get him contacts in New York. “Having an agent is like any business relationship, you have to go into it with your eyes open”, says Helen Lowe.

Vanda then asked whether being an author from a small country was an impediment to being published overseas. Not really, was the general agreement. Sanders’ Auckland crime novels weren’t picked up internationally until he agreed to ‘Americanise’ them. He is currently doing this, changing ‘petrol stations’ for ‘gas stations’, and the bonus of this is that he can change any errors he finds along the way. Sanders adds, “It’s not just a matter of if the editor says ‘yep I like it’ – that person needs to talk to the Editorial Director, and so on all the way up the commissioning chain.”

For Helen Lowe, she never had to worry about where they are set: she writes Fantasy, set in different worlds. And Thornspell was set in Middle-ish Europe. The US doesn’t even change the language in her books, they just change the spelling. Her UK publisher simply publishes it, US spelling and all, knowing their market doesn’t mind.

Lowe also addressed the idea of self-publication in the Fantasy genre. She thinks this only really works if you already famous: the main thing traditional publishing has over self-publishing is distribution. “And if you are doing it yourself, you will be locked into Amazon’s rights model, possibly not in favourable circumstances.”

This was a fascinating discussion, about something I’d long been curious about. In my day job at Booksellers NZ, I frequently post up announcements about the sales of US / UK rights: now I understand exactly why this is such a fantastic achievement for those hard-working authors that it happens to. Well done to Helen Lowe, Ben Sanders and Tania Roxborogh for being Olympic-class writers!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Making it Overseas – Ben Sanders, Helen Lowe and Tania Roxborogh

Daughter of Blood
by Helen Lowe
Published by Orbit
ISBN 9780356500058

Thornspell
by Helen Lowe
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780375844799

American Blood
by Ben Sanders
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760291570

Banquo’s Son
by Tania Roxborogh
Published by Thomas & Mercer
ISBN 9781503945821

WORD: Tim Flannery – An Atmosphere of Hope, with Simon Wilson

tim_flannery

Tim Flannery

Simon Wilson got an early laugh as he announced himself as “speaking on behalf of the Lorax.” He was an excellent chair, knowledgeable and entertaining.

A sobering fact of climate change to start with: if the earth’s temperature continues to rise at the current rate of increase, in 80 years the whole earth will be 4-5 degrees warmer on average. The sea levels will be at levels that they were 55 million years ago, and there will be virtually no ice caps. This will cause huge migrant populations, with flow-on effects including food shortages and economic problems.

To stay within 2 degrees of our current temperature, we have to reduce our CO2 emissions. Wilson was an excellent chair: one of his first questions was, on the scale of 1 – 100 in optimism in our ability to bring about change, with 100 being ‘it’s all going to be fine,’ where does Tim Flannery sit? In short, he was close to 1 seven years ago when the Copenhagen Climate Council (which he was involved in preparing for) failed to bring about change: he is now at 50 or 60, since the Paris Agreement in 2015. The significance of the Paris Agreement is that “we now have unified, consensual agreement to end the fossil fuel era.”

To put some context around this: Tim Flannery is one of the world’s experts on and authors about climate change. He is chairman of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international climate change awareness group, and from 2011 was the Chief Commissioner of the Climate Commission, a Federal Government body providing information on climate change to the Australian public. Until he was sacked by new Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

One of the key ways that Flannery thinks that as nations, we can make drastic cuts in emissions, is by shutting down all coal-powered Electricity plants. And his renewable energy of choice is something I hadn’t previously heard of: Concentrated solar power. “There’s a lot of way of doing this – mirrors, tower, super-heated objects.” You can store it in a lot of places – silica sand being an example. Port Augusta coal-powered Power Plant was the biggest emitter of CO2 in Australia: it has now been replaced by CSP. Sundrop Farms, an agricultural farm that is run using this technology, now grows 10% of all of Australia’s tomatoes. The biggest benefit of CST is that it can make our most worthless land – desert land – the most productive agricultural place on the planet. The challenge with regular solar power is that it can’t be stored – it needs a back-up for days that aren’t sunny.

Wilson put it out there that if you breed despair, we feel hopeless. But then if you generate hope, you are in danger of people just going well then we won’t worry about it – we’ll carry on as is. To this Flannery noted, “The single greatest impediment to implementing environmental change is that we haven’t got everybody along with us.” But despite all that there are solutions, and promising trends. China has started to close down a lot of their coal-powered plants, in favour of nuclear plants, and more renewable energy plants – and they are scaling up their electric car manufacture hugely.

The trend of electric cars, and driverless cars is something Flannery thinks is going to make our world unrecognisable within 20 years. My husband has been putting off learning to drive because he figures nobody will be soon – he may well be right. Certainly by the time my kids are grown up, they will be watching out for robot cars on the roads – or perhaps being driven by them.

Flannery thinks that developed countries have passed peak oil use, and that the idea that developing countries still need to go through this stage is a strategic challenge that these countries have to work through.

Politics and the environment
Here’s where things get revolutionary. Flannery believes that our system of government has taken us as far as we can go. He believes that decisions about money shouldn’t be in the same space as decisions about how to deal with climate change. With climate change, and anything that affects the whole world, we need to select citizen juries and give them all the facts scientists know. Flannery gained an enormous respect for the common sense of people while Climate Commissioner. “We have to break the nexus between money and corruption. If we can do that, we would get a long way forward.”

The conversation shifted to carbon credits at one point: at the moment, the price for carbon credits is random. To make any true difference to our CO2 emissions using our current methods we’d need to plant all of North America in forests. Flannery says, “We need to start making investments that are required to make a difference. We need to both reduce emissions, and find new ways of dealing with our world via technology.”

The reason Flannery has hope stems from a combination of factors: the two-year flat-lining of Co2 emissions, the fact we have the Paris Agreement, the changes in technology and social networks are among them.

There were some good audience questions at this session. How do we prepare for what is coming? Flannery quipped, “NZ needs to live up to its reputation of being clean and green. You guys have some great innovators. The government needs an innovation fund to foster this in areas we’ll need in the future”.

Ultimately, “We have to start preparing to adapt to the unavoidable. We need common sense regulations in place to deal with that.”

I am going to be reading more about this essential topic – I think we all need to. This is the world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. My sons will still be alive in 80 years; I don’t want them to be living in a ruin caused by us.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Atmosphere of Hope: Tim Flannery

Atmosphere of Hope
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355406

The Explorers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Classics
ISBN 9781921922435

We are the Weather Makers
by Tim Flannery
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781921145346

WORD: The Storyteller – Ivan E. Coyote

ivan003-copyThe best experiences at literary festivals are the ones where you can feel the change in the air as the speaker’s imagination and heart pour out of them and into the crowd. It was an honour and a joy to have Ivan E Coyote make a trembling mess of us all with their storytelling for one mesmerising hour.

Lucky me, this was my third time. I first saw Coyote on Friday night at The Stars Are On Fire. Everyone was buzzing about them afterwards. I saw Coyote again yesterday at Hear My Voice, another event with a line-up of excellent performers at which, once again, Coyote shone. Riotous applause echoed through the art gallery theatre. At one point Tusiata Avia said she didn’t realise you could make people laugh and cry at the same time. Coyote replied: “I call it the Coyote one-two”.

Coyote’s session this morning was a sell-out and then some, with staff rushing to bring in extra chairs and people standing at the back. Coyote was introduced by local poet Sophie Rea, and I have to give her props for her te reo pronunciation in her welcome: far too many Pakeha festival chairs either skip te reo entirely or rush through it with mangled vowels (including professional broadcasters who should know a lot better).

Coyote read to us from an upcoming collection that they are making in collaboration with a visual artist. The first story was a letter to their mother Patricia, whose beauty pageant tiara was taken away when the judges discovered she was pregnant with the person who would become Ivan. Coyote remembers “you with your hair in a perfect beehive, even when we were camping”. The letter was tender, funny, and somehow lightly yet intensely carrying enormous emotional weight. There were lines like: “now I am older I have replaced that word shame with others closer to gratitude or pride.” Or: “I don’t remember praying to god to make me a boy, I just wanted things to be different for girls.” These lines – not just their content but their delivery – seared us. Coyote was visibly emotional, pulling out their hankie to blow their nose every so often; saying “I’m not fine; I’m terrified”. Their honesty and bravery moved us to laughter and to tears. What an extraordinary act of generosity and intimacy to be so vulnerable up on stage in a crowded room. The Coyote one-two indeed.

This soul-baring stuff was interspersed with domestic detail. “I inherited your good teeth and love of a clean kitchen … Some people call it OCD, I call it ATD: attention to detail.” Coyote thinks of their mother every time they see the perfect lines of a vacuum-cleaned carpet.

In the second story, “Under My Chin”, Coyote told us the story of every scar on their body, from childhood chicken-pox marks to their mastectomy scars. They spoke about their nipples, how they didn’t see them until two weeks after the surgery and were worried the surgeons had changed them around. (“It really would have bothered me … Maybe it’s the ATD.”) Happily, they are still the right way round, although they have now lost all feeling; “they’re beyond numb”. Coyote said “I used to love my nipples, I just really hated having breasts … I traded the nipples I loved for the chest I needed … I feel like I’m standing in the right shape of me now.”

The third story they told was called “I Wish My Son”. People often write to Coyote to ask for help, and this story began with a letter from the mother of a trans son. “I get these letters I can’t ever be wise enough to answer properly … they haunt me like ghosts.” Coyote delivered line after line that tore right through us: “Most days I bend and stretch in the space I’ve made for myself in this world. But some days the world piles up behind my eyes and on my shoulders and the fear gets in. The truth is all I have to give you.”

Coyote spoke about putting things in their work that they’ve never dared to say to their family. “My mother learned a lot about me from my books … I don’t have the ovaries to tell her to her face.” They spoke with sadness about their family members who refuse to address them as Ivan. “My father does not want to understand.” They try not to let him hurt anything but the surface of them, but it pushes a space between them. “Every day that passes I become more of a stranger to him.”

What struck me particularly was Coyote’s compassion. “It took me 40 years to accept myself. By that math, I give my family another 42 years of practice before I expect them to have it down perfect.” Before including their family members in any of their books, they strictly examine their own motivations, and seek to honour the people they write about. “The basic message is to use your powers for good.”

The letter-writer in “I Wish My Son” spoke about researching trans theory in seeking to understand her son and finding that being trans means your body doesn’t match your brain. Coyote has never related to that theory. “It’s a handy narrative that puts responsibility onto trans people [rather than society] … My day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body … [but stem from being] trapped in world that makes very little spaces for bodies like mine. For me to be free, it’s the world that needs to change, not trans people.” Huge round of applause.

When Rea got back up on stage to interview Coyote, she was wiping away tears. She certainly wasn’t the only one. Rea asked Coyote about their work in schools. They told another story – another Coyote story, which means it was hilarious & tragic & warm, and provoking of thoughts and of many feelings – about turning up at a school to do an anti-bullying show. They found not only a protest from religious fundamentalists but also a counter-protest from the student gay-straight alliance group, who had had a bake sale to raise funds to get t-shirts printed with Coyote’s face on them. (Coyote called them “angry rainbow children”.) After their show, a kid wearing a Boy George t-shirt said to them accusingly: “you didn’t say one single gay thing at all!”. This got a huge laugh. Coyote has hope for the next generation: “I know we’re going to hell in a handbasket, but we’re in good hands.”

For the end of the session Coyote treated us to some more of the literary doritos (very short stories) they had performed at Hear My Voice. They said they had developed these for literary festivals so that the last thing the audience heard wasn’t some rambling ‘question’ (actually challenge) from some random guy. “No, I want to end it.” They did, and we cheered and cheered. A standing ovation seemed like such a meagre gift in return for Coyote’s generosity. Thank you Ivan. Please come back to Aotearoa again soon. Kei te aroha au ki a koe.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Storyteller: Ivan E Coyote

One in Every Crowd: Stories by Ivan E. Coyote
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN 9781551524597

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme
by Ivan E. Coyote, edited by Zena Sharman
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN 9781551523972

I Missed Her
by Ivan E. Coyote
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
ISBN  9781551523712

WORD: Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley with Kate De Goldi

cv_coming_rainComing Rain is the second and latest novel by New Zealand author, from Australia, Stephen Daisley. Kate De Goldi talked with him about his latest book, which won the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the recent Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

As De Goldi said, “Daisley lives in West Australia but is absolutely a Kiwi.” She started by outlining the key characters, an older man, Painter, and a younger man, Lou. The third main character is a Dingo bitch. Between these three runs tenderness and violence. The dingo is in pup and spends the story desperate for food and a safe place to whelp. The two men work together and the work is an important part of the narrative. Daisley read a long passage in which the men arrive at a shearing quarters and prepare food. As De Goldi points out, all the tools are named by their manufacturer which gives them a sense of importance in the story: a Green River skinning knife, a Kelly axe. It is probably the first in-depth description of actual work since the start of the 1900s.

De Goldi also commented on the prose where pronouns are often dropped which gives a fragmentary effect to the story. Daisley sees this as allowing the reader to become part of the narrative as they fill in the blanks with their own ideas. He creates “a new kind of music within the sentence”.

The influences of Irish and American writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck are important, but so too are Janet Frame and the New Zealand poets of her era. As Daisley quipped, he has a sign beside his computer which states,”Don’t show off, you bastard”.

Dingo is an important character in the story and one reader commented,”the best animal depiction since Watership Down.” Observing his own dogs helped in creating this close relationship with an animal which is so starkly portrayed.

The two men are formed by two wars and a depression. Daisley reflected at some length on how we are what has gone before. As Faulkner says,”there is no such thing as the past, we carry it with us”.

As a boy, Daisley wanted to write, but at 15 his mother suggested he would grow out of it. It took decades before his first book on Gallipolli, Traitor, was published, but the intervening years as soldier, shearer and farmer have seen him continue to write.

De Goldi had a perceptive understanding of Coming Rain, even surprising Stephen Daisley with her observations. It was a wonderful insight into the ideas behind the text and probably more so , to the person behind the story.

I look forward to more from this pen.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley with Kate De Goldi

Coming Rain
by Stephen Daisley
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182029

WORD: How to be a Writer, with Steve Hely

Event_How-to-be-a-Writer-Steve-HelySteve Hely is a comedic writer from the USA. He has written for many great TV shows, and his TV writing and how he got into this was the focus of the first part of this talk. First up, Hely apologises to all those in the audience who thought this was about how to be a writer, and takes the blame for the odd title (it was meant to be named after his novel How I Became a Famous Novelist.’

I’ll admit I was struggling by this point of the day. I really ought to have had a coffee before going into this session, but due to a quick turn-around, that was too hard. My miasma of tiredness wasn’t helped by the in-crowd angle Toby Manhire took during part of this interview. I have been enjoying each of the USA writers’ views on Trump and American politics however, and I’d recommend going along to The State Of America at 12.30pm here at The Piano.

Hely’s writing credits include the David Letterman Show, American Dad, 30 Rock, and Veep. He has also published the title named earlier, plus travel book The Wonder Trail. He wanted to be a TV writer from very young, and deliberately went to Harvard (after some of his favourite writers) so he could work at the Harvard Lampoon magazine. After college, he pitched his writing to Letterman, didn’t hear anything for months, moved to LA in the meantime, then to New York when he got the job.

The writing process for Letterman: “You got there and were told what the pitch was for that day. You’d pick a topic then you’d write jokes for it, then write some skits for the opening set piece.  You were in a box writing on your typewriter.” When he moved to comedy writing though, it became more collaborative – TV writers are aware that 1 + 1 = more than 2.The style of the writing room depends on the personality of the show-runner. “Sometimes they touch everything themselves, sometimes they delegate and let others deal with it.”

Hely was dubious about the idea of a US version of The Office, but by the time he came in as a writer it was through to its 7th season: there ended up being around 250 episodes of US The Office, compared to about 12 in the UK. In this writing group, writers were often transitioned to become actors, quite deliberately – to give them a sense of what they are doing.

They moved on then to talk about his books. Hely says, “It is helpful as a writer to be able to split your personality into different characters.” One of the reasons he wanted to be a novelist was to be invited to literary festivals. The theme of How I became a famous novelist was how much you could get away with, when pretending to be a writer. “I wanted to explore the line between being genuine and being a poser.” Hely also wanted to explore the difference between mass-market and literary fiction – he is interested in who we give literary awards to, and why.

While on hiatus from TV writing, he took a trip around Central and South America. He had pitched this to publishers before leaving, and when he was part-way through his agent sold the book: so then he had to write it. “I like to break my routine by travelling, and talking to strangers, and working out a new country. New Zealand has a culture of this, but I have encountered a lot of Americans who have never considered travelling. “

Trump

Hely attended the Republican Convention: “It was so tin pot, cheap, dictatorial, fascist and I hated to see it in the United States. Donald Trump is barf – US got so disgusted with the political system that they threw Trump up. Those who weren’t part of the the machine threw this up.” The only funny part of it was when Ted Cruz – “another despicable individual” – refused to endorse Trump. But as soon as Trump started talking he thought “No. We need to shut this down.”

One of the audience members asked whether it was getting harder to write political satire, given Trump is doing this himself? “The fact satire is being outpaced by reality is a problem.” It is, he says, hard to make fun of this guy who changes his mind at every turn. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that comedy’s job is to change people’s minds. The real value of it is making you feel less insane. It’s helpful to make people understand they aren’t alone.”

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

How to be a Writer, with Steve Hely

Steve Hely is also at:

The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm