On stage there were three chairs, three tumblers and a glass jug that would be a weapon in the wrong hands. Up they came, a pair of satirists bisected by a crime writer. The wall behind them was bare and white. In the absence of background colour (which tone would readers match to satire?) they would be forced to rely on wit and anecdote. On personal charm and vitriol: on revelation.
Lisa Scott spoke first, of Feedback from Readers. At one end of the continuum: a box of chocolates. At the other: a drawing of an appendage. (Hard to know, she said, if that was positive or negative feedback.) And a copy in the mail of a column of hers, with errors marked in red pen, a score of three out of ten and in capitals SEE ME.
‘Always in capital letters’, commented Steve Braunias (left), then he spoke too of feedback. There have been communications that have stood out, he said. An invitation to use a private house and pool in Fiji. He’s going in October. (Anyone who reads Braunias will not be surprised by such an offer. He’s quite explicit and unembarrassed in his solicitations.) But on the darker side, a letter writer in a prominent public position “crossed the line” by labelling him ugly and questioning if this trait will pass on to his daughter. Braunias went after the letter writer, strongly enough to be fired from his column- writing job by the national publication’s recently-arrived editor (“a weakling and a nincompoop”– the audience gasped) “Columnists come and go,” wrote the editor. “Editors come and go,” wrote Braunias. They were both correct. Five minutes in and we had already received our money’s worth.
Vanda Symon, with an ongoing excellent sense of when to place questions and how to maintain momentum, asked the two writers what they regarded to be the role of satire. “A fire starter,” said Scott (right). “A mirror held up to naked emperors. If you’re going to bare your ankles at me, I’ll bite them.” Braunias: “Satire is good for evoking situations and people as they really are. If you want to depict John Key, satire might be more effective than the positive descriptions chorused by most political commentators.” Symon asked if satire might have an effect on the behaviour of politicians and other subjects, to perhaps keep them honest? “God no, terrible question, three out of ten.”
The session moved on, following a certain rhythm. A question would be asked. If it was a tough one, Braunias, his untucked shirt rumpling before our eyes, would say “Lisa…?” and Scott would answer first. She spoke of her terror of deadlines, of hate mail, of the regret at hurting people’s feelings, of the women who have helped her along the way. She said that it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a paid writer, to have a national and in particular, a local audience. Braunias agreed that this was a wonderful thing. That he, too, owed his breaks to “really nice people.”
He said that he crossed the wide line between satire and slander rather too easily; he has been sued successfully any number of times. “It’s just a path you stumble along and next thing you know you’re fucked.” He was weary and laconic about his lapses in taste and judgement, about his column that took as its subject the otherwise heroic Julian Assange, who tweeted hostilely in response. “Oh Julian,” sighed Steve and reached once more for his long-empty tumbler.
The satirists and the crime writer had drunk the jug dry, drawn deeply from the well of personal experience, hit us with humour, honesty and talent. And a fair amount of grace. Amazing. It had been a revelatory hour, yet another one in an autumn festival filled with excellent hours.
Satirist with GSOH seeks Kindness and Lies: Lisa Scott and Steve Braunias, with Vanda Symon
Saturday, 9 May
Reviewed by Aaron Blaker
Check out WORD Christchurch Festival and Auckland Writer’s Festival for future events featuring Steve Braunias.