A Conversation with Chad Taylor
Interviewed by Jane Robertson
Chad Taylor is a New Zealand born novelist whose most recent novel, The Church of John Coltrane, was published in France in January — in French. Taylor currently lives and work in London, where he is working on the final edit of his seventh novel. Prima Storia volunteer Jane Robertson recently caught up with Taylor in a café on Brick Lane, in London’s East End, for a candid chat about genrelessness, rootlessness and open endings.
Tell us about your new novel.
It’s called “The Church of John Coltrane,” and it’s coming out in France in May. I still don’t have an English language publisher for it, which is weird. It’s being published in France by Christian Bourgois. They’ve published my three previous novels so they are my most regular publisher now. I don’t know when it'll be out here or in New Zealand or in Australia or America. I’m working on a new one which will probably be out [in English] before “Coltrane” is.
What is the significance of the title - the reference to John Coltrane, and, of course, the reference to the African Orthodox Church of the same name?
That’s where the phrase came from, but it’s not to do with the church specificially. The novel is about jazz — about a man [Robert Marling from the novel “Heaven”] whose father dies and he inherits a jazz collection. I’d heard about the [John Coltrane] Church. I think the [John Coltrane Church] is a sort of a “Star Trek” church — a bit of its time. But I just loved that phrase — ‘The Church of John Coltrane’ — and carried it around for a while. I wanted to write about it. I thought the novel would be a more noirish crime sort of novel, but it’s not. it’s picaresque. it’s noirish. it’s about art and jazz and people having conversations about those things in an urban environment. So it’s quite a slow novel, quite quiet. When I was writing it, I said to my agent, “You know, I’ve got this idea for a novel,” and I told her about it, and there was a little bit of silence on the phone. She said, “You know, it might be hard selling something that's a bit quiet.”
That is interesting as well, the whole idea about the genre. There’s an article about you in The Guardian where they call you “the genreless” writer, and how you have created a new genre all your own, how you walk in your own world.
That’s not a good way to do it, is it? In my previous books I’ve basically deconstructed crime novels: I’ve taken aspects of crime novels, rewritten them, taken them apart. People used to ask me, “What do you write? Do you write kind of metaphysical crime, or...?” I just don’t know. But you have come up with a word for what you do. ‘Noir’ kind of fits it. I go back to the same elements again and again, the same environment. “Coltrane” will be the last novel, I think, that I'll write that's set in Auckland. The new one I’m writing is set in a completely different place. I felt that by going back to the same things [living in Auckland], I was at the risk of repeating myself. Every writer does that, I think, especially in terms of genre. I tend to write from the inside out. I pick what I’m writing and work out where I’m going from that point. The shape of the novel is the last thing that falls into place. The form is dictated by the content of the book. When you finish writing it, you look at it and ask: “OK, what sort of novel is this?” As opposed to having a chat with the publisher where you say, “I'll give you another lawyer novel” or whatever, and you write that and stick to it. I’ve always had a much more creative approach to it which makes for good art but not necessarily good business. Working that way makes the finished book a little bit hard to explain. But you can see [common] elements when you look at all of my books together. You can see the same things popping up.
At the bookstore you have fiction, and then there’s crime. it’s a weird separation.
Yes, and then you have this thing called ‘chick lit,’ which is really anything that has the same elements as “Bridget Jones’ Diary”... That genre is amazingly limited, you know? More limited than crime. Genre is really just shaped by what sells. The label has more to do with marketing than anything. It also has more to do with what editors are comfortable [with], and that shapes how the book is promoted. The good thing about [this categorisation] is that if the books do have a crime element then you can describe it is a kind of a crime novel, and after that everyone relaxes and gets on with reading it. I think that literature is, at the moment, as rigorous in its characteristics and rules as, say, chick lit. There are certain things that qualify as literature. Certain kinds of books win the Commonwealth Writers' prize and certain books win the Booker prize. Currently [the author’s] ethnicity and [cultural] inheritance is very, very important. Which doesn’t invalidate the work or make it, but there is some kind of bias in that post-modern idea that who you are defines what you write. You neuter literature that way. Writing has always been about people who make stuff up. There is too much emphasis on authenticity at the moment. It is not a coincidence that [we've recently seen] a lot of scandals about [non-fiction] authorship. This whole thing of the memoir. The memoir is always going to be a fictionalized narrative. That is what you do! You jazz things up and you lie. It’s fiction and all art is like that. The artifice of paint is that a painting is frozen on the wall. The artifice of music is that you repeat it over and over and over every night with the same emotions. The artifice of writing a convincing narrative is that you have just made it up.
Speaking of art, you come from an art school background. How has that influenced how you write?
“The artifice of paint is that a painting is frozen on the wall. The artifice of music is that you repeat it over and over and over every night with the same emotions. The artifice of writing a convincing narrative is that you have just made it up.”
I am influenced by my art school background in the way that I work... particularly in the method of finding something and fighting my way out through it... I pursue an idea to the point where it begins to enlarge. That idea becomes a narrative, and so that's where you begin: you think, ‘this is the narrative and this is where it’s going and this is who the main character is...’ I might not know that when I start out. I am horribly open to that. If I’d worked in a more conventional way I probably would have had a bit more of a career, to put it bluntly. So yeah, art school was a big influence. I still think that the whole kind of 1960s and 1950s idea of an art school where you learned technique and where you hung around and experimented — concentrated on the process and not the result — is a useful way of going about things. But I think that approach has been corrupted now. It has been taken over by business jargon. But it was a really good background to have. I think it’s a better background than the classic one of, say, to go off and do a law degree and then become a writer. When I was a student at Auckland University the English department was kind of weird and going through an extreme phase. It was quite ideological and not much fun. Art school was a better option in that there were more interesting people there. Now I’m at the age where I start to think that I could be more successful if I’d made different decisions. But there are just some things that I would have just never done or compromised on. I do think that I stayed in New Zealand for too long.
It’s just a smaller industry. I’ve traveled a lot and had overseas publishers. [In New Zealand] it’s harder to reach people, in the sense of promoting the book or working with publishers and finding people [to publish it]. It makes a big difference being stuck in a small place and far away from everybody.
What your opinion is of the whole literary scene in New Zealand? The influence of the Victoria University writing course, for instance.
“Your art, what you do, has to be fed by something, and when it stops being fed, you have to go find something else to feed it with. You need a variety of people and a variety of stories.”
Basically, [New Zealand] is small. The Victoria course has become dominant but, you know, that's their job. You can’t say that they're doing anything wrong. I am acutely aware that anything I say about this could be misinterpreted. I do think there is a very limited space in New Zealand media and a lot of writers come [out of that course] with a stamp of approval... I tutored for a semester at a parallel course at Auckland University run by Witi Ihimaera, which produces a lot of writers as well. But I had mixed feelings about it. There were some students there who were very good, but the two or three best writers there were the ones who weren't interested in it and were grumpy and emotional because they were impatient with the whole idea. I felt like saying to them: “If you want to be writers, You’ve already made the wrong move because you're here on a student loan and you're never going to earn enough from writing to pay it back.” Really, I felt very conflicted about it. I wasn't sure. But then again, I went to art school and went on to do something else, which was always the idea about art school to me. You went there and learned about how things worked creatively, how you worked creatively, and how the artistic process worked, and then you went off and did something else. Students graduated and formed bands and design companies or became film makers. That seemed like a good way of doing things because you were finding yourself. Whereas the danger of a writing course — any course: in the States, anywhere — is that they can become very prescriptive: “Check these boxes to make literature.” I’m totally in a bind about it. I can be highly critical of it and I can see the point of it. You can't be critical about people who want to do something creative and you can't be critical if they're good and smart enough to plan ahead and say, “This is what I need to do to get ahead in my career.” There's always going to be a danger [in New Zealand] that any writing course will be seen as too dominant because the country's just so fucking small. So, there's probably a reason why I’m sitting in London. it’s nice to be in a big city. it’s nice to be anonymous and it’s really nice to get input from somewhere else. I think if you are creative [in a small country] it can be suffocating because everyone knows you. There's no room to breathe. And I just can't tolerating reading or hearing anything more about the [Rugby] World Cup! I’ve reached saturation point with sports and politics. I can't even talk about that without sounding negative. Your art, what you do, has to be fed by something, and when it stops being fed, you have to go find something else to feed it with. You need a variety of people and a variety of stories. I’m at an age when most people are settling down but I never feel like settling down really. I’m very bad at settling down. I do like a routine, and I’ve always liked somewhere cheap to live! Being in a place like London when the economy's falling apart is a really enticing prospect. I think: “Maybe this could work.” it’s just nice to be able to wander, you know. it’s nice to be able to meet different people and find things to write about.
How do you feel about New Zealand’s preocupation with its own identity? As a New Zealander in New Zealand, you can't get away from it. You don’t have to have that here.
“What is happening in New Zealand isn't the search for a sense of identity, it’s a search for branding and trade marking which can be commercialized”
The search for identity is a panic. it’s like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: you’ll never get it. Identity or culture is something that's decided in retrospect. What is happening in New Zealand isn't the search for a sense of identity so much as a search for branding and trade marks that can be commercialized, which is a process of selling and marketing. Which is fine — but it’s got nothing to do with emotions. it’s a marketing exercise and marketing is not culture. Culture is something that you realize once you're a very long way down the road and you can look back and say: “Oh. That was culture — then.” You can only look inward for so long. You have to get some stuff from elsewhere. You have to open up. The best thing about Auckland at the moment is the huge influx of different communities, like the Koreans and the Chinese, for instance. When I was writing “The Church of John Coltrane” I suddenly realized that all the characters I was writing about were Asian, because that's what the street life in Auckland is like now. If someone reading “Coltrane” wasn't from New Zealand they could be confused by all these Asian characters. It may sound contrived but Auckland is becoming more international. London is like that. In New Zealand everyone is screaming: “We have to find our native culture!” But where's the native culture in New York? it’s all Italian or Jewish or whatever. Where's the “native” culture in London? So that whole thing about the search for identity, it’s of no help to anyone. it’s just a clothing label.
You’ve had a film made out of one book “Heaven”, and “Departure Lounge” was dramatized for radio. Do you have any more options on your books or anything like that?
"Electric” was optioned and I wrote some scripts for it. It was a very long process. It took about two years. Then the producers failed to get any further funding for it from the [New Zealand] Film Commission. There was a creative difference between the producers about what direction we should take with it after that so when the option came up for renewal, I said, “Look. Maybe this should just stop now. Because I just know what's going to happen. it’s going to go nowhere.” So, there was something happening with that, but there’s not now. Now a friend of mine, the composer Warwick Blair, is working on a musical composition based on the book. That's very exciting. It seems to be going quite well. There’s a Los Angeles producer who contacted me about “Electric” and he is quite keen... but [filmmaking] is such a lengthy process and you can't write while you’re doing it. You end up spending so much time dealing with lawyers that really what you are doing is being a businessman. You’ve just spent three years writing the book and you have to spend three years arguing about Clause 2(c). And when you have two producers and a director you end up being the person who runs between them trying to find agreement. I’m not really interested in negotiating. I think someone else should be doing the negotiating!
Would you write the screenplay for it if the project comes about?
I don’t care any more. it’s the nature of creativity that you want to do different things. You don’t want to be talking to the same people about the same things over and over, whereas that's exactly what film people are very good at. They are always “on topic.” In order to write, you have to be thinking of new ideas and coming up with new ideas and be open to change... Come to think about it, there is someone else interested in “Electric” as well! There has been a lot of interest in that book in particular. But I think that the form, the structure of the book, makes it difficult to adapt. They struggled with “Heaven". You could make “Electric” in two or three different ways. That was in the book and that's great in a novel, but in a movie sometimes you have to make it more specific to a genre. Maybe it all comes back to the whole genre thing.
Do you read when you write and who have you been reading?
“I don’t really like the big whizz-bang ending. I like that kind of entropic ending both Heaven and Departure Lounge have.”
Yeah, I do. I like Barry Gifford, who wrote “The Sinaloa Story". He also wrote “Wild at Heart", which is not as good. Are you a Patricia Highsmith fan? She wrote a great book called “The Tremor of Forgery". it’s one of the more interesting books that I’ve read, almost like a Murakami novel. it’s about a writer who is commissioned by a producer to write a script. He goes away to work on it in, I think, Tangiers. Stop me if You’ve heard this one before. it’s a classic trope. But the producer commits suicide and the writer is stuck with an unfinished script. it’s a novel imbued with mystery. it’s very open-ended. it’s a remarkable book. It starts off like “The Talented Mr Ripley” and then unwinds into a Paul Bowles novel. I always like the minor work. The more obscure, the more I love it. I like a lot of Murakami’s work, its unwinding quality. That's a conflict in all the novels I like. I like them to have a plot, the twists and big driving elements about money or sex or intrigue or death, a big story element, but then once you have established that tension, to just let it kind of unravel. I don’t really like the big whizz-bang ending. I like that kind of flat, entropic ending, which both “Heaven” and “Departure Lounge” have. “Electric” ends very quickly, like a Jim Thompson novel – he does that very well. “The Church of John Coltrane” is like that, too. That's why it hasn’t found a publisher [in English]. But it’s my favorite book I’ve ever written. I am really, really proud of it. Everyone says, “ah, but I didn't get the ending.” And I’m like: but you're not meant to! it’s a writer's ending. Something like the ending of “The Sopranos", right? Every writer loves that ending. Everyone else hates it!
I don’t know if you agree with this, but your writing, mainly in the past, has gone from being quite grounded in realism to, not necessarily going towards surrealism, but going to a different place.
I hadn't noticed that. Somebody else has commented on that and it’s quite possible. What I write is provoked by real things and people I’ve known. it’s really funny, but with “Departure Lounge” and “Electric” especially, I can point to — even introduce you to the people if you want. At moments people said, “Oh, this isn't really real.” There's a little bit of a denial with “Electric” in particular, people saying, “Auckland’s it’s not really like that.” “Departure Lounge” was a little bit more poetic, so, yeah, maybe surreal. The book had some quite dream-like moments. Maybe that's occurring more. The new one – the new thing I’m working on, is historical, actually. I didn't know that I would write it that way. I’ve also been working on some new short stories for a crime anthology.
So you are still writing short stories?
When I finished “Coltrane” I was completely exhausted, so I sat down and wrote half a dozen proper crime stories, almost as a formal exercise. I thought I'd have some fun, you know? So I wrote these little stories and there was no kind of fantastic phenomenon at all, no dream-like element. You find what you are interested in but then after a few drinks everything seems unreal, you know? I’m struck by how unreal most situations are and how easy it is for people to lose their grip on reality. “Departure Lounge” was almost grubby and narrow but the characters had a lot of metaphysical insights. That's very much the case with “The Church of John Coltrane.” Maybe it’s a trend in my work, I don’t know. I went to the [recent] Francis Bacon exhibition [at the Tate Britain] because I’m a big fan. With him you can see that — there's a point where he's just not interested in painting the same guys in the same room anymore, and instead is doing really amazing portraits. How could you just do the same thing over and over again, the same images? You couldn't be that disturbed or drunk all the time. There has to be a certain degree of artifice in what you do but that’s also honest because all you are doing is coming back to what fascinates you. I mull over that surreal thing. “Coltrane” is probably the most surreal thing that I have written. But then again, it’s all about... it’s not like there are spaceships or anything. it’s all about people doing normal things. Going in and out of rooms. It’s just that sometimes in the rooms you discover a quality that's a little hyped up.
Would you ever write science fiction, and are you a Ballard fan?
If it was the old science fiction, what science fiction used to be — yes. I hate any kind of fantasy – trilogy, quadrilogy, octology, ring world, disc world... I remember reading the “Lord of the Rings” and thinking, I can see why this is famous, but I hate it. I’ve always hated it. I’ve just got no time for it. “Crash” is just the novel. “Crash” and “Naked Lunch” are two seminal novels that neither author could get close to achieving again. It makes you wonder whether they were as good as they were. Ballard, particularly. His other work is just such a fucking disappointment. You just want him to go back and get that same kind of groove again.
Do you plan to finish your new book in London?
I am getting a tremendous amount of work done, an amazing amount. I’m on about the third draft [of my new novel] and it’s the first draft that I feel like showing to anyone. I’m hoping it will be ready late January, early February. It’s great here. I’m getting up in the morning and walking down the road to somewhere like this [café] and just working. Maybe the best way to work is to remove yourself from people socially and travel. But you do need a work space. For a writer, that's the only thing you really need.
You're often referred to as a cult writer.
Damn. What I’ve always wanted to be! I’ve wanted to be a sell out. That's what I start doing every time. I'd like to write like a crime novel but it never goes that way.
You’ve had extrodinary reviews. One reviewer wrote: ‘he writes like a police horse in a riot’. Another called you ‘the Nick Cave of New Zealand Literature’.
I have had these really good, really, really good reviews and I’m really grateful for them. The Australian interviews for “Electric” were just amazing. I think, wow, I am really doing something good. But – and I’m not quite sure how to say this, and I don’t say it in a resentful way — but it would be great if I could turn those reviews into more material wealth, more security. I mean, I am doing fine: I am doing what I want to do. Not many people get to say that, but it would be good if there was a little more money in it.
How do you see your career unfolding?
Put ‘career’ in inverted commas! I don’t think of it as a career. I just think of it as a series of interruptions. I write a book, get a job or a grant, write another book — I monkey-bar between them. I am in London on the same kind of tourist visa as everyone else. And it feels really good being on a tourist visa, I like that. I like being an out of towner and I like not being located. I thought I would find it stressful because I do like having a box around me in which to write. I do like to nest. Writers typically like to live in, you know, the classic villa, and then to fill that with lots of books and records and a great stereo. But there is a point when I think, actually, I don’t want any of those things. There is a point where you just want to toss all that out.
About this Interview
A Conversation with Chad Taylor was published on 5th June, 2009.
Jane Robertson is a television producer and writer. She lives in London.