A memoir of a brief wondrous humiliation at the Auckland Writers Festival
I think of many circumstances in which I’d have been delighted to meet British biographer and critic Hermione Lee, but finding myself sitting opposite her moments after staggering in shock from the main auditorium of Auckland’s Aotea Centre having been humiliated in front of an audience of hundreds wasn’t one of them.
Lee – an intellectual crush since I was a teenager thanks to her appearances on television book programmes and reviews in The Observer newspaper – was kindness incarnate, reassuring me my just-finished event with Dominican-American Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner Junot Díaz as part of the 2008 Auckland Writers Festival hadn’t been the disaster I was convinced it had been.
The table at which we sat also included Australian writer Luke Davies (author of the novel Candy), who was equally generous spirited. I’d wandered to it in a daze, drawn to the friendly smile of a publicist acquaintance without registering the presence of the other two. Not quite the rock I’d wanted to crawl under.
I’ve only once seen a comedian ‘die’ on stage. It was at a press awards ceremony. The comedian was a respected one and on any other night would have excelled. But not with this audience. Journalists are a tough crowd and his jokes fell flat. The silence instead of laughter was excruciating and might well have been the longest half-hour of his life.
It was definitely one of the longest of mine – to be joined on the evening of Friday 16 May 2008 by what had been billed as An Hour with Junot Díaz but for which reaching even half an hour felt like an epic achievement.
Writers festival interviewers are given copious notes about how to conduct their event but nothing in those notes readies you for when your writer arrives in the green room beforehand and challenges the very premise of the event – a premise for which hundreds of people have paid good money.
An hour? Who wants an event that long? An interview? That’s boring and old hat. No one wants one of those. Let’s get that bit out of the way as quickly as possible, hand most of the session over to audience questions and then be done with it.
While on the inside I hyperventilated and bellowed “WTF? WTF? WTF?”, on the outside I afforded Díaz my rapt attention and remained composed and tight lipped with nary a raised eyebrow, as though his proposal were the most reasonable in the world.
On reflection, I realise this is when I should have excused myself from the room and ran as fast as I could through the backstage corridors of the Aotea Centre to find the festival director to talk sense into this madman. Or maybe I should have just run from the building altogether.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Instead, with the clock ticking fast towards the start of our hour (or whatever it was now going to be), I took on the job of changing Díaz’s mind myself.
The audience would be expecting their full hour. They were unlikely to have enough questions themselves to fill that. In any case, audience questions tend to be haphazard and lack the focus of a structured interview. When they’re questions at all. Don’t worry, I had lots of questions. I was prepared.
Blah blah blah. (WTF? WTF? WTF?)
Díaz didn’t say anything to suggest he agreed with any of this, but nor did he explicitly disagree, so I assumed blithely that the danger had passed.
We made small talk and, as we walked to the rear of the stage to be miked up, discussed Díaz’s interest in Margaret Mahy. I can’t remember if he brought this up or me. I think it was me – forsaking the spontaneity of first doing so on stage to reassure Díaz one last time that “I’ve done my research, I’ve got this.”
I may well have done my research, but I did not have this.
I’ve always assumed that for festivals there’s a tacitly agreed compact between writer and interviewer. The interviewer will have done the necessary reading, have good questions, keep an eye on the clock and ensure things keep moving along at a fair old clip, even interrupting the writer to get them back on track if they’re diverted down some rabbit hole. All the time, the interviewer will remain as invisible as possible. The audience isn’t there to see them. The writer is the star of the show.
In return for this service, the writer need only avoid monosyllabic replies and give good expansive (although not too expansive) answers.
Writers festival interviews, onstage in front of an audience as they are, are different from other interviews a journalist (as I was then) might conduct. In print, on television even, an interviewer can go hard on a writer. Onstage, in front of an audience there for someone they presumably like, you might prod gently in an area or two, but mostly you have to play nice.
The writers festival interview, as illuminating as it can be, owes more to the chat show than to journalism. The interviewer is there to help the writer shine, not to embarrass them. Hence why you will hear extensive encomiums to Witi Ihimaera whenever he appears at a festival, touching on every nook and cranny of his CV, but will never encounter the elephant in the room: the plagiarism controversy that marred his 2009 novel, The Trowenna Sea.
Given the above, it seems the height of bad manners for a writer to throw their interviewer under the bus.
I’d only ever experienced it once before – with thankfully another interviewer the victim. The late Lydia Wevers had asked American writer Jonathan Franzen an admittedly slightly over-intellectualised question, Wevers’s immense intellect being hard to suppress sometimes, and Franzen (Franzen of all people) professed not to understand. Presumably in order to curry favour with the audience and to seem less like a man who, I don’t know, might be so far up himself he’d complain about his breakout bestseller The Corrections being selected for something so déclassé as Oprah Winfrey’s book club. (Those predisposed to take a dim view of Franzen should read Louise Wareham Leonard’s witheringly funny account of the same New Zealand visit by “the world’s most famous North American novelist” in her semi-autobiographical short-story collection 52 Men.)
Wevers’s mistake was to have paid Franzen the courtesy of preparing fully for their interview and taking his work seriously.
I’d likewise prepared for Díaz. I admired him. I’d had an enjoyable interview with him about his 1997 debut short-story collection, Drown; had commissioned Paula Morris to conduct the first New Zealand interview with him about his debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; and had reviewed the novel enthusiastically after it was released shortly before the Auckland Writers Festival.
I knew Díaz’s writing back to front and had read every interview with him going. Too many interviews perhaps. As he asked just a few questions in, was I going to quote everything he’d said?
There were nicer ways to have put it, but he was right, and I recalibrated accordingly, albeit protesting – sounding more like a whiny pre-schooler than I intended – that “I knew you were going to say that”.
That danger that had passed? This was my first inkling it hadn’t.
I scored a couple of successes. Díaz talked about Mahy and also Martin Campbell, the New Zealander who directed cult 1980s British television drama series Edge of Darkness, of which Díaz was a fan. (I’d forgotten about Campbell until reading, ahead of writing this article, Richard Liddicoat’s write-up of his interview with Díaz for Christchurch City Libraries’ blog. Liddicoat seems to have got on better with Díaz than I did and to have spent rather more time with him.)
But I was soon floundering again. I’d asked Díaz about exposing so much of himself in his fiction and he’d demurred glibly by saying it wasn’t as if he were physically exposing himself or baring his ‘ass’. Baulking at his disingenuousness, I pressed the point, arguing that being physically exposed and baring your ‘ass’ was easy compared with the emotional and psychological self-exposure in his books.
I remember pausing briefly mid-sentence to decide between replicating Díaz’s ‘ass’ or going with my own natural English equivalent, ‘arse’. The former would sound false in my accent, the latter would sound, well, arsey. In the end what came out of my mouth fell somewhere in between. It can’t have helped. He probably thought I was taking the piss.
But then I suspect Díaz was just looking for an excuse to pull the plug. And pull it he did shortly afterwards, inviting audience questions, and when they dried up as quickly as predicted so did the hour. Well short of an hour, although to this day I’m not sure how short. I think we got past the half-hour mark, but did we make it to 45 minutes? I’ve no idea.
Even at the time, I could only think there was ‘something going on’ in another part of Díaz’s life. How else to explain his extraordinary behaviour? Sure, I was a relative novice to the onstage interview and my technique wasn’t exactly stellar. But even allowing for that, Díaz’s behaviour was unacceptable. And in any case he’d foreshadowed the event’s outcome before even seeing me in action.
In 2012, Díaz published the short-story collection This is How You Lose Her, featuring his recurring fictional alter-ego Yunior. I couldn’t help but indulge in that raised eyebrow I’d denied myself earlier when I read its final story, The Cheater’s Guide to Love, in which the sex addict narrator’s lawyer fiancée has caught him out and their relationship proceeds to unravel rapidly. Remembering someone had told me Díaz was at the Auckland Writers Festival with his lawyer girlfriend (possibly fiancée), I read:
“Over a tortured six-month period you will fly to the DR, to Mexico (for the funeral of a friend), to New Zealand. You will walk the beach where they filmed The Piano, something she’s always wanted to do, and now, in penitent desperation, you give it to her. She is immensely sad on that beach and she walks up and down the shining sand alone, bare feet in the freezing water, and when you try to hug her she says, Don’t. She stares at the rocks jutting out of the water, the wind taking her hair straight back. On the ride back to the hotel, up through those wild steeps, you pick up a pair of hitchhikers, a couple, so mixed it’s ridiculous, and so giddy with love that you almost throw them out of the car. She says nothing. Later, in the hotel, she will cry.”
I know, I know: fiction, even semi-autobiographical fiction, doesn’t correspond directly with reality. If Yunior is Díaz’s equivalent of Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, we all know how Roth liked to mess with his readers.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but speculate.
Then, in 2018, The New Yorker published Díaz’s essay “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma”, in which he wrote about being raped as an eight-year-old and its impact on his subsequent life, including his sexual conduct. Examples of that sexual (and other) conduct were subject to allegations by the women involved.
Some admired Díaz for what they saw as a post-#MeToo self-reckoning; others questioned his motivation and sincerity. Whatever the case, surely something or other was indeed going on during that 2008 Auckland Writers Festival visit. Perhaps I was just a small piece of collateral damage in a larger psychodrama.
Distressing though it was for me at the time, precisely because it was so distressing, I’ve tried hard to forget about the incident and had pretty much done so until I was asked to write this article. I’d hoped others had forgotten about it too, but the request shows not everyone has.
Still, I’m sure one person at least has done so. I doubt Junot Díaz ever gave it a second thought.
The 2022 Auckland Writers takes place this week, featuring events such as Vincent O’Malley onstage with his partner Joanna Kidman, an intergenerational poetry reading by Kevin Ireland, Anne Kennedy and Tayi Tibble, a sold-out memoir workshop held by Charlotte Grimshaw, and Noelle McCarthy will interview Janie Campion, the director of The Piano, that film so resonant with Junot Diaz.