Friday, 7 March 2014

An hour with Jack Lasenby

Saturday 12-1pm: first session at Writers Week for me - Jack Lasenby in conversation with Kate de Goldi for an hour; what could be a better way to start?

Jack Lasenby

Kate was obviously fighting Jack's natural modesty to know how to describe him, but she managed to fit in "much garlanded, much loved , distinguished New Zealand writer" and placed him firmly in the company of Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Maurice Gee as one of a quartet of NZ's best children's writers. That led on to an interesting discussion as to whether Jack sees writing for children as an act any different from writing for anyone else. "No" was the short answer. He went on to explain how there weren't many books in Waharoa, growing up in the 1930s, and they just read "whatever was there". There was no sense of any difference between what was written for adults and children, and that  has formed his attitude ever since.

Kate and Jack talked through his writing career, from the first short stories he started writing in the 1950s, to the very first (still unpublished) children's novel he sent to the publisher Janet Paul. When he asked her about it, Janet said, "I'd love to talk about your book, Jack, but mostly I'm interested in what's happened to your brother Alwyn!" He recalled some lovely anecdotes from his long-standing friendship with Margaret Mahy, which began memorably in Stage 2 English in the Old Arts Building at Auckland University.

Kate talked about Jack's body of work as being divided into three main strands: realist stories such as Mangrove summer, fantasy/dystopian works such as Calling the Gods and the tall tales like the Uncle Trev stories. These last, Jack said, had their origin in his Waharoa childhood where "people told stories" and he had an Uncle Chris, the forerunner of Uncle Trev, who  "came and scared the wits out of us children - marvellously!" They also owed a debt to his years spent in the bush, deer culling;  story telling was a vital part of that life as well. To prove the point, he retold a wonderful anecdote about a deer hunter up in the seaward Kaikouras (with a great punchline) and then read one of his own stories, about Uncle Trev and Tip the dog. 

Kate noted how these stories also provide a great picture of New Zealand in the 1930s, a decade steeped in the Depression and overshadowed by the war past and the war still to come, and a way of life that has now largely disappeared. "I've seen so much disappear," Jack said. He remembered the saddler at Waharoa who had a wooden leg and always breathed through his mouth because he had been affected by gas in the trenches; men like him were mostly all dead by the 1950s.
Kate asked him about his "daily round", a question that often fascinates people. Jack, in his 80s, still works as hard as ever, except that he starts by 8 or 9am now instead of 5am, and tries to do a bit more exercise.  And he reads - "immensely" - or more often re-reads, books and authors like Tolstoy, Chekhov and Trollope, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Kipling's Kim. He says he's not giving up writing , "out of sheer cussedness", and he has books underway and more plans for more books: "It's as if there's no end to it!"

Jack has firm, quotable and enjoyable opinions about all sorts of things, such as television ("TV occupies but doesn't satisfy the inner mind with sustenance"). His Advice to Young Writers is typically humble, amusing and insightful.  "I've got nothing more than anyone else can say, except to read... But if you want to write, you have my total sympathy and support. Because there is a continuum in humanity of the storyteller and you can feel it - I can feel  it, every time I pick up a copy of the Iliad."

Lastly, a very happy birthday to Jack, turning 83 tomorrow.

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