Getting to Know Damien Wilkins

July 30th 2020

Ahead of the NZ Book Awards for Children & Young Adults announcement on August 12th, we caught up with Damien Wilkins: novelist, poet, musician, and Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters here at Victoria. Damien talks book buying habits, dipping a toe into the world of children’s publishing, and New Zealand’s writing workshop culture.

What is your day job?

I'm the Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters and I look after the PhD programme there.

What is your connection to Vic Books?

Longtime customer, occasional collaborator on bookish projects (readings/launches etc). A few years ago we did a series of coffee cups featuring NZ poets.

What are you working on at the moment?

A new novel. Early days. (That's not the title - just what I say before changing the subject. I am a secretive person.)

Your first YA novel Aspiring is a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. How does this make you feel? Do you still get nervous watching people receive (and judge!) your work?

I'm very pleased I have not been run out of town by the Children's Book Mafia or concerned parents. The award shortlisting is great since it gives the book a second wind, or maybe a first wind since it came out just as lockdown locked up all the books. I don't know if 'nervous' is quite right. I'm curious for sure. And rejection is painful. There are things in this book that I'm proud of, that I know are good. I think of those bits when doubt arrives. One of my favourite moments about an artist talking about the reception of their work is in the film about jazz musician Art Pepper called Notes from a Jazz Survivor. Pepper puts the needle down on the turntable and plays the opening minute of one of his own records and says, 'Listen to this. This is just so beautiful. And if you can't hear that, I have nothing for you.' And it IS staggeringly beautiful.

What was it like to write something with a younger audience in mind? Did you set out to do this purposefully, or did the intention come after the story started?

No it wasn't planned. I wanted to write about growing up in a place like Wanaka. A teenager is working in a restaurant. And then I just stuck with the teenager.

We'd love to know how studying creative writing in the United States compares to studying here in New Zealand - are there big differences between methods and ethos in the workshop room? Or is it more appropriate to ask how the field of creative writing study itself has changed over the years?

I was in St Louis from 1990-92. The workshop methods were pretty similar. But it was a very different time. Our teachers were mainly men in their 60s and older - big figures with imposing personalities. I really loved it - in the way you love going to an exciting play. Then you also love leaving the theatre and breathing the fresh air. Most people speak of the competitive nature of the US workshops. I didn't see that but I believe it. New Zealand writers tend to see the value in artistic communities - writers carrying on with workshopping after they graduate, that sort of thing. America can be a hard careerist place.

Where and how do you like to write? Does your process change when you're writing music? Do you have any writing rituals?

With fiction it's straight on to the computer. With music lyrics it's handwritten scribbles - usually just a few lines and then I write the rest with the guitar, strumming away, trying to fit the words in. That's more like carpentry. You want to tuck the edges of the words in.

What kind of book buyer are you? How big is your stack of "to-be-reads"?

Impulsive, reckless. Usually I'm reading something - a critical piece or an essay - and it'll mention a book and I'll be convinced I need it. I just bought a few novels by the English novelist Sally Vickers because I came across her like this. There are so many writers whose work I've missed or neglected or sometimes deliberately avoided for dumb reasons (too English, too middle class, too successful) and who turn out to be wonderful. I mean my generation of males probably didn't pay much attention to Margaret Drabble. We were too busy with William Gaddis. But The Millstone (Drabble's 1965 novel) is a masterpiece.

Books that you recommend?

Reading for Life by Philip Davis

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones

Say Something Back (poems) by Denise Riley

Cousins by Sally Vickers

The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing

What are you reading at the moment?

W.S. Graham: Poems selected by Michael Hoffman.

What do you like about it?

His capacity to write about tremendously strong emotions without appearing to. See his great poem (To Alexander Graham) about meeting his dead father in a dream. Bill Manhire (another Scottish poet) does the same amazing thing.

Which literary character do you most identify with? Why?

I don't know, but I feel extravagantly involved in the lives of the nuns in Kate O'Brien's great novel The Land of Spices. No idea why. But people should read Kate O'Brien. She was one of those banned in Ireland novelists whose work just looks so artful and complex that you wonder if the censors ever read them but just heard about the extra-marital sex or whatever.

Hardback or paperback?

Both!

Favourite coffee?

Three-quarter flat white.