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March 8, 2004 | by  | in Features |
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Witi Ihimaera

Witi Ihimaera, one-time diplomat, movie producer, author and Victoria University old-boy, is coming back to campus in May. Along with special effects guru Richard Taylor, he is to be presented with an honorary doctorate. He talked to Matt Nippert about his most recent novel, Sky Dancer (Penguin, $34.95), the Oscars™, his role as associate producer for Whale Rider and the poverty of artists.

Was it difficult handing over creative control to someone else with Whale Rider?
I’ve always felt that the book is mine, the movie is Nikki’s. Having said that, Peter Wells, who had written the book on which Memory and Desire was based, told me: ‘Witi, she’s so good, I had to fire myself from the project.’

The reason why I’m a success is that Nikki Caro made a movie out of my book, and I’m fortunate as a writer that she made a damn fine movie. Possession, by A.S. Byatt was a terrible movie from a wonderful book. What Nikki did was make a wonderful movie out of a not-so-classic book, and in the process turned it into a classic. That’s where the difference is.

There’s a common conception amongst New Zealand artists that their work is not appreciated by the domestic audience. Does Whale Rider mark a breaking down of cultural cringe?

Well maybe by the time your article comes we’ll know whether Lord of the Rings and Whale Rider are up for Oscar contention. I have this wicked kind of expectation or hope that they’ll both be there.

Because they’re both for New Zealanders, at the extremes: one of them made by a fabulous director – Peter – based on Celtic mythology and a well known book, the other one done by Nikki Caro based on Maori mythology, and a not-so-well-known book.

These days what normally happens is that if your book is a best-seller in America then people fight to make it into a movie. This never happened with Whale Rider.

I was talking to a film journalist and saying to him ‘I think that the reason why Whale Rider worked for an overseas audience is something like the death of film: film story has collapsed on itself, it’s cannibalizing itself, they’re all looking the same, telling the same story, have the same kind of characters, girls with fingers through their hair and boys that strike poses. Whale Rider, and world film, film from other place like India and Yugoslavia, are subverting all of those notions and taking people to real places rather than film places.

It’s a bit of a long shot to hope Whale Rider ends up at the Oscars isn’t it? It’s low-budget, and doesn’t have big-name actors. Can it compete with Lord of the Rings?

Nobody makes movies for $US6m then win the kinds of awards it [Whale Rider] has. It was made with one camera primarily, and sometimes two cameras. It was made in front of the camera, on time. I think the shoot was six weeks. There’s only one special effect in there, and it’s so minor you wouldn’t even notice it..

We just didn’t have the kind of money to think, ‘okay well we can now do it in post production’. A lot of movies these days are made not just in front of the camera, but also behind the camera in post-production.

So I’m so proud of Nikki, because she’s made an honest film, what you see is what she photographed. Nobody dickered with it, she had to find the best cameraman she could, to get a print as clean and as fresh as that. There was no technical wizz-bang stuff to make it better. When you realize that the film was made with that amount of money, with one camera, sometimes two, with a cast that only included four actors who had ever acted before – and that it looks like that, and that it tells its story so beautifully. It’s just a huge artistic achievement.

That’s what I’d like to think I do with my work too, that what you see is what you get. What you see is artistry. I’m very proud of Nikki for what she’s done. And for that young actress, Kiesha Castle-Hughes, to do what she did, with what? Two month’s preparation, no background, no nothing. To be able to be directed in such an honest way was so profoundly moving to know that we can do that kind of work in New Zealand.

I’m really glad that New Zealand, especially a younger New Zealand, not my generation, is more outward-looking, is more able to see the possibilities of living as a New Zealander, but living in the world. The successes that we have in film have transformed the way in which we look at ourselves, I’m really so glad about that. Just to show you can be a success in Ekatahuna, and you can also be a success in Los Angeles.

Although success in Ekatahuna is quite different from success in Los Angeles…

It’s the same with writing books. Everytime I look at Maurice Gee’s work, or Patricia Grace’s work, I’m always stunned at what they’ve achieved. If they were working overseas they would not be working, I would not be working. They would be supported, I would be supported. Let me fire you an example:

Sky Dancer has know sold out 4,000 copies at $34.95, of which I get 10 percent in royalties – $3.45 for every book. From 4,000 copies I will realise $14,000.

It’s not a lot of money, so we do it for love, we do it because we have this commitment. I remember Maurice Gee saying once on the radio, he won an award for about $12,000 and the interviewer was saying ‘what are you going to do with this money?’ And he said ‘oh well, there’s a thing called the mortgage, and this will help to pay it off.’

We are people who lead a truthful existence in New Zealand as artists. So that should make us feel even more proud of the kinds of texts and the kinds of witness that we make of our society is done because we want to do it. NZ should be very thankful for its artists, all of them live on the smell of an oily rag. We iconise Ralph Hotere, we’ve sold 200,000, 300,000 dollars of his work. Does he see any of it? No.

You studied at Victoria for a time, how did you find the experience?

I got a very bad BA, probably illegal. But Victoria was the place where I first heard Anthony Burgess speak, and going to Victoria opened my eyes in terms of what was possible for a young Maori student who was seriously brainless; in terms of opening up and transforming him into the intellectual and career possibilities that could be if he committed himself to a career in literature. Victoria put me on the path, and I’m actually getting an honorary degree…

At the same time as Richard Taylor from Weta…

Oh that’s good. I saw him coming back from LA with his Academy Award, and that was just an amazing experience – to see how proud he was…

Richard Taylor also had a rough time at the start of his academic career – he only got into design school after someone else dropped out.

I had the same experience. I was 18 by the time I left school – I was the oldest boy in high school – and then it took me nine years of C+ passes to get a BA. I have this lecture I give to all my classes, and it’s always the first one, and it is: ‘you are seeing before you a man who should actually not be teaching you. You know more about the subject I do already. However, I am your professor, you will call me sir.’

It was so difficult sometimes to be in a class where there were wonderful, highly qualified, young students. And in the end it’s not so much what you learn, it’s what you do with it. I just managed to find ways putting what I learnt at Victoria into practise, and I’ve had fun ever since. It’s been the most wonderful, luminous journey, and a total accident.

There’s oodles of pop culture in Sky Dancer, what’s the attraction of using contemporary motifs?

Because I love those movies – Matrix, Matrix: Reloaded, Matrix: Revolutions, Terminator 1, 2 and 3. The first Terminator was the best. Alien, Aliens. The first one is fantastic, brilliant. The Thing, John Carpenter, I like John Carpenter’s work.

If you’re a serious author you try and invoke Shakespeare. So you have Shakespearean references in your work. If I was a serious writer I would invoke Kurosawa. Well, I’m still a serious writer, but I’m invoking popular fiction and popular film because if I want to speak to a young audience, that’s where they are.

So with a lot of novels these days, we’re involved with pastiche, we’re involved with postmodernism. I’ve tried to create a pulp fiction, post-modernist world, a cy-bird text.
And to say that in New Zealand we can see our fictions or fantasies, we don’t need to do more Lord of the Rings – we can make our own fantasies cleverly enough and wise enough and if we have the courage…?

It’s about time that fantasy in NZ was regard as a quality genre.

But you’re a serious author, do people have trouble taking Witi the fantasist seriously?

When people first heard I was writing this book, they kind of screwed up their noses as if this was something that I should not do. But in fact I’ve been called courageous by a lot of people because I’ve made my reputation by writing what is considered to be quality fiction – fiction that’s very serious, fiction that’s got some sort of profound message. But this time I wanted to write an adventure, I wanted to be funny, I wanted to let my humour loose on an unsuspected world, and I think I’ve done it.

I’m intrigued by your basing of a character on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Did you write this before he got mixed up in politics?

I wrote this in 2001. It was an absolutely fortunate event. This whole publication is fortunate, because I could have actually come out with a different book to this one. It was written in 2001, so it’s already two years old, so it came before Whale Rider became a success. But it’s actually the best book to come out at this point in my career, I didn’t intend it to be that way, just it’s published two years down the track.

So I guess the character of Cora (a coke-snorting newsreader) predated Darren McDonald.

Ahhhhhh right … ok yep. All of that. [laughs] Way before, way before.

Who were your other influences in writing this book?

I’m actually a closet fantasy reader. I grew up on a diet of J.G. Ballard. What he did in The Drowned World and The Wind From Nowhere was take you to a place where you’d never been before. And he imagined it in such a spectacular way.

I’ve also tried to imagine an alternate world for Sky Dancer – obviously not to the same sort of quality that Ballard does, or P.K. Dick does – because Dick is a much more cerebral, they’re both more cerebral writers, than I am.

I guess that Sky Dancer would probably be a cross between Anne McCaffery with some Stephen King thrown in. And Mark Twain, especially A Connecuit Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

I tried to be a Maori Mark Twain using my abilities as a writer to try to find the fantasy from within NZ and not from without. The fantasy genre in NZ is very small; Phillip Mann, and Maurice Gee with the Half-Men of O, and Under the Mountain. There’s also Peter Hooper who wrote Song of the Forest. And some Margaret Mahey.

But people also forget that Janet Frame wrote a kind of science fiction book, The Carpathians, it’s about how a Gravity Star affects a whole NZ community.

It’s a very slim tradition, and I’m trying to write within. Instead of using aliens or whatever I’ve used something from Maori myth as the substance for alternate world that they go into.

How much of the book is based on genuine Maori myth, and how much is your creation?

It’s based on Maori mythology, with an imaginative flavour. The thing was, it was fun to do. I wanted the book to be like a hydroslide into the pool. You get on the hydroslide, you have a great wiz-bang, thrilling visceral explosion of fear and exhileration in your gut as you go down, and then you have that fantastic splash in the water.

As opposed to a Mount Everest of a book, that’s difficult to conquer but gives a sense of accomplishment when you do?

I might have to write that sort of book to resuccitate my reputation. [laughs] But I don’t think that NZ literature needs to be always serious and always filled with drama, and it doesn’t always need to be high literature – and anyway, I can’t write that sort of literature. I’ve tried.

You’re a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Auckland. There’s been an on-going debate in the pages of the Listener about what these classes can actually teach. What do your teach your students?

What I try to do is give them those tools. By that I mean I provide them with the technical abilities they need in constructing a sentence, because it is at that level where everything is important. If you get the verb in the wrong place, and if you get your compound or complex sentence in the wrong way, or if you don’t inflect it with either an imperative or an interocative, you won’t be able to secure – at that basic level – the kind of sentence structure that you need.
I like to tell them that to write a book you have to know what the engine looks like, under the bonnet. You have to get down there and know exactly what you’re doing, exactly what tools you need, so that you can actually make the motor start, or keep it going, or tune it up. I take a very artisan approach to writing.

So there are no great theories of instant grandeur?

I don’t believe in spontaneous combustion with writing. That may give you the idea, but to make the car travel over distance so it begins well, so that you are able to go into the curve and able to get into hairpin bends and out again. So you know when to nurse the car, and when to change into fifth gear. I teach structure, I teach characterisation. I try to teach all of the techniques that I learnt, and I’m very happy to get down to that technical level.

With the novel writing class which I’m doing this year I will only have them for two hours per week for 24 weeks. So it’s important for me to try and get them through that so at the end of their year they have either got a novel already completed, or are on their way to completion.
I always say to myself ‘well, if I can do it in three weeks, surely they can do it in a year.’

You wrote Sky Dancer in three weeks?

No, I didn’t write that one in three weeks, but I wrote Whale Rider in three weeks.

Do you teach anything apart from writing in your course?

And I’m also trying to teach my students to write for the long haul, for a career. Not just to write a book, but to write a career. That means also teaching them about contracts, about publicity. I show them contracts, I show them the difficulties of a life as a professional as well as writing professionally.

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