Craig Sherborne, whose essays, poems, and two powerful memoirs, Hoi Polloi and Muck, have brought him to Wellington for Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival, talked to AMY BROWN in between signing books.

MEMOIRIST, poet, journalist and soon to be novelist, Craig Sherborne, is as candid as he is articulate. He’s flown across the Tasman not only in a literary capacity, to participate in Writers and Readers Week, but as a journalist, interviewing our PM, John Key and investigating the Hamilton chapter of the Mongrel Mob, “to ask them why they exist”.

Forthright honesty is one of the things I like about his memoirs Hoi Polloi and Muck, which chronicle (tragically, viciously, hilariously) his experiences of growing up as an only child of social-climbing parents in Hastings and Sydney. It is also what I enjoyed about Sherborne’s discussion with Tim Corballis, from which I’ve just emerged.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, upstairs at the Embassy. I watch Sherborne signing copies of his books. One woman, with a bottle blonde bouffant, garish make-up and many gold rings, speaks to him for quite some time. She reminds me of the Sherborne’s descriptions of his mother in his books.

When the signing queue disperses, Sherborne comes over, seeming a bit rushed. There are things to do and places to be. Another small group of fans have just arrived and are waiting at the signing table. A party of writers have invited him to come for a drink down the road. So, we find a quiet table, out of the sun, and begin the interview without any mucking about. I ask him if he ever considered writing Hoi Polloi and Muck as novels rather than memoirs.

‘I did, yeah. But, they would have been the same books.’ Throughout his memoirs, aliases are given for people and places. The nicknames he uses in the books are, Sherborne says, the names he gave things when he was a kid. Hastings became Heritage. Mum became Heels (and later on, as she aged, Feet), Dad became Winks (and later, as his aspirations grew, The Duke). The names aren’t the only fictionalised aspects of the memoirs. ‘With the fictional techniques of structure – I was focusing on the narrative. So, it tends to take on a feel for the reader of a novel, and I thought I’d publish it as one. But, the publisher in Melbourne had wanted a memoir and the books were factual accounts of my childhood, so we went with the memoir.’

Sherborne pre-empts two of my next questions about whether the memoirs will turn into a trilogy, and whether he is tempted to write a novel. ‘The next book, which will effectively be like a third instalment alongside the others, it will be a novel, because I want certain aspects of the narrative to take the reader into the sort of territory that’s more imaginative than you can go in a memoir.’
‘Yeah, I was going to ask whether the memoirs would become a trilogy.’
‘It was going to be – the publishers in Melbourne were expecting a trilogy – and then I thought, I think I’ve taken this form as far as I can. I wanted to imagine myself taking certain turns in life and to write what I imagined, not what actually happened.’
‘So you needed more scope—’
‘I needed a lot of scope. And I couldn’t pass it off as a memoir.’

Without thinking, I ask a question that writers usually don’t like to answer. ‘When do you think the novel will be out?’
‘The year after next,’ he says, slightly tersely.

Being an only child and a hopeful writer, talking to an only child who is a successful writer, I ask a Sherborne whether he thinks there is any connection between the two.
‘I’ve seen it a lot. Many of the poets I know, or have known, are only children. I don’t know about writers of fiction so much, but certainly poets. There are an awful lot of them. There must be something in it. Maybe because you’re alone, and language becomes a companion. Words are like paint, to play with when you’re more closed off. How did you find it?’
I’m thrown. ‘Um, okay. You get used to it.’
‘Yeah, I ended up quite liking it.’
This is a cul-de-sac of a conversation, so I ask Sherborne about taboos and whether there is anything he wouldn’t write about.
‘No. Everything.’
‘I suspected you might say that.’ I mean, he’s written, in both poetry and prose, about having sex with his school friend’s mother in the laundry when he was 15. He’s written about masturbation, violence, religion, hatred and love. That pretty much covers all the bases.
‘As soon as you start tabooing a subject when you write, you’re censuring yourself; you’re not being honest to yourself or to your readers. When people expect you to write social realist stuff, or social satire if you like, people are trying to get a sense of the culture that might have existed. If you’re tabooing subjects you’re giving readers public relations rather than the truth. No, truth’s a bad word, it’s a religious word; you’re not giving readers the real picture.’

“Many of the poets I know, or have known, are only children. I don’t know about writers of fiction so much, but certainly poets. There are an awful lot of them. There must be something in it.”

I ask him which of his writing he thinks gets closest to giving “the real picture” of a situation.
‘I like to think that they all get as close as you’re going to get. You’re imagining not only the internal world of events, you’re re-imagining, or re-creating if you like, the real world of events. Without the internal world, the outside world is not necessarily realistic. So, if I singled out one thing it’d be unfair to all the others.’
‘You’d describe yourself as a social realist writer?’
‘Well, I think I am. There’s also a satirical edge. And, when you try to talk about the evolution of the interior world of people, that takes you away from social realism and towards something more like, perhaps, a stream of consciousness.
I tell him that, when I reviewed Muck, I drew comparisons between it and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
‘Oh, good. Thank you very much. I’m flattered.’
‘Are the similarities coincidental or deliberate?’
‘I read that book, I read Joyce, pretty young, in my teens. At the same time as I was reading that I read The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White and Youth by Tolstoy. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was an extremely important novel, if you can call it that, it’s just as much autobiography. How do you class any of Joyce’s stuff? Dubliners is his greatest – one of the greatest ever short story collections. But, Portrait of the Artist was, yes, an important book and I certainly absorbed it. I don’t know how deep the absorption went but it was certainly absorbed. Anybody who wants to write and hasn’t read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a great hole in their education. What do you think?’
I mumble something fairly inarticulate about having read it last year and thinking that it made a big impression on me.

I ask him if there are any writers he’s been particularly influenced by.
‘Yeats was, early on, but then I tired of his blarney and spiritualism. Really, Patrick White’s Aunt’s Story was one that really changed the way I thought about the world. He was a social realist on one level, but underneath there was this exploration – no exploration’s not the right word – there was this sort of factual account of someone’s internal life, which I really hadn’t read anywhere before. It was kind of like stream of consciousness but it wasn’t, and it used language that was like walking through these surreal pictures that he painted of someone’s thinking.’ I want to say that this description could be said of his own prose, but I don’t want to interrupt. ‘So that was a huge influence, I can’t stress enough how huge; it was one of those moments, an epiphany, when you walk out the door and suddenly you’ve read Theodora Goodman’s travels through America and the way she’s imagining even the telegraph poles being staccato notes in music. The way these images were stacked up on top of one another to describe the way this woman was losing her mind was hugely influential. I read that while I was living on the farm in Muck. It changed the way I thought about the world. There are very few moments when that happens in your life. The other one was when I discovered R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet, about ten years ago. His internal world was very plain-speaking, it wasn’t pretentious spiritualism. They’re the two big ones that spring to mind. And, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’.

Clearly, Sherborne, as a young person, was sophisticated, well read and fond of language. I ask him about the narrative voice in Hoi Polloi and Muck, whether he felt the need to deliberately make it naďve or gauche in order to sound more like it was coming from a child.
‘You’re not trying to make them too savvy, but kids are not innocent. I don’t know what age it is when we lose our innocence but it is in childhood, not in adulthood, because we learn young. We see, we witness others, and we just have this instinct ourselves to manipulate others to get what we want, to be cruel to others, and to be loving of course. So, the voice – I was trying to recreate that voice, to get as close as I could to it, but obviously I was bringing an adult sensibility to it. I was manipulating a text which talked about a kid that was being manipulative.’
Sherborne’s answer does a good job of summing up the balancing act that’s required when writing in the voice of someone less articulate, or differently articulate, than the author.

I’m aware of Sherborne looking over my shoulder at the people waiting to get their books signed, so I rush into my last question which is more bait than a question, really.
‘I read in a review online that your poetry has been described as “Australian Gothic”, in the style of Henry Lawson. What do you think about that?’ To me this comparison was unrecognisable and baffling. From what I’d read of Sherborne’s 2006 collection, Necessary Evil, it covered similar territory to his memoirs; certainly more social realist that gothic.
‘Gothic,’ Sherborne says, after mulling over the question a bit, ‘is sort of a genre all of its own, and makes me think of Dracula and emos. I haven’t read the review, but I think that it’s probably someone trying to label me. I think that probably that’s another Australian maybe who’s trying to find a, not lazy but perhaps easy, description. I don’t feel that I fit into that category at all. I’ll have to think about that one more.’ He pauses for a few seconds. ‘Actually, no, I don’t have to think about – that’s probably just a bit reductive.’

See also:
» Muck, By Craig Sherborne (Reviewed by Amy Brown)