Richard Meros on Richard Meros

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
Thoughts from the man who famously propositioned Helen Clark.

Richard Meros’s quests have seen him try to win the hand of former Prime Minister Helen Clark, search for the mysterious Southern Man, and get into a tête-à-tête with Creative New Zealand. His novels have been turned into acclaimed plays by Arthur Meek and Geoff Pinfield (including the recent Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man). In conversation via e-mail, I put to the mysterious Meros questions on searching for the Southern Man, the recent theatrical adaptations of his work, and what makes him tick. In the interests of full disclosure, I am part of a publishing collective with Richard Meros.

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How did Meros come to search for the Southern Man?

Meros’s search for the Southern Man comes out of his study of the Southern Man. At first I did not want to actually bother the people of the south. They have their own hectic schedules and I am more attracted to libraries than pastoral wanderings. But my publisher kept wanting more. So I went in search.

But perhaps you mean ‘search’ in a broad way? Well… I started the search with a salute, so it seems I already had an idea of what is and who is the Southern Man.

Can you salute someone who may not want to be saluted? Was Meros’s quest simply a quixotic one that was always doomed to failure?

Of course you can salute those who do not want it. Some fools know not what they do; some know not what is good for them. Meros’s quest is always a quest for his own understanding. By naming the salute as the mediating force, I defer more than the quixote, the chaotic or the quick sot. Perhaps a masochistic identification with failure is part of this deferral. But if we start out writing with the aim of winning, of avoiding failure, then the publishers have already lured us into identifying our writing with their goals.

What do you think Spengler [a potential Southern Man] has been up to since he was introduced to the reader way back then?

For readers unfamiliar with the book, a Mr. R Spengler was a craggy old man who my character met in his Southern Man reverie. I haven’t spoke to or of him since, but I suspect he is the same place he always was: hills, mist-suffused waterways, the rocky hinterlands and whatnot.

Has the success of Helen Clark both as a book and as a play going to lump Southern Man with extra expectations? Was it useful releasing Southern Man as a book before the play hype took over?

Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man was written in 2006. The first Helen Clark book was written in 2005, adapted in 2008. So it was only really with post-2008 productions that any expectations evolved. There were obvious expectations as far as the play went, but I try to leave that as much to Arthur and Geoff as possible, besides sitting in the corner during rehearsals, twitching my head and mewling ‘no, no, no’.

What role does a theatrical adaptation play in re-casting a text?  Is it hard as an author to give up this much control (not just of the name, but of the words themselves)?

The name is a tricky one. I don’t care about the words, as long as the Meros character’s spirit is maintained. But there are obvious great things and negative things about having one’s name thrown into the spotlight associated with another chap’s face and gait. Let’s leave that second part of the question at that.

The theatrical adaptation of Richard Meros Salutes the Southern Man actually creates a nice space for the existence of the book. The play suggests the book was something published before the play started and used for a particular purpose, but all the same, to most people it is through the play that they will first come across the book. In terms of casting, or re-casting, I cannot get past the imagery of a pregnant ewe unable to right itself, or of a fisherman whose first cast was a fail and who needs to cast again. Re-casting a text as something that has gone belly-up? That lures? That exits, stage-left. Are these the images that you are after?

Have you lost ownership of the text a little by letting others get their paws on it (i.e. that is you believe an author owns a text)? Or is Meros just a sharing, caring soul?

Of course I own the text! And of course there is some loss of ownership, but that which is possible to be owned is only getting larger. For Meros it was like having a start-up company and not enough capital to expand. Well, the theatrical adaptation provides more capital, but at the same time, I lose some control at board meetings. That said, it is not only the text but the moniker that shifts around in terms of public perception. And so I do more with the bio on my books to show that Meek does not equal Meros while at the same time trying to keep my own psychological distance from Meros-as-character-as-nom-de-plume.

Meros is not a sharing, caring soul. He disbelieves in the soul.

What would be the criteria (or criterion) for you to call an adaptation a success?

First, I would need to appreciate that Geoff and Arthur have captured the spirit of Meros. The brown corduroy does it. I am also keen on every new adaptation surpassing the expectations created by all previous versions so that critics and the public don’t consider it derivative. Then there are all of those happy things like box office takings, flattery from the bourgeois, and C.K. Stead buying a copy for his bookshelf.

Has C.K. Stead purchased any other Meros book?

He paid cash for On the conditions and possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her Young Lover. Perhaps he has purchased others, perhaps others have been purchased for him. I like him. That is, from his words, I like him. If he hollered I would send him a selection of mildly-misbound retailer-rejects.

Will Meros’s views of success necessarily accord with an audience’s expectations of a success? Do you think many people will have read the book beforehand?

I think if the audience put themselves in my shoes then they would probably list the same things. But audiences are here to be entertained, like students in a classroom, and would prefer cheap laughs to solemnity. Arthur and Geoff have to slip the Southern Man’s sentimental journey in between the barking and baaing.

I would have expected that few would have read the book beforehand. The book is not a satire and it is not funny. It is veneration and requires a masculine feeling for the south. Or a feeling for the masculine south. This is not to suggest that women won’t enjoy it, but just that the work is about masculinity and expectations at the arse end of the world. So the book is not a populist work in the same way that the Helen Clark/Young Lover one was and so the audience for it is thin.

Meros is now a multi-faced beast when he comes to his public persona? Will he ever reach an “I am Spartacus” kind of moment?

Who knows what plotters will plot? Hopefully they’ll be content with plots. There was a very strong rumour at one point that Meros is a rejigging of the name “Morse,” which isn’t so much a code, but a proper noun. Nevertheless, I control and and these tools allow me to control the minds of the people.

Is the Southern Man still at threat? Have conditions improved for such a man from when you published the original novel?

Poor Southern Man. The beasts are of dwindling numbers. Our farmers are becoming soft, idolising men like our financier-cum-Prime Minister and lofting about on the spongy tyres of quad-bikes. The only possible improvement in conditions would be the destruction of the global economy. We have learnt that the Southern Man was a rare, rare fellow and that most people from the south (who are not by dint of geography Southern Men) would rather be Aucklanders. But they did not get School Certificate.

Of course there is also a strain of logic that suggests the hardness of the Southern Man is not the be all and end all. At the end of the book I get into an analysis of semi-softening. And that is perhaps where those committed to the south are also at. Asceticism is not for the whole family.

The new edition looks swanky—much work needed to amend it?

A few things: there is a new introduction from man-of-the-south Duncan Sarkies. The script of the theatrical adaptation is included. And there is the new cover, thanks to the work of Paul and Steffen at National Park who also animated the show.

What’s next for Meros? Creative New Zealand seems to like one version of Meros?

In October a different theatrical team are going to perform my book Privatising Parts at BATS. I have two other books to come out this year with Lawrence & Gibson and a few articles are also forthcoming.

I have a meeting with Creative New Zealand at the end of the month to discuss our differences, similarities, and simulacrums. They have a meeting with me because that is their job. They have obligations. They may give me some money. I may spend it while writing a book. I may copy and paste their name near the end of the book. Then, of course, in 2013 National may restructure CNZ so any artist that bums out the population can no longer get funding. The morose, Meros included, will go back to our jobs stacking shelves at Centre City New World and Rapunzel will never escape from her garret at the top of 131 Lambton Quay. Sounds like we need a hero, someone eminently salutable and as hard as nails. But who?

Richard Meros is the author of ‘On the conditions and possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her Young Lover’, ‘Richard Meros salutes the Southern Man’, ‘Beggars & Choosers: the complete written correspondence between Richard Meros and Creative New Zealand vol.1’, and more recently, ‘Privatising Parts’ and ‘Zebulon: a cautionary tale’. Brannavan Gnanalingam’s ‘Getting Under Sail’ was published by Lawrence & Gibson in 2011.