Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
Wellington satirist Danyl McLauchlan shares some of his own secrets about writing his first novel.

Set in Wellington’s favourite bohemian hipster neighbourhood, Danyl McLauchlan’s new novel combines real characters and places with their imagined sinister underbelly. The result is “a classic kiwi comic mystery erotic horror adventure novel”; a gripping read where you’re not sure what’s going to happen at the turn of the page or the corner of Holloway Road. Photography by Daniel Rose.

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SARADHA KOIRALA: The main character shares your name and Campbell Walker is a real person. How like you is Danyl and where have the other characters come from?

DANYL MCLAUCHLAN: I first lived in the Aro Valley in my early twenties, in conditions of idle poverty similar to those described in the book. I got out—found work, travelled etc.—but the Danyl in the novel is my conception of how I’d wind up if none of that happened and I stayed in my rut. The other characters are also inspired by people I’ve met, mostly on the fringes of bohemia, many in Te Aro. The character of Steve is based on a good friend called… Steve, and he read early drafts of the book and gave me feedback—mostly, that he thought there should be more material about Steve.

SK: In the acknowledgements you thank “Campbell Walker who has confirmed in writing that he will not be taking legal action.” What was his reaction to being cast as such a character?

DM: Campbell hasn’t actually read the book yet [at the time of this interview]. I’ll be sending him a retail copy once they arrive in the country. He knows that he’s the villain in the novel but I think he thinks he’s a very glamorous, beguiling villain. I’m a little worried about his reaction when he discovers the not-too flattering truth.

SK: What other complications did you face by weaving fact with fiction?

DM: None that I can think of. [Sits and thinks for a while]. Nope, none.

SK: Aro Valley is a particularly good choice for a mystery. Why did you choose this setting and what other secrets do you think the valley holds?

DM: A few years back there was a vogue for thrillers and mysteries in which the secrets of the universe, or human history or whatever were hidden in Paris or London or the South of France. I just thought it was more likely that all those mysteries or spiritual artefacts would be lying around the Aro Valley somewhere.

There are plenty of odd little secret places hidden around the valley that didn’t make it into the book for various reasons. If you go to the top of Holloway Road and keep walking you’ll find a curious clearing in the trees that I’ve heard various conflicting explanations for.

SK: Do you think readers need a pre-existing knowledge of Aro Valley—its quirks and characters—to fully enjoy your book?

DM: I’m not sure. I made a few changes to the geography of the area and some people have told me they find that distracting—it breaks the suspension of disbelief—so it might be easier to read if you don’t know anything about the valley at all.

SK: The character Danyl is also writing a novel and at the beginning of chapter 12 he writes an action plan for his life, which serves as a kind of to-do list for your novel and suggests an outline of what’s to come plot-wise. What was your own process for writing this novel? How long had you been planning it and did you always have a clear vision of where it was headed?

DM: I did have a clear vision for the novel, one that changed several times. I always felt a sense of pride and elation every time I finished a draft and gave it to people to read; a conviction that I’d completely nailed it and that the book was perfect and ready to send off to the publishers. Then my wife and friends would read the draft and kindly explain that huge chunks of the plot made absolutely no sense. I did always have a very clear idea of the mood of the book—the deadbeat comic hipster mystery vibe. It took about three years to write.

SK: You’re well-known for your Dim-Post blog, a form of writing that has immediacy about it in terms of content and reception. What connections are there between blogging and writing a novel and how did these two forms work together for you?

DM: People keep asking me this and I don’t know what to say. Mostly the two mediums are distractions from each other. If I was deeply involved in the book my blog readers would whine that I hadn’t written anything funny for a long time, and if I was writing a lot on the blog I’d lose the momentum of the novel.

It was useful getting that instant feedback on the blog. If a draft of a novel takes you a year to write then that’s a year without any feedback; it was nice to write something funny and throw it up on the blog and have people respond that day.

SK: What were you reading while you were writing this novel and how were you influenced by particular writers and genres?

DM: Okay, this I can answer. I read a lot of mid-20th Century English comic writers: Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene. I also read about a dozen crime thrillers by Richard Stark, which was a nom de plume for a prolific American writer called Donald Westlake. The Stark books tend to be complex, with flashbacks, multiple viewpoints, intersecting plot lines, so his style is very, very minimalist, built to convey maximum clarity to the reader. I think you need that in a mystery. The reader shouldn’t know what’s going on but they shouldn’t be confused.

My favourite author is Jorge Luis Borges. He’s who I reread most often. I’m not sure he’s an influence though—he’s such a distinct, unique, complete genius, there’s not much room to manoeuvre around him.

I’m also very influenced by contemporary TV writing. Some other writers have recoiled when I tell them that, but the ambition and technical sophistication of the writing in shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire—I could list about a dozen shows—is more exciting to me than anything that’s happening in the modern novel.

SK: What are some other parts of New Zealand that probably have unspeakable secrets?

DM: I have my suspicions about Karori.

SK: Can you share what you’re planning for your next book?

DM: I have a few ideas, but I also have a very demanding baby daughter who was not a factor in the writing process first time around, so the next book might be some way away.

SK: Now the work is out of your hands and due to be released into the world in July, what do you hope for it?

DM: No amount of critical or commercial success could be too much. I guess if the book became so successful it exponentially increased property prices in the Aro Valley and destroyed the character of the place I would feel some small level of guilt.

© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at danielrose.co.nz.

‘Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley’ is published by Victoria University Press, and is available from July 5.

Danyl McLauchlan is a former contributor to The Lumière Reader. He blogs at dimpost.wordpress.com

Saradha Koirala is a poet and a contributing editor, with a focus on books. Alexander Bisley previously wrote about Holloway Road’s funniest resident, Luke Buda.