Counter Culture
September 11, 2019 posted by Unity Wellington

Interview | Gregory O’Brien

Interview | Gregory O’Brien

We are excited to soon be hosting the double launch for Lost and Somewhere Else by Jenny Bornholdt (VUP) and Always Song in the Water by Gregory O’Brien (AUP), 6-7:30pm Thursday 19th September. All welcome.

Read on to find out about some of Greg’s favourite books and authors, including new books by Rebecca Priestley and Anne Kennedy, both of which will be launched at Unity.


ABOUT ALWAYS SONG IN THE WATER

Beginning in Northland and heading into the blue beyond, Always Song in the Water is a book of encounters and epiphanies, a dinghy ride through New Zealand’s oceanic imagination.

Every spring on Gregory O’Brien’s front lawn, on a ridgetop in Hataitai, an upside-down dinghy blooms with flowering clematis. In this book, O’Brien takes his metaphorical dinghy to the edges of New Zealand – starting with a road trip through Northland and then voyaging out into the Pacific, to lead us into some under-explored territories of the South Pacific imagination.

With creative spirits such as Janet Frame, Ralph Hotere, Robin White, John Pule and Epeli Hau‘ofa as touchstones, O’Brien suggests how we New Zealanders might be re-imagining ourselves as an oceanic people on a small island in a big piece of water.

Always Song in the Water is a book of encounters, sightings and unexpected epiphanies. It is a high-spirited, personal and inventive account of being alive at the outer extremities of Aotearoa New Zealand. ‘This is my field notebook, my voyaging logbook,’ Gregory O’Brien writes, ‘this is my Schubert played on a barrel organ, my whale survey, my songbook.’

Among the many artists whose work is featured are John Pule, Robin White, Phil Dadson, Fiona Hall, Euan Macleod, Laurence Aberhart and the Sydney-based painter Noel McKenna, who produced numerous works specifically for this book.

Always Song in the Water is like a splendid tapa cloth left out to dry on the salt of Oceania. It admits all-comers into its wet and capacious tapestry – shoes, seabirds, icebergs, painters, whales, stranded pianos, poets, horses, ghostly containers, dinghies, oil spills, surfboards, reef knots and travelling saints – and so lays claim to a hospitality as vast and ancient as Oceania.’

– Sudesh Mishra, University of the South Pacific

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in Matamata in 1961, Gregory O’Brien is a poet, artist and writer of non-fiction. As well as exhibiting his work widely and illustrating numerous books, he has authored or contributed to books on Ralph Hotere, John Pule and architect John Scott, amongst many others. He also co-authored Parihaka: The art of Passive Resistance (VUP, 2000) and Kermadec: Nine Artists Explore the South Pacific (Pew, 2011). O’Brien is the author of two introductions to art for the young and curious: Welcome to the South Seas (AUP, 2004) and Back and Beyond (AUP, 2008), which both won the Non-fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. His most recent books include A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (AUP, 2011), Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (AUP, 2012), Whale Years (AUP, 2015) and See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious (AUP, 2015). He has received many awards for his books and, in 2013, was given the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (Non-fiction) and an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award. He was granted an MNZM award in 2014 and, in 2017, an Honorary Doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington.


WHY DO YOU WRITE?

Because words keep winding me up… Language is the bridge between the self and the world… Writing is as fundamental as being awake and responsive… Sometimes I write because I am not painting.

WHERE AND HOW DO YOU WRITE?

I keep journals. These I take with me everywhere. So the short answer is I write everywhere all of the time, and with a pen on paper, by preference.

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND HOW DID YOU DISCOVER THE BOOK(S)?

Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley. I wish I could say I came upon this book in a snow-drift on the frostier side of the Transantarctic Mountains; in fact I was handed a pre-release copy in an Hataitai bar on a relatively mild evening. I have also had the good fortune of running into Karl Wolfskehl, A Poet in Exile by Friedrich Voit. (Wolfskehl’s Three Worlds/Selected Poems, was published three years earlier by the same indefatigable and remarkable Cold Hub Press, of Christchurch).

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WRITERS AND WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THEM?

The writers who have most haunted and inspired me in recent years: Wilson Harris, John Berger, Tove Jansson, Flann O’Brien, Pablo Neruda and Yves Bonnefoy. A good many favourite writers much closer to home crop up in Always Song in the Water, so I won’t list them here….

WHAT BOOKS ARE ON YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE?

Mary Kisler’s Finding Frances Hodgkins; Anne Kennedy’s Moth Hour and Peter Bland’s newest collection, Just Looking.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK-TO-FILM ADAPTATION?

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (with the recent mini-series adaptation of Catch-22 a close second) – both of them masterpieces, twice over.

WHAT BOOK HAVE YOU RE-READ THE MOST AND WHY?

Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock. A burning tropical sun shatters into a constellation of stars which then turn into the eyes of the peacock’s tail. And therein lies the dramatic conclusion of this endlessly bewildering, alluring novel.

WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE LITERARY CHARACTER?

A toss-up between the narrator in Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and Little My in Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books.

WHAT BOOK HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN MEANING TO READ BUT STILL HAVEN’T GOTTEN AROUND TO?

Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain keeps receding into the distance the closer I get to reading it.

WHICH THREE WRITERS WOULD YOU HAVE OVER FOR DINNER?

Robert Walser, Janet Frame, Epeli Hau’ofa

WHAT WOULD YOU COOK THEM?

Something from the Noma cookbook involving ash from incinerated trees, deer antlers, picturesque fungi and gold-encrusted insect-life, with a low cinnamon-scented cloud hovering just above the dining table. The tablecloth would be a painting by John Reynolds and the films of Florian Habicht would be projected onto the crystal wine-glasses, allowing the guests to experience a ghostly translucence as well as, in the course of an evening, a tidal ebb and flow. The napkins would feature pages from the books of authors mentioned earlier in this questionnaire.

HOW ARE YOUR BOOKS SHELVED AND ORGANISED AT HOME?

New Zealand poetry is alphabetic; the rest is all over the show. Many of our favourite books are in the spare bedroom, at bed-height, in the hope/belief they will hold some considerable sway over the dreams of our visitors.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE LITERARY QUOTE?

Apropos of the book I’ve just completed, Always Song in the Water: ‘My soul, your voyages have been your native land!’ (Nikos Kazantzakis)

 

author photo: Mark Smith 2019

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