Meeting MacGyver: a chat with Jack Lasenby

Two of New Zealand’s best writers sat down for a chat recently. Here’s poet, essayist and editor Ashleigh Young’s write-up about her meeting with children’s writer Jack Lasenby.

test alt text


Ashleigh Young

7 Sturgess Tce

Te Kuiti

Xmas Day 1998

Dear Jack,

Do you remember an incredibly rude, cheeky person who wrote to you a few years ago? I told you I would never survive the preteen years if you didn’t write a sequel to your book The Lake. Well, as it happened I did survive them and I’m reading The Lake again. It’s actually even better than I remembered. Maybe because I can sort of understand stuff in it better now that I’m older. It’s one of my favourite books of all time. I STILL REALLY REALLY THINK IT NEEDS A SEQUEL! …

9 January 1999

Dear Ashleigh,

Of course I remember an incredibly rude, cheeky girl who wrote to me a few years ago. Who doesn’t bother to write her address on her letter but thinks it’s sufficient to write it on the envelope, so old curmudgeons have to scrabble through their wastepaper basket and scramble through ancient files in order to reply or they’ll be accused of insensitivity. So you survived the pre-teen years without a sequel to The Lake! Such is literary immortality. By the way, I think pre-teen needs the hyphen. I only mention this because you want to be a writer, and a writer’s first duty is the language …

It’s been nearly 20 years since Jack Lasenby and I swapped letters, and now I’m wheeling my bike up a street in Te Aro, looking for a pole to tether it to outside his apartment building, and I’m about to go up to interview him. My brother once met Richard Dean Anderson – MacGyver – at LA airport, and his warning about that experience comes back to me now: ‘Don’t get too close to your heroes.’ In other words: your idol will always possess a lot less gadgetry than you’d hope. But it’s too late. Jack Lasenby’s voice is burbling on the apartment intercom, and before I know it there he is, Jack Lasenby, tall and burly and somehow eternal, as though out of necessity he’s always been present in this world, abiding, like a log hut in some remote wooded area. Now he’s making me a huge mug of tea and offering me an Anzac biscuit. Life comes at you fast. He’s telling me how he misses the fruit trees and vegetable garden of his old home in Aro Street. ‘It was marvellous, right in the city, having a garden. Marvellous to have such quantities of fruit and vegetables. My brother used to come over and gorge. But in the end it was far too much for me. I’ve realised my body’s falling to bits and I couldn’t have kept living there anyway.’

… before I know it there he is, Jack Lasenby, tall and burly and somehow eternal, as though out of necessity he’s always been present in this world …

Jack has made the time to talk to me in between the three novels that he is currently writing. He started writing The Lake, his first novel, when he was fifty-five. ‘I used to get a lot of letters in those days,’ he says when I remind him haltingly of my wheedling letters in the 90s. ‘Some of them were just marvellous. And yes, a number of kids wrote, like you, expressing some dissatisfaction that The Lake hadn’t really ended for them. I realised I was writing a different book from the one that kids were reading. They wanted Ruth’s stepfather punished. Kids want – well, as I think Catherine Storr said some years ago, “Children want justice. Grown-ups want mercy.”’

The Lake is set in 1952; it’s the story of Ruth, a 13-year-old girl who runs away from home after her father has died. Ruth’s mother, chillingly apathetic towards Ruth, finds a new partner – Harry, who begins to sexually abuse Ruth. One day, hardly thinking, Ruth runs away from home and to the bush, with nothing but the clothes she’s wearing and a hanky, a comb, and a few coins in her pockets. She’s going to the lake where her father used to take the family at Christmas. Ruth’s journey is incredibly tough; her growing self-sufficiency is cut through with loneliness and grief. A big part of the book for me, and characteristic of so much of Jack’s writing, was its refusal to turn away from darkness – the darkness deep inside people that they visit on others as cruelty. This book didn’t hide anything from us. But there were moments of such comfort, like when Ruth recites the names of the trees all around her – names that her father taught her – or when she finds the hut where her father and his friends carved their names into the wood. I loved the book for its steady working-through of loneliness, its simple detail of finding enough to eat, of making a safe place to sleep. ‘Ruth survived,’ Jack nods. ‘But even intelligent Ruth didn’t understand how precarious was that survival – looking at it from the point of view of an experienced adult.’ Jack, of course, understood. He’d already lived for ten years in the bush himself. ‘But Ruth learned the confidence to go home and confront her mother and her stepfather and look after her little sister.’

When I think about how rudely I demanded a sequel to this book, wanting to know about this next part of Ruth’s journey, it still surprises me that Jack responded. I seemed to think that writers were like computers: to un-freeze them you just had to thump them. But he did reply, gently letting me know that there would be no sequel, although he’d thought about it, envisioning the novel opening with fighter jets appearing above the lake, a war having broken out between North and South Islands. He encouraged me to imagine what might happen next.

He doesn’t know what Twitter and Facebook are. He couldn’t be less interested in self-promotion, in providing yet another distraction from the books themselves.

Jack has always replied to fan mail. ‘Even to those class sets of letters. Those round robin bastards.’ But he doesn’t care for making himself freely accessible to his readers – at least, not in any online capacity. He doesn’t know what Twitter and Facebook are. He couldn’t be less interested in self-promotion, in providing yet another distraction from the books themselves. ‘I’m not claiming great principles. I’m just older, that’s all, and less conversant. But it doesn’t attract me. It’s like the Katherine Mansfield industry.’ Jack briefly digresses into a delightful rant about Mansfield – ‘At her best, I think she is a minor Chekhov – bloody brilliant, and sometimes better than that. At her worst, with those tiny tree-dancing daffodil things, I can’t bear her’ – before resurfacing. ‘That sort of industry, it’s people taking reflected lustre from the reputation of a great writer. I must be merciful and accept the fact that for some it’s about social contact.’ He pauses. ‘But still. I don’t like it. It’s taking attention from the writing and putting it on the writer.’

I tell him about a few public events I’ve been to as a writer, like something called The Ladies Literatea, in Epsom. ‘My God,’ he says through a mouthful of biscuit, with a shudder.

You can tell he doesn’t much like talking publicly about himself when you look at how he answers personal questions, like a hilarious Q&A on the Christchurch City Libraries website, where he sounds quite flummoxed.

Q. ‘Why did you want to be a writer?’

A. ‘I don’t understand. It’s not the sort of question which has a reasonable answer. I don’t think anyone knows – or understands – this question.’

Q. ‘Do you have a nickname and if so what is it?’

A. ‘No.’

He expresses uncertainty, too, about ‘the huge infrastructure that has grown about children’s books. All these groups that are working to do things. There’s almost a bureaucracy now.’ There’s perhaps a degree of control, he argues, and often anxiety, around children’s books that makes it harder for both writers and readers to enjoy genuine creative spontaneity and chance. (It should be noted, however, that he likes the idea of The Sapling. ‘Terrific. Marvellous.’)

He does regret that he’s had to give up visiting classes at schools, because of his hearing getting worse. ‘I gave that up with great reluctance. But, and I hope this doesn’t sound Trumpish, I don’t really think writing depends on knowing your audience. You write for yourself. I’ve always written because I’ve got a story to tell, and if I haven’t got that then the writing becomes hollow, and I look at a page of dialogue and I think, “Oh shit.”’

‘I’ve always written because I’ve got a story to tell, and if I haven’t got that then the writing becomes hollow…’

When I think of Jack’s letters, what strikes me is his generosity – not only in replying, but in giving writing advice to me, an idiot. I was nine or ten years old. I once sent him some horrible stories I’d written, including what must have been a murder mystery. ‘“She withdrew the magnum and shot him in the chest,” Jack wrote, quoting my story (and here I imagine him looking away from the page and rubbing his eyes). ‘“Withdrew” is probably inaccurate here – or unnecessary. You could write it shorter. For example: “She drew the pistol and shot him.” Has it lost anything?’ Even then, I half recognised that this kind of advice was gold, though I was too proud to actually use any of it.

In one of his letters, Jack described a scene he’d stumbled upon on his way to the shops one summer night on Aro Street. There had been a stabbing. Two men, dressed in heavy black trousers and jackets, chains, boots, were sitting on the ground, holding each other up. Blood was pooling beside one of them. Clearly, the two men had been attacked. As Jack watched, the police swerved in. There was a plum tree, he wrote, dropping its fruit in red syrupy blobs on the hot concrete beside them. ‘What would I have done, had I arrived a minute earlier? … Could I have done anything to help anybody? … I’m haunted by my part – or non-part – in it.’ The way Jack described that scene, and his own uncertainty, helped me understand some small part of being a grown-up – that horror doesn’t end, that being unsure and afraid doesn’t end. And it was something that I badly needed to understand that that time of my childhood.

It’s something that comes up again and again, with Jack – his trust that kids are so much smarter, that they see so much more than adults assume.

He tells me now about another student who wrote to him many years ago. He had been to visit a class to talk about his books. At the end of the visit, all the other kids waved Jack off from the school, but one girl ran down to the corner and waved. Jack recounts her letter. ‘“You turned around and saw me and waved back.” And then she wrote, “My mother died, but they just told me she’d gone away, up into the sky.” This was a kid who was too bright to take the usual euphemisms. She knew it was death.’ It’s something that comes up again and again, with Jack – his trust that kids are so much smarter, that they see so much more than adults assume. Reading a letter from Jack was to be spoken with as an equal, rather than someone lower to the ground. ‘No, don’t fast-forward your life,’ he wrote, when I said I just wanted to be grown up. ‘When you get ancient, like me, you watch the years fast-forwarding so quickly, you regret having let all those earlier years slip through your fingers half-noticed.’ And when I told him I was suffering from writer’s block (I was something like eleven, for god’s sake), he said: ‘Writer’s block? What’s that? … It’s a silly, middle-class notion. The way to cure it is to sit down and write. Anything. Describe the room you’re sitting in. Describe yourself. Describe somebody you hate.’

He says now that he’s finding it hard to finish one of the novels he’s working on (he won’t say what it’s about). ‘It’s not writer’s block, it’s just I haven’t got the bloody thing right yet. And that’s experience. Writer’s block is an Americanism. All their best writers have had writer’s block. We all have times when we lose confidence – not faith, but confidence. It began with The Lake, when I got stuck once or twice, on the enormous, slithering, sloppy state of that first draft, I found that if I simply went back to the beginning and typed out everything, patiently, I would get to the ending and I would just keep writing over it. Sometimes we lose the story. But if you just go back far enough into it, you can get it. Again and again, I’ve used that technique.’ He pauses. ‘On the other hand, it’s not working for me right now.’

It’s almost surreal to talk to Jack, not because I’ve gotten too close to a hero, but because he tells anecdote after anecdote of people like Sargeson, Duggan, Fairburn – people you sometimes forget were actual people. With Jack, New Zealand Literature is just people wandering around, talking to each other, and bickering a lot. (‘Bitchy writer farting’, he calls it.) He talks about the historian Keith Sinclair. ‘We were talking about writing. He’d just brought out his volume of poems, Strangers or Beasts. He hadn’t written his history of New Zealand yet. I said to him, “What’s it actually like to be published?” And Keith just said, “Look, Jack. Forget all the sentiment and romance. You’re sitting beside a hedge. And you have this book. And you throw the book over the hedge. It lands in a heap of cow shit with a soft plop. And that’s all you hear. Then you go off and immediately get to work on another.”’ Jack’s entire writing career seems to have been shaped by this throwing the book over the hedge and immediately getting to work on another. Though the analogy doesn’t quite hold, now, since each new Lasenby book lands with a bit more celebration – he has received countless awards and honours, including the prestigious Esther Glen Medal; in 2002 the Jack Lasenby Award was established; in 2014 he won a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement. To date, he has written nearly 40 books. His work ethic reminds me of people like Elizabeth Knox, who work on several books at the same time, unstoppably.

What does he think about contemporary children’s literature? He is impressed by Mal Peet’s books, and by Bernard Beckett. ‘I remember once presenting some award or other to that Bernard, and I said to him, “Look, Bernard. Margaret and Joy and William and I have got all this pretty well sewn up. We don’t need any young jokers on the scene.” And Bernard looked at me and I thought, “Oh, shit. He thinks I’m serious.”’ But in terms of contemporary fiction, he confesses to having lost touch. He’s more of a rereader, an unearther of new readings of old books. ‘I’ve been reading Tolstoy my entire life, but I always find some deep thing that’s developed sometime between my last reading of the book and this one.’ He recalls phone conversations he’d have with Margaret Mahy, a close friend. ‘“Listen Jack,” she’d say in that wonderful dry rasp of hers. “I’ve just reread so-and-so, and I gave it a very good reading.”’ He laughs loudly. In my guilty world of I haven’t got around to reading that one yet and It’s on my list, I like Jack’s frank admission that he doesn’t even try to keep up. And I remember him telling me to read Tolstoy, too, twenty years ago: I’d told him that I had rescued a drowning hedgehog from a swimming pool, and he tells me about Isaiah Berlin’s essay about Tolstoy, in which he applies the idea of the fox (who knows many things) and the hedgehog (who knows only one big thing) to writers. ‘Tolstoy began life as a fox, but he always wanted to be a hedgehog.’

It is undeniably weird to sit here, overlooking Wellington city, having this meandering conversation with my version of MacGyver. I experience a sort of telescoping effect: from what feels like the widest, clearest frame of my life, I can look right back into my childhood. It’s a bit like going back to the beginning and retracing everything up to this point, and keeping on writing over it. When we say goodbye Jack gives me a big hug. And later that week, out of the blue, I’m assigned an odd project. A principal from a tiny rural school emails to ask if I would write to one of their students, a twelve-year-old girl who likes to write and needs some encouragement. The student’s first letter to me, in blue biro, is bright and full of questions and, to use one of Jack’s words, marvellous, and I start to write my first letter back to her.

Ashleigh Young
+ posts

Ashleigh Young lives in Wellington, where she works as an editor at Victoria University Press. She is the author of the poetry collection Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012) and the essay collection Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016), which which won a 2017 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize from Yale University, and is shortlisted for the 2017 Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non-Fiction.