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April 3, 2006 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Method Acting

“I wasn’t born for interviews,” Shuker says, shifting slightly in his chair. His modesty belies an understated opulence with his words that he displays over the next forty or so minutes. He’s just spent a similar amount of time talking to National Radio. Two days before he had a glorious technicolour, full-page picture in the Sunday Star-Times, complete with gonzo-laced Steve Braunias profile. He really wasn’t blowing smoke up my arse when he told me on the phone the night before that he “was a little interviewed out.”

It seems in New Zealand, although we are reluctant to take a risk on something slightly different, we are however swift in accepting people back into the fold – only after we have concrete proof of their worth. The Star-Times profile was Braunias at his most sycophantic, and an annoying piece of journalism. To a degree Shuker is a friend (more a friend of a family member): I had seen him months previously, drunk as hell, at my sister’s wedding. The book was out, but it was still unknown by most in New Zealand. Carl Shuker hadn’t yet been ordained a celebrity, and there was still something delightfully anonymous about Shuker, who is from first hand experience, the loveliest of people. Seeing this article, it seemed that the decision had been made and the switch hit. Shuker was now part of the big time. Hell, he even got a bigger picture for his piece than Bono did weeks before.

“What did you think?” Shuker asks me with a wry smile, seemingly fully aware of some of the ironies the story represents. “That picture was pretty awful.” He retorts. I have no reply, and smile back at him. What does he think it says about New Zealand? “I think it says more about Steve Braunias than anything else.” Is he a cunt? “Nooo. He’s an awesome guy. I’ve known him for quite a while. It was fun, we drank gin for a couple of hours and got drunk and somehow he was recording it.” I feel better about the feature, but only slightly.

It seems, given Shuker’s past and the plot material for The Method Actors, that it is only fitting that it would be an international audience he would find acceptance with at first. The novel tackles expatriate hedonism in the midst of Tokyo intensity, and links into a secret history of the area. Shuker himself has spent a couple of years in Tokyo. Soon he plans to leave for London, visa permitting.

In a country that is obsessed with their art adhering to an exportable cultural idea of what New Zealand is, and can be, it is unsurprising that a book that can’t be put into set notions of New Zealand fiction was forced overseas. I sent it out to three publishers in New Zealand. One of them was good enough to sit me down in a café for an hour and a half and tell me why he wasn’t going to publish my book. Which was nice. Another sent back a form rejection paragraph or so on top of a 700 page manuscript.

The commonplace initial rejection that is par seemingly built in to any narrative of a young artist, must make the initial success sweeter for the lucky few who are successful. “It definitely makes it sweeter in the long sense. I’ve been doing this for six years, I don’t feel like tada! Fuck you! You can see why they don’t publish your book. They don’t have the money. They can’t take the risks. New Zealanders are guarded and they are slow to invest in someone who might not prove to be the goods.”

Also, nothing really says “you’ve made it” like an award for $65,000. Money in the New Zealand arts industry, especially for authors, is a precious and rare commodity. The ability to wave goodbye to a day job, and say hello to days spent chain-smoking in your underwear in front of a computer and growing cool beards is something that comes implied with such a big cheque. So too I guess, would a pretty bloody huge celebration. “It was actually pretty demure. We got home about three after sitting around at the Matterhorn and shouting opinions at each other. I wanted to pay the whole bill, but a whole lot of people surreptitiously paid their bills on the way out. I was really disappointed, I got this mediocre little bill.”

I proceed with the, um, $65,000 question. How does it feel to win $65,000? “It makes you feel very optimistic. Actually at the award ceremony, on the outside I was looking very shy, and trying to contain myself. But inside it felt fucking good.”

The thing about awards, in my opinion, can be that they take over. The Method Actors can become ‘the Glen Schaeffer award winning novel The Method Actors’ instead of a crackingly intelligent, sprawling novel combining expatriate dislocation with Tokyo’s intensity. It’s happened plenty of times. The phrase ‘award winning’ or ‘critically acclaimed’ before anything can overtake any thoughts on more important matters such as style and plot. Does he fear this? “I don’t believe in prizes, I think
they get in the way. How do you choose between six authors? People who are the inverse of each other? It’s a little bit of a head-fuck really”

Now with the award and the recognition, Shuker has been anointed by the mainstream as a card-carrying member of the successful New Zealand lierati. His thoughts on that aside, Shuker is part of a batch of writers coming forward who are graduates of the Bill Manhire directed Masters in Creative Writing. “I’ve got lots of friends, publishing books. I’m lucky enough after doing that course to know a lot of writers.” It has put Shuker into a very alive circle of creative energy. “Before this I didn’t know anyone that wrote anything, or been around anyone that really thought reading was a particularly good idea at all.” He briefly alludes to unhappiness at school and you can imagine for someone slightly eccentric and creative, it would have been a supreme relief to surround yourself with like-minded individuals while doing the course. “Doing that course was just the hugest thing.”

Like a lot of Manhire graduates I have spoken with, he is quick to deflect the ‘book factory’ criticism that is so often thrown at the course. “Manhire is not an influence. He’s a support person. He’s always there and he’s always ready. He’s like a supportive uncle, but a very cool uncle that you can tell anything too. He’s the definition of hands off. Sometimes you’ll want him to push you in a certain direction, but he won’t.” The ludicrous thing is, that once the course is over and finished, there is a long, tough road ahead of you. Being a Manhire graduate is not going to get that book published for you, especially not with New Zealand’s notoriously reluctant publishing houses. It is going to give you the skills to get the book written in the first place. “It doesn’t really help you specifically, it helps you as a person,” Shuker says.

The negative reaction to Manhire is like anything in culture. “I think as soon as someone stands up and is someone, y’know, it’s the obvious thing to happen. It’s the done thing in culture.
If the band blows up, the 16 year olds will love it for a while. They put out the bad album and they’ll turn on them. It’s a universal impulse.”

Shuker is philosophical about his writing. He obviously carries a tremendous amount of confidence on his shoulder, the sort of confidence that comes with breaking through the barrier of doubt – and then reaping the rewards. He’s reluctant to let his work, and The Method Actors get tied up into any grandiose rhetoric that can crush an author’s work or alienate them from an author. He lists his influences as “music, movies, friends, and life.” His inspiration to write began to grow while writing stories about Ewoks as a kid.

Writing as work though, usually takes a backseat to working, to live. How hard is the formality of a day job when one’s heart lies elsewhere? “I used to work in the Graduation Office, after I’d finished The Method Actors, and after I’d graduated. In my downtime at work I would edit the book, but I was so afraid of people reading over my shoulder that I reduced it down to 8 point type. I had to wear these glasses to work. I printed the whole novel out there to. They never caught me.”

Being an author is a lonely occupation. There is not the instant gratification of performing in front of an audience, or watching an audience take in your finished product. “I envy musicians, just being able to go on tour after doing all this work and go nuts. But the kick has to come from writing itself, and you are either genetically programmed to get that kick from writing or you’re not. And if you do, commit to it.”

It’s a grueling activity, creating a novel, which requires knowledge of both yourself, and people. “This book almost killed me. I was drinking a bottle of wine every single night. It was dire and I was lonely, I owed so much money. I was anxious all the time.” In the end, it was a healthy dose of self-belief that was needed to break through the struggle and into the pay off. “You’ve got to believe that your book has an concrete reason for being in existence. You have to believe that what you are writing is cool. There is no book that is about being young and free in Tokyo, let alone tries to connect it with history. I think people have been waiting for a book like this, it feels different, it feels new.”

Despite currently riding a wave of recognition, Shuker is prepared for the comedown – and is aware of New Zealand’s slightly fickle tall poppy culture. “We’re quick with the backlash, and you’ve got to respect that. It’s like the NME, we build them up to cut them down. And I think the thing is, don’t look for it. Do your own thing, be true to yourself and it can’t hurt you. You’re doing something that you love. And if people write a bad review, fuck it.”

But now London calls. And like I said above, it’s visa permitting – with Shuker at 31 a little past the age limit for the working holiday permit. Shuker is looking forward to getting back to writing and is elated at not having to work. “There’s a Suede song called ‘Europe is My Playground’, and I find that sentiment appealing. I want it to be my playground.” He’s out to “find something that I can not give a fuck what people think about it again.” But he’s aware the burden that the award brings on him. “Y’know those Macarthur Genius Grants? They are statistically proven to reduce productivity. People don’t want that stress, they want to be on holiday. But I’ll be in London. No one will give a fuck about me or know who I am. I can just disappear.”

He’s a cool guy Carl Shuker, and that’s reflected in The Method Actors. He talks with enough passion about music Bruce Springsteen, Death From Above 1979, Prince, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Thin Red Line to gain the faith of someone with more than a passing interest in culture. He’s seems just aloof enough to not believe his own hype and just cocky enough to believe that the world should pay attention to what he has to write about. He’s written one good book, and been given the opportunity to write many more.

I guess, all we can do now, is watch this space.


About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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