Michele Hewitson interview: Ted Dawe

By Michele Hewitson

His children's book has been slammed by the moral police, but this self-aware author's back story is worth reading

Ted Dawe is the controversial author of  Into the River  that won the top honour at the annual New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. Photo / Richard Robinson
Ted Dawe is the controversial author of Into the River that won the top honour at the annual New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. Photo / Richard Robinson

Having never before met a polluter of the moral innocence of youth, I have no idea whether the author Ted Dawe is an unusually engaging example of one. Perhaps such creatures tend towards the engaging or - sacre bleu! - perhaps he is not any such thing.

He has just won the New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year and the award for Best Young Adult Fiction for his fourth book, Into the River, which is a sort of prequel to Thunder Road, which won Best First Book in 2004.

There has been a tremendous flap about his latest book, or more precisely about such depravity being given such prestigious awards. It has sex scenes, it uses the C word, there is drug taking, there is, most weirdly, I thought, a baby mimicking sex sounds. (He says this is supposed to be funny; he has a funny sense of humour.)

A Hamilton bookshop has removed his book from its shelves, Family First's Bob McCoskrie accused the author and judges of setting out to "pollute the moral innocence of kids".

And, said its author, "Brian Edwards even feared that the character wasn't wearing a condom! God almighty! This is a novel. It's not a family planning clinic ... He smokes really strong weed that day and he'll probably drive a car afterwards. You know, that's what happens in novels. It's like saying: 'Hamlet was really mean to his mother. What a ghastly guy!"'

All of this is publicity money can't buy for a book which had been languishing rather than racing out the door. He had self-published it because he submitted it to his publishers at 800 pages. 800 pages! "I went to my publisher and said: 'Here it is! I'm the new J.K. Rowling! And here's my 800-page book!' And they said: 'Nobody's going to read 800 pages'."

His previous books had all been shortlisted in the children's book awards. So he got the huff. He was "whining" about this to a class during an author talk and they said: "Why don't you cut it in half and make two books out of one?" And he thought: "Brilliant!" So he did but it somehow grew in the cutting and one half became about 500 pages, which was still too long and was rejected again. So he cut it in half again and then his publishers wanted him to pay to have it edited and proof-read and by the time he'd done that he was feeling like "The Little Red Hen - I'd made the cake and mixed the cake; I'm going to eat the cake too."

He had 2000 copies published; 800 have gone to book sellers in the past five days.

He said: "The worse thing you can do to a novel or a work of art is to ignore it. And I wanted to shake people with my writing." Which makes it sound as though he set out to write a shocking book. "I wanted to write a book that shouted, that didn't talk and didn't shout abuse, necessarily, but shouted."

Is his book pornographic? I don't know, not being qualified to judge, but it is quite rude, at least two bits are. I did try - and fail - to be shocked and I am easily, prudishly, shocked. Somebody said it was like something very rude from Playboy but you have to read a lot of book to get to those bits - and don't plenty of teenagers sneak peeps at Playboy?

I wouldn't know. He would. He taught English for 35 years and is now director of studies at Taylors College, which prepares foreign students for university. He was by all accounts a very good and much loved teacher. He taught for many years at Dilworth School, where he was Head of English. He knows boys. He knows what bores boys in books (descriptions of things longer than a couple of sentences) and what it takes to get them to read a book (no descriptions of things longer than a couple of sentences, fast cars.)

He was also of course a boy once and I'm willing to bet that he snuck the odd peep at Playboy. I wondered whether he'd be concerned if kids read those bits of his books, for the same reason they look at rudey mags. "I don't think so. Perhaps if they read it every afternoon when they came home from school I'd say: 'Hey, look! Come out! Come out!"

He knows about bad boys because he was one. He ran fast and wild, and took drugs and went fast in cars and rolled some of them and went in stolen cars knowing they were stolen - although he says he didn't actually steal them. He got 45 in School C English.

He writes only in his holidays and he says he'd hate it, writing as a job, because it would no longer be fun. When he does write, he loves it. "God, yeah! It's like a drug."

He'd know! He giggled in a way more suited to a 16-year-old stoner than a sedate 62-year-old educationist. "Good one! Or, touche! I should say. When I go to Thailand I write like a maniac."

Like a maniac on drugs? "No! No, I don't take anything now."

He loved taking LSD, which seems a very odd thing to love, and it is. "People who have taken cocaine tell that they loved it because it was a happy space. [LSD] wasn't a happy space. It was quite hard work and it was scary." He likes being scared. "Yeah, and being able to to survive that. It's like people who do bungy jumps: 'Jesus! I survived that.' It was reckless and crazy and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. It can do terrible things. I'm not an advocate for drugs at all."

Life, of course, can do terrible things to you anyway. I hadn't meant to get to this part of his story, the terrible part, five minutes after we met in his office at the college, but I'd asked why he was wearing three of those hippie-ish coloured string bracelets. I'd asked because they didn't seem to go with the rest of him. He's a slightly ungainly fellow with a pleasant lived-in face and clothes of the kind which belong to a person who doesn't much care about clothes. He used to be a hippie but says he's not a bit hippie-ish these days. Well, maybe a bit. He says that an anthropologist would say that he was an animist.

He believes in "the spirit of all things and they resemble each other, you know: veins look like rivers and trees have roughly the same shape. I think that there is a sort of pattern behind everything ... I don't want to sound too New Agey! I don't beat drums in the bush with no clothes on, or anything!"

The strings are from blessings from a Buddhist monk in Thailand. He and his wife, Jane Ridall, have taken to getting blessed when they go to Phuket because it somehow makes them feel ... Well, what exactly? There is no exactly. "It gives you a relief ... It's really ... nice. I can't explain it. I don't even look into it. I don't question nice feelings. I've had such a lot of bad ones. So when something nice happens you just say: 'Yeah, that seems pretty good."'

His 32-year-old son, Julian, died three months ago, of cancer, which began as a brain tumour; Jane's son, James, died 15 months ago (he has asked me not to write anything more than that - it's not his story to tell). He and Jane have been married for about 17 years and have a 16 year-old son together. He said: "If it wasn't for having each other, we'd be f***ed. We really would."

When I asked about the bracelets he said perhaps we could talk about his boy a little later, once I had learned some other things about him first. He meant, I think, that he is struggling and of course failing, to be defined by his grief. He said he can't bring himself to open the photo albums and look at his boy. He said, heart-breakingly: "I haven't sort of got over it."

He had only quite recently resumed his relationship with his son. After he met Jane, his marriage, obviously, ended and his first wife took both children to the States (he is estranged from his daughter, who won't talk to him, still) to join a "religious group", called Ramtha's School of Enlightenment. "So, after all those years ..."

He said: "It makes me a bit teary. Sorry." He talks about all of this to strangers like me, because: "I can't not say it, because it's not being honest to not. And if I dish out this sort of stuff to people in my books, I've got to live it too, you know."

That is very brave and I admire him for it but it is very hard for him, obviously. So I said: "Tell me about your cats." He said, happily, "Yeah! I love cats. Okay. That's a safer topic." So we looked at the picture of his cats: "This is ET and this is Smeagol, from The Lord of the Rings ... and this is a dead cat, that we replaced with an even more beautiful cat which is also a dead cat and our third, Pingu, fingers crossed, has been with us now for nearly a year."

I told him how much I loved the story My Dog, Your Dog, (on the Christchurch Library's website) which he wrote and Jane illustrated. It has never been published but it should be. It is very sweet and very funny and the pictures are magical and the very last thing you expect a moral polluter to have written. He said: "You've read that! Oh! Cool! You're the only person I've ever met who's read that."

There are no rude words in this little story. I did have to ask about the C word in his book. He told me a very funny story about using the word as a little boy playing Scrabble with his parents and grandmother. There was a terrible silence and finally his grandmother asked if he knew what the word meant. Of course he did. It meant "silly person" and he knew this because he and every other kid at school in Tokoroa called each other the word for silly person: "Every second sentence."

He really did think this. Unfortunately his grandmother had a look at his letters and saw that he had also lined up F U C. She said: "I don't like playing Scrabble with boys who make dirty words." And that was the end of that Scrabble game. Some things haven't changed. I have no idea whether he has polluted the young minds of the nation, or even a single mind.

"I'm a filth-monger!" he said, and he sounded pretty much like a naughty boy who had just put a bad word on a Scrabble board.

- NZ Herald

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