Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Steve Braunias

Steve Braunias, journalist and author, has just published his sixth book, Civilisation: Twenty Places on the Edge of the World. Braunias, a former winner of the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, is Wintec editor-in-residence in Hamilton.

Steve Braunias. Photo / Jane Ussher
Steve Braunias. Photo / Jane Ussher

1. What will the record state on Steve Braunias' achievements at school?

When I got my Bursary maths exam back, there was a handwritten memo from one of the markers below the mark, which was zero out of 100. It said, "Congratulations, this is the lowest score ever recorded and the myth that you get a mark for writing your name right is wrong." He said I'd actually broken the New Zealand record. It's strange, because at primary school me and another girl, Ruth, toured around primary schools in the Bay of Plenty. We were the two brightest kids in our year at Omanu Primary School at Mt Maunganui and for three or four days, the teacher drove us around these schools and we would take on the brightest kids of that year, in spelling, general knowledge and arithmetic. We were 8. And we didn't lose. It was exhilarating.

2. Who, among those in a position of power that you have interviewed, has ever impressed you?

Power is not interesting to me. In terms of politicians they're probably about the least interesting encounters I've ever had.

Certainly not exhilarating. I remember when I interviewed [John] Key, when he was in opposition, and it was about 12 months out before he became prime minister. I was interested to meet this guy and we went to Napier and we had a long interview. And I watched him give an off-the-cuff speech that night to the Young Nats. When I'm interviewing someone I'm so engaged with what they're saying I'm not thinking about what I think of them. I'm listening to them as closely as I possibly can. And I remember I woke up the next day and I went for a long walk along the promenade in Napier and I burst out laughing. Roared with laughter at the thought that this guy was going to be prime minister. I just thought it was hilarious.

3. Who have you revered, put on a pedestal?

I really admire a hell of a lot of people who write. Here and in other countries as well. But number one would be this guy called Brian Glanville. He wrote books and he had a column in World Soccer magazine. He wrote these really long Byzantine sentences that were kind of like long train carriages that curled around the page. He was very funny. Very critical. I met him when I had a scholarship to go to Oxford. I went to his home in London. He was about 75. Very tall. Long fingers. Patrician kind of nose. The room was quite dim. We sat in his room for about four or five hours. It culminated in him saying to me, clawing at his very long face with his very long fingers, "I have achieved nothing. Nothing." It was like a howl. It was a profound experience. This person who meant more to me than anyone else, as a writer, was in such agony. He was a melancholic.

4. Are you a melancholic?

Yes. But I'm a land of contrasts. I'm a very silly person who is also melancholic. A serious person who is astonishingly thick. I don't tend to stick around one place too long. Emotionally or mentally.

5. You're a peripatetic soul?

Yeah. I guess so. Socially, at a party, which I just find hellish, all I do is run from one person to the next and spend 4 minutes in their company and run away. And it's not because of them. It's because it just seems like an endurance event, just go from person to person and I can't wait for the agony to end.

6. Can you recall the best of times at the Listener?

I quite liked to drink. I liked a drink in those days. And I would very often come back from a long lunch and sleep a couple of hours on the red velvet couch in my office. Or I would come into work with a hangover and sleep it off on the red velvet couch in my office. Would wake to the gentle murmurings of the sub-editors and they would be discussing the correct placement of commas. Then I would be the first to read something new and brilliant by someone like Diana Wichtel, Phillip Matthews, Roy Colbert, Michael King.

7. When are you unguarded?

I cry very easily. Even kids' programmes make me weep. Tears strip you away. It's nothing to do with irony. My favourite TV programme of all time is The Waltons. I cried every episode. I just felt miserable. I was really wretched. Themes of loneliness and isolation. The mountain was like a permanent reminder of death. It was one of a number of things that made me want to write, because John Boy Walton was a journalist. He was very sensitive and he had a limpid prose style. I would cry every single week. I'd feel terrible. I'd feel drained. My family wasn't a Waltons situation. But we had a mountain - Mt Maunganui.

8. It wasn't a glorious childhood full of barefoot, carefree memories at all then?

I was just a quiet boy. I read a lot. I didn't take notice of much. I was very vague. I didn't have much of a childhood really. It was wasted on me. I was otherwise engaged. I was reading. The Phantom. Tiger. Roy Rovers. Tintin of course, that was huge. Shame about the Peter Jackson business isn't it. He'll rip that into tiny shreds with his massive hairy paws. That's a shame.

9. If you could learn another language what would that be and why do you identify with it?

No. I don't like other languages. They sound all wrong. Zero interest. English is a fantastic language. It's like this endless puzzle where you don't have all the pieces.

10. What would you rather have not discovered? What do you wish you had remained innocent of?

I've never benefited from wisdom really. It's never made its approach known to me. I've just blundered along. There's this terrific novel by Patricia Highsmith called Blundering. I've lived in fear ever since I read it, that you'll just blunder into murdering someone out of sheer stupidity. Making a mistake. It's one of the reasons I don't drive. If I drove I'd be a mess. The best I've ever done is when I went go-karting. That was an intense experience. I was really appalling at it. Violent. Ill-tempered. Belligerent. I went with friends and they really didn't want to hang out with me afterwards.

11. What has surprised you about life?

The best surprise I've ever had is when I became an ancient aged father. I was 47. I had accepted that I might not be a father. I remember seeing an episode of the Sopranos when Tony said, "What is a man without family?" I thought oh no. Then when Emily and I met and had our daughter coming along, that was the best surprise. She's 5 now. I don't think about what she means to me, because she is so consuming. I find her absolutely adorable and funny and kind. That would be when I'm at my most unguarded. In a strange way I'm kind of beyond her too.

12. If you were a bird, what would you be?

A myna. No one seems to give a stuff about them. They're not endangered or beautiful. They're not on stamps. But they're birds. Extraordinary birds. They've done a really great fist of settling in this country. They were brought over as caged birds. They're pretty discreet about it as far as publicity goes. They're the average man's parrot. It's a good bird.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 19 Dec 2014 19:49:09 Processing Time: 418ms