Graeme Lay is an editor and a prolific writer of stories, articles, scripts, fiction and non-fiction books. His latest novel, Larry and Viv, has just been released and is a dramatic fictionalisation of the visit to New Zealand of The Old Vic Theatre Company in 1948 by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, when the charismatic couple took the Antipodes by storm.
I was born in Foxton in 1944 and one of my first memories is from July 1947 when General Montgomery was driven down the town's main street in an open car. He stood and waved, and the crowds cheered, and mum said: "That's the man who won the war for us."
My father had been stationed in Fiji during the war and after he returned home, he worked for the post office. Then, when I was 4, we moved to Taranaki and lived in a rented cottage not far from Ōakura Beach with its booming surf and black volcanic sand. It wasn't until I visited Auckland as a 12-year-old, that I realised not all sand was black.
Dad later worked for a grocer in New Plymouth, and at night he trapped and shot possums in the Pouakai Range. The smell of aniseed bait and curing possum skins was pervasive but it earned him enough to lease the Four Square in Ōpunake further down the coast on SH45, or the surf highway as it's grandly known. My dad was a keen fisherman, and the sea entranced me too. I loved whitebaiting, surfing and fishing from the rocks and to this day I cannot bear to be far from the sea.
In summer, crowds of people were drawn to Ōpunake from all over the North Island to the big campground and the Mardi Gras was the most exciting event of the year by far. It lasted for about 10 days, then the town went back to sleep again. I liked how you never knew who would turn up, including various girls from bigger towns and the other side of the mountain. Back then Ōpunake supported four grocery stores, but when I go back now, sadly a lot of the shops are empty.
I was always a keen reader and I was very grateful for the one-room town library next to the drill hall. I loved adventure stories and frontier tales, and The Famous Five reinforced my feeling that the sea was a source of great adventure. I also read National Geographic, which regularly featured stories about excavations in places like Abyssinia or New Mexico which made me want to be an archaeologist. When mum enrolled me at secondary school and I told the headmaster I wanted to be an archaeologist, to dig up the remains of lost civilisations, his face fell, as there wasn't much scope for that in Ōpunake.
Secondary school was full of the usual social anxieties and trauma. I was small for my age and sensitive, so shied away from the rough and tumble but I was keen on writing. In the fourth form, we were set an assignment to write an essay about an interesting character and I wrote about the boy who sat next to me in class. He was a mad extrovert, very bright and slightly crazy and I was quietly thrilled when the English teacher read out my essay. That boy I wrote about was Adrian Burr who went on to become one of New Zealand's most generous arts patrons.
I wanted to be a writer – my first published piece of writing was in the school magazine - but it felt like a false hope, so I shelved that ambition and went to university in Wellington where my mother arranged for me to board at the City Mission Hostel in Taranaki St. Half of the residents were old men and women and the other half were teenage boys from out of town. Living there wasn't ideal, and after two years I went flatting.
I took English at Victoria and in spite of many boring lectures, I managed to maintain my love of literature. One highlight from those days was having Vincent O'Sullivan as a tutor, but he must've been very disappointed in me as a student, as I was more interested in playing rugby than studying the poetry of Gerald Manly Hopkins.
After graduating, I had a burning ambition to do something exciting, so in 1968 Gillian and were married and we travelled to England where I found work as a teacher. At one of the secondary schools I taught at had kids from London's East End. They were like caged animals. The headmaster was an eccentric Welshman who specialised in thrashing the boys if they transgressed in any way. I tried desperately to make classes interesting for them, but many were beyond learning. I put up with that for a year, but that was all I could take, although I enjoyed our regular holidays abroad.
Writers often have wretched upbringings with poverty, drunkenness and violence, but I was very lucky to have a loving upbringing. In spite of not having a "misery memoir" start, I tried writing, mostly short stories, but I was rejected time and time again. I felt despondent that I couldn't crack it, but then I met Frank Sargeson. He lived literally around the corner at 14 Esmonde Rd and he read some of my writing and gave me advice. I was very lucky as there were no writing classes back then. In those days you just had to blunder on, but Frank opened my eyes to what was possible. I'm very grateful to him and because of his help, I progressed to writing a novel called The Mentor, about a young writer and an older writer. Later Frank was to become quite critical of some of my writing and a friend joked that I should've changed his name to The Tor-mentor.
I've been writing ever since then, although when the children were young I had to teach them to put food on the table. In 1972 I took a temporary job at Auckland Girls' Grammar and stayed for 24 years. I was their first male teacher and when I started they didn't even have toilet for men. Max Cryer joined the staff towards the end of my time there and he was a breath of fresh air. We became friends but teaching was also becoming horribly bureaucratic, full of stupidness and meetings that didn't have to be held. One day, I was so fed up during some pointless course, I said to Max, "I can't stand this anymore. I'm going to write my resignation letter and I want you to edit it for me," because I knew the tone would be intemperate. Max kindly reined me in and I resigned in 1996 and became a full-time writer.
I don't think of writing as lonely, because you're with your imagination, and you have your characters for company. But at the same time, you have to get out in the world. I have a group of friends called The Portnoys Committee and we lunch together regularly. This is a wonderful opportunity to get things off our chests, and to complain about publishers, critics and other writers. But after mixing in the wider world, a writer still has to come back to their desk.
I started off on an Imperial typewriter, then I moved to an electric one until Kevin Ireland gave me my first computer. An Amstrad. "You can have it," he said. "But I don't know how to use it," I said. "Stop complaining," he replied, "I'll show you how to do it." So he bought it around and set it up. That was such a giant step, from typewriter to computer. For years we all wrote in longhand, then we'd type up a good copy, and make copies that we had to post to people and it would take ages to get a reply. That all seems so antiquated now. I think email is the greatest invention of my life.
My new book, Larry and Viv is dedicated to Max Cryer, who had met Vivien Leigh, although sadly, Max died when the book was in production. I wondered if I should change the wording of the dedication so I contacted my editor friend Stephen Stratford who said not to change it. "It's still dedicated to Max," he said. Then two months later, Stephen also died.
• Larry & Viv, Renaissance Publishing, $35.