Karyn Hay cared more about books than music when she began hosting the ground-breaking Radio With Pictures. The award-winning author has released her third novel while on the Michael King Writers' Residency.
1 Growing up in Waitoa, did you have aspirations of being a writer?
I was quite rebellious at school, although, having said that, I was also a prefect and on the school council and debating team. I suppose I had a natural ability in English and had applied for law school and journalism school when my mother heard an ad for a cadetship with the Radio New Zealand network. I discovered my strength was writing ads. Some Fridays you'd have to write up to 30 ads for the weekend and then produce them. It took away the fear of the blank page but it bothered me that I could sell things so easily.
2 How did you become New Zealand's first female radio DJ?
I had a nervous breakdown. I remember going into Radio Hauraki one day and saying, "I think I'm going mad", so I resigned from the copy department but the station manager, Derek Lowe, bribed me into staying, first as the midnight to dawn host and then doing 7pm-10pm. They had a great record library and we could play what we wanted.
3 Did you encounter any sexism?
Absolutely — it was a very swaggery, tight jeans, male environment — but I made some great friends. I was probably more one of the boys than anything. It was a different environment then. On my first day I was told by some on-air staff that I was needed in the boardroom, so I followed them in to find a large line of coke chopped out on the board table. I was handed a rolled note and told, "Welcome to Radio Hauraki". It was anarchic and also extremely creative. But the sales department was never more important than what was going on air. These days it's arse about face and one of the reasons why commercial radio doesn't have the same respect.
4 You then hosted Radio With Pictures at TVNZ's Avalon Studios. Was TV a big change?
I knew absolutely nothing about television. It was a different world. I was very young so it took a while to work out that I didn't have to wear what the network wardrobe department gave me. The outfit that finally made me go, "Nah you've come to the end of the line here, ladies" was this large spotted thing that looked like a jockey's outfit. But we were mainly left to do our own thing in the "Light Ent" department.
5 How is it that some bureaucracies encourage creativity while others stifle it?
It's all to do with who's in charge. I see a lot of beige people running bureaucracies. They're very good at climbing the corporate ladder and saying the right things in meetings but they haven't got an awful lot of creativity. Unfortunately their egos lead them to believe they have. They need to back off and allow people who are more artistic to do their thing.
6 You've just released your third novel Winged Helmet, White Horse. Is it more like your critically acclaimed debut Emerald Budgies or your No.1 best-seller The March of the Foxgloves?
My second book was historical fiction which I may not revisit for a while because, whilst I learnt a lot, it does take a lot of time and research. This book is a darkly comic psychological drama more akin to my first book which I once saw filed under "cult fiction" in a London bookshop.
7 You wrote your first book on a houseboat in London. How did you find time to write while raising a small child?
I sent him off to Gerdie, the child minder up the road. Sometime later she confessed she'd been a member of Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany. She was really very nice and couldn't be held accountable for what she did as a girl. She was in her 70s and looking after a lot of children. I was quite shocked when she said to me, "Other people's children are like germs, Karyn". I thought I might be being a bit selfish trying to write a novel when I arrived to pick him up one day and he was drinking from a baby bottle with hot tea and three sugars in it. But she allowed me the time to write that book.
8 What gave you the confidence to assume you could write a book?
I'm not very good at tennis or swimming but I always knew I could write. What had stopped me for a long time was the fact I had such a public profile. It was the start of the modern celebrity culture. At the beginning I got a lot of criticism because of my accent and the fact that I was a woman doing music television. Going to London helped enormously because I was able to be anonymous for a while. I did some minimum wage jobs like waiting tables at a restaurant owned by Bob Geldof.
9 Did you get to meet Bob Geldof?
He came to the restaurant a couple of times. It was no big deal. I've been backstage so many times, I've long since learned that the art is not the artist. Not that I really liked his music anyway. I have never been that starstruck by a band, but I have been by writers, from Doris Lessing through to Ruth Rendell and Martin Amis. I wasn't that passionate about music when I started at Radio With Pictures.
10 So how did you end up spending decades promoting music?
Once I saw the injustice that was going on with the New Zealand music industry, it became political. You have a louder voice at some periods of your life than at others. It insulted me that radio programmers would choose international artists over local artists because they had no ears to identify what was good unless somebody else told them.
11 You've left Radio Live to host a Radio New Zealand weeknight show. How are you finding it?
It's great. There's a lot of preparation involved in the one-hour show. We do three live interviews on news, current affairs and the arts. At the moment I spend the day writing here at the Michael King Writers' Residency in Devonport. The show airs from 10pm to 11pm so it feels quite late by then.
12 Your new book is told from the perspective of a male poet in a mid-life crisis trying to kick the booze and regain some control in his life. Why did you choose this topic?
This book is about obsession but also illusion: what we believe to be true is not necessarily so, and what is thought or felt is not always spoken.
• Karyn Hay's book Winged Helmet, White Horse is published by Esom House Press, RRP $35