1. Is there a part of you that understands where the detractors of Into the River are coming from?
Oh yeah, of course. My children were young once. They get to a stage, and you get scared. It happens about 11, sometimes 9, and suddenly little tendrils of adulthood emerge and they become less frank and open with you -- you're kidding yourself if you think they don't. It's a sad but necessary part of your kids getting their own wings and heading off to their own horizon. Otherwise you'll end up with a lump living on your couch for 30 years, hating you usually.
2. What were your parents like?
My father was a teacher and then a headmaster, so as kids we went to lots of schools. He was a very emotional guy who would lose his temper, he had strong opinions, he was well read. His father was a shocked World War I vet who could never fit back into normal life; he just wandered around Wellington going to the bars and they lived on the breadline. My mother, by contrast, came from landed gentry. They owned a bunch of farms in the Manawatu. Catholics. My father married into this powerful family and became a part of it and his own family disappeared. So my mother came from this strong basis, she knew which tribe she belonged to. The D'Ath tribe. She had high self esteem. She was a relief teacher at some of my schools and she used to call me Dawe. "Stand up Dawe!"
3. You went to university at the end of the 1960s. Were you a hippie?
Yeah, I think I was the genuine article. I had very long hair. I lived in houses with 12 people. We hung out having conversations that would go on for nine or 10 hours about perfect societies, the nature of the aesthetic, the meaning of Bob Dylan's lyrics. We did lots and lots of drugs, not only marijuana but hallucinogens. But it wasn't just sitting around being stoned all the time, I get irritated at how hippies are portrayed - there was a powerful political thing going on, rip it all down, build it fresh. It was a marvellous time to be at university.
4. How old were you when you got married for the first time?
I was 21 or 22, too young really. It wasn't a very considered thing. You end up compartmentalising - you have a domestic life and you have a sort of secret life of your own aspirations. It was an ugly, protracted, painful separation. My wife took my children to live in America and it was very hard to keep up any sort of relationship with them. My daughter is now completely estranged from me. Somehow my son and I managed to overcome everything and, before he died from cancer, we had a proper relationship - it was marvellous. I can't even look at an old photo of him now, I find ways of steering clear, because it's just too painful.
5. Has all this pain affected you as a writer?
Yes, I'm quite fearless. That's why I wrote Into the River. It's not a book for the fainthearted. My son Julian was still alive when I wrote it. He read it.
6. What did he think of it?
I can't remember, at that point he was going down.
7. How do you stay positive?
I've had a very happy marriage now for nearly 20 years to Jane and we have a son together, Oliver. Jane lost her son, to suicide and schizophrenia, within a couple of years of me losing mine to cancer. Both of them were about 32. So we have that in common and we have to be gentle with each other. It's good, it's lovely. She works here [at Taylors College] as well, she's the art teacher, but we never tire of seeing each other. Jane and I live in a house that looks over the sea. Looking out on water is a beautifully uplifting thing that both of us need. It's almost like eyewash. And we garden on the weekend, we garden non-stop, we garden for hours and hours, that's what we do, we are gardeners. We garden until we ache.
8. You sent the unpublished manuscript of your first book to South African writer J.M. Coetzee. What was the outcome?
Yeah, what a fool I was! I couldn't get it published anywhere and couldn't work out why so, as a final thing, I sent it off to J.M. Coetzee. I'd just read Disgrace; I thought it was such a powerful book, and that my book was like that. What a dreamer! So I sent it off and didn't hear back for ages. But then it came back and he had some really nice things to say. He also pointed out a few things that were wrong with it and he was right. But boy did it motivate me. He became my spiritual fairy godfather.
9. What did you do with that motivation?
I wrote Thunder Road in 40 days and won [Best First Book and the Senior Fiction category at the NZ Post Children and Young Adult Book Awards]. Not only that but every boy who read it loved it. It was a home run.
10. Did you ever question your ability to write from the perspective of Maori characters?
No, some Maori have said "keep your nose out of our stuff". But I've never met a Maori kid who has said that to me.
11. Is there anything you wouldn't write about for teenagers?
I can't think what. Maybe something that's boring, something that's irrelevant. Last week I was rung up by the guy from a radio station in Christchurch and he said, "Ted Dawe. Would you read that book out to a 13-year-old boy in front of his parents?" I said, "What a stupid question." A novel is a personal thing, it's a safe environment for kids to test out risky things. People say, "You've got paedophiles in the book!" Well, I'm writing about schools. That's often where paedophiles are. There have been paedophiles at almost every school I've taught at, to a greater or lesser extent. And there was one at one of the schools I went to. He had a fancy little car, he used to take boys out in it and then take them home and photograph them. People imagine the paedophile is the man with the bag of lollies in the park. He's not, he's all over the show.
12. Essentially Into the River is about bullying. Were you bullied yourself?
I was bashed up from time to time. People said I had a smart mouth - I probably did. But I didn't lose my confidence. It didn't stop me doing things.