Kate Camp is taking part in two panel discussions at The Auckland Writers Festival (May 11-16), including one with Bill Manhire. Currently on sabbatical from Te Papa, Camp is working on her memoir while she continues with Kate's Klassics on Saturday Mornings with Kim Hill.
I was a great reader, but I wouldn't have described myself as bookish. I was more of a daredevil, always seeking attention by doing outrageous things. One family photo sums up my personality perfectly. I was about 3 and we're at the Christmas table. We had those streamers you blow out at parties and I've got one up each nostril.
I was gangly, energetic and enthusiastic, a typical younger sister wanting to do everything her big sister was doing. Looking back, I was quite a handful, but when we were teens, mum and dad were very permissive. We had much more freedom than our peers, which got us into all sorts of mischief. And even if we did get caught doing something, we didn't seem to get into trouble.
Catching the train from Box Hill to Onslow College, some days we'd think, do we go to school or take the train into town and wag? Quite often, my sister and our neighbour would impulsively go into town but once we were on the train, I remember having this empty, hollow feeling, like regret. Because I really enjoyed school.
I also had a really low boredom threshold and wagging all day was boring. But the irony was, I was driven by the desire to rebel and do something forbidden, but I would've enjoyed a day at school much more.
In fourth form, just before my 14th birthday, Dad left Mum. I'd never given any thought to my parents' relationship, so it felt like it happened out of blue. Until then, I'd never kept a diary, yet I kept a diary for that one year, 1986. And what's amazing is how little I mention that event, even though it was the biggest thing that happened in my world.
I remember the day Dad moved out. I was standing at the top of the stairs watching him and my uncle carry this big table out the door. It was going to be his dining table. I said, 'You'll always be my dad', before running into my room and crying.
I was genuinely heartbroken but, even as it happened, I was kind of outside myself observing and thinking, 'How sad, look at this poor young girl, saying goodbye to her father, how touching'. Which didn't make it any less real, but it was something I struggled with. Did that make me a phoney? Were my feelings inauthentic? But sometimes, psychologically, in moments of extreme emotion you dissociate, and you feel as if you're outside yourself.
I wasn't expelled, but towards the end of sixth form I was asked to leave. I ended up at university at 16, but I was utterly ill-equipped. I lacked any social maturity and it was quite a shock to the system. I studied philosophy, classics and English, but I got Bs, which was a real wake-up call. I was used to doing well, seemingly effortlessly, so I dropped out. That was the beginning of a difficult decade or two.
Around 1991 I started canvassing for Greenpeace, selling membership door to door. This was after the Rio Earth Summit and after the Rainbow Warrior had been blown up in '85, so Greenpeace had a very high, positive profile. Because I couldn't get myself out of bed in the morning, and this job started at two in the afternoon and went till nine, from that perspective, it was perfect. I did it for two years and was one of the longest-standing canvassers.
We had to do 100 doors a night and earn $1600 a fortnight, whether from $20 memberships, or $4 a week, and if you didn't make your quota you'd go on report. The job had a high turnover. But it was such an education, so formative in so many ways, and it attracted an interesting blend of people - idealists, greenies, recovering addicts, young people who needed a job but had no marketable skills, older people who for one reason or another had washed up there, all of us knocking on doors.
I was a cigarette smoker from my early teens, then a pot smoker and I really struggled with addiction. But if you say you've been an addict people usually think of heroin or alcohol, and not everyone believes pot is addictive. Or they think it's harmless, but I struggled with it for 20 years. That whole cycle of giving up and starting again and hating myself.
I find it so hard now, to watch a movie or TV programme when people fall off the wagon. I just rewatched the American House of Cards. When Doug starts drinking again after 14 years clean, I was shouting at my iPad, "No Doug, no Doug!" because I can so empathise with that feeling. Not only are you back at square one, you're back at square minus 1000 because you've proved to yourself yet again that you cannot do this. I haven't smoked anything for a long time, but it would be arrogance to think it could never happen again.
Sometimes there can be very little difference between being on a writing fellowship where you don't know anyone, and being clinically depressed. You've got no reason to get up in the morning, no reason to get dressed, no structure. I'm a very gregarious person, an extrovert, I get my energy from external factors. I am not a lock-myself-in-a-garret type of person. If I had that time again, my first writer's residency in Hamilton, I would seek out structure. Whereas when I got to Berlin, I quickly found the nearest gym, I started German lessons, I joined a choir. I'd learned how important it is for me to have structure and community.
When I was in Hamilton, I had a stark realisation as I turned 30 - what did I want from life? In my 20s I'd published two books. My literary career was a thing, so what was next for me? I wanted to have a house, and a family, I thought of my 30s as my empire-building decade. Time to get a real job. I came back to Wellington and freelanced, writing for government departments. People could see I was a writer, and then I got my first management job. What I started earning was ridiculous compared with what I'd been earning on writers' fellowships, because I'd been earning very entry-level figures up till then.
I have a serious corporate career. I've been the director of comms at the Ministry of Economic Development, and at the Commerce Commission. I was at a literary thing in Wellington some years ago. I said to some literary guy that I had to get back to work. He asked what my day job was, when I wasn't writing poetry, and I said I was the director of comms at the Ministry of Economic Development. He asked, 'Is that as boring as it sounds'? But I love working in comms. It's all the things I love about thinking and writing, dealing with people and cutting to the chase. It's about understanding the impact words have on people. It's a lot of psychology, and I feel myself drawing on all my experiences.
I have a brain and it needs to work. I love the intellectual challenge of my corporate career, and the human challenge, and I'm very proud to have had these high-powered jobs. Now I'm at Te Papa, life really makes sense. There are so many artists and creatives on staff, and people really value the creative work I do. Te Papa has a real sense of integrity, it's aligned with my values. I would never say to an artist, "you need to make your work more accessible". Places like Te Papa, or what I do with Kim [Hill], you can have a more irreverent and fun approach to the arts. I value that.
I'd like to stay at Te Papa forever, although it might not be up to me. Who knows what the future holds? But after knocking on 100 doors a night for two years for Greenpeace, one thing I'm very good at is talking my way into things and, if worst comes to worst, and I have to leave, I'd surely find something else, but right now, I think I've got the best comms job in the country.