Two minutes with: Damien Wilkins

by The Listener / 07 February, 2013
The author, poet, playwright and scriptwriter this year replaces Professor Bill Manhire as director of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
Damien Wilkins
Damien Wilkins, photo Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?
I’ve always loved that thing that William Faulkner said, which was: “Write only what you know.” Whenever I’ve done stuff that seems to have worked, it’s been from a surprising source. I don’t think you can calculate. I think you just have to follow your own hunches and be as peculiar as you need to be.

What makes a great teacher?
I’ve had two models in my life and they’re completely opposite, so I don’t really know which one is preferable. The first model was when I did my MFA in the States. I was taught by a writer called Stanley Elkin who just taught through anecdote and personal testimony. He was one of the funniest men I ever met, and quite a scary guy as well. Then if I think of Bill Manhire as a teacher, Bill’s genius was to say only enough. What students say about Bill is that his silences are as eloquent as his statements.

Speaking of Bill, does it concern you that you’ve got big shoes to fill?
Well, he’s irreplaceable. I think what Bill’s done has set the tone for the Institute of Modern Letters, and the culture. I don’t quite know what the future is going to be
like exactly, but it will be very strange without him there. It will be a bit like when Alex Ferguson finally leaves Manchester United – there will be people weeping in the stands.

Why do you think it is that bankers are so wealthy, and writers are so poor, generally speaking?
Well, society is wrong, isn’t it? Clearly our values are mixed up. But some of the power of writing comes from its powerlessness. When I was applying for Bill’s job, they asked me to give a talk about any topic I wanted, so I talked a bit about creative writing and a bit about some books I was reading. One of them was a novel about the Emperor Augustus, and at the end of his life he looks around and thinks: “I’ve done all this work in pursuing political power, but what I really liked was getting close to poets.” That’s the bizarre little twisted hope that every writer lives with – that the politician and banker will be consigned to history, and somehow our marginal product will live on.

Best book you’ve read in the past year?
I’ve been on a big Joseph Roth kick. He was the German writer who died in the 30s and his great book is called The Radetsky March. I’ve just read the translation by Michael Hoffman and it is straight into my top 10 novels of all time. It’s about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, built around a hilarious incident where a foot-soldier accidentally saves the emperor’s life. It’s just so funny and so beautifully told and so moving.

What do you think the book industry will look like in 20 years?
I don’t think anybody knows that. In terms of publishing, it looks incredibly bleak. If people don’t want to pay artists, that is actually an issue and that is a worry. But the book is a really good invention, and I don’t think the invention that’s supposed to supplant it is there yet.

What role does music play in your life these days?
A surprisingly large role. In my late teens and early twenties, music was the main thing and books were on the backburner a bit. Then I put it aside for more than 20 years. I started fooling around again on a Midi keyboard and then on a guitar and for some reason starting writing songs. It’s been really, really great, actually. It’s been like going back to school. I’ve loved that and it’s made me think hard about lots of things.

Favourite stretch of road?
My wife’s family have a bach in Wanaka, and I must say, coming into Wanaka township, the first view you get of the lake is pretty damned uplifting.
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