Interview: Bill Manhire

By Guy Somerset In Books

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Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire, photo/David White.

It’s 10am, less than a week since Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters tweeted that “Bill Manhire has left the building”, and the former director of the country’s most prestigious creative writing school is welcoming me to his Wellington warehouse apartment in bare feet. Not quite pyjamas in the daytime – indeed Manhire is otherwise dressed in his customary black jeans and black T-shirt (I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything else) – but he’s certainly looking relaxed in his retirement.

When thinking of that retirement, a paraphrase of Ernest Hemingway occurs: how did Manhire retire? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly. Now aged 66, he first told Victoria’s vice chancellor he was leaving over two years ago – “and the valedictory stuff has been going on for almost that long”.

But – as that tweet at 3.10pm on Friday, February 1, announced – Manhire is finally out of there, his last afternoon spent providing silent support to PhD student Tina Makereti as she gave an oral defence of her thesis – silent support being all that is permitted on these occasions, but also in many ways the Manhire doctrine as a teacher.

“That was a nice way to finish up,” he says.

Although presumably there was a big bash the night before to see him off?

“No, I didn’t want that sort of thing.” There was, however, “a gold watch from the firm” during the exchange of Secret Santa gifts at the IIML’s Christmas dinner – “Allen Curnow’s copy of RAK Mason’s The Beggar, the one he’s supposed to have thrown off the wharf. It has lots of annotations from Curnow – improving the lines, basically.”

Inside the apartment Manhire shares with his wife, Listener book reviewer Marion McLeod (the magazine’s Internaut columnist, Toby Manhire, is one of their two children), he’s in need of “a little old shelf-maker” as he attempts to accommodate the many books he’s retrieved from his university office.

It’s not just books, either. As he cleared out the office, Manhire came across “some very strange things, like I found The Golden Hits of the Everly Brothers” – now sitting in a box of LPs near his dining table. “I found a lot of very interesting letters from Hone Tuwhare!” he says, meaningfully. “And a letter from Janet Frame from the mid-80s wondering if she could put together a book of unpublished poems and short stories. Quite a bit of stuff like that.”

Manhire was head of the IIML since founding it in 2001 after American casino magnate Glenn Schaeffer donated the money for a creative writing programme that is the equivalent of its own university department. Before that, creative writing had been part of the English department, with Manhire establishing an MA programme in 1997, having developed undergraduate courses in the mid-1970s. In 2008, he set up a PhD programme, too. Each was a first for New Zealand.

When the IIML opens its doors to this year’s crop of students in the first week of March without Manhire at the helm, there will be 10 apiece in its fiction, poetry and scriptwriting classes (taught respectively by newcomer Emily Perkins, Chris Price and Ken Duncum) and 14 doing the PhD (taught now by Manhire’s replacement as director, Damien Wilkins).

Over the years, notable writers too numerous to mention have been through these classes and their predecessors. Perkins – one of them herself – credits Manhire with doing “so much to change how writing works in this country”. Academic Patrick Evans goes further, describing him as the most influential literary figure of his generation.

Given all of this, surely Manhire experienced a few moments of reverie as he gathered together those things in his office. “I don’t know,” he says. “It felt very strange but I don’t think I could flesh out the strangeness of it.”

He has already received job offers from overseas – not for the first time. Over the years, there has been “a little bit of headhunting – to Australia and the States mostly”. He was tempted, “but usually there are reasons beyond your professional life to stay somewhere”.

Nonetheless, “if Glenn Schaeffer hadn’t come along with his big chequebook and the opportunity to set up the institute hadn’t occurred, I would have left the university anyway, because the English department back then was not a very happy place. It was very factionalised and toxic.”

Now, Manhire has been offered “a couple of things in the UK – visiting professorships and that sort of thing. But I don’t want to take anything like that up. I want to walk around the world for a while and see what it looks like rather than step into a closed room somewhere else.”

There is, however, no bucket list – either for travel or for anything else. “I’ve always believed in having a completely empty head so stuff can drift into it. So I’m slowly emptying my head out and waiting to see what comes in from the side, really. When people have tried that question on me up on campus, I just look mysterious and say I’m getting straight to work on my campus novel. And the questions drift away at that point.”

A novel, campus or otherwise, would be something to see from Manhire. He is arguably New Zealand’s foremost contemporary poet, acclaimed both here and overseas (where he has been published in the New Yorker and London Review of Books), and has taught many of the country’s best and best-known fiction writers. But he has only ever published one collection of short stories, South Pacific (1994).

“I think if I can just set up what I think of as a Maurice Gee routine – you know, get up in the morning, do your three hours or four hours or whatever, and then consider how you use the rest of the day. That’s the kind of routine that might produce a novel. But if I wrote a novel, it would be a pretty lightweight novel, I think. But I like lightweight novels. I think I’d rather write a Muriel Spark novel than a Thomas Pynchon novel.”

As well as liberating Manhire’s writing life, retirement has liberated his reading life. He has long insisted on the importance to students of reading as a bedrock for writing, and that went for him as a teacher, too.

Bill Manhire empties his office at Victoria University, finding treasures as he does so

Making room: Manhire empties his office at Victoria University, finding treasures as he does so. Photo/David White.

“There is a range of things you need if you are going to teach creative writing seriously. You have to be a good teacher and generous with your time and so on. You have to be a good writer yourself so you know what you’re talking about on the basis of your experience rather than your, as it were, observation. And you have to be incredibly well read.

“Because one of the best things you can do for a student is say, ‘You should read X or you should read Y.’ And maybe there comes a point if you’re in the job too long where you’re not keeping up with your reading because perhaps you’re spending most of your time reading student work. And therefore you say, ‘You should read X’ but there were better people back at the beginning of the alphabet that you’ve never heard of. That becomes a problem, I think.”

A problem he was able to surmount? “Well, I could in poetry. I think it would be harder if I were a specialist fiction teacher. You can get a very quick sense of whether Anne Carson or Frederick Seidel or Mary Ruefle are really interesting poets and you might want to point certain students in their direction. But Jonathan Franzen – there’s a lot to read there, isn’t there? Do I want to read Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel? Probably not.”

What he does want to do, he says, is something that hasn’t been possible over the past dozen years or so – and that is “simply get lost in the world of a writer. I know it all sounds a bit fatuous or banal to talk about the world of Dickens or the world of so and so, but I quite like that. I quite like the idea of getting lost in the world of very fat novels.”

He hasn’t started yet, though. “In fact, I’m reading a rather grim sounding novel called
First Novel by a guy called Nicholas Royle. He teaches creative writing at Manchester and the novel seems to be about quite a disturbed person who teaches creative writing. I’m weaning myself off [the world of creative writing] slowly.”

While Manhire is weaning himself off the world of creative writing, the world of creative writing is weaning itself off Manhire.

“I certainly don’t want to be a ghost in the corridor drifting around looking lost,” he says when asked if he’ll be popping back to the IIML like David Brent to Wernham Hogg in The Office. But he remains a ghost in the machine nonetheless, at least initially: when I call Wilkins to arrange an interview, the answerphone message is still Manhire’s. And when I talk to Wilkins the next day, he tells me that even though he has now changed the message, “when you press 21 on the phone you get the person’s name and I pressed 21 and almost jumped out of my skin because someone said, ‘Bill Manhire.’”

Not that Wilkins is yearning to lay the ghost to rest. He was appointed IIML director having taught its MA since 2004. “There are not a whole bunch of things where I think now Bill’s gone I need to change them. The thing that is obvious is the climate in terms of the world of creative writing being a competitive one – that’s what’s changed. Bill was the only game in town for quite a few years. He kind of created the discipline in New Zealand, based on American models. For a long period, he got the benefit of the early adopter. Now, we’re not in that position. So the thing I want to keep on the radar is that sense we can’t just sit back and imagine we’re the automatic choice for students.”

Asked about Manhire’s ongoing legacy to the IIML, Wilkins talks about “the tone for the kind of conversations you have around creative writing in the workshops and outside”.

He says, “It’s almost like a form of intervention where you don’t know there’s intervention happening. To call it soft is wrong, though. Some people get it wrong when they say he must be someone who doesn’t have opinions or this must mean he lets everything go or it’s all a kind of wash of warm feeling. That’s not at all it. He’s a man of very strong opinions and very confident taste but the way he allows that to register is quite canny. We can’t practise his meaningful silences to nearly the same degree of Buddha-like intensity, but there is a sense that all of that nevertheless stays as a kind of guiding spirit in the room.”

Manhire himself, son of a publican, uses the analogy of a barman, “which I think I first offered as a joke but I believe it now: you keep the conversation going but the conversation is basically happening between the people who are drinking and keeping each other company. So you fill the glasses, you prod the conversation.”

It is a “completely different” model to that used when Wilkins studied creative writing at Washington University in St Louis in the US, where his teacher was Stanley Elkin. “That was the anti-gentle intervention. That was forceful and could get direct and sometimes nasty and lots of people suffered under that … It was like you were in the room with, I don’t know, Louis CK or someone.”

Wilkins relished “the performance aspect of it”, but “you can only get away with it if you’re good at that stuff. Whereas Bill’s model is something that can be copied in a way. So lesser mortals can sit in that chair and more or less achieve the same mood.”

Perkins – appointed from the University of Auckland’s creative writing school, one of the rivals that have arisen in Manhire’s wake – is the teacher now sitting in the chair of the MA fiction course.

She studied under Manhire as an undergraduate in 1993 and can “only hope” to bring some of what he had to the room.

Bill Manhire

photo/David White.

“It’s not a simple thing to create an environment that really works but it’s one of the fundamentals of what he does as a teacher. So the group works together, but of course the mood and the dynamic and the atmosphere for openness and that kind of thing is being created.

“He has just got this extraordinary ability to allow things. I think that’s good for any writer. Contrary to what might have been that criticism a few years ago, the last thing you’re going to do is come out trying to write like that kind of teacher. Because the environment is too open for that.”

Ah yes, that criticism a few years ago. Perkins is referring to Spectacular Babies: The Globalisation of New Zealand Fiction, a 2002 academic essay by the University of Canterbury’s Patrick Evans that was later published by then Listener books editor Steve Braunias in an abridged form Evans says distorted his argument by putting more focus on Manhire than he intended.

Nonetheless, the original essay does use Manhire as a lightning rod for a discussion of an “emerging guild system” based on the following career trajectory: “Over the years a number of Manhire’s young graduates have made their first appearance in Sport [magazine], often going on to have novels published by VUP as a prelude to overseas publication and award-winning careers.”

Examining these connections, writes Evans, “is a shorthand way of approaching some aspects of the large and complex processes into which New Zealand literary culture has entered, in particular the professionalisation of the role of the author and the commodification of local fiction”.

And also, he writes, the loss of recognisably New Zealand referents in that fiction.

The argument is as large and complex as the processes it describes (or, if you prefer, alleges). It is not helped, however, by a strand about “the rise of the young female writer” that says the “Spectacular Baby” (a phrase that comes from the title of an early anthology of Manhire course writers) “is preferably female and attractive”. Or by the use of the phrase “conveyor belt”.

Evans says, “What I was talking about was the general tendencies of publishing under the global influence, and Bill was a part of that. I would see him now in a longer perspective as the figure of his generation who was most influential in that generation. There’s a way of reading New Zealand literature that looks at crucial figures who organised the way literature was perceived and published and so on – the most obvious was Allen Curnow. He was the godfather of his period. And it seems to me Bill is the most significant figure in the period he occupies.”

Evans – who when he wrote Spectacular Babies was preparing to set up his own creative writing course at Canterbury, “so it was something that was very much on my mind” – doesn’t think he was harsh on Manhire.

At the time, there were a lot of reservations about the IIML and creative writing courses, he says. “And I was trying to catch that antagonism. That’s not necessarily my antagonism. I never had any with him. And I don’t now. I saw him in Wellington late last year and we always get on well.”

He and Manhire have never discussed the essay with each other – perhaps as telling about their characters as anything else. Manhire says, “I think it was his fantasy that the Victoria course consisted of me choosing beautiful young women who I had in my Svengali-like spell for a year or so and passed on to Fergus Barrowman [at VUP] to publish and then on to people I knew in London or New York before moving on to the next bunch of beautiful young women. Bizarre. I think it was, I don’t know, maybe what Patrick wished was happening in his life.”

The first thing Manhire looked for in a writer was not whether they were a beautiful young woman (although, to be fair, that wasn’t what Evans was claiming).

It was, says Manhire, “something to do with language, I guess. Some ability to shape a phrase on the page. And make it generate another phrase. Some sort of energy inside the words. I didn’t really care whether people wanted to write a romantic novel or some delicate haiku or some postmodern noise – it was whether they could use words to do the thing they had in mind to do.”

And if he has shaped anything, he’d like to think it was by encouraging humour in New Zealand literature. “I guess if I were to try to claim any sort of influence through the writing programme, it is that I’ve insisted you’re allowed to make jokes inside novels.”

Self-important writers, he says, “are the worst sort of human being and there are quite a lot of them around. I think perhaps the history of writing in New Zealand has often been that sense the writer does see through the superficial conventions of social behaviour and all the rest of it and it’s their task to solemnly point out the deficiencies to their readers. And I don’t think that’s a good position for a writer to be in.”

Manhire’s selection criterion is another of his legacies, no doubt. Yet another will be his very name, because despite his best efforts, the IIML has continued to be known as “the Bill Manhire course” or some variation.

He’s “always been troubled” by this, he says, and has never used the word “my” about the IIML.

For Wilkins, taking over as director yet needing to distinguish the IIML from its rivals, this close identification of Manhire with the brand must be a double-edged sword.

“Yes and no. I think Bill is now a brand. And actually the brand is free of the person. I think he’s like Colonel Sanders. People now know there’s not actually a white Southern gentleman cooking the chicken but they still go there. I think that’s a brand, isn’t it? I’ve been running the MA for the last four or five years without Bill being associated with it [concentrating instead on the PhD], but it’s still ‘the Bill Manhire creative writing school’. I actually think we now embrace that and say, ‘Yes, that’s right.’

“I think it’s stranger for Bill. In fact, [poet] James Brown sent me an email the other day saying he was looking forward to meeting Bill on the street and saying, ‘Didn’t you used to be Bill Manhire?’”

He did, and he still is. It’s just that we’re about to discover what that fully means.

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