I recently spoke to New Zealand author, staff writer, and editor, Steve Braunias – our correspondence over email quickly turned into me asking if he’d like to be interviewed. The resulting Q and A lies below.
You’re the Books Editor for ‘The Spinoff’ what books have you read that have had the most profound impact on you (either positive or negative) and why did they have this impact?
It’s funny you ask, because I’m writing a thing at the moment about the profound impact that a poem had on me when I read it in really unlikely circumstances – in a Year 13 English exam. I was sitting there writing boring answers to boring questions about Macbeth and Tess of the d’Urbervilles when suddenly there was a poem I’d never read before – it wasn’t something we’d studied in class – by a guy called Allen Ginsberg. It wasn’t a very long poem and it was just a total knock-out. It was set in a grimy railway yard. It describes seeing a flower which is compared to an old shaving brush found under the garage, but gave the writer so much joy and happiness. It was kind of about finding beauty in an ugly, sordid world. I loved that message. It was really hopeful and it held out the possibility of an ecstatic experience.
You have written nine books, including The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road – has your approach to the process of writing changed from books 1-9? How would/would you say you have evolved as a writer from your first to your latest book?
Ten books lol! I don’t really know the answer to your question….I try not to think about my writing, or analyse it. I do know though that when I first started seriously writing for magazines, when I was 25, I would work during the day in a warehouse, as a storeman, and come home, eat something, and write from 6 pm through to 6 am on a diet of cigarettes and coffee. Then I’d sleep for two hours and get ready for work. I write a lot more quickly these days and get more sleep.
As well as being an Author you’re a Staff Writer for The NZ Herald – and you also write for the Spinoff, which to my knowledge is mostly digital, with this being said you have a foot in both camps: tangible print journalism and digital journalism. Some say print journalism is dying and since you work within both realms of journalism, what do you think? Is print journalism dying and is print journalism vs digital a different working experience? If so how?
More and more papers and magazines will be put to death in the next few years, and more journalists will lose their jobs. And then it might get really bad…Print journalism has basically been in crisis for the past three or four years. God knows what’s going to happen. I worry about it a fair bit, that is I worry about my own skin. But I also just get on with things. I love writing for the Herald. I also love writing for the Spinoff. They are two very different operations but essentially the same – both are concerned with accuracy, fast reporting, strong stories, good writing, reaching out to people, making a difference and all sorts of good things like that. The Herald is very much a digital media these days anyway with a strong online presence, and can respond to events very, very quickly, so it’s as much a digital experience as it is a paper medium.
I recently wrote a piece of long form journalism soon to be released on Pantograph Punch, and I know the Spinoff has recently set up a fund for longform journalism, which has an investigative focus. Can you explain longform journalism for people who might not know what it is, and in your time as a consumer and creator of journalism, what have been some of the best pieces of longform journalism you’ve read or do you like reading longform journalism?
Longform journalism is basically the result of observing someone or something for a long time, so there’s a bit more depth than say a story which is an immediate report on a house fire or a game of cricket. I read a lot of that sort of thing and so much of it is just fantastic. I recommend you follow Longform, an American site – it posts something like 6-7 awesome stories every day from the US media.
Locally, some of the best pieces that come to mind is a story by Naomi Arnold in NZ Geographic about the death of a climber; a story in the Sunday Star-Times by Harrison Christian, about going fishing with one of the worst criminal offenders in NZ history; and a story in the Waikato Times by Aimie Cronin about the poorest street in Hamilton. All brilliantly written stories about real life.
Your pieces with a political focus, particularly the ones where you play table tennis are somewhat unorthodox in their approach, what made you want to do political pieces in this way? And what has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned while doing these pieces?
I just thought it would be fun! I love playing table tennis and really wanted to challenge political leaders to a game, and smash them. Also, table tennis is a very revealing game. It’s a kind of chess. I figured that it might be a way of examining the character of the politicians and that it’d be interesting to write about, and I hoped people would like reading the stories. Now that you ask, I think the most interesting thing I’ve learned in my four games so far is just how afraid the politicians have been – afraid to attempt a difficult shot, afraid to do something original, afraid to really show themselves.
The Spinoff has been incredibly well received by the public – according to its founder Duncan Grieve, The Spinoff began as an experiment in magazine journalism and if we were to extend this, I would be the first to say the experiment has been a great success, why do you think this is? How do you think the Spinoff differs from other news/media platforms? What do you think has made it the success that it is?
The answer is two words at the start of your question: Duncan Greive. He’s why it has become a success and why it’s different than anything else going out there. He’s a guy who had a vision and worked incredibly hard, at some sacrifice; and he really believed in the good it could do, such as reach out to younger people who were being kind of ignored by other media; and he very quickly brought in quite brilliant people, like Alex Casey, Calum Henderson, Don Rowe, Toby Manhire, and, maybe most spectacularly, Madeleine Chapman, whose work and contribution to the Spinoff has been dazzling.
There’s a long list of other really talented people who have written for the Spinoff in the past couple of years and one that comes to mind is this teenager called Grace Stratton … I read your Spinoff piece yesterday, after you got in touch, about the guy who said to you that he was all good and didn’t need you to tell him anything about Cerebral Palsy, and was moved to tears actually by how direct your story was, and because I didn’t know what was going to happen in it, and because you gave such a clear, intimate glimpse into your life by writing about it with such wit and grace. You’re really talented. And so to your other question you asked in another email, sure, love to hook up for a cup of tea and a chat. Do you play table tennis?
This interview has been equally dazzling for me to complete, I would like to thank Steve for his willingness to be interviewed and for all that he has taught me in this short time. I’ll be sure to document it if we were to ever compete in a game of ping-pong. (He’d win for sure)