Saturday, May 7, 2011

An interview with cricket novelist Michael O’Leary

I’ve known Michael O’Leary since 2000. Michael (b. 1950), also known as the Earl of Seacliff, is a well-known Aotearoa/New Zealand writer and publisher with an extensive bibliography and a wide range of publications and work experience. Over the past decade we’ve collaborated on a range of literary projects, from co-hosting the rock inspired Winter Readings in Wellington (2003-2008) to co-organising the Poetry Archive of New Zealand Aotearoa, with Niel Wright. As well, we have published each other’s work at times and co-authored a collection, Sounds of Sonnets (HeadworX, 2006). Michael is one of my closest friends.
This year Michael republished two of his novels as e-books, including his 1987 cricket novel Out of It, and I asked to do an interview about it. Six of Michael’s cricket poetry satires from Out of It appear in A Tingling Catch. (Out of It is also listed in my list of favourite cricket books down the side of this blog). Out of It features a fictitious One-Day match between New Zealand and an Out of It XI set in the 1980s. It’s not just the subject of cricket that interests me, it’s Michael’s unusual dada technique, surrealism and satirical humour that makes the book a great read in a literary sense. I thoroughly recommend it.
Literature aside, one of our common discussions is always cricket. I phone Michael up and he mentions he’s watching cricket. Usually, if I’m lucky, Michael relays the details of the wickets as they happen…that’s what friends are for, especially in World Cup year!

Mark: When did you first get interested in cricket? Did you play cricket as well? I remember you saying once you had an Earl’s Eleven in Seacliff, Dunedin?

Michael: I remember watching cricket on TV after school in the 1960s. I didn't know anything about the game but I found a certain fascination with it. I did play cricket after primary school where we used to play a lot as kids for fun. At secondary school, it all became a bit too serious, and I had by then developed other interests, such as the Beatles and music generally. The Earl's Eleven was a social team of either cricket or soccer, depending on what was going on, and while both games consist of eleven players the Earl's Eleven was only such in name, sometimes manifesting itself with anything from 4 to 20 a side, depending on who turned up. This happened in the 1970s in Seacliff and in the 1980s in Auckland. Also, at that time several of us would play cricket up on Mount Albert in Auckland with a stone wall acting as the slip cordon.  

Mark: Your 1987 cricket novel Out of It has just been re-released as a Kindle e-book. It features a fictitious match between New Zealand and an Out of It Eleven. When did you first begin writing your cricket novel, and why did you choose the 1980s New Zealand team for inspiration?

Michael: Out of It began life as a Test match and halfway through I changed it into a one-day game because I had my own 'out of it' lifestyle to contend with! I began it in 1986 and wrote it in a couple of months. The 1980s New Zealand cricket team were not so much an 'inspiration' as a fact, that is they were the team when I was writing the novel. In some respects it was a reply to my 1984 novel Straight. I liked the idea of following Straight with Out of It linguistically and conceptually. The first novel was about a group of people living a wild, ‘out of it’ lifestyle, whose characters at the end settle down in a domestic, family life. Out of It on the other hand considers the life of a suburban family man who ends up becoming what the title suggests.

Mark: The book seems to have attained a cult status in New Zealand literature mainly for its surrealist and Modernist techniques, and its Out of It Eleven, featuring rocks stars (Morrison/Hendrix/Joplin), Bob Marley, famous writers and artists (Joyce/Wilde/Baxter) and the Māori chief Te Rauparaha. I understand there was once an Artists XI playing club cricket in Auckland, which included Barry Lett, David Mealing [now curator of the New Zealand Cricket Museum] and David Mitchell among others. Were they an influence on your Out of It Eleven? How did you go about choosing the Out of It Eleven?

Michael: I had no knowledge of the Auckland Artists Eleven until you asked me this question. I did know Barry Lett in the 1970s and David Mitchell in the 1980s, but only as artists and poets, so they had no influence on the Out of It Eleven. While I had no knowledge of modernist and post-modernist techniques in literature at the time, however, I was profoundly influenced by dada and surrealism. I also wanted to write a mixture of absurdist and humourous novels, something I have always found lacking in New Zealand literature. How does anyone choose an Out of It Eleven? Are they in form with the bat and/or the ball, do they excel in the field? 

Mark: Te Rauparaha top scores as the Out of It captain with a hard-hitting 80. As an Irish/Māori writer, why did you choose Te Rauparaha to be the hero of the Out of It Eleven?

Michael: The way I write I do not know what is going to happen. 'Out of It' is a typical one-dayer, unpredictable from start to finish. For example, I had no idea that Te Rauparaha would hit six sixes off a Richard Hadlee over, but he did! I am a writer who works through inspiration, so when I start a story or poem they take on a life of their own. I don't think God would have made me if he knew how I would turn out, but He did, and here I am. As an Irish/Māori writer, I don't know. There is a discussion between a couple of the radio commentators in the novel, one of whom favours Titokowaru as captain: perhaps he wasn't Out of It enough! 

Mark: Another interesting feature is the inclusion of anonymous montages made by Gregory O’Brien? How did you get Greg involved in the project, and how were the images constructed?

Michael: Greg and I have done a lot of collaborative work over the years. The fact that he had done the illustrations for Straight lead to me asking if he wanted to illustrate Out of It also, and the cover was done by another of our friends, poet Iain Sharp. You would have to ask Greg how they were constructed as he did them. I assume they were done as collages - images from cut-up magazines and books, and glued together after being assembled. Remember, this was all done before computer graphics etc. 

Mark: Out of It was self-published by your publishing company ESAW in 1987. How was the original edition received. Did you get much interest from the cricket fraternity and the general public as opposed to a literary audience?

Michael: Self-publishing equates to a kind of literary damnation in this country, yet it is the way most writers begin their careers. From R A K Mason to Denis Glover to Bill Manhire [Amphedesma Press in London] and more recently the literary bloggers and internet self-publishers, New Zealand writers have more often than not either begun as or continued to be self-publishers. This is discussed in my MA thesis on alternative small presses in NZ (2001 & 2008), the irony being that there is often no 'alternative'. As for interest from the cricket fraternity and the general public as opposed to a literary audience, the score is nil/all (and I mean all). I am lucky that there are enough people who enjoy and appreciate my work and Out of It got good reviews at a time when New Zealand books were reviewed by people like Michael Gifkins [in the New Zealand Listener] because he found them interesting.

Mark: Finally, the e-book format is new way of publishing books in New Zealand. How did you get Out of It republished as an e-book, and what are your hopes for the new technology. Do you think e-books will help New Zealand writers export their work overseas more readily?

Michael: Like most things in my life this appeared from the sky. As I once wrote: ‘A beard is growing on my face more out of neglect / Than by design, or for effect'.
  I tend to work intuitively on most things so I couldn't say how, why, or where I came across the e-book idea. I contacted Jason Darwin from MeBooks and had a meeting with him at Wellington Railway Station (my city office) - and, after a time of wonder, an e-book was born. My hope for the new technology is the same for the old technology, that it becomes a tool by which I can get my work published and out to as many people as possible. I think there is a lot of scope for New Zealand writers to get their work read overseas with the e-technology but with the proviso that there are billions of people trying to do the same thing - at least in New Zealand there are only 4 million.

OUT OF IT - XI (1987) by Michael O'Leary

1) Jimi Hendrix
2) Monk Lewis
3) Te Rauparaha (C)
4) Oscar Wilde
5) Jim Morrison
6) Alfred Jarry
7) Janice Joplin
8) Bob Marley (V.C.)
9) Herman Goering
10) Lord Byron
11) James Joyce

12th man - James K. Baxter

Interview © Mark Pirie 2011

Out of It by Michael O'Leary
(ESAW e-book, 2011)
Thanks Michael. Michael’s novel can be bought from Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

See also my related blog post ‘Michael O’Leary’s cricket novel to be republished’.

Mark Pirie and Michael O'Leary at Poetrywall:
Winter Readings, City Gallery, Wellington, 2007

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