Interview with J. C. Sturm: 3
RP: I think people would dispute that nowadays. Your writing is beautiful to read. I was reading it again over the last two or three days preparing for this. It sounds like you were always interested in books and reading from a young age?
JCS: Ah yep.
RP: So we've got the university, and meeting JKB and all of that area and I wonder how do we get to your first book, which I know was completed in the early 1960s – The House of the Talking Cat. So it was through that development from the early interest in writing, being exposed to a range of literature and art and the interconnectedness of the art scene at that time in New Zealand, to actually having your own body of work.
JCS: Well of course JKB and I became a couple and then we became engaged and then got married. And during that period I learned a lot from him about strict self-discipline and I learned a lot about method and how dedicated a writer's got to be. And I thought, well he's a poet and I'm not. But I still wanted to write something so I thought, I know what I'll do, I'll write short stories and see what happens. And I loved them. So he wrote poems and I wrote short stories.
The other thing that I was very grateful for about Dopey was that he always showed me something as soon as he'd finished it. He'd rip it off the typewriter and show me. I used to say to him, “I donŐt think much of this” or “I donŐt understand a word of this” or “What are you on about?” I did the same with short stories, but when I gave him a short story he never said a word. Not a word. Once I thought, hang on a minute mate, you know, give us a break, say something, and I said to him, “Look, got anything to say about it?” He said “No comment.” I thought, blow you. (Laughs) But afterwards I realised that if he had said to me, Oh I like that, it would have influenced my writing. I would have then tried to write more like that. If he'd said to me the opposite, Oh I don't think so, that's not good enough, I would have changed again. He left me completely free to do my own thing, in other words.
RP: Well that's a great gift, developing your own voice as a writer. That's one of the hardest things for a writer to do when you start out.
JCS: Yes. The other thing I learnt from Dopey very early on was that he didn't need a critic. In fact he had lots of critics later on, right up till the end. But he was his own strict, worst, hardest critic. I learned from him that that's what you have to do, you've got to develop a critical attitude toward your own work.
Anyway, to get back to The House of the Talking Cat, that was finished in 1966 I think it was or 67. Then because of factors beyond my control, my private life took a right angle turn and I became a solo mum. And I thought, right, it's time to do a bit of pruning with your life and trim off all the fancy bits. So I pulled out of all the Māori activities that I was involved in – which included Ngāti Poneke and the Māori Education Foundation and the Māori Womens Welfare League. And the other thing that I had to drop was any writing, because survival was the name of the game and I had to get out and get a job.
RP: So those manuscripts stayed there? Over that time they were just sitting there?
JCS: Yeah, they just went into the bottom drawer, the whole manuscript for The House of the Talking Cat, plus one long story which I was going to include in The House of the Talking Cat. But it would have thrown the whole book out of balance, so that went into the bottom drawer too and then I just concentrated on being a solo mum, holding down a fulltime job etcetera. And I did that, for twenty-one years. So from 1968 until 1989 I didn't write a thing. Nothing. And I didn't think I'd ever write again because in a way not only was it a frilly bit of my life, or so I thought then, but it belonged to another era, a different part of my life which had gone.
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