Metropol catches up with one of New Zealand’s most prolific and successful writers about putting pen to paper.
It was in a cricket pavilion in Cheltenham that Joe Bennett wrote a letter in brown ink on pink notepaper to a school in New Zealand. Fed up with his teaching job and having just suffered a duck in that afternoon’s cricket match, he was ripe for change. “I clearly remember the words I wrote on that letter: ‘Dear Sir, this is an unsolicited request for a job, and you’d be well advised to throw it in the bin’. “I thought if anyone answered that affirmatively, they’d be the sort of person I’d like to work for.”
Three weeks later, Joe got a phone call; the voice on the other end said, ‘Keep your head down, Mr Bennett, the red tape is flying!’
“That was Max Rosser, Headmaster of Christ’s College at that time. A great man,” Joe says. Joe arrived in New Zealand in 1987; he vowed to come for one year only. “Then one year became two, I turned 30 and my feet stopped itching. I bought a house in Lyttelton, got myself a dog and that was that.” But teaching was never in Joe’s career plan. “Until I was about 15, I dreamed of becoming a professional cricketer. Some of the great cricket writers, like Denzil Batchelor and A.A. Thomson possibly influenced my writing, in a way.”
Apart from cricket, Joe’s fondness for man’s best friend is abundantly clear. Blue is a charming old boy with a lovely nature; he slumbers on the carpet while Joe recites Isabel Rutherford McLeod’s Lone Dog. “The reason I like it is aesthetic. It’s the aesthetic quality of language that’s always pleased me.” Around 1995 Joe began writing romance stories for women’s magazines. “They were all based on the same premise – square jawed Nigel meets Melissa, there’s some kind of impediment to their union, which is swept aside in the last paragraph, where they live happily ever after. Those truly awful stories sold so well that in the course of a year, I’d enough money to buy a second-hand car!”
It was an article in literary magazine Quote Unquote that was to catapult Joe into the world of full-time, freelance writing. “Graham Lay had written this article on how much he hated dogs and I fired a riposte back to Quote Unquote.” It was bad timing for Joe, as Quote Unquote was about to fold. A friend encouraged him to send the piece to The Press and, within a few days, Joe received a call from literary editor, Bruce Rennie, saying he liked the piece and did Joe have any more? Joe pulled out his typewriter and got busy.
Good writing comes from technique, he says. “It’s craft, craft, craft. Writing a column’s like this: you’ve got a hunk of vague, loose ideas and associations and you find in those a shape that’s complete unto itself. That’s the exercise.”
He cites his books Laugh, I Could Have Cried, a collection of his best columns, and Where Underpants Come From as two works he is most proud of. Meanwhile, he is currently writing yet another play for LAF (Lyttelton Arts Factory). “It’s based on Macbeth, but is set in a fish and chip shop with only two characters, Mack and Beth.”
We wrap the interview with going back to the title of his book Laugh, I Could Have Cried as his epitaph. Joe considers a moment.
“Honestly, sometimes you can’t look at the world and not laugh. I’m entirely with Jonathan Swift who said, more or less, ‘I loathe and detest that animal called man, but I heartily love Tom and Dick and Harriet’.”