Small Talk: C.K. Stead

Christian Karlson Stead, 80, has produced 34 books to date, including poetry collections, novels, short stories and literary criticism. He became well-known for Smith’s Dream (1971), a novel based on the Vietnam war which later became the film Sleeping Dogs. A New Zealander, he was professor of English at the University of Auckland before retiring in 1986.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

The cat is on the bedside table, the books are on the floor. They are the latest edition of Frank Sargeson’s Letters, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth and the current issue of [the arts magazine] Areté.

What book changed your life?

I’m not that kind of person, subject to sudden revelations. The only ones that I can think of that might have influenced the way I see myself and the world have been books about Zen Buddhism.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I began when I was at secondary school, with imitations of Rupert Brooke, who, I discovered, had visited the South Seas. Once I had begun writing poetry and stories, I felt my life had a focus.

Which literary character most resembles you?

I asked my wife and she said, at once, Don Quixote.

What is your daily writing routine?

I begin with an hour’s walk in winter, a swim in spring, summer, autumn, and then work at whatever is the current principal project until lunch. Afternoons are supposed to be for secondary projects, reviews, columns, and what used to be called correspondence.

Who are your literary influences?

The list would have to include, early on, the poems of John Donne, Wuthering Heights, the marvellously interminable sentences of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, the prose of David Copperfield, and the romance of The Great Gatsby. Later, I was powerfully influenced by the novels of Günter Grass and Alberto Moravia.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Katherine Mansfield would be good. I know so much about her, have read her letters and journals, and even written a novel about her. I would like to ask her whether I had got anything wrong.

What are you scared of?

I think the only real fear I have is of not dying quickly enough and becoming a helpless, confused, unhappy, undignified, incontinent old vegetable. I think an easy-exit pill should be available to all of advancing years.

When did you last cry?

At Shakespeare’s Globe in London after a performance of Richard II, not because it was sad (though I suppose it was) but because it was beautiful, especially the dance the cast ended with.

What would you change about yourself?

I would let more things pass without comment or objection; without input from C.K. Stead. I would try (in Eliot’s words) to teach myself “to care and not to care ... to sit still”.

C.K. Stead’s latest novel is ‘Risk’ (MacLehose Press).

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