Steve Braunias has been on New Zealand’s back page for almost a decade. TOM FITZSIMONS talks to him about birds, books and asking the tough questions.

“DO YOU want to knock off?” Steve Braunias says. “There’s nothing actually cutting that you want to ask? Or daring?”

He doesn’t say it mockingly. He just says it.

For 45 minutes, we have been sitting in his office – and I have been trying to interview him. His office is a shed out the back of his Point Chevalier home in Auckland. When it started to rain we gave up on an earlier plan to head to Coco’s, his local café and life buoy (“I’m up there at least once a day; coffee from the pot, good sandwiches, maybe scrambled eggs for a treat”). The shed is simple, warm, and a bit ramshackle. On his desk there is a flat computer screen, a box of Marlboro cigarettes, and his ancient black Dictaphone. The walls hold big world maps.

He is a slight man, with small eyes that sometimes glaze over, and greying hair that is starting to get quite long. Every now and then, he takes out a cigarette and smokes it down. He says he bought a lot of his stuff from Brian Powell Auctions down the road, something he’s a huge fan of, something that gives him a real kick. What does he buy? “Shitloads! That heater, a couple of bits of furniture in there, books, clocks, chairs, things for the baby, oh all sorts.”

I look around, still holding the mug of tea he gave me before we started. I try to protest; try to say a couple of my questions have been daring.
“The Biggs one wasn’t daring,” he says. “The Listener one was, but I sidestepped you on that. You should have pursued me on that one.”
It’s unnerving, this instant deconstruction, but he is trying to be encouraging.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Fuck yeah,” he says. “You can’t be frightened of people. You’re not in journalism to make friends.”
I say goodbye, get on a bus back to the city and stare out the window at the storms of roadworks going on, fluorescent orange signs all over the place. And I start to mull. The questions I could have asked. The friends I don’t need.

You can know Steve Braunias before you meet him these days. He’s been writing a weekly – and often autobiographical – column for about nine years.
“That column – not that I expect anyone to have read it religiously for nine years, let alone nine weeks, or nine minutes really – is probably the best story of who I am,” he says.
Born in Austria in 1964, he moved to Mount Maunganui with his parents when he was three. He became a journalist soon after leaving school, but also worked in warehouses and faced spells of unemployment. One particular job – in a rugs and carpets warehouse – was so good he found it tough to come back to writing.
“I just really liked the work. You got to wear this jacket, it came down to your knees and it had deep pockets, which you could place your tools in.
“If you kept a good tidy work station, everything was in reach. It was me, two other blokes, the boss, his secretary, and a nice old lady called Dawn who would make tea at 10am and 3pm. It was terrific. Good memories.”
He talks a lot about that job and those tools. It seems a long way from this little shed, where he weighs words and you can hear the rain on the roof.

The reason I’m here is that Steve Braunias wrote a book about birds. Specifically, How to Watch a Bird, one of Awa Press’s excellent series of little How To books.
He says the inspiration came to him on a Saturday night in the summer of 2006 when he was at Emily’s central Auckland apartment (Emily is Emily Simpson, former Sunday editor, his then-girlfriend and now fiancée). Popping out to the balcony for a cigarette, he watched a black-backed seagull swoop slowly down in front of him.
“It felt like a jolt”, he writes in the book. “The gull had come by so close; in the darkness its white body had glowed like a lamp swinging on a porch.” In person, he says: “It was just such a beautiful thing to see.”

He got curious. “I started to wonder about New Zealand and how it could be measured by birds. And I wanted to know what other birds there were, and where they were, and what they were doing, and who knew about them?” He wrote columns about birds, searched them out in local bays, and fended off Awa Press for months.
“I was very reluctant to do it, because, you know, I was obviously – and still am – a real amateur, not an expert.”

He changed his mind when he found out he and Emily were having a baby – Minka, born in February this year.
“I probably wanted to be in some kind of position, years later, to be able to tell Minka something about birds, something about this country.”
That’s a theme he echoes in the book, in what might be the closest thing to a mission statement he’s given. His columns, he writes, have, “imagined different kinds of maps of New Zealand – of the things and pleasures that are right in front of us, that tell almost a secret history of the place, that maybe even reveal an emotional truth about the place.” That goes for everything from steak to mangroves to tearooms, he tells us.
Anyway, the book’s good. Occasionally, I thought if it was Braunias writing about buttons, I’d be just as interested. In such moments, I wondered if the writing became more than the subject; the show itself. But most of the time I was pulled in, convinced I wanted to be reading about all the winged things.

“Birds, everywhere”, is the author’s refrain. He calls them a swirling presence, a whole other New Zealand going about its business outside of human oversight.
“Birds, everywhere”, he writes – from the ghosts of Buller’s huia, to the South Island Pied Oystercatchers at his local estuary, to the lawns and parks full of introduced English species. “Birds, everywhere”, he proclaims, in this unique, ancient birdland.
It’s about the most exalting writing you’ll see from Braunias. There are still the wry asides – chapter titles include “A Good Shag” and “To Kill a Muttonbird” – but they are gentle here, not the acerbic stuff of his feature stories.

And when baby Minka finally enters the story – or news of her, at least – he goes positively barmy.
“I wept with happiness and smoked my head off,” he writes. And: “For the first time in my life I felt set free.” And: “You are my life: please, take as much as you want.”
I ask him how parenthood is going so far.
“Fuckin’ fantastic,” he says. “Yeah, it’s great. She’s lovely, she’s adorable, she’s sweet. Tempered and languid and smart and alert and little. Fat, long-haired, long-limbed. Yeah, it’s wonderful.”
I ask him what he thinks of the book, his other baby.
“I quite like some of it,” he says.

The Braunias Interview is now well known – it’s even the name of a weekly section in the Sunday Star-Times, the paper he writes for. Depending on your point of view, his interviews and his columns are fearless, innovative, straight, indulgent, venomous, smug or any combination of these things. He says honesty is the hallmark of all good writing – from poetry to journalism. I ask what that means.
“Honesty’s not really a word that needs to be deconstructed. You can see it in a straight news story. And you can see a dishonesty too, in some straight news reporting.
“For instance, say there’s been a death, a tragic death, maybe a child, maybe not, and the writing of it is overly sentimental. It might start with, ‘The heavens cried at so-and-so’s funeral’. That’s dishonest, as far as I’m concerned. Well, no, it’s just dishonest.”
You’re not in journalism to make friends.
“It’s definitely uppermost in my mind, like a challenge: don’t lie, don’t sentimentalise or make it overly dramatic – or if it’s a profile, take the cowardly way out and say that someone is wonderful. Why would you give someone a PR job when you don’t honestly think so? When you don’t sincerely think so? You’re cheating the reader and the reader’s God! You can’t cheat God.”

I mention an interview he did with former Creative NZ chairman and ad boss Peter Biggs, which ran in the Listener under the headline ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Biggsy’. It was a lacerating thing, terrifically written but to my eye (having known Biggs a little through my family for many years) quite seriously unbalanced.
Does he worry about being too caustic?
“Oh shit yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”
Does he worry about being fair?
“Oh yeah, I worry about it afterwards. I worry about it throughout the story. But you know, there’s a bit of a myth that profile journalism is there to capture somebody.
“I think the object of it – it’s probably very unfair – is to capture the journalist’s, the profile-writer’s feeling of that person. You know, the resemblance that the subject may have to who they really are could be quite far-fetched.”

Later on, he seems to reconsider this. He still wants to respect his subject, he says.
“One of the ways I try and achieve that is by writing really quite long quotes from that person, so it’s not just little snippets of quotes and the journalist banging on and fuckin on. Let’s have the person speak. It’s out of respect.
“You take Peter Biggs. Obviously the journalist had his point of view about Biggs’ character and his personality, but there’s no demand that the reader think that.”
This seems a lot to ask of the reader. Then again, the reader is God.

If honesty is the most important tenet of good writing, language comes next, he says.
“V.S. Naipaul wrote something about fiction. ‘Fiction never lies,’ he said.
“I don’t know if it’s similar to what he’s saying, but the language that you choose doesn’t lie either. I think it’s very revealing of who you really are, and if you’re a phony, or if you’re honest, or if you’re talented, or if you’re just a blunderer.”
He thinks this is especially true of longer feature writing.
“That’s where it resembles non-fiction, as opposed to journalism, and it’s got to be readable. And you should be reading it for the language, I think, rather than just fact after fact.”
Is he a fan of poetry?
“Shit yeah. Fuck yeah.”
Big favourites?
“Oh, loads. Loads. Auden. Sylvia Plath. A lot of New Zealand poets. I suppose the subject matter makes sense, but there’s also a tone and an attitude of living here which makes sense. Denis Glover. CK [Stead]. Brian Turner. Kate Camp. Hell of a lot really.
“Yeah, and internationally, the masters really – T.S. Eliot, twentieth century really. I’m no good on nineteenth century verse, or eighteenth or seventeenth – Shakespeare, I don’t understand a fuckin’ word of really.”

It’s the Shakespeare thing that makes me laugh; the ease with which he discharges that kind of opinion, so at odds with common wisdom. And I don’t think it would matter if it were me, or Harold Bloom, or Shakespeare himself sitting there – Steve Braunias would happily unload that thought and light himself another cigarette.
For the rest of the interview, he talks about the standard of New Zealand journalism – “pretty bloody high” – singling out the Listener’s Diana Wichtel as an example of a world-class writer.

He talks about going into some of the most high-profile criminal trials in New Zealand, where he watches the families of the accused most closely.
“There’s a feeling they kind of become like kites... and they separate. It’s an extremely sad and distressing thing to see.”
He talks about how it’s hard to be funny all the time – and so he doesn’t try to be, how he thinks he’s got more books in him yet – maybe even a fictional one, and how it’s always an instinctive decision to inject himself into a story.

As for the Listener, his previous employer, he is unforthcoming. As recently as weeks ago, he and editor Pamela Stirling publicly sniped at each other in the pages of his paper over whether she had pulled a review of his book from the magazine. He said she had; she said she hadn’t. So is there bad blood there?
“No, I wouldn’t think so. I worked there for six years and I’ve still got a hell of a lot of good friends there... Diana, Jane Ussher, other people.”

I ask him what he thinks of the Listener. It’s the one thing he doesn’t have an opinion about.
“I read the one I write for. I’ve always been like that. When I was at the Listener, I would seldom read the Sunday Star. Now I’m at the Sunday Star, I almost never read the Listener. I’ll read Diana online, I suppose.”
It occurs to me that Braunias the interviewer would probably have enjoyed this part most of all, this one moment that rankled a little. He would have raised it again – asked Braunias the subject why he left the Listener, how he knew they’d yanked the book review, why he still cared. Then he’d have probably asked him about his relationship with his mother, and found a way to call someone a “harridan” before the story was out.

Here’s what I think: of course tough questions are needed. But a question doesn’t have to be tough to be illuminating. In fact, a whole lot of the time, revelation comes in the most unlikely moments. Take this answer, when I ask Steve Braunias towards the end of our interview if he likes what he does:
“Fuck yeah, it’s great. I mean, it’s hard work, it’s real hard. I wouldn’t wish journalism on anyone really. It’s the last thing I want my daughter to do.”

That sounds like real ambivalence, and who knows what it’s code for? A “suffering hero” complex? A hidden resentment? Maybe. Or maybe it just means it’s a challenging career, but it has its rewards. Regardless, I’d go an interview for an answer like that – the way it signals something human, something unsure, not a ringing opinion but a feeling. And I try to console myself with that, on the bus, as it races back towards Auckland, which is buzzing with the sound of drills on concrete.

Tom Fitzsimons interviewed Steve Braunias on August 16, 2007. 'How to Watch a Bird' (Awa Press, $24.95) is in bookstores now.