Max Olijnyk, 'Some Stories'

· Thursday December 22, 2016

Max Olijnyk seems to think he’s just a quiet guy bumbling through life, but he’s my guru. I spent quite a few joyous years working with him, writing for this very publication (Three Thousand, that is). He thought we were chasing scoops, building the newsletter, high-fiving that Mailchimp monkey – and we were! But the whole time I was getting guru-ed by a truth-teller who skewers things exactly right. I used to say, ‘MO, you’ve got to write a book.’ And he’d say, ‘One day, PM, one day.’

Well, now he’s written one. Of course, I feel as though I’m not doing it justice here. Stabbing in the dark, as usual. In place of something that perfectly nails it, here’s the quote I wrote for Max’s book press release: ‘Putting life into words isn't easy. Even seeing life clearly isn't easy. What's important? What's not? How does it string together into something meaningful? Some Stories asks this stuff without asking it. A generous, real-time trip into someone else's brain. Photographic, sad, funny, and as true as it gets.’

And here’s an interview this biased scribe conducted with the author himself.

PM: Let’s say that no one knows you.
MO: No one knows me, what are you talking about? I’ve got so many friends on Facebook. They tell me everything I do is great.

Who are you?
Who am I? I completely take your point there. Nice to put me on the back foot from the get-go. I guess what I am is a writer and editor. I live in Wellington, New Zealand. And ever since I was a kid I’ve written stories, as well as done features and interviews and all kinds of writing. This book is my first book of short stories.

But yeah, who am I? What makes this different? That’s a real tricky one. I think I do need to hire someone to tell me who I am, and tell other people who I am.

I’m sorry, mate.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? ‘What am I?’

I don't know.
‘Why am I good at it?’

That was a cold open.
Good though. Basically I think I write about things that happen every day.

And I like reading and hearing these things. If someone’s good at telling a story, or just good at noticing actually what’s happening – not sort of putting themselves too much into everything, but just sort of noticing what’s happening – I find that really interesting.

It’s a bit of a leap to think everyone else is going to find that interesting, but I have found – from the stuff I’ve published – that some people like it and think it’s funny.

The book looks pretty cool. Who had a hand in it?
I designed and laid out the whole inside of the book.

Bless you.
Thank you.

You did the typesetting?

Good font choice.
Thank you. I based it on the typesetting of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

Oh yeah, what a tradition.
One of my favourite writers.

Possibly not my favourite book of his, but that’s what I did. I asked my great friend Ed Davis, who is such a prolific designer (he has his own publishing company with another good friend, Rob Cordiner, called Heavytime Books), if he could design the cover for my book. I gave him a couple of references, and he just came back with this design and said, ‘What do you think?’ And I was like, ‘It’s perfect.’ I was in the supermarket and I looked at it and I was like ‘What? He did it! He did it!’

First time!
First time. But he also sent this little logo of a frog driving a truck that says ‘Freddo Books’ on it. And he said, ‘I think you should, since you’re self-publishing it, you should put it under Freddo Books.’ Because my son's name is Fred and he loves trucks, and I call him Freddo Frog.

Had that occurred to you before he designed the logo?
No. I don't have any older brothers, but he's like that to me.

So he was like, ‘I can see what's going on.’
He sees things that I should be doing.

So are you going to keep doing it?

You’d better get your online store working.
Ah, the technical side.

Well, this is tangential I suppose, but how do we characterise this type of writing? It’s hard to, because they’re ‘stories’ but they’re not fictional.

Someone might say it’s narrative non-fiction.
Is that what it is?

I was thinking – if that’s the case, it still has characters. I think you’re a character in it. But it also has characters in the sense that you say, ‘Oh, he’s a character.’
Yeah [laughs].

I must say I get the feeling - I hope this isn’t one of those questions where I just say a thing and you don’t have a response …
I always do those.

… but when I look at other people’s photos I get this sensation that I’m just walking through this life, and not seeing it the way other people see it. Sometimes I think I’m not a visual person. But I get a similar feeling from your stories. You’re like a photographer of life. Or at least your stories make me think, ‘Why don’t I notice these moments when they happen to me?!’
That’s interesting. I’ve also had a couple of people say that my book made them want to write stories down.

That’s good, right?
I feel like things that actually happen - as long as you tell them honestly - contain a lot of the stuff that can make you think.

Also the unexpected nature of life is something that’s very hard to invent.

In the book you talk about your attempts to do photography. You say, ‘I’ve tried to approach it more as an art practice and imagine images as part of series, but I don’t think my brain is structured that way. I just take photos of what I see.’

You say, ‘To me, everything is linked and everything is significant so I suppose all my photos are part of a big series about my life.’
I do.

So that’s kind of how I feel about the book. Which means you probably will have to write one for next year.

And then the year after that.

I look up to photographers a lot, and I really wish – I don’t know. I don’t wish that I was a successful photographer, but I kind of do.

You were on on billboards though. You were on those billboards.
Yeah, that’s right.

My next question is … you’re like the main character. And it’s funny, because I think Max in the book sees himself quite differently from how I see you.

Yeah. As a main character you’re very flawed. You’re like the guy who’s yelling at kids on a beach, but knowing that that’s just stupid. And feeling weird about it. [‘Acting Like an Adult’, p.23] Or you’ll even say, ‘I’m a coward compared to Rhys the skater.’ I’m paraphrasing … [‘Sydney skate of the year’, p.45]
Oh, yeah. Rhys Grogan, yeah.

What is he? What did you say he is? He’s ‘courageous and loose’.
He is everything, yeah. He’s everything that I wish I was. He’s John Lennon, I’m Paul McCartney.

[laughs] That’s right.
That’s what my mum said. She’s like, ‘You know what your problem is? You want to be John, but you’re actually Paul.’

What did you say to that?
I was like, ‘Thanks a lot.’ But then I got Paul McCartney, ‘Band on the Run’ and that’s a fantastic album. But what did Alan Partridge say?

I don’t know.
‘Who are Wings? Only the band the Beatles could have been.’

[laughs] That’s right.
But I digress.

I feel like you’re not afraid of just letting yourself look awkward.
Well, I guess the thing is that most people are a lot more insecure, and have a worse take on how they appear or are than other people do of them. I think that’s something most people can relate to.

But, yeah, I’m the only person who has never hung out with me, I guess, so I don’t really know what I’m like to other people.

You’ve somehow managed to not edit out the stuff that I would even mentally edit out of memories. Like that interaction with the tough bikies when you’re on the ferry. And what happens? He says, ‘Oh, I like your shirt mate.’ And then you go, ‘Oh, you like it?’ And he goes, ‘No, I hate it.’ And then you go, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ [‘The Bikers on the Boat’, p.61]
I’m fine with it. Let’s take the piss out of me, yeah. I can see that I’m …

I would mentally have edited out that response.
Well, I feel like it’s partly what I’ve learned from you, which is to face up to what it is, every moment. What I’m trying to do is to completely face up to it and be honest. And the main perspective I can draw from is mine, because I feel like going from someone else’s perspective is kind of lying. You know?

Yeah. Or you can’t quite get to … what’s happening.
You won’t get to that unless you’re very skilled at character writing, which is something that I want to get better at. But for now I’m comfortable delving into those memories.

You’re also not very forgiving, in the book, of the people around you. I don’t mean that they need to be forgiven, but I just mean that you paint them exactly as they appear to you, which is what I love about Giuseppe. [‘Fifty Fifty’, p.19]
Ah, Giuseppe.

Giuseppe is such a sad character, in a way. He’s also mean. And he’s full of this strange ego that makes him think that his dog’s a blue heeler when it’s not.
Yeah. It’s nuts. I guess there’s also a consistent character in the stories – these kind of John Lennon characters, for want of a better word.

These sort of eccentric rebels that I think are just great. But I could never be like them really. Or maybe I have a bit of them in me, but I am just an appreciator of these people. A friend of mine, Phil, who lives in Sweden, says his favourite line is something like, ‘In my experience, the bad guys are way less dangerous than the boring guys.’

True. That’s a pearl of wisdom that you drop in there.
I think that’s something I got to when I was in my teenage years hanging out with skaters in Mount Gambier, which is a rough kind of town. And these guys I was hanging out with came from these quite rough backgrounds, but they were hilarious. They were so funny, and kind of charismatic and interesting.

Yeah, they made life interesting.
What they were saying might have been completely nuts but, in a lot of ways, it made sense. Especially to them.

That’s it. I’m glad we got through those questions, because I was wanting to talk about that, but I didn’t know how to get to it.
You’re making sense out of it PM.

Here’s a question. How do you know something’s a story?
Well, there are things that happen and I’m like, ‘That’s a story.’

You know?

But then what about just going to the café and the lady thinks that your name is Axe? What makes that a story? [‘Axe’, p.31]
I often imagine that I’m just telling someone these stories, and if it’s worth telling someone the story then I guess it’s worth writing down.

I’ll often start writing, and it won’t come out right. I’ll start something and I’m like, “Heeere we go.” And then I’m like, “No.” It just sort of peters out. But yeah, I know when I’m doing a good one - because you get that little tingly feeling and you stop hearing people talking to you and stuff. And an album’s been on repeat three or four times and you just sort of - you’ve done it.

Tell me about your garret.
My garret?

Well, yeah. You’ve moved over to New Zealand and I’m picturing you in this garret.
Well, we did move to New Zealand, and I have a studio that’s way up in the third level of this big old house in the middle of the Town Belt in Wellington which is this crazy pine forest with natives and stuff that winds its way around the town. And so we live there, and I have this little place I can go and write. And it’s great, but I hardly ever get up there because I’ve got to get in through this door and …

Into the garret?
Yeah and then up these stairs, and Fred might follow me up there and fall down the stairs. It’s just a bit hard. So I end up normally writing at our dining table and looking out the window. It’s just what anyone needs, really. It does work for me, and it’s near the kettle and I’ve got the stereo set up now.

So you’re getting stuff done?
I do have a bit of time to myself these days. And I’m looking forward to a bit more of that … in which I’m going to, hopefully, write the next stuff.

Going back to what you said earlier, I think the book is about the passing of time and getting older. It’s all from the period of time between 2014 and now, when getting older was on my mind a lot. I’ve just turned 40, and I’ve got a now two-year-old son, which makes you think about yourself a bit differently. It makes me think about myself differently. And also coming out of that whole period after my accident; my life got turned upside down.

Were you always the way you are now? I mean as in were you different before the accident?
I think I must have changed a little bit. But, again, it’s hard for me to say because I never spent time with myself.

It’s hard for me to say.
Well, you didn’t really know me before then.

But I think I have changed a little bit. I watched a documentary about head injuries and stuff recently and I could relate to a lot of the characters in it. Although they were much more extreme. I was very lucky to get away from it the way I did.

All you got was a kind of wonky eyebrow in the end.
Well, on the surface. But, yeah, I think that this period of time has been a time of change and getting older and stuff. And I guess that never ends.

I guess it doesn’t …
Well, it does.

Well, it does.
It does end.

Let’s not go down that path. It reminds me … Look, I’m going to give you a compliment that won’t even go in the interview - but it reminds me of Katherine Mansfield. My favourite writer of short stories.
I don’t know her.

Well she was a very underrated writer, as a female would be, who came from New Zealand.
‘K’ or ‘C’?

’K’. And I always thought she was better than Chekhov.

It’s all just moments.
Yeah, right. Thank you. I’m going to get one of her books.

I’ll put that in the intro. Oh, wait, I should get another wine.
Yes. Do you want me to pause this?

I’m scared. I want to press it again …
Oh and save that one.

… and then save it. But see, I’m scared even to press that.
Don’t do that. This will be good.

So what happens now?