He’s a friend of Hollywood star, Russell Crowe and together they are working on a biopic of American comedian Bill Hicks. He has just persuaded a lot of people to invest $75k so he can write a book, a trans-media mystery story called The Numinous Place that hopes to redefine digital story-telling and he is one of 65 New Zealand writers going to the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Have you heard of Mark Staufer?
Image by Briana Ryan
That seems like a high profile, but this writer admits to not having heard of Staufer before starting work on the NZatFrankfurt project. NZatFrankfurt is charged with the job of shining a light on New Zealand writers and writing. Staufer makes that job extremely easy. Once I had heard his name, I found that I heard it everywhere; and I want to make sure that New Zealanders and Germans alike are aware of this shining beacon.
I interviewed the author via email about his new project The Numinous Place, the life he’s left behind in New Zealand and his life in LA.
NZatFRANKFURT: Described as a former shock jock by the New Zealand Herald recently, and by the Frankfurt Book Fair as a visionary, he’s actually proudest to describe himself as a father of two. Is that a fair description? How would you have introduced yourself to this article?
STAUFER: Oh, bloody hell Julia, certainly not a “visionary.” Anyone who describes themselves as a visionary is blind. And conceited. Like every father, I am proud of being a Papa, and I can’t help a certain amount of pride in The Numinous Place. It’s true that I’m doing something completely different with storytelling, but the technique and the narrative go hand in hand. There’s no gimmickry involved—it feels like a natural evolution of the book. In some ways The Numinous Place is my third and most wayward child. It’s been very demanding, has a mind of its own, and I’m not so sure I’m in control most of the time. If you’re a parent, you’ll know what I mean.
NZatFRANKFURT: I did some “research” on Google and came across some great clips on NZonScreen from when you were a journalist with Alison Mau and Marcus Lush on television show Nightline. In particular, the clip interviewing a tipsy Jordan Luck on a rooftop in K Road, Auckland and another of you interviewing Chic Littlewood (whose television programme ChicChat I grew up with). That looked like fun times. Are you still in touch with your New Zealand colleagues? What prompted you to move on?
STAUFER: We had a lot of fun on Newsnight. Neil Roberts, John MacReady, and Irene Gardiner were the ones who allowed Jill Graham, Paul Casserly, Lush and me to experiment with news and make it more zeitgeisty and ‘cool.’ When I say ‘cool’ I mostly mean me making a fool of myself. I don’t think any of us wanted to move on from Newsnight. We were forced to by an idiotic decision up the chain of command to cancel the show. There’s that Hunter S. Thompson quote which fits the bill, about TV being a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. I’ve been both a pimp and a dog in my time. I’m still friends with most of those guys, or, at the very least Facebook friends.
NZatFRANKFURT: How often do you come home to New Zealand? What are the things that make you most homesick for New Zealand?
STAUFER: When I left 15 years ago, I couldn’t wait to get out of the place. I was feeling stifled and victimized and Sydney was a great, big open-hearted hug. Australia is like an unclenched version of New Zealand and I’ve never understood the animosity towards it. I think it’s partly motivated by jealousy. In some ways I consider Sydney just as much home as Auckland or LA. Now things have changed. As the years roll by, I’ve begun to ache for New Zealand more. I miss people. LOL doesn’t come close to being able to watch your friend actually laugh. I miss the smell of the bush and the sound of the tui and I’d kill for some kumara fritters and bluff oysters, right bloody now!
NZatFRANKFURT: You’ve been in LA for 8 years. I imagine lots of palm trees and meetings with Hollywood execs, but I’m pretty sure I’m day-dreaming about that life. Is there such a thing as a typical day for you, and what does that look like?
STAUFER: LA’s a great sprawling monster of a city and it’s easy to find both hell and heaven, and angels and demons round any corner. In the summer (like now), it’s pretty much reptile weather. We’ve had about two weeks of 40 degree heat which gets debilitating. But spring is gorgeous, and there’s a year-round creative vibrancy to the city that makes you feel excited every morning because every day, any day, anything can happen. Yes, there are palm trees, and meetings and you occasionally bump into Martin Henderson at Coffee Bean buying a double Caramel Frappucino, but from 4 a.m. I’m in dark room writing with occasional breaks to play with the kids and kiss my wife.
NZatFRANKFURT: I’ve read that The Numinous Place was an idea you have had for the last 10 years. You must be pleased to have reached your investment goal on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. How long did you run the Kickstarter for? Could you have done it without Kickstarter?
STAUFER: The Kickstarter campaign ran for 30 days, and at times I felt like a crazed, sleep-deprived Pete Sinclair hosting some sort of desperate, twisty telethon. It took an incredible amount of energy and determination. The funds raised will allow us to build the most amazing prototype for Frankfurt where we hope to find investment/publishing/film franchise partners going forward to make The Numinous Place a worldwide phenomenon. What Kickstarter allows me to do is get to first base without giving up equity and creative control.
NZatFRANKFURT: Can you tell us about The Numinous Place. What can readers expect? Will there be any holograms?
STAUFER: The Numinous Place is about the scientific discovery of the afterlife. I’m comparing it to The Da Vinci Code, Inception and Paradise Lost. What using video, audio and images woven into the narrative allows me to do is create a chillingly realistic storyworld. We don’t describe a news report or phone conversation, we actually present them as evidence to add weight to the conspiracy we’re reporting. My mantra while writing the story was, no suspension of disbelief required, and there’s a visceral response associated with the experience when you enter such a realistic storyworld.
NZatFRANKFURT: Are you a commercial writer? I’m aware of conversations surrounding writers who are commercial versus those who are literary. My take is that it’s a balancing act. I know how pleased you were to have a story in The Guardian, but unlike Jonathan Franzen, I’m guessing that you wouldn’t mind if The Numinous Place had an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it. Would you agree?
STAUFER: It’s a difficult balancing act—critical acclaim versus commercial success. What I would say is that it’d be impossible for me to spend a decade on something I wasn’t passionate about. I guess I’m lucky The Numinous Place has great commercial potential, but if I didn’t find the subject matter enthralling, I couldn’t devote all this time to it. Have I deliberately set out to create something that will be a best-seller? I don’t think it works like that. I’m not a good enough writer to “fake” it—to sit down and spend years contorting my enthusiasm into an enterprise I didn’t unconditionally love for purely commercial purposes.
NZatFRANKFURT: When can we expect the story profiling you in the Woman’s Weekly to come out?
STAUFER: It’s out. I didn’t knock the Queen off the cover evidently.
Get the inside edge: How to succeed with crossmedia – Mark Staufer with Alexander Fernandez, Frankfurt Book Fair, 3pm, 11 October.