An Interview with Jeanne Bernhardt

Jeanne Bernhardt was born in 1961 in Christchurch, NZ. After being expelled from school she left Dunedin. She has spent her life travelling and living throughout NZ, Australia, the South Pacific and the United States. She was first published in the early ’80’s. Her books include baby is this wonderland?’, ‘The snow poems’ and ‘The deafmans chorus’. She was the recipient of the Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary in 1997. To support her writing she has had a variety of work including, working on a fishing boat in Alaska, caretaker of cattle ranch in NM, farmer, working with street kids in Australia, librarian, labourer, drug counsellor etc. She attended the University of NSW majoring in art theory and installation.

Fast Down Turk, published by Kilmog Press, is her latest book. Currently based in Dunedin, she plans on returning to America next year.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of Fast Down Turk. What can you tell me about the book, and where can interested readers find more information, and copies to buy?

Thank you. Parsons in Auckland are the main stockists. In Dunedin, there’s UBS and Renaissance Books and direct from the publisher which is Kilmog Press also based in Dunedin. We will have it available in Wellington and Christchurch too but these deals are still being negotiated. The book? Well as the blurb says —

The blurb describes FDT as “a harrowing account of scoring drugs in the tenderloin”. That’s likely to grab some potential readers right away, others might prefer not to be harrowed. Are the latter readers just going to have to get used to it? What might draw the undecided reader into the story?

Well it’s reality, the fact that it reveals a facet of life that isn’t widely experienced, except of course for the people who are living it. Its pace, the writing etc. These are aspects that attract readers but the other side is that it’s a woman’s take which is rare, and the place where she ends up which is one of self darkness deglamourises certain preconceptions. That unsettling factor is good; its keeps you on edge and when you’re on edge other things can happen. So no, it’s not a happy book but depending on who you are or where you are that can be reassuring; other people go down too. And going down is part of life it isn’t intrinsically wrong or terrible or something to be rescued from, the great thing about Rachel (the main character is the book) is that despite the negativity of situation surrounding her, it is her responsibility, her choice. And she is discovering what her position on these choices mean. Because every individuals capacity or strength or journey is unique, and for whatever reason – spiritual, psychological, this is where Rachel is, what she’s going through.

I have never been able to boast a real “writers’ CV” full of interesting and unusual jobs. But you can; I see that you have worked on a fishing boat in Alaska, worked with street kids in Australia, been the caretaker of a cattle ranch in New Mexico, a farmer, librarian, labourer, drug counsellor etc. Do you think of it all as vital experience or do you think “I wish I’d spent that time writing instead?”

Of course it’s vital, not primarily as a writer but for myself as a human being. Its my life. My curiosity and hunger has always been great. I’m here, planet earth, to grow, to experience and that isn’t predictable and I wouldn’t want it to be. My life hasn’t taken writing time. My life gives me writing time. I always write. My life is it.

I see that John Dolan has described FDT as a ‘remarkable achievement, an amazing story’ – high praise indeed. How did that endorsement come about, and how much has it meant in publicising the book?

Well I sent the rough MS of Fast Down Turk to John and he wrote back his thoughts. We’re friends you know, we’re friends because of who we are.

I see that you’ve had both poetry and prose published previously. Are you still writing both poetry and prose? Or are you concentrating on prose at the moment?

Well I’m busy doing the final draft of a short story collection (Wood) due out early next year, also with Kilmog Press. It was a two book deal. The stories from Wood and Fast Down Turk were worked on at the same time. But we decided to publish Fast Down Turk first.

What poets have had the most influence on yr work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading?

Celan, Rilke, Rumi, Basho, Whitman, Paz, Neruda, William Carlos Williams, etc etc.

How about prose writers?

Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Marguerite Duras, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, DH Lawrence, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud, Thoreau, Jean Rhys, Patrick White, Arthur Miller, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles etc.

I read all the time.