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The Total Degrading Struggle of Trying to Get By As An Artist in Auckland

Dominic Hoey on poetry, self-medicating, gentrification, and his new novel.

by Hussein Moses
14 June 2017, 12:51am

Just about any artist in New Zealand can tell you how hard it is to get by. How are you supposed to pursue your dreams when you're stuck working a dead-end job that takes up most of your time? That push and pull of doing what you love and doing what you need to do to survive is one of the themes of Iceland, the debut novel from Auckland's Dominic Hoey. By now, you'll know him better as Tourettes, the musician and poet who seems to never tire when it comes to his output. On top of releasing his book, which you can join us to celebrate tomorrow, Hoey has produced a short film that's about to land in the Palm Springs Film Festival and is also launching a play next month in Auckland called Your Heart Looks Like A Vagina.

The essence of Iceland is in its surroundings. Grey Lynn is home to the characters in the novel; a suburb which over recent years has seen itself the recipient of an immense makeover thanks to gentrifiers taking over the area. But the book doesn't romanticise how things used to be, or feel nostalgic for a bygone era. It captures the spirit of the former working-class suburb, but the focus seems to be more about trying to move forward and why that's not always as easy as it sounds. The first drafts of the book were written over a two-and-a-half-month stretch in a tiny fishing village in Iceland while Hoey was there on a writer's residence. Five years later, here we are.

VICE: I see a lot of your own life in the novel, so I wanted to ask you right off the bat: how much of the story is autobiographical?
Dominic Hoey: None of that shit has directly happened to me, but it's all based around things that have, if you know what I mean. It's not a story of my life, but there's definitely things I've experienced or people close to me have experienced.

The story is told from the perspective of two main characters—Zlata and Hamish. Do you see yourself in both of them?
I was talking to my mate who read the book and she was like you basically split your personality into two characters, which I thought was funny. I personally really like the male protagonist, but I don't feel I'm like him at all. I'm much more like the female character, which I didn't notice until I had finished it.

The book is rooted in Grey Lynn, a suburb that has changed heaps over the past decade or two. How did growing up there help to shape you as an artist and a writer?
I think one of the biggest things was I went to a school where being any kind of artist was a fucking joke. (At primary school or intermediate, at least. Once I went to high school, there were artists around.) But then I lived in a house which was filled with books and both my parents are avid readers, so I'd come home and my parents are talking about literature and books and shit. Then I'd go to school—and we didn't have a television—and everyone's talking about TV. I didn't know what the fuck they were talking about. So it's this weird thing. I think in that sense, you're using your imagination a lot more. But I always wrote. I just didn't know what I was doing for the longest time.

In many ways, lceland is a social commentary on gentrification. Does Grey Lynn still feel like home, or does it leave you with mixed feelings?
I hate going there. I miss that community and I miss a lot of people that I don't see anymore because they're overseas or in other parts of the country. But then also just as a place, I find it's just fucking sterile. I was hanging out with my mate who still lives there—he's still clinging on in this shitty flat—and he was saying to me, man everytime I go outside people are staring at me and I fucking hate it. I'm like, you're paranoid. Then we go outside and everyone is staring at him. So nah, I hate it in no uncertain terms.

At what point did you know that you didn't belong there anymore?
I tried to hold on for a long time. We had this really cool flat in Turakina Street that for whatever reason—I guess because it was falling down—the rent wasn't too much and we all lived there together. But then I went to Australia and then I went and wrote Iceland. When I came back, it had just changed so much. Then I started living in Sandringham and it just felt like it had some life there.

What mood were you trying to capture when you first began writing the book?
At that point I had just put out a rap album that I'd spent three or four years on and we'd spent thousands and thousands of dollars on. To me it was like I couldn't make a better thing than that and it completely flopped. I just thought about how much I had sacrificed to be an artist and I was in this position where my partner had just broken up with me, I had no money, I was working for minimum wage, and it's like what the fuck. I guess it's that kind of thing. We're always told to follow our dreams and we're always told to pursue shit, but it doesn't mean it's going to work out. Let alone when the fucking rug is being pulled out from under your feet by these fucking landlords and property developers.

That reminds me of one point in the book where one of the characters talks about being a spectator of their own life and questioning what control they really have when you have to choose between doing what you love and doing what you need to do to survive. Is that something you still struggle with?
At the moment, I'm in this position where I'm actually getting by from my creative endeavours, which hasn't happened in a long time. But it's always there. It's hard, because as you get older there's just more and more pressure from people. Like, oh you're still doing this? Whatever you do, whatever you're passionate about—especially for artists—nobody chooses that. It's kind of a compulsion. You got to do it, y'know? Or else you just go mad. I tried to stop writing for about four months while I was in Australia. I was just like I'm going to be a professional chef, and I got a job in a really good restaurant. I was just so depressed.

Drug and alcohol dependency is a common theme from start to finish. Is that a reflection on what you saw and experienced when you were coming up as a musician and poet?
To be honest, it was just my life when I wrote the book. I didn't really think it was that extreme. It's funny now that I've kind of stepped back from that world a bit more and I'm a bit older, I'm like oh, shit. As you say, it permeates the whole book. So many people I know are so damaged by how they've grown up that they're just medicating with drugs and alcohol. But when you're in your 20s and early-30s, it's like we're having a good time. Then after awhile you start to see it for what it is. All these people who are glamorised in our culture are actually really fucking unhappy people.

There's a lot of different themes running through the novel. What was the main point you wanted to make about the idea of community and creating these makeshift families with the people you end up surrounded with?
On one level I wanted to show that just because people are poor or struggling or whatever, their lives are still really rich. There's still a lot going on. I think that idea of creating those makeshift families is so common and it's really important. I wanted to talk about that and explore that creatively, because it's been a massive part of my life.

This is ground you've covered before in your music and poetry. Did writing a novel help you to do it differently, or do you see it as an extension of the same thing?
It's definitely different in the sense that I explored things that weren't me. Some of the characters were from more affluent backgrounds than I was, so I was able to think what would their reaction to this be? Like how Zlata's horrified by violence and the recklessness of a lot of the crew. And then being able to play with her relationship with her friends. Generally I just write about myself, so it was kind of cool to get away from that. But I definitely want to put writing about Grey Lynn and all that shit to bed now. That's done. I don't want to talk about that shit anymore.

VICE presents the launch of Iceland at Golden Dawn on June 15. There'll be live readings by Dominic Hoey and musical stylings from the Dirtbag DJs. RSVP here .