When I was small, if I misbehaved, I would be sent to my room. I would wait there, miserable, so angry. Plotting revenge. Once I'd cooled off a little, my father would come in. He'd sit on the side of the bed. He'd talk and he'd listen. And then he'd tell me he loved me. I would (dammit) cry, and lose my anger. I'd then rejoin the household.
I grew up safe, nurtured, knowing I was loved. I got a good education. Auckland Boys' Grammar is right next to the volcanic stone walls of Mt Eden Prison, as it was then called. I'd look across from the playing field and wonder what it was like to be behind those small, barred windows where nothing ever moved, no face ever appeared.
I found out in 1992, when Miranda Harcourt and I went there to interview a man who'd killed his life partner. Turns out it was a lot like my school. The smell of old food. The endless corridors, layers of cream paint so thick they blurred the outlines of water pipes and electrical ducts. The alarms, timetables. The people in authority and the people subject to that authority.
A guard showed us into a small room where a man was sitting at a table, waiting. He was smoking a cigarette and looked nervous. Miranda and I explained why we were there. We wanted, we said, to put on a play. A play about murder. About those who commit it, those who are affected by it. We wanted to tell the story without glamorising or sensationalising. We wanted it to be a story he would recognise. And so, if he was willing, we wanted to hear his story in his words. The man at the table nodded. I switched on the recorder.
Interviews in prisons up and down the country
We repeated this process many times, in prisons up and down the country. Every interview was a long hard journey, for the interviewee and the interviewers. We'd start in childhood and work gradually closer and closer to the thing we knew was coming - the violent death of a human being. We then widened the circle. We spoke with family members, life partners, siblings, jurors, police, and relatives of victims.
The play that resulted, Verbatim, was true, I believe, to our original intent and I'm proud to have written it.
Miranda went on to perform it brilliantly in prisons and theatres around the world, and her audiences confirmed to her that they recognised the story.
Actor Renée Lyons has taken up the torch with a truly worthy interpretation, 30 years after the first performance. Read the story Engaging with prisoners through theatre
Working on Verbatim changed my life. It brought me into contact with people I never would have met or spoken with otherwise. It taught me many things but most of all it taught me that people who commit murder are just people – varied and complex.
In 2014, more than 20 years later, I was teaching short fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters, where I met writer Pip Adam. We started going to Arohata Prison to teach creative writing workshops. Eventually, this led to the formation of Write Where You Are, a charity that teaches creative writing in prisons.
Teaching was a radically different experience. Instead of a series of one-off encounters, we were able to develop rapport with the writers and it was deeply satisfying to be supporting them in their own creative practice. We were thrilled by the quality and variety of the work that the writers produced – as, so often, were the writers themselves.
If Verbatim taught me that people in jail are people, teaching in prison deepened that insight. I learned that in prison you will meet with acts of kindness. With generosity and insight. You will find humour. You will find intelligence and strength and skill. You will also find people who are angry, in pain, lost, confused and fearful. They're people, after all.
Festival-goers participate in Prison Voices workshop
In 2018, Write Where You Are hosted the Prison Voices event as part of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. Ticket-paying festival-goers, along with writers participating in the Writers and Readers Week programme, were bussed to Rimutaka Prison to participate in a writing workshop, side by side with prisoners. Read the story Reflecting on the Prison Voices event
What struck me was the value both sides got out of meeting, sharing a space, sharing creative work. Members of the public were astonished by the creativity and humanity of the prisoners, and the prisoners were uplifted by the simple fact that the paying public wanted to meet them, valued them and the work they'd produced.
I am not a criminologist, nor a psychologist, nor a member of the communities we habitually lock up. I can only speak to my own experience.
But I believe that if we assume at least some of the people in prison need to be there, the mistake we make when we lock them up is to think the job is done. To forget about them. The job is just beginning. If we want to see change, we have to get involved. Give them time to cool off. Then go and sit down and listen, and talk, and tell them we love them.
Verbatim runs at Circa Theatre in Wellington from 9 to 16 September. There will be a panel discussion after the performance on Tuesday 12 September. Visit Circa Theatre website to book your tickets.