April 15-21 is World Creativity and Innovation Week. I’ll be interviewed by @bridgetphetasy about my creative process. We’ll talk about taking risks and daring to fail greatly. We’ll also talk about how I got into writing and how creativity helped me survive lockdown. I will have to sound clever! Join me…
For the next five days, the ebook version of my travel book In Search Of Swingers is absolutely free. Here’s what it’s all about:
Bestselling author Justin Brown (‘UK on a G-String’ and ‘Bowling Through India’) has the idea to tour the U.S and play golf with whoever is on the front page of the newspaper in every town he visits. Amazingly, he’s not arrested.
With charm and wit, Justin blags his way into meeting clowns, a young Beto O’Rourke, Stevie Wonder impersonators, crocodile wranglers and drunken beauty queens. His journey is full of mayhem, self-discovery and as it turns out very little golf. It is just the kind of book we need in these dire times. You’ll laugh and cringe at the situations this New Zealander gets into in a book that will restore your faith in mad journeys and the kindness of strangers.
Here is the Newsroom article of our bizarre, brilliant and beautiful time in Los Angeles. A transcript is provided below if you’re all clicked out.
Skid Row is full of drugs and violence but author Justin Brown also found creativity and inspiration lurking in the shadows of a place many consider to be America’s worst man-made disaster
The sun shines brightly in winterless Santa Monica as smiling tourists stroll along its infamous pier and huddle around street singers and magicians. Suntanned kids sip on vintage soda. A crowd gathers around a beach volleyball game and munch on crab enchiladas. If they’re lucky they might catch a glimpse of Bradley Cooper, or see an influencer roll out of a red corvette. Wow, you think to yourself, this is California.
Though it’s not.
18 miles east of this American euphoria is a place named Skid Row, an area of fifty city blocks and home to approximately 5000 homeless people. It’s been called the ‘worst man-made disaster in U.S history,’ and was recently dubbed ‘the place where people go to die,’ filled with ‘zombies, absolute drug addicts with mental illnesses.’ In August of this year, a 62-year-old man was murdered here, his tent sent ablaze as he sat inside it. A terrible and violent end to a life.
I have landed in Skid Row to pursue a project with the University of Auckland’s Creative Thinking Project. Part of the impetus of going to L.A is to create a theatre project to counter these dehumanising narratives by telling other stories. Stories of people struggling to stay alive through acts of kindness, generosity, and how the arts are central to their survival on Skid Row.
My job is to document a performance with arts organisations working with the city’s homeless. The production is headed by Professor Peter O’Connorwho has been invited to L.A to inspire those who live on Skid Row to express their hopes and experiences on stage. The ensuing Skid Row production will be performed twice in a large gallery space at MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art) and completed in just three days.
But first things first. To get to MOCA we must first walk through Skid Row, where we see block after block of emergency and makeshift shelters, people sleeping in cars and vans, and hundreds of tents. I keep thinking I’m going to get beaten up, or shot. I have travelled all over Africa, and even its worst parts wouldn’t rival Skid Row. It crushes the soul and the smell of piss stings the nostrils. I feel as if I’m in a scene from Grand Theft Auto.
Nerves switch to excitement. What could we make this week? Peter welcomes everyone in te reo and we sit in a circle with the cast and introduce ourselves, an act which at first seems glib, yet becomes so important. There are stories of abuse, neglect, loneliness, hunger and poverty. We meet Lorraine Morland who lost two of her sons to gun violence. Over the next three days, she turns up early, gives the best hugs, and acts and sings her heart out. What an amazing woman.
We also meet Jerry, otherwise known as ‘Iron,’ 63-years-old and recently beaten for being gay. His injuries cause his left cheek to balloon like a bulbous zit the size of a grapefruit, yet he is the most joyous, energetic, swankily-dressed poet and performer you could meet. His attitude says it all: ‘You got a problem with my face? Ain’t my problem! I’ll heal and rise!’
Over the next three days theatre masterminds Peter, Craig and Kristina slowly and deliberately layer together stories, songs and movement pieces devised by the group. This is no place for doom and gloom. Instead, the living installation represents babies been born, the possibility of soaring as superheroes, and of people living in the most extreme of places. The cavernous gallery is manipulated to set up small, interactive spaces for audiences to view each story separately, and up close. It is chaotic and noisy and hard to keep up, just like life in Skid Row.
Every theatre production has its fish hooks, though the issues we encounter at MOCA are far from typical. One performer turns up one day, and doesn’t come back the next. Another has been taken away by police for questioning. Someone who showed signs of feverish learning the previous morning hides in a dark corner of the gallery, his head in his hands. It turns out that while sleeping rough the night before he had his backpack stolen with everything in it. Come break-time, coffee, sandwiches and donuts are devoured. I use this time to film the cast for a 10-minute documentary that will be used as a central part of the performance.
It’s three days later, 2.50 pm on another blue sky day in LA. We’re seated at MOCA, the cast are ready, the crowd expectant. But there’s a problem. The show is due to start in ten minutes, though one major part of the puzzle is missing. Iron isn’t here.
A man squeezes in beside me and whacks me on the shoulder. His face is bandaged and the back of his t-shirt is covered in sweat. It’s Iron.
‘Hey Justin,’ he whispers. ‘Made it!’
‘Iron …what happened?’
‘Been in surgery,’ he says.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Little sore,’ he replies. ‘Opted for a local over general so I wouldn’t miss the show.’
And he was up and away, acted out of his skin. Three people die every day on Skid Row, which equates to about 1000 a year. ‘It’s Time’ ends with an installation that draws us to confront this awful fact, the scream of a mother lying beside the slain body of her son echoes around the vast spaces of the gallery. It is Lorraine, imagining what it might have been like had she made it in time to see either of her two sons being killed. A rousing revolutionary song interrupts the tragedy, with the cast and audience singing, ‘I’m not giving up, I’m not giving up, no not yet.’
We arrive early in the morning in quiet, little old New Zealand. We know we’re home because it takes less than 20 minutes to get from plane to taxi. It’s so great to see my family, my dog pees himself when he sees me. Auckland is so green and doesn’t smell of weed. Yet.
Thank you to the people of Skid Row who allowed me to film and share their stories in this performance. Huge thanks also to our audiences, MOCA, Skid Row Housing Trust, My Friend’s Place, Urban Voices and The Los Angeles Poverty Department. Thank you for helping us make the invisible stories visible. We’ll be back.
Over the next twelve days, Professor Peter O’Connor from The Creative Thinking Project will work closely with downtown LA organisations working to aid and abet homelessness—among them Urban Voices, My Friend’s Place, and Skid Row Housing Trust. Our workshop will pose questions about the visible and invisible strands of those who live on the streets of Los Angeles. Feel free to read more below, the words of which are taken from the original Newsroom article.
How do you measure misery? Justin Brown travels to ‘the worst man-made disaster in the US’ where he finds hope in theatre.
It’s one in the afternoon and I’m sitting on a park bench outside Verona Cafe on K Road, Auckland. Two men sit beside me. One is drinking warm beer from a 750ml bottle as he chats to a man in a wheelchair with a cigarette butt hanging from his mouth. The men pass the butt to each other, inhaling what is left of it. The man in the wheelchair has an issue with his right leg, it is bloated and twice the size of his left. His mate unscrews the cap of his pawpaw cream tube and rubs some on his friend’s leg, laughing. ‘Now don’t go getting any ideas!’
I soon learn that one of these men has been homeless for 26 years. I feel ridiculous and ashamed about the MacBook in my backpack, the iPhone in my pocket, and the cash in my wallet. The men pass around 50c coins as if they are gold. I give them $20 to buy a burger, knowing where the money will go. Even so.
As I walk to my car I half expect to catch Six, the editor of the K Rd Chronicles who recently hosted a web series of the same name. I loved that series. It gave me an appreciation of what happens on a road where both awful and beautiful things happen, a road which few of us want to think about, mostly because the topic of homelessness involves sticky, murky, uncomfortable questions. Why is it one of our country’s most pressing problems? How did we allow this to happen? Why don’t we care?
A few months later I meet the star of the show herself. Six, whose blurb on K Rd Chronicles describes her as an ‘overqualified, underemployed, transgender journalist’. Six sits cross-legged outside St Kevin’s Arcade, she is selling her community newspaper. I stop. Should I approach her, tell her how much I enjoyed the series? But what will I say? Don’t be such a wimp. As I should have expected, Six is engaging, smart and polite. I take a copy of the paper and go for coffee, unaware just how important her series will be to me.
A few kilometres from K Rd lies the Hobson Street Theatre Company, a place Professor Peter O’Connor (The University of Auckland and The Creative Thinking Project) knows well.
HSTC is New Zealand’s only theatre company made up of people who are, or have been, homeless. It’s also where Peter created That’s What Friends Are For, a play that ran for five nights at Auckland’s Basement Theatre. The show was advertised as an experiment to discover whether the cast could make friends with the audience in just one hour. In September 2019, the show would be presented with the supreme Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award and the homeless cast were flown to Parliament to receive their award.
Six months later and Peter receives an invitation to Los Angeles to create a performance with arts organisations working with the city’s homeless. Skid Row, in particular. He is asked to collaborate with LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department), The Skid Row Housing Trust, Urban Voices, Piece by Piece Mosaic arts and My Friends Place in a bid to create a performance in one week at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
‘Justin, wanna go to LA?’
‘Sure,’ I reply. ‘What for?’
‘Just kidding. I want to make a show about the possibilities inherent in hope. To create a play about seeing Skid Row not as a problem but rather about seeing the possibilities of the homeless of LA. To witness strength, purpose, and beauty amidst the ugliness. Let’s celebrate the beauty of survival against all odds and mourn those who have succumbed.’
‘Um, sure, yes, of course! But … what’s the show about?’
‘Who are the actors?’
‘We have been allocated a cast of 25 .’
‘Wait, are you nervous?’
All of this despite Peter having created and researched theatre in earthquake zones, prisons, schools, psychiatric hospitals, after terror attacks and with the homeless for nearly 40 years.
Andy Bales, CEO of the Los Angeles Union Rescue Mission has called Skid Row ‘the worst man-made disaster in the US, a place where 53 blocks of abandoned people have been left to die.’ Those 53 blocks account for approximately 13 percent of the 36,135 homeless individuals in Los Angeles. Since 2012, the number of homeless in Los Angeles has increased by 50 percent. Skid Row itself is home to approximately 5000 people. Imagine the entire population of Warkworth or Cromwell each living in little more than a one-man tent.
After a recent visit to the area, Peter warns me I’ll be in for a shock. ‘The level of human misery on the streets is like visiting a war zone,’ he says. ‘The overwhelming smell of urine and human waste, abject poverty, and loss of hope in the faces of so many is deeply impacting.’
Why such a toilet shortage? Corruption. A decade ago 27 Porta-Potties were placed on Skid Row and from day one gangsters charged the homeless anything from one to five dollars to use them. These days there are fewer than a dozen toilets, forcing many dwellers to use buckets, which are emptied into the street or trash cans. Once a day, the streets are power-washed by authorities to stop disease.
Peter: ‘Yet in the midst of such despair, I found arts organisations doing extraordinary work, rebuilding community and creating moments of beauty that act as an antidote to the ugliness of people’s lives. These social service agencies are committed to reminding the city that Skid Row isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom of a wider problem of human greed that also impacts us in New Zealand. Our show is about the possibilities of Skid Row, of asking people to look with fresh eyes at the beauty and capacity and glory of those who live on these streets.’
In the past, my travel books have been light and fun, though they’ve always been about people. In UK on a G-String, I door-to-door busked my way around the Motherland. In Teed Off in the USA, I attempted to play golf with whoever featured on the front page of the newspaper in whatever town I was visiting, and in Bowling Through India the Black Craps and I challenged street kids to games of cricket. LA is very different. Peter isn’t the only one kakking himself.
As an ambassador for The Creative Thinking Project, I’ll be leading the documentary team. I’ll try to capture the moment, to find the story. I’ve met the Los Angeles crew on a conference call only, though as soon as I hung up I realised what a scarily brilliant beautiful honour it was to be invited to help curate a performance at one of the city’s major cultural institutions.
Ah, Doubt, I didn’t see you there! What if the whole project tanks? Is it possible to create a performance in one week that highlights the enduring spirit of hope and resilience in the depths of extreme poverty and despair in one of the richest cities on the planet?
What about our American mates? What do they want to achieve? Amanda Hunt, Director of Education and Senior Curator of Programs at MOCA is interested in revealing the artistic and creative potential of the city’s homeless. ‘In doing so,’ she says, ‘we believe it unveils and reminds the city of the humanity of those who live on our streets.’
How do you measure misery? More to the point, how do you fix it? An actor named Richard took part in That’s What Friends Are For at The Basement Theatre. When he was asked what he enjoyed most about the experience he replied, ‘You want to turn your negatives into a positive, and theatre is a great way to do it. Hopefully, I’ll keep doing it for the rest of my life and I know a lot of the cast feel the same. We shine when we’re on stage.’
I love him because he’s instantly become a part of our family. Growing up, we always had a dog in our house, (RIP Holly, Amber and Charlie), but I’ve never owned one myself.
Another thing that occupied my time growing up was cartooning. My sister and I never stopped, all mum had to do when she wanted a cask of wine at the neighbours was to supply us with a pen and paper. We’d lie on our stomachs on the carpet and create. We never stopped. Only, over time, I did.
Something else has been on my mind lately. Lifelong learning. We all dream of it, but what if we get to a point in life where we sit comfortably in our comfort zone and quit? Why the hell would you go to university aged 67? What’s the point of learning Spanish if you’re never going to visit? Personally, one day I want to make guitars?
It’s often said that we revert to doing what we did as kids. For me, that was cartoons. My dog Cooper is teaching me how to do it properly. You’ll get to meet him on my new Insta page. Woof.
an overcast winter’s day at Hu’s Farm in Riverhead, Auckland. I’m here to hang
with three other artists as they each create a work, to be showcased at an
upcoming exhibition called AMUSE BOUCHE.
Yuan Keru, Shen Piji & David Ye have just arrived from Shanghai and are a part of the ‘2019 Chinese Young Artist Residence Programme.’ Their brief? To create a piece which revolves around ‘luscious intoxications of introductory experiences.’ But first, we need to find our rooms.
Clockwise – Piji plays guitar while David
and Rubeta dream up ideas.
I’m introduced to the three artists the feeling I have is one of embarrassment.
Why do so many Chinese feel they have to change their names so that Westerners
can pronounce them? Are we really that useless? Yuan Keru is a wonderful young
filmmaker from Shanghai.
lovely name. She introduces herself as Rubeta.
also meet David Ye, a smartly dressed fashion photographer from Shanghai whose
works have featured in ‘Vogue Italy’ and the Asian edition of ‘Forbes’ magazine. He is joyous and cheeky.
Shen Piji is an ex-punk and mixed-media
contemporary artist who I met the previous night at
an informal launch for the project. Piji is dressed like a
monk, all in black, and is dying for a cigarette. A friend of his translates. ‘Piji really misses those
punk days. Did you know he locked himself in the forest for 10 years to learn
the guqin, a plucked seven-string Chinese instrument of the zither family and
the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments. It has a history of about
looks old, but he’s not.’
Farm is scattered with laptops, power plugs, leads, camera equipment and
tripods. For the next week we will live in each other’s pockets. Rubeta, Piji
and David will each make something. I’m here to follow their creative journey
and write about it. Who are these artists? What makes them tick? What are their
creative processes? To make some sort of sense of this I download Google
Translate and open the ’Hello Chinese’ app on my phone. Then I remember, much
to the surprise of my new friends, I have a WeChat account, the most popular
social media platform in China.
the wonderful enabler.
Rubeta and David head to Auckland city to shop for props, I talk to Piji and
soon discover his English is as bad as my Mandarin.
But we find common ground.
As we drink Lion Red, I punch in a few more words. I want to know about the decade he spent in the forest.
has worked and lived in Shenzhen, China since 1993. Back then he was
heavily involved in contemporary art and avant-garde music. He left his punk
band ‘Sunflower’ when he fell in love with the guqin and 16 years later would
conduct a ‘Ted Talk’ on how he used the instrument to talk to frogs.
Piji placed five pottery jars into a shallow pool in his studio which soon
attracted a group of frogs named Hylarana Daunchina. He used the difference
sizes of the jars to change the volume and frogs’ tone, mixing those sounds
with the sound of the Guqin playing. Piji did this every day and recorded
numerous songs with his new friends.
you played music to frogs and they talked back?’
I ask. Piji nods. ‘Did you pay them?’
fed them,’ Piji replies.
‘Wow, that’s amazing. Ever thought of doing the same thing with sheep?’
(Shen Piji the frog whisperer at his home in
wife Lulu and I concoct a meal made from leftover lamb, ginger, onions, rice
and pumpkin. Piji has a controversial addition, chopped up cheerios from the
fridge. While we cook dinner I learn the word for pumpkin, plate, and rice, and
forget them immediately. I make instant friends by telling everyone I have a
car should anyone need a ride anywhere. Piji is equally excited when he spies
my guitar, which he plays in an instant and confirms I should never attempt a
tune in this man’s company.
want to know more about Rubeta’s and David’s works. Rubeta was born in Hangzhou,
China, and currently lives in Shanghai. She graduated with a Masters in fine
art from the School of Inter-Media Art at the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou.
Her artistic practice focuses on exploring the act of painting, spatial rhythm
and narratives in video, combining the emotive experience with history,
mythology and dreams. Her works are melancholic and violent and are often
immersed with warmth and poetry. Her film Fleeting
Strangers was selected for the Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival in 2017.
use friends, but I can’t pay them a lot.’
how do you make such elaborate films on such a small budget?’
Res, a character from Rubeta’s film
Fashion photographer David thinks of ideas by watching the news and talking to friends. ‘Coming to New Zealand,’ he says, ‘is going to make my heart strong. Shanghai is so fast everyone is trying to make money.’ He says that back home in the commercial sector he struggles with not being allowed to use his own ideas, yet his works, I think anyway, are racy and unique.
(David’s Levraimoi brand shoot, 2017)
prawns for breakfast, again. David loves his prawns! Afterwards, he and Rubeta
return to the city to shop for clothes, shoes and earrings for their shoot
later in the week. When they return and unload their haul I ask Rubeta if she
has a story in mind. She shakes her head. ‘But you’ve bought the clothes?’
is how I work,’ she replies. ‘I buy the clothes and create a character and a
story around that.’
sense it’s been a frustrating day. Working away from home is tough. It looks
like everyone is just sitting around yakking, drinking tea, but I have no doubt
there are ideas aplenty beneath the bonnet.
Someone poked the bear. Everyone is up before 8am. The energy in the lounge is manic. Rubeta’s fashion model broke her finger last night. I make some calls to try to find a replacement when the injured girl calls to say she’ll make the shoot after all. I feel for these guys. If they were at home in Shanghai they could make a quick call and fix the problem.
a race against the clock. We wait for the weather to clear. I watch David work.
He smiles a lot and has the rare ability to make his
talent feel relaxed and ready. Rubeta dresses her models for her film, one of
whom is Piji. Ha! Glad that’s not me!
‘Justin, please wear this,’ David says, handing me a garment which looks
like a cross between a ridiculously huge sleeping bag and something a giant
Jawa from ‘Star Wars’ might wear.
‘Um, okay?’ I reply. ‘But what do I do?’
‘We go to beach. Murawai!’
‘David, mate, it’s raining. It’s pouring and windy, you’ll get black sand
all through your equipment.’
‘We try!’ he says, smiling.
Above – The author, thankful his
mates are nowhere near.
10 days later
the night of AMUSE BOUCHE, the exhibition at Hu’s Farm in Riverhead. A crowd
gathers. There is beautiful wine and food. Piji plays an original piece on the
guqin, along with supremo Kiwi musicians Richard Adams
and Nigel Gavin, and presents his artwork. A bleary-eyed Rubeta, up half the
night editing, walks us through her short video pieces ‘Before
the Storm,’ ‘Clone and Mirror,’ and ‘Reality Park.’ Shot in Murawai, K Road in Auckland, and Taupo, these
stories both challenge and charm the viewer.
As for David, his genius behind the lens confirms that you really can put lipstick on a pig.
Q – I’m rewriting my first novel and would like to know how to grab an agent’s attention when submitting.
Justin – There is no right or wrong way, just make sure you’ve done the obvious things right – spelling, grammar, etc. You know the drill. Just be polite. Be aware they read thousands of submissions and seem to enjoy the process about as much as filling in a tax form. Therefore make it easy for them. Good tone to the letter, sizzling teasers, and then be patient.
And start writing something new right away.
I currently have the beginning and end of my book and am having trouble stringing events and character motivations together to make the entire thing complete. Of course, this still means I’m in my outline phase. Do you think I should scrap my idea because I can’t put the beginning and end together, or any other advice?
All I can offer is my experience. I have one unpublished book for 8-12-year-olds. I’m on draft number 10. It has taken me that long to discover what the actual story is. There are two options – you can either struggle away or (gasp) put the book aside. That way you can start on something else, and often when you start on something else, ideas arrive for your first story. Re outlines, some people use them, some don’t. It’s whatever works for you. Joanna Rowling did alright by using one.
How do you get started, especially when it’s a passion and you have a career-oriented day job that pays the bills.
You write. Write when you’re tired, when you’re hungover, when you don’t want to write. If you love the craft enough you’d do it at 2 in the morning if someone asked you. I write when I cook, no jokes, I have the laptop open and add any lines that come to me. Which can be damn annoying. And dangerous.
Working and writing at the same time can be tough. Maybe try to write for an hour a night instead of watching TV. This can become two hours. Soon enough you’ll be more into your own story than any lame show on telly. 100 words becomes 1000, becomes a manuscript. The first draft will be shit, it always is, but keep going.
Do you have your characters fully planned out in your head before you start, or do you let them develop as you write the story?
This is rare – my latest manuscript arrived fully formed, names, setting, title. It was bizarre. Again, some writers like to see what happens, others plan meticulously. You’ve got to know how your main characters will react in any given situation. Once they start doing things by themselves, now that’s creepy.
How do you know a manuscript is ready and it’s time to stop editing/revising?
Make it as perfect as you can and as easy to read (and follow) as possible. Endings can change, so can character, but a lot of these issues and challenges might arise once you’ve actually scored a contract when you’ll have time to rewrite with an editor. That’s the best part. Make it sparkly, be proud of it before you hit send.
How do you introduce things like currency when there’s no direct way to correlate it to our universe. I’m writing a fantasy book in a different universe that while some things are the same, things like the currency are entirely different and I have no idea how to incorporate the value of this currency without stating it outright.
Make it up! It’s your story. 3 spigglets = 1 grosnipod. As long as you’re consistent, and more importantly that the reader understands, you’ll be okay. Please don’t complicate the reader. It’s a right ol turn off.
Does every idea, even the good ones, feel hopeless or not-worth-it at some point? I’ve never finished a single first draft. I wrote for years, recently switched over to comic scripts and screenplays and stuff because I was having ideas that fit that format and they’re so much easier to finish. Is every idea going to try to beat me up at some point?
Finish the damn book. Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel talks about The Shitty Committee who jump into your head and tell you how bad your piece of work is. Finish the damn book. Because if you do, you have a completed work, and if it’s not perfect, something similarly amazing could come out of the process: a character, a title, an idea. Go for it.
Having seen some scary stuff about fake publishers and stealing people’s writing, how do you find a real (and good) publisher and/or agent?
You gotta kiss a lot of frogs. Re fake publishers, ask around or google, you’ll know if it sounds too good to be true. ‘PAY US TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT!’ Really, now come on. This is, however, a long game so take your time finding the right team. It’s not easy, but what is? It’s the 10,000 hours thing. It’s no different. Good luck!
How many of your 31 published books do you hate?
Good question. No writer is ever 100% happy with their work, there’s always something that niggles years later. I don’t hate any of them, it’s a cliche but the whole thing has been a journey, so there are some works I like less than others.
It’s strange talking about your creative journey and the decisions you made along the way. In the chat, we cover Thomas Magnum, JK Rowling, turkey plucking, lost bets, sharing a green room with Graham Norton, and I discovered that back in the day I wanted to be pilot. Who knew?
I enjoyed this interview, hope you do too. Here’s the link.