Wednesday, October 05, 2011

A chat with Garth Cartwright 5 October, 2011

I met Garth Cartwright last year. He was in Wellington to read from two of his books, to talk about his travels and his writing. I listened, enjoyed it and bought the books. He scribbled inside the front cover. A year or so down the track, and a few Facebook conversations later I learned that Cartwright had a new book out. I had also, by this point, finished reading his two other books. It seemed the right time to have a chat.

Garth is a Kiwi but he's been abroad for the last 20 years - living mostly in the UK, freelance writing, covering the arts, writing travel pieces. His latest book, released just this week, is called Sweet As. It documents his return to New Zealand. Cartwright's thermometer is his pen. He uses it to take New Zealand's cultural temperature. I like to think his latest book, Sweet As, will be read by Kiwis and expats, will be debated, discussed - will be a starting point as well as a reminder. A chance for some to learn a few names from New Zealand's past, to take in Cartwright's context as he combines his travel and arts writing and this time adds in something of the personal memoir.
So I put the call through to London to speak to Cartwright; he's recently back from a trip to New Orleans, taking in Lafayette. Louisiana is "messed up" politically, according to Cartwright, but "the food and the music!" he enthuses. "You see guys in wheelchairs playing trumpets in the street, they're as good as you've heard; and the Cajun music in Lafayette - it was mind-blowing."
A highlight of the trip was interviewing Chip Taylor - writer of, among other things, Wild Thing and Angel of the Morning (he's also the brother of Jon Voight, trivia buffs, making him, yes, Angelina Jolie's uncle).
Garth collects interviews as he travels. Some are used for stories - sold to publications, used to promote upcoming UK tours or timed to coincide with an album or film release. Others he banks, using them for his books. He gathers the information because it's important. And it's certainly important to him - a recent chance to speak toIrma Thomas became a new career highlight.
Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians is the first book of Garth Cartwright's that I read. I felt as though I was in the passenger seat. And, it turns out, that's exactly how the author planned it. "How do you tell readers about the Balkans? How do you explain the gypsies? I wanted to put the reader in the front seat and make it personal. Talk about what it was like to actually be there; what the girls are like, what the food is like - my experiences as I travelled." He succeeds with a mix of cultural journalism and travel writing (if in fact the two are different). It perfectly explains the Roma musicians debunking several gypsy myths along the way.
Next up was More Miles Than Money: Journeys Through American Music. Cartwright says he "always wanted to do American music - with the soundtrack". And again the reader gets to take in the food and sleep deprivation, the antics, the heartbreak and hope. We meet forgotten legends and lesser-known working musicians, we hear about country and blues and, somewhat incongruously, the Burning Man Festival. Cartwright's writing heroes includeMark Twain and Jack Kerouac so if he puts himself in the story it might be as much their fault as it is his own. But no apology or justification is necessary; it's a crucial part of his storytelling.
More Miles Than Money is one of the best books about - and/or featuring - music that I have ever read. I consider it a must-have/must-read. And there really is a soundtrack, a physical CD to support the soundtrack you read about and carry with you through the text. Same with Princes Amongst Men. (The Princes Amongst Men soundtrack is brilliant. I haven't got the More Miles Than Money one yet but I will. I know a lot more of the music that features on that one already but it is definitely worth collecting.)
So now we arrive at Sweet As - his third book. This time it involves even more of Cartwright, memories of Auckland - where he grew up (Mt Roskill) - and from there the whole country. "It made sense," Garth says. "I was coming back - it was 20 years since I'd been in New Zealand permanently. I always talk about New Zealand - and write about it when I can. So, as I embarked on a journey around the country to catch up with friends and meet some new people I took notes, returned to the UK and wrote the book."
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