The intro read:
A raunchy novel featuring the Second Coming in a Ponsonby halfway house full of psych patients. The author? You’d expect someone grungy and body-pierced. What you get is Michael Riddell. Denis Edwards talks to a Baptist minister with a past.MIKE THE BAPTIST
Wanting to take a reality check on religion in the secular 90s? Michael Riddell’s The Insatiable Moon is a good place to start. The news is promising. Religion as described by Riddell is robust, raunchy, cynical, worldly-wise, amoral, rough as a rugby scrum and thick with self-doubt, sex, anxiety and confusion. This is how it all must have been back when Jesus Christ was around; long before everyone looked away and found, when they turned back, that religion had gone all precious.
There is little precious about Michael Riddell. Though he is a man of religion, he has been, lived or seen and done most of the above. He is a bright, energetic man, barefoot and pigtailed, and at the time of this interview he was in his last two weeks as a lecturer at the Carey Baptist College. His moving on, combined with the imminent arrival of his book, has been the subject of much media interest.
“No,” he says, “I didn’t get sacked because I wrote the book.” But he had a very good idea that the novel might be difficult for the Baptists to embrace as their own. Among other things, it has a long and minutely detailed sex scene. The protagonists are a man who may or may not be the second son of God, and an Auckland woman. It takes place in a seamy Herne Bay motel. In the background angels watch the action, approving every move and gasp.
There is a minister of religion (not in the sex scene) who also drops a fraction short of being the strong, towering and courageous role model your Baptist College likes to feel will leave its halls to conquer a godless world. ”I knew the book might not be the sort of work the College would want to be associated with. I took a copy of the page proofs to the Head, and after a discussion he agreed, so I resigned. That’s it. There’s no real anger or anything and we are getting along fine. I’m just working it out until I go, on March 1.”
The Insatiable Moon is set in Auckland’s twilight world, among a group of psychiatric survivors in a Herne Bay boarding house under threat from most sides. Riddell has both the boarding-house and the inner-city ambience and rituals exactly right; after being there, seeing it and living to write about it.
He hails from working-class Porirua, moving on to Christchurch and university. Things did not go well. He lasted just two terms in his first year and one in the second. Then it was off on a raucous OE. There were spells in communes, London crash pads, a Moroccan jail and assorted adventures in Australia and New Zealand. “I was an acid-head, dropping lots of LSD and doing quite a lot of dope as well.”
Salvation came after six years, not long after he crossed into his early 20s. He had met Rosemary, now an Auckland lawyer, in London. Love and romance flowered. Marriage followed. So did religion. “My conversion wasn’t one of your flashes of light and burning-bush experiences. It wouldn’t have worked, not with me. I’d had better, much better, drug flashes than anything religion could do.”
Instead, it came to him out of a long series of discussions with other drug users. “It was gradual, nothing too dramatic, but when I did convert that was it.”
Thankful he was still alive and with Rosemary, rather than in an English prison or a North African morgue, he touched down in Ponsonby. In 1985 he became the minister at the Ponsonby Baptist. “It was more of a mixed community back then, not like it is these days. We had a housing action group going too, and there was a lot of what I saw and heard there which became background for the book.”
His time at Ponsonby Baptist church became part of his education as a writer: “I had to come up with something interesting to say each week. It meant I had to become a storyteller and that meant becoming a writer.” Before that, there had been freelance journalism – while living in Switzerland he wrote a column for the long-departed New Outlook.
Though Riddell has a spirited look in his eye, and dealing with drugs is a day-by-day slog – just as no one can ever say they have absolutely shaken off cigarette smoking – he has been through enough to be confident he will not be falling back. “The kids are old enough to be playing up now. I’ve got enough to do keeping an eye on them.”
Prime literary influence? This is easy. A picture of James K Baxter is on his office wall and a copy of Frank McKay’s Life Of James K Baxter is lying near the desk. “I sometimes feel a bit like Baxter, in never quite knowing where I’m supposed to be. I exchanged letters with Frank McKay about coming and talking to him about Baxter. Sadly, he died before we could meet.”