By Craig Stephen
A recurring theme from the lawyers’ profiles in LawPoints over the past few years has been one of a desire to write.
Some practitioners’ dream alternative career is as a journalist, while others would just like to write more about what they love.
So if inspiration is needed to pursue a pet project, it comes in the form of Wellington-based lawyer Brannavan Gnanalingam (said nyana-lin-gum) who has written six novels in the past nine years.
Brannavan, who works with Buddle Findlay specialising in property, insolvency and debt recovery, has recently released his sixth work, the well-received Sprigs.
While he is a father of two and a busy lawyer, he has found subtle and clever ways of finding the time to write.
He says he spends a lot of time planning, so by the time he actually places his fingers on the keyboard he already has the structure in place and the characters developed.
“That means the ideas are firmly worked through. That helps with the limited time I have, so I’m much more focused and productive. For example, for Sprigs I spent about 18 months solely planning it, reading other novels and feminist theory, the likes of Judith Butler, Jennifer Doyle, and Sara Ahmed, and reading first-hand accounts on the internet,” he says.
During the writing stage Brannavan walks to work every day – a 45-minute trek - and would come up with ideas for what he would write that day. During his lunchbreak he would “bash it out” and do that every day until he finished the book.
“What I have learnt through writing is that the first draft is the hardest as that’s the one you need to spend the most time on.”
He uses what he calls trigger songs to help him. “Whenever I write I just listen to the one song over and over again. I can listen to that same song for half an hour, which might be about 12 listens, and it doesn’t matter what song it is.
“Then, later on, each time I hear that song, I end up in a writing frame of mind. So, after a while, even hearing the opening bars is enough to focus the mind.”
While there’s no particular song he plays per book, it could have a vibe around what he is writing about.
Too far gone to go back
Brannavan’s first novel was released in 2011. He wrote it while doing his MA. He says Getting Under Sail was published “by accident” and received a number of positive reviews. The book was based on a trip he did through North and West Africa as a student with two friends hitchhiking for several months from Morocco to Ghana.
“I had gone too far in both areas (writing and the law) to give up either,” he says.
Two years later You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here was also published by Lawrence & Gibson – as have all six of his books – and depicted a trip by a middle-aged woman to Paris. But she finds the romantic city far from what she expected, and instead it’s a cold and disorienting place.
Brannavan followed this up with Credit in the Straight World (2015), a satire of the global financial crisis; A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse (2016) – about structural Islamophobia in our spy agencies, and Sodden Downstream (2017).
Sodden Downstream was shortlisted in 2018 for New Zealand's top literary prize, the Jann Medlicott Acorn Foundation Prize for Best Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. A Briefcase was longlisted the previous year.
This winter his sixth novel, Sprigs was released, and again to favourable reviews. In it he takes a scalpel to all that is rotten within a private boys’ school, and covers bullying, racism, toxic masculinity, and power and privilege.
In particular, Sodden Downstream was about a section of society often overlooked if not treated with contempt.
“It was about wage disparity, zero hours contracts, refugees, renters, and all that sort of stuff. Sprigs was a little different in that it was about powerful people trying to maintain their power.”
Sprigs also touches on rugby and the institution it has become in New Zealand.
“I love sport but I’m also interested in the dynamics behind male bonding and how elite schools operate so I was interested in how boys can be shaped by that environment. It’s not necessarily about rugby, it’s not necessarily about boys’ schools, it is more about power, and access to justice.
“I love writing,” he says. “The film study at university developed my creative interest and passion; I grew up doing music so I was always doing something creative.
“At uni I was involved in Salient (the university magazine) and I was also a film and music reviewer for a website called the Lumière Reader all the way through uni and afterwards. So I’ve always been a bit of a writer, I’ve just shifted it to novels. It’s not necessarily different to law – you have to deal with deadlines, we work with words, and deal with the tone of those words, and present arguments. There’s definitely crossover.”
Falling into the law
Brannavan says he got into law in a “haphazard way”. At university he studied film and criminology, while also doing a law degree.
“I gained my honours and I was going for my masters in film and then I got a job at Buddle Findlay as a summer clerk. I tossed up between becoming a lawyer or an academic and I went down the law pathway.
“One of the things about property is that it covers quite a lot of variants. It’s been something that I didn’t really expect to end up in but here I am. And I enjoy it because every day is different.”
His Buddle Findlay profile notes that he has has been involved in large-scale property acquisitions and the negotiation of easements, licences, leases, sale and purchase agreements, and alienations of Māori land. He also specialises in property disputes, and has assisted creditors, receivers, and liquidators with distressed property and property debts. He has been involved in disputes relating to the Public Works Act, sale and purchase agreements, make good, Māori land, rent reviews, construction, leases, and caveats in the District Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court and in arbitration.
“I enjoy the development agreement side of things, getting projects up and running, but I also love the debate between public law and property and working with government and regulations and legislation. That aspect of my work is extremely interesting.”
He admits that being a lawyer: “you are only as good as your last job, and that keeps you on your toes” and there is no chance of resting on your laurels.
As a junior he was involved in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and is currently involved in a project with the National Archives building in Wellington.
Sri Lanka to Wellington via Harare
Brannavan’s family left Sri Lanka when he was only one, initially for Zimbabwe where his father found work as an engineer before he gained employment in New Zealand.
With such a small customer base in New Zealand for books he won’t be becoming a full-time writer anytime soon. “It’s more ego-fulfilling and you do it because you want to say something about the world. I’ve never thought ‘this is going to be a golden ticket to anything’.”
After I put the recording device away, Brannavan tells me of his love of football – he used to play until the age of 25 – and appears happy to hear his interviewer drone on about Scottish football, the Phoenix and how such a beautiful game is such a universal sport being played in every country from the Cook Islands to the Central African Republic.
He says its simplicity is the key and the reason why so many people take it to their heart.