Extras: ‘The Caretaker’ with Sally Christie

Extras: ‘The Caretaker’ with Sally Christie

Every issue we take a closer look at a story or author – providing you with something extra. Extra insight. Extra content.  For Issue 10 we zoom in on Sally Christie’s story ‘The Caretaker’. All of our editorial team agreed that Sally’s story achieves something that makes it difficult to forget. We asked her to elaborate (spoiler-free) on some of the characteristics that make her story the spine-tingler it is.

About Sally Christie: Sally is a graduate of the Advanced Fiction Writing course at The Creative Hub. She has written an as yet unpublished novel and some short stories.  She has also written for online blogs.  She is crossing off countries on her travelling bucket list.  She can be found living in Auckland for now, gathering steam for the next adventure.

 

 

Headland: Your caretaker, Alicia, is a bit of a voyeur. She seems most comfortable controlling her surroundings, and those of others, and participating from a distance. Can you tell us a bit more about her? How did she end up on the outside looking in?

Sally: Alicia definitely is more comfortable from a distance. She’s retreated from the society that bullied and belittled her. She feels she doesn’t fit in. She wants to protect herself from hurt. But it’s impossible to live a pain free life. Part of life is to deal with pain and inconvenient intrusion. The point of difference for Alicia is that she’s a curious creature, so this is her compromise. I’ll be in the background, watching, living through people rather than with them. But that comes at a price. Loneliness. Isolation. Distorted thinking.

 

Headland: “But what you can’t have you can live through others”. There seems to be a kind of longing in Alicia, she almost wants to be Millie. Is she a little bit in love with Millie too do you think? Or at least in love with the idea of being Millie?

Sally: Alicia thinks because she’s not perfect she cannot have a nice life like Millie’s. So why bother? She sees people are jealous of Millie, and that makes her protective. Underneath the perfect princess persona, Millie is just as lonely as Alicia, and Alicia notices that too. She wants Millie to have the perfect life. Yet when the perfect life threatens to unravel, so does Alicia. She can’t handle reality. She is obsessed with keeping the illusion alive I think.

 

Headland: We see the guests at the bach, and Adam and Millie, through Alicia’s eyes. It is fascinating to see a relationship play out from a third party’s limited perspective. Even more so with an unreliable narrator. Did you set out to create one? How is Alicia like other unreliable narrators in literature?

Sally: I didn’t think about Alicia being an unreliable narrator because she certainly doesn’t think she is. This is her truth, the world how she sees it. I find it easy to absorb yourself into a character that way, because you aren’t presenting fact. You’re presenting cognitive dissonance. I do love how unreliable narrators see the world so differently. It’s fascinating looking at what, how, and why people think what they do. Especially if they are odd like Alicia. You can really dig into them, find out what makes them tick, what happened to make them that way. On some level, we are all unreliable. In Alicia’s case, she takes it a step further.

 

HeadlandYou build great tension in your story, and the hairs on the back of the neck seem to gradually stand up until you aren’t entirely sure how you feel about the situation as it progresses. Is this your first time writing a story like this? How did you layer unease in your story?

Sally: I wanted to build it in, step by step with a slow sense of unease, a creepy sense that something’s not quite right here. So thank you for saying that. It’s hard to know if you get the balance right. If it’s too subtle or not. That’s where my writing group and other peers are great. They let you know what’s working. You have a story about a disintegrating marriage, people getting older, their dreams and hopes fading into ordinariness and dishonesty, and then you have a weird woman watching it unfold. I think most of my stories have deeply flawed or quirky characters. I seem drawn to imperfection in people. In that sense, it’s not my first time writing a story about those sorts of people, but it is my first time writing a thriller.

 

 

Headland: When you finish the story (and manage to breathe again) you think about the whole story in an entirely different way, especially the beginning, and how Alicia ends up living alone in the bush at the lake in the first place. Are we as readers mistaken here or are there hidden clues? Without giving anything away, can you tell us about the foreshadowing in your story?

Sally: Alicia couldn’t wait to return to the bush again, to be ‘enclosed once more in her branches’. She hated being ‘pushed out into that life beyond the deck.’ She did what she had to do to survive. Keep your head down, take a job, pay the bills, keep to yourself, bide your time. She doesn’t feel comfortable out there in the world. To some extent, she endured life until she could disappear again. When her parents died, she saw a chance to do that. She’s not materialistic, happy to live in a shed. But she fears disillusionment and to some extent, people. She doesn’t like being seen – although in the end she wanted Millie to see her. To know she was there. She got drawn into Millie’s story, obsessed by it, because she hadn’t led a life of her own. She’d rather take care of other’s lives, by any means necessary.

 

HeadlandIs there anything else you’d like to share about your story?

Sally: Yes. The owls tell us a lot about Alicia. They are also my favourite birds. If Alicia can’t live happily after, she wants everyone else to. It was great to slip into her mind, figure her out. She can’t handle life on life’s terms, that’s for sure. What else is she capable of? Who knows …

Intrigued? Read Sally’s story in Issue 10, available now.

So you think you have writer’s block? Think again.

Writing through it

We’re continuing our series looking at writing through creative challenges. We recently featured ‘Drawing Blood From Stone’ by Kate Joy Tobin.

This round we have some thoughts from Jenna Heller, author of ‘For The Love of Andrew Mehrtens’ in Issue 10: Jenna, originally from the US, now lives within walking distance of a swimming beach in Christchurch, New Zealand, with her partner and their two teens. Her writing has been published in various journals including Popshot, Takahe, Poetry NZ,*82 Review and Flash Frontier.

So you think you have writer’s block? Think again.

No matter how real it feels or how debilitating it appears to be, I fully believe writer’s block is a complete illusion. A myth that has been handed down through the writing generations and perpetuated time and time again by people using that phrase to explain their lack of creative progress or output. As though writer’s block was a condition or illness like chicken pox or the flu, something you catch in a reasonably mysterious way and something that will eventually pass once it has run its course.

I don’t buy into that.

Author, Jenna Heller

Writer’s block is a trick that your mind plays to distract you from writing. It’s like a funhouse mirror that draws you in and makes you question what you know to be true, makes you think there’s a problem, gives you an excuse to not write when actually it’s just YOU getting in your own way. And the longer you look into that funhouse mirror, the less you’re able to see the truth.

Let me explain.

If you believe that your creativity is something that requires you to be in the mood, and that this mood is as fickle and unpredictable as the weather, that it comes and goes on a whim, then more than likely, you’ve experienced some form of creative wasteland and called it writer’s block.

The only time I ever experienced anything remotely like writers’ block is when I was in my early-twenties and full of unrealistic expectations. I sat down to write when I could afford the time away from my studies and other commitments and because I had no idea when the next block of time would materialise, I put all sorts of pressure on myself to perform: Write a story! Make that poem blush on the first draft! Pull beautiful phrases out of thin air and send characters spinning into snowstorms of events that require virtually no editing!

This type of thinking was so debilitating and my belief that my creativity would be unexpected and fleeting meant my writing was sporadic at best.

There’s a slightly different version of this experience that stems from being overly concerned with a grand outcome. It goes like this: You sit down to write and you think you’ve got something really good, something that might make you the next J K Rowling or Witi Ihimaera. You imagine life as a Writer with a capital ‘W’. A writer like Cormac McCarthy or Marie Howe. But you just don’t seem to be able to make any obvious progress.

You fiddle with a few words here and there and with each day the anxiety builds around your ability to actually write the story or the novel or the poem. Your mind begins to search for an explanation and suddenly it’s staring into the funhouse mirror: You tell yourself that you can’t do it, that you’re ideas appear to have dried up, that you aren’t sure what to write next, that you’ve got writer’s block.

You see how that works?

If, however, you approach your writing as a practice, a discipline, a craft to be worked at and developed. If you approach your writing as an end in itself, then writer’s block ceases to exist.

You simply show up day after day at roughly the same time in roughly the same place and you write. You don’t expect virtuosity. Instead, you write for your own pleasure and you keep showing up, trusting that the good ideas will come.

How long do you write for? Until.

So for me, writer’s block is a mindset and a mindset is something you can change. Here are a few ideas to help you shift a writer’s block mindset:

  • Think of your writing as something you do for you and only you. Remove any attachment to the potential outcome (that what you’re working on will be accepted by a publisher or that maybe this piece will make you the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King).
  • Change the genre that you’re working in. If you typically write poetry, write a short story or vice versa. If you typically write romance, try your hand at science fiction. Working in another genre or even another medium like paint or clay can really reignite your creativity.
  • Write down your dreams – Maria Konnikova wrote about writer’s block for the New Yorker last year (2016) and in her essay, she writes about two researchers who both recommend dream-writing as an excellent way to help people breakthrough their experience of writer’s block. 
  • Experience something new. This could be as simple as going for a walk in a place you’ve never been before or it might require a bit more planning like taking a 6-week archery course. Putting yourself in a position where you’re forced to have a wholly new experience can rapidly trigger new ideas and renewed focus in your writing.  
  • And finally, if you find yourself sitting in front of a blank page, get up and do something that involves movement. This type of response is like hitting the hard reset button when your computer freezes. Go shoot some hoops. Get into the garden. Change the oil in your car. Do something that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen or a blank page. And do it for at least half-an-hour and return to the page to write. It’s impressive how well something simple like this works.

Read Jenna’s story and more in Issue 10: buy here.

 

Drawing Blood From Stone

Creatively Challenged?

Welcome to another blog series for a new issue!  For Issue 10 we’re looking at creativity and how to deal with a rut, writers’ block, slump. Whatever you want to call it, for there are many terms and forms of experience. First up we have Kate Joy Tobin sharing some wisdom for dealing with creative challenges.

Read Kate’s story ‘The Kind of Light You Drown In’ in Issue 10. Kate is a professional dressage rider and coach, Massey AgSci student, and writer on the internet, all of which are less fanciful than they sound. Because her jobs are all hobbies, she is confined to doing taxes for fun. She is based in the foothills of Wellington’s Rimutaka Ranges.

 

Drawing Blood From Stone

Sometimes I write like I’m bleeding out onto the page. Sometimes I could stare at the page – empty – all day long, and not put a single word onto it. Because I have better things to do than that, I’ve figured out a variety of ways to make writing happen for me when it really, really doesn’t want to. If you also have better things to do then you might find some of them useful for you.

Write your interests. If you enjoy the complexities of high fantasy, write about that. If you like to write something close to the heart or something that once happened to you, write about that. If you’re keen on world travel, write about that. If you’re a male literary professor contemplating an affair with a student, write about that, and you’ll probably earn an award for it.

Change what isn’t working. If something in particular is sticky, swap – I like to swap point of view, in particular, or skip sections to write later. I don’t like to blindly commit myself to works or ideas that aren’t flowing or that I don’t enjoy writing. One of the biggest issues for me is boxing myself into what I think I should be writing, so a focus of mine is approaching the problem as laterally as I can.

In the same way, linear isn’t always best. Even a short story can be broken down into smaller chunks. Start with the easy parts and then progress outwards from there until you’ve put the whole thing together. A story is a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, and it needs to be constructed as one.

Don’t commit yourself to the idea that writers need a perfectly quiet environment to work in. Find what works for you instead. I have the attention span of an excited golden retriever. Actually, that might be a little generous – and maybe unkind to the dog. I listen to music, I flick between writing and reading and Tumblr and Facebook and whatever else, and I’ve still written more than 200,000 words so far this year. Practice until you find the right method for you. If complete silence and stillness works, do that. If writing in between sending work emails and listening to Demi Lovato works, do that instead.

In terms of sensible medical advice that we can also apply to writer’s block, don’t run on a broken leg. If you are struggling, break writing down to its component parts. Write a line, and then a paragraph. Don’t set out to write a novel. The concept of rehab is as important for blocked writers as it is for anyone with a physical injury. Even though I’m a very bad poet I like to write poetry when I’m blocked because it’s a more compact package that can grow into something bigger.

Rest is useful if you’re burnt out. Procrastination is not. Don’t break yourself trying to get the words out, but don’t avoid a piece ‘until ____’ because ‘until ____’ will likely never come. Know your own limits and push them only where it’s helpful, and always remember the purpose of your work. If you’re writing for fun, for example, make sure the process is actually enjoyable. If you’re writing to improve, don’t lose heart when the first step shows minimal improvement. Practice makes perfect. If you’re writing to win a prize, stick to the literary-professor-student-affair storyline and you’re golden.

Perfectionism is a slow poison. Don’t let it wreck your writing – never edit as you write, never delete anything, and let ‘good enough’ be enough in the draft stage. Turning it into something better is what editing is for.

Don’t be afraid. Fear of criticism, of putting yourself bare into the world in the form of words, is another killer. Tell yourself you are writing first for yourself, because you are. Editing is also for making a story you wrote for you into something for other people.

Write anyway. Write like drawing blood from a stone. Write whatever word you want and build on it until you make something of that blank page.

Issue 10 is available now for your reading pleasure.

Extras: Jack’s List

Extras: Jack’s List

Each issue, we bring you an extra, something that gives you insight in to one of the stories. For Issue 9 Headlander Allan Drew chose Daniel T’s story ‘Sanctuary’ featuring Jack, a young music producer, navigating his industry and life Auckland, producing “beats and tracks for people”. Jack also loves classical music and jazz, and is a skilled pianist which adds something special to this story:

I like the feeling. Muscle memory. Nostalgia. Remembering how Chopin’s études feel on my fingers. I wonder what’s in the playing that captures me. What’s in the stave that makes it all worth it? There’s so much promise here. Can it counter what I see in Michael’s tripe? This feels like the beginning of something good. My teachers taught me about the promise and the marvel of an overture. This is mine.

Here Daniel’s character Jack talks about what he’s been listening to, and how he connects with the music.

___

Neutral Milk Hotel – Naomi

Quintessential indie hipster tune. Play it for the first or last five minutes of any film about a geek or anything geeky and it totally fits. For some reason, whenever I hear this, I think about the books I read in my late teens. Bertrand Russell essays and the like.

Ekali & aywy – Contempt

Slick ambient tones and crisp clicks and hi-hats. I don’t mess around with music samples, I sort of have a rule about that sort of thing, but this Let Me Love You chop is sweet.

What So Not – Gemini EP

The tracks Gemini and Oddity are dangerous, man. These guys recorded a car revving, a jug of water being filled, and what I think was a putter sinking a ball. Dope sound design.

I used to only go into a booth to record sounds I didn’t have. Marbles clacking, paper rustling, the spraying sound from a cologne bottle, the sawing sound of a knife cutting a can. Now I’m in there on upright pianos or taking mics to record a grand piano in a hall.

Eminem – My 1st Single

The dude had diarrhoea noises in a song, man. It’s a throwaway track that he did for fun when he was probably high as hell. I heard this when I was young and getting into music and I wished I could make music without caring. And then I started to. Make music, I mean.

Chick Corea – Spain

A friend of mine is really into Chick and that old Return to Forever sound. Most times I see him with his sax he plays the riff from this song and takes me back to school uniforms and performance practice.

George Benson – Affirmation

My old man had this on wax and he played it to death so the version burned into my brain is a grainy one. The melody translates well to brass for those that don’t know. It’s the kind of track that transforms a place.

Sonny Rollins – St Thomas

I nearly broke my own code and sampled this song. Then I had dinner at a McDonald’s with a saxophonist. St Thomas has the same transformative property that Affirmation has. I’ve never been to the States, so this’ll sound stupid, but this song can make Queen Street feel like Frenchmen Street.

Miguel – …goingtohell

When we weren’t working in the studio this track was one that Link’s crew would play. The cover of the album this song is from inspired the art for Link’s mixtape. The influence is clear in the music video for Sharks.

Tyler, The Creator – Sandwitches

Tyler knows his mixes suck but he doesn’t care. He has bars. Back at school, when I wasn’t practising piano, I’d be with the boys and Tyler’s lyrics became a kind of chant. I’d play the chords and the boys would shout the words.

Cos I ain’t got no home meal to come to

So if you do I’m throwing fingers up screaming ‘fuck you!’

It’s a tricky thing making songs when you’re angry, because every subsequent song is like calming down. The tracks I made in my own come down periods were the ones that got me work with Gen and The Shells.

Kanye West – Spaceship

College Dropout touched a lot of people and this song stands out to me. Maybe because it’s a rap song in six-eight time. Probably because I used to work at a clothing store and I hated my boss.

ScHoolboy Q – Fuck L.A.

Probably one of the roughest voices in hip-hop and he’s representing gangsta rap. Link’s a massive fan and he wanted to show it with the ‘H’ in his mixtape title.

Future – Shit

This is the stencil Link drew himself with. It flows like fast deep breaths.

When you listen to a lot of trap type beats right in a row you start to notice how a lot of the sounds are compressed. The loud bits don’t change but the quiet bits are boosted. Which only means there aren’t sounds to go looking for in the back corners of the track.

Chief Keef – I Don’t Like

A popular banger. The running hi-hat gets the crowd going. People don’t want depth, don’t want volume from a hi-hat, so we compress it to hell. A hi-hat is clenched teeth. It’s the whirring of the anvil that’s about to bury Wile E. Coyote.

Flume – Skin LP

I think Harley’s a saxophonist. I know he’s classically trained. This whole album is amazing but the production in tracks like Lose It and Take a Chance really stood out to me. He engineered the best kicks and hi-hats, and the way those kicks cut through the synth is incredible. The dude sidechains reality with those kicks, man, it’s like a ship hitting waves when that drum bumps and the synth dips.

Albums like this are why I’m still making modern music with VSTs and sample packs. I’d be a straight Luddite if Flume and his ilk weren’t cooking.

Yuna – Unrequited Love

Since I’ve started making ‘my own’ music, I’ve had to put myself in the position of being the biter. The sampler. The copier. I played this song for Gen, my partner, and she felt like this was the perfect middle point of where our tastes met.

The percussion has a delay, the bass ebbs like fluid, and Yuna harmonises with herself. It’s a good style to model yourself after.

Marina and the Diamonds – Numb

Gen might not have Marina’s range but she tries. We sometimes lie down on the floor of the studio listening to tunes like this.

Beautiful work with the strings in this piece, though I would like to know if the pizzicato is real or a VST. Not that it matters. I mean, it matters to me, but that doesn’t really matter.

Frederic Chopin – Etude No.9 in F minor, Op.10

I might’ve given myself a bit too much credit when I tried to learn Scherzo. Shorter songs are more my speed. Those marathon pieces are difficult when you don’t have a skinny, sixty-year-old man, wearing a forest green sweater and brogues, telling you what to do.

 

I wasn’t planning on this list being a trip but I guess it turned into one. From country flannel jackets, to ‘where-ya-at’ bandanas, to plain coloured thousand dollar shirts, back to ‘where-ya-at’ bandanas, and then turbans and liquid pen hearts on cheeks.

Anyway, that’s me. That’s what’s in my head.

__

About Daniel: He is 22 years old and, having grown up in Auckland, the city often tends to be the setting if not the focus of his writing.

Read his story and more in Issue 9 of Headland.

People Not Characters

Characterisation Part III

Ray Bradbury wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing: “plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” We believe that the destination need not be incredible, but that the characters are indeed the lifeblood of a short story.

We’re wrapping up our Issue 9 characterisation series with some thoughts from Matt Billington on creating “people, not characters”. In Part I, Craig Burnett shared his insights into creating his character Kirk in ‘Seeds’. Next, Alie Benge discussed “borrowing a rib and breathing life” into hers.

Matt’s story, ‘A Use For Everything’ appears in Issue 9. Matt grew up in Rotorua and has spent the last eighteen years playing in DIY punk bands, his current one being The Prophet Motive.  He enjoys reading Donald Ray Pollock, listening to Propagandhi, and lives in West Auckland with his artist wife Kerry and son, Jordan.

People Not Characters

A Use For Everything is my first publication. The protagonist is Jamie, and the story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. Both are kids.

Before this story came thousands upon thousands of hours of failed attempts at writing characters – tattooed gangsters, overbearing parents, and Double Brown-swilling punk rockers – all crashing and burning under cliché and frustration. Caricatures that sounded how I thought they should sound, and all ended up sounding the same.

A ‘character’ is a portrayal of a person. The stories I love do not have ‘characters’. They have living, breathing people who, fictitious though they may be, are people I feel I know.

Irvine Welsh’s Renton.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant Casey.

Craig Marriner’s Lefty.

Anything by Amy Hempel (her book Collected Stories is writing mastered. None of us will ever be that good).

So my goal is to turn characters into People. People you haven’t met, but People you know.

There are three things I did to develop the People in A Use For Everything. The first thing was to understand who was telling the story, and where and why they were telling it. I imagined the narrator leaning over the handlebars of his bike, eyes fixed on bare toes pushing gravel in wave patterns as he told this story to someone new. He has to tell it because it is something he can’t understand and he can’t digest it.

A Use For Everything is someone talking about something they don’t want to talk about. People talking about uncomfortable events will often avoid them, something us readers do not like. I got around this by using repetitive phrases:

Jamie and the time he did that thing with his penis

It is Jamie I’m going to tell you about though, really

Not long before he did that thing I’m going to tell you about.

This gives the reader a sense of the narrator’s discomfort, while assuring them that we are going to talk about it.

The second thing was language. People telling stories aloud seldom use correct English; kids such as John, Andrew, Jamie, and the narrator would not use it at all. He says, ‘That’s me, John, and Andrew’ not ‘John, Andrew and I.’

How many times have you heard one of your mates tell a great yarn, and you have repeated it and it has fallen flat? Did that mate of yours get his language technically correct, or was his timing and imagery bang on?

The narrator speeds up with longer sentences when he is talking about all the awesome stuff they get up to. He doesn’t need to say ‘this was awesome’ or ‘this really sucked’ because the reader can already tell how the narrator feels by the pace of the narration.

Also, for the first time, I disregarded speech quotations. I originally did this as an exercise to really really really nail down actions to indicate who was speaking – the gulps, the fidgets, the toes-in-gravel, etc. I kept it, because on the page it looks like the speech and actions are one thing, a much stronger visual for the reader who isn’t distracted by pesky “”””” marks and new lines for each part of dialogue. More importantly, it allows the narrator to describe the people around him through his own eyes but using their language, the way kids repeat their parents’ points of view.

And last of all, interior lives. Readers love to know where a person comes from, it explains why they act the way they do. A massive trap for writers is the dead wood of ‘backstory’ that will clutter up your writing like shoes, toys, and school bags left in a hallway. Explaining an action by describing a past experience is tempting, but it risks taking the reader away from the actual events of the story they are reading, and dulling the impact of the ‘present’.

It is more effective to show the reader a side of the Person with something physical. Here is an example, using Jamie: He lived with an uncle he spoke of in words as quiet as breath and as quick as you take a plaster off a scab.

The reader can visualise how Jamie feels about his uncle from this one sentence. It also keeps with the theme of the story (talking about something we don’t want to talk about) and uses a metaphor that relates to childhood (scabs and plasters).

So that’s what I was going for. It worked for these people in this story, it might not work for the next people in the next story. I’ll just have to keep bashing the keyboard and find out. We’re all different.

 

____

You can read Matt’s story and more in Issue 9.

 

 

 

 

 

Borrowing a rib and breathing life

Characterisation Part II

Following on from Craig Burnett’s post Kirk , and continuing our characterisation series, we hear from Alie Benge on crafting a believable character.

Alie’s story ‘No Church in the Wild’ appears in Issue 9. Alie has lived in Tauranga, Ethiopia, Tauranga again, and Australia, before finally ending up in Wellington. She is an editor for Open Polytechnic, and divides the rest of her time between writing her novel and trying to end modern slavery. Both feel equally difficult.

 

Borrowing a rib and breathing life

You know who a character is when you know what you need them to do. When you know what they’ll do, you’ll need to know why. Create the psychology that leads them to their action, then add some contradictions in their personality, and you’ve done it. You’ve borrowed a rib and breathed life into character.

Strangely, the first glimpse you get of a character is so often their hair colour. I don’t remember too much about the books I read as an 11-year-old, but I can tell you all about their hair; Jessica and Elizabeth’s blonde hair (read: pretty, popular, girly), Kristy’s brown hair that was always in a ponytail (read: laidback, a tomboy). The idea, I’m assuming, is to get straight to the point and efficiently reveal character through appearance, rather than showing over time through action. It’s efficient, sure. But it’s untrue. Real life villains don’t have long black hair and dark features. They’re more orange, if anything.

If you impose a ban on writing about hair, height or crooked smiles to reveal character; if you can’t use words like fiery or stubborn – what is left? Character is not appearance. It’s action. Instead of showing your reader what a character looks like, show them what they do. Trust your reader to make their own judgements.

That being said. There is one author who can reveal character through appearance. She wrote a little series called Harry Potter. Snape has a dark look, greasy hair, hooked nose. This casts him as the bad guy, and as the reader, we have enough information to make assumptions about him. We know his kind. But, the reason Rowling uses appearance as character successfully is because she uses it to wrong-foot us. She leads us to characterise Snape ourselves, based on his look. But in the end, we see that we were wrong. Who he is cannot be contained within his appearance. It’s what he does, who he loves.

The essence of character is contradiction. Contradiction is what makes them three-dimensional and lifts them off the page. When I was studying short fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), some of the most helpful feedback from my portfolio was that I’d made my characters only one thing. All bad or all good. In real life, people aren’t like this. The most compelling characters I’ve seen in fiction are those that are both good and bad. A character who’s neither could be too passive, a character who’s only one is okay but not so believable. A character who is both is captivating. A prime example is Spike from Buffy and, once again, Snape. What I loved about learning this aspect of characterisation was that it helped me to understand people better, and to see that we’re capable of many conflicting things. Kind and unkind, true and false, good and bad. I saw how people can be at war with themselves, in inner conflict. We wrestle against aspects of our own character, trying to be good and sometimes failing.

The leopard in my story from Issue 9, ‘No Church in the Wild’, is what started the story. When I was a kid and living in southern Ethiopia, we really did have a leopard prowling around our property, making off with our chickens. I dreamt about the leopard every night for a long time. In the dream, my sisters and I would throw rocks at it and run away when it chased us. At the end of the dream I would trip, my sisters would run ahead, I would roll over to see the leopard poised above in the air. In my imagination, she took on a sort of mystical quality, so when it came to designing the character for this story, she brought the weird magic of dreams and memory with her. She became a kind of familiar that went between the Qalichas and the family. So, from the narrator’s perspective, she’s a threat – something she has to scare away. But to add a level of contradiction, she also has a relationship with the leopard. They watch each other, and they understand when the other has ceased to be a danger. If you believe the shadow in the bedroom was the leopard (and it’s up to you to decide) she leaves. The narrator is spared, but it’s a failed mercy because the mother falls sick that night. In her characterisation, I wanted this balance between good and evil, and even the balance of real and imagined, to be ambiguous and in conflict with itself. The balance should shift, as it does in life. And so, life informs art, and art doubles back to hold a mirror to life.

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Read ‘No church in the wild’ and more in Issue 9, available now.

Kirk

Characterisation Part I

We’re into weird here at Headland. We like the oddball characters, the ones that you wouldn’t want to meet in real life, but that you’re grateful to have run into fictionally, so to speak. We like the characters that you’d want to be on a long car ride from Wellington to Auckland with, as well. Nice ones, that have interesting conversation. We like old ones, little ones, mean ones, and all of them in between.  We like them when they ring true, and get in your head. Short stories offer a challenge to writers to flesh out memorable characters with a limited word count. We’re really interested in the process that writers go through to create the people/things that drive their stories. We asked three Issue 9 authors to share their characterisation process with us.

We kick off with Craig Burnett,  author of ‘Seeds’, sharing his thoughts on his main character, real estate agent Kirk. Craig’s story is very topical, reflecting some of the themes currently playing out in New Zealand’s rental market.

Craig is a former journalist, who now works for a global politics think tank. He was born in Dundee and lives in south London, where he writes about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past. He has stories forthcoming in Noble Gas Quarterly, Flexible Persona, Fictive Dream and the Glasgow Review of Books. He tweets as @cburnettwriter.

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Kirk

My story is about a young and desperate flat-hunter, who meets an estate agent with a unique, efficient but very morbid business model. Kirk, the estate agent, is a grotesque figure, but hopefully not cartoonish. The whole story springs from the frustrations of trying to rent in a big city, and Kirk has a lot of the traits you might recognise from estate agents you meet in that situation – a sort of bouncy, vacant enthusiasm, and an unsettling tendency to babble well-rehearsed phrases (or even whole speeches). There’s some frustration beneath his patter though, which comes out later in the story.

There is one specific estate agent that came to mind when I was creating Kirk, who I met five or so years ago. He wasn’t terrible, but there was some low-level deception/obfuscation/pressuring. Standard London flat-hunting stuff. He was showing me and my girlfriend round a flat, and said he used to work in finance – but that he quit because he “didn’t want to do a job where people hated him”. If it was a joke it was delivered absolutely deadpan, so hats off to him, but I actually think it was a bit of a defiance thing – daring us to say how much we hate estate agents. I’ve met a few people who work in less popular jobs who do that – “I know what you’re thinking,” kind of thing. We rented the flat, for a year, and just before we moved out he came back with another couple to try to get them to move in. It was weird, watching him show them around. He didn’t say anything awful, but I still felt a bit like I was witnessing a mugging.

 

 

I like characters who’ve been shaped by their past and their environment, had it seep into them. With Kirk, you see it in his grandiosity – he spends so much time exaggerating things to his customers, making wild claims and stressing the positives, that he’s lost touch with reality a little. When he says he’s like a counsellor, or a social worker, he genuinely believes that. There’s not much self-awareness, but that doesn’t really hold him back, he just barrels along. He’s Trumpian, in a way – an odd combination of sharp and oblivious that turns out to be very successful, for him at least. Like Trump, he’s always got an excuse in his back pocket, and a way of abandoning responsibility when it benefits him. And of course he’s got the power in the relationship with the flat-hunter too. That’s one of the creepy thing about the story – she knows Kirk’s a bit of a dirtbag, but she also knows that he’s holding all the cards, so she just has to let him say what he wants, however obnoxious or crazy. If you picture a person enjoying that unchallenged position day after day, year after year, you can see how they might get warped a little bit. 

Kirk is almost constantly active – saying banal things, turning the hob on and off, opening and closing the fridge. That’s how he dominates the exchange with the flat-hunter. Neither of them have been in the flat before, so it’s sort of neutral ground, but he quickly fills it with his noise, so she’s on the defensive and a bit bewildered. A writer once told me about the importance of establishing status in your work, and I think that can be really useful.

I work most of my stories from a key moment in the narrative, which could be at the beginning of the action, at the end, or somewhere in the middle. So I picture a moment, then ask myself who would be there, why, how they might have got there, where they’d be going next etc. And hopefully the elements of the story – characters, plot, tone – sprawl out from that one moment, in steps that feels logical or even inevitable. So when I’m writing, I try to let different element story push the process forward at different times, latching onto the most promising aspects – in any given moment that could be some nice dialogue, an image, whatever. My background is in writing and editing nonfiction, and I think that’s given me a flexibility and pragmatism that can be incredibly useful. If you’ll forgive a little preachiness, I get annoyed when writers make the writing process seem overly mystical or inexplicable. I think a lot of people would love to try writing, but don’t see themselves as innately creative. Or they worry it’s a club you need to be invited into.

 

 

Kirk came together quite quickly, and immediately felt very solid – picturing him at different points in the story, I knew exactly what he would be doing or saying. Lots of my characters aren’t like that at all. But it’s a relief when they are. Kirk definitely felt like the right man for the moment I’d imagined. He fitted.

I realise I’ve made Kirk sound a bit of a monster. And he probably is. But the flat-hunter’s underlying desperation comes from the fact that there’s a housing shortage – something she, as a middle-class person moving to the city, is partly responsible for, just like I am in London. When pressed, Kirk presents himself as an unavoidable side-effect of these huge socio-economic forces. Of course that’s convenient for him, but just because something’s convenient doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I write about a lot of slightly macabre stuff, but I think bad people – inherently bad – are very rare indeed. But I also think the world we live in and the choices we make come with a cost, whoever we are. I like uncomfortable connections in fiction, and I think we’re all closer to Kirk than we’d like to admit. 

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Submissions close on 16 June for our Issue 10 deadline. Send us your short fiction and creative nonfiction. As you can see, we like interesting characters, so don’t hold back. See our submission guidelines for details.

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

So, um, what is creative nonfiction exactly?

 

Headland Co-Founding Editor Liesl Nunns

We love getting creative nonfiction submissions at Headland. We’d love to get more. We’d love to publish more. It’s not a well-known form in New Zealand, with ‘creative’ and ‘nonfiction’ perhaps seeming contradictory. It’s a many-headed beast to characterise, as the genre can encompass so many hybrid forms of journalism, opinion, memoir, travel writing, and review.

Too often at Headland we read a creative nonfiction submission and think, “I would have assumed this was a short story.” Presumably these pieces stem from memoir, but ‘fact’ is not the sole marker of creative nonfiction. That’s just a starting point.

Cliché though this may be as an observation, I shall dare to say that creative nonfiction should speak to ‘the human experience’. It is a fantastic vehicle for taking “here is what I think” or “here is what happened to me” and making connections to those larger ideas, thoughts, and concerns that make up the soup we’re all swimming in. A short story does this well by conjuring up scenarios or characters that leave us as readers with ‘homework’, drawing our own questions and conclusions and making our own cognitive leaps as the story ticks on in our minds. Creative nonfiction is like reading someone else’s homework. It is sitting down for coffee with that brainy, witty, or insightful friend you’ve got, and hearing them talk about something they’ve been thinking a lot about. They’ve actually done a bit of reading on it, done some real research, so they know what they’re talking about; but they’re telling you all about it with that special voice that is uniquely theirs. Yes, interesting isn’t it?

When I think of creative nonfiction I have loved, I think of Eva Saulitis’ ‘Wild Darkness’, as published in 2014 in the American environmentalism journal Orion. A marine biologist and essayist, Saulitis places her own experience of terminal cancer against her observations of death in the natural world. It is a thoughtful and understated piece, with a scope beyond Saulitis’ personal experience: she references and quotes writers and scholars, draws on religious and cultural practices, and includes personal anecdotes from others. She widens the context. She questions herself, “So what?” The heart talks to the brain, as creative nonfiction should.

For the student of creative nonfiction, I would further point to two particular accomplishments of Saulitis’ piece. Firstly, there is a specific timeline, a sense of ‘now’ and ‘the next day’, but it doesn’t march forward relentlessly without deviation or relief. She moves the piece along thematically rather than strictly chronologically, unrolling specific incidents with her wider thoughts then circling back. Most importantly, this temporal structure takes the reader with it effortlessly. Secondly, her use of language leaves you in no doubt as to what kind of writing you are reading. She marries the ‘creative’ and the ‘nonfiction’ seamlessly. Sentences and paragraphs rise and fall on a spectrum from academic to poetic, guiding you between memoir and research. She links the personal and the theoretical, eyes each in the light of the other, to reach conclusions that have the unmistakably earthy growl of our common human experience. You’re there having coffee with Eva Saulitis, and she breaks your heart:

Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done. All I know right now is that something has stepped toward me, some invisible presence in the woods, one I’ve always sensed and feared and backed away from, called out to in a tentative voice (hello?), trying to scare it off, but which I now must approach. I stumble toward it in dusky conifer light: my own predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel.

Your topic of choice need not have the weightiness of cancer, and you need not be a highly respected marine biologist to talk salmon in the wild. Perhaps you’ve been ruminating on public transport etiquette or reflecting on the formative role that Jim Hickey’s weather reports played in your later romantic relationships. I’d like to read those pieces. I’d love to read those pieces if, in the process, I might learn something or feel something bigger. I’d love to see the “So what?”

That predatory, furred, toothed, clawed angel came for Eva Saulitis in January 2016. In ‘Wild Darkness’ she says of her coming death, The salmon dying in their stream tell me I am not alone…For this you were born, writes Stanley Kunitz. For this you were born, say the salmon.

Good short fiction makes us wonder about, or realise, those things for which we were born, both big and trivial. Creative nonfiction does that too, but it arms our imagination as well as spurring it. It gives you the salmon and the Stanley Kunitz as well as the woman standing on the shore.

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Inspired? Our submission deadline for Issue 10 is open until 16 June. Send us your creative nonfiction (and short fiction too!) up to 5000 words. Every submission is eligible for our annual Headland prizes, and we love getting work from New Zealand authors. See our submission guidelines for details.

Extras: Interview with Caoimhe McKeogh

Welcome back to ‘Extras’ where we bring you insights into our current issue. In our inaugural segment, Allan Drew, our regular curator, shared his story ‘Sociology’, a follow up to his story ‘Anthropology’ which featured in Issue 6. Next up was an excellent interview with Issue 7 author Zoe Meager.

Caoimhe McKeogh’s story ‘The Saturday Shift’ appears in Issue 8Caoimhe is 22 years old. She studies English Literature at Wellington’s Victoria University and works in disability community support. Her previous publications include Headland and Landfall literary journals, and she was the recipient of Headland’s 2015 Frontier Prize. We talked to her about her story, what she’s working on, Issue 8 and how her work in disability support informs her writing.

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Headland: We loved your story, The Saturday Shift for so many reasons. You bring unsentimental warmth and a depth of reality (especially to your dialogue) that is really special. Can you tell us where your inspiration for this story came from?

Caoimhe: Aw, thank you! I absolutely love “unsentimental warmth” – that’s definitely something I’m aiming for, but I had never thought to phrase it that way. To be honest, the bare bones of this story was basically a diary entry – I had this crazy summer where I was doing two full-time creative writing papers at once at the IIML and also working full-time at a disability care facility. I had to bring in a story for workshopping and had no ideas (or time to think of any) so just wrote down everything that had happened that day at work. Since then, it’s been through a lot of editing – it is definitely now fiction, and the characters aren’t me or my colleague or real clients anymore, but the inspiration was just a day in my life.

 

This photo was taken by one of the girls I used to support – it is me modeling the commode chair, which is used to shower people who use wheelchairs, and is mentioned in ‘The Saturday Shift’.

 

Headland: What is your favourite quotation from your story?

Caoimhe: Ooh that’s tricky! And it feels strange to answer, it’s like complimenting myself. Maybe when Jono tells Bethany, “You can be Superman like how I’m Batman!” but Bethany reaches out sideways instead and shouts, “Bird!” Finding a way to build characters who have little to no language can be difficult, but I think Bethany turned out to be rather endearing, and this line shows that she’s a bit sassy too.

An outing with a boy I supported for years (who had very groovy socks) to feed and sing to the ducks.

Headland:  In Lemon (awarded the inaugural 2015 Frontier Prize for best story by a previously unpublished author), your main character is a young child with special needs. You seem to know your subject material and characters well. Given that The Saturday Shift also features some characters with disabilities and the care facility is the setting for your story, are these stories part of a thematic series or larger project? (We hope so.) Can you elaborate on that?

Caoimhe: Yeah, you got me! I’ve planned a novel-length project of interlinking short stories around the disability community, and have slowly been writing them up – Lemon is the first chapter and The Saturday Shift is the third – between them is a story called Lucy that was published in the most recent Landfallit features Lucy from Lemon and Darcy from The Saturday Shift. Later in the book, Adam who was in the background a bit in The Saturday Shift becomes a very important character. I have a terrible habit of filling my life with not-writing-the-book things, though – I did an Honours degree in English Literature in 2016, and wrote nothing but essays all year long. I will try to get back to it – it’s lovely to hear that someone already likes the idea!

My favourite post-it note! This is in Pegasus Books in Wellington. Obviously, it’s just about the section of the bookshop, but I love the idea of writers’ lives starting somewhere specific…

Headland: When we read The Saturday Shift we talked about how well it fitted into the theme we’d inadvertently stumbled upon, on Labour Weekend coincidentally: work. Do you consider this a ‘work story’? Why/why not?

Caoimhe: Oh, definitely, yes. I’ve been working in the disability sector for close to ten years now – I started doing after-school support work when I was fourteen – so to me ‘work’ is often along the lines of what is described in this story. The Saturday Shift is also about the relationship between co-workers, which was a theme that I noticed in the other ‘work stories’ in Issue 8 of Headland too. The place and people and actions of ‘work’ are such a big part of our day-to-day life, and it’s very interesting to hear about other people’s versions of that – I’m fascinated by stories from my friends who work in hospitality, or retail, or labouring … one person’s normal can be incredibly strange and scary to another person, or really intriguing. I loved reading Frank Beyer’s Smashing the Machines in this issue of Headland, because he was describing the day-to-day life of a postie, which is a job I’ve always been fascinated by!

This is a boy I still care for, covering himself in kowhai flowers. My favourite part of my job is when something totally unexpected but beautiful happens, and this was an example of that!

 

This is me in a care facility very similar to the imaginary one where ‘The Saturday Shift’ is set. (On this particular day, I had been locked out of my house overnight and had to turn up to work in my boyfriend’s clothes.)

Headland: A year on, has being the recipient of the 2015 Frontier Prize affected your writing? How so?

Caoimhe: It was definitely a real confidence boost for me. Lemon was my first submission to a journal, and I was very aware that submissions often lead to rejections – I had steeled myself for plenty of ‘no’s’ before the occasional ‘yes’ might happen. Instead, I got a lovely email from Laura and Liesl saying the piece would be published, and then a couple of months later I won the Frontier Prize. Since then, I have had quite a few ‘no’s’, but I had the confidence to keep going. I ended up with five pieces published in various journals in 2016, and also with the confidence to build on Lemon to start creating the longer work that we were discussing earlier. It also gave me an extra sentence for my ‘author bio’ in journals, which is great because I always have real trouble thinking of anything to say!

The day that the noticeboard at my work had a bit of an existential crisis.

 

A moment of peace and quiet in the IIML workshop room! A very special place to me, and the reason that both ‘Lemon’ and ‘The Saturday Shift’ came to exist.

Headland: What are you working on now?

Caoimhe: There’s the longer work around disability, and then I also have a mess of various things going on … I have two other novels started, and one of those is taking up most of my brain right now, but I’m also planning a children’s picture book, and writing quite a bit of poetry at the moment. In February I’ll be starting three more classes at the IIML – Creative Non-Fiction, Short Fiction, and Screenwriting for Television, so then I’ll be even more all over the place! Finishing things is definitely the bit of writing that I find hardest – there are so many things to try out, and the newest one is always the most exciting. Obviously, the first half of 2017 will be spent starting even more things, but perhaps my resolution for the second half of the year can be to get some stuff finished!

Silhouettes of three children I used to support, hung on the fence of the special-needs school that I worked at for two years in Hamilton.

Headland: Are there any other stories in Issue 8 that speak to you?

Caoimhe: I really enjoyed Issue 8, and the accidental-theme of ‘work’. Coincidentally, I have been off work this week following a minor surgery, and the restlessness and lack of routine that the absence of work has left for me had me thinking about work’s place in my life. I think the story that really wowed me, though, was Sandra Arnold’s When the Wind Blows. It manages to be incredibly detailed and incredibly subtle at the same time, and is so beautiful – it really stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

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Thanks so much Caoimhe, for chatting to us about your stories. We loved The Saturday Shift. You can read it in Issue 8.

Who is telling our stories?

Narrative voice: part three

We’re wrapping up ourIssue  8  narrative voice series with Charlotte Rutty. Read previous posts by Sandra Arnold and Emma Robinson.

Charlotte Rutty author of ‘Indian Ocean’  shares her thoughts on narrative. Charlotte is a writer and public radio producer from Maine, USA, where she devotes herself to the causes of climate justice and grammatical correctness. Her work has been featured in the Worcester Journal and on Public Radio International’s Living on Earth.

Who is telling our stories?

When I write the first sentence of a story, it is almost always in present tense. I may switch to past tense later. After all, part of growing up is realising that present tense is not as cool as you thought it was when you were a teenager. Still, present is a good place to start. It feels comfortable and safe.

In fact, I have struggled with past-tense fiction writing for a while now. Writing in the past tense opens up questions of where and when you are writing from – and, for that matter, who you are writing as. Sure, say some writers – they’ve got an answer for that. They define the narrator: it’s the main character, grown up, writing forty years later from a desk at the college where he teaches European studies. It’s the main character’s sister, shriveled and dying in a ranch house where her only friend is a bulldog named Sherman.

But those of us who don’t have an answer? Who is telling our stories? Are we? And why?

Once, they avoided this issue by writing frame stories. Emily Brontë wrote through a housekeeper, as quoted by a young man. Henry James went even further in The Turn of the

Screw, speaking through a dead governess, through a found manuscript, through a curious friend. Understandably, these authors were unsure of the role they played in the production of their own novels. They were anxious to disguise themselves in layers and layers of narrators. If it had just been Emily, daring to tell a made-up story she found so important as to go and publish it, she would have had to address its purpose, its value.

So maybe the present tense feels surer: the narrator is here and now, easy. He relates events as he sees them unfold, like the commentator at a soccer match – he doesn’t need another reason.

I admire writers who, unapologetically, write past-tense, third-person narratives. They refuse to be cowed by the narratorial specter, the shadowy figure who lurks at the edges of their books. And they refuse to be cowed by their own doubts. They might worry that their work isn’t political enough or concrete enough, that it affects nothing in the real world. They might have creeping suspicions that their English degree won’t come to anything after all. Sometimes it might seem to them very bold to ask a reader to sit down and give up their afternoon on the faith that a story will add value to their day. It is bold. But still, they write.

It’s in their refusal to justify themselves that these writers say the most about the value they add to your day.

Read Charlotte’s story and more in Issue 8.

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