Tag: Writing (page 1 of 2)

Extras: ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’

Extras: ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’

“This really is Memphis – built on the wreckage of pain and dismemberment, building beauty slowly from abandoned places we can’t help but revisit.”

One the stories from this issue that we cannot not get out of our heads is ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’ by talented U.S. writer, Aasiya F.M Glover. She is an Asian-American raised in the American South, currently residing in New York City and working as a lawyer. She has published one story in the now-defunct literary magazine Damazine, which was then published out of Syria.

We were so intrigued by her story (a work of fiction), that we asked her to tell us more. If you haven’t read Aasiya’s story, get it now on Amazon in Issue 12.

1. The setting in your story feels like a character too, as it seeps into every paragraph. Can you tell us about your decision to choose Memphis as the setting?

I’m glad to hear that. It was important to me, when writing this story, to render the personality of Memphis, as I see it, as vividly as possible. I remember sitting down to write the first paragraph of the story – it wasn’t even a choice really, just an outpouring of emotion. I was staying at my parents’ home, in the country outside Memphis, while on vacation; the night was thick and it was raining. There is almost nothing as oppressive and as loving as a summer night rain out there. It was necessary, an act of compulsion, to convey what this place — this comforting, suffocating place — means. And ultimately, to tell this story, it had to be in that place – where poverty and wealth, country and town, death and life, are so intertwined. It was important, too, that the narrator have something clear and constant and concrete to reference when reporting about the tragedy – I think the narrator finds meaning through locating the crime in a place like Memphis.

2. Perhaps we’ve been listening to too many true crime podcasts/documentaries, but your story unravels at a perfect pace and feels so real, we had to double check you hadn’t submitted creative non-fiction. How did the story flow you for when you were writing it. Did you set out to write a piece of fiction that focuses on the build up to an horrific crime?

I remember having to leave the story several times, waiting to come back to it with another piece. I knew what I wanted to say about Memphis, and social interactions there, but it was more difficult to order the Inez’s story.  I knew the ending at the beginning; I knew where I wanted to end up. The question I couldn’t figure out was how and why such an event would happen; what pieces would lead to this exact crime on this exact day, at this exact time? When we hear about crimes, especially murders, we can sometimes accept the events as somehow inevitable. I wanted to convey the confusion of looking back on a single moment in time that has such irrevocable consequences, when something as final as death is created by the most tentative, uncertain interactions.

3. Inez Cooper is such a vivid character. You portray her with a fullness and sense of agency that her mother and others around her lack. She stands out for her differences, and total unselfconsciousness compared to her peers. Is this something that I’m assuming as reader (that she doesn’t care) or do you think she’s genuinely uncaring of what others think of her? Can you tell us more about her as a character?

I think Inez is fighting not to care. She grew up around people who cared deeply, about social norms and achievements, about conventions.  Her mother, while ultimately apathetic, still performs the conventions of her role, and in that role dissolves away. She goes about her daily life as she wishes, with knowledge that that agency is truly better than the lack of agency she sees around her.  Inez rejects these norms, sees through them, but cannot help but be pained when she brushes up against them. Often difference and rejection of norms and conventions requires a rejection of routine, of pattern. Even if Inez’s difference is ultimately empowering, it is also painful for her — a little like life is out of joint — to live perpendicular to the stability (both in life and in relationships) that norms and convention taught her to expect.

4. The boyfriend is a shadowy figure in this story. When the reader first clocks the age difference, we feel a sense of foreboding. No good can come of a teenaged girl with a significantly older boyfriend. How did you decide to build tension in this story?

I wanted the threat from the boyfriend to be a slow burn. I wanted the reader to question the initial feeling that the age difference would harm Inez in some way.  Inez has so much agency, seemingly in contrast to those around her, that the reader could be forgiven for stepping back from judgment at her choice of boyfriend. The reader should slowly come to terms with how problematic the boyfriend is, even as the reader learns to appreciate Inez’s own self-awareness, so that when the ultimate crime happens, there is no suggestion that Inez walked blindly into this, or could have prevented it, or should have done anything different. I wanted this to be a story of a strong, intelligent woman who became involved with a man who would eventually kill her, so that, even though the reader sees signs of danger, the reader doesn’t try to make such a sad story make sense, or fit it into a calming pattern by calling Inez stupid or crazy or “lost” or “in a phase”.


5. Can you tell us about Orange Mound and the condemned children’s hospital?  

Orange Mound and the condemned children’s hospital in the story are fictionalized versions of real places in Memphis.  Orange Mound is one of the more impoverished neighborhoods in Memphis, where, like many cities in the South, neighborhoods of poverty and wealth sit in checkerboard squares next to each other. Also like many towns and neighborhoods in the South, it has a storied history of self-reliance and resilience, overshadowed by decades of job loss and physical disrepair. It’s also a physical marker of Memphis’s shame – its long refusal to engage with and revitalize its communities, especially communities of color. I wanted all of Memphis to be present in the story, and I wanted it to be clear that Inez was part of Memphis, all of it.

The condemned children’s hospital is a reference to an old hospital in Memphis that sits on the land owned by the Ornamental Metal Museum just on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi. To get to the Metal Museum, you have to drive through deserted and broken down buildings coming out from downtown, and then (usually) down West Illinois, past the abandoned Marine Hospital. The brick buildings are enormous and beautiful – almost like a castle – but they are surrounded by fence overgrown with ivy and kudzu. They have been abandoned for over 50 years, with signs still standing and lights still hanging, even as the inner walls peel and the wood decays.  (To get a look inside without traveling to Memphis, there are amazing websites with gorgeous pictures, such as this one) It’s harrowing to walk by them on your way to what should be a candy-fluff day of education and ornamental metal – but it’s also a supremely Memphis experience to be able to climb into or through such an old, beautiful building with ghosts standing under every broken light.  This really is Memphis – built on the wreckage of pain and dismemberment, building beauty slowly from abandoned places we can’t help but revisit.

6. Speaking of shadowy figures, your narrator is entirely oblique. Talk to us about the way you structured your story. I like very much that the telling feels like you could be hearing it from a kid in her class. Gossip seems to be a significant currency in this story.

This is a technique I use often when I’m writing about the South – telling a story through the voice of an unknown (or unknowns), who conjectures. The narrator is someone who has a vested interest in the story but is on the outside of the group with all the information. She has to take what pieces she can, what memories she has, to understand. She relies on gossip, and knowing the incompleteness of her knowledge, tries to build in the rest based on what she wishes, or wants, or believes. Perhaps especially when writing about the South, an outsider narrator who relies on gossip and myth and legend seems to me to be the best way to communicate the truth of uncertainty.


7. Is there anything else you would like to share about this piece? If you were to sum it up in a sentence, how would you describe it?

I truly love this piece – it was a personal effort at working through a horrific tragedy at a time when I was leaving the South and trying to understand what I was there, and what I was leaving behind.

In one sentence: It is the story of young woman struggling to understand loss, and to make that loss have meaning.

___

Read Aasiya’s stunning story ‘The Mississippi Pulls You Under’ in Issue 12.

A Space of My Own

The Writers’ Space

“Sadly, the writing life doesn’t always come equipped with an idyllic woodland cabin in which to pen profound prose. For all the authors profiled below, they figured out how to be massively effective no matter the setting. They did the work.” We love this quote from a recent piece profiling the writing spaces of 100+ great writers on The Writing Cooperative by Jared A. Brock.

In this vein, we decided to revisit one of our earliest blog topics – where were some of the stories in our current issue written? The writers’ space is often far over-idealised. In this Issue 12 series we asked three writers to share their own spaces with us. What works for them and why. After all, that what it’s about; work.  Not a Pinterest or Instagram-worthy spot in which you imagine you might write – one day. These three writers wrote great pieces in these spots, submitted them. They did the work. Let’s take a look!

First up is the talented Carly Thomas whose story ‘Dirt’ appears in our current issue. Carly’s story is based on the truth: she owns Nancy’s crazy old house in rural Manawatu, which she inhabits with her three kids, husband and three horses.

A Space of My Own

I am very lucky. I have my very own room just for writing in. When I put down words, I am surrounded by them; there are books on every wall and I hear whispers from the past. This room is old – my study was built in 1884 and I am not the first to have loved it.

The walls are panelled with rimu, the bora plays dot to dot on my desk and I even have a fireplace that spits warmth from logs split small. It is a truly incredible place to be; a wonderful space to create.

 

 

And I know I am lucky, because I haven’t always been. My writing spaces before include: the inside of a wardrobe (as a kid); on the top bunk of a noisy flat in Lyttelton; on the underground commuting to a shitty job in London; and then, when I became a mum, wherever my kids were not.

I write stories that are true for a living and that happens in an office where the light has no ebb and the air has no flow. This room is for the not-true, the fanciful and the lyrical. And it’s a place to hide my posh chocolates from the kids.

 

 

I am very thankful. I now have a room that is just for this; putting one letter in front of the other, making space for the next word and catching them in my backlit screen as they fall. It is a room for dreaming and retreating. It gives the stories in my head a place to breathe.

The carpet is from the fifties and my books are from every era imaginable – Maurice Gee sits next to Agatha Christie and Michael Chabon elbows Sylvia Plath. There are old maps on the walls, there are lists that remind me that if I sit idle they will rebel into long form, and there is tea, always tea.

 

 

What is outside this room matters too. There is a fuchsia bush that threatens to overtake me at any moment; it is Jurassically proportioned and to see beyond it I have to stand, which I do often because I’m not very good at sitting. I check the kids are still alive, pat a horse, a dog, and a cat, all with their differing elevations of comfort. I often find that I write about this house, with its vast, voluptuous garden. I write about the people who might have been, could still be and probably were not.

 

 

And then I make another cup of tea and scoff a soft centred chocolate while no-one is looking. And I begin.

 

Read Carly’s story in our current issue. 

Want to join our Headland family? Submit your work to us for Issue 13! You’ve got until 1 June to share your work (wherever you’ve written it) with us. Get writing, and submitting.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this series next week.

 

Writing Aotearoa

What makes a New Zealand Story, well, feel like a New Zealand Story

“What makes a New Zealand Story, well, feel like a New Zealand Story. Is it setting or style, character or theme? Or something else entirely?” 

This is the question we put to a few of our Issue 11 authors to mull over. First up with her take on this is R.L  Nash. Her story ‘The Porcelain Cat of Bordertown’ is set in Australia, but retains its Kiwi flavour through her New Zealand character, a contractor working long stints away from home. R.L is a Dunedin writer. Her short stories featured in Takahē magazine while she was studying speech and language therapy. She has a novel manuscript looking for a home and is drafting another.  In between bouts of writing, she’s kept busy mothering, working in unglamorous admin, and sewing wonky seams.

Writing Aotearoa

Quite the puzzle and since people have been telling stories in Aotearoa New Zealand in a mixture of ways and forms for a very long time, to attempt an answer I must first narrow my focus. So, in an optimistic bid to keep this meaty topic simple, my context is written NZ stories that are contemporary fiction in English for adults. But I am not good at riddles and my list of ‘to-be-reads’ is always growing. Clearly, I would need advice.

 

 

I started with a quick informal survey of friends, librarians and other random people but after a few strange looks it all played out like some sort of NZ Lit Housie: Have you got: “Isolation”…“Postcolonialism”…“Location”…“Jandals!…“Space – but not as in, like, astronauts” and then: “I have not read one.” Ouch – unhelpful but not untypical.

Well, lesson learnt, I would ask a prolific reader. I’d ask my Mum. I’d be general. I’d ask about the vibe.

“Depressing”, she said

“Charming,” I replied.

“No, not that.”

Bingo, the ever present darkness in all our bright southern light chestnut. Except I read a lot of genre novels written by NZ authors which I’ve enjoyed too much to fully embrace that theory. Then again, there’s an abundance of crime writing and literary fiction from these shores – there’s bound to be stylistic similarities and uniting biting themes beyond the potential mention of custard squares. However, as there are observers and courses a-plenty attempting to sum that up and track social commentary, and since it deserves research, foot-notes and name-checking of people described as eminent, I’ll leave that one alone.

 

 

Location was mentioned (and more than three times) in my survey and it is tempting to say setting is the main marker of a NZ story. It’s a definite contender and can be as broad as our landscapes. Scenic drive scenery, small town dairies, the Auckland CBD at 3am, the way up Bealey Spur, forgotten suburbs – all of that and more. But then does it have to be set in NZ? Survey says: Yes. I’m not so sure.

I identify with the travelling New Zealander and he/she crops up a lot when I write – to the point I’m wondering if it’s high time I confiscated my characters’ passports and made them stay put for a change. Perhaps having a Kiwi abroad character is almost cheating? The nationality they take for granted is suddenly overt, you’ve isolated them and they will think of home, it’s inevitable. My characters are always looking back, one way or another.

But I wonder, does a writer sit down at their desk/kitchen table, crack their knuckles and announce to the curtains/fruit bowl: “And today, I shall write a Neuw Zearlaund story”. I hope not, because I believe whether something feels like a NZ story has far more to do with the reader than the writer, and trying to define what makes a NZ story feel like one is like trying to define a New Zealander. What feels like an authentic NZ story to me might not resonate at all for someone else. Aotearoa New Zealand is a complex, layered nation and our perspectives and stories reflect this. No one reads the same story the same. Luckily, I’m not aware of any rules – if a story feels like a New Zealand one to you then, for you, that’s exactly what it is.

For me, realistic dialogue helps a lot but it really comes down to that moment when I think: I know people like that, or of people like that. I work with them, they’re my whānau, my neighbours. This could be happening/have happened across town or along State Highway 1. When I feel a connection to a place or a piece of history – a flash of recognition of something shared. That’s about now or that’s about here. It’s taken more planning, less whim, but since my resolution to read more New Zealand writers, the novelty hasn’t worn off – whether it’s observations from a new immigrant or someone with history in this soil, from the perspective of two friends struggling to run a Northland café or a pensioner doing the groceries in Timaru, I appreciate these stories more because there’s some little stitch linking them all together, though I’m not entirely sure why.

 

Detail from a dress by Jill Bowie, made from broken CD cases. The dress won the recycled Category in the 2016 Hokonui Fashion Design Awards. Image used with permission of Jill Bowie.

Another question to end with, but an important one I think – if something is thought to be a New Zealand story does that then narrow its appeal? Should we even care if it does? Well this at least I have a firm answer for – No, because you can only ever be yourself, even when you’re trying to tell somebody else’s story. You can never forget where you come from.

**

Read ‘The Porcelain Cat of Bordertown’ and more in our current issue.  Want to become a Headland alum? Submit your work for consideration in Issue 12 by February 9. Check out our guidelines for more information.

 

 

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.

 

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.

What’s in a Name?

Talking about Titles

In our Issue 6 blog series, we’re talking about titles. Do they affect they way you read a story? Are they important to you? Previously, D.A. Hosek shared his thoughts on naming his stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Titles

Now we’re handing over to Emma Sloley, author of ‘The Things They Left Behind’: Emma is a New York-based travel journalist who has written for many US and international publications, including Travel + Leisure, New York, W, Conde Nast Traveler and Harper’s Bazaar Australia, where she was an editor for six years. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and is currently at work on her first novel.

You can read Emma’s story and 11 other works by New Zealand and international authors in Issue 6, available now.

What’s in a Name?

 

When it comes to fiction, everything and nothing. Like most writers, I agonise over titles, because what you name a story is the first interaction readers have with it. A title is a writer’s calling card, a way to get invited in or shut out in the cold by someone pretending not to be home. A great title pulls you in, seduces you, promises you the world. There were surely many complicated and laudable reasons why Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love became a global phenomenon, but that killer title surely had something to do with its curb appeal. (It’s hard to imagine it being as popular had it been called, I don’t know, My Year of Swanning Around Europe and Asia.)

 

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On the other hand, some of my favourite books of all time have strange or not particularly catchy titles. Peter Høeg’s best-selling Danish thriller Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and yet it remains one of my greatest literary influences. The pared-back language; the razor-sharp insights into the human condition; its grappling with themes of cultural isolation, loneliness and the weight of familial baggage—I reread it at least once a year just to try and work out how he does it. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours reveals very little about its subject matter to a casual book browser: there’s no intimation in that simple title of its exquisite intertwined stories of thwarted dreams and the gulf between our inner lives and the outside world, but it’s a book so transcendently wonderful that even if it were called Don’t Bother Reading This I’d still treasure it.

 

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As a young reader I went through an intense John Irving phase, and while his epic, Dickensian tales of family and relationship dysfunction contain multitudes, their titles were always what made them irresistible. Irving famously considers titles crucial: “I have them before I have books that belong to them,” he said in an interview with The Paris Review. It’s not hard to believe. A Prayer for Owen Meany; The Water-Method Man; The Cider House Rules: Irving’s modus operandi is heavily evocative titles that generate curiosity and tease a question—Who is this Owen Meany and why does he need to be prayed for? How does the water method work? What’s a cider house and why does it need rules?—that you simply must have answered.

On a more subtle level, the great Edith Wharton was fond of naming her novels in discreetly ironic ways. The House of Mirth; The Age of Innocence; Summer: such sunny, upbeat titles for stories about decidedly unhappy people constrained by the conventions of society. Jonathan Franzen employs a similar subtlety in naming his doorstopper novels: both The Corrections and Freedom riff on the many variations and definitions of their titular nouns, and it becomes an Easter-egg hunt to find their different meanings throughout the book.

 

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When it comes to my own work there are no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes a title will come to me as if by osmosis, before I’ve even begun writing. Other times I’ll wait until the themes of the story fully reveal themselves before I put a name to it. I’m drawn to titles with dual meanings, literal and metaphorical. The title of my story The Things They Left Behind was suggested both by the childhood of my protagonist’s lover—who grew up above a pawn shop playing with borrowed objects—and his desire as a grown man to live a life free of emotional commitments. (Nothing, least of all naming things, occurs in a vacuum: subconsciously, I was probably inspired by The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War novel, although I had never read it!) The title of the novel I’m currently working on, The Green Zone, refers both to the heavily fortified section of Baghdad used by American military forces during the Iraq War (where the novel’s antagonist, a war reporter, spends a lot of time) and a less tangible notion of safety that the novel’s protagonist seeks.

But in the end titles are just window dressing. Like our grandmothers always assured us when we were going through our awkward teenage years, it’s what’s inside that counts.

 

 

 

 

Two Tūrangawaewae

Exploring Sense of Place – Do We Write What We Know?

In this Issue 4 series, we asked a few of our writers to reflect on whether they write what they know, and share their thoughts on how this applies to setting and sense of place in their stories. Google ‘write what you know’ and a plethora of think pieces and advice articles will come up. To paraphrase, they range from from ‘DON’T – your only limit is your imagination’, to ‘stick to your own range of experiences for authenticity’.

In Seeds of a Story, Jane Percival said “To make it real I have to put myself in the picture and draw from my own experiences.”.  David Morgan O’Connor took us on a trip to his places and their meanings in Names of Place and Sense.  For our final post in this series, Antony Millen, author of‘ The Homeless Men of Mahuika’ talks about his new setting through the lens of his country of birth, and how this informs his writing.

Antony is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand, having shifted from his beloved Nova Scotia to the storied town of Taumarunui in 1997. He has published two novels since 2013, both of which feature settings in the North Island of New Zealand: Redeeming Brother Murriihy and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s). In 2014, he won the Heartland short story competition and was highly commended for his entry in the New Zealand Society of Authors Central Districts competition. His work features realistic, intriguing and even slightly mysterious events in rural, small-town New Zealand. Antony is currently completing his third novel. He also writes reviews and blog posts at antonymillen.wordpress.com

 

Two Tūrangawaewae

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I think a lot about place. I’m an immigrant to New Zealand—an expatriate from Canada although when I think of expats, I think of Ernest Hemingway or Katherine Mansfield in France and it connotes a rejection of homeland which I would never do. However, the concept of homeland is challenged by emigration and immigration. We migrants experience a perpetual duality as we live in two places at once, a sort of bilocation of the mind and spirit. We have two tūrangawaewae—two places to stand—a foot in both camps. Even after eighteen years in New Zealand, I still start sentences with, “A buddy of mine back home…”. I’m aware of how obnoxious it can be, but I am always interpreting my current physical setting through the lens of the former—a life of continual comparisons and contrasts.

 

There is an advantage for a writer in this. You become an astute observer of human behaviour and language. You notice inflections and habits, and others notice them in you. People who live in small towns naturally do this as well, comparing city life with our rural, remote situation. Small towns are my preferred settings, not only because they’re all I’ve ever known, but because these observations are made on a continual basis by their inhabitants, often to convince ourselves of our lifestyle supremacy over that of city-dwellers. “Parking is easier,” we say and, “If you wait for three cars, it’s a traffic jam here.” We note the stars in the sky after returning from a visit under the bigger urban lights and count our blessings we don’t need to listen to traffic as we drift into our provincial slumbers. In Taumarunui, we don’t live in the middle of nowhere, we live in “the middle of everywhere”.

 

So, a writer does write what he knows, but, like the immigrant and the small town observer, he does so by comparing it and contrasting it. I write a story about a mother and daughter fishing the Pungapunga stream in Ngapuke, New Zealand but the river resembles the brook behind my grandparents’ place in Nova Scotia and I draw on memories and feelings from there to communicate familiarity and belonging. If I create a scene around a boy ostracised by his peers, I draw on similar experiences from my youth or from those I’ve witnessed as a teacher, though the circumstances, culture and setting are completely different.

 

In New Zealand, I’ve learned the concept of tangata whenua, a concept our writers here and elsewhere should consider when discussing a sense of place. The famous whakataukī from the Whanganui River area says, Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au—I am the river and the river is me. What does that mean to a Nova Scotian mind? What does it mean to identify with a mountain or a river when you introduce yourself in your whaikōrero? In New Zealand, I have associated myself with Ruapehu or Hikurangi, with the Whanganui and the Pungapunga, for these places have connected with me, surrounding me during my time here. I greet the Whanganui when I arrive alongside it during a bike ride. I acknowledge the presence of imposing trees in Ohinetonga and in other bush walks. In a way, it is not me who has chosen them as significant, but in a form of whāngai it is they who have adopted me, though I am aware of the limited connection and understanding I have compared to those whose ancestors have lived here, inspired and nurtured by them for generations.

 

But, originally, my maunga is Green Hill in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and my awa is that brook behind my grandparents’ house or Middle River whose shores hosted the field upon which I played softball. They bear less exotic names and exist without the grandeur and myth surrounding the Waikato or Taranaki, but it is in coming to this place and learning of tangata whenua that I feel the connection to the maunga and awa of my Canadian childhood. In his song about Taumarunui, my son writes of the Whanganui and Ongarue, “two rivers that melt into one”. That’s me—two homelands melted into one. I believe it’s also symbolic of the multiple iwi who reside here. It is a mystery rivalling the Trinity really and that is a good thing.

 

And that is a good thing for writers who are creating a sense of place. Place, like time, is mysterious. Try and describe the place you are in as you read this and you will find the options for doing so are limitless. Do you list all the objects and colours you see? Do you include elements that will appeal to all five senses? What about the history of the place or the background to how you arrived in it? What about its future? What will it be like when you no longer occupy it or when it is inhabited by another soul? What about the souls who have breathed and loved and raged and created in it before you? What place do they still have in the narrative of your place?

 

In describing place and creating a sense of it for readers, we must be selective and in doing so, I believe we do write what we know, but not always in the obvious sense. It is one thing to set your story in an actual town you’ve lived in, comfortably detailing street names and landmarks, but more often we are selecting aspects of places with which we are familiar for other reasons. Websites and Google Maps are invaluable tools for sourcing details about unfamiliar settings, but that sense of place comes from the author’s familiarity with the atmosphere and significance of another place entirely, from their own experiences or from those they have encountered in books or on screen, comparing and contrasting them. Even the most imaginative world-building must consist of familiarity for the writer and for the reader so they can inhabit the world together—two in one.

Read Antony’s story and more in Issue 4, available on Amazon.

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