Tag: Writing (page 1 of 2)

“They’re All Dead Now”

There, and yet, not

Some reading to start your week off right, from the talented Becky Manawatu from Issue 13. We’re examining how absent characters work in stories, and how writers make them feel real to the reader, despite their non-appearance.

Becky Manawatu talks about the absent character that helps shape her narrative in ‘Abalone’, in our latest issue.

Becky is a reporter for one of the smallest independent daily newspapers in New Zealand, The News, Westport. She gained a Diploma in Writing for Creative Industries from the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and now teaches fiction writing at NMIT part time. She was shortlisted for The 2018 Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency Award in Association with The Spinoff, and has had work published by The Spinoff and NMIT’s literary journal, Kiss Me Hardy. Her novel, Pluck, is to be published by Mākaro Press in May 2019. Her short story published by Headland, ‘Abalone’, was long-listed for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

“They’re All Dead Now”

You’d be hard pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent, or missing person. It is an imitation of life, really, or your coffee cup. Where would your long-black be without that empty space? You wouldn’t chug it, scalding hot, right from the machine. You’d go without.

One of the characters in my story ‘Abalone’ is a dead father. Not necessarily his death, but his no-longer-being-alive helps drive the narrative.

Most of these books in the shelf beside my bed have dead people in them. And hardly any of those dead people would do absolutely anything for anyone.

I wrote ‘Abalone’ directly after reading Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall at your Knees, which begins: ‘They’re all dead now.’

That is the entire first paragraph: ‘They’re all dead now.’

Ok. Great… If they’re all dead, why the fuck should I care, right?

But of course I did. I just had to know why, just had to know how, just had to know where and when.

But most importantly I just had to know who. Who is dead? Because knowing who is dead, is understanding the space that they’ve left behind.

And it is human nature to want to know that space. We might be secretly choosing the song that should be played at our funeral, and we might secretly hope that more than a few people will shed more than a few tears as that song plays, and we do these things partly because we are often denied a chance to understand.

I once took a selfie in the toilet following a funeral. I don’t know why, in fact I am almost embarrassed by myself, and yet here I am sharing it. I’d been sad, and I had cried, and in the bathroom mirror I had wiped away some mascara which had run a little – but then I smiled a little bit, just a little bit, and I went back out and drank a beer and ate some pāua, and doing those things when someone I’d held dear no longer could felt both very heartbreaking and very good – almost luxurious.

I wiped away some mascara and took this selfie in the bathroom after a funeral

We are interested in the space we’ll leave ourselves. This interest compels us to read, write and watch movies, and we are most attracted to those which include both loss and laughter.

Colum McCann wrote in his book of practical and philosophical advice, Letters to a Young Writer: ‘Never forget that art is entertainment. It is your duty to reflect the world, yes, but it is also your duty to bring a bit of brightness to it too.’ As Nietzsche says, we have art, so we shall not die of too much reality.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a novel, story or song that isn’t shaped by a dead, absent or missing person.

Furthermore, you’d be hard pressed to find a successful novel thick with loss and not lightened by a writer’s touch, lightened by humour – even in the tiniest detail, a flicker, a fleeting image.

The deaths of fictional characters, and their grieving survivors, are the most accessible (and abundant), because when real people die, the space they leave is quickly covered, quickly sanitised. It gets filled with words like, as Sunday Star Times Magazine editor Emily Simpson comically mused in a recent editorial, ‘He would have done absolutely anything for anybody,’ or ‘She was happy-go-lucky, bubbly, life of the party,’ and ‘She was so kind, so thoughtful.’ Dead people are most often the very, very best people that the world is so much worse without.

We can be shunned from the space by terms: ‘the investigation is ongoing and the family requests privacy.’ And, yes, that privacy must be respected.

But, it is still another closed door. It is another door that we can’t help but imagine, and wonder what is going on behind it.

Wonder would drive us to madness if it weren’t for fiction. Even if you only watch movies, it is my guess those movies – in fact all the stories that have shaped society- might have saved you from overstepping a line, from knocking on a door you shouldn’t knock on.

I mean, we’d be barbaric without stories. We’d be barbarians driven mad by wonder.

Fiction waits patiently, to answer every question and satiate any curiosity (to an extent) the real world denies us. While real doors shut, art lets us in. To listen to the aching echo, to feel how deep and desolate it might be – to watch a relative acid trip through a funeral, or to see the Happy Birthday song Bella sung for Ricky Baker before she keeled over, as she was hanging out the washing. That’s art. That’s story.

When I wrote ‘Abalone’ I wanted to explore the space a man’s dead father leaves, and exploit the way his mother tries to fill it. Her extravagant over-compensation. The compulsive way she bears down, fills the space with her excessive presence and intrusion, and desperately tries to protect her son from falling into the void his father left.

I wanted to expose that dark space, but as it is stark reality that will kill us before we’re even dead, I hoped to write something to counter it.

In ‘Abalone’ the mother fills and fills and fills the space her son’s dead father left – until the earth literally cracks at their feet.

____

Read Becky’s story ‘Abalone’ in Issue 13.

Current Issue

Writing Black Bird

Extras: Issue 13

Extras is our special feature accompanying each issue, offering insight and a peek behind a story. For lucky Issue 13,  Breton Dukes tells us about the process of writing his story ‘Black Bird‘. If you haven’t read it yet, get thee to our Current Issue page! It’s a good ‘un.

Breton is a Dunedin short story writer. His two collections were both published by VUP.

By Nick-D – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27673722

Breton Dukes: Writing ‘Black Bird’

Last year my family and I travelled to Auckland for a holiday and stayed in Devonport, very near Cheltenham Beach. I like swimming and I’d go down once or twice a day, when the tide was right, with my son Hector. He was about two then. We’d sit in the sand and dig with sticks and then wander the beach, looking at bits of seaweed and plastic.

We live in Dunedin now, but I’ve lived in different parts of the North Island, so the beaches there – pohutukawa, warm water, native birds – are very familiar. I reckon beaches lend themselves to drama: wildlife; things in the water; heat; waves; and people doing personal things – getting changed, sunbathing, screwing – in a public place.

So that was my setting, but what would I write about?

My  last collection of stories was published in 2014. Back then, I thought fiction was easy. I’d published two books, had good reviews, and secured loot from CNZ. So, when thinking of my next project, I thought big. A sprawling novel – my guiding light was Infinite Jest – that would capture this country, that would capture Aotearoa!

Christ.

Not long after I started, Hector was born.  I was working at a shitty government call centre. I’d get up early and write, then help with Hector, then go to work. Quickly the project got out of control; tons of scenes, tons of shifts in point of view, and no coherent story. But no matter, I thought, at the end I’ll pull it together. I got obsessed with word count. I got further and further into my own arse. At one point – having read about pre-historic false-toothed pelicans in one of Hector’s books– I decided to write a prologue set in pre-human times…

Three-quarters finished, I sent it to my publisher. He wasn’t impressed: Did you know that in the first twenty pages there are eighteen scenes and twelve different points of view?

I did, but, well… Isn’t it edgy? Don’t you see the great sweep of the thing?

No.

I did CPR on it for 18 months, but it was gone, living in the stairwell of some inner-city building, slurping meths from a Fanta can.

So, what next? Back to short stories, quick! To save face, to make up for the three years I’d spent on the novel, I’d dash out a new collection. This time staying close to the ground; I’d focus on stay-at-home dads, the relationship stress of new parents, the anxiety, the depression. I wrote ten stories in about six months and shot them off to the publisher…

Too dark, he said. Exhausting to read. Too much the same. No thanks, he said.

He was right. My wife and I found parenting hard. We’d been selfish, ambitious, hedonists. Now we were up before dawn, blending overcooked pumpkin with mince and spinach… We were sleep-deprived and grumpy. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. It was a struggle. My bleak outlook and those struggles were too present in my writing – it was gloomy, repetitive and unpleasant, like being hit around the face with a dirty nappy.

Around this time, Trump came, and I couldn’t look away. I got a subscription to the New York Times so I could follow every flick of his tail. With Trump in power I feared for Hector’s world. I still do. Trump and his toads are finger-fucking the planet… Anyway, Trump got into that failed collection,  not personally, but in the form of overt pessimism and excessive anxiety.

But then things got better. My wife and I grew into parenting. We bid a fond farewell to our old lives. Claude arrived, shining, and – holy shit – we knew what to do! Hector started making jokes, doing duck walks, and dancing to Elton John. Labour won. I didn’t renew my New York Times subscription.

Not long before that Devonport trip, I was talking to a friend who’d been talking to the writer, William Brandt. William had said to this friend that he thought most writers basically repeat the content of their first books – they just get more deft at the writing part. He thought readers liked that, liked the familiarity. In my two failed projects, I’d tried to impose elaborate structures on my work, I’d tried too hard with point of view, and I’d made the stories bleak and unforgiving. On thinking about what William had said, I decided to return to what I knew.

Long ago, I did a degree in Physical Education. The first thirty years of my life were devoted to sport, games, and training. And my first collections reflected this. So, on Cheltenham Beach, I decided three young boys would be playing beach rugby. I like sex in writing, so I had a couple cannoodling. I like humour in writing, so I had Raisin. The fisherman is the dark part of my mind. The protestors are there because of #METOO and what I’d read about those resisting Tump.

I laboured terribly over the ending, but I always like stories that get you into the future a bit, so I had a go at that. Lots of seagulls, no false-toothed pelicans, and, I hope, instead of relentless misery, a lighter, more optimistic read.

 

 

Kehua in the Text

There, and yet not there

For Issue 13 we decided to get a couple our contributing writers to tell us a little about their absent characters. The ones that play a role in the story, are even pivotal to the story, and yet do not appear.

Vaughan Rapatahana kicks things off with some musings about the kehua in his story ‘He pahemo’:  Vaughan is widely published across several genre. His poetry collection, Atonement, was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines in 2016, the same year he won the inaugural Proverse Poetry prize. His most recent collection, ternion, is published by erbacce-press, Liverpool, England. Currently, he is writing a further series of commentaries on Aotearoa NZ poetry, for Jacket 2 (University of Pennsylvania, USA), while he was also included in Best New Zealand Poems, 2017.

 

 

Kehua in the Text

In my short story one of the key characters is never seen, but is a nexus individual because he is a prime influence on the action. A key way to make such invisible characters somehow extant is to describe something about them quite vividly: their habits; their behaviours; or their effects on other individuals in the story, to the extent that they actually influence what happens.

In this particular tale, the character is still around, even though he is never visible. He is a kehua or spirit; someone who does not realise he is dead; someone who still seeks a form of release to depart once and for all. Thus, here, he can be felt as a presence and – more – as a sound. He strongly influences the main character, his ex-wife, even though he is deceased. This is because for us, kehua are in fact existing entities –  they are between worlds, if you will.

For us, it is no surprise that kehua are around; we accept them and attempt to place them at rest. Other characters in this story, because of their cultural belief, also induce their reality – thus the wife’s father and aunt, who both  express the requirement to karakia.  Again, the interface with others brings about the ‘reality’ of a never visible character, a character who is in many ways the ‘main’ protagonist.

 

 

 

 

Read Vaughan’s story and 11 other amazing works in Issue 13.

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.

_____

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.

___

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. 

___

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.

Older posts

© 2019 Headland | Copyright Policy

Website design by Number 6 Labs Ltd ©