The Rocky Outcrop Tour winds up on Saturday 23 March with a special event at St Peter’s Hall in Paekakariki. We’ll be reading with Lynn Jenner, Tina Makereti and Helen Heath in a quick fire Six By Six showcase – six readers each reading for six minutes. Fiction writer Lawrence Patchett will be chairing the event.
To give you a feel for the Six By Six we asked each writer one question. The answers are below.
How do you decide where to truncate a life? In other words, where does a story start and end and what should be in the middle?
Lawrence: For me, a story happens when a character confronts their worst nightmare. That’s a straightforward story, anyway. So it begins with their first glimpse of that approaching nightmare. For a timid, indoor man who can’t swim, this is when he realises his ferry is about to sink in Cook Strait, in winter, at night, in the rain.
In the middle of the story, the problem changes and becomes bigger. I love this part—when the pressure is just piling up, relentlessly, on the protagonist—especially in films. Smash Palace does it so well, I think, through its middle section.
As for the ending, I like EM Forster’s idea of liberating the hero into the limitless ‘ever after’ beyond the story, where the reader can’t bother them anymore. This is especially important when a real historical person is used, I think. I find it uncomfortable when a biographical fiction, for example, ends with a long section nailing the hero to their deathbed. That’s really unfair—a final and total appropriation. I prefer the end of The Master, where we leave Henry James at his most empowered, many novels still ahead of him, lots of healthy life left to live in the privacy of Lamb House.
What has to be done to words found in the world to turn them into a poem?
Ashleigh: Sometimes it’s enough just to take a segment of text out of its original context and place it alone on the page. I think line breaks, and a title, are instrumental in making a poem out of that, in providing some new way of looking at those words. Like looking at them through a new, tiny, bright aperture.
But yes – the choosing of the words is important. When you’re in that strange attentive state, about to write a poem, some words become more significant than others, and you know intuitively that they are the key to the territory you want to explore. They give you the place that you’re going to move around in.
I guess for lots of people it’s debatable whether a found poem is poetry. I always find myself scoffing, ‘ANYTHING CAN BE A POEM. IT’S A POEM IF I SAY IT IS.’ But really, it’s debatable for me too. Maybe a ground rule is, if it feels too much like stealing, it’s not a poem. I like the uncomfortableness of the question ‘is it poetry?’ and I think it’s important to ask it. I like how the question gets into the writing and the writing just goes ahead and calls itself a poem anyway.
What are you thinking about most when you’re writing a poem: sound or sense or form? Or is it something completely different?
Helen: Most of my poems are very much about ‘things’, they’re ideas based. I want them to make sense but sometimes poems need to be slightly nonsensical to convey their true meaning (if that doesn’t sound too much like art school w*nk). I do like pleasing sounds in poetry but I’m probably not the most musical of poets and form comes last for me, at the re-write stage when you look to see what form suits the content or if it is leaning towards a certain form.
I want to quote William Carlos Williams “No ideas but in things” but I’m not sure I even know what this really means? Our ideas are shaped by our language? We can only express our ideas by writing about ‘things’? Either way I like ‘Things’ and I’ve been writing some new poems about people falling in love with ‘Things’.
What is a poem? How do you know you’re writing one?
Lynn: I feel quite ill-suited to answer the question of what is a poem because I do not know and I do not worry about whether my text is a ‘poem’ or something else. In my universe, genres, like ‘poetry’ or ‘fiction’ are not real. There is only writing and contexts. Some contexts require you to write in a certain genre, determined by whatever are the most powerful ideas at that time in that place. I have seen genre referred to as a life form, evolved to meet a certain set of conditions. When the conditions change, the genre either changes or dies.
Because of these rather odd views, and also because I mean no disrespect to poetry or its practitioners and guardians, I usually try to hide from the whole question. However, sometimes this question finds me, and sometimes then it causes me problems, or I cause myself problems by having made texts which are not easily able to be assigned to a genre.
When I am writing I look for ways to say what I want to say well. I want people to find it interesting or moving or to be able to experience whatever the work has at its core. I also want the work to have rhythm and shape on the page and to emphasise certain words or choice of language. I might think about its length or its tone in relation to a particular location or audience. I do not set out to make a poem or not a poem.
Creative writing does not have a government or bosses, or at least not in the same direct way as other work. This is partly what draws me to writing as an activity.
Once you talked about how INVISIBLE RIDER takes place in an almost ‘shadow’ Wellington (I’m not sure if those were the words you used but you talk about how it feels like Wellington but if you tried to follow it round the streets of Wellington you would get lost). Could you talk about place/setting in fiction?
Kirsten: I like the idea of a shadow Wellington! As in the Wellington that lives in our heads, the remembered maps we consult before we drive or bike or run anywhere.
I found people’s reaction to the book really interesting – so many commented on how strong a sense of place it had. This took me by surprise because I never thought about making place an important factor as I wrote. I never mention Wellington, but I do mention a place called ‘the valley’ a few times. It’s so obviously Wellington though, isn’t it? I guess that when Philip looks around (and he is someone who looks around a lot), the narrator describes what he sees. He bikes on the south coast, where I run most days. He works in a suburban shopping mall, which could be any large suburb in Wellington really. The valley where he lives could be my valley or the Hutt Valley. That’s what I mean when I say you couldn’t follow where he goes, because it really is an amalgam of places, stuck together with PVA.
But the most interesting thing to me is how Wellington ended up in the book when I imagined I was writing a vague sub-Wellington. Perhaps place just becomes part of the texture of your writing? It makes me worried for how I would set a book anywhere other than Wellington, it’s obviously so deeply ingrained in me. Perhaps my imagination needs a bit more exercising.
One last thing – I also wonder whether a sense of place depends on the characters in the book? So, in Philip’s case, he’s a watcher who is interested in nature but what if I had a character who hates the outdoors and doesn’t really notice landscape or wind? I’ve only written one book so I don’t know the answer to that yet. My next book that I’m planning is set in a fictional underground cave. But maybe people will say – I know that cave! It’s under Karori!
Some reviewers criticised EVERYTHING WE HOPED FOR saying it was too bleak. I always find this a bit of a weird criticism – because does it mean that if a book is overtly optimistic that it is better? If you could sit down and talk to people who criticise work for being ‘too dark’ what would you say and how might you explain your own work?
Pip: I guess the first thing is that I’m always surprised when people say the stories are dark because I find them really hopeful and often I find them really funny. I have always been touched by stories of ‘the walking wounded’. I have this idea that people do the best they can with what they’ve got and some people just don’t ‘get’ very much. Secondly, I guess you write what you know and I guess I spend a lot of time ‘in the dark’ so to speak. Partly, because that’s the way my life has been but also, perhaps mainly, because I think that is often where I feel most alive and I guess by ‘feel most alive’ I actually mean, that is where I feel most.
For instance, I was at Arohata Women’s Prison the week before Christmas and I watched a woman, she looked like my mum, trying to get a present, it was beautifully wrapped, to her daughter, but you can’t do that. The prison guard was trying to explain and the woman was upset and I thought, this place kind of amplifies everything that is wrong in the world, but in a weird way it amplifies everything that is right in the world. Like, I felt sad because I thought about how prisons reinforce an idea that society doesn’t want to see or hear about or from certain people and a lot of crime, in my experience, just can’t be committed if a person feels a part of a community, but at the same time here is a woman who cares about her friend/daughter/partner unconditionally, who is making an attempt to draw someone else into a family or community even though she won’t be home for Christmas and, also, here is a guard who is doing their job in the most compassionate way possible.
I cried most of the way home after that visit to prison but I’ve also laughed a lot in prison, and got angry and bored and every other colour of emotion. Most of the women I visit are really intelligent and have amazing senses of humour. They read heaps too, and widely and with passion. I’m confused about society a lot of the time. I’m confused about how we treat each other and I guess the place I find it easiest to explore this confusion is in perhaps the more extreme parts of life. I should say, once, I attempted to write a happy story, an optimistic one, full of conventional hope and redemption. I took it to workshop and one of my friends said, ‘This is the most depressing things you’ve ever written.’ So yeah, maybe I better stick with that darkness.
What’s the difference between writing short stories and writing a novel? How does your approach change? Does it?
Tina: One thing I learnt from the PhD workshop group is that for everyone it’s very different, so this is the way it works for me and possibly no one else. Most of the time a short story is complete joy. I start with a sentence or a character or an image, I sit down to write, and I enjoy discovering what comes. I don’t entirely know what the story is going to be, unless I’ve had it in mind for ages and haven’t found the time to write (in which case it continues to develop each time I think of it). Sometimes I get stuck so I go and do other things until a solution presents itself. Sometimes I have to force myself through a patch, but I rarely do that with shorts as the story generates its own energy and I don’t have to wait for long to get the next bit. There is a strong editing phase after the first draft where I think about things like structure and plot more deeply.
Novels are entirely different. I’ve only written one, but I found it to be a much more unwieldy beast. There were bits that flowed and bits that I had to slog through, just so I knew what was actually going to happen next and how. The edits and cuts and rewrites and reorganisations of material were immense. I had to think about structure and plot during the writing, and make notes about what happened to who when, and look at continuity, and figure out how the big picture would look while maintaining attention to the intricacies and nuances. It was definitely worthwhile, and couldn’t have been anything other than a novel, but it was harder work, even chapter by chapter, than a short story collection.
My process for the novel is more like my process for essays than for short stories. I find short stories are the most free and exploratory form. Anna Jackson said that she feels that way about poetry, and it sounded like she approached short stories the way I approach novels, so maybe the form we love best is the one that gives us most joy and freedom of expression.
Lawrence Patchett writes short stories and lives in Wellington. Recent work has appeared in Sport, Hue & Cry, Booknotes, and Nth Degree: New Australian Writing. His first book I Got His Blood on Me (Victoria University Press, 2012) has gained high praise from reviewers. Sarah Laing, in the NZ Listener, describes it as ‘elegant, with a deep sympathy towards the people involved’.
Helen Heath writes poetry and essays, her work has appeared in various journals in NZ, Australia and the US. Her first collection of poetry Graft (Victoria University Press, 2012) was chosen as one of the top 100 books for 2012 by the New Zealand Listener. Her current work focuses on the intersection between people and technology.
Lynn Jenner was awarded the Adam Prize in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2008. Her book Dear Sweet Harry (Auckland University Press, 2010) won the Jessie McKay Best First Book of Poetry prize in 2011. Lynn’s latest work explores the human activity of searching for, documenting and re-constructing what is lost
Tina Makereti’s book of short stories Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa (Huia Books, 2010), won the 2011 Nga Kupu Ora Award for Fiction. She is currently completing a novel that traverses two centuries of Moriori, Māori and Pākehā history and relationships via the story of one family. This year, Tina will be Curator-at-Large at the New Zealand Film Archive, Ngā Kaitiaki o Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua.