Today is the fourth instalment of my series of email conversations with New Zealand short fiction writers.
After chatting with Pip Adam, Tina Makereti and Sue Orr, now it’s Anna Taylor’s turn. Anna did the MA with Sue Orr and I in 2006 and recently won the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for her fantastic collection, Relief (VUP). The judges of the award called Relief, “a powerful collection that has at least one memorable image or sentence on every page”…
CC: Anna, you won the Adam Prize in 2006 for the best manuscript on the IIML's MA in Creative Writing that year. The manuscript was a collection of short stories which morphed into Relief which came out in 2009. Aside from revising the older stories after finishing the MA, you wrote two new stories, 'Relief' and 'In The Wind', which appear in your book. Did you write these stories to fill a specific space, or play a certain role, in the collection? And was your experience of writing these stories different from the ones you wrote while in the workshop environment?
AT: After I finished the MA, everything went quiet for me writing wise. I knew the collection needed more, but I had no idea what. It was my first taste of really grinding to a halt - and I was quite bewildered by that for a while. But I worked on getting the other stories right, and then I wrote ‘Relief’ quite quickly, in the final months before sending the book off to VUP.
‘In the Wind’ was a bit more of a stop-start kind of process - I was slow to find my way with it, but like ‘Relief’ it finally fell into place very close to hand-in time. I needed a partner for the Christmas story, which I guess has got a kind of sardonic, humorous tone, and so ‘In the Wind’ was originally written to provide balance for that one. Both of the newer stories have also got darker undercurrents – ‘In the Wind’ is about death, ‘Relief’ about denial and abuse – and for me that was what was needed for the collection to really drop.
But, yes. It was very slow - two years. The productivity that I experienced during the MA year has never revisited me. Those were certainly the glory days...
CC: It was great to see you recently appear on TVNZ's Good Morning to talk about your book [you can watch Anna here]. I'm not sure how many short story writers have ever sat on that couch — a select few I'll bet. For all the local writers who never make it on TV, there are still events like readings, book festivals and radio interviews, which means there's a definitely performance aspect to being a writer these days. What do you think about this side of being a published author?
AT: Funnily enough, I was talking to someone about this recently – about whether or not authors could get away with completely rejecting the whole public eye thing these days. Maybe if you're Cormac McCarthy you can. But, I don't know, really – of course in so many ways I think we can only feel gratitude for it. I have found the whole media thing quite bemusing at times, though. I’ve been misquoted and misunderstood quite a few times, and this has made me realise that even quotes in a newspaper may not necessarily be true. It has also struck me that often the journalistic angle means that there’s no actual interest in the book itself – there’s been so much focus on my name change, and who my sister is, and sometimes it feels like the book is an almost irrelevant little bit of luggage, bobbing along for the ride.
I get pretty nervous before any kind of public reading, but once I’m up there – and the sensation of my body turning into a balloon, and floating away, has eased off – I do actually love the feeling of reading work aloud. When I write I’m very preoccupied with the music of words and sentences, and I guess the opportunity to read aloud gives me a chance to read the way I imagine things to sound when I write – if that makes sense.
CC: Backtracking a bit, everyone has the ability to tell stories, and it seems every second person is on the verge of sitting down and writing them. But there's a jump you have to make, first of all to sit down and write that first story, and second to commit the time (oh, the time!) to becoming a better writer. When did you first decide to take being a writer seriously? Were there any hallelujah moments along the way when you thought, 'Gee, maybe this isn't complete folly?'
AT: As a kid I was very taken with the thought of being a writer, but when I hit young adulthood, it suddenly felt like a very indulgent thing to want to be – as if admitting it then meant you had to give it a try, and what if it didn’t work at all? I did the Short Fiction paper at the IIML with William Brandt in the last year of my degree, and he was incredibly encouraging – and then I guess getting into the MA was a hallelujah moment, as was winning the Adam Prize. For the latter, the hallelujah was much quieter, and more anxious feeling – the wonder of writing suddenly feeling like it wasn’t complete folly was matched by a deep, lurking sense that it actually WAS, and that pages would disintegrate, turn to ash in my hands, any moment. I think that’s still my feeling now, to an extent. I feel so blessed, but writer’s block and the struggles that accompany it are frequent visitors to me, and so despite the incredible luck I’ve had so far, that crumbling feeling never feels far from the edge.
Do you feel that too? Not that you – Mr 800,000 words in a year – have ever probably suffered from such blockages. It does seem like a cliché – the old writer’s block excuse – but I don’t know how else to describe it. Maybe pencil paralysis? I liked what Pip Adam said about it. Surgeon’s block. It’s lucky I don’t carry a scalpel around with me.
CC: Writers block can mean so many things, can’t it? A lack of ideas, a lack of inspiration, or simply a lack of time to turn ideas and inspiration into successful work. I think every writer suffers from some kind of blockage from time to time, and probably different sorts of blockages as they move through their career. Knock on wood, but I haven’t ever felt short of stories I’d like to write – the challenges for me have been to find the time to write them, and to be able to do the ideas justice. The latter is a matter of practice, so it really boils down to writing as often as I can. Hence setting silly targets like writing a million words in a year.
Now, this is a question that popped up in my recent conversation with Sue Orr, and it is a bit of a mean one. If you could only hold up one short story by another author as the exemplar of what you might hope to achieve in your writing, what would it be?
AT: This IS a bit mean – but what a great thing to be forced to think about it. What’s yours? I’m afraid I can’t get this down to the one flag-waving, first prize winning story, though. You’re lucky there isn’t a list of twenty here…
Elizabeth Strout’s linked collection (or novel in stories, as I think it’s marketed. Funny that – get the word novel in there somewhere, and then it can become a bestseller) Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year, is exquisitely written. The characters are beautifully complex, and there’s lovely humour in there too – so it can be both heartbreakingly poignant, and funny. One of the stories – ‘Incoming Tide’ – has stayed with me particularly, and I go back to it often, just to check if it’s as good as I first thought (it is). It’s bleak but also hopeful – filled with humanity. It feels like it is pure heart.
The other story that springs to mind is Alice Munro’s ‘Dimension’ (which is the opening story from her latest collection.) It is shocking and raw and unwavering in its examination of trauma. There are a couple of scenes in that story that return to me, over and over. In fact, that’s the case for both of these stories, and that’s what we aspire to, I guess, isn’t it – to write something that sets up camp in the back of a reader’s head, and just like an impolite visitor, then refuses to leave.
Can I ask who your overstayers are?
CC: Well, I must say I read ‘Dimension’ online at the New Yorker’s site a while ago, and it stuck with me too. I think the New Yorker isn’t the source of reliably great short stories that it once was (especially now that it insists on parading excerpts of forthcoming novels as short fiction), but every now and then you get a ‘Dimension’. And ‘The Dinner Party’ by Joshua Ferris from 2008 would definitely be one of my overstayers.
I also have a soft spot for stories that aren’t really stories in the traditional sense. Ones where there’s no beginning, middle or end – just one idea. One that keeps popping up in my thoughts at present is ‘Joining The Ishmaelites’ by Owen Marshall, which begins, "True literary achievement depends upon extremes in life; the gathering of emotional and social copy." I sit at my desk at work and wonder if I should be spending my twenties as a sardine fisherman rather than a policy analyst, but then I remember Marshall was a school teacher when he wrote the story and his tongue would have been firmly in his cheek.
But still, I wonder if starting to write in my twenties has short-circuited something. That in a strange way, I might have all the stories I’m liable to tell hidden within me already. Have you ever felt like that?
AT: It’s an interesting one, isn’t it – being a ‘young’ writer. I’ve never thought about the short circuiting thing, but that’s definitely something I can now add to my list of writing worries! I do admire writers who came to it later in life – it feels like you must be bringing so much lived life to the page, when you start writing in your 50s or 60s, like Annie Proulx. But I don’t know – I do feel like I have more stories hidden away, waiting to be told, and I just haven’t got to a place where I’m able (or even know how) to write them yet. Maybe I’m saving those ones for my middle age.
CC: What are you working on at the moment?
AT: I am trying (with the emphasis being on the trying in trying) to write a collection of three linked novellas. I find myself using words like dawdling and stumbling when describing this process – which, I guess, says it all. Perhaps it’s a leap – moving from the safety net of the short story, into something which is longer, needs more of a sense of plot and shape. I have a feeling, though, that this might be just what happens to me: that I run aground, and then have to wait for the tide to come in again. So – I’m waiting. And dawdling. And trying (there’s that word again) not to worry too much about the deadline for the (wonderful) CNZ grant I’ve been given to write this next book.
CC: Three linked novellas – that sounds interesting. I read Carl Shuker’s Three Novellas for a Novel back in 2008, which was a wild ride, but I don’t think I’ve read any other books consisting only of novellas. I’ve read plenty of books that start with a novella and then feature more short stories (like The Turn of the Screw and other stories), and some short story collections that end with a really long one (would you call ‘The Dead’ at the end of Dubliners a novella?). Are there any novella-only books you’re modeling your approach on? Or are you happily blazing your own trail?
AT: There’s a bit of both happening for me, I think. The idea initially came from reading Richard Ford’s collection of novellas – Women with Men. I quite liked the triptych effect of the three long stories sitting alongside each other to form a book. More than anything, though, I think I was just wanting to find a way to move forward with my writing – to try out something new, move out of my comfort zone – and because I had a story that was leaking out of its borders (I’d written it to go in Relief, and then realised that it wasn’t working; maybe needed to be much longer) and wanted to find a way to keep fiddling with that, I decided to try to expand it into a novella and write two more, with a thread running through them, holding them all together.
I read a wonderful quote of Peter Carey’s recently, in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing horribly here, I’m afraid) that the act of writing fiction is the inelegance of doing something that you don’t know how to do. I really liked that. Even if we’re following the blazing trail of some wonderful trail-blazer, we’re still fumbling around in the dark, trying to find our own way. I guess that’s where the anxiety comes from for me – as well as the joy.