Monday, June 18, 2012
All that lofty stuff: a chat with Lawrence Patchett
When it comes to putting the story on the page, I like to get straight into it, without any throat-clearing. I want to grip the reader right from the start, so often I go straight to that crisis or central conflict—not all the time, but often it seems to work out that way.
I admire other writers who can do it all sorts of different ways, like opening with that more subtle and symphonic sort of sound, but still hooking the reader in. You know what I mean? Maybe that’s what Alice Munro does. Or like some of those Owen Marshall stories in The Divided World, or the start of a Richard Ford novel, maybe. I’d love to be able to do that at the start of a story, without losing the reader. Maybe with a bit more practice, eh?
CC: Tell me about it. The path to a finished story is littered with the scrunched balls of failed symphonic openings.
That’s not to say your openings are plain. There are some great, loaded first sentences: “The man bled on the motorway.” “We carried no guns.” “Hazel ran into the bunkhouse with her gun drawn.” Were you conscious of the need to hook your readers in because of the longer-than-normal length of many of these stories? What are some of the differences between a 3,000 word story and a 10,000 word one?
LP: Thanks—yeah, I was definitely aware of that. You have to hook them immediately into a big story, something that will be a good reward for the bigger chunk of reading time and attention. Around this time I remember reading some bedtime stories to my nephew, and I noticed how the best stories took you right into the story’s central problem in the first sentence—and actively, as well. No messing.
One of the big differences with a longer story is that you can push your character so much further—and, in fact, you’re obligated to. There’s no hiding. This means that in a longer story you can’t opt for that reticence you can sometimes get away with in shorter stories—you know, where the character begins to see the massive problem in their lives or themselves, and just backs away from it. That’s what my stories used to do, anyway. In a long story you’ve got to force them to confront it and articulate it and own it, and all that difficult stuff.
Apart from that, I think the joys and frustrations are the same—i.e., it’s bloody hard until you get to about Draft No. 9, and then it gets clearer and easier! Short stories are so cool because you can do all sorts of structures and voices, from a one-page vignette type thing up to a really long adventure yarn, so it can accommodate the rich, big world you sometimes need for historical settings, or a really spare and minimal number. But I do love that idea of pushing a huge story or problem through a small narrative frame, and somehow stories drawn from history lend themselves to that well.
That was one of the joys of it, for me, trying out those different structures and techniques and noises. I remember you saying one time that you like it when short story writers go for diversity and variety, and I’m starting to see what you mean now. I hope I’m not misquoting you there. Certainly that’s one of the things I was struck by in A Man Melting—that versatility and variety.
CC: That certainly sounds like something I would say. I reckon you tick the diversity and variety boxes in your collection. There’s the internal variety — different voices, different times — but I also felt like it was a different kind of New Zealand book. It seems you are interested in a different slice of New Zealand history than the novelists mentioned above. A woman in a flowing dress — the cover image du jour — just wouldn’t work on the front of I Got His Blood on Me. Did you select the particular historical moments or characters in your stories because they weren’t being written about?
CC: I want to ask you now about your story ‘My Brother’s Blood’, which is about a religious order that, among other things, tries to thwart the activities of sealers. I’d never heard of such an order, but it feels utterly convincing within the confines of the story. Is the order your own invention? How different was the approach you took to writing ‘My Brother’s Blood’ to, say, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, which features future Prime Minister Richard Seddon among the gold miners on the West Coast?
LP: Awesome! I love hearing about people’s reactions to that story. Yes, the Order was entirely invented and in fact that story incorporates several big and deliberate anachronisms, setting a religious group that never existed in a town that wasn’t established yet (Bluff). I was trying to see if I could write against the established historical story that we all know of that time—you know, the sealers arrived early and finished off the seals really quickly—and persuade readers that instead a better reality might have existed. It was fun!
In that sense ‘My Brother’s Blood’ was considerably different from the Seddon story, which looked at the early life of Dick Seddon as I imagined someone like him might have been. But in a funny way it was the same approach in both stories, because in both cases you have to just use the authority of story-telling to convince people of the plausibility of those characters and events.
CC: There’s a lot of the present in this collection, of course, though it often rubs shoulders with the past. We have a council clerk confronted by the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves, a retrenched civil servant dealing with a time traveller, and a ‘family historian’ confronting a possible relation. All of these characters seem to lionise the past, to look upon it as a time of greater dignity or higher adventure. An easy sentiment for any desk-bound employee to share. But there’s an interesting scene towards the end of one of the purely historical set-totally-in-the-past stories, ‘A Hesitant Man’, where the narrator, a man who has survived the 1909 wreck of the Penguin talks with one of the men from Terawhiti Station who helped in the rescue efforts. The narrator says he’s an under-clerk in a large office. ‘I thought it would be obvious, out there at the rescue.’ ‘No,’ the other man replies, ‘nothing like that’. I wonder if you could talk a bit about this story and how it relates to the other desk-bound men in your collection?
LP: Wow, that’s a great insight into those characters. I was waffling on earlier about heroism, and this is one of the stories that obsesses over that question of how we can be heroic. It was the anniversary of the Wahine disaster and I was trying to imagine that experience, and how you would react appropriately. I mean, how could you react appropriately? It’s impossible. I wanted a really ordinary, humble guy to have to confront that experience and those questions, and argue them out with himself and someone else.
CC: What can readers expect from you next?
LP: Well, for quite a while I’ve been working on this post-apocalyptic sort of short story about aliens and feral cats and a journey. It’s not finished yet but obviously when it’s done it’ll be a sweeping epic that will capture all of human experience and endeavour, etc etc, and will put an end to all my other stories, etc, etc. So, as you can see, that story’s broken and can’t be fixed, and it will probably end up as compost.
Apart from that, I’d love to work on something bigger but I don’t want to rush it, you know? I think it will be better to wait for the right story to come along.
CC: Well, whatever happens, I hope I get to read your aliens + feral cats + journey story some day. Thanks for taking to time to chat.