Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Second Helping: a conversation with Sue Orr

Today is the third instalment of my series of email conversations with New Zealand short fiction writers.  This time, Sue Orr steps into the spotlight…

Full disclosure: Sue Orr and I did our MA in Creative Writing together at the IIML in 2006. The manuscript she worked on that year was a book of short stories, which, with a few additions, was published in 2008 as Etiquette For A Dinner Party (Vintage, Random House). 

Caren Wilton, in the NZ Listener, wrote of Sue’s first book, ‘These stories are intriguing, sharp-eyed explorations of gaps and misunderstandings between people, and gaps between hopes or expectations and reality, with some nicely black twists and turns thrown in.’ And Nicky Pellegrino had this to say in the Herald on Sunday: ‘If you only have time for one new local writer in your life then make sure it is Sue Orr.’  Interested readers can find out more at Sue’s page on the NZ Book Council’s website.


CC: Sue, it's been about two years since Etiquette For A Dinner Party came out. Has the time flown, or does it feel like an age? When you think of your collection now, what pops into your head?

SO: It does feel as though a long time has passed since Etiquette, probably because I’d already started research for my next book by the time that one was published.

Now, when I think about Etiquette, the words “earnest” and “download” come to mind. It was very much a first book – a product of a very intensive period of novice writing and full of a life-time of observations about people and places. It’s a bit of a pot pourri of style, I was still discovering and experimenting with different voices and techniques.

CC: I think you’re being too modest. To me, a collection which is a pot pourri of styles is far better than umpteen exquisite rehashes of the same thing. But I totally understand the process of divorcing yourself from one book in order to launch into another.

I've seen a few stories that will no doubt slot into your next book and think they're fantastic. Maybe you could describe for readers the project you've been working on?

SO: Thanks. The current project is another book of stories; these ones are themed. I’ve taken a look at the emergence of the modern short story across different countries and cultures, identifying ten stories that hold their own today. Most of them are from the 19th or very early 20th century, although a couple go further back than that.

In response to those stories, I’ve written ten new stories. Each of them tips its hat in some way to one of the originals. They’re not re-writes, more homages to the unique qualities that made the original stories special, perennial.

My criteria for the new stories was that they had to work on two levels – as well as saluting a masterpiece, each had to be self-contained, stand on its own. Knowledge of the originals is not necessary to read them – however, one of the purposes of the collection is to encourage readers to seek out the masterpieces at the heart of the book.

CC: Did your publisher take some convincing to let you stick to short stories for your second book rather than 'do' a novel — the conventional wisdom being that novels sell better than story collections? Is it too cheeky to ask what sort of arguments you used to support your case for short fiction? 

SO: Haha! I was very lucky – and incredibly grateful – to have support from Random House for this book. I met with my editor and discussed the concept – by that time I had a clear idea about the scope of the project. You’d have to ask them why they said yes but possibly it helped that two stories in Etiquette – ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ and ‘The Death of Mrs Harrison’ ­­- were examples of what I wanted to achieve in the second book. ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ was an homage to a Sargeson story, ‘An Affair of the Heart’ and ‘The Death of Mrs Harrison ‘was, in part, a response to Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’.

CC: Speaking of second books of short stories, there've been a few Kiwi writers who've released two story collections in a row in recent years. Charlotte Grimshaw and Alice Tawhai come to mind. The second collection always seems to do pretty well.  I'm curious about what's different this time around for you. Obviously this second collection has a kind of governing principle, but have you changed how you approach an individual story as a discrete piece of writing?

SO: This time round, the writing is a lot more considered, if that’s the right word. It took me a week, on average, to write a first draft of a story for Etiquette but the new stories have each taken at least a month, usually two.

One of the challenges of writing these new stories has been making sure they develop organically – that they earn their existence, that they’re not contrived or manipulated to meet the criteria of connection to the originals. In the end, the best way of achieving this was reading enormous numbers of old short stories constantly, and then doing nothing. This is a really frightening, stress-inducing method of writing a book. But eventually, the really special classics found their echoes in the stories I wanted to write.

CC: This may be an impossible question to answer, but you’ve led me there with this talk of classics and masterpieces: 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?

SO: You’re right, it is an impossible question to answer. You love different stories for different reasons. But it’s hard to go past Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant [CC: interested readers can find an English version online here] for the depth of emotion it provokes in the reader. Well, this reader anyway. The perils of self-deceit and the potential for cruelty in all of us are exposed in a brutal, devastating way.

CC: You know what, I hadn’t read that story until you mentioned it. So thanks. It’s definitely one of the best long short stories (10,000+ words) I’ve read. Writers thinking about entering the new ‘The Long and the Short of it’ competition run by Unity Books (specifically the ‘Long’ section) would do well to study the way Maupassant paces and layers a story.

Continuing with the French theme, I know that you spent several years living in France and you've used this experience at least once in your fiction ('The Hangi' in Etiquette describes the experience of a Kiwi couple who attempt to put on a hangi for their French friends). But I wonder in what other ways your time in France — not only away from New Zealand but surrounded by another language — has influenced your writing?

SO: We lived in France for four years in the mid-90s and had two of our three children there. The actual detail of living there – the anecdotes that can grow into short stories – is fading now, I can’t imagine writing another ‘The Hangi’ for example.

But any significant period in another country sharpens your perception of difference and your self-awareness, as well as awareness of the idiosyncrasies of your own culture. I don’t think writers lose that edge – I’ve noticed it in your own book Craig, the terrific cultural friction that you’ve mined from your recent travels.

Certainly, the gaps in understanding between people are ripe territory for writing. The other aspect is actual language – the importance of words chosen, the importance of silence between words. Living in another country, speaking another language for long enough for it to become the language you dream in, these experiences all help you empathise with, rather than judge, your characters.

CC: You’ve been through the process of writing a book, having it published, promoting it and receiving reviews, and now you’re in the first part of your next revolution.  What do you find the scariest part about being a writer?

SO: I’d have to say the review process. It’s one thing to write a book. It’s another thing to suddenly realise that people might read it. The next step – a publicly-aired review – is truly terrifying. You get to the end of the review period relatively undamaged emotionally, and vow you will never walk that tightrope again. Then you start thinking about an idea…

CC: Well, I hope you continue to walk that tightrope (and remain ‘relatively undamaged’) for years to come.


Luna said...

Really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks Craig.

Discussions about Sue Orr's second book of stories reminded me of Lloyd Jone's Mr Pip. Just wondering if this is a matter of great minds thinking alike?

Commenting on her first book, Sue says: "I was still discovering and experimenting with different voices and techniques."

Is there a time when an author stops discovering and experimenting?

Another question I feel like asking all short story writers is - when do you know you are finished with a story?

Craig Cliff said...

These days a story is finished for me when it is published. I tell myself I'm not allowed to play around with it any more and move on.

Of course, before I started getting things published, it was harder to tell when to keep working at and revising a story and when to jettison a lost cause and focus on something else. Back then, I'd show my work to other people. If I was embarrassed about even showing them, then the story definitely wasn't ready. If I showed it to someone, I could usually tell straight away from their reaction if there was still work to do.