Friday, November 4, 2011

A place I have been and know well: an interview with Breton Dukes

Bird North and Other StoriesBreton Dukes’ first book, Bird North (Victoria University Press), is a collection of seventeen short stories. The blurb on the back cover isn't shy about promoting the maleness of the collection: “Breton Dukes stands in the great tradition of New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall—who have looked at men’s lives.” There are several other interesting things going on in these stories, so I thought it was about time to add to my series of published email conversations with Kiwi short story writers (click these links for interviews with Pip Adam, Tina Makereti, Sue Orr and Anna Taylor).

But now, time to talk to Breton...

CC: There are a few common strands I see running through your collection, one of them being a preponderance of male leads, but there’s also a starkness to the stories, one that is perfectly matched by their stripped down style. All but three stories are narrated in the third person, readers are granted little access to the thoughts of characters and small things like the repeated use of a character’s names instead of a pronoun create a distancing effect. Was this a style that came naturally to you, or did it evolve out of the stories you were trying to tell?

BD: I've always written in a stripped down style. I started reading Hemingway and Carver pretty early on, so I guess that's where it comes from. I try and make my descriptions as clear as possible. Same with dialogue. And as you say I think that style fits with the tone of my stories, and with the way my characters would think and speak. There are a lot of action scenes in the book and I think they benefit from being stripped down. The stories I wrote a bit later on (and what I am writing now) contain a little more poetic stuff, but it doesn't come easily to me.

During my MA I experimented with a few different points of view and always seemed to find that my stories worked best in the third person. I like having that distance from character and events and then being able to dip in and out of a character's mind. I never feel comfortable writing in the first person. I get squeamish and claustrophobic - I always doubt what it is I am saying.

CC: In his Listener review, Sam Finnemore described Bird North as, “Confident, nuanced and unselfconsciously local”. Was it a conscious decision to set stories in recognizable New Zealand places like Te Anau, the Coromandel, the East Coast, Dunedin and Johnsonville, or was this more a case of writing what you know? How important is place in your writing?

BD: When I write a story I have a very clear picture of where the events are taking place. I can't write without that picture. I have to have a house or a beach, or a street in my head. A place I have been and know well. The characters can be pliable and the events too, but not place. So yeah, it's definitely a case of writing what I know. 

I figure if I am using a place like Tunnel Beach or Johnsonville as the setting, why not name it? It would seem strange to me not too. And I've always got a real kick out of seeing 'New Zealand' in movies and on telly. Maybe that has something to do with all the local stuff too.

CC: I know what you’re saying about seeing ‘New Zealand’ in movies and TV. Even if it’s just an episode of America’s Next Top Model or The Amazing Race, it’s hard to resist seeing what these unreal reality TV people think of our country. But it’s nice afterwards to watch something made locally, or dive into a book by a Kiwi author, and get something that breaks through the surface.

I’m interested in your endings. A story will often have a concluding chunk that jumps ahead in time, switches perspective or voice. Characters suddenly have children, cows fall from clifftop paddocks, pods of dolphins strand on beaches.  ‘Maniatoto’, a story set in the present day, concludes with a paragraph about the miners in that region one hundred and forty years earlier. The reviewer in North and South said something to the effect that there’s a fine line between illumination and non-sequitur, but even if some endings are more inscrutable than others, I think they all succeed in prompting the reader to reconsider what has come before it. Was this type of ending inspired by a particular writer or story you’ve read, or was it something you arrived at organically?

All Aunt Hagar's ChildrenBD: I can't be exactly sure where those endings come from. I read a book of stories by Edward P Jones (All Aunt Hagar's Children) when I was doing the MA. It had a big effect on me. There were often great shifts in time and in place. Alice Munro goes for that sort of thing too and I have read a fair bit of her stuff. Sometimes, like with the falling cow, I started writing the story having that as something that would happen, and in the writing of it, it seemed to fit best at the end. Regards the dolphin thing: I was thinking about working in the big city and the big city being so close to the harbour and the dolphins I had once seen in Wellington harbour... I don't know really. I like endings that really open things up. It's that freedom about writing that keeps me going though. 

Also what I think I was aiming to do with some of those endings, 'Maniatoto' especially, was suggest the vastness of the world. Sounds grand eh?! But I remember a Denis Johnson story, it had three guys in a car, one dying in the back seat, and they were driving this road and then there is this line which refers to their geographic location and how thousands of years earlier the valley they are driving was formed by glaciers receding. Or something like that. It lifts you out of the tightness of the short story world and makes a great sweep. In a few short pages you feel like you are really seeing something. 

CC: Have you always been drawn to short stories? Were there any writers in the early days that, when you look back now, got you hooked into fiction?

Always. Hemingway got me going I think. I liked the content of his stories. When I was very young I used to like Wilbur Smith books and the Willard Price series – South Seas Adventure, Antarctic Adventure. Roger and Hal I think the chaps names were. Ray Carver was very important too. I liked the suburban aspect of his writing.

CC: One of my favourite stories in Bird North, ‘Racquet’, starts off discussing the alterations a couple has made to their backyard. I’ll admit when I started the story I thought, I hope this gets more interesting. I only really appreciated the relevance of the opening when I reached the final scene, where the drunk husband is hiding from his wife in the backyard. I finished the story and went right back to the beginning and read it again. Do you think readers need to take a second pass with these stories to get their full effect?

BD: I guess some of the vagueness in my writing does often necessitate a second reading. I frequently have no idea where a story is going when I start. ‘Racquet’ was a good example. It initially ended with the prostitute going down on Leighton, but people told me that didn't quite cut it, so I kept writing. 

I often read a story twice. I think that is okay, even desirable. A good one should have plenty going on, plenty for the reader to think through.

CC: Yeah, I agree. As a reader, I like that sense that the writer is trusting you to work some things out. As a writer, it’s about finding that balance between giving the reader work to do and shirking work you should be doing, eh?

BD: Yeah, and I have been guilty of shirking in the past. That criticism in North and South got to me a little – because I agreed with some of what the reviewer said. I do worry my work is too bleak and that the stories have no purpose. But then, even if I don’t always get it right, I feel I am on the right track, that my method of storytelling is valid and interesting.

CC: You’ve spoken about your desire to avoid clichés and male stereotypes in these stories (like in this Radio NZ interview). When the reviewer, Nicholas Reid, wrote about your collection on his blog, Reid’s Reader, you posted a comment listing the nine inaccuracies in his review.  In subsequent comments it seems you and Nicholas agree to disagree on the importance of these smaller details. Why is it important that you to steer clear of ‘grotty student flats’ and ‘cheap motels’ in your stories?

BD: Ha! My first ever review. I couldn't stop myself from replying to that one. I actually really liked the review - he was complimentary about my writing, but hated the content. I didn't mind that at all. It's my first book and what I feared most was people pointing and laughing and saying, "You write like a child!" Anyway, I think in the mistakes he made and in his language, 'grotty flats' etc I felt my writing was being pigeon holed as a certain kind of fiction: bleak crap that trades in shock and testosterone. I don't like stories where characters fit into the stereotype of drug user or whatever. What I like most about my stories is the humour, unpredictability and their openness. What he wrote seemed to be squashing that stuff, so I had to speak out!

CC: Good on you. I know of a few writers who got a vicarious thrill from that wee exchange (me included). How’ve you found the rest of the post-publication world?

BD: Very strange. A friend sent me this by AL Kennedy: it sums it up for me. 

CC: What next for Breton Dukes the writer?

BD: At the moment, thanks to Creative NZ, I am working on a second collection of stories. Fairly similar to Bird North, but I am hoping to write some stories that are longer and have stronger plot lines.

CC: I look forward to reading them.  Thanks for the chat, Breton.

You can read Breton's story, 'Johnsonville', here.

For more info on Bird North, check out VUP's website.

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