Monday, June 18, 2012

All that lofty stuff: a chat with Lawrence Patchett

I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier StoriesLawrence Patchett’s debut short story collection, I Got His Blood on Me, was launched earlier this month. I first came across Lawrence’s writing when he won the ‘over 10,000 words’ category of The Long and the Short of It competition in 2011. His winning story, ‘The Road to Tokomairiro’, is in this collection, along with eleven other stories that feature ghosts, shipwrecks, big game fishing and kicking a ball around at the park. Laurence Fearnley sums it up pretty well on the back cover when she calls it, “a rugged and haunting collection”.

Over the past few days I’ve been firing questions to Lawrence via email and he has graciously responded.

The following conversation is the sixth in my occasional series of chats with newish Kiwi short story writers (see also: Tina MakeretiPip AdamSue OrrAnna Taylor and Breton Dukes).


CC: A lot of your stories begin – on the page at least – with plot. In the title story, which opens the collection, the narrator finds an injured man on the side of the road with a musket and other items that suggest he might be from another time. In the following story, ‘The Pathway’, we learn in the first paragraph that a missionary has drowned while trying to cross a river on horseback. When you start a new story, do you start with these events in mind, or is the starting point somewhere else?

LP: I like your distinction between the story on the page, and the real beginning of the project, way back at draft zero. There’s a big distance between those two points! At the real beginning, when I’m first working on a story, it always starts with character, someone who’s been suggested to me by a real person in a historical book or photograph or whatever, or someone completely invented. Often it’s a mixture of the two. That character lives with me for a bit before I can find an incident—a bloody crisis, most likely!—that will push them into some pretty extreme stress.

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.

The LarnachsCC: It seems as if the New Zealand novel has become obsessed with the past in recent years. As The Earth Turns Silver, The Larnachs, Wulf, Rangatira, The Open World, The Parihaka Woman — they’ve all had their own successes. In terms of historical short stories, however, it’s been slimmer pickings. Apart from a cluster of stories in Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble With Fire, I can’t think of any other recent collections that tackle New Zealand history. What are some of the joys and frustrations of writing historical short stories?

The Trouble With FireLP: I think I can answer this question by saying that I don’t really think of them as historical short stories, because that’s a direct route to a whole lot of frustrations! I try to think of them more as stories that interact with the past, or ask questions about it, or something. Otherwise I get all tangled up in the historical stuff—what are my rights here, what would this real person think about their portrayal, etc. I try to break those reader expectations about the ‘historical’ element right away. That’s why there are all those ghosts and out-of-time experiences and holograms and stuff—they’re partly about disrupting that idea of a transparent window on to the past. Sorry to get all stuffy about a categorisation thing, but I think it’s a way of answering the question, because if you set out to write a historical short story I reckon you’re going to run into trouble, whereas if you just try to write a story to explore something that interests you, it will go better. That’s the way it works for me anyway!

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?

LP: Ha! Yes, it’s hard to imagine that on the cover of this book. In terms of the subject matter, I think I just went to what interested me. I was really keen on adventure stories and frontier stories when I was young, so I was trying to capture some of the feel of that gripping adventure yarn, but making it go a bit deeper in terms of character. I’ve always been right into New Zealand history, and around the time of the stories I was thinking about the way we use it—and misuse it!—and I think that comes through in the book. But all your preoccupations get in there, eh—what I mean is, all these characters have to think about my ideas on sport, and heroism, and families, as well as all that lofty stuff.

WulfWhat you said earlier about the growth in historical fiction is really interesting. I’ve read two of the novels you mention, Wulf and Rangatira, and I absolutely loved them. Obviously the techniques and scope are different, but I think that in one way those books are doing something similar. Wulf especially seemed to raise heaps of questions about our fascination with the stories and people of the past, and how we make them up and reshape them and use them. Great books.

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.

In terms of the other desk-bound men, I think you put your finger right on it—it’s looking again at how we devour the stories and people of the past and get all possessive about them, and make them mean what we want them to, according to the demands of our lives now. I was just trying to play around with that a bit, and with other ideas of appropriation, plus I wanted to think about the recession and the nastiness that enabled to happen in people’s lives. Of course, redundancy is another kind of a crisis that characters have to react and adapt to, and that brings in the aspect of heroism and endurance again, I guess, or maybe just rage and confusion—I don’t know!

You Think That's Bad: StoriesCC: At your book launch, Fergus Barrowman claimed the credit for introducing you to the American short story writer Jim Shepard. I’ve only read his 2011 collection, You Think That’s Bad, (which you’ve written about on your blog), but I can see some connections. Even in a story like ‘Minotaur’, which is about a man who works on top secret military technologies — so it’s very contemporary, a long way from muskets and six-shooters — there are those elements of masculinity, danger and murkiness (his friend has gone even deeper underground and can’t be reached). Do you have a favourite Shepard collection? Any other writers that you reckon people interested in short stories should read?

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesLP: Yeah, I owe Fergus for that one! I think I’d go for Love and Hydrogen, for the sheer variety and chutzpah, with Like You’d Understand Anyway a close second. Shepard is so great because he can write a deeply entertaining story about anything at all: Cuban baseball, mountaineering, female gun maniacs, and (especially) male despair. Plus he’s got a great moustache.

Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedOtherwise, my reading veers all over the place at the moment, from kids’ adventure stories right through to speculative stuff, but around this time I do remember that I was reading Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower and Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace. Both writers were recommended to me by Pip Adam, who has the best reading tips. And they range all over the place, too, in terms of their subject matter, with Viking raids and LBJ and crazy rural types. It’s like someone has said to those guys ‘I bet you couldn’t write a story about XYZ’ and they’ve gone ‘Screw you—watch this!’ I love that.

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.

No comments: