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Interview with Graeme Lay

JANUARY 2012

This month, we had the pleasure of talking with writer and editor Graeme Lay. Here’s what he had to say.

On his own writing

FF: You’re a versatile writer. Your repertoire includes travel writing and YA novels, fiction and non-fiction. Do you find inspiration in familiar places, or in sometimes surprising places? And do you find it easy to switch between different genres?

GL: Responding as a travel writer, inspiration comes more from unfamiliar places. I love going to new areas (especially islands), learning about their history and culture, then writing about them. A recent example: the Gambier Islands, which I hadn’t been to before. These are strikingly beautiful, and they also have a fascinating history which I subsequently wrote about. The story was published in the Sunday Star-Times.

I don’t find it at all difficult moving between fiction and non-fiction writing. I just slip into whichever genre happens to be in front of me on my desk at the time. For example, while on Mangareva Island I worked on the manuscript of an historical novel in the morning, then on a travel story about the island in the afternoon.

However it also has to be said that I find writing fiction ten times harder than writing non-fiction. This is because there are totally different thought processes involved. Writing non-fiction is a kind of reportage, whereas writing fiction puts great demands on the imagination.

FF: Whether working as editor or writer, you are always writing about place. Or is it people? Which comes first in your writing? And how does home as place affect your writing, even your travel writing?

GL: Place is very important, but it can never be written about in isolation. Instead it should be used as the setting for, or background against which, significant actions by my characters occur. For example, my young adult novel ‘One Foot Island’ trilogy is set mainly on Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands, but the heart of the narrative is the relationship between Tuaine and Adam. Events are played out against the background of the island setting, which is crucial to the story, but it doesn’t supersede the relationship between the two young people. Similarly, in my adult novel, Alice & Luigi, the nineteenth century settings (Italy, the West Coast, Makara and the Kapiti Coast) needed to be recreated authentically, but it is the developing relationship between Alice and Luigi which is the most important aspect of the novel. Nevertheless, in historical fiction, all the details (e.g. clothing, transport, furniture and so on) have to be convincingly evoked. Those period details are very important in “transporting” the reader credibly to a very different time and place.

On keeping it short

FF: George Orwell famously said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Do you agree or disagree?

GL: Generally, I agree with that statement. The most effective writing communicates well because it’s unadorned and therefore lucid. There’s great beauty in simplicity. That’s why I hate reading the writing of academics, which in most cases is stuffed with polysyllabic words and abstruse jargon. Ghastly stuff. But English being the wonderful language it is, sometimes I find a long word in the dictionary (yes, I browse through the dictionary) which is so perfectly suited to what I’m looking for that I have to use it. Three examples: “rodomontade”, “termagant”, and “tergiversate”. They all say a great deal in a few syllables. Interesting words don’t have to be long, either. “Doxy”, for example, is a great word. But a writer must employ these obscure words with care, otherwise it is just showing off.

FF: You’ve edited the Short Short Stories series in recent years. As an editor of short fiction, what do you look for in a short story? What makes one story stand out from the others? And who are some of your favourite short story writers, Kiwi or otherwise?

GL: It’s not greatly different from what one looks for in a standard length (e.g. 2-3,000 words) short story. I look for an ability to create credible characters and a plausible narrative, preferably one with some meaningful conflict at its heart. The saying “conflict is the essence of drama” also applies to prose fiction. All this is much more difficult when the writer has a maximum of 500 words to work with, but as the “short short” anthologies demonstrate, in the hands of a skilled fiction writer, it’s entirely possible. Anything extraneous to the central event/s must be left out, and the power of suggestion becomes very important. Very short stories must make the reader read between the lines. Take Hemingway’s shortest story as an extreme example i.e. “For sale, baby boots. Never worn.”

The best stories always jump out and grab you. We had many, many submissions for the short short collections, but the publishable ones always rose to the top. Usually they did so because they had an arresting opening sentence, then subsequently held the reader’s attention through engaging characters and original events. As with all fiction, characterisation is the paramount consideration.

FF: As a writer, what’s the most challenging thing about writing short short fiction? What’s the most enjoyable thing about it?

GL: The challenge is to create a story which other people find worth reading, whether for its insights, entertainment value, or humour. Writers always thinks that what they write is brilliant, the trick is to make other people react in the same way. Rewriting is crucial. Because every single word must contribute to the story’s effect, ruthless self- editing is vital. The stories must go through many drafts. Of my own short short stories, The Christening (in Volume 1 of 100 NZ short short stories) and The Mural (Volume 2) seem to me to be the most successful, the first for its sadness, the second for its humour.

The enjoyment comes from responding to the challenge the short short form presents, successfully meeting that challenge, then seeing the finished story in print. Nothing beats that.

On New Zealand

FF: Your collection of works includes so much of the landscape of Aotearoa. One of the books you edited, for example, The New Zealand Book of the Beach (in two volumes), stands out as a particularly Kiwi collection. Tell us, what is essential about the beach in New Zealand? Is it the landscape that inspires you most as a writer? And do you think landscape is central to evoking emotion and finding meaning in New Zealand writing?

GL: Landscape is very important  Zealand writing. Because the background of most of us is rural, the impression of landscape remains strong, even after we have moved to the city. In my case, “seascape” is even more important. Because I grew up beside the sea, it always fascinates me. The coastline is very close to New Zealanders’ sensibilities, because it is omnipresent. The sea is also mysterious, and beautiful. Hence the books of the beach, which I very much enjoyed compiling. And when you think of the best of our fiction writers – Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, Katherine Mansfield, Owen Marshall, Maurice Gee – land and sea are integral to much of their work.

FF: In his judge’s comments for the BNZ Flash Fiction Competition 2011 Graham Beattie said he had noticed a preponderance of morbid themes. Is this tendency towards dark subject matter characteristic of the Kiwi voice?

GL: Yes, the dark element is definitely there. Whether this makes the writing “morbid”, I’m not so sure. For example, Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s fiction is thoroughly dark, but it’s also very funny, so the two elements are not mutually exclusive. Much of human nature is dark, so it’s unsurprising that that’s what inspires writers. If you examine Australian, British or American literature, there’s a great deal of morbidity. Irish writers, for example, often wallow in their own misery. But they too can be very funny.

On collecting and other pastimes

FF: The collections you edit tell the reader a lot about New Zealand’s social, historical and cultural fabric: The NZ Book of the Beach, Boys’ Own Stories, Home, even the photographic journey with Holger Leue, The Magic of New Zealand. Are you a collector beyond stories, or are stories your main means of collecting images of Aotearoa?

GL: Most of those books I was commissioned to write, but I would not have accepted the commissions had the subject matter not been of interest to me. In all cases I became immersed in the subject and relished putting together thematic anthologies, such as “the beach”. And if the collections have added something to New Zealand’s “cultural fabric”, then so much the better.

FF: What are you writing this summer?

GL: I have just completed a long (124,000 word) novel based on the early life of a notable historic figure, so I’m feeling a bit bereft, having kept imaginative company with this amazing person for over a year. But I’ve just been commissioned to compile and edit a collection of the best New Zealand travel writing, so that marks the start of another literary journey. Since I love travel, and I love writing, that’s an intersection I should find interesting. New Zealanders are inveterate travellers.

FF: What are you reading this summer?

GL: I will be reading the new book about the Parker-Hulme murders, by Peter Graham, along with the many travel stories which are contenders for the new travel writing anthology.

And finally…

FF: Care to take a crack at FRONTIERS in 250 words?

GL: Okay, I’ve had a go. Here it is.

Thank you, Graeme Lay, for the interview and short story this month. 

Photography of New Zealand scenes provided by Bernard Heise.

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