This month, we congratulate Jack Cottrell for releasing his new collection, Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories. The conversation begins with Vaughan Rapatahana in our Kōrero Series, with a new story by Jack, and this is followed with a look at Jack’s new (his first!) book.
Jack Remiel Cottrell: My iwi is Ngāti Rangi. I just published my first book, Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories, which is a collection of often very weird short stories. I write in a mixture of genres, speculative, sports, literary, some of each. In the past I’ve written flash fiction novellas and short stories and I tried being a journalist for a while but that didn’t really work out.
JRC: Not a huge amount, because I’m still very much at the beginning of the learning I need to do. I don’t speak any reo, I didn’t grow up learning much about it other than what my aunties told me. I have Māori characters in my stories, and I wrote a story about some of the ways I’ve felt, and been made to feel, ‘not Māori enough’. I think it’s quite common for a lot of rangatahi who never got beyond just doing kapa haka in school and knowing what your awa and maunga are, to feel either they don’t have the right to claim their whakapapa, or that when they do, they’re appropriating the experience. I do think it would be awesome to write about Māori robots though. Maybe that should be my next thing.
JRC: I think that it’s really important, and I also think that I’m a huge hypocrite because I don’t. I want to read more te reo Māori, hear it spoken everywhere – not just because it’s important for the language and for te ao Māori but because I’ll also feel more comfortable using it. I feel it’s important for everyone to attempt it, but I think there’s a hesitancy not just from fear of getting it wrong, but also because of the worry it’ll be seen as tokenism, or ‘wokeness’ or whatever nonsense is circulating around about the use of te reo. I don’t think it’s something that should fall entirely on Māori writers though, Pākehā should feel some burden to incorporate te reo into anything which is explicitly set in Aotearoa.
Jack Remiel Cottrell
Tonight when he runs his tongue over your collarbone you can tell he wishes he could taste the ocean.
In the first few weeks the memory of salt water clung to your skin just like the memory of your voice still echoes in your ears and he told you he was intoxicated, by you, by the sea that marked your skin. But now the taste has faded and he no longer feels the pull to trail his lips from your shoulder to your wrist.
Still you dream of those songs you can no longer sing, and you wake with the dying notes on your lips to find he is no longer sleeping at your side.
That was what drove you to take the bag of salt from the pantry and empty it into your bathwater. Half a kilo which only half dissolved; and as you sat in the cooling water, feeling every grain of salt under your thighs and buttocks, you knew it wasn’t going to work.
You have not gone back to the ocean since you came here, although he tells you it doesn’t worry him. But if you cannot beg him to stay, does it matter that you may not return?
So as he lies sleeping, four fathoms away on the other side of the bed, you make your way to the sea. Without a look back you peel off your shorts and singlet and walk, feet bleeding, into the water.
JRC: Like most things in my writing, I started with fanfiction. Fanfic tends towards longer dramas, but it was also where I also discovered drabbles – stories of exactly 100 words. And I fell in love with the form.
I was never great at multi-chapter epics, because I suck at finishing things, so I embraced the opposite, taking my writing as short as possible. I think my first drabble is on some purged LiveJournal account somewhere, and I will not be resurrecting it, because it is terrible and embarrassing, like most tweenage writing.
It is worth noting I didn’t discover the flash fiction community, and all the amazing writers therein, until about 2017.
JRC: Framing the book through the days of the week is probably the smartest thing I will ever do in my life. I was losing my mind because I couldn’t figure out how to make stories about time travel and magic and heartbreak and rugby all fit together. I didn’t want to jettison the sports bits in particular, but I had over a hundred pieces at that point and I’d spent days organising them on cue cards and colour-coding them according to theme and form and POV, and I’d covered the floor in them, moving them around, and thinking I should just put them in alphabetical order before I had a breakdown. Then, eureka. I had a story which used ‘last Friday’ in the title. Sport happens on Saturdays, and one story was explicitly set on Friday night. I had a bunch of stories with a religious theme. And there it was, I would organise the book based on the days of the week.
I wrote ‘A Week In The Life’ before the eureka, but it was just another list story. It was inspired by the fact someone had broken into my car while I was storing almost all my possessions in it, and grabbed a backpack which only contained coathangers. But when I paired it with the framing device for the anthology, then it got better, and helped make the days of the week less jarring.
JRC:I think the external world has a huge effect on the things I write about. I wrote four out-and-out pandemic stories. Climate change is explored in different ways. The horror of late-stage capitalism.
The thing about the stories being strange, and matching the strange times we live in, is that I’ve always found our times strange. The fact everyone I know carries around a tracking and listening device that they have given corporations access to all the data on, which also has access to the largest collection of information in history is just bizarre. And I do it too! Autonomous vehicles are being tested on public streets using proprietary software, we’re still treating mental illness with Victorian-era methods and there was a nightclub in Wellington themed around Anglo-Indian colonisation which was successful for years. None of this makes sense.
That we’re all living in strange times now just means everyone else gets to have the same day-to-day existential crises as I do.
JRC: Awkwardly. Because the world of my stories is sometimes the real world, though sidestepped. Both the past and the future are me playing ‘what if?’. And when I’ve used a real thing, it’s often simplified to the point a lot of it will be wrong. But if someone collars me about inaccuracies, I can yell ‘It’s not real, it’s fiction’, and then run away.
I wrote about the end of the world because I wanted a story where the apocalypse is not a doomed battle to survive, but a peaceful acceptance that all things come to an end. It’s one of my most hopeful stories, even with the whole end of the world part.
I feel like there’s a lot of zig-zagging through real life. I put my 22-year-old self in one story because I wished it were true, and what is writing but wish fulfilment? I based other ones off my actual life but fudged the details. I straight-up stole events from friends’ lives. I took details from reality and stuck them where they didn’t belong. I probably ended up with a lot more biography in this book than intended because I had to plunder real life for ideas, and also because my life is ridiculous (viz: someone stole a bag of coat hangers from my car).
JRC: The sheer number of stories and the amount of editing required, and having to do that editing all at once. I whittled down the number of stories not just because some were better than others, but because there were a bunch that after two rounds of edits I just could not bear to look at ever again, but they needed more editing to make them work. I still remember the sense of relief I felt when I tore up the notecard card for one story.
JRC: In general, a micro is something I could fit on Twitter, and it’s also something I can’t make better by making it longer. I tend to figure out the quickest and laziest way of making a story work. If it’s just ideas around a theme, particularly if they’re funny, I’ll put it in a list. I wrote a fake news article to be able to write a story that’s all exposition. I made a fake brochure because I couldn’t think of a better way to parody corporate marketing speak.
I think that’s where titles in flash fiction really come into their own. They set the tone for the story, almost give an indication on how you’re supposed to read it.
And I usually follow the ‘rule of funny’ – anything is acceptable so long as it makes the end product more amusing. Most of my more serious stories are conventional.
JRC: I did a lot of work at my family bach during lockdown, because it turns out that it’s much easier to write if you’re not doing it by your bed. And I tend to be inspired on long walks. I think best when I’m moving.
When I write, I sit on the floor, usually up against a couch. I’m not sitting on it, like a normal person who wants to be comfortable, I’m sitting on the floor leaning against it like a weirdo. If a couch is not available, I will accept leaning against the wall, or a bed.
Right now, I’m rediscovering short stories, and writing a novel about a cricket game. It’s been a weird shift from super-short strange stories to literary fiction, and I’m still not sure if it’s working.
About the book
Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson and other very short stories.
There are many messages in this book: Never go drinking using your passport for ID. Make sure to apply lidocaine before ripping out your toenails. Magic might be real, but it never fixes the worst of your problems. Try to fall in love with bastards. You or someone you know may be gayer than previously thought. We’re not going to make it to Mars. A locked psychiatric ward needs more books than a single copy of Jane Eyre. Asking time travellers for advice on your exams is considered cheating. It’s not just human houses that become haunted. The key message is this: Life in the early 21st century is often very strange. So are these stories.
With a crisp insouciance and gliding charm, Jack Cottrell’s fiery, fey, finely-tuned fictions leap from sci-fi to fantasy, comedy to horror, literary realism to romance, and to hybrids of all of these.
Featuring sport, friendship, love, health, family, climate change, artificial intelligence, desire, magic, Greek gods, ghosts, peanut butter, cyber pranks, racial prejudice, and creepy medical advances, his stories play with the allure of the past, the disturbances of our own times, and the dangerous idealism of our future technologies – each one in fewer than 300 words.