Waiheke author Alex Stone on his new collection of stories, and the furious response one of them provoked at a writer’s group.
After the usual shuffling of half a dozen bums settling on hard seats, the community hall goes quiet with expectation. A small writers’ group on our island home is ready to hear me read my story. The empty space of un-used air around us, and the dead flies on the window sills only serve to remind me this could be a bigger audience.
They’re mostly people I don’t recognise, even in our compact community. One of our island’s maladies is that it allows, some say welcomes, endless incomings of artists (of all disciplines) about to discover themselves. It’s the Waiheke way. Was. Well sort of, until it all started changing.
Anyway, this is fine. Dead flies and all. At least I have attention. So I start reading. Things go smoothly for a while.
Except for this one person.
I become aware he’s sitting glowering in the corner as I’m reading.
Perhaps I’m making a hash of it. The story is in the first person, and my central character and narrator is a spoiled brat 16-year-old girl who lives in Parnell, who’s father just happens to be famous.
The opening lines: “My father is the prime minister. So what? He’s still a jerk. I won’t show him my tattoo.”
My one grumpy person in the group crosses his arms. His shoulders stiffen. He squirms in his seat. Looks determinedly at the floor. It’s a glare that could strip paint. Or, perhaps, obliterate tattoos.
Perhaps I have offended a key person? Have we crossed a line of political acceptance? Or have I simply strayed into personally uncomfortable territory?
Our man’s demeanour deteriorates. Perhaps he’s just jealous I surmise, cockily, so many tragics in writers’ groups are. I carry on reading, in my best spoiled-brat teenage girl voice.
Halfway through my story, he explodes. “You’re just a fucking racist!” he shouts.
Chairs clatter as he blunders out of the room.
An uncomfortably long silence ensues. We are all aware of the muted distant sounds of the world outside. Those fading-away footfalls. That car door slamming. That hesitant tui, trying to say something, and forgetting its lines. Perhaps I should have just kept on reading, with nary skipping a beat. Perhaps I should have kept my own lines in train.
The outside world, unhelpfully, goes quiet too. In the silence that follows, another more meek member of the writers’ group volunteers: “It’s just a character.”
Another completes the thought. “He’s mixing things up. You and the character.”
The convener tries to be helpful. “It’s a compliment, really. Why don’t you carry on?”
So I do.
At the finish, one helpful person in the group says, “Thank you. I really wanted to know what happened in the end.”
That particular short story, Testing, as the story is known, won a New Zealand literary competition. The judge, then the poet laureate, surprisingly, liked it. From what I had read of her poetry, I would have thought my brash character wouldn’t have been her cup of tea. Thanks goodness she did not think character and writer were one and the same.
Others were not so generous. Radio New Zealand rejected it for a wider reading. It’s implausible, they said. I said it’s fiction. And what’s ordinary and expected, shouldn’t be. We like being transported, I said, even into unlikely places. They didn’t buy my argument. So Testing was never tested on the airwaves of the nation.
Later, a literary luminary who had recently judged the national book awards took a look at it as part of a wider assessment of a collection of my stories. Generally he was very positive. He said he couldn’t really offer directed critique, because the quality, overall, was very high.
But of Testing, he was merciless. Scathing. A heap of shallow stereotyping, he said…
I keep writing. Fame eludes, as it does many writers. We beat on, boats against, etc. Waiting for that magic elixir of someone else’s subjective approval. Good luck to us.
At least I have had it in small dribbles. Just enough, perhaps, to keep hope alive. I’ve been short-listed or won eight New Zealand shorty story contests. But still, you don’t know my name.
It may have been easier if that manuscript assessor had said to me this is crap mate, really bad, just give it up. Or words to that effect. As I know he had done to another unknown writer I know. That was hard for her. But she did keep at it. We’re a desperate lot.
And you rage a bit along the way. You read a blockbuster novel, so to witness how that wildly successful author gets it right. And you’re horrified, drawn in helplessly, by the endless litany of cliché. It becomes almost an obsessive entrapment, anticipating how bad the next one can be. So you read on anyway. Maybe that’s the trick to writing. Get people to keep reading. Maybe reading is a visceral activity, in a way. Stories need their recognisable elements. And cliché are among them.
I’ve just launched a book of short stories, jesus of the credit cards. My favourite line from the title story is, “We go into the desert with supplies of powdered water.”
Perhaps it’s an apt metaphor for the writer’s journey. You head off into an uncertain landscape, you advance hesitantly, provisioned with the most fragile, the most impractical, the most absurd of dreams. But you do it anyway.
jesus of the credit cards by Alex Stone (Allays Books, $20), described by author Bruce Ansley as “intriguing, beautifully-crafted, moving and poetic”, is available from Lulu online.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.