In a shameless piece of self promotion, Tina and I will be appearing in conversation with David Geary as part of the IIML’s Writers on Mondays at Te Papa. Our session, ‘First Fictions’, is 12.15-1.15pm, Monday 16 August.
As part of my goal of promoting Kiwi short fiction, and to get to know Tina a bit better, I asked her a few questions via email.
CC: ‘Skin and Bones’ is a fantastic story — I can't imagine the collection starting any other way. Was it always your first choice to open the collection? And what led you to write this story in the first place?
TM: Thanks so much! The only reason it's first is because I couldn't imagine it being anywhere else either. Somehow I ended up with creation at the beginning and death at the end (well, death as well as birth), but that symmetry wasn't apparent until quite late in the development of things. To tell the truth, I think I would have hidden ‘Skin and Bones’ in the middle somewhere because of the 'adult' themes, but it didn't make sense anywhere else.
An MA classmate, Charis Boos, was looking at mythology in her poetry, and for a workshop she asked us to think about mythological traditions we were familiar with. This triggered a bit of a chain reaction for me - an old obsession with mythologies combined with some sort of idea that it would be an interesting exercise to make mythological characters more human. There's not always an explanation given for the actions of godly beings. In the versions I read, it would always say: Tane went in search of the female element or something similar (they were Maori stories in translation). There was never anything about Hine ahu one, the woman he eventually created - it was like she was a blank slate. So I thought about what kind of woman she would have been, and of course, his motivations in creating her. The funny thing was in some of the stories, Tane didn't know how to procreate with Hine once she was made, so his fumbling and experimenting is part of the story. That's a pretty human characteristic - I guess I used it as my starting point.
CC: ‘Blink’ is an interesting story. I enjoyed the way it veers into almost pulp sci-fi territory, but manages to walk that fine line and keep its credibility. It is, in the end I think, a great character study which uses some sci-fi tropes, rather than a sci-fi story which uses characters.
TM: Yes, I think it started with thoughts around relationships and paranoia. Rosie is a pretty neurotic character, and I started playing with her sense of reality. I was also having a go at deliberate humour, which I found a massive challenge, but the feedback I got was to amp up the strange and humorous aspects. So I decided to take it as far as I could. It is probably the most re-written story in the collection, whereas ‘Skin and Bones’ has changed very little from the first draft.
CC: I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see science (both pure science and sci-fi) pop up since you won the Non-Fiction category in last year's Manhire Science Writing Prize for ‘Twitch’, which looks at the similarities between Maori and scientific views of creation. Which came first: ‘Blink’ or ‘Twitch’? Were you conscious of any link between sci-fi and Maori mythology when you were working on ‘Blink’?
TM: Like most of the stories in the collection, 'Blink' was a bit of an exploration of where I could go with a story, and in the beginning it wasn't very conscious! I tried not to categorise what I was doing, so I didn't think 'this is sci-fi'. A few of the stories were structured around particular myths, but for the most part I was just figuring out what I could do with fiction. I was pretty unsure with ‘Blink’, because I didn't think sci-fi or humour were things I would be able to pull off.
'Twitch' came much later, in response to the RSNZ call for entries for the Manhire prize, but the thoughts behind it began at the same time as I first encountered all the mythology as a teenager. I remember the first time I read the Maori version of the creation of the Universe (in English translation), I thought it could be a description of the Big Bang as I understood it. I decided to check out if there was any scientific basis to my thoughts, and it turned out there was more than I had hoped for. Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything was a great source for the scientific side of things. I found it to be almost spiritual, because although it is completely about science, it continuously bumps into the mystery of things - the idea that it is completely miraculous we even exist.
CC: Were you under the sway of any particular writers when you were writing the stories in Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa?
TM: Hmmm, under the sway! I can't say if my writing was particularly influenced by certain writers. I know I was interested in reading short fiction that was innovative, quirky, or played with the limits of what a story can do. I enjoyed Dave Eggers, Miranda July, Keri Hulme, Duncan Sarkies, Hari Kunzru - there were some great collections of stories I read where I encountered twenty weird and wonderful writers I couldn't name! I feel bad naming some writers and not others... actually, I'm pretty guilty of not being a very disciplined reader - you seem much more dedicated (judging from your blog...) I didn't read much from Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson or Alice Walker while I was writing, but I think their approach to story, particularly where they look at history, mythology or the future, has played a part in how I try to approach fiction.
It just occurred to me that if I was under the sway of anything it was continuously watching episodes of The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords. It was a bit of a guilty obsession at the time, but if it helped the writing...
CC: Oh absolutely. I think the process of writing makes you more susceptible to guilty pleasures. Not that The Mighty Boosh or the Conchords should be thought of as guilty pleasures.
I remember when I first tried to write a novel, I went on the dole for a month and watched the new series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles they were running on TV every morning before I started writing. It began as a way to get me up by 8am, but it was a total guilty pleasure.
TM: That totally makes sense. It’s like you have to get yourself into a really cosy childlike place where it’s okay to be imaginative. Perhaps those things help us bypass that adult voice saying go out and get a proper job. I mean, writing fiction is just playing make believe. There’s also a weird thing where not-writing and not-thinking appear to have some value in the process. I don’t know what the ratio is, you definitely can’t do it too much, but the conscious mind needs some downtime.
That’s my excuse anyway...
CC: I want to talk a little now about your experience as a first time author, and what it's been like going through that process of writing something without knowing, ultimately, if it's going to get published, but then the stars align and you find yourself handing a book over to the world. What have been the surprises for you along the road to publication and following it?
TM: This is a nice surprise, having this conversation with you. Every time someone says they like the book it's a nice surprise. That probably sounds trite, but it hasn't gotten old yet! It'd be pretty sad if it did, because every time someone engages with the book they've taken time out of their own lives to look at my little literary contribution. One of the coolest things is that people ask really interesting questions about the work, and sometimes I get to talk about things that are more important than writing. I didn't see that coming.
Getting into the MA at Vic was the purest thrill for me really, partly because I assumed it meant at some stage I would be able to publish a book. I now know that is a very wrong assumption to make - publishing is a whole different deal. But I did do okay after that, so I wonder if there was a little bit of self-fulfilling prophecy or whatever you call it when something happens because you believed it would.
Publishing has been quite fraught for me, personally. I find the business side of things oddly non-transparent, and the whole idea of being a more public person frankly frightening. It is brilliant to be published and it’s something I hoped for, no question. But it is not easy. I have a weird relationship with the whole thing, cos I want the work to be successful, and I do things to publicise it, but I also come to the edge of my comfort zone quite frequently. What's it like for you? Do you struggle with it at all? I imagine there are people who love that side of things.
CC: I’ve actually found the process of handing a whole collection of stories over to the world a lot less stressful than just having one story at a time published — which is a total surprise. I thought it would be 18 times worse. Stressful perhaps isn’t the right word. I remember when I first started having stories appear in places like JAAM or Sport, the only people who ever commented on them were friends and family, and it felt like they were always focusing on the autobiographical aspects (which the stories no doubt contained, but weren’t the point of the stories). So from then on, there was this little voice in my head when I wrote something, or when I submitting something, saying, ‘What will your mum/gran/auntie/friend think of this?’ But now that I’ve put this book out, people from work or complete strangers are talking about these stories like they’re just stories, pure imagination – which is how I’d hope every reader approached them. I think it helps having the heft of a book in their hands and just your name on the cover.
And the other thing with a collection is, even if there’s autobiographical stuff in there, there’s 13 or 18 different versions of ‘you’. Like in your collection, there’s a number of mother/child relationships, but I never really thought: ‘Oh, this must be what Tina really thinks.’
TM: That’s a relief. Sometimes I think of writing those stories as learning to exercise the fiction muscle – every time I wrote a character that was too much me, it wasn’t very successful. Of course whole stories say something about what you think, but not single characters.
Fiction is so liberating, I mean your title story ‘A Man Melting’, I just read it. I heard you say on RNZ it started with your hand being damp with sweat while you were working. But look what it turned into. And no one could assume it’s about a real person. I loved the weirdness of it, that it’s almost believable simply because the writing creates a universe where a man melting makes some kind of sense.
CC: You’re currently working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria. On the IIML’s website you describe the creative component of your PhD as consisting of two strands: “a sort of biographical travel memoir”, and an account of the life of an ancestor describing, “how a Moriori woman came to marry an Irishman and live in the South Island”. This not only sounds like a fascinating read, but I imagine the research and composition process would be equally absorbing: has it been? How have you found the shift to longer narrative forms?
TM: I was thinking today that I'm really glad I'm doing this book via the PhD process because it means there's a standard I have to strive for that requires rigorous research, and I'm going to need to be really sure about what I say. Even that description is no longer accurate in terms of the research I have done. The whole project is quite daunting in the bigger picture because what happened on Rekohu (Chatham Islands) has not been addressed extensively in written fiction. That means I feel a huge responsibility to get it right, but in the end I can only tell a story, and that story will be about certain characters in a certain context. One of the problems is that so much fallacy and national myth has been touted in the past that the story can't avoid being contentious. But that problem is also part of the impetus for writing this.
It's a pretty fine line: how much is research and how much is imagination. Because it's fictional writing, intuition and imagination come first, but I need to continuously back that up with research. It's a messy process. I'm going to get things wrong, a lot, before I get things right. That's really uncomfortable, for me, because in short fiction I could always have a full draft before I showed anyone. This definitely requires more thought and planning, but I don't want to deaden the process by finding too many answers before I simply put pen to paper (fingertips to keyboard in my case). I'm really interested in different writers' processes, how did you approach the novels you wrote?
CC: Incorrectly is probably the answer, since they never quite worked. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything from those experiences. These days, I’m better at seeing the options available to me, the many ways a story can be told. But there’s only so much weighing up of pros and cons you can do before you start writing, and once you start, all that gets thrown out the window anyway. So I still make mistakes, take wrong turns, but hopefully it’s only two days work that I’ve wasted instead of two months.
Hmm, that’s hardly the sort of thing an aspiring writer would write on a post-it and stick above their writing space. Do you have any cheesy inspirational posters (hang in there, baby) or lucky charms in your writing space?
TM: I have a nice piece of fabric I stuck above my desk to hang such things on. I can’t say it’s been a very successful project cos there’s still heaps of space on it, but it has a map of Rekohu and an Albatross feather and family pictures on it. Actually, that sounds like a really good place to start.