shining the spotlight on short story collections
Interview with Tina Makereti, author of Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson
It’s hard to say – the actual time period was nearly two years but I was doing things other than writing for a large portion of that time. I guess I was lucky to have nine months sustained concentration on the craft via the MA Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington, NZ. Then I was working and continuing to write in my spare time, so there was a sustained gestation. That was really important. Sometimes the Not Writing allows the Writing to grow into better things!
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
I knew I wanted to create a collection, but I did not know what it would be until quite a way into the process, when I discovered a thread that really took the writing somewhere new. My main objective when I started was to be open to whatever came. I tried not to put limits on what I was going to create.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
Ha – this seems to be a much more complicated task than it should be! The stories that were included in the end were the ones that worked. I surprised myself though, by pulling out a couple of old ones I thought would never work, and revising them one final time so that they did work. I guess they just needed to be ignored for a while. Also, I had a great editor, Alia Bloom, and when I started working with her I realised two stories I wanted to include were never going to work in their current form. I threw them out and started again, writing two entirely new stories very quickly that said the same thing but in a completely different way. It was like I had done all the work in the previous incarnations of the stories, so the new versions came out almost fully formed. Story order is so strange! I was lucky in that the first two stories and the last two stories pretty much couldn’t go anywhere else – they almost chose their own place. But everything in between was a matter of balance: short vs. long, dark vs. light, funny vs. serious. I never read short story collections in order but I know some people do, so it takes on this great significance it probably shouldn’t have.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
Great question! It’s a really massive thing for me actually – and part of the PhD I’m working on now. In the big picture, ‘Story’ is how we tell ourselves who we are. There’s this fantastic book The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King that repeats the phrase ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are’. Think about it on every level: novels, short stories, movies, news, media, conversations, facebook, twitter, jokes… we’re constantly telling ourselves stories. Which is why it’s so important we think about the things we say and think and write, because these things are generative… the stories we tell create who we are. I also have a belief in Story as an entity that exists independently of me. My goal as a writer is to be able to give the Story expression, to make myself a clear enough conduit for it, but I don’t necessarily believe the Story is mine.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
Not really. I did read once that if you’re bored, your reader will probably be bored, so I try to write in a way that I find interesting, and hope that others will too.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
I like hearing if anyone has anything to say about it, but I don’t have any specific questions. This might be because I’ve put it out into the world and let it go somewhat (like releasing a feral creature into the wild), but it’s more likely because I’m too scared to ask!
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
When there are so many books to choose from, it’s always a great compliment that someone would choose to spend their hard-earned money on mine. Writing is a way of reaching out and communicating, so this is a real pleasure. At the same time, I am often embarrassed by the whole deal. That might be a kiwi thing, or a me thing, but I think I might be chilling out about it as time goes on.
What are you working on now?
The PhD I mentioned includes a novel. The novel explores the cultural history of Aotearoa – New Zealand, in particular the interrelationships between Moriori, Māori and Pākehā from the late 19th Century through to now. It’s inspired by my own ancestors, but entirely fictional. Moriori are the original inhabitants of Rekohu (Chatham Islands), which is an island east of the main islands of New Zealand. They had a tradition of peace for 500 years – killing and warfare were forbidden. Then European explorers, whalers and sealers arrived, followed shortly by Māori invaders. The Moriori population was devastated, and official New Zealand researchers, teachers and historians have repeatedly told erroneous stories about who Moriori were. This has changed in recent times, but the result is a general population that know little of the complexities of our own history. Moriori thrive today and continue their traditions of peace. The World Peace March was launched on Rekohu, and next year there will be a Peace Conference. I want the novel to explore both the history and the contemporary tensions and complexities of this legacy.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
Pip Adam – Everything We Hoped For Craig Cliff – A Man Melting Currently have Italo Calvino – The Complete Cosmicomics and Jim Shepard – Like You’d Understand, Anyway vying for attention by the bed.
Tina Makereti is a fiction writer. She has also been recognized for her non-fiction, winning the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing – Non-fiction, in 2009. Tina Makereti completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2008, and the following year she won the Huia Publishers Best Story Award for Best Short Story Written in English. Her first collection of short stories, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, was published in 2010 by Huia Publishers. (Biog credit: The New Zealand Book Council)