When I decided to replace my painting non-career with writing, it was always with the intention of working towards a novel. It’s at least partly my Dad’s fault. Every wintery Saturday morning down at the Ngaio library, I’d end up lost amongst shelves of books that smelt like wisdom wrapped in parchment. My Pa introduced his three children into incredible new worlds, for the price of an occasional lost book. I know it’s unlikely that my book will shoot to the top of best seller lists, get optioned for a film, and in two years I’ll be turning down Ryan Gosling and Reese Witherspoon (shudder) for roles. But as the lovely couple who sold me a reconditioned typewriter on Paekakariki Beach explained, the most important thing for me is going to be self belief.
I needed help understanding my strengths and weaknesses as a fledgling author, so I took on a freelance writing course. I aimed to use magazine articles as a way to make money from the research and character development I was doing for my fiction. One of the key elements of my first tale is a very special vodka. I spent a month investigating vodka marketing, vodka production (first hand) and vodka history. And doing just a little sampling. Just a little, because to tell the truth it tastes universally shite. I ended up with an entertaining article on New Zealand’s vodka marketing stories, and a solid understanding of why you don’t challenge a Polish woman to make a distilled spirit from courgettes and boiled sweets. I found it was very easy to get side tracked investigating and researching.
I guess some authors wouldn’t need (or want) to employ “method writing” in order to communicate informatively and persuasively about Afghanistani heroin production, or the Modolvan slave trade. But without my time in Northern Ireland I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing of the effect of “The Troubles” on tourism in Derry. And without a confrontation with Hungarian gangsters in Budapest, it’s unlikely I’d develop a plot involving the Eastern European mafia. Admittedly Mr McKinnon and I would also be 3000 Euro better off, but even the naive decisions made fumbling your way through foreign lands inspire new ideas. Excuse for further travel…tick!
Locations and ideas though, are just the framework. My stories are fundamentally about people, particularly people who find themselves displaced. My characters have to be unique, interesting and truthful, or who would want to spend four hundred pages with them? I need a way to access other people’s perspectives, or my characters will end up as just different versions of me. Fortunately my writing course provided a solution, a set of assignments requiring that I conduct interviews. Now some might shrug their shoulders at this, but I had my share of shy times as a young fella, and the idea of attempting to pull intimate stories from strangers was difficult to get my head around. But over the years I’ve grown bolder about attacking my anxieties head on, so I procrastinated for only a couple of months. I conducted my first probing question-and-answer session with a talented New Zealand artist, Greg Broadmore. And of course my fears were unfounded, he proved more than happy to explain how he managed to develop his own opportunities in a country with negligible arts support. We downed pints and a couple of roti bread, and my only issue was remembering that it was an interview, not a discussion. Nerves eliminated.
Interviews have turned out to be not just an incredible source of character ideas, but also a tool for countering my misunderstandings. I’ve been developing a blind character, so I decided to write an article on how the visually impaired deal with social media. I imagined they must struggle socially every day, having to do without such useful social tools as winks, colour co-ordination and carefully applied lipstick. And I presumed that interaction had become all the more difficult with the gradual shift from face-to-face chit chats, to technology based relationships. I mean have you tried using Facebook with your eyes shut? Exactly. So I set up an interview with a blind gent who teaches people how to use “adaptive technologies”. I’d seen a picture of him in a newspaper article, and he had been photographed wearing a Metallica t-shirt for the interview. I thought either his Mum had played a cheeky wardrobe prank, or he was a metal fiend, and we’d click. I met him at his workplace, and click we did. I found he was ridiculously capable, and I was embarrassed by how much this surprised me. His Uncle and Father had been raised blind, so he was brought up as a kid that bumped into things, rather than an incapable, lolling eyed burden. And over a couple of hours of conversation, my character developed a voice that wasn’t just mine.
So now I listen much more closely when an old man in a pub tells me of the day he realised that maybe God had never listened to him nor his younger brother. I try to understand at what point a friend abandoned her hopes and dreams as something she might one day achieve, and began instead to project them onto their daughter. And I sit and share a coffee every morning with the homeless girl huddled with a border collie, because I’m trying to understand why when she speaks of the father who beat and abused her, she describes him as if he’s the next messiah.
I hope that through my attention to the lives of others, that my characters might earn a readers sympathy, their empathy, or their disgust. So next time I meet you for a pint, and ask how you how your new relationship’s going, be wary…