Tough, Amy Head's debut collection of short fiction was launched at Unity Books last night as the Storm of the Decade hit Wellington. It was a hardy audience, worthy of the book's title and characters, given the tempest outside. The author too, proved her mettle, as she read and signed books from her chair due to a broken ankle. Thanks to Unity Books for making us feel cosy and looked-after - perhaps they could become a Civil Defence headquarters?
Lawrence Patchett has kindly supplied his wonderful launch speech, reprinted here for your reading pleasure:
|Lawrence Patchett launches Amy Head's Tough|
I’m delighted to help launch this book tonight, not least because in some ways it journeys in a frontier territory I’ve always enjoyed exploring through literature, and because it enlarges that place, makes it richer, uncovers new gold mines.
And I’d like to start by talking about its title: Tough. This might seem an unimaginative place to start, but I think titles are particularly important in short-story collections. I’m not sure how much power short-story writers have out there in the real world, but when it comes to the titles of our own books, this is one place where I think we can legitimately exert influence. And in the case of Tough, I think that decision on titling has been made particularly well. Because this one word leads us directly to an understanding of the layered world, the salty characters, and the wiry style that make this book so rich, so surprising.
The first lines of Tough position us in a time and place that I find intriguing. Here’s the first line: ‘Mr Edward Dobson, engineer, landed in Port Cooper in 1850 aboard the Cressy.’ Coming over the Bridle Path to Dobson’s first view of the Canterbury Plains, we are teased with a recreated sense of Pākehā ‘pioneer’ excitement, of ‘newness’, of opportunity. It’s a moment that’s easy for a history glutton like me to get exercised about, and it’s also a world that a writer could easily romanticise or over-simplify.
But the adventure we are asked to undertake in Tough is much more demanding and complex than we might think at first. For one thing, this world is simultaneously historic and contemporary; half of these stories have contemporary settings, their characters knocking up against the fortune-seekers and rough diamonds who went before them. And for all of those characters, risk is everywhere in this book. Flood, bush fever, murder, loneliness, grief, freak accident, confusion, and poverty—all these are risks that can reach up from the forest floor and drag down the adventurers of these stories.
So the complacency and aspiration of Edward Dobson, that great colonial patriarch of the first story, finds an ironic echo later in the book, when his son George is found murdered in the bush and buried with his surveying gear on his chest, as if Fate has played some vast joke on him and all the Dobsons, and their ambitions. This is an ‘indiscriminate’ universe, according to one local policeman; in such a place, characters must grow up fast and tough.
But I don’t mean tough in a joyless or dour way. Far from it. In this book, toughness is a multifaceted thing. It’s about being adaptable and resilient, about trying to connect with opportunity and with other people through pluck, compassion and a sense of humour.
Tough has many moments of unexpected laughs in strange places, and it’s impossible to do them justice out of context here tonight. But one of my favourite stories is ‘The Sinner’, in which the young protagonist, Duncan, decides at age 12 to leave home in pursuit of gold, and at the same time to mould himself in exactly the model of adult malehood his mother has warned him against. I’ll just quote a little section here. ‘Duncan’s mother always shook her head at the men she saw spilling out of the hotels. ‘Forgive us our sins,’ she’d say. Because she did, Duncan associated sinning with the beery stink of the Empire Hotel and with [his friend’s] pig-hunting father. He aimed to be a sinner.’
I love this outcome. All the god-fearing primness of the Old Country and its proper society comes a cropper against the rule-bending practicalities of gold-rush life. To survive in this world, you have to be willing to be a bit of a sinner.
Adding more colour is the fact that Amy knows the value of eccentric behaviours and marginal people. There’s the soothsaying town drunk, who spouts a kind of fool’s wisdom that gold-diggers are too superstitious to ignore. Incidentally, I noticed that that old drunk has the name of Laurence, and on behalf of Laurences/ Lawrences everywhere, Amy, can I thank you for that little shout-out! On the topic of names, there is a man who is called Tough—that’s his name—but ironically he isn’t all that tough, in the sense that he’s no brawny colonial ‘go-getter’, to use his own term. Instead he’s a drifter and gambler who can’t quite decide what he wants out of life, yet in this book he’s just as important as the Dobsons and Julius von Haast and all those guys who always leave their names all over the maps and on all the Big Bronze Statues. Amy’s ability to write so well about these sometimes excluded people—people who live right at the frontiers of life, now and in the past—sets up the two most stunning stories in this collection, ‘A Strange Story’ and Visitors’, which I’ll have to leave you to discover on your own.
There’s an image in another of Amy’s stories that I’ve admired—not published in this collection but on Turbine—of a woman touching a fencepost because it holds a remnant energy of the man who put it there, ‘like a tuning fork that had been struck.’ That’s what the landscape of Tough is like: raw, freshly worked, and resonating with the laughter and voices of the people who’ve tramped across it. And this is the kind of interaction with history and place that I admire: not romanticising or reducing either, but instead bringing us up close to the sorts of noisy and salty characters who might have lived there; giving us the smell of their breath, the fresh blood of their injuries, the sound of their jokes.
There is a final aspect of toughness that I want to touch on, and then I promise I will shut up. It’s one of the most distinctive aspects of this book: the writing itself. The language of Tough is appropriately wiry, compact, energised. Again the title suggests it nicely (Tough), and again, I won’t do it justice by quoting it out of context. Part of it is the fact that this is a book that never over-explains. Instead, it credits us with a savvy intelligence, and demands that we engage with sentences of real potency. When it comes to the stories that deal with historical material, this creates a reading experience that makes us think afresh about how we interact with history in fiction, and I think that’s valuable.
In the end, for me this book did that wonderful thing that inventive short-story collections can do—it extended my sense of what fiction is capable of, and enlarged my ideas about a world I thought I knew. And the great thing is that now you can all share in that experience. I congratulate Amy on this memorable book, I wish you the very best for its future, and I look forward to reading the next one.
|The author signs her book, note the size of that leg cast!|
|The author reads, appropriately, from 'Flood'.|