Monday, 9 November 2015

Six Questions for Bill Manhire

The Stories of Bill Manhire is published this week. The book collects previously published, uncollected and unpublished stories, as well as the choose-your-own-adventure novella The Brain of Katherine Mansfield and the memoir Under the Influence. Ahead of his launch on Thursday we asked Bill some questions.

Bill Manhire, photo by Ed Swindon

It’s hard to categorise the stories in the new collection – you seem to constantly play with a range of styles and forms. "Stories" seems useful as a description for a book title, but is there a way that you think of the work you write that isn’t poetry?

The stories point outwards a lot more than, say, my early poems did: they’re much less self-involved. So maybe the “work I write that isn’t poetry” could be called “work-that-points-at-the-world-around-me”. I agree, though, “stories” is a pretty loose term – especially as the book includes a choose-your-own-adventure tale illustrated by Greg O’Brien; plus the childhood memoir, Under the Influence, about growing up in pubs.

I don’t think of your stories as very New Zealandy stories, the sort that win the short story competitions in our country, where there’s the expected emotional arc – grief, the end of a relationship or innocence, that sort of thing. Is there a form or style you’re looking to write towards, or write away from?

There’s one fairly conventional one, I think: “Flights of Angels” – the one about the single mother with the precocious son. I worked hard to get the voice of the character right in that one – others will let me know whether or not I did that successfully. And part of me always wanted to write science fiction – hence “Siena”, a piece of future fiction in which tourist New Zealand has successfully theme-parked the whole country.

The first short story I ever published, in my early 20s when I was a postgrad student in London, was a sort of Ray Bradbury rip-off, “The Venus Bird”, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph colour magazine, attributed to someone called Bill Manshire. It produced a lot of weird correspondence – “I have written many times to Malcolm Muggeridge without response, and now turn to you in despair” – and a literary agent, a rather louche young man in an attic room in Bloomsbury, who used to place bets on horses over the phone while his beautiful young PA made coffee – after which he would turn to his latest author (i.e. me), with the advice that it was time to turn “that story” into a novel. Indeed, he was already working on the film rights. But I was too busy trying to be an Old Norse scholar.

But I agree, very few of the stories are interested in the business of narrative excitement or emotional arcs. They’re more like comic-strip frames. Slow-motion collage-work. Or maybe they’re stills from a very short movie, chosen rather randomly, and not always in perfect focus. 

One of the stories actually starts from a photograph of early Dunedin, which is reproduced as the book’s endpapers. That story – “The Days of Sail” – also describes the 1981 attempt to assassinate the Queen in Dunedin, which was very successfully hushed up at the time.

Maybe it helps if I say that my favourite short story writers are Donald Barthelme and Grace Paley. Plus Gogol and early Sargeson. Also Lydia Davis. Also Italo Calvino.

Humour is one thing that connects much of your work throughout the stories and in your poetry. Is this something that happens on purpose or by accident?

It’s not deliberate, but I’m pleased that it’s there – especially when it’s tinged with a bit of menace and melancholy. A big impulse in the “new land” stories is satirical. If you’re troubled by the way the tourist industry seems to define New Zealand, or the ridiculous self-importance that undermines the work of so many writers, or the way the government seems to have no real moral compass – everything is seen in terms of NZ Inc – then it probably makes more sense to mock what’s going on than to rant like King Lear out on the heath. The troubling thing is that the targets don’t date – they just grow fatter and more complacent.

Do you set out to write a story, as opposed to a poem, or does a poem sometimes turn into a story? 

I think I know the difference, most of the time. But I’m fond of the quasi prose poems that sit in between poetry and conventional short fiction. For instance, some of the prose things that are in Lifted – and perhaps, in a slightly different manner, the “My Early Life” piece that Steve Braunias ran in the new online mag The Spinoff. I wondered about including some of those in the book but decided they didn’t quite belong.

One story in the collection describes the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson. Are you a Stevenson fan? How did this story get its legs?

I’m a big Stevenson fan, but not a scholar. I think I was interested in exploring the impossibility for some authors of escaping celebrity, especially back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I think RLS is a terrific writer, who got a bit lost once Joyce and Woolf and co came on the scene. It’s only recently that he’s found his way out of the fug of modernist snobbery.

The RLS story fits with a broader Pacific motif that drifts through the book. I have a big collection of children’s books set in the South Pacific – hence the story called “Cannibals”.  There’s another story in which a rather sad young man travels to London to try and market a board game called South Pacific. And there’s reference to a novel called Banks, in which each of the ten chapters is written from the point of view of one of Joseph Banks’s servants. It’s one of those novels where the concept is more interesting than the likely reading experience. Plus my Twitter handle is @pacificraft.

You have an international reputation as a brilliant writer and teacher of creative writing. Tell us the secret to your success? Or at least, what you eat for breakfast?

These are questions I am frequently asked, and I have answered them all in a story called “Some Questions I am Frequently Asked”. Everything you could possibly want to know is there in that one story.

The Stories of Bill Manhire goes on sale 12 Nov. Available at bookshops worth their salt and through our online bookstore.
hardback, $40

The book will be launched this week at Unity Books in Wellington, Thursday 12 Nov, 6pm, all welcome.

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