Craig Cliff is a Wellington-based writer. His short story collection, A Man Melting, won the Best First Book in the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and he published the novel The Mannequin Makers in 2013. I this interview he speaks about the ways he finds time for writing, the different motivations behind the writing of short fiction and novels, and the writing of his short story 'Parents in decline', published in Griffith Review 44.
I know you're working from home today, but you mentioned earlier that you work four days a week. How do you balance work and writing?
I work for the Ministry of Education here in New Zealand. My job title keeps changing, but at the moment I'm a Chief Policy Analyst. So I make time for writing early in the mornings. I get up at 5am on days when I'm going in to work and I write for two hours. Then I get my daughter up, get her breakfast, and get her off to day-care. It's a team effort with my wife, because we're both working full-time. So that's eight or ten hours during the week of writing, and then the theory would be that I would get some more done on weekends but that never seems to happen. That's pretty much the time that I have to write.
Do you know what you're going to write every morning, or is it sometimes the case that you get up, stare at the blinking cursor and nothing happens in those two hours?
I write a fortnightly column for the newspaper here in Wellington, so two or three mornings a fortnight are taken up with that. Sometimes it might be the case that I struggle with the column, and it'll take up five or six mornings. So it's maybe only really every second week that I have free reign. I'm planning a novel at the moment, so my writing time isn't spent writing so much as scanning the internet for resources that might expand my knowledge in certain areas, or using name generators to come up with the names of my characters, or working on little quadrants to figure out how all the characters fit together. It's those early days of working on a novel where it feels like you're making no progress, week to week. But you have to lay that groundwork before you can write.
I know you wrote two novels before your short story collection was published. And you've published another novel since then. What did you learn about writing novels from that process?
The novel (The Mannequin Makers), which was published last year, was a reaction to all of the writing that I'd done previously - the two failed novels, and the short story collection, and all the other short stories I've written that didn't necessarily make it into that book. They've all pretty much been written in contemporary time and space, and I felt like it was time to try something else.
The two options were historical fiction, or something set in the future. At the time historical fiction appealed because it seemed more difficult to me, it seemed like there would need to be some research, some historical rigour. And I felt like a serious writer should get paper cuts in the archives at least once in their career.
It just so happened that a confluence of factors meant that a lot of young New Zealand writers decided to go down that same path within the same three-year period. My book came out the day before Eleanor Catton's book (The Luminaries) came out. My book was probably overshadowed by hers, and rightly so. But because of that, some of the reviews of my novel in New Zealand have spent half the time talking about how it's yet another historical novel by a New Zealand writer. 'Why are they obsessed with our colonial past, why aren't they addressing contemporary issues?' Well, I'd spent a lot of time addressing contemporary issues, and I wanted to do something else.
Looking ahead to my next book and other short stories that I'm writing I want to continue to mix it up. I think anyone who's just read my short story collection would sense that. There are eighteen stories in the collection, and they go to lots of different places. They go to different places in the world, they have a different mix of young and old characters, male and female, and a mix of styles. There are things that are straight-up literary fiction with a depressing ending, and then there are more humorous takes. I think, in some ways, that collection will form the template of my career. I'm going to jump around and do different kinds of things.
Is there a different appeal to writing short stories over novels?
The reason I started off writing novels was because I read novels. I was really into certain North American masculine novelists when I was in my late teens and early twenties – Douglas Coupland, Chuck Palahniuk, Don DeLillo, Kurt Vonnegut. It's hard to separate the process of maturing as a person and maturing as a writer, because while the appeal of some of those writers has dropped off, there are others like Kurt Vonnegut who I still return to and find something useful. Anyway, when I was twenty-one I sat down to write a novel and it happened really easily. But I didn't know enough then to know how bad it was.
When I did my Masters in Creative Writing I decided to write another novel, because I thought that I knew what I had done wrong last time. But that didn't work out either. But as part of doing the Masters, I was surrounded by other writers who were working on short story collections and through them I was exposed to a lot of short story writers who I hadn't seriously thought about before. So I fell in love with the short story form after I'd committed to becoming a writer. Over the next two years I wrote short stories almost exclusively, and after I stopped writing short stories and went back to writing a novel with The Mannequin Makers I found something interesting had happened.
You know when people talk about athletes having fast twitch or slow twitch muscles? You can be a sprinter, or you can be a marathon runner, but you can't be both. I feel like that metaphor carries over into writing in a lot of ways. I feel like I have fast twitch muscles, as a writer. I don't have a problem coming up with interesting ideas and framing them in such a way that they can be part of a narrative, but that narrative doesn't have to be particularly long for it to be engaging. When I then try and write a novel it's a process of trying to string those disconnected pieces of narrative together. I know other writers whose instincts are to have one idea and extract everything possible out of it for four hundred pages. I'm just not made that way.
You were in the Iowa International Writing Program last year, which has become synonymous with the short story form. I wonder what impact being at Iowa had on your writing?
I was in Iowa as part of the International Writing Program, just for the fall semester. There were thirty-five writers from thirty-one countries, and being from an Anglophone country and a white middle-class male, I was the least exotic person there. For some of these people it was the first time they'd been on a train or in a bar, but I'd grown up watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and listening to Soundgarden, and it's the same for Australians as well. America is not necessarily a foreign place.
So the International Writing Program is separate to the Writers Workshop, and the Writers Workshop students have this stand-offish attitude to the people in the International Writing Program, partly because I think the International Writing Program itself has almost colonial overtones. It brings people from the outskirts of civilisation into the middle of it.
I had a problem with a lot of things like that in the program. You can understand the attitude, though. You have twenty-one year old MFA students working on short stories, and all they've ever read is Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah, and they don't feel like they need to know some poet from Uganda. Some of these kids are just aiming to get a teaching job at another MFA program and then keep writing until something sticks.
Obviously, I'm from a different background. I'm doing everything possible to stay out of the university system. I really enjoy having a day job that's not related to writing. I find it's useful in generating ideas that can speak to non-writers, and the pay is better.
While I was in Iowa though I was thinking about the meta aspect of writing, the literary side of the game rather than the words on the page. So I decided that rather than trying to work on a novel with all these other distractions I'd work on short stories, and that was really interesting. I found myself writing about the relationship between Australia and New Zealand. I wrote this story about a barbecue where a New Zealander attends an ANZAC Day barbecue in Perth. I think I became interested in that because I was thinking so much about national identity by being constantly identified as a New Zealander and a New Zealand writer and being asked what the difference is between my country and other countries.
And the advantage of writing short stories is that I could exercise and exorcise those feelings. In three weeks of writing I could get a first draft of a story and get my thoughts down and in that process figure out what my thoughts actually were. Whereas if I had decided to write a whole novel about it I'd still be stuck.
I really feel like my interest in that subject has waned because I did exorcise that niggle at the right time. So that's the great thing about short stories, and that's why they suit MFA programs and other creative writing classes. In a week, or three weeks, you can get a perfect draft done. You can get comments back on something that's a whole, and which represents what you're aiming to do. Then you can put that in your drawer and try something completely different.
The story in this issue of Griffith Review, 'Parents In Decline', was that written while you were in Iowa?
I thought it was interesting the way you addressed the reader in that story. It's written in the register of a 'we'. As a reader you're constantly being implicated in this sense of everything not being OK. There's a constant sense of obstructed calamity. How conscious are those formal decisions for you when you sit down to write?
The idea started with just a sentence, which was originally something like 'everything went wrong in tiny ways.' That drove me in the direction of talking about things in terms of a community perspective rather than an individual's perspective. As I went along I started collecting little things that ended up in the first couple of pages of the story. I was interested in the use of collective pronouns, and how it can actually be a distancing thing. You spend a lot of the story figuring out whether the reader is included in the 'we' and who the 'we' pertains to. The story is a way, I guess, of narrowing down whom the pronoun relates to. And because it became a story about selfishness I thought it was an interesting way of exploring that. This story was a way of looking at selfishness using a collective frame.
At the moment I'm working on another story which does the same thing in different ways. It's a story told in the form of author biographies, with one person writing his author biography over and over again. Because the not-so-secret secret is that everybody writes their own author bio, but you have to write it in the third person. So you're writing about yourself in the third person, and that puts you in the position of editing and selectively choosing what you put in and what you exclude. The joke is that everybody else in his life is also a writer. His wife is a very successful writer, and his daughter is fifteen and she's published a dystopian YA trilogy that's been optioned by Warner Bros. So it starts off a little like 'Parents in Decline', where you think it seems humorous. The challenge you set yourself with an opening like that is to take it somewhere human, making it relatable.
My last question: your novel is being translated into Romanian...
I have no idea why Romanian. I think it just comes down to personal connections. A lot of the time as a writer you're in the dark about these things work. They said 'we'll do a translation and it'll come out in twelve months.' I might be contacted by the translator if they have some questions, or I may just find out that it's out there in the world. My knowledge of Romanian being zero, I won't know what they've done to my book. I'll obviously Google Translate what they do for the title and what they do for my author bio and then I guess I'll move on until I end up some cause celebre of Romania.