Wellington-based writer Craig Cliff’s debut short story collection A Man Melting: Short Stories brings together some prize-winning, new and previously published short stories into one collection.
It also offers up a brief author’s biography. Before I’d even read any of the stories I was wondering about one line in particular:
‘These days [Cliff] lives on Wellington’s south coast and works for the government.’
This seemingly elusive reference sparked my interest. I enjoyed the stories all the more for the question: what does Craig Cliff do in his other life? I’ve since discovered he’s quite open about this on his blog.
Cliff is a graduate of Victoria University’s MA in Creative Writing and has won the novice category of the Katherine Mansfield story award. A Man Melting is a great entrée for what could be a long and promising career. Cliff was scheduled to present at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2010. I had looked forward to chatting with him there. When the event was cancelled, I contacted Cliff for an interview instead.
- We were all disappointed when the Christchurch Writers Festival was cancelled. This was going to be your first festival as a contributor. What were you planning to share at your session, “Hot off the Press?” Did that selection change post-earthquake (before the festival was officially cancelled)?
- Yes, it was a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions the week immediately following the earthquake. It began with a text from my fiancé’s parents down in Christchurch shortly after the quake. They were worried the epicentre might have been in Wellington and thinking if that was what they felt 400 kilometres away, there mightn’t have been much left standing up here.
- When we had established everyone we knew in Christchurch was okay my thoughts turned to the possibility the Writers Festival might be called off. At that stage I hadn’t selected what I’d be reading for my session; now it seemed doubly confusing. I narrowed the choice down to two of the more light-hearted / uplifting passages in the book, then was told the festival had been cancelled. I totally understood the decision the festival organisers made, but it was a bit gutting personally: I was looking forward to getting into all the sessions I could, just as much as the chance to read my own work to a new audience.
- I’ve been thinking about recording a YouTube clip of me reading from my book as a kind of surrogate festival snippet — it’s just a matter of finding the time. Maybe one day I’ll take it a step further and organise New Zealand’s first online writers festival. That’d be cool. Let’s see Mother Nature disrupt that!
- You openly share your writing process on your blog to show people that “the wizard is just a man pulling knobs and twirling cranks behind a curtain.” What pearls of wisdom (I cringe using that phrase) have you acquired that have influenced you as a writer — the man behind the curtain? Who were they from? Or were they overheard on the bus?
- I used to have the wall behind my computer covered in pearl-of-wisdom Post-its, but that was in a different house and I can no longer recall what any of the post-its actually said. I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt, and am still learning, is that old chestnut about invention being 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration is bang on when it comes to writing. You’ve got to sit down and write to make any sort of headway. You’ve got to write to get better and learn new ways of doing things. You’ve got to write to have your best ideas.
- What wisdom would you like to pass on to other writers?
- I’d stop short at calling any of this wisdom. I’m only relatively new at this, too. But here are a few pieces of common sense that are easy to forget:
- Finish things. A story’s not much use to anyone without an ending.
- Be ambitious in your writing, but in focussed ways. When you’re starting out, it helps to limit the scope of your project in certain ways. Short stories are great for that: the length demands you stay focused and you can often finish a first draft on the back of a single burst of inspiration.
- Don’t forget to edit. You’ve got to learn to love revision; it’s a crucial part of the process.
- Read and subscribe to as many literary journals as you can. Then submit your work to them. Forget about the rejections. Things will start to click if you stick to your guns, keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting.
- Copies and Manawatu, two short stories from A Man Melting, were published in literary magazines prior to your book’s release. Another, Language won the Katherine Mansfield story award in the novice category. Post-publication, do you find yourself still thinking about any stories in A Man Melting? Are there any characters who lay restless within the pages of your book?
- Well, I’ve actually resurrected the narrator of Copies and have picked up his story two years on. This time, it’s a novel. So we’ll see how that goes.
- I read somewhere recently that redemptive endings are the plight of the American short story. Maybe it's because I’m American, but I appreciate endings that don’t leave me feeling depressed. Many of your short stories in A Man Melting do have redemptive endings, albeit bittersweet. Is this a conscious decision? Are you a literary optimist?
- I don’t think I ever thought of the endings in A Man Melting in terms of whether they were redemptive or not. I guess quite a few are.
- Am I a literary optimist? I’m more of a literary schizophrenic. As a reader I tend to jump around a lot between different sorts of books (novels, short story collections, poetry, history and natural history) and I find I enjoy short story collections best when they cover a range of styles and emotions.
- The same goes for my writing habits. After working on a more serious story, sometimes even before finishing, I’ll move on to something more humorous or rambunctious. When it came time to piece together a short story collection, it was interesting to see the directions I’d run off, and the way I returned to certain themes, like evolution, without consciously deciding to write another evolution story. The same goes for the endings: they’re a product of the story itself, what I was reading and what else I was working on at the time. Some have a positive outlook, others are more murky.
- In her review of your book for The Listener, Siobhan Harvey commented on your age. Many writers come to writing later in life and bring their wealth of life experience with them. Being in the late twenty something category of New Zealand writers, what unique qualities do you perceive a younger generation can bring to the writing table? Or is age irrelevant?
- I haven’t had a whole lot of coverage, but I think everything to date has mentioned my relative youth. I’m always a bit nonplussed by this. It’s strange to be going about your normal life and feeling totally past it in a lot of respects: fashion, music, technology — it all seems geared at people ten years my junior. I have an office job and spend my days gaining weight and turning grey in front of a computer but in writing terms I’m still considered young. Which is okay, so long as the implication is not that you should forgive my shortcomings because I’m only learning.
- Screw that. It’s a huge responsibility to release a book into the world (there’s quite a few already) and expect people to devote several hours of their free time to enter the world or worlds you create. You better be good enough to warrant the investment the reader makes in you. Of course, you won’t hit it off with every reader, but as a writer — at any age and at any stage of your career — I think you have to believe that you’re giving your readership what they want.
- This is not to say that every new writer (again, regardless of age) should emerge onto the scene fully formed. There’s always room for growth. One of the advantages of starting to publish a bit earlier is that you’ll inevitably change as a person over the course of your career. It’s often quite interesting to see how that comes through in an author’s books. I’m thinking about a writer like Dave Eggers, whose first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was great in its way, but he seems to have developed into quite a different kind of writer.
- What book(s) went into the building of you? What book(s) wouldn’t you be “Craig Cliff” without?
- The two pillars of my literary education were probably Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. They sit at different poles in many respects — one’s long and divergent, the other’s so concise — but they began to show me what was possible on the page.
- There are number of references to libraries on your blog, including a link to the Christchurch City Libraries blog. How do you view and use libraries? Do libraries find their way into your dreams, writing, daily conversations? Are they travel destinations?
- I’m a big library user. My love of books really began in a library – the Palmerston North City Library — in my teens. I’d always read, but my first love was music. One day I saw an interview where Thom Yorke from Radiohead mentioned the Canadian author Douglas Coupland, specifically how Life After God should have been a more significant book, culturally, than Generation X. The titles seemed to fit with my fourteen-year-old aesthetic so I went to the library the next day and found them on the shelf. I steadily worked through all of Coupland’s books to that point, then started reading other authors who were mentioned on his cover blurbs like Don DeLillo and Saul Bellow.That’s basically how I got sucked into books in a big way and it wouldn’t have happened without a decently stocked library.
- In every city I’ve lived since then (Wellington, Brisbane, Edinburgh) libraries have been my hot spots. I like how every library has a different feel and the way a collection will shape your reading. Apart from my sentimental attachment to the Palmerston North library, my favourite library in the world would have to be the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. Ironically, that’s where I really started to really appreciate New Zealand poetry (they had an extensive and very up-to-date collection of Kiwi poetry, in part because the director is an ex-pat). That’s where I read all of Geoff Cochrane’s collections and he quickly became my favourite poet. I read poems about Newtown and Tinakori Hill while I was muddling through a Scottish summer – in a strange way it helped keep the homesickness at bay.
- You visit Christchurch a few times a year. What are your reflections on the Garden City? Has Christchurch influenced your writing?
- As I mentioned, my fiancé’s family lives in Christchurch, so we visit often. It took me a while to get my bearings because I was constantly being driven around and I wasn’t paying the same sort of attention as when you’re navigating for yourself. So for a long time Christchurch seemed like this flat, sprawling conurbation. Now that I’m more familiar it feels much smaller, much more comprehensible, which I guess is a pretty common experience for people in new cities.
- A few months ago I wrote my first story set in Christchurch (partially). Since then I’ve been down for our engagement party, a funeral, and the aftermath of the earthquake (in lieu of the Writers Festival). So Canterbury has definitely been fertile ground for ideas, though it’s normally a year or two before a new idea germinates into a story and makes it onto the page.
- Lastly, do you have a favorite episode of Flight of the Conchords?
- It’d have to be The New Cup. So many funny moments. The whole $2.79 cup thing, Murray’s reviews once they start selling their instruments (2 stars out of 100; Flight of the No-chords), the song ‘You don’t have to be a prostitute’.
Craig Cliff at Christchurch City Libraries
- Books by Craig Cliff at Christchurch City Libraries