Everyone is cordially invited to the virtual launch of a stunning – yeah, it really is; world-class, actually – book of short stories by Dunedin writer Breton Dukes.
Steve Braunias, ReadingRoom literary editor: Welcome everyone to the launch of What Sort of Man, the new short story collection by Dunedin writer Breton Dukes. It was going to be held irl at Dunedin bar Woof and it still is – in your mind. Grab a drink from the bar. The nibbles are nice, aren’t they? The book’s publisher Fergus Barrowman is about to make a short speech of introduction, followed by a song written and performed for the occasion by Damien Wilkins, followed by a reading from What Sort of Man by author Breton Dukes. Each of these will be presented on video. The launch ends with a mind-bending text written by the author on the art and possibilities of the short story.
Grab another drink. Make it a double. Scottish author Damien Barr helped design the cocktail menu.
And now a few words from Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman. Nothing worse than a long speech at a book launch but Fergus will only speak for three minutes, 39 seconds and ooh look he’s got some records.
You’ll need another drink after that. And now Damien Wilkins, who was going to make a speech, has preferred to perform a quite wordy song composed for the occasion. No dancing, please.
And now the author, Breton Dukes, will give a reading from his book What Sort of Man. Nothing worse than an author who reads for hours and hours but it’s only three minutes, eight seconds and ooh look he seems to be standing in front of a brick wall. One more drink won’t hurt.
Thank you to everybody who attended tonight’s launch of What Sort of Man. We end with the following mind-bending story about writing stories by Breton Dukes. One for the road? Definitely. Drive home safely!
Breton Dukes: Twenty years ago I was living in a shit-box flat in Ponsonby, bussing each day to Glenfield where I worked as a labourer. Long days of sweeping, carting timber and chucking off-cuts into this ark-sized skip. Nights my flatmate Dick and I would lift weights at Gold’s in Newtown. To warm down we’d take benzodiazepine and drink wine cooler. Weekends we really got loaded. Weed, pills, booze. Pay day I’d go to the Gables Tavern and play the pokies.
It was. Dick was a junior pharmacist, my other flatmates were using their degrees to save for their OE’s, but I was broke all the time. Broke, depressed, confused. This wasn’t how life was supposed to go. The gambling was an escape. Same with the drugs. The way they pressed me under, disappearing the mess I was making of my life.
Have a character make a sequence of bad decisions and you’ll have drama. Keep taking away options and it gets really entertaining.
I decided to shift to Christchurch and live with Granddad. I’d go into a sort of boot camp where saving for my own raid on London would be easy.
Fail. I had no friends in the city. I couldn’t find a job. I was bored and lonely and therefore depressed. When Granddad went to bed I drank his liquor and listened to Oasis. A new plan presented itself. Forge Granddad’s signature on a cheque, bank it, tell my family I’d won on an Instant Kiwi, fly to London and remake myself.
With a short story I like to start in the middle of a tense moment. For this example then I’d probably begin at the ANZ on Ponsonby road. Because I went from Christchurch back to Auckland on my way to Perth. Perth, not London, because on the day I banked the big cheque Granddad told me over lunch – tomatoes from his garden, onion and cucumber sliced in malt vinegar – he was going to the bank.
“There’s been some funny stuff going on with my account.”
I’d taken other money, cashing smaller cheques. Now he was suspicious. If he went to the bank my crimes would be uncovered. Then I’d really be fucked. So early the next day I got a taxi to the airport, flew back to Auckland, and went to that ANZ. I needed to withdraw the money I’d banked the day before to pay for my flight to Perth.
“No,” said the cashier. “That cheque hasn’t cleared.”
I would have tried to smile.
“But I’m going to Perth. Tomorrow.”
She looked at me. “Just wait here.”
Sweat started down my sides. Right then Granddad would be asking questions at his own bank. Would I get the money or not?
Within that moment I might tell some back story and then sweep back to the present where a more senior staff member explained the bank’s rules, and then, when I told her what I needed the money for, ‘A fresh start in Aussie,’ she smiled, waved her hand in a way that suggested she was having a good day and that I shouldn’t make a habit of this sort of request. Then she instructed her junior to allow my withdrawal.
That felt good. Of course there was guilt. But also, exhilaration. More money than I’d ever held. My ex-flatmates were amazed and impressed. How, in such a short space of time, had I managed to save so much? We all deserved a bender to celebrate such discipline and fortitude.
Probably here I’d jump straight to the next morning. To the egg on the kitchen floor. We all got bombed. I passed out. When I woke there was an egg. Free of its shell. Unbroken. Dick, in making one of his famous fried egg sandwiches, must have dropped it. Dick who used to tear around Kingsland in a lipstick red Mazda convertible. Dick who people said looked like Robbie Williams, though he preferred Elvis Presley.
Details. The egg’s a good one. Short stories need good details. They add to reading pleasure and they add to the story. The egg speaks to our dissipation, but also to Dick’s kindness. We weren’t complete mongrels. It gives off a little light and some humour. It’s weird and off centre – waking up to it there. The yolk’s glistening curve. The puddle of white.
Telling a story is like finding your way through a maze. With a novel you can take your time. It’s no problem if you spend a few minutes staring up a wall’s face or admiring some shape in the clouds. A short story demands thrust. Smash through the walls if need be.
So from the egg, maybe you do another jump cut, plunging twenty years into the future. Me, now. Hands shaking after a sleepless night, straight onto the internet to check how the virus is progressing. Thinking back to that other time the world seemed so off kilter, when I was practising my Granddad’s signature over and over, making his name mine. But all that would probably be too overwrought. You’d delete it in the rewrite. Keep it tight and intense. Focus on that scene at the bank. Or try it all from Granddad’s point of view.
He’s dead now of course. Dick too – overdosed in the south of England a few years after that pathetic and criminal thing I did.
Not that I learnt anything, instead kept up my run of bad decisions. In Tokyo, Te Anau, Island Bay. Binge drinking, shitty jobs, failed relationships. Stuck deep in the confusion of what it meant to be an adult, to be a man. All exquisitely useful when I started writing. I knew grief, guilt, misery. My early stuff was soaked in it. And it was monumentally awful.
Recently I’ve been trying to teach my five-year-old to ride a two-wheeler. It takes time. The bit you can’t explain is balance. The brain in close coordination with all the little muscles required to keep you upright. Writing’s like that. Much can’t be explained. Not by me anyway. Tone, mood, point of view, even structure.
What I have learnt is that it’s best to get a story well away from myself. You might have an idea of some useful emotions, but it’s better to put them in other people’s heads. Two elderly swimmers having a race at Moana Pool say – one of whom tried it on with the others wife years earlier. Or a school teacher getting caught with porn on his computer and trying to make things right with his teenage daughter. A young father high on Ritalin stood on the edge of the tiger enclosure at Auckland Zoo.
How you start a story matters. You have to get hold of the reader fast and then submerge them in the story. And everything arrows at the ending. You can tie things off neatly or aim for something more open. Whatever you do don’t sermonize or play tricks.
Perth ended badly. My brother and Dad traced me there and retrieved me. I called Granddad from a payphone at Christhchurch airport to apologize. The phone rang and rang. His favourite place was the vege garden. Finally he picked up.
“That you, Bret?”
And there’s one more thing of great value to a short story. Surprise – that which holds the reader and turns her in a new direction. One avenue is to have a character react to some stimulus in an unexpected way.
Grandad and I talked about the weather for a bit. The heat in Perth. How dry his garden was. Neither of us had access to our emotions so it was difficult to get to the point. Eventually I managed to say sorry. I can’t remember his response. But what I remember, and what still haunts me, was that even after what I’d done, he invited me back.
“You’d be welcome to come and stay, Bret?”
What Sort of Man: Stories by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, $30) is available as an e-book and will be in all good bookstores when all good bookstores reopen. A story from the collection is included in The VUP Reader, an anthology of New Zealand writing which costs precisely zero dollars, and available as a PDF from the publisher or as an e-book from Wellington books company MeBooks. That cost again: $0.00.