‘Brisk and pissed off”, the ghost of Fabian socialist Maud Pember Reeves accosts council clerk Michael Hunt on a commuter train to Porirua. Not only has Hunt built a website – a mix of essays, trivia “and retro-cool posturing” – based on the feisty suffragette, but he has also applied to have a hologram made of her. “You’re sabotaging my life,” she accuses her fan from the future (the story is set in 2013).
Such is the ethical dilemma of a fiction writer dipping into the historic record. And such is the explanation for the uncommon inclusion in a collection of short stories of a list of reference material. “I wanted to signal debt, to acknowledge my historical sources,” says Lawrence Patchett at his home on the Kapiti Coast. “But it was also a warning to myself. That story [about the outraged Ms Reeves] was an opportunity to explore my anxieties around the ethics of writing about real people, about how would they feel… wouldn’t it be nice if they could come to us and say, ‘You know, it’s not okay for you to read my letters.’”
Reeves is not the only subject to strike back at her writer/researcher. In the first story of Patchett’s I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Tales, a time-travelling “Pakeha-Maori” gives a clearly exaggerated account of his life to his modern-day listener. When challenged over the authenticity of his stories, he retorts, “You enjoyed them, didn’t you? You wanted to hear them.” It is a provocative rejoinder, a nod to those first-contact Europeans who talked up their experiences on returning to their homeland and a signal to the reader of the factual instability of these tautly thrilling genre-crossing narratives.
“That is why I wanted that story first. To say, ‘This is the territory we are negotiating in this book – we’re approaching history through the lens of inventive storytelling.’” So we encounter Zane Grey aggravating the locals with his big-game bravado, fictional Doug floating up to real-life Katerina Nehua in a Depression-era swimming contest, the jovial coachman Harry Nettlefold dealing with the historically accurate death of a passenger. Real people, real events, woven into fast-paced tales of ghosts, holograms, time-travellers and a counterfactual account of the fabricated Orderist sect obstructing the work of bludgeoning sealers.
“In some stories, I felt that within the context of the collection it was okay to approximate something, to commit historical mistruths. In other instances, I felt like it was more important to violently disrupt those expectations of truth-telling and authenticity.” Patchett is a writer, runner, co-editor of art and literary journal Hue & Cry and recent graduate of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters – his doctoral thesis examined ideas of authenticity in biographical fiction. He is also a proponent of Michael Chabon’s call for a return to the big-plot narratives of genre fiction, as opposed to the contemporary “plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story”.
As a teenager, he read cricket books, adventure stories and westerns (“even though I could perceive the formula in them”). At university, he read English and history. As the sole reporter on a small newspaper in Canterbury, he interviewed old identities, amazed “at how ready they were to share their stories and how interesting they were”. But journalism was not for him – he’s not, he says, “the newshound type”. He went to the UK, where he worked in a marque firm in Yorkshire, an office in London and a farm on the soggy isle of Anglesey, where, sheltering from the horizontal rain, he found a copy of Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck.
“That was an amazing experience. It was quite unlike what I had read of New Zealand fiction. A lot of exciting things were happening in New Zealand that I was missing out on. I remember, too, reading a collection of poetry by Gregory O’Brien. That made me really homesick.” With the draft of a “really laborious novel”, Patchett returned home, determined to learn the craft of writing. “I felt I needed to learn the real mechanics of crafting a story, to get the architecture upon which I could apply everything else. I found a story-writing guide for primary school kids. It told you in really basic language, ‘You have a problem, things go right, things go wrong, you have a climax, then a resolution.’ I read a whole heap of storycrafting guides and was able to bed all that knowledge down.”
After finally taking the novel off life-support, Patchett turned to short stories and the self-styled “frontier tales” of this collection. “I wanted to write stories set in the past, drawing on these adventure-storytelling models. Not the old ethnocentric notion of discovery but early colonial experience and contact between Maori and Pakeha.”The idea of the “frontier” also refers to that metaphorical borderland beyond the known and familiar. Time and again, his characters are plucked from their normal lives to deal with wildly abnormal circumstances – an experienced coachman has to face the death of a passenger, a missionary loses a colleague in the swollen waters of the Turakina, a young clerk is swept up in the 1909 sinking of the Penguin.
“For that story, I took a mild, hesitant character who works in a controlled environment and pushed him up against the direct opposite – a chaotic situation at sea where he can’t control anything. It was the anniversary of the Wahine disaster and I was thinking, ‘How would an ordinary person act in that instance?’ The choice of being heroic is such an unreal choice; there’s no way of predicting it, there’s no mulling over heroism in impossible circumstances. You just react the way you do.”
Such fraught encounters with the unfamiliar take time to resolve. Patchett’s stories are long, hovering around the 10,000-word mark (his story about Harry Nettlefold, The Road to Tokomairiro, was the “Long” winner in last year’s The Long and the Short of It competition). “It takes a long time to push a character against their worst nightmare, for them to confront it, come to terms with it and then have some kind of recovery. It’s about not letting the character off the hook – and not letting me off the hook.”
It’s also about storytelling. Throughout the book, Patchett insists on the power of story as a way to heal, recall and remember. As the wearying Hunt tells his ghostly accuser, “You couldn’t exist without people like me… That’s the fact of the matter, eh, Maud.”
I GOT HIS BLOOD ON ME: FRONTIER TALES, by Lawrence Patchett (VUP, $35), released June 7.