If you’re an emerging New Zealand writer who for her second book has written a collection of short stories that riff on 19th-and 20th-century classics by such masters of the form as Anton Chekhov, James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield, it’s not surprising that when the word “audacious” crops up you’re keen to make one thing clear. “It’s really important to me readers understand that in writing From Under the Overcoat I certainly never imagined myself standing equal with the writers of the original stories,” says Sue Orr. “Not equal, not remotely close to them. As Martha Des Moines in The Open Home would say, not even within cooee. Those writers were literary geniuses and their works masterpieces. My stories simply salute the excellence of those old works and acknowledge the continued influence of them on today’s and tomorrow’s writers.”
The Open Home (after Mansfield’s The Doll’s House) was the first story Orr wrote for From Under the Overcoat. In her debut collection, Etiquette for a Dinner Party (2008), she had already been inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Frank Sargeson’s An Affair of the Heart for her stories The Death of Mrs Harrison and The Stories of Frank Sargeson. “So by the time I finished Etiquette I was starting to think about how what we read as writers influences what we write, whether or not we want it to. Some writers purposely don’t read certain material if they don’t want to be influenced while they’re writing and others go the other way and seek out to be inspired in the style in which they’re trying to write.”
Orr certainly went the other way preparing for From Under the Overcoat. Having decided on a book that would work as both a modern collection of short stories and a nod to past classics and their perennial themes, and having ensured she wasn’t wasting her time and Random House would be willing to support it (“they’ve been very kind to me but I do know most publishers would like to see a novel as a second book after a first book of short stories”), she started reading. “What I didn’t want to do was handpick old stories and then try unnaturally to contort new stories to speak back to the old ones. I wanted the new stories to develop organically. “I just read and read and read and then I just waited to see what grew out of what I was reading.”
The title of the collection comes from Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (Orr’s response being Spectacles) and the comment of a Russian writer (Fyodor Dostoevsky? Ivan Turgenev? Whoever it was has been lost in the mists of time) that “We have all come out from under Gogol’s Overcoat.” Orr’s salutes to the masters take many forms, some more specific or explicit than others. The most specific and explicit – not to say self-conscious – is A Regrettable Slip of the Tongue, in which the wife of Gabriel Conroy from Joyce’s The Dead gets to tell her side of events. Like most of the voices in Orr’s book, Gretta’s is contemporary colloquial – she says at one point, “one of the advantages of being dead is that you have the ability to adapt to changes in the lingo”. A neat way to sidestepping writing in (writing up to) Joyce’s own style. “I wasn’t brave enough to go there,” says Orr, laughing, of that particular challenge.
Another story, The Eviction Party (after Chekhov’s The Party), revisits the mill town of Tokoroa from Etiquette’s Velocity, and features a cameo by that story’s racing pigeon-fixated vet, Jack Duffy. Like Lucy, another minor character in The Eviction Party, Orr was a reporter in Tokoroa when she began in journalism – later working for the Bay of Plenty Times and the Evening Post in Wellington. “I have very clear memories of that period in Tokoroa, that small town with its amazing mix of cultures. The story in Etiquette was entirely fiction, but I did actually go to a party in Tokoroa where the house was burnt down [as it is in The Eviction Party].”
Orr was brought up on a farm near Thames. Hence her understanding of country life. “Country life … there are rich veins there for storytelling that have come and gone in terms of their popularity in New Zealand writing but I think the stories that are told among country people are the same as the stories told about town and city folk. People are basically the same; they are driven by the same emotions and passions no matter where they live.” Orr lives in Auckland – although she spent four years in Paris when her husband was posted there. The French-set Hangi in Etiquette is “almost an absolutely true story”, she says. It was while working as a contract writer (including speeches for Governor-General Dame Silvia Cartwright) that Orr finally took the plunge and signed up for a master’s in creative writing at Victoria University. Even while she was a journalist, she had been “filing” people and incidents away in her head. Writing was “a secret hankering for a very long time that I confessed to nobody, including myself”.
When she did start to write, she drew frequently on those people she’d filed away. “You never really found out the full story about them, and certainly not within the context of writing about them in a newspaper, so I picked up some of these characters and stories that I recalled and I imagined how they may have come about, letting go of the facts and allowing myself to create a fiction. It was a challenge for me at first, allowing myself to do that,” she says. “I do think being a journalist, or ex-journalist, I’m really curious about people, about why they do things and how they end up in some situations that from the outside look completely strange … But you only have to sit alongside people and see that through a series of events they do end up in some pickles. I like not to judge my characters. I just like to sit alongside them and see how they go into a situation and whether they have the fortitude to get out in a way they find dignified for themselves.”
The stylistic restraints of journalism have served Orr well, too, she says – inculcating clarity and brevity. “Every word in a short story counts. If you’ve been a journalist you have a natural tendency to edit, and edit reasonably well, your own work – because if you don’t you know a sub-editor would have got hold of it, in the past, and it’s always better to try to do it yourself.” Now, however, Orr is writing a novel. So is she having to allow herself the extra breathing space? “I’m having to allow myself a few adjectives,” she says, laughing. “And adverbs. But not too many adverbs.”
FROM UNDER THE OVERCOAT, by Sue Orr (Vintage, $29.99); NEW ZEALAND POST BOOK AWARDS, August 1.
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