Last week during the lockdown we launched Breton Dukes's new collection of short fiction What Sort of Man on Reading Room. Here Breton answers some questions about the collection and his writing process.
This is your third collection of short fiction and I wondered what it is about the form that keeps drawing you back?
The challenge. With every new story I start full of doubt—can I get life and worth into a piece. Can I improve on the last story. When I was younger I expected I’d move from stories to long novels and then to screen plays. But that won’t happen. The challenge of getting out a good story is so great, and so pleasurable.
There’s infinite freedom in a short story, infinite ways to fail and succeed. I love that tightrope. I also hate it – how having written so many how can I know so little about the form?
What got me hooked was the sensation I’d experience at the end of reading a good story. That transportation. That moment when you felt lifted and spun and like you’d come up through the skin of the world for a brief look at something different. I love novels, I love anything written well. But I’ve never had that same altering sensation with a novel. That’s what I strive for when I write – to conjure up that disruption. A really good short story is escape, and escape is really good.
Also there’s loyalty. I stand with the short story. They are not fashionable. They go unrecognized. They’re the runt of the writing litter. But not to me. The form is glorious and world-beating. It has the most punch and the most flavour.
No one ever asks the novel writer, ‘When are you going to try and write a short story?’
The inference being that the longer form is the harder and the more demanding. Gently, I would say, bollocks. A collection of short stories contains eight or ten or fifteen beginnings and endings, their might be thirty or more different characters. New moods, new tones, different structures.
My son has this collection of books — Wolverine vs. Tasmanian Devil (Who Would Win?)! Salt Water Crocodile vs. Hammer Head Shark (Who Would Win?)! The Life and Death of Ivan Ilyich vs. Anna Karenina — who would win?
Tough questions, all of them. But during Lockdown, feed me a collection of short stories any time.
The men in your stories try hard to get it right, but more often than not, they fly wide of the mark. Do you think this is a common experience for men in our culture? Why do your male characters have this maladjustment or discomfort with the society?
I can only go off my own experience. I went to an all boys high school and then straight into a hard-drinking university scene. Ten years of immersion in an environment that valued certain traits. Toughness, physical strength, physical size, academic prowess, sporting prowess, competitiveness, not standing out, not being emotional, drinking lots of beer, not acknowledging let alone sharing doubts, fears and dreams.
Badly fucked up formative years.
I guess to some extent what my short stories do is put men from these scenes out onto the world, dragging these limitations around behind them. And these coiled up men with these warped interior worlds make for good drama/entertainment. There’s the potential for irrational decision making, exaggerated desires, bursts of mania.
Added to that is, as you mention, this desire to do better. To be better fathers, partners, members of society. That adds texture, it complicates things, it adds to unpredictability and those are all things a good story needs.
This question leads on from the last — it’s about likeability and characters. I wondered what drew you to write characters that in real life we’d give a wide berth?
I don’t see all of them as unlikeable. Certainly Gary in Ross Creek is probably evil, but I’d describe the others as flawed. Some of them deeply flawed.
Damien Wilkins once wrote that he felt like he needed a shower after reading one of my books. I didn’t take that as a criticism! I write in a very close third person style. I try to get into a character’s pores. We all have thoughts, feelings, emotions, urges that are best kept private. My stories mine this stuff. But I also think I achieve balance, with humour, with kindness and with getting heart into the stories.
What I would also say is that I don’t write realism. I’m not trying to capture a character or setting or scene as it really is. I’m writing for entertainment. When I am making a character I am looking to seriously exaggerate. My favourite ever work of art is The Sopranos. Huge characters with beautiful shoes and mad hair styles. Killers and conman and philanderers. But they could also sing, and dance, and make cheese. There’s balance, but mostly there’s size.
I guess rather than realism when I think of my work I see it as cartoonish – adult cartoons certainly, but with that same zany sort of melodramatic hyperbole you encounter on the screen.
There’s a sense of precarity about many of the characters situations in these stories – a sense that something bad is about to occur to them even when it doesn’t. Is this a plotting device, keep the reader turning the page or is this feeling that something sinister is about to happen an experience you have had in your own life?
When VUP accepted my final batch of stories last year I wrote an email to Fergus saying how pleased I was and that I hoped, prior to publication, the world wouldn’t end. For a number of reasons – parents’ divorce, death of a close friend in my twenties – I see the worst in the world. It’s the lens I look through when I write. I’m dedicated to current affairs. I’ve followed, with horror, the rise of populism. I watched COVID-19 coming from way back. I have three little boys and at my core what I fear is Donald Trump taking them by their tiny hands and leading them into the furnace.
But, umm, yeah, it’s also a plot device. Menace is entertaining, having the reader’s heart up a bit, drying out their mouth. It gets the pages turning.
My great friend Lawrence Patchett is the complete opposite. He can turn a dystopian novel where the world’s been fried into some thing light and kind and hopeful, whereas I’ll turn a toothbrush or a shallot into some horrifying object.
Are there any short story writers or other writers that have influence how you write? What writers working today do you admire?
I like reading Lawrence Patchett, Damien Wilkins, Pip Adam. Vincent O’Sullivan is a masterful short story writer. His recently published selected work contains some of the best things I have read. I guess if it was Mansfield vs. O’Sullivan, Mansfield would leave the ring victorious, but I’d back Vincent up against any other New Zealand writer. Living or dead.
While we're still in level 3 you can buy What Sort of Man as an ebook from MeBooks or support your local bookseller and order a copy from them. VUP can also mail copies purchased through our online store.
What Sort of Man, p/b, $30.