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Interview with 2010 winner, C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead won the inaugural Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2010 for his story, Last Season’s Man. He is a poet, novelist, critic and short story writer who’s work includes the novels Smith’s Dream and Mansfield: A Novel and, most recently, The Necessary Angel. We caught up with him to discuss his work and the impact winning the award has had.

How has winning The Sunday Times Short Story Award 2010 impacted on your career? Has it impacted on your writing practice?

My career as a writer was well-advanced before I won this award, so it could be said that it had the effect of confirming rather than advancing it – but every confirmation is welcome to writers, especially as they get older and fear the time must come when the powers will wane. I regard the winning of that prize, judged by such a distinguished international panel, as one of the most important and reaffirming awards of a career which has now lasted many decades.

One effect of winning the Sunday Times prize in 2010 for that particular story, Last Season’s Man, was unusual. Because it’s a very large prize it was especially noticed at home in New Zealand where I live most of the time and where I am best known; and despite the fact that the story is set in Croatia among literary and theatre people, there were those in the literary community in New Zealand who were convinced it was really about people who could be identified here – so the reaction was not only, as I had expected, pride that a New Zealand writer had won the world’s largest prize for the short story, but in the case of a small group, outrage. This seemed preposterous to me, especially because the tone of the story is so benign, and largely comic. There was also the irony that I had friends in Croatia who equally felt they knew who my subjects were – people living and working in the theatre in Zagreb – though in their case, because they were sophisticated and understood very well how fiction and reality relate and are distinct, no offence was taken. In a way it’s a compliment when people believe your fiction must be based on real people and events, because it means you’ve achieved a feeling of ‘reality’, of ‘truth’ – but it’s also disconcerting if anyone decides to be offended.

In a way it’s a compliment when people believe your fiction must be based on real people and events, because it means you’ve achieved a feeling of ‘reality’, of ‘truth.'

Whilst you were developing as a writer where there any publications or authors which particularly supported you?

The short story has always figured prominently in New Zealand writing because of the way Katherine Mansfield figured in the development of the form in the English language in the early 20th century. I won the first Bank of New Zealand Mansfield short story prize; and in 1972 I was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship which gives the writer a period in the French Riviera town of Menton where she wrote some of her best stories. As an academic I was closely involved with Mansfield studies and published a selection of her letters and journals which was in print for 25 years as a Penguin Modern Classic. When I was a young writer Frank Sargeson (30 years my senior) was a mentor, and it was Sargeson who did for our short fiction what Mark Twain did for American, and Henry Lawson for Australian fiction – gave it a local vernacular voice and wrested it away from the voice of conventional middle-class British fiction. Maurice Duggan, another notable New Zealand short story writer, was a friend for some years and when he died I edited his collected stories for Auckland University Press.

Your winning story Last Season’s Man is concerned with nuances of character. How do characters create themselves on your head? Do they appear fully formed or are they fleshed out through the writing process?

Characters in fiction do often (but not always) evolve out of people one has known or observed; but my experience is that even a character based on a real person will become separate from its source as the fiction develops. So if I begin basing character A on person X, the separation of A and X grows wider, and they become quite distinct in the mind of the writer. A is not X, though they have characteristics in common. And more often there is no simple equation of A and X. A is likely to be drawn partly (but only partly) from X – but with elements also of Y and Z. And as the fiction grows, its characters take you by surprise, do things that were never in the original plan, take unpredictable turns. That is the imagination at work, and it is usually best to let it make its own way without too much of a controlling hand – though the result must be a story with a beginning a middle and an end. And for me, what happens must be plausible. In that sense I am a realist in fiction. I don’t do fantasy.

And as the fiction grows, its characters take you by surprise, do things that were never in the original plan, take unpredictable turns.

As a poet, novelist and short story writer, how do you tell what form a piece of writing takes?

As a writer I have a distinct notion when I begin writing that this is going to be a poem or fiction; but if it’s fiction I may not be quite clear about length. Sometimes I know it’s going to be only of story length; other times I have embarked on what I think is going to be a novel which has proved to lack the kind of substance novel-length requires and has ended as a novella, or a story. With my recent novel, The Necessary Angel, I wrote more than half and then couldn’t see how to finish it, but I thought one character, Helen White, was too good, too interesting, to waste, so I extracted her and gave her the opening story in my collection The Name on the Door is not Mine. But while that collection was in press I went back to the novel and solved the problem of an ending. In fact the character of Helen White (the product of imagination only) who in the earlier version was going to die mysteriously, resolved it for me and survived. She gave me the ending I needed – a rather dramatic one, and consequently she exists both in the novel and in the story collection.

Since you won the Award, what have you been working on? What are your current writing plans?

Since winning the prize I have published two novels, a collection of short stories, a collection of essays and reviews, two collections of poems, and I’m currently close to finishing a second volume of autobiography. So renewed confidence, bestowed by that significant prize, has kept me very much ‘in business’, well into my 80s, and I’m indeed very grateful to the sponsors.

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