John Summers and Lawrence Patchett in Conversation

John Summers speaks to his editor, Lawrence Patchett, about their relationship and his new book, The Mermaid Boy

There’s a stage in the publication process that transforms the solitary work of writing into a collaborative act. To get a book to print there almost always needs to be a moment when something I work on becomes something we work on. As well as ensuring a work is free from errors and as polished as possible, an editor also helps to shape a book; they identify gaps in the story or form, and then work closely with the writer to help them write into these gaps and produce a complete work. While there are many ways to work together in literature, some of the most intimate and involved collaborative activities take place between writer and editor.

John Summers’ collection of short nonfiction, The Mermaid Boy, is being published by Hue & Cry Press this week. John's work has appeared in a wide range of publications and he’s a co-founder of, and regular contributor to, Up Country, an online journal for creative nonfiction about the outdoors. The editor of The Mermaid Boy is Lawrence Patchett. Lawrence is the author of I Got His Blood On Me: Frontier Tales, a book of short stories that received the New Zealand Post Awards (NZSA Hubert Church Award for Best First Book of Fiction) in 2013. John, Lawrence and I have known each other for a while now; we’re in the same writing workshop, which previously included Chloe Lane, The Mermaid Boy’s publisher and stunning writer.

I find John and Lawrence’s individual work extremely interesting, and I find them interesting readers of each other’s work. Over the years, Lawrence’s work has become more and more speculative, yet it's very firmly placed in the challenges of living today, in this world. John’s work shares an interest in this work of living, yet comes at it from a completely different formal direction. This acute observation and distillation of the world around them and the distinct ways they represent similar issues makes them productive readers of each other’s writing. I’ve always been intrigued to find out how they work together as editor and writer, so I sent them a few questions then got out of the way so they could write the following conversation collaboratively.*

John Summers: So, I'll have a go at question one: You’ve both been readers of each other’s work for a while now. What's it like moving into the more formal space of writing and editing a book together?

It might just be because this is the first time I've written a book, but I don't think it would have worked as well with another editor. Going into this, I knew that you really knew what I was trying to do and similarly, I could understand where your comments were coming from, having read your work over the years. I guess I'm trying to say it was very reassuring to work with someone whose work I knew and who knew my work.

Lawrence Patchett: Yeah, that's how I'd put it too.

John: You probably wouldn't say work three times in the one sentence though.

Lawrence: It's like all that time reading each other’s work created a strong foundation of understanding. And the funny thing is that, in addition to workshopping each other's work over that time, I'd also worked with your writing while editing for Hue & Cry. I think I edited that piece, ‘Cheers Ron’, about Ronald Hugh Morrieson, before I'd even met you. Is that right?

John: I think so.

Lawrence: So I guess we had a bit of a track record, and I'd enjoyed editing three or four of your pieces for the journal – including ‘The Old Boy’, which is still one of my favourites.

John: I also realise that in many ways it didn't seem too different from the workshop experience, which is a good thing. It was a discussion we were having about each piece, and just as in those workshop discussions before, I found your comments very useful.

Lawrence: For me, the really exciting thing about this project was the opportunity to work on a whole book, to think about a whole arc of stories by a writer whose work I really admired. I wanted to see that take shape, to see what it would look like. Definitely that turned out to be one of the most fun parts of it, for me.

Question two: Do you feel in some way that you've taught each other (over the years sharing work) how to read each other's work? Or how to write for the other person?

Yep, I think that through a combination of workshopping and editing those early pieces, I got an idea of what your stories tend to look and sound like, and what the rhythm and pacing and feel tends to be. But, like I say, I think the exciting thing was trying to anticipate what you would write, what new styles of story you'd come up with.

John: I've learnt a lot from reading your work over the years. I'm thinking in terms of the strong narrative arc which I see in a lot of your work, and it did make me very aware of the need to ensure that these stories worked as stories even though they were nonfiction. That said, at other times I think there were some suggestions you made which I didn't take up because although I could see they were good points, for me they wouldn't work in terms of these stories being non fiction.

Lawrence: Yeah, I think that's really positive when that happens – when the writer says, ‘No, that’s not right for this story, that’s not what I'm going for.’ It gives you, as the editor, more confidence in the writer and the book, in a funny way. Another thing, I guess just going back to what I said earlier, I'd become familiar with some of the techniques you use, or the places you tend to end up positioning your characters – especially that technique of revealing the strangeness of a situation, and allowing the reader to examine the characters’ responses to that situation, and what it reveals – but there were some techniques and scenarios that were new. Like some of those things to do with nonfiction, as you say. Particularly as you pushed the central character further, and the form as well. Like, I could never have predicted a story like ‘The Platinum Can Be Resplendent’, and, in a different way, ‘Garden City’. They were both surprising and exciting.

when the writer says, ‘No, that’s not right for this story, that’s not what I'm going for.’ It gives you, as the editor, more confidence in the writer and the book, in a funny way.

John: That's right, you knew the tricks I had up my sleeve and it was good to have you push me to learn a few more.

Right. Question three: What is an editor for?

For me, it’s to be a reader foremost. To bring a reader’s eye, to pull you back from you work and help you to see it all over again.

Lawrence: Yep, that's it for me too. But I reckon there are two types of reader you have to be. The first one is the most important. It's when you look at the whole manuscript and ask this question, ‘Is it a book yet?’ What I mean is – is there that sense of cogency and shape that you just talked about. Maybe of narrative arc too, an arc of character change, as you said too, but I was trying to pretend not to be too prescriptive. And then, if there’s not a sense of a complete book yet, you have to try to work out where the problem is. Is it a certain relationship that needs to come forward? Is there a moment when the central character seems to be about to take centre stage and change but it just doesn't happen? Or maybe, in a collection, it's working out which stories are bending the book out of shape, and making it just a big series of stories without a coherent shape. Then you have to challenge the writer to fix that problem, by writing again. (Ha, ha, like that time when I asked you to bring a certain key relationship forward – acknowledging that it was difficult, given the nonfiction thing. I think I saw a flicker of fear pass over your face when I said that. An easy thing for an editor to ask for ...).

it's working out which stories are bending the book out of shape

And the second type of reading you have to do is the close reading: story by story, line by line, sentence by sentence. This part is about eliminating errors, and making sure the writer’s work is presented as professionally as possible.

John: Ha! Yes, although the fear wasn't so much about revealing my private life but just me thinking at first that there’s no story in that. It’s a tricky thing to make sure the work is nonfiction, but to also reflect the need for those elements of a story. I should also note for others’ benefit, that you weren’t starting with a completed manuscript, I think I gave you half a manuscript to start with and then added to it as we went, and so that’s when we were having a lot of these conversations. But while I'd sometimes think, ‘He does know I can't just make this stuff up to tell the story,’ the other thing is that this gave me the confidence to experiment a little, knowing there was more to and fro then might usually be the case when you're submitting work to a journal.

Lawrence: Yeah, that's true. The book was evolving through those various versions of the manuscript you gave us, eh. And there was definitely a sense when you'd arrived at the book you wanted,– and that's pretty much what became The Mermaid Boy, right? I think only a couple of stories were left out, in the end.

John: Next question: Can you talk to each other a bit about the idea of nonfiction stories?

So, my pat line for explaining this book has been that I started out writing fiction but found that the stories I wanted to tell were true ones, and while I trot this out a bit, it’s still the best way I have of explaining the nonfiction stories thing. So with the story Boss Man, I wrote a fiction story based on those events many years ago, but was never quite satisfied with it. For me it kind of simplified things to make it a particular kind of story – appreciate that this also has a lot to do with my limitations as a fiction writer - whereas I like to think that the nonfiction version is more interesting in picking up on the strange relationship we had with our boss on that farm and presenting that. I felt it allowed me to go into that detail of the work we did. It became more interesting for being true.

While it was still important that these worked as stories, for me, keeping them as nonfiction meant I could present things as they were in situations like that and let readers see the strangeness and surprises, rather than having to make incidents and characters do things.

Lawrence: Yeah, I think that's one of the great strengths of your work, too, delivering the characters – and readers – to a place where the strangeness of a situation comes right out into the open. That's where a lot of the comedy comes from, but it's also when the characters reveal the most about themselves, as we see them respond, and I reckon it's where a lot of the book’s subtle commentary about our culture comes in too.

It’s interesting because I started using speculative fiction techniques as I was struggling with the real ethical problems I saw in writing about real people and real events. I think speculative fiction gives you a chance to bring those moral issues right into the open; you can make them the whole point of the story, if you know what I mean. It’s not too dissimilar from your approach, maybe, just coming at it from a different angle.

John: Yeah, I really admire people who write speculative fiction or science fiction or anything like that where they create a world. For me place is really important in writing, but it's always very grounded in places I’ve known and the people I encountered there. I’m not good at reimagining those. Which is my way of saying I'm unlikely to write speculative fiction in a hurry.

Lawrence: That's interesting too, because one of the reasons the book I’m working on is speculative is because I wanted to write about the history of this place I’m thoroughly connected to – and thoroughly angry with – in a new way. Like throwing up the themes of its history and seeing what story emerges as they land.

John: Last question: Does editing other people’s work affect your writing?

Lawrence: That's an interesting one, because I'm sure it does affect my own writing, but I don't think I can work out how. It's not very direct, I don't think. At its best, maybe the influence is more through keeping close company and paying close attention to really high-quality and exciting writing, and – a bit earlier in the process – trying to see how the stories are working, what makes them successful or could make them more effective.

Read an excerpt from The Mermaid Boy here

The Mermaid Boy launches on Thursday 7 May
6pm at Unity Books, Wellington

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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