So on Thursday Bronwyn and I drove down to Hamilton for the launch of Tracey Slaughter's latest book, deleted scenes for lovers.
Here's Tracey with her book (unless otherwise noted, all the pictures in this post have been borrowed from Mayhem Literary Journal's facebook page):
The event was very ably MC'ed by Waikato University's own Mark Houlahan:
It was very well attended:
The speakers included her publisher, Fergus Barrowman, of Victoria University Press:
Distinguished novelist (and Tracey's good friend) Catherine Chidgey:
And also me, making the official launch speech:
And, for those of you who are curious, here it is:
Tracey Slaughter. deleted scenes for lovers. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016.
There are many great New Zealand poets, novelists – and creative writers generally, but I still feel confident in claiming that the short story is the genre in which we’ve most distinguished ourselves.
To my mind, these are the four great epochs of the New Zealand short story:
First (of course) the Age of Mansfield: It’s fair to say that the atmospheric intensity of Katherine Mansfield’s fiction was helped by her reading of Chekhov, Flaubert and Maupassant. But I think her work would have developed that way even if she’d never encountered them.
Secondly, the Age of Sargeson: Again, there were outside, mainly American influences on the innovations pioneered here by Frank Sargeson. But his exploration of the literary resources of the New Zealand vernacular – breaking away from dialect as a kind of comic turn – remains revolutionary.
The chronology gets a bit more shaky after that, but the next great age, for me, is the Age of Marshall. Owen Marshall – still with us, fortunately – with his immense body of work exploring the New Zealand experience in all its multifaceted variety, built on the work of previous writers such as Maurice Duggan to present a more consciously symbolic reading of the landscape and mores of the country.
And now we come to the Age of Slaughter. This last category may rouse a bit more controversy. There are, to be sure, many fine practitioners of the art of the short story in New Zealand right now: Breton Dukes, Sue Orr, Alice Tawhai, to name just a few. What is it about Tracey’s work which gives it such extraordinary significance?
It’s not simply a matter of talent – though I would defy anyone to read Tracey’s latest collection, deleted scenes for lovers, which I feel so privileged to be here today to launch, and question the sheer magnitude of her ability as a writer: her ear for language, the mythopoeic intensity of her imagination. No, it’s more of a question, for me, of a paradigm shift.
This is one I’ve been sensing for quite some time, both in the work I receive as an editor, and the kinds of writing I see our students starting to produce – since Tracey and I both work as teachers of Creative Writing.
The Age of Slaughter, for me, has an Apocalyptic air. The authors born into it, or who inhabit it by necessity, feel at home with intense emotion. Unlike the schools of the laconic and the ironic that preceded them, they have no problem with excess, with big themes and extravagant linguistic tropes.
There’s a certain black humour about them, too: like William Faulkner, Tracey writes about situations so devastating that she almost forces us to laugh. Sometimes, as in the passage from a projected memoir with which she won the Landfall essay prize last year, she jets out passages of jewelled prose so intense and dazzling that we hardly notice the banalities of the seventies key party and ranch slider aesthetic that underlies them.
Both Sargeson and Marshall specialised in apparent simplicity: a straightforward surface concealing strange depths. Tracey, by contrast (I would argue), has taken inspiration from Mansfield’s late stories to use the full resources of a poet’s word-palette when painting her complex and devastating scenes. You always have to read a Tracey Slaughter story twice: even then some of its subtleties may lie in wait to ambush you later.
Courage, however, is the word which most frequently comes to my mind when I read Tracey’s work. She goes places others (including myself) are afraid to. The interrogation of the word “consent” in the story of that name, the sheer intensity of the wish for escape and freedom in “How to Leave Your Family,” the dark close of “The Longest Drink in Town” – there’s no holding back in any of these pieces. But neither is there any over-simplification, no failure – above all – to find the “right word, not its second cousin,” which Mark Twain defined as “the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
If you want to know where New Zealand culture is right now, read Tracey Slaughter. Buy her book; get her to sign it; you won’t regret it. I’ll go further. Even if many of you couldn’t care less about New Zealand writers and their various turf wars and attempts at self-definition (why should you, after all?), if you want to know how it feels to live in this country: to recognise the thousand small details that go to make up a sense of place: the feel of wet flannelette pyjamas on a child who’s wet the bed; how it feels to kiss a smoky mouth you shouldn’t, read Tracey Slaughter.
To say I recommend this book is to put it mildly. I think it’s an indispensable book. This is our Prelude, our That Summer, our The Day Hemingway Died. This is no drawing-room talent we’re talking here: this is Tracey Slaughter. And for better or worse, in all its beauty and complexity, but also its fears and devastations, its intimations of total eclipse, this is the Age of Slaughter.