Friday, April 16, 2021

Tracey Slaughter: Devil's Trumpet

Tracey Slaughter (15-4-21)
[All launch photos by Bronwyn Lloyd]

It was a dark and stormy night in Kirikiriroa. There were roadworks outside Mercer which delayed us by half an hour or so, but when we finally got to Poppies Bookshop, a block back from Victoria Street, we found that the faithful had not deserted the cause. Once again, the place was overflowing with people.

Tracey's publisher Fergus Barrowman had come up from Wellington. Bronwyn and I had come down from Auckland. It was students from Waikato Uni and the local literati that really packed the space, though. I could hardly hear myself think!

MC Jack Ross reads out his launch speech

You'll notice Tracey's new book in the foreground of the picture above.

VUP Publisher Fergus Barrowman speaks about Tracey's book

Fergus was as witty as ever, quoting from the recent Spinoff article by Catherine Woulfe which lists "The sexiest lines from New Zealand’s sexiest new book, Devil’s Trumpet."

"Publicity like this is music to a publisher's ears," as he said.

Dave Taylor & Jack Ross

Here I am beside Tracey's Mayhem co-editor and long-time literary accomplice, Dave Taylor.

Fergus Barrowman with VUP authors Catherine Chidgey, Tracey Slaughter & Essa Ranapiri

And here's my launch speech for the book:

Tracey Slaughter: Devil's Trumpet (Wellington: VUP, 2021)

What do dead girls talk about? They don’t ever talk to me.
– “ladybirds” [169]

We have a stage three creative writing course at Massey University, where I work, called "Starting Your Manuscript." The course is designed to ask students to analyse the kinds of decisions authors make when creating a book-length collection of stories or poems. The intention, of course, is to get them to apply the same thinking to their own writing.

When I was asked to contribute one example of a thoroughly thought-through collection to the course materials, I realised that – among the contemporary New Zealand writers I was determined to get the students to focus on – only one book stood out for me: I accordingly chose Tracey Slaughter's 2016 book of short stories deleted scenes for lovers.

Tracey Slaughter: deleted scenes for lovers (Wellington: VUP, 2016)

I still think that's a marvellous book, and every time I look through it I'm struck at how well it builds up a collective sense of atmosphere, and how thoroughly it paints the small-town New Zealand backdrop of most of the stories. Some of the individual pieces – “Consent,” for instance – strike like lightning bolts, but they strike a prepared audience, in a carefully prepared context.

Her new book, Devil’s Trumpet, is better. I have to say that that came as a bit of a surprise to me when Tracey first lent me the typescript. At most I guess I was expecting something as good as 'deleted scenes'. But there are some extra points about this one which work very much in its favour.

Tracey Slaughter: The Longest Drink in Town (Auckland: Pania Press, 2015)

Deleted scenes for lovers, as a collection, was focussed around the separately published, tour-de-force piece The Longest Drink in Town. I love that story, its multiple plotlines, its central, terrible incident, too tragic, almost, to be spoken aloud.

Tracey Slaughter: if there is no shelter (UK: AdHoc Fiction, 2020)

This time, too, Tracey has focussed her collection around the novella-length story if there is no shelter. That story is atmospheric in the extreme. Despite its being set in an unnamed city (possibly not a million miles from here), which has recently suffered a catastrophic earthquake, and despite the dark love story it tells, it reminds me more than anything of Rosie Scott's classic 1992 novel Feral City, set in a phantasmagoric future Auckland, ravaged by the economic reforms of the late twentieth century. And, as in that novel, small-scale human relationships are all that retain any value among the rubble of the past.

Rosie Scott: Feral City (1992)

Over the past few years, Tracey has been experimenting more and more with flash fiction. Partially, I guess, because it's become such a popular form here in New Zealand and worldwide, but mainly (I suspect) because in it she can combine the intensity of her stories with the cut-throat verbal directness of her poetry.

As I started to read the typescript of her new collection, I followed my usual practice of rationing myself to two stories per night. I can't read much more than that without losing focus on the individual scenes and characters. That was how I first read deleted scenes for lovers, and I assumed that the same technique would work with Devil's Trumpet.

Not so. It might sound like a small point, but it's one of those technical decisions which can be devastatingly effective in context. I’d read a long story, then start the next one, subconsciously drawing in breath for another long haul, only to find that it stopped at the bottom of the page!

Nor was it as simple as alternating ‘normal’-length stories with flashes. Sometimes Tracey puts three short pieces in a row, other times only two. The longer ones, too, come in twos and threes. You never know that you’re going to get next.

That's what I mean by really shaping a manuscript. I'd read many – by no means all – of the stories before, but the layered, textured way they were folded into the mix made the book as a whole seem more like the product of a single creative impulse than the more familiar showcase for many different moods.

The book is devastatingly easy to read. It beguiles you in, like a fata morgana into a haunted wood where you literally have no idea where you're going to end up.

So what are the high-points those of you who’ve just bought – or are about to buy – this book are going to experience? Well, besides that beautiful, meditative, central novella, there are mosaic stories such as “postcards are a thing of the past” or “some facts about her home town”. Then there are the teasing complexities (perhaps particularly for those of us in the trade, but really for all attentive readers) of such stories as “point of view” or “stage three.”

Tracey Slaughter: Her body rises (Auckland: Random House, 2005)

No doubt these stories are the products of many moods, at many times. And yet here they seem unified, not disparate. Another thing I particularly liked about the structure of the book was its return to the alternating strobe effects of Tracey’s first book Her body rises (2005).

There the alternation was between stories and poems, which certainly had the effect of showcasing each individual piece. That difference in genre did give it a somewhat start-stop effect at times, admittedly, but I still think that it's one of the crucial components which has led to the breakthrough of this, her latest book.

Mind you, I'm not saying that if I (for example) were to alternate short pieces and longer stories, it would necessarily have the same effect. This is certainly not a panacea for writers grappling with similar basic problems of unity-in-diversity.

All the work here, whether it be one, a dozen, or fifty pages long, includes the verbal economy-in-exuberance and precise plot machinery we’ve come to associate with a Tracey Slaughter story. But the jump-cuts and unpredictable blindsiding each time one turns a page makes this her most inexhaustible box of delights to date: be they devilish (as the title suggests) or heavenly (as I myself prefer to believe).

To return to the quote I opened with, “What do dead girls talk about?” They may not ever talk to me, but they do seem to talk to Tracey Slaughter, and this book constitutes some of her transcripts from the edge.


Tracey Slaughter

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