Short sto­ries about real peo­ple

Wanganui Midweek - - REVIEW -

Low Life Short Sto­ries by Michael Bo­tur. Re­viewed by Paul Brooks

Michael

Bo­tur’s self­pub­lished book of short sto­ries, Low

Life, has that ti­tle for a good rea­son.

He has pop­u­lated some of his sto­ries with peo­ple many of us would have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing with, but they’re fas­ci­nat­ing to meet for the first time. They’re not all “low lifes” them­selves, but they of­ten find them­selves in sit­u­a­tions be­neath the norm. Their job is to rise, with the au­thor’s help.

There’s the rock fan — we never know his name — who lam­i­nates kit­set fur­ni­ture. He quits his job be­cause this cool rock chick on the ra­dio says it’s what he should do and he spends the rest of the story cop­ing with “fame” and no money and wait­ing for that op­por­tu­nity to be a roadie for Me­tal­lica.

Or the straight, mar­ried guy on good money with a house and mort­gage who thinks he could be happy with a wo­man who lives one day at a time and some­times can’t re­mem­ber his name.

There’s the older guy who thinks his mar­riage has gone be­yond bor­ing and tries to get ad­vice from younger peo­ple on how to mend things.

And then there’s the 60-yearold arthritic grand­mother who dis­cov­ers il­le­gal pain re­lief and a source of in­come.

There are 16 sto­ries in all, ev­ery one well crafted and they are all well worth the read. Even among all the bad lan­guage and ex­plicit sex talk, there are pro­saic gems and beau­ti­ful phras­ing.

And the char­ac­ters are real. What­ever they do seems nor­mal, ev­ery­day, just not our ev­ery­day. If they get in trou­ble it’s be­cause that’s what they do and it’s cer­tainly not their fault. It’s just the nat­u­ral way of things.

Michael Bo­tur takes us in­side the heads of his ex­tra­or­di­nary Drama­tis Per­sonae, his team of flawed but like­able (mostly) play­ers. On some level the reader as­so­ciates with them, squeez­ing a drop of em­pa­thy for char­ac­ters we’re prob­a­bly not likely to meet. The pro­tag­o­nists are gen­er­ally weak, or un­cer­tain, or hop­ing for some­thing bet­ter, while they deal with peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent ilk, usu­ally stronger, or more know­ing, worldly. Not so screwed up.

This is Michael Bo­tur’s fourth book of short sto­ries and he seems in no dan­ger of run­ning out of ideas for plots, char­ac­ters or neu­roses.

Mid­week in­ter­viewed Michael.

Your char­ac­ters are as di­verse as their sit­u­a­tions. How many are based on peo­ple you know?

Most char­ac­ters are com­pos­ites. I take qual­i­ties from a cou­ple of peo­ple and combine them. Some­times the phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion of a per­son will match the body of the per­son a char­ac­ter is based on, but there is lots of mix­ing-up, and some­times I have to ad­just a per­son’s body shape be­cause the story ben­e­fits from that sort of change. Plenty of char­ac­ters are ex­ag­ger­ated as­pects of my per­son­al­ity.

- You’ve worked a few jobs where you got more than a few ideas. Did you ever feel the way your char­ac­ters do, or did the sit­u­a­tion just give you an idea?

The thoughts that go through my char­ac­ters’ heads are thoughts that have mostly gone through my head — how­ever, not ev­ery thought sticks! An im­pulse which seems ridicu­lous to one per­son can seem like pro­found in­spi­ra­tion to an­other per­son. The story Rock or Bust was in­spired when I was lis­ten­ing to The Rock one morn­ing and some tradie rang up the DJ to brag that he had just walked out on his job and he was su­per-con­fi­dent. We all think about storm­ing out of our jobs at some point; many of my sto­ries ask what hap­pens when a per­son gets a mo­ti­va­tion and fol­lows that mo­ti­va­tion all the way to the end, through bouts of pride and shame.

- How long have you been writ­ing and where did you learn to write fic­tion?

I started out as a poet at univer­sity age 20, in 2004. In my class at Otago, a cou­ple of peo­ple were dab­bling in fic­tion and I wanted to keep up. Fic­tion al­lows you to tell sto­ries on a far big­ger can­vas, with a bet­ter brush and more colours than po­etry. I re­ally started tak­ing on a dis­tinct voice from about 2008 when I stopped writ­ing short 500-word weird prose pieces for lit­er­ary jour­nals and de­ter­mined to obey the laws of short story writ­ing — that is, a short story re­ally needs to be about 2000-5000 words to be fully ex­pres­sive. I was very priv­i­leged to have lit­er­ary jour­nals like Bravado and Takahe pub­lish my weird short pieces be­tween 2005-2008 and then I took that en­cour­age­ment and re­ally be­came de­ter­mined to tell strong sto­ries.

You write in an in­ter­est­ing mix of al­most il­lit­er­ate ver­nac­u­lar (some­times) and clev­erly crafted words. Does that skill come from read­ing? What do you read?

I get ob­sessed with lots of fic­tion writ­ers, jour­nal­ists and other kinds of word­smiths like rap­pers. Also in my life, I rub shoul­ders with lots of peo­ple who talk in lots of dif­fer­ent styles. It’s es­sen­tial to be a good lis­tener, so I’m al­ways hear­ing the voices of crims, drug­gies, in­tel­lec­tu­als, rad­i­cals, ex­ec­u­tives, chil­dren, old peo­ple, DJs, writ­ers and non-writ­ers, all mixed to­gether. Also, many peo­ple in our world are bilin­gual, and it’s use­ful to hear fresh, creative con­struc­tions of English. Sit­ting in an ivory tower and ig­nor­ing real peo­ple is just so wrong. Peo­ple like us jour­nal­ists who are hy­per-flu­ent in English — we are a rare breed and very priv­i­leged, and we won’t reach di­verse au­di­ences if we don’t speak in a di­verse way through our writ­ing.

Have you tried a main­stream pub­lisher … or is that a rude ques­tion?

Main­stream pub­lish­ers in NZ ex­plic­itly say they’re not keen on pub­lish­ing short sto­ries — see the web­sites of all the ma­jor pub­lish­ers if you don’t be­lieve me! It’s tragic. Steele Roberts didn’t even re­spond to my last pitch. It was very hard and up­set­ting get­ting used to re­jec­tions from pub­lish­ers are the first short story col­lec­tion, and the sec­ond . . . by the third, I was giv­ing up.

Do you ever travel and talk about your work — lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals etc?

I tried to in­vite my­self to a few lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals last year and it didn’t lead any­where. I would love to though, be­cause I’m pas­sion­ate about speak­ing about New Zealand literature and the short story art form. I heard Whanganui and Manawatu can be pretty wel­com­ing so I’d love to come down this year.

Where would I buy your books? Are they avail­able out­side Unity where pro­vin­cial hay­seeds like me can buy them off the shelf?

At www.NZShortS­to­ries.com you can place your order for a copy of Lowlife and I’ll post it di­rectly to you, even if you’re broke and can’t pay for a while. Also Ama­zon.com. Takes longer that way, though.

Your char­ac­ter’s dia­logue (or in­ter­nal mono­logue) is ap­pro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter. How ap­pro­pri­ate is it to Michael Bo­tur?

I have ver­bal di­ar­rhoea at home, in pri­vate, around peo­ple I’m com­fort­able with! I do have a very creative, hy­per­ac­tive mind and I usu­ally speak my mind. But when I have to con­trol my words, such as when teach­ing or when con­duct­ing jour­nal­ism, I talk in a very ar­tic­u­late, eru­dite way! To­tal chameleon again. I’m in­flu­enced by lots of high brow culture and low brow in equal mea­sures.

How many more books of short sto­ries do you think you have in you? Are you still col­lect­ing and col­lat­ing ideas for more?

This year I’m putting out True? which is my fifth short story col­lec­tion. I’m go­ing to pol­ish it even more than Lowlife and it should be amaz­ing. Paul Brooks will be get­ting one of the first copies. Then af­ter True? I’ll be col­lect­ing sto­ries for a sixth. We need peo­ple like me to up­hold the short story as an art form, be­cause it is very ne­glected. If you don’t be­lieve me, turn to the per­son next to you and ask them how many short story au­thors they can name, let alone Kiwi short story au­thors. Not many, if any.

Thanks Michael.

ART FORM: Michael Bo­tur, au­thor, self-pub­lished his lat­est col­lec­tion.

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