takahē 96 features three stories from guest fiction writer, Allan Drew, and we were lucky enough to squeeze a few extra words out of him about non-visual narration, flawed affection, and the (very) surprising in his fiction. He emailed with Fiction Editor, Zoë Meager.
In Blind, blind, you parachute us into 17th century London in just three hard-working paragraphs. How do you find the balance between historical and fiction?
For Blind, Blind I tried to provide the minimum history needed to establish place, time and mood – and then get on with the story. I think historical short fiction is difficult because the balance you talk about is difficult to strike. You just don’t have the time to write a really textured account of the setting, so you have to do what you can as quickly as possible.
The same story ends with this beautiful last line:
“He wished, if only for a second, that he might see the sky and take the measure of its blue, and within the blue attain some small respite, like a bird that takes to the air to relieve the earth-burden from its legs.”
How did you approach writing Milton’s blindness?
It was difficult, to be honest, and especially at the start. There was a lot of revision required, because I would often fall into visual writing without realising it. When I read it back I would be like, oh, I’ve just made him sighted again. I’ve written more, beyond this story, from the blind Milton’s point of view, and I did get used to it after a while. It was a matter of focusing on his other senses while also using his visual memories and imagination – what he had seen when he was sighted and what he imagined was in front of him – to break up the kind of claustrophobic atmosphere created by non-visual narration. Part of my research also involved reading books by blind authors and books with blind protagonists.
Your characters often seem to be struggling with embodiment in one way or another. Can you talk about that?
Really? Okay. Fair enough. I don’t really write these characters with the idea of embodiment in mind. But I do write them struggling with life, and, I don’t know, maybe life is a problem of embodiment? Like, what do we do with the space we occupy in the world? My stories almost always end up being about some difficult or fraught interpersonal connection, or a difficult version of love, or aborted love – whether it’s between a couple, or a father and child, or friends, or whoever. Looking back at these three stories, it feels to me like in each one the protagonist is offered something – some sort of flawed affection or kindness or love – by another character, and they don’t know what to do with it. That then becomes the struggle, or the reason for the story.
There is a hell of a surprising moment in A New Fairy Tale. Do your characters often do things you didn’t plan, and was that one of them?
I think my characters always do things I don’t plan, but only because I don’t really plan my stories, at least not as far as plotting them out ahead of time. I began writing this story with only the idea that colours are only our way of perceiving different wavelengths of light – nothing else. When it came time for “that moment” in the story, it seemed like a natural progression, so that’s what happened. She just had to deal with it, I’m afraid.
The punctuation-free dialogue in that story is pretty distinctive. How do you decide when to break with convention?
I honestly don’t know. In this instance, it just felt right, and I like the effect of language free from punctuation – especially questions without question marks. Or, to put it another way, it felt wrong for these characters to speak using conventional dialogue rules – there was too much at stake for them to be bother with convention.
Give us your best compound swear word.
Oh, I don’t swear, and I don’t know anyone who swears. What is swears?
Who should we all be reading more of?
Anything, really. Local writers especially though.
WWJMD? (What would John Milton do?)
Yes, this is the real question, isn’t it? John Milton would rise up, I think. In his era he was a pretentious, snobbish prick, because that was what was required. He was also a great humanist. Were he alive today I think he would be a very kind man, because that is what’s needed.