An Interview with Craig Cliff

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
The writer/columnist/public servant discusses The Mannequin Makers, his follow-up to the award-winning short story collection, A Man Melting.

New Zealand writer Craig Cliff won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2011 for his collection of short stories, A Man Melting. Craig’s compulsive debut novel, The Mannequin Makers, is dark, original, and highly entertaining. I talk with Craig about crime, power, abandoned novels, Pygmalion, and what he would do if he couldn’t fail. Mysterious portraits by Daniel Rose.

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JOAN FLEMING: The book’s action and thematics include the viciousness of sailors, wholesale deceptions, dark rivalry, desperate survival, and the quest for physical perfection. What was the impulse that made you begin the project? Was it an idea, a character, or a question?

CRAIG CLIFF: It was two ideas that seemed poles apart: a window dresser raises his children to be living mannequins, and a ship that’s sent around Cape Horn in the hope it’d wreck and net the owner some insurance money. I had the sense that these ideas were somehow related, but in the beginning it wasn’t clear how. I think the only way to figure out why you’re writing a novel is to finish it.

I’ve always been interested in the dynamics of power, how it’s bestowed, how it’s maintained… maybe I knew innately back then what I can only articulate now: in each scenario there’s single person in a position of power (the father, the ship owner) and a number of “victims” (the children, the ship’s crew)—though there needs to be some serious deception (or on the part of the sailors, the promise of wealth) for the status quo to be maintained.

Another more obvious link was that both these ideas needed to happen in the past. It turned out the early heyday of department stores and the last days of sail power fell within the space of one lifetime, which gave me the confidence to continue thinking of them as one project and keep researching. I only figured out how the two ideas could meet when I realised the window dresser needed a rival, and that he could have learnt his trade as a figurehead carver…

There was another impulse at play, too. I’d become bogged down writing another contemporary thing (to call it a novel would be flattery) and wanted to write something that involved high adventure. These ideas seemed to promise just that.

JF: Will you return to the boggy “thing,” or is it well and truly in the drawer? You know what they say—if it’s bad when it goes in the drawer, it will be worse when it comes out.

CC: I’ll return that drawer one day for a spot of organ harvesting. I realised very late in the piece that the narrator just wasn’t cut out to talk to anyone for more than fifteen pages in a row. He didn’t want to push a plot on. He was great at ruminating and could describe a desolate park in the middle of winter pretty well, but he scuppered the novel. I still think he’s a cool character in small doses. I’m not sure if it’ll be quite like Hemingway and Nick Adams, but the same character will probably be littered through however many short story collections I’m allowed to publish in my life.

JF: I want to ask a question about crimes. There’s not a single central character in the book who does not commit some kind of crime. The story’s “lesser” crimes include kidnapping, suicide, and wrong love; these sit alongside the greater crimes of violence, murder, and deceit. Was there an evolution in your thinking about crime and retribution as the book evolved and you got to know your characters? Some characters are certainly more sympathetic than others, and their ends are more tragic. Is there any character in the book who, in your imagination, is beyond blame?

CC: There was definitely an evolution of both the crimes and the motivations behind them as I worked on the book and got to know the characters. With the character of Colton Kemp, I started “high concept” (a window dresser raises his kids to be living mannequins) and had to work backwards to understand why he might do it, and how he could do it. The how was the important thing. Not just the practicalities of deceiving a town and his children, but how he could sustain the deception for so many years leading up to his grand unveiling, and how he could live with himself.

The version of Colton in the finished book is a bit softer, a bit more sympathetic than the black-hearted man beyond redemption I started out with.

Is anyone beyond blame? That’s an interesting question and one for readers to answer.

I will say that I felt it was very important to give Colton’s two children and his rival their time in the spotlight. This stemmed from my growing interest in narrative politics—at least that’s what I call it—as I moved my focus from short stories to the novel. In a short story you can get away with showing just a snippet of a life, or only looking at something from one perspective. Novels are much more capacious. The form allows more and demands more. You can return to certain events and see them through different sets of eyes. It’s these moments of double-sight (or triple-sight) that can set the experience of reading a good novel apart from other entertainments.

Without wanting to throw shade (as the kids these days say) on another writer, the importance of multiple perspectives came home to me when reading Carl Nixon’s Settler’s Road. Nixon bravely tackled a big, knotty issue (the claims of Maori and Pakeha over the land and the dead) but the narrative stuck solely to the Pakeha perspective. It would have been a perilous thing for a Pakeha writer to inhabit the Maori perspective, but it felt necessary for the book.

The Mannequin Makers is less vexed by broader social issues like race or land rights—the horrors inflicted, and their triggers, are more personal—but it felt important that those we might perceive initially as victims, or those who mightn’t be able to set the record straight in real-time like the Carpenter (who loses his voice when marooned on the Antipodes Islands), got to “speak” for themselves. Having spent time inside their head, or reading their diary, you can no longer see them in black and white terms.

Of course, not everyone can be a narrator. The silences can be just as important.

JF: The spotlight time of Colton’s two children and his rival, the other mannequin maker, actually make up the majority of the book. After the opening sequence, Colton’s voice becomes a marginal one. That is one of the marvellous things about fiction, I think. Poetry, too. You start with an impulse, and you follow it, and where it leads is a total surprise.

I wondered about the silence of “Vengeance,” the ship’s mutilated figurehead that becomes the Carpenter’s unlikely companion, and ghost, and maybe even girlfriend during his time on the deserted island. There are parallels between the way he protects Vengeance from the lascivious violence of the sailors, and the way he tries—and fails—to protect Avis, the daughter and living mannequin of Colton Kemp. Like Avis, Vengeance is given the gift of speech for a time, then is silenced. The silences of all the book’s female characters are telling, and connect in my mind to the novel’s revival of the Pygmalion archetype. Were there other iterations of this myth that you drew on while you were writing the novel?

CC: Well, I had this Jean Raoux painting of Pygmalion and Galatea on the pinboard behind my computer, so the myth was always in the background as I worked on the novel. Early on I watched Mannequin (1987), Mannequin 2: On the Move (1991), and One Touch of Venus (1948) starring Ava Gardner, which all riff on the Pygmalion myth in a department store setting. So I knew, with the Mannequin franchise at least, how bad something in this territory could be. I also read up on agalmatophilia (being attracted to statues, mannequins etc.), and this put me on to Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or, which features, among other things, a woman giving oral pleasure to the toe of a statue.

There were other stories and films, but in general I got the sense that writing about mannequins could be a very schlocky, or very outré, and I wanted to find a new path.

Another important text was Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I always wondered what would happen after the end of the play, when the statue of Hermione comes to life. Would she and Leontes get on alright? What about her relationship with Perdita, the daughter she never got to hold?


JF: Despite the book’s heavy themes, there is a real swiftness to the prose. The scenes of sex and violence are never gratuitous. They always feel managed with a light touch and, well, a sense of respect. Were the novel’s climactic moments easy to write, or did the lightness arrive after only after much grappling?

CC: Much grappling, definitely.

The scenes of sex and violence are tightrope walks. The engine that drives the story is quite horrific in itself, but the horror isn’t the point of the story, unlike, say, a movie from the Saw franchise. Instead, I’m interested in how these shocking situations come about and how people behave on either side of the power divide. So I needed to be careful not to wallow in the graphic, taboo stuff. The risk of course is you can be too demure and the writing just becomes unclear.

The hardest part was the climax. It needed to hit a certain pitch in relation to the rest of the novel, without become hysterical or melodramatic. I overstepped that line in multiple drafts. Even late in the piece I was making big changes with the help of my editor.

JF: In your first book, A Man Melting, the characters were mostly 20- and 30-something-year-olds. It was set almost exclusively in the now. At the risk of entering Intentional Fallacy territory, I want to suggest that the stories in A Man Melting could be read biographically, at least on a surface-experience level. The Mannequin Makers, on the other hand, is a fictional novel that draws on historical events, is set at the turn of the century, and involves characters whose experiences are necessarily distant from your own. How much of “you” is in The Mannequin Makers compared to your first book? What is the relationship in your work between research and imagination?

CC: It’s easy to take A Man Melting off the shelf now and say, “Gee, look at all those travellers,” or, “I did have a jaundiced view of office work, didn’t I?” At the time I was just using all the creative capital I had to hand to produce fiction. The triggers for new stories were either autobiographical (the story of my dad finding his lost wedding ring in the compost years later, as in ‘Copies’) or imaginative (someone starts receiving emails from Charles Darwin, as in ‘Facing Galapagos’). I read Origin of Species and Googled a lot of things, but I was mostly in search of quick answers. I didn’t see research as part of the creative process or the genesis of ideas—it was something I did to flesh out an already formed story.

And I felt guilty about this. “Real writers” spent time in the archives. They thanked experts in their acknowledgement pages.

The challenge of The Mannequin Makers was partly the challenge of flipping my creative process on its head. The story formed when research and imagination combined, and I only called upon personal experience when I had characters in situations and needed them to act. So there’s quite a bit of me (and every bookish 16-year-old) in Avis. There are bits of me in other characters too. Even the nasty ones.

JF: Two last questions. What would you do if you couldn’t fail? And, what’s next?

CC: I don’t know. So much of the excitement of writing relates to the prospect, and the proximity, of failure. Where’s the challenge if, before setting down the first word, you know you’ll achieve what you set out to do? I’d probably use my “no fail” clause on the basketball court and live out all the fantasies I had on my driveway as a kid.

I’m off to Iowa City mid-August to take part in the International Writers Program. I’ll work on short stories during the 12-week residency and take part in a bunch of other activities. I’m also gathering together the threads for what might be my next novel. I get the sense it’ll be a fat one. Very different to The Mannequin Makers. There may or may not be time travel involved.

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The Mannequin Makers’ is out now. Joan Fleming is a poet and academic-in-training, currently based in Dunedin.