4 Aug 2016

When writing consumes your life

5:18 pm on 4 August 2016

Courtney Sina Meredith was told that her second book would be even harder to get out than her first. Here's how she got it done.

Courtney Sina Meredith

Courtney Sina Meredith Photo: Supplied

Courtney Sina Meredith is not at the centre of Tail of the Taniwha, but her experiences are still encased within its gold cover. Her characters see Matisse’s Cut-Outs at the Tate as she did, deal with the grief of the death of a newborn sibling as she did, and stroll the streets of Berlin, the city where she had her first international writer’s residency in 2011.

Earlier this week, at the launch of the book at a bar in Ponsonby, her friends took to the stage to share stories of their sis and how she pushes them to pursue opportunities and “shines a light” on the work of students at the Manukau Institute of Technology, where she is partnerships manager for the creative arts faculty. Later, Courtney jumped on stage to perform a few songs with friends and family.

Tail of the Taniwha is her second book. The first, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, was launched at the Frankfurt Art Book Fair in 2012, but the vibe that night in the bar was no less celebratory.  

We spoke to Courtney about putting together her first book of short stories ahead of this week’s launch.

How long was Tail of the Taniwha in the works for?

It was an interesting gestation process. There are a couple of older works in there that I cut apart and did some organ transplants on. The signature work that I wrote to get the funding, in the beginning it was a bit of a look and feel of how I would like it to be (and then again, that has big organ transplants too). It went through the laser-beam focus of Lloyd Jones, who came back and gave me some great feedback about tidying that work up.

It’s been an interesting process and very, very, very different to Brown Girls, because Brown Girls was all like, this is everything I have ever wanted to say with every word I’ve ever known in my life and this book is so precious and tender to me. There’s so much bound up in that work that is really personal. When I hold it in my hands I can feel every single day of my life that I spent working towards that book, but this one is such a different animal.

Why is that?

I don’t think you can go back to that first book feeling. I remember when I first put it out and people who had published that first book were trying to tell me what it’s like on the other side. “Now that you’ve got that out, the next one is going to be really hard, and that’s just how it is”.

I think they say the same about albums as well. Your second album is a really hard one to put out because the first one is so sentimental and you love it so much and you don’t want anyone to look at it because it is so painfully special to you. 

I met with my publishers in March last year and updated them with where I was at and how many works I had written and what the look and feel was going to be and why I thought it was an important book. They were amazing and we all came up with a strategy about how it would work.

Lloyd Jones was already on board as my manuscript advisor and I just adore him. He’s amazing. I had my family there. My mother really is my driving force and like we were talking about before, it just consumed my life. Who needs a social life? Who needs a partner? Who needs to see the sun? Who needs to go out on weekends?

If I wasn’t writing I was at work and if I wasn’t writing or at work I was talking about my writing on some panel somewhere. It was a really intense process and towards the end I definitely felt like the most burnt out but also the most grateful person on earth.

When you pitched the book to Beatnik, what did it look like then and what were you aiming to do with it?

I’ve been really fortunate to spend a lot of time with Layla Tweedie-Cullen from Split Fountain and Layla had really enlightened my thinking around what a book can be. She is an amazing designer and an amazing publisher and she’s been working all around the world for a really long time now and we are just so blessed to have her working in Auckland.

Some of the works that Layla had introduced me to gave me a whole different sense of how Tail of the Taniwha could look, how it could function as something quite different to Brown Girl.

I started to think of the book as a live space and I started to think, what would it be like if I started to write my works as though they were going into this live space. It’s not, the book is a coffin where it becomes this dusty dead thing, and what happens if you want to design it differently, what happens if you want to format it differently, would it work for the content that I want to put out.

I really want to push these raw new elements and for me it is so important putting brown women at the centre. I thought, “Well, that’s all raw and brand new and there’s really nothing out there, how can I make it more alive?”

There were a couple of works in there where it almost felt like you were prying the text apart to reveal more text with each new page as you turned it.

Yeah, ‘Aotahi’ is my favourite work in the whole book and it’s quite personal to me. Obviously, it’s personal and it’s nice to play around with Maori constellations because I have always been such a big fan of Matariki and I find a lot of beauty in the Maori language as it is.

But I wanted to talk about the experience of losing my little brother a long, long time ago. He was basically born too prem. I think he lived for just over an hour. That experience, I think it put a big boulder on my heart in some ways.

It was such a raw, intense thing to go through. I couldn’t really talk about it. And once I got to London and everything fell apart and collapsed, that was also an amazing experience because I could suddenly get down into the bedrock.

All of the stuff I had been trying to avoid, or gloss over all just came spewing forth. That’s kind of where ‘Aotahi’ began at the back of my mind.

When I was writing Tail of the Taniwha, one of the things I really challenged myself to think about was, could you make a story grow with one new sentence each page? What would that look like?

I just kept playing around with these ideas and I also like the idea of building this little constellation on the page and having the stars to anchor the text. I like how you can read it two ways.

Some people when they read it, they literally just see it like the constellation and stars and a bit of a narrative in between that they have decided interlinks the stars with maybe a wider legend or a myth.

And then you have people who read it who are like, this is what it feels like to be dwarfed by this enormous grief. It’s a story in a story but it’s definitely a favourite one of mine.

That one is one of my favourites too. And ‘Patriarch, Eldest Son, Ghost Son, Daughter’ made me cry…

It was really hard writing that one. People challenged me along the way. A couple of the editors said, “Look, do you really want to put this in? Or do you really want to put it in like this? We should maybe sparkle it up a bit, it’s a little bit dark. Should we keep it like that?’ and I was like, ‘Yup, we should keep it like that.’”

That’s how it feels too though, those actual, gritty conversations. They’re not sparkly, it is just like, “Oh did that really happen, that’s shit”. That’s how families actually talk.

That’s been a really interesting thing to do as well with this book. Because there is more fat, I can actually just put more fat around how I actually feel about those conversations or how I feel about those moments.

*Tail of the Taniwha is out next week on Beatnik Publishing