Third Place for the Literary
Interview by August Smith, WTP Feature Writer
Henry Plunkett is the recipient of the 2017 WTP Third Place Literary Award for his short story “Drive-by.” He was born and grew up in rural Ireland. He lives now with his wife and child and a menagerie of small animals in the Perth hills. He is a student of creative writing at Curtin University. His current projects include a collection of short fiction, and an experimental literary website which he once described as a pseudo-modernist dystopic fake-news hub. Henry has previously been published in The Moth magazine. He prefers walking in the bush to lying on the beach.
Smith: Congratulations, Henry, on “Drive-by” placing you third in the 2017 WTP literary competition. It’s a story with a lot of moving parts, both character-driven and contending with a lot of interesting questions of contemporary relevance. Where did this story start for you? How did it develop? Did you feel that the idea was driven by the characters, or its general conceit?
Plunkett: A lot of my stories seem to open out of a specific setting or an event from current affairs, and then the characters typically evolve from there. I think characters are so complex in their variety that often the springboard into this complexity is the environment in which these characters have become established, whether by design or bad fortune.
“Drive-by” is set on a street where I was renting some years ago. Just like the story, the real street has quaint heritage cottages on one side, and large blocks of government housing on the other—a jotted description of that street sat untouched in a notebook for years. The central conceit came next, as we had a news story here in Australia: some kids were staging fake terrorist attacks, filming them, and posting the footage of people’s reactions online.
I had an event then, and a backdrop, and the characters began to form around these, almost as a means to unite and make sense of them. The piece became increasingly character driven; in later drafts one line of dialogue defined the next, and the tensions within the family superseded the broader social tensions of earlier drafts.
There are indeed a lot of moving parts in this piece, but it is the voice of the narrator that pins them all together. Some narratorial elements that may have got cut in another story were allowed to stay in this one. I wanted the story to be centrifugally pressured by the force of its details, because, ultimately, this is a story about a family which is starting to disband.
Smith: What about your own origins as a writer? When did you start?
Plunkett: I started young. I grew up on a farm in rural Ireland, and wrote my first “stories” in my homework notebook at eight years of age. They were knock-offs of The Hardy Boys kid’s detective novels, and I was embroiling myself and my eight-year-old cronies in fictional accounts of rural delinquency. I didn’t write much during my teens, thankfully (because who would want to revisit that!). And I began again when I was in my mid-twenties and on my travels. I think that it was during this time, when travelling through countries where I did not speak the language, that I became particularly interested in place and setting. In a new country, the scenery and landscape are sensate, the people are a mystery. I live now in Perth, Australia, and this setting features strongly in my current projects.
Smith: There is a humorous undercurrent to this story, both in the narratorial voice and in the dialogue. Do you often write things with a humorous intent? What role does humor play in your writing?
Plunkett: Yes, I find humour will often work its way into a story for me, though not by initial intent. I reckon humour can sit well on the page in the company of most other feelings, even the most contrary, like loneliness and confusion. There is so much humour in life, and yet so little in literature. People use comedy to break ice and to find a commonality. There is nothing more awkward than the hanging silence after a failed joke. Because humour can be a means by which people guard, or expose themselves. In this story, the comedic undercurrent arises mostly from the narrator’s voice, and way of seeing the world. I would say that he is defending himself from the implications of what is happening around him. But the humorous elements also work to calibrate the tone of the story. “Drive-by” is told in the first person and it draws a lot of energy from the frustration of its narrator. Without the humorous undercurrent, that frustration might feel monotone. The narrator would feel quite bullying in his interactions with his family, and a gap would open between the narrator’s assertions and the reader’s sympathy. The comic undertone helps to bridge that gap, warming the reader to the narrator, even though he is quite oppressive with his family. The narrator’s worldview will not necessarily align with the reader’s, but his sense of humour should.
Smith: One of the major themes in your story is generational divides and how world views can seem so disparate from across this chasm. There’s a general motif of confusion and frustration throughout the story and it ends on the narrator briefly feeling like he’s in an “alternative reality.” I’d like to focus on this state of mind. Is it alienation? Culture shock? Is this a mental place you’ve found yourself in, and if so, what brought it on?
Plunkett: For the narrator, I would say it’s a feeling of impending irrelevance. He is being left behind by new technologies. His kids are on the verge of leaving home. There is a feeling that he is a reluctant emigrant, and that some poor financial decisions, late in life, have forced the family to emigrate. So, the narrator is working quite hard to maintain his sense of self through all this.
His sense of humour and the impenetrability of his worldview are the tools he uses to hold (other people’s) reality at bay. Throughout the story, the narrator imposes his worldview on others, and that mention of an alternative reality at the end might be as close as he can get to feeling empathetic.
For myself, and more generally, I would say that reality is always overwriting itself. The political events of 2016 have taught us that, and it already feels quite normal for international “diplomacy” to be conducted on Twitter. You know that feeling when you pause, and turn up the radio. When your assumption of reality needs to be amended in the light of new information. And this is not always a negative amendment. For example, I had to re-evaluate an opinion of my countryfolk when Ireland voted yes to marriage equality.
You are right in saying that the tension in “Drive-by” is primarily intergenerational, but another way to consider this tension would be between the states of stasis, and flux. I think this is what the narrator primarily struggles with, the acceptance of disorder and instability. Conversely then, his inability to accept disorder becomes the very fuel that disorder requires.
Smith: Who are some of your artistic inspirations? What writers do you read?
Plunkett: I read pretty broadly, but the collected stories of William Trevor will never stray too far from my bedside locker.
Looking at my pile of recently finished books, I can see The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, a collection of linked stories set in Russia and Chechnya. I cannot rave enough about this book. The setting is so deeply realised that it feels like another character. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne feels like a 1970s version of To Kill A Mockingbird, complete with Formica countertops, olive martinis, and oodles of childhood guilt. Sweet Ruin, and Application for the Release of a Dream are both poetry collections by Tony Hoagland which I re-read periodically. Here is a quote from Application…
Don’t speak to me please
about clarity and proportionate response.
The world is a can of contents under pressure;
a human being should have a warning label on the side
that says, Beware: Disorganized narrative Inside;
Prone to frequent sideways bursting
of one feeling through another.
There is a corner of my bookshelf allocated to writerly practice and narrative craft. Only one book from here jumps out: Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer offers little in the way of practical advice and much in the way of philosophical. I believe writing is more a mindset than a craft, and McCann gives this aspirational advice to the young writer: “Don’t be didactic . . . Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after the last. Make the ordinary sublime. Don’t panic. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you, even your life, but not your stories about that life. So this, then, is a word, not without love and respect, to a young writer: write.”
Smith: What writing projects are you working on now?
Plunkett: At any given time, umpteen short stories, which I will collate into a collection someday. There are always new ideas to etch into first drafts, and a raft of others which need to be buffed and reworked. The first draft is the hardest I find; an idea might have to gestate for quite some time before it finds form on the page.
I am also working on an experimental literary website. It is modelled on a standard news website, but the documents, articles, and advertisements contained therein are all set in a dystopic near-future. Watch this space!
Smith: And finally, where can an interested reader find more of your work?
Plunkett: I have previously been published in The Moth Magazine, and will have poetry featured in an upcoming version of the literary journal, Coze. I hope to make the website live in 2018.
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