There’s nothing like hearing an author read from their work and John Summers kept creative writing students captivated as he read to them from his book The Mermaid Boy recently.
His visit to second and third year students in Anna Taylor’s class also gave students the chance to hear how an author works with ‘real life’.
‘I started out with fiction writing but found it was always versions of the non-fiction stories I wanted to tell. That’s how I started writing stories in The Mermaid Boy. I like the essay form but writing in that style doesn’t come naturally to me. I wanted to use the techniques of fiction to tell the stories,’ he said. ‘I think one benefit of sticking to real life is that it adds constraint and limits choices, which can be helpful to writing. But also I think memory works in stories and so, with time you sometimes find that events or times in your life present themselves as stories.
‘The story the book takes the title from, The Mermaid Boy, started out from my memory of the boy and the awkwardness, but when I laid out all the pieces I saw my own story next to it.’
His book came about when Hue & Cry Press who’d published shorter pieces from him asked if he’d like to do a book. ‘It pushed me to write more. I began working with Lawrence Patchett as an editor. We talked about where the gaps were and I did some more writing to fill them.’
In working out how to shape the manuscript he says he was determined not to place the stories chronologically. ‘Partly because it’s “lumpy”. While there are quite a few childhood stories there are none from teenage years and then there’s some in the recent past. I laid all the stories out and wrote notes about them—ones that I wanted early on in the book, ones that are about milestones.’
As well as The Mermaid Boy John’s had travel writing published in several places including the Listener, and he co-founded Up Country, an online magazine. ‘I’d written for existing wilderness magazines but they covered more technical stuff and not much on the romance of the outdoors.’
Whitireia creative writing student Mikoyan Vukula says John and the other two speakers they’ve had this year [Fleur Beale and Anna Smaill] inspired him. ‘What they say actually authenticates what we’re learning in class.’