Sam Reese is the author of Come the Tide, a collection of short stories, reviewed here. Hailing from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Sam is an insatiable traveller and self-confessed short story nerd. He has lived and worked in Sydney, London, and now York, and his fiction has found further homes in magazines around the world. When not writing stories, he is usually writing about them; his first critical work, The Short Story in Midcentury America, won the 2018 Arthur Miller Centre First Book Prize.
Sam, thank you very much for joining me.
It’s my pleasure, Jack; thank you for your interest in my stories.
I understand you’re from the island nation of Aotearoa. Can you tell us a little about that and how it might have influenced your writing?
Absolutely. Growing up in Aoteaora I always loved spending time in nature. Rivers, mountains, bush and forests: it is a country of immense natural beauty – though sadly a lot of that is under threat. But I was taught from a young age to value, respect, and listen to the world around me. That definitely shaped the way I imagine relationships between people and the natural world. In te reo, Maori describe themselves as tangata whenua, ‘people of the land’, and many place names in New Zealand reflect this intertwining of natural and human world – something also captured in the concept of Tūrangawaewae: ‘a place to stand’.
I know that, in the midst of global political uncertainty, New Zealand’s distance from the rest of the world can look particularly attractive, but growing up I was conscious of this distance in a different way. There is a sense of being far away from everything important – so, as much as I appreciated the world around me, there was part of me that always wanted to escape, to travel. Storytelling, for me, draws on that yearning for imaginative escape.
Although I take inspiration from a wide range of writers, and don’t see myself as bound by a national identity, it is true that Aotearoa has a really strong tradition in the short story. Reading New Zealand short fiction at primary and secondary school taught me a lot about short-story-telling, and looking back, studying Katherine Mansfield’s stories in my final year of high school was probably my turning point as a writer – the moment when I said, I want to write short stories.
I recall reading her stories when I was a young man and finding them quietly moving. So how does classical myth square with Aotearoa? One thinks of ocean-going heroes such as Ulysses and Jason, and the various water deities, but is there more to it than that?
In my second year at university, the art gallery on campus hosted an exhibition of prints by a New Zealand artist, Marian Maguire, titled The Labours of Herakles. Maguire blends images of colonial New Zealand with black-figure images of the demi-god Herakles – reimagining the European coloniser as this mythic, if brutal and sometimes clumsy, hero. I find her work fascinating. There is never just a simple substitution; Maguire’s images constantly blend Maori, colonial, and classical art in complex ways. That’s probably why I keep coming back to her art as reference when I’m writing. I was always immersed in mythology as a child, and her pictures point to different ways that classical myth and art can help us make sense of our past and present – without just idealising.
You’re right though to point to voyaging as another important link. For many New Zealanders, both Maori and Pakeha, stories of ocean travel and a quest for a new homeland are at the heart of their origin stories. All of the branches of my family have their own oral tales, passed down several generations, about the ocean journey to a vaguely imagined destination. This image symbolises a lot of my characters’ sense of being adrift: they know they are in search of something more, but they don’t have a clear image of where they are headed.
You are an aficionado of the short story and have written a book about the form. What is it that so appeals to you and which authors or stories do you most admire?
There’s a line several critics use: novels are about communities, short stories about individuals. It’s an exaggeration, but it points to something that I love about short stories – they have a closeness that makes many feel very private. Another, similar line is that the novel tells a life, the short story a moment. There are some brilliant short stories out there that cover whole lives in the stretch of a dozen pages, but when I’m reading short fiction, it is that kind of intimacy and momentary insight I really crave.
As the title of my first book, The Short Story in Midcentury America, probably hints, I have a special love for the short stories of the 1940s and 1950s. Paul and Jane Bowles, Mary McCarthy, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Richard Yates … As a reader, I can slip inside any of their works and it’s bliss. But as a writer, it is probably Julio Cortazar who has had the most influence. He describes the short story as a snail of language, a mysterious brother to poetry, and I often find myself turning to his way of framing and slowly unravelling stories when I am stuck with a piece.
I’m passionate about the contemporary short story, too, though. I mentioned before that reading Katherine Mansfield was a turning point for me – another was finding a copy of Laura van den Berg’s collection What the World Will Look Like When all the Water Leaves Us in a small bookshop in Potts Point, Sydney, where I lived at the time. It is one of my favourite collections – beautiful, strange, understated, with a brilliant way of telling a story – and sits alongside May Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, Margarita Garcia Robayo’s Fish Soup, Peter Stamm’s We’re Flying and Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool as one of the collections I admire (and enjoy) the most.
You’ve mentioned some of my favourites there, too, particularly James Baldwin. The image of rising waters, of drowning, is a recurrent one in Come the Tide. Ecologically speaking, with climate catastrophe upon us, rising sea levels are a dreadful threat. Yet often in Come the Tide, it is as if Nature is reasserting control and restoring harmony. It is an intriguing blend of dread and hope. How would you describe this aspect of your work?
I’m really glad that both sides come across in the stories! I agree; rising sea levels are a major threat, already dramatically altering the geography of the Pacific. Many atolls have disappeared, and small nations like Nauru, Niue, and Kiribati face being completely submerged. It is one of the most visible signs of the larger ecological dangers we face.
For a long time, though, I’ve also thought about this from a different perspective. I remember being told that much of my home city, Wellington, was built on reclaimed land. That seemed like an odd phrasing to me; to my mind, reclaiming was what the sea would eventually do. Maybe it sounds fatalistic, but I find something about that image strangely reassuring – the idea of a return.
Some of my earliest memories are of the ocean, and from high school onwards I trained in free diving – something I still like to do, though not in any competitive sense! After just a little practice, diving on your own breath brings a deep calm. A stillness, and a connection to something larger. I’ve never blacked out, thankfully, but remember vividly the times I have come close, pushing myself too far in the pool. For better or worse, that peaceful, creeping darkness has shaded the way I imagine the change to our world.
You are clearly interested in the idea of hidden depths, of secrets and unfinished business covered over by time and circumstance. Where does that come from?
That’s a really good question! I’m a naturally trusting person, but I’ve also always been extremely inquisitive, to the point where I can come across as nosy. It’s an odd combination, but I’d say I’m driven by a desire to look below the surface and find the story that explains why a person acts a certain way, or why they hold a particular belief. When it comes to reading, I know I’m drawn to stories where cracks appear in characters’ facades, where we slowly learn that there is more to them than first appears.
To begin with, some of the characters in your stories are ambiguous as to gender, moral status and what it is they are up to, so the reader has to be patient and put the clues together as best they can. Is this a deliberate approach on your part or does it spring from something else?
I’ve always been drawn to stories where character is revealed slowly, where there is a key or hinge that allows me to recognise and understand the protagonist in an unexpected way. As a reader, I find that slow sense of discovery immensely satisfying – but it is also something I’ve had to work on a lot as a writer! This is one of the areas where my editor at Platypus, Michelle, has been extremely helpful: she has been amazing at honing in on places where there is not enough information to get to that moment of understanding. Or when there was too much, and the effect was lost! I’m trying, too, to find an ambiguity that is inclusive – that makes it easier for different readers to find themselves inside these stories.
Feel free to disagree with me, but my view is that you have a certain reticence when it comes to people. As I mention in my review, it’s as if they are behind a glass screen, remote from the reader. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment and is it something you will vary in future?
This is one area where my writing self and social self really differ! I’m fascinated by people – their tics, their quirks, their personalities – and it helps a fiction writer enormously to meet new people, to hear how they frame ideas or feelings. When it comes to writing, though, you’re right to think that there is a distance at play.
I’m very conscious of creating space when I write about people. Expansiveness is generative; it opens possibilities for the reader. And with the short story, where your focus is not on a larger life, but a moment – a sliver – that space allows the reader an entranceway into the action. It creates a way of feeling with the character. I’d hope that, with different pieces, this distance might vary for the reader, but I have a feeling that as long as I’m writing short stories, there will be an element of this!
Personally, I found ‘Lake Country’ a disturbing story, particularly the point where the turbines are revealed beneath the ex-pump house – for me, there’s always something uncanny about big machines in strange locations, and the juxtaposition of the artificial with the natural. Is there a real-life counterpart to the lake, the tunnels and the dam in this story? Tell us a little bit about how ‘Lake Country’ came to be written.
I’ve always found that kind of juxtaposition very unnerving myself; my parents used to take me for long walks through the bush to the reservoir in Wellington, and I still remember feeling deeply unsettled by the site of the concrete dam emerging slowly through the treeline, braced between the green curves of the valley. Perhaps because that emotional memory was so strong, I always kept an eye out for stories about dams; parts of ‘Lake Country’ were influenced by disturbing stories from North America and Japan about artificially flooding previously occupied valleys for hydro power. I had even written a few poems about dams!
But the story really came together when my partner, Alexandra, and I went to stay at an old pump house in Tasmania, in the middle of Lake St Clair. It was a haunting experience – there was almost no one else there, and in the middle of winter (the first time I think that I was actually cold in the five years we lived in Australia) the silence and stillness were both beautiful and unsettling.
This story is one of the longest in the collection, and it started out as a novella – almost 20,000 words. This was one of two or three stories where I needed to write a lot before I could then really feel the emotional heart of the story, and whittle down the words to something more intense.
Humanity faces climatic disaster. We have two years to prevent our own extinction. If someone says to you we don’t need made-up stories when the world is in such desperate trouble, how will you reply?
We use stories to shape the world, to make sense of all the chaos around us. To change the world, we first need to change our stories – to tell a different tale about humans and nature, about our responsibility. I think it’s true, too, that stories shape us. History shows how this can be used as a tool of power, of marginalisation and control – but it can be a force for positive change, too. We need new stories to see the world anew.
Speaking of which, what can we expect from you next?
I’ve been working on a new collection of closely linked stories. It is challenging, but I’m finding that the resonances I can build are also very satisfying. Later this year, my next critical book, Blue Notes: Jazz, Literature, and Loneliness, is coming out with Louisiana State University Press. And I’ve started writing a literary biography of the American writers Paul and Jane Bowles with Alexandra – a hybrid book bringing together biography, literary history, and travel writing.
All those projects sound extremely interesting, so I hope they pass across my review desk in due time. Sam, it’s been a great pleasure. You’ve given us a lot of insights and provided ideas on whom to read next. Good luck with your writing, and thank you.
It has been a fascinating conversation! Thanks again for your brilliant questions, Jack.