Interview with
Craig Cliff

You've travelled quite a bit – you seem to be an adventurer of the world, but also an explorer of your mind and its possibilities. Could you explain how this affects your writing?

All the stories in my first book were written in the midst of two fairly solid years of travelling, so it's only natural that elements of travel made their way into some stories (and my bio).

I think it would be hard to write about characters from my generation without them having travelled, being about to travel or resenting the fact they haven't travelled. We tend to look upon travel as a way of hitting refresh in our lives, but it never truly does.

In a technical sense, travel is useful in short fiction as it takes characters out of their comfort zones and allows whatever crisis was brewing back home to come to the fore, all in a couple of pages.

 I understand you spent some time living and working in Queensland – what is your connection to the place?

I moved to Brisbane with my partner when we were both twenty-one and fresh out of university. My first full-time job was working for the State Treasury. I was responsible for keeping ministers up-to-date on everything that was happening at the sea-ports and airports up and down the coast, so I got to travel to Bundaberg, Mackay, Cairns and Townsville quite often and learnt a lot about the state that way.

All up, we spent three and a bit years in Queensland, flying back to New Zealand for Christmas, weddings and funerals and not really seeing enough of the rest of Australia, so we quit our jobs and started travelling.

Your story in this edition, 'Offshore Service' provides a detailed look at a small helicopter delivery crew that services coal ships in the port of Mackay – is this something you've had personal experience with?

I first learnt about the queues of coal ships waiting off the coast of Mackay when working in Brisbane. At the time I thought: that's a good setting for a story. But I've never been on a coal ship or even flown in a helicopter. When I finally got around to writing the story this year I spoke to a couple of guys at a helicopter outfit here in Wellington. One of them had done some marine pilot transfers in Queensland, so that was really useful.

The protagonist, Matt, starts with a sense of enchantment about working in the mines and then meeting an 'offshore whore.' Is this quest for enchantment something we look for when we travel and is it realistic?

I don't think Matt would describe it as 'enchantment' so much as 'adventure'. There's a part of him that's always thinking about what everyone back home will think. He's trying to prove something to them. He certainly proves something by the end of the story, though it's not what he intended when he first left home.

I think most people do something similar when they travel. There's always a part of you that's thinking, 'I can't wait to tell the people at work about how good this Piña Colada is'. The good thing about this mindset is that even when something is disenchanting, you can still rub it in people's faces ('Don't bother going to Costa Rica. It's a rip off!' etc).

Matt eventually returns to his family and homeland, and his sister asks when he's going to grow up. Have you ever been asked this question?

I don't think so. People might have said it behind my back when I was chasing the dream of becoming a writer, but never to my face.

Your book
A Man Melting won the 2011 Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book, and it is a collection of short stories. Do you find yourself moving between the short fiction form and the novel?

I've been working on a novel this year but haven't been completely faithful to it, making time to write 'Offshore Service' and a couple of other stories. Short stories are great because you can often write a first draft on the one burst of inspiration. A novel is a much longer haul. Writing a short story for me is a way of surfacing to take a breath before diving back into the novel.

Your online bio mentions some of the authors you enjoyed reading when you were younger – Douglas Coupland, Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk. Are there any women authors whose stories you enjoy, and what are you reading now?

Absolutely. Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favourite books and I love Lorrie Moore, Janet Frame, Alice Munro. I recently enjoyed Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad and Maile Meloy's Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Right now I'm reading some Dickens, The Oxford Book of the Sea edited by Jonathan Raban, and I'm about to start Stephanie Vaughn's short story collection Sweet Talk.

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