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Mark Stephenson is a Wellington writer whose first novel No Second Chance has just been published by Steele Roberts. No Second Chance is the story of Anna, who arrives in Wellington in 1947 as a survivor of the holocaust. As well as being a story of survival, courage and betrayal, it’s also a story of love and hope. Anna forges a new life in a new place, but the past is always with her.
Mark grew up in the United Kingdom but moved to New Zealand in 1985 to work as a junior doctor in Invercargill. He has lived in Wellington since 1989 where he works as a GP and writes part time. He lives with his partner, a daughter and two dogs. Mark’s short stories have been published in JAAM, Takahe, New Idea, Viola Beadleton’s Compendium of Seriously Silly and Astoundingly Amazing Stories and Washington Square.
Recently I interviewed Mark about his beautifully written new novel, and about writing generally.
Mark, when I first met you, you were writing short stories. What led you to write a longer work?
Yeah, this novel started life as a short story, which was published in Takahe way back yonks ago. For some reason I just kept thinking about the characters and the reasons behind their actions. I gradually filled in the details of their lives and fitted them into a historical context, which wasn’t there in the original story, or not so much of it. Then I started thinking about the next generation, and the next one after that, and the consequences for them as well. So it became a story of how historical events can break apart a life, and a family, and eventually how the characters might come back together again.
What was different about writing a novel, compared to writing short stories?
It took a lot longer…!
But seriously, it’s easier in a way as long as you can stick to the task. You can develop characters and themes and plot along the way whereas in a short story it all has to be done in a few sentences, or words even. A short story is way easier to finish though.
You’ve chosen a very challenging subject. What made you decide to write Anna’s story? Is she based on a real person?
She is not based on a real person but some of the events I’ve written about have certainly happened to people. The situation and conditions in the camps are real but the characters and the way they interact in the novel are imaginary. I’ve been interested in those stories of survival since I was a teenager for some reason and have read some historical accounts. Many survivors keep their stories to themselves till they are much older, and some things probably go with them to the grave. I have often wondered what it would be like to survive, come back to a ‘normal’ life and how your mind would deal with it.
One of the most dramatic events in the book occurs in New Zealand, late in Anna’s life. This is based on an actual happening that occurred not far from here. It set me thinking… why would anybody do that? That’s really where the story came from – I started to fill in the gaps.
Do you have a regular writing routine? How do you juggle writing with your work as a GP?
Well, kind of. I have a regular bit of time off in the week when I write. Sometimes I spend most of it staring at the blank screen.
You held an NZSA mentorship while you were writing No Second Chance. How do you think that helped you?
It helped me a lot, basically by getting a lot of feedback on the text and how I was writing, seeing the recurring faults in my writing. I realised I had still a lot of work to do on the manuscript even though I thought it was already well drafted. I learnt a great deal. My mentor was encouraging while being honest about the bad bits, and there always are bad bits. She also praised the good bits, which I enjoyed more, strangely enough.
What are your writing plans now? Will you stick to novels?
At the moment I’m sticking to novels. I’ve written a draft of another one, possibly a second draft. It’s very different, though also historical, this one is set in sixteenth century Aotearoa before European contact and has a teenage boy as protagonist.
Finally, do you have any advice for first-time novellists?
I tend to think a lot and write little. I advise them to do the opposite.
No Second Chance can be bought from Steele Roberts and Unity Books, or any bookseller will order it for you if you ask.
You can read a sample of the writing at http://www.nosecondchancenovel.com
Last year, I posted about a little survey I’d undertaken of publishers’ websites. I looked at the gender of poets published in 2009 by AUP, VUP, Steele Roberts, Seraph Press, Earl of Seacliffe Workshop, Cape Catley, Titus Books and OUP (the ones that sprang to mind). I was interested to discover that, of the 31 books I found, 18 (58%) were by women and 13 (42%) by men.
Well. Subsequently, I discovered that the Journal of Commonwealth Literature very conveniently publishes (amongst other things) an annual round-up of all the poetry books published in New Zealand during the year. This included publishers I hadn’t been aware of at the time, such as Soapbox Press. Thanks to the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, I was able to get a much fuller picture.
The real balance was the opposite to what I’d found: of 74 poetry books published in 2009, 42 (57%) were by men and 32 (43%) were by women. Most of the presses I’d inadvertently excluded were small presses publishing one or two volumes apiece. However, one publisher (Kilmog Press, which makes truly beautiful handmade books) published 12 volumes in 2009 – surpassing all other publishers on the list, for which they are to be commended. Only one of these books was by a woman, though, which skewed the results significantly. (Maybe Kilmog Press will have an entirely different profile for 2010, but the results aren’t available yet, so we will just have to wait and see.)
Focusing on the three major poetry publishers in New Zealand (with 8 books apiece): Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press each published 5 women and 3 men; and Steele Roberts had 4 of each.
So how does all this stack up against the previous year? 2008 looks a little different for the big three: AUP published 2 women and 6 men, Steele Roberts 5 women and 7 men; VUP 3 of each. But if those two years are typical, the gender balance looks as though it might even out over time.
The other publisher with significant numbers in 2008 was the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop (1 woman, 4 men), followed by Headworx (1 woman, 2 men & 1 joint publication by a woman and a man); Original Books (2 of each) and Soapbox Press (1 woman, 3 men). The grand total for 2008 was 32 books by women (36%) and 55 by men (63%), with the remaining 1% the joint publication (by Meg Campbell and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell).
What can we conclude from this? Female poets are well represented overall with the major publishers; male poets seem somewhat over-represented with the smaller presses. Is this because small presses are more likely to be run by men, who prefer poetry by men? Are men more confident about putting together a collection and submitting it? Are women more likely to do MAs in Creative Writing* and therefore more likely to approach a university press? Who knows. You can expect another exciting instalment of this next time I get my spreadsheets going.
* I rather think they are, which raises another interesting question – why? Do male poets think they know it all already? Are female poets more open to the idea that they might still have a lot to learn? Are men more likely to take the alternative, small press route? I think there’s a thesis in here somewhere and if someone would like to pay my mortgage for the next few years, I’d be happy to take it on….