David Stringer is a) a very talented writer and b) an all-around nice guy. His novel, ‘Islands of the Heart’, was published in 2012. Don’t be surprised if one day you see a movie based on the story, as he is now working hard to finish a screenplay adaptation of the book. Wanna know more about David? Read on!
Pasifika Tales: If you were to describe your book, make a short summary for the readers, what would you say?
David Stringer: Essentially Islands is a story of people, a family, with secrets — some are hiding what they have done, others what has happened to them. So it’s how they deal with these, how it affects their lives and eventually, how the victims forgive those who hurt them. Perhaps more importantly it’s about how people can come to forgive themselves. And it happens to be set in Samoa and New Zealand with Pacific Island and Maori characters, so I guess it also kind of explores what it might be like to be PI / Maori in modern New Zealand. Along the way it also tells the story of a violent man who comes to understand that his violence is the cause of all his problems rather than the solution.
PT: How did the book come into being? Who or what was your inspiration?
DS: Way back in 2004 my wife and I went through a sad time when our daughter and grandson left to live permanently in Australia. They had lived with us for nearly two years and he had become almost like another son to us, so close. I have always been a writer by nature so I decided to write my way through the pain. As a story idea, I had once been friends in my youth with a half-Samoan guy whom I admired because he was completely fearless. I had once seen him see off a motorbike gang singlehandedly. It kind of intrigued me — what would it be like to be so strong (and violent) that you basically had to fear no-one? Every male’s dream perhaps, but does it come with a cost? Is there a price to pay at the end? And so WOLF was born and I knocked out a few chapters (30,000 words) and sent them to a reviewer in the UK, Robin Lloyd-Jones (a Tutor in Creative Writing at Glasgow Uni and also Booker Prize nominee). Robin liked Islands and became both a mentor and editor. It was he who eventually suggested that the real theme of Islands was actually “Forgiveness” rather than simply the effect of violence on people’s lives. A light bulb went on in my head and I re-wrote the book to reflect this theme, which I saw was indeed closer to what I was trying to say.
My wife and I moved to Australia ourselves in 2008 and I was overjoyed to be selected in a group of 16 writers by the Gold Coast Council to be mentored into completing our novels. Duly on the last day of 2009 I typed “The End”. My group all did critiques which were like gold, and I consequently re-wrote substantial parts of the 120,000 word manuscript. After some years of disappointment trying to get a publisher (even an agent was impossible — there are about 4 listed on the internet in NZ and one of these was dead!!), I published Islands myself in 2012.
PT: The story doesn’t revolve around one character only. There are quite a few of them. Care to share which were most difficult/fun to write?
DS: Well, Wolf was based on that fearless warrior of my youth, Karl, but as he was mixed-race, as is Wolf, I also was inspired in part by my own son who is half Samoan. He too is a tough cookie who served in the NZ Army in Timor. He can be seen in the end of the promotional video for Islands on my website: www.islandsoftheheart.wordpress.com. He provides the deeper more introspective side to Wolf. I would say that Wolf is the most complex character who completes the greatest character arc, so the novel is probably most about him.
PEPE, Wolf’s mother, just rose up fully formed in my mind. I guess she is just everything I intuitively feel a mature woman should be — not perfect, yet shining with this deep innate wisdom and love, and able to endure all the pain and suffering of this world in her being. She is the character I feel I “know” the best, even though she is female.
PASIFIKA would be my favourite character. He too is not based on anyone I know but there is more than a hint of NZ’s greatest ever comedian, Billy T James, in his irreverent yet childlike nature. Fika is a naïf, a Samoan Peter Pan, who remains in awe of the world as he sees it. He was also the favourite character of all my writing group friends. He was most fun to write, usually cracking me up with his remarks.
STEVEN, Wolf’s father, was difficult to write. A deeply conflicted man desperate to come to terms with both his ageing and his sins. Highly intelligent yet torn with the feeling he is a loser, and worse, that he deserves to be living in this deep dark hell. He is crucial to the story but I found him painful to create.
TANIA, Wolf’s partner, is Pepe in her younger days. She already has Pepe’s depth of feeling and wisdom, but she’s a lot more feisty — a Maori warrior-woman who backs down to no-one and is more than a match for Wolf.
LIN, Wolf’s sister / cousin, is however the character I am in love with. She is a woman as ethereally beautiful and mysteriously female as Wolf is brutally manly; and she has paid a terrible price for being so desirable to men. Although we don’t see a lot of her, she is pivotal to almost every major part of the story structure, and there was no way I wasn’t going to end the whole novel with her. I fantasize about adapting Islands to the screen, and the last, haunting scene is Lin’s.
PT: Many characters means many storylines. Was it difficult to weave them all into one coherent narrative?
DS: Well thank you for saying the narrative was coherent!! I do fear others may be less kind as it IS a seriously complex set of storylines. I felt I needed them all to fully develop the reader’s relationship to each character. I felt that without this, the reader wouldn’t be able to buy into the whole theme of forgiveness as it is developed in the novel. However it means four POV (point-of-view) characters which is definitely stretching things a bit. However I felt I knew and loved my characters enough to be comfortable in their skins whenever I had to change POV’s. I guess the readers will be the final judges on that. To be truthful I didn’t really find the novel that difficult to write — the scenes just formed in my mind like watching a movie, complete with action and dialogue, and my job was simply to put it all down on paper using the right words. I did however have to expend time and energy co-ordinating dates, times and places!! The novel is structured so that we get to know the characters most deeply in Part One, then as it goes into Part Two (the descent into the Night-World, or World of Trials, to follow standard mythology), it all picks up pace and tension and so is more plot-driven.
PT: Although the novel is a family saga of sorts, you touched on a lot of different topics: from politics to multiculturalism to everyday problems people face. Why did you decide to create such a complex plot?
DS: Well as I said before, it began as a quite simple idea but quickly became complex as I found the characters had darker sides and histories. To a large extent, as the creator, you do know what your beginning and ending are, but you have to navigate this maze of pathways which connects the two. At the end of the day, I found I simply couldn’t tell Wolf’s story without also telling Tania’s, Steven’s and Pepe’s at the very least. And then there are Lin and Fika who are not POV characters but are so pivotal to the plot and themes they have to be drawn with some depth. As for the politics etc., well I always wanted to write a NEW ZEALAND novel. When I was about 16 my English teacher gave me a copy of “Man Alone” probably the most iconic NZ novel. I adored it. I revered it. I always wanted to write a NZ novel that could stand up there alongside of it. Hence it has material germane only to NZ and NZ readers in some parts. This can be a weakness too sadly, as I found that the literary world doesn’t really have too much interest in NZ. The huge USA market for instance is self-obsessed to an almost “Trumpian” degree and even in Australia, you are starting with a handicap if you are touting a book set in Wanaka rather than the baked outback.
PT: ‘Islands of the Heart’ – what does this title mean?
DS: It’s simply a double entendre: New Zealand and Samoa are such beautiful islands that they become a part of your heart once you have experienced them; and the people we love are also living in our hearts, yet they can become isolated and lonely, like islands, if we don’t cherish them enough.
PT: This book is your first novel. Do you have any plans to write more?
DS: Actually this is not my first novel — I wrote one in 1978 about which the least said the better. As for another? I truly cannot say. Writing Islands was probably the hardest and yet most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life, and it’s tempting to say, “Hey, why not do it all again?” But to be truthful, the chances of getting published are very, very slim and it hurts deeply, very deeply, to labour so over your creation only to see it condemned to some kind of literary black hole where nothing, not even light escapes. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t feel pain over how much I love Islands and the way it has simply sunk into oblivion, and I really don’t have any desire right now to repeat that. I’ll give you an example. I entered Islands into the NZ Post Book Awards in 2013 I think it was. TV 3 ‘s John Campbell was the chief judge. I duly packaged up all six books requested and sent them plus my $150 entry fee. I never heard one word back. Not even an e-mail saying Hey thanks, we got your book but it sucks. Nothing. That Black Hole again!! I sent John a letter letting him know what I thought of the way they encouraged NZ writers…but he ignored that too. To this day I do not know where those six books are!! Into the Black Hole I reckon. It’s around then I decided, No this is just too hard — nobody really gives a damn, no-one is interested.
I have written short stories published in anthologies and an essay I wrote got in the top 20 out of 200+ in Australia’s premier international Essay competition, The Calibre Prize, which I’m quite proud of. They can be read on my website mentioned above. There is also a Facebook page for Islands with some more reviews and recommendations etc. As I said, I fantasize about Islands being made into a movie — I am sure that in the hands of the right director a really powerful NZ movie could be made. I began work on this last year and the first 10 pages of script can be seen on the above website. I’d like to complete it one day but I think I need some encouragement and even that’s not readily forthcoming. Last year the NZ Screenwriters’ Guild ran a competition for new screenwriters called “Seed Grants” where you qualified if you had written a major work of any kind, including a novel — so I qualified, and I sent my script ideas in but didn’t get selected. Fair enough, I can hack that, but now this year they have changed the entry requirements so that only people who have a major screenwriting or related media project (TV etc), to their name may enter — so that excludes me.
PT: Which Pacific writers do you admire?
DS: A rather curly question for me, this. You see I have never identified as a Pacific writer until the Tusitala competition and finding your wonderful website. I simply considered myself a NZ writer. I must admit it’s a rather romantic idea though isn’t it, to identify with the magnificent Pacific, which is such a strong motif throughout my novel too, by the way.
I have read Albert Wendt’s “Sons for the Return Home” (and loved the movie), and also “The Mango’s Kiss”. Do you know that the two main characters in this latter book are Peleiupu and Tavita — the names of my wife and me!!! And the characters eloped, just as we did hahahaha, and it’s set in Savaii — the same as my own novel. I’d love to be able to tell Albert about that. I have become more aware of Pacific writers thanks to the above influences I mentioned and I particularly enjoyed the short stories in “Our Heritage — The Ocean”. Two stood out for me — Moana Leilua’s “In Masina’s Shoes”, which gave me a good laugh, and the quiet horror of Kelera Tuvou’s “Box of Broken Tunes” really moved me.
If the opportunity arises again to create something “Pacific”, I will grab it with both hands, because thanks to you and The Samoan Observer, I really do feel like a Pacific writer now. And many thanks for that.
The interview is presented without edits.