About Craig

Standard author bio written in the third person

Craig Cliff was born in Palmerston North and spent most of his childhood on sports fields or in the city library, which started life as a department store. His collection of short stories, A Man Melting, won Best First Book in the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. According to the judges A Man Melting was ‘of the moment and is rightly at home on a global platform. Cliff is a talent to watch and set to take the literary world by storm.’ In 2012 he was a judge of the inaugural Commonwealth Short Story Prize and had stories translated into Spanish and German. He writes a column for the Dominion Post about his double life as a writer and public servant in Wellington, where he lives with his wife and daughter. The Mannequin Makers is his first novel.

Bonus Q&A with myself

The banner of this website describes you as a 'Writer, columnist, public servant'. What do you do for a day job?

I'm a Senior Policy Manager in New Zealand's Ministry of Education. I should add that I quit writing my column in 2014 to make more time for writing fiction but haven't yet gotten around to changing the banner.

When do you find time to write?

I was lucky enough to work part-time for a while in 2011 and 2012 and that's when I broke the back of The Mannequin Makers. But I've been back to full time, five days a week, at the Ministry since September 2012, and managing a team (sometimes teams) since 2014.

These days I write between 5am and 7am on weekdays, then head to work. That's the plan, anyway. I have two pre-schoolers and they don't always stick to schedule.

Is your dream to become a full-time writer?

That depends. I'd like more time to write, of course. But I really enjoy my job. I think I'm good at it. It's nice to use a different part of my brain, to collaborate on projects and deal with other people, to have a beer on Friday and toast a good week's work. You don't really get that as a writer. And you don't get paid every fortnight. That's a biggie.

I've made the choice to live in New Zealand, have a family and a mortgage and be a writer. So I'm going to have a day job for a while yet. And that's cool.

You attended the International Institute of Modern Letters MA programme back in 2006. Is that when you wrote the stories in A Man Melting?

No. I actually tried to write a novel that year — a great experience but I think it was a mistake to try and write a novel from go to whoa in eight months. Too many decisions were made for the sake of expedience that then became so integral to the fabric of the novel that it was beyond fixing. The manuscript now sits in my bottom drawer along with the novel I tried to write when I was twenty-one.

So when did you turn your attention to short fiction?

I've always written short fiction. It's a natural progression to start with the shorter form and work your way up to the longer, if that's your goal. I mostly read novels when I was younger (Douglas Coupland, Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk), so that's what I grew up wanting to write. Tastes change, of course, and eventually I found an appreciation for subtlety (though I still love me some Vonnegut). After finishing my MA, I really wanted to keep writing, but didn't have the reserves of energy needed to start another novel. So I returned to short fiction.

The first two stories I wrote after doing my MA were 'Copies' (which has since been included in three anthologies) and 'Another Language' (which won the novice section of the 2007 BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards). Something clearly clicked and things began to fall into place.

In 2008, while living in Edinburgh, I tried to write one million words in 366 days (it was a leap year). I only wrote 800,737 words, but it was a very successful failure. Almost every story in A Man Melting was written or revised during that year.

Your novel, The Mannequin Makers, is quite different to your short stories. For one, it's historical. Was it a deliberate choice to go in a different direction?

Yes and no. After finishing the stories in A Man Melting, I started working on a novel that took a character from one of these stories and spent more time with him. I plugged away at this project for quite a while, but always seemed to get bogged down. The novel was set in the present and focused on a dude about my age, with experiences not dissimilar to mine.

When I finally gave up on this novel, I decided that the next thing I worked on would either be set in the past or the future. The future seemed too easy - I could just make things up - and I thought doing research would help me feel like a proper writer. So I chose to focus on two ideas that I'd been kicking around for a while that needed to take place in the past and devote the next two or three years to them.

Having said this, I don't think The Mannequin Makers is a million miles away from my short stories. I was on a panel discussion at a writers festival once about 'Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary'. I do that a little bit (like in my story 'Evolution, Eh?'), but more often I think I'm finding the ordinary in the extraordinary. In a story like 'The Skeptic's Kid', the extraordinary (extinct animals begin reappearing all around the world) is there front and centre, but the story is ultimately more concerned about the relationship of the young narrator and his mother. Same goes with The Mannequin Makers, which could be described as high concept - a window dresser raises his children to be living mannequins - but is secretly (not-so-secretly, now) more interested in what it's like to stand very still for a long time.

What are you working on at the moment?

A short novel and some long stories. 

The Quest for a Million Words - the record of a year spent writing like stink.
This Fluid Thrill - My blog, where you can catch my thoughts about writing, reading and whatever else passes my field of vision.
Craig Cliff on The Academy of New Zealand Literature's website