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Segue 11: Fall 2013  ||  Thom Conroy


about the author


Thom Conroy is an American fiction writer living in New Zealand who sometimes publishes under the name Thomas Gough. His work has appeared in various journals, including New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review, Agni, and Colorado Review. His short story “The Evening’s Peace” was noted in Best American Short Stories 2011 as a “Distinguished Story of 2010.” His first novel, The Naturalist, will be published with Random House in 2014.


about the work


The short story “Passing for Song” is grounded in the rural seascape of the East Coast district of New Zealand, and it belongs to an unfinished collection of linked short fiction about a group of New Zealanders who, for various reasons, are experiencing displacement, alienation, or emotional disconnect. As it always the case, the story is closely tied to my own experience as a New Zealand immigrant forming relationships with a new country and culture. The unfinished collection is currently on hold as I complete a historical novel, The Naturalist (due to be published with Random House in 2014), which is also closely tied my own emotional experience as an immigrant in a new culture. Some people have asked how a historical novel can be personal, but I think any work of fiction represents a configuration of our interests in some way, and is, therefore, always a priori personal. 

Initially, I often conceive of narratives not in strictly linear terms—that is, first this happened and then that happened—but in spatial terms which, by the necessity of grammar, must become linear in telling. I tend to approach early drafts, then, as one might imagine beginning to assemble a mosaic. I start with the colorful and separate bits and arrange them, put one beside the other to gauge its possible effect. A central contrast or “arrangement” in “Passing for Song” is one that emerges from placing the somewhat fraught—possibly even self-absorbed—emotions of a character beside the insensate beauty of the natural world.

Toward the end of “Passing for Song” the narrator and her father are walking on a desolate beach: “The sun was hidden by a band of cloud, but the sky was acid blue. Past the surf I saw acres of silver.” The stark and impersonal glimpse of beauty immediately returns the narrator to the biological reality of her own existence, and this thought allows her to reflect on a perspective that contrasts with her own somewhat indulgent emotional experience: “There was something biological in this walking, a sudden mechanical speed that brought to mind our human meagerness. I thought of my DNA, that militant engine that ate generations of flesh, boring its way toward the open future.” 

“Passing for Song” is about grief, but it’s also about living one’s grief in a world that is largely oblivious to us. We mourn or laugh, and the sun rises. We dance or fret, and the sun sets. The reality of human experience is that it is always endured or enjoyed in a specific, utterly indifferent, and often shockingly beautiful landscape. I think recognizing this fact can lead us to a kind of consolation and healing, and I think this largely happens for the protagonist in “Passing for Song”. What interests me as a writer in “Passing for Song” is how this thematic knowledge arose out the conception of writing as a kind of linguistic mosaicing. 

Another lesson I’ve learned from writing fiction for a number of years now is something I’ll call the mutability of experience. “Passing for Song” serves as a useful example of this aspect of composition. As I mentioned above, the central emotion of the story is grief over the passing of a loved one. While I was not recovering from the grief of loved one while writing the story, the emotional center nonetheless belongs entirely to my experience as an immigrant in New Zealand. I have always identified the alienation of living on the other side of the globe from your home with grief, and here the core feeling has simply been mutated to adapt to the fictional situation. While the name of the emotion has changed, the emotional urgency has not.

Another issue related to the mutability of experience in fiction composition is that of writing from the point-of-view of another gender. The protagonist of “Passing for Song” is a woman, and sometimes people ask if I find it challenging to write from the point of view of another gender. While there are complications involving in stepping outside of your gender, I think that these complications are intrinsic to the mutability of experience in fiction composition. The short story writer Andre Debus once said that “the jump from one heart to another is of equal distance whether from man to man or man to woman.” While I think Debus might be simplifying the challenge of writing from the point-of-view of another gender, there is certainly truth in the fact that the fundamental experience of fiction writing is the exploration of the consciousness of someone else—even if that someone else is another version of yourself. 


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