Wanaka writer Derek Grzelewski to share story-telling tips

Wanaka adventurer, fishing guide, and writer Derek Grzelewski.
Ross MacKay

Wanaka adventurer, fishing guide, and writer Derek Grzelewski.

When Derek Grzelewski talks about writing, it is with the zen-like awareness of someone in tune with the secrets of mountains and rivers.

Grzelewski's base is beside the Clutha River at Albert Town and from here, he circles out into the wilderness, finding hidden gems in places and people and slowly, gently polishing them into stories worth telling.

"You cannot learn it all at a writing school," he said, when we met for a coffee last week to discuss his latest book, The Smallest Continent, to be launched at the NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka in July. 

The Smallest Continent will be launched at the NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka in July.
Bateman

The Smallest Continent will be launched at the NZ Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka in July.

His method of deliberate, mindful patience in gathering stories could be described in the book's Invocation but he is actually writing of a climbing expedition: "We climb down steadily and deliberately, aware of our fatigue which can cloud judgement, exacerbate danger. Aware too that we are carrying within us something immeasurably precious, something worth bringing back".

The Polish-born fly-fishing guide has quietly occupied his own niche in Wanaka's galaxy of adventurers for two decades. Maya, a shaggy Airedale, is his almost constant companion.

He has been a prolific contributor to the New Zealand Geographic and The Smallest Continent, his fourth book, is a collection of 13 of his favourite previously published stories.

Grzelewski's 2014 film festival workshop was fully subscribed by at least 30 budding writers and he is expecting a similar number this time, "but even if one keen person turns up it'll be still worth doing the workshop for him/her".

He will be encouraging writers to "get into the land" and start writing.

"There's all kinds of things you can sign up to. But really, in the end, just show me your work! I wanted to learn from [the late] Michael Crichton [The Great Train Robbery, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun] but I don't think he ever was available."

Grzelewski likens crafting a story to riding an good single track bike trail.

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"That has all sorts of twists and turns. It is really well built so it engages you and you don't have time to think too much. You are thinking about your riding."

He also likens story-telling to running over rocks in bare feet. You need to move quickly, lightly.

"We need to do that because we are so visual, and with everything being film oriented now. So when we are writing, we are changing angles, changing lenses. It really is like making a film," he said.

Here it is another way: "Let the land speak. Why, how doesn't really matter. You could get lost in explaining, when all that really matters is that the sand is between your feet and it feels good. In writing, it is about being in "the zone". Athletes get that too. You can be in the zone knitting. It doesn't matter what you do."

Grzelewski says a "good editor is gold". He has been blessed to have editors receptive to his style. 

What he doesn't want - and workshop attendees won't get from him - is "someone who just says "That's lovely" and "I really like your work"." 

He has had his share of stories returned with sentences reshuffled like a pack of cards. He's learned to let go.

"Editors have a filter. They are not necessarily better than you. I write a story. That is where I have the most fun. What happens to it afterwards, it is not mine." he said.

The Smallest Continent is himself. A technical editor has trawled through it, checking for grammar and spelling and things like that. But it is how he wrote it.

Grzelewski's books represent freedom from profit-driven corporate assignments and the pressure of "banging things off" at ever increasing speeds of production.

"You can only go so fast, no matter how fit you get," he said. 

At the end of our hour, Grzelewski recommends some reading: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

"It is a classic of nothing really happens but he tells a good story about it. He shows us the landscape actually speaks and you can't put it down."

NZ Mountain Film Festival

What: Films, workshops and other events in Wanaka (July 3-7), Queenstown (July 9-11) and Cromwell (July 8).

Words and Wine – A Mountain Reading (with Mal Law, Lydia Bradey, Grzelewski, Paul Hersey, Paul Maxim) Saturday July 4pm

Adventure writing workshop (with Grzelewski): Sunday July 5, 9am - 1pm

Read More: Taking it to the limit

 - The Mirror

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