February 2013: TRAVEL

Graham Hughes, Buster Brown Meets the Yard

Graham Hughes, Buster Brown Meets the Yard

Graham Hughes on ‘Buster Brown Meets the Yard’: “Taken using an Anso Buster Brown 2a Brownie 1913-25. Paper negative on expired paper, 5-second exposure, developed in expired Agfa Neutol. Scanned and inverted, contrast slightly tweaked. Otherwise a pretty straight shot. I love this camera.” More here.

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Tim Jones, Carousel

The man in the safety vest pushes the button and we begin our journey. Behind me is a suitcase, its sharp corners digging into my back. In front is a sagging and much-sellotaped cardboard box. Black plastic flaps slap me in the face, then we enter the world of light.

There are faces all around, anxious, impatient, wanting to get their belongings and get the hell out of there. Who wants to hang around a moment longer than they have to?

All around me, faces light up in recognition, hands reach down. I continue unclaimed, around one curve, around another, out into the echoing cold of the loading facility, where more luggage is added to the belt before the plastic flaps can assault me again.

A face looms over me, a voice sounds. “Is this yours?” it asks.

“No,” comes the reply. “That’s nothing like mine. Mine’s got a yellow top.”

“Sorry,” says the first voice, and the face turns away.

“There he is!” A shout, but it is not for me. The carousel goes round. There is less and less luggage. There are fewer and fewer people waiting. In the end, I am quite alone.

The belt stops. I climb off. I have a few coins in my pocket, enough to feed a vending machine. I eat, drink, and find a bench to doze on. When the belt restarts, I hurry back, eager to be claimed.

Tim Jones writes novels, short stories and poetry. He was awarded the New Zealand Society of Authors Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2010. His story “The New Neighbours” appears in The Apex Book of World SF 2. His latest book is poetry collection Men Briefly Explained. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook too.

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Vivienne Merrill, Just a Storm Away

We are almost at our journey’s end when he pulls the car over to the side of the road. “Need to check something. Sorry.” His words, his manner, verge on formality. To hide my reaction, I look out of the window and across the paddocks.

There’s an old house near the road, almost subsumed by trees and vines, its windows encrusted and opaque. It seems to cringe back in on itself. I can’t help wondering why I feel my eyes blur with tears. After all, we’ve passed many such unwanted houses and sheds on our way back. Maybe it’s the resolute stance, the way the walls refuse to crumble, just accept the intrusion. Although, here and there, holes are appearing and a few bricks are strewn, fallen from the chimney.

The fault fixed, we finish our journey in silence. Outside my home, he leaves the engine idling and taps his fingers against the steering wheel, looking straight ahead.

I understand that silence and have no wish to search for more words. Like the old house, I think, I am just a storm away from collapse. I hear the car drive away, recalling the huge bougainvillea blazing from the centre of all that fragility. Red, so red. Like a beating heart.

I turn the key.

Vivienne Merrill lives on the Kapiti Coast where it is all too easy to beachwalk and dream her days away. Sometimes, when she’s lucky, some of these dreams become stories and poems. Writing as Vivienne Joseph, she has won several awards for her work, particularly for her children’s books.

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Tina Cartwright, Chinchon

The Land of Fable, it was called. And for a reason. It cycled around his mind; in every direction he walked, he finished here again. Around the clock tower sending the pigeons up in a shower of grey feathers and sparkling glorioles, past the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora where the bell marked the hours as if they really existed and the spire in the tired wind groaned over the hot air. Past the Museum with the courtyard which opened into dark caves he went, and finally under the aqueduct’s ancient, gingerbread stone arches, stuck like Lego structures over the horizon. There he was again.

His eyes floated in waves of golden stone and airless blue sky. Here, the terraces surrounding the plaza stepped down, with their orange tiled roofs uneven and leaning; their whitewashed walls blazed in the sun and their ornate green and gold railings made them seem unreal – a perfect little maquette of an ancient Spanish plaza. One you could set in the palm of your hand. Donkeys dragged their feet around the centre-ring, slow with their burden of colourful children. In the afternoons the donkeys went home and the children too, after siesta the children rushed back with their soccer balls and their dreams. Everything was bathed in soft, golden dust. It sank into his mind too.

He took another swig of the local liquor, yellow stuff, stoppered with a cork. His thoughts bathed in waves of aniseed and old dust. He decided never to return home.

Tina Cartwright is a folk artist concerned with stories and beliefs that people carry in their blood, whether consciously or subconsciously. She has one foot in the south of New Zealand and another in Mexico. She currently lives in Mexico City and is working on poetry and short story collections.

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Anonymous_Author©, The Tyranny of Distance

Strike-a-light! The big red car overtakes. Well over the limit. On that corner! They’ll kill themselves, or worse. Maureen frets, checks for more traffic. Her Corolla rattles along the uneven surface south of Taumaranui. She and David travelled on many roads like this, before he too became riddled with bumps and holes. He was here, then he was not.

A cattle truck looms and threatens in the mirror. Maureen tentatively eases off the pedal. The truck roars by, buffets her tiny car, further frays her nerves. She grips the steering wheel and mentally crosses herself.

David had driven everywhere; they’d seen most of New Zealand.

“Only State Highway 6 left,” he’d exaggerated. “But that can wait.”

She arrives at a country churchyard, exhausted. A placid river caresses its northern boundary. Maureen prises herself from the car. Insects and birds fade to silence in deference to her procession along grass avenues. The engine clicks rudely as it cools. In the distance she hears the wild shush of rubber on abrasive bitumen. Other people rushing off somewhere. A slow week has passed since she was last here. And a week before that. She’ll drive here next week too, despite her anxiety.

They’d been planning their first overseas trip.

“No driving,” he’d proudly announced. “Planes and buses. Chauffeured all the way.”

One day she might… but for now this is as far as she travels. Maureen stoops and pulls a weed from the soil in front of David’s headstone. Overseas can wait.

Anonymous_Author© is a literary voice who resides near Puhoi. He is an existentialist suffering from an identity crisis and exists only through the benevolence of language. René Descartes categorically stated: “I think therefore I am.” Anonymous_Author© ambiguously offers: “You think you exist.” As well as poetry, flash fiction and short stories, Anonymous_Author© is currently working on his unauthorised autobiography, The Ghostwriter in the Machine. Follow his progress on Twitter (@anonauth).

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Karen Peterson Butterworth, Walkies

Today I took an idea for a walk. A yappy little resolve to help others more. Its eyes lit up, it slipped my leash and darted off.

This way, it barked, and led me into a foetid jungle. Don’t be nervous, it admonished – novelty is good for you and ruts are – I can’t express how bad.

I inhaled – and choked on sulphurous fumes thick with black particles. Tank turrets towered around me. In the undergrowth a girl in a grey hijab with a cut-off nose cowered behind a discarded fridge, while a posse of turbaned men searched, prodding plastic bags, bubble-wrap and rotting food with sharp knives. Skeletal hands grabbed at my handbag and clothing and tore them to shreds.

I turned to flee, but my resolve tugged me forward with surprising strength.

Exploring this place is the first step towards helping humanity, it declared. You could never do that from your double-glazed home in your leafy suburb.

But why me? I’ve spent a life-time’s energy surviving in this world. I’ve tithed my income to charities. I’ve earned some relaxation before I leave it.

I have to wake someone up and it might as well be you.You love your species, flaws and all. You’ve seventy-eight years’ experience.You have grandchildren. You qualify.

I could find no answer so I kept on following my idea while we searched for a way out. Common sense. Generosity. Wisdom. Integrity. If only we could find the signposts.

Karen Peterson Butterworth has published seven books. Her poetry and prose has appeared in journals and anthologies in seven countries. She won the 2001 BNZ/Katherine Mansfield Essay Prize with an essay about Otaki, where she lives with her husband Brian. Themes for her writing often come to her while gazing at sunlit leaves stirred by sea breezes.

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Emily Seresin, Slipping

Maria left work early with pre-migraine lights playing behind her lids and now sat northbound on the train with thighs sticking to the edge of the vinyl where her skirt had ridden up. A woman across the aisle and facing the same way applied a blunt stub of kohl to already heavily demarcated eyes. Maria gave in to the compulsion to watch. The woman wore a sleeveless shiny leopard blouse and dark soft tonged curls fell over her shoulders. She held the compact mirror attentively. Backing her profile were large glass squares filled with passing buildings, so that it seemed the train might be stationary, and the world slipping by.

The train slowed and stopped. Commuters appeared, separated by insubstantial poles holding the platform’s awning – a businessman, a mother with a pram and teen boys in sets of three and five. The woman was patting her face now, gently but firmly with a flesh-coloured disc, like the skin itself would not adhere. The compact shut, making a muffled click, and when she cleared her throat the note was base.

Three boys entered with excessive long-limbed strides. The tallest flipped the seat to face the other two. Sitting forward, elbows on knees, he clipped the side of the blonde boy’s face and pointed to the woman using only his eyes. The friends leaned in for a punch line. Maria caught the woman’s eye reflecting low afternoon light, and flushed at her own complicity.

Emily Seresin is a costume designer and has clothed other people’s characters for nearly thirty years. Lately she likes to experiment with characters of her own. She particularly likes it when her characters stay on the page and don’t stomp around the wardrobe truck complaining about itchy socks. Emily grew up in Wellington and now lives in Sydney on the Bankstown line.

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Tim Heath, Small Hole in Security, Narita Airport, Tokyo

When the trip was planned, I’d told myself the nine-hour wait in the transit lounge wouldn’t be a problem. In reality, time, like honey too long in the fridge, stops and threatens never to flow again.

I regret having packed away the anthology that had been such a pleasant companion on my travels – Hone Tuwhare’s Small Holes in the Silence. Poetry, so redolent of home, would be some solace.

Loud speakers muffle my name. A problem? An upgrade? A friend?

The girl behind the desk, fresh out of Standard Four, bows and smiles an airline smile. Her mouth seems too much like an unopened rosebud to allow speech, but she says, “We transfer bag from Amsterdam. Security worry bad thing inside so you come.”

I wait and feel bad thing inside. Security comes in World War Two uniform, baton under arm. No smile, suitcase in custody.

“You open!”

My heart? My mind? My story?

“This the one.”

He points to a rectangular glow on the copy of an X-ray, then taps his baton on the Tuwhare volume carefully wrapped in shining plastic to protect it from three weeks of unwashed clothes.

“Ah,” he says. “Only book. Book no danger.”

We smile and bow. He helps pack away the laundry.

We laugh and repeat, “Book no danger.”

No, no danger to those who think rain is just rain, and sun is just sun, and love is just love.

Tim Heath writes poetry, enjoys some success in the oddity known as Poetry Slams and writes whenever he can grab time from grandchildren, travelling, sailing, growing vegetables and hanging out more washing than he cares to mention.

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Celine Gibson, California Girl

Sally was right: Wicked Wigs are amazing. They’re from Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Cali for ni a. Their website’s heaven – glamour with a capital G.

I’ve never been to California, never been anywhere really… Auckland when I was a teenager. So you can imagine my excitement at our proposed trip to Melbourne this summer. Trouble is Aussie’s been having those heat waves and fires – not good. They say excessive temperature fluctuations could kill me, so I’m not taking any chances. My life – what’s left of it – is just too precious.

Nutritious food plus abstinence from fags and alcohol have been my mantra. My body was my temple, but now this forty-seven year old temple’s under attack, and I’m bloody cheesed off.

My cousin from Timaru died of cancer… but she treated her body like a nightclub. Her husband, Barry, posted me her wig. Kev dubbed it my “hideous helmet” and almost wet himself. He’s right though, New Zealand wigs are CRAP. Kev’s so supportive. He stumped up the $195 U.S. for my Wicked Wig straight off. He wanted the “Beach Babe” model, but it’s just not me. I’ve ordered “Yummy Mummy” – sort of Sharon Osbourne meets Rod Stewart.

I’m disappointed about Melbourne, but given a second chance I’d opt for California. Sally jokes I could’ve given my wig its first airing down Rodeo Drive. Never mind, come my next chemo jaunt to Christchurch at least I’ll leave the hospital looking like a star.

Celine Gibson shares her home with her husband (a bagpiping fiend) and two cats. Writing is her first love, followed by gardening, baking and painting -when time allows.

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Kathryn Jenkins, Joel’s Knickers

After six months travelling I lost my suitcase on the journey home. Three weeks later they told me it had probably been stolen. There wasn’t much I missed: my Canon 5D, the authentic Himalayan salt bought from a street vendor in Pakistan and ten pairs of silk panties designed by my ex-boyfriend, Joel. The camera and salt I replaced, although I suspected the latter wasn’t as authentic as the label proclaimed, but my French knickers were irreplaceable.

I first met Joel at a construction site where I was on the engineering team and he worked for Just Like Butter Concrete Cutters. Watching Joel wield his concrete saw made my mouth water and I soon lured him to my bed. In our post-coital glow we’d eat chocolate and watch re-runs of Project Runway.

One day I came home to find him rummaging through my underwear drawer. He held out a pair of Warehouse knickers.

“Where are your pretty panties?” he asked.

“I don’t have any,” I said.

So he set about making me some. After a few unsuccessful attempts he created a pair that could only be described as exquisite. Soon he had numerous designs and an internship with Fashion Central.

When he started sleeping with the models more often than he slept with me I changed the locks and threw his belongings onto the street, except for the deliciously comfortable ten pairs of panties he’d first designed.

Travelling had helped me forget Joel but I sure miss his knickers.

Kathryn Jenkins unexpectedly started writing flash fiction as a result of a workshop exercise and has written at least one a month since. She’s still surprised at what turns up on the page and wonders where the ideas come from. Hopefully they will never dry up.

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Rebecca Simons, Playing House (Mum’s Little Girl)

Hip tucked into the bench she leaned on an elbow, one foot hooked behind the other, envelopes crumpled in her hand. Most were “windows”, some with threats stamped in large red letters; she tossed those aside to lie amongst crumbs and dead flies. Without raising her eyes she reached forward and plucked a beer bottle from the windowsill to suck warm bubbles. Eyes flicked to the littered sill then back down. Fingers found what they were looking for. She pushed the empty bottle aside and held the envelope. The writing was blue, small tightly looped letters representing home, warmth, Mum. Her own note, asking for help, money, had been scribbled on a scrap of paper. She closed her eyes as her whole body began to shake. The unopened envelope dropped soundlessly to the bench. A voice from behind hissed, “What are you doing?” Her body jerked back. The voice repeated, “I said, what are you doing?” Shoulders bunched as hands busied themselves sweeping the envelope under bills, brushing a dirty knife with the empty bottle into the sink. “Just giving things a quick tidy-up.” Her back remained mute. His breath grew loud in the silence. “Well get a move-on – the boys will be waiting. You can do that shit later.” She half turned, head low, hands hovering, “I’ll be right there.” Keys jangled, his pocket momentarily forming a fist. He left. She snatched the envelope, tucked it in a drawer, and followed.

Rebecca Simons is an ex-office worker who discovered short story writing while enjoying a mid-life crisis. Although her university years were spent studying European language and culture, she has found an even greater challenge in mastering the use of her maternal language, English, and hopes to continue with this challenge for many years to come.

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Sian Williams, HAERE RA

My grandmother always said the Captain had a girl in every port but I never believed her. I adored him; my grandfather could do no wrong. He taught me to ride a bicycle and to draw — ships naturally: barques, freighters, ketches, yawls at the Tiger Bay docks.

After they died my mother cleared the house and carpentry workshop, no longer shipshape and Bristol fashion.

In the Captain’s sea-chest she found photographs: Sydney Harbour Bridge, South Sea islands, the Statue of Liberty. She brought back an envelope containing three small sepia images. In rich brown tones they showed a Māori woman wearing a straw hat and a confiding expression, a dark-haired toddler playing naked in a rock-pool with a handmade wooden boat and a carving of two tiki flanking the words HAERE RA.

“He visited New Zealand many times,” Mum said. “I wonder where these were taken, and who these people are.”

“Also,” she said, “what does it mean, the wooden sign, do you know?”

“Yes, Mum” I said, “Haere rā means farewell.”

I examined the images, searching for clues. The woman’s eyes looked directly into the camera, transporting me to that distant beach: the intimacy of the moment and the child with his boat – identical to the one sitting on my mantelpiece, the one the Captain had made me and which we’d sailed together on the Taff the summer I turned eight.

Perhaps my grandmother was right.

But he’d left us all now, his girls in foreign ports.

Sian Williams is editor at Flash Frontier. Her grandfather was in the merchant navy and did visit New Zealand many times — but this is a work of fiction.

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Michelle Elvy, Wandering

They went to the gallery together but when they stepped through the door their hands drifted apart and they meandered down separate corridors. This is how they always went: travelling together but following two paths. In market streets he’d seek gourmet coffees while she’d follow her nose to the smelliest cheeses; underwater, he’d linger near the colourful sunny surface while she’d dive into deeper blues and purples; on hikes he’d look for shady patches while she’d search out the sun.

Lately, he’d been wondering if she’d wander off forever one day. Now he found himself spying on her in the gallery.

The first time he found her, she stood in front of a portrait of an older woman. It was as if he’d intruded on a fierce conversation, so intent were their locked gazes. He dared not speak.

The next time he found her, she was falling into an Escher-like ocean labyrinth. She tumbled down into spirals and space, and he was sure he could not get her back. He dared not move.

The last time he found her roaming off into the rolling hills of a distant landscape, her body so small in front, as if she were disappearing into the milky greens. He dared not breathe.

But when she turned and caught his eye, her smile opened up like the hills and stretched like the treetops and melted like the oceans. And when he asked “Where to now?” she squeezed his hand and said, “Let’s wander home.”

Michelle Elvy is founding editor at
Flash Frontier. She believes in wandering fairly far and wide, but she generally finds her way home.

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Please also see this month’s interview with Wellington writer Sally Houtman, whose stories appeared in twelve out of twelve issues of Flash Frontier in 2012.

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Coming in April: the high tide issue. 

Interview with Sally Houtman

February 2013

This month, we talked with Sally Houtman, who contributed to Flash Frontier‘s twelve issues in 2012. From her opening story ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’ (January frontiers) to her final piece ‘The Seasons, it is said…’ (December/January the gift) Sally was with us all the way. Read on to find out more about her workplace, her attention to detail and her love of other stories, too.

On work habits and influences

FF: Sally, you wrote a story for every issue of Flash Frontier in 2012; that’s twelve stories in a year, month after month. Congratulations – well done! Do you tend to write on a regular schedule anyway, or was this more an exception to your usual habits? And what makes this kind of challenge inspiring?­­ Was it helpful to you as a writer ?

SH: More than a regular schedule or writing routine, I’ve found the best way to keep the creative gears turning is to adopt an attitude of openness. By this I mean a ready awareness of the magic in the everyday ordinary, an ability to grab hold of anything that seems to contain that little spirit-spark of life. In this way, even when I’m not physically at my desk writing, I’m still engaged in the process. Writing is something I’ve found I can’t make happen, but rather have to let happen in its own time. It does, however, mean that my writing comes in fits and starts, but I’ve never found logging a prescribed amount of screen time to work for me. Inspiration has its own schedule. Certainly, the physical act of putting words to page, the construction phase of the process, takes place at the keyboard, but the act of discovery and the linking of ideas, the heart of the process, is a bi-product of the sensory experience of interacting with the world and is more likely to manifest with an ear to the radio and a spoon stirring a bubbling pot on the stove than at the hard, uninspired surface of the desk.

That said, I did find the challenge of the themes and deadlines enormously helpful this past year in terms of accelerating and structuring this process. It provided me with a more targeted awareness and focus as well as a sense of urgency as the monthly deadlines came and went. Without the positive pressure of these themes and deadlines, I doubt I’d have written with such intensity over such an extended period of time.

FF: In our June interview last year, we asked you about your work habits. We’d like to ask you to share a little more with our readers in this interview. We understand that you have some degree of visual impairment. Does this affect the way you write on a practical level? Are there technological advances that assist you? And also, does this condition affect the way you write on a literary level, i.e. do you believe you see the world differently in a psychological as well as physical way? Does your visual impairment have any bearing on the sensuality of your stories? We can’t help but notice that your stories are full of colour, taste, smell, sound…

SH: On a practical level, there are two pieces of equipment that, without which, I would be unable to read or write. These are a desktop camera for the magnification of printed material, handwritten notes, etc., and a computer screen magnification program which also provides speech output.

Although these allow me to access material that would be otherwise beyond my reach, there are inherent limitations to being dependent on such technologies. There is an unavoidable time and frustration factor involved in performing even the simplest of tasks. The best way to imagine the way I work is to think of holding a powerful magnifying glass over a page – yes, you can read the print, but only a small block at a time. And yes, my computer ‘speaks’ to me, but I’ve got to know where to find the text to tell it what to read. For this reason, complex graphics, columns or scattered blocks of text such as those found on web pages can prove to be vast and foreign landscapes. Many have been the times I’ve searched for a piece of information, a link or a button, only to find it ‘hidden’ on another part of the screen.

Additionally, unlike a sighted person, I do not have the ability to skim or scan text, as the speech program must read every single word. This means that, in order to locate a specific piece in a document, or refer back to something I may have missed for clarification while reading, I’ve got to either do a search for a word unique to that part of the text, or reread the entire document. Proofreading as well becomes challenging, since things like extra spaces or punctuation errors are easily missed because they simply are not spoken.  On the other hand, because I actually hear everything read aloud, I have a greater feel for the flow and music of the language and am able to pick up errors in my own and others’ work that escape visual detection. The eye, it seems, sees what it expects to see while the ear never lies.

As for whether I see the world differently than others do, it would be naïve to say that I don’t. Certainly it is a cliché to say that a blind person is more in tune with their other senses, but there is no denying the element of truth in the cliché. Throughout my life, rather than simply looking at a thing, I’ve had to, whenever possible, pick it up and turn it over in my hand to examine its detail. It’s inevitable that this natural tendency to feel the weight and texture of a thing, would find its way into my writing as well, since this is the way I experience the world.

The details…

FF: Titles matter a lot. Your titles tend to be a part of the story – that is, they don’t just announce the story but they blend into it, as in ‘What Lily Knew’ (June 2012) or ‘To Dislodge –’ (May 2012). How do titles come to you – do they come most often after the story has been written, or do you think up a title that takes you into the story? Do you have any of your own you wish you could go back and change?

SH: A title must not only seduce and entice, but it must, without being gimmicky or clever, seamlessly blend into the landscape of the story. Nothing turns a reader away from a story faster than a cliché or tired expression waving as the story’s flag. If the title shows a lack of imagination, it is likely that the story will do the same.

In my own writing, the title serves as a frame to house the finished work. While a work is in progress, its title changes continuously, sometimes as many as a dozen times in succession as I work to pinpoint the story’s central theme. I find the physical act of typing out a title and pinning it to the top of the page an immediate indication of whether I’ve tapped into the heart of the story or not. That’s not to say that an original title never survives to the final cut, because quite often it does. ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’, for example, is a phrase that came to me while working in the garden in a green safari hat. It provided a jumping off point around which I built the story and that particular title never changed. Other titles will undergo a number of transformations before returning to their original form. But the final title is never decided until the work feels whole and complete. And because I take great care in choosing a title which blends into the story rather than announces it, I can easily say that there is not a single title I would change.

FF: You started off at Flash Frontier in January 2012 with ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’, a story that favours rich description over plot. In fact, one might even argue that nothing actually happens in the story, and yet there is a lot happening in this relationship – which makes it a memorable piece of flash. In fact, most of the stories you wrote for Flash Frontier are about relationships, often in crisis – or at the very least morphing, developing, swaying and uncertain. But ‘Safari Hats and the Colour Green’ depicts a relationship that works despite the couple’s differences. Which relationships are most challenging for you to tackle in your writing? And do you know when the story begins whether the relationship will work out or founder?

SH: I think of relationships not just in terms of those between people, but in a more universal sense, as the inter-connectedness of all things. I am fascinated by the idea of choice, compromise and consequence; the power of a single decision, act, moment, or encounter to set in motion a chain of events which changes the course of a life. That being the case, you could say in all fairness that all of my stories are about relationships, but in a more general sense. In life there is a relationship, for example, between the is and the could be, between the real and the imagined, between what we have and what we desire. Whenever these forces are at odds, the result is tension and choices or compromises must be made, each carrying with them their own consequences. In my writing, I merely identify and define the opposing forces at work, give them flesh and bone through character, and assign them a voice. Do I know in advance whether or not the relationship will succeed or founder? The success or failure of a relationship between characters in a story, just as in life, is not so much the question, since there are benefits and drawbacks either way. From this point of view, the dissolution of a relationship becomes less a failure than a course correction, a choice that, for highly individual reasons, puts a life on an alternative path.

FF: Your story ‘The sky on that day’ (March 2012) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. This story contains detailed observations (His hands were in his pockets, his trousers hitched up with a piece of string…) as well as a certain simplicity and symmetry that make it both sparse and whole. When you thought up this story, did you intend to create this kind of space, or did that follow once you began?

SH: That story, as do many of my stories, sprang from a single phrase. In this case, the phrase being, “He couldn’t say.” Where, when or how the phrase came to me, I can’t recall, nor is it important, since all scavenged bits take on a new life in new hands. The phrase itself implies a mysterious sense of uncertainty, which I imagine is why it caught in my net. I knew right away that whatever story developed from this phrase would need to reflect the same feeling of uncertainty. So it wasn’t so much that I intended to create this kind of space, but that the story itself demanded it. It was my job as the writer to carefully weigh and balance each detail to give the story just the right amount of structure while at the same time leaving space for the echoes. I worked quite hard on word choice and phrasing so that the sections would have a sense of balance and symmetry, and to ensure that no one section carried any more weight or significance than the others. In any story, I strive ultimately for a sense of balance. I feel I found it here.

Some short questions… 

FF: What was your favourite story to write at Flash Frontier in 2012? And your least favourite?

SH: I’ll define a ‘favourite’ story as a successful story. A story that is truly successful, I feel, is one that lifts off the page, one for which I as the writer feel I no longer claim ownership. In other words, a story I can step away from and feel it lives apart from me. Though not all stories achieve this status, when they do, it’s tremendously rewarding. Of the twelve, I feel ‘Soliloquy’ hits closest to this mark. It began as a series of random and unrelated phrases I’d collected, all of which seemed to contain a particular rhythm and energy. In working with the phrases over time, a distinctive voice began to emerge. It was then a matter not so much of writing the story but of getting out of the way just enough to hear what this voice was attempting to say. In this particular story I quite literally built the stage and allowed the emerging character to take her cue, step out and begin to speak. The discovery process in this case felt quite personal and special, and was for that reason the most rewarding.

As for a ‘least favourite’ story to write — rather than singling out a particular story I’ll just say that some stories are, on a technical level, more effective or successful than others. Each of the twelve was written with the same amount of thought and care. But as a writer, it’s natural to feel that it isn’t enough for a story to simply stand strong on its feet. I wanted them all to dance.

FF: What authors of short fiction do you admire most?

SH: I appreciate the use of the word ‘admire’ rather than ‘enjoy’ in the context of this question, since I believe them to be very different things. I enjoy a good cup of coffee, but I wouldn’t say I admire it. By the same token, there are many writers whose work I enjoy, but to admire implies an appreciation of the craft. As an avid reader I’m always on the look-out for fresh voices, and the writers whose work I am most drawn to tend to be those who have a voice most true to itself. In other words, a writer whose work is not shaped by a particular style or trend and whose writing contains a certain watermark that defies imitation. These are a rare find, but there are two writers whose work I’ve discovered in the past year who come immediately to mind. They are Chris Okum and James Claffey.

To try to characterise Chris Okum’s work is to answer the question of how long is a piece of string. His narratives tend to careen forward at a dizzying pace and in a characteristically disjointed fashion. But at the same time they manage to remain tightly focused, driven by their own internal logic. I’m continually surprised, often amused and frequently horrified by the truths that emerge from the depths of his characters’ noisy absurdity, but rarely, if ever, am I disappointed. James Claffey, in contrast, has a special knack for capturing the real world with an uneasy depth and detail. His writing which at times is raw and haunting, and at times mysterious and surreal, is always richly textured. In a few hundred words he is able to open a window on a world I find both familiar and unfamiliar, one filled with mystery and promise, beauty and pain.

Looking back at last year…

FF: In an interview last year (when you placed in the national flash fiction competition), you commented:

“In any story, particularly a very short one, I feel it’s essential to create some resonance, a sense that there is more here than meets the eye, a feeling of before and after, a sense that the story has life or significance beyond the words on the page. A successful piece of flash fiction, to my thinking, should create a feeling that, in the palm of your hand you are holding something immense.”

We agree with this of course and find that the best flash fiction stories from our pages resonate long after we’ve read them. Tell us which stories by other Flash Frontier writers from 2012 still resonate with you, and why.

SH: There were a number of stories that readily came to mind, as these were stories I returned to several times, rereading them with an eye to discovering their X factor, that little something that made them work so well.

Having just gone back once more to reread Matthew Zela’s ‘On a Day’ from the February 2012 issue, it still gives me chills. In a short space he’s managed to compress a lifetime of experience and a sense of sadness and longing. In less skilled hands this might have veered into the sentimental, but its language is perfectly paced and the detail sparse and well balanced.

Also on subsequent reads of Mike Crowl’s ‘Scropion’ from the September 2012 issue, the story still makes me smile. It’s difficult to write an effective, humorous flash piece without it unfolding like an anecdote or a joke building to a final punch line. But this story has both humour and warmth. The character’s frustration and vulnerability are transparent and accessible. Who among us cannot relate to his inner dialog? “My brain doesn’t like having its nap interrupted.” A complete and thoroughly effective piece.

Lastly, for the reasons I noted earlier, James Claffey’s ‘turn to tiny vessels’ from the October international issue has stayed with me. The scene is so vividly drawn that the reader is right there in the moment, feeling the bite of the wind and the roughness of the bark. It’s a powerful and telling scene, revealing much about the character’s inner and outer world, giving that necessary feeling of the before and after and lifting the words off the page.

Thank you, Sally Houtman, for the interview this month. For more of Sally’s stories, check out her Fictionaut page.

For the February 2013 travel issue of Flash Frontier, please go here