Interview with Tina Shaw

Dec 2012/ Jan 2013

This summer, we had the pleasure of talking with Auckland novelist, short story writer, editor and judge of the 2012 National Flash Fiction Day competition Tina Shaw. Read on to hear more about dreaming in the Waikato, the importance of local fiction, travel and other inspirations.

tina shawOn growing up and viewing the world

FF: You grew up in the Waikato in what you describe as an ‘idyllic’ childhood. What parts of your own childhood or upbringing have influenced the way you write?

TS: I was lucky to grow up on a farm at Matangi, in the Waikato, and wanted to be a writer from a young age, I think mainly because I used to be quite dreamy and read a lot; in that kind of rural environment, it’s easy for the mind to roam off into the stratosphere, and making up stories always seemed a natural thing for me to do.

FF: You had a stint as a photographer. Does viewing the world through a camera lens impact the way you view the world as a writer? How so, if this is true?

TS: Working as a photographer probably also adds to the creative process in that you tend to focus on both details and the broad picture – bit of a contradiction in terms – but thinking about taking a good photograph, whether it be of a person or a landscape, makes you think about the foreground and the background of a shot, while also wanting to capture the essence of your subject. In writing a short story or novel, much of what I do is about distilling the essence of a story.

HandBook_coverFF: In a recent blog post, while discussing the state of publishing in light of the recent news of the Penguin/ RH merger, you also mention the importance of local fiction.  This seems an especially important topic for Kiwi writers (resonating at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair as well). Can you discuss why this is so?

TS: Having been a published author for many years now, I really think that it’s so important to support our local fiction. I mean, if we don’t, who else is going to? By buying and reading NZ books, then we are supporting our own literature. That’s got to be good for everybody.

On short fiction and opening lines

FF: You were one of the three judges in the 2012 National Flash Fiction Day competition. Since we are a publication for flash fiction, we’d love to hear what you gained from that experience and what you see as most rewarding (for both writer and reader) in this genre.

TS: I loved reading those entries for the competition – what a wealth of talent. The main thing that struck me was how much certain writers could pack into such a short word count. It’s awesome. Again, it comes back to distilling the essence of a story or situation, in a similar way that a good poem can work.

FF: You say that writing short stories is an excellent way to learn the craft of writing. Tell us about some of your own short stories and how they helped you evolve as a writer.

TS: My short stories seem to often involve people at the fringes. The first story of mine which won an award was about a group of protesters wanting to open a road which had been closed by a rapacious landowner. More recently, I’ve been writing short-ish pieces (around 1500 words), about people in rather tentative situations, and I’ve been experimenting with a quite loose story structure – that is, not that much happens. You could say I’m becoming more subtle!

birdieFF: Openings are especially important in flash fiction, but in novels they matter a great deal as well. You open the novel Birdie with the following:

It wasn’t until he had got deep into the bush that he thought there was the sound of her voice. Calling him? Not sure about that. Calling? Anyone? Maybe. He was sure he had heard something. Unless it was the crying of the trees.

This is the kind of opening that forces the reader to carry on. There is movement and longing and mystery and uncertainty here. How much importance do you place on opening lines, and do you think they matter more in short fiction or in longer fiction? And do they come first for you, or are they something you tweak once the draft is finished?

TS: Opening lines are really important. I want to establish the tone and situation of the story from the very beginning. I think you should take your reader quickly into the story, and not muck around with too much setting or abstract thought. And the first line is even more important in a short story where every line counts. I like to get the main bones of the story down, without worrying too much about the first line/s. The thing is, you can always go back and work on the opening.

On setting, myth and travel

FF: Your novels often take the reader back in time and setting – 1935 Berlin in The Black Madonna; 1953 small-town New Zealand in Dreams of America. Both of these books take the reader to places very different from modern-day New Zealand. Was writing the book about Berlin any more difficult than writing the one about a world in New Zealand that is by now quite different for readers as well? What challenges did you face in placing these stories in such foreign settings?

2858lTS: My Berlin novel was easy on one level because I was living in the city at that time and making copious notes about what I saw and experienced, so some of that material went into the novel; it was harder to recreate what it might have been like in Berlin of 1935. That’s where research comes in. Writing about 1950s NZ had similar challenges but I talked to people and read various accounts from that time and looked at photographs. Even though I was dealing with a culture I had grown up in, it also presented as challenge because so much has changed in NZ since the ’50s.

FF: Myth and mystery are important in much of your writing – from the aforementioned Birdie to your novels for children and young adults like The Cloud Rider and Koevasi.  The mysteries you explore always have at their core something about human connection, even when dealing with surreal elements or encounters. Why does mystery work so well for exploring human themes?

TS: I think mystery and fantasy genres can convey story really well because you are lifting the reader out of the ordinary and into a new kind of world or setting, so that the themes can be seen in a different light. Take Animal Farm, for instance, or The Left Hand of Darkness – we remember those amazing settings, but we also become more aware of the themes behind the stories.

51m1HPfA1WL._SL500_AA300_FF: You’ve spent time abroad, for example during your Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency stint, and you seem to bring travellers to life in your work, from the characters in Dreams of America to the anthology you edited, A Passion for Travel. Why is travel so important for writers, and how do your own travels affect your work as an author?

TS: What I like about travel is that it can take you out of your comfort zone and offer a fresh perspective on your own life and where you live. It can be transformational. I like to think that’s something which books and stories also allow us to experience.

Thank you, Tina Shaw, for the interview this month. 

For the Dec 2012/ Jan 2013 the gift issue of Flash Frontier, please go here

Interview with Keri Hulme

November 2012

This month, we caught up with novelist, poet and short story writer Keri Hulme. Readers will know her best from her novel The Bone People, which won the 1984 New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and the Booker Prize in 1985. All of her work engages myth and dreams, violence and tenderness, the here and now and the other. But instead of discussing themes in her work, or style choices, or present work as a writer, we took a different turn with our interview series this month. We caught up with Hulme to talk not about writing but about everyday life in Okarito.  

FF: Keri Hulme, you are heralded as a uniquely New Zealand voice. But besides being a writer, you are deeply connected to everyday living. Could you tell us about how the following are important to you, not only as a writer, but as a reader and a Kiwi in general (or a South Islander, specifically)…

 KH: I’m not unique except as being an individual (as we all are.)

On place: the coast and the sea

KH: There are very very few people who write about the places that mean most to me  – Okarito? Okarito!  Baiting. Birds of all degree. The skid of flounders under your feet, the stab of spear, the taste of their meat. Bait! The total excitement of good catching, and the parties we used to have after.

Unfortunately, there are not many of us left in Okarito who did this kind of stuff.

Moeraki? Ditto. Far south (e.g. Colac Bay & Rakiura) – little stuff written that is anything other than local histories…! Hey I *collect* local histories! I cannot live away from a coastal place. I have tried but I just get depressed & sick, drink too much and don’t do anything creative.

On flavour: fishing and food

KH: O I could talk for hours about this – fish is best when tasting of fish: of course you can enhance that taste – but shit o dear! People who advocate eating pickled &%[email protected]@! onions with whitebait fried in BEEF FAT! A leetle egg goes well with ‘bait or blue cod the old flour & dip in beaten egg trick – great for a clean fry – but can I say I lurrrve sashimi? And ika ota? And that the best fish is that which you have caught yourself, filleted/cleaned almost immediately, and kept lightly chilled until you eat it (desirably, within a couple of hours).

On connections: history and family

KH: I’m southern (Kati Mamoe/Kai Tahu), bred & born in Otautahi, brought up there & in Oamaru/Moeraki. Have lived on the West Coast (Tai Poutini) since I was 23 (the last 40 years at Okarito.) While my greatgreatgrandmother, Piraurau, came from that area, I don’t want to die there. I’d prefer the south.

Other ancestry include Orkney Scots (which is important to me) and Lancashire English (which isn’t).

On disconnects: myth and reality

KH: There’s a disconnect? Really? Myth informs our realities, can make sense of our lives, teach us about the horrors that are part of our lives, and connect us to all the other beings that we share the Great Round Beast, our mother Earth, with.

On language: humour and horror 

KH: Well, humour is the leaven, whether sly, snide, a bellylaugh or a giggle. Humans are unique in as much as we can laugh/interpret funny drawings and written/spoken/otherwise portrayed comedy – but we, sure as, are not unique in enjoying a humourous situation (I’ve experienced bonobo humour – and no, it didn’t involve shit (the youngster was a pickpocket)). Even cats have a sense of humour (and so definitely, do birds).

      Horror – is everywhere: we come easily to the language of horror…

Thank you, Keri Hulme, for the interview this month. 

For the November ‘eye contact’ issue, please go here

Interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir

October 2012

This month, we had the honour of sitting down with Irish writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir for our special international issue of Flash Frontier. Poet, novelist and short story writer, Nuala has published her newest collection of short stories, Mother America, this year.

On language and form

FF: You were first published as a poet but you’ve diversified into short story and novel writing, and in all these forms, your writing stands out for its intensity, strength and passion which is handled with a delicate appreciation of language. Do you think this balance comes from being a poet first? Does poetry influence the way you go about writing short stories or even novels?

NNC: Certainly as someone who writes poetry I value concision in language and beauty. I was also brought up bilingual – English at home, Irish (Gaelic) at school – so I have always been steeped in language and asking questions of it. Language is hugely important to me as a writer and as a reader – I love those who take risks with language, I love stylists like John Banville and Annie Proulx. Kevin Barry is doing great things with Hiberno-English.

For my own writing, I like to use interesting language because, I feel, it adds richness. Having said that, plain language – like Hemingway’s – can be equally rich. I guess I value writers who take great care with words.

FF: In short story writing – and especially in flash fiction – the opening is critical. You pay a lot of attention to the way your stories open (and readers can see the careful opening of each of the stories in your collection Nude here). Do you think this is the most important part of the story? 

NNC: The opening is the hook and it has to be arresting. I don’t like stories or novels with lots of preamble. As Jim Dickey said, “If the story is about a bear, bring on the damn bear.” I don’t think it’s the most important part of the story but a good opening is certainly crucial to keep the reader reading.

All my writing starts with an opening line that occurs to me, or swirls in my brain, until I get it down. I then see where the story will lead me. I usually have that, a vague notion of a character, and an even vaguer one of a situation (which often changes as things progress). So I don’t think in ideas, more in feelings. The idea (the story) comes as I write it.

FF: And what about titles (which you also do so well)? Do they come first or last or somewhere in the middle?

NNC: The title often comes very early, along with the opening paragraph. I don’t struggle with titles but I have to have the appropriate one for things to sit right. I sometimes tinker with them until they feel exactly right. I hate wishy-washy titles and try to avoid them. The title has to woo the reader – it’s as much a part of the story as any other part and writers would do well to give titles a lot of thought if they don’t occur to them easily.

On your short story collections, Nude and Mother America 

FF: You open your story collection Nude (Salt Publishing 2009) with a quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing: “Nudity is a form of dress”. The stories in this collection paint nuanced colours of everyday people and their relationships, layered with rather extraordinary experience and emotion. So do you paint your characters nude, or are they intentionally clothed in layers for the reader to peel back? 

NNC: I don’t mind what way readers unlock characters but I try not to be deliberately obscure or secretive, because, as a reader, that irritates me. Fiction is a temporal form so I place my characters in a section of time where something is going wrong for them and see how they cope. Literary readers are very clever and they can pick up on hints but it is probably better to just present your character as they are in a bad situation. I’m not a fan of twist in the tail stories, for example, where ‘all is not as it seems’ but in a really obvious way.

I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut (while not entirely agreeing with the last bit of it…): “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

FF: Your latest short story collection Mother America (New Island 2012) is about the connections and gaps that exist between people across generations and time and place. These stories travel the world just as do your poems of The Juno Charm (Salmon Poetry 2011). And while your stories and poems take your readers to so many places, you remain an Irish voice, as if these stories could not be written from any other hand. Do you feel first and foremost like an Irish writer, or an international writer? 

NNC: This is a hard one. There’s a ‘thing’ in Irish writing (among critics?) whereby as an Irish writer, you are meant to represent your country in your writing. I am Irish and I feel very Irish but I don’t always want to write about Ireland or Irish people. I also feel very European; I go to Europe a lot. And I love America. (I am positive I will love the Antipodes when I make it there too!) I love travel and inevitably that comes out in the writing.

Some critics don’t know what to do with you if you don’t sound Irish or talk about Irishness all the time. It annoys me when critics make demands on writers, shoulding them about Celtic Tiger novels and, now, Recession Novels. Piss off! We can only write what we are moved to write.

Having said all that, I love writing about Irish people and places, and I love Hiberno-English and will continue to use it because it is what comes most naturally to me.

FF: Mother America has been met with much critical acclaim. Órfhlaith Foyle comments that in your stories “wishes for happy endings lead to fragile and transparent fates through which the past creeps back to take root.” Is it something in your own upbringing that makes this a trend in your stories, or is it more a deliberate plan to work those themes and make them speak to each other, and to your readers?

NNC: Like every writer (like every person) I have passions, interests, ambitions, obsessions, losses, experience. I am also melancholic so I am continually looking back to a lost past and trying to make sense of it and that comes out in the writing.

I like darkness but not utter gloom in stories, though. So I try to keep even a seed of hope in my stories.

FF: You read an excerpt from the story ‘Letters’ here, which is part of Mother America. Did you choose to read this story for the book trailer because it’s part Ireland and part America, a story that reaches across an ocean between people and their histories? How is it representative of this collection overall, even though it’s not the title story?

NNC: Yes, that was the idea. I called the book Mother America because I thought it was a strong title. All the stories feature mothers but not all are set in America. For the book trailer, I wanted something that hit both. There were a few too many f-words in the title story to use that!

I think ‘Letters’ represents the book in that it is about loss and misplacement and a broken mother-child relationship. The scene where Bridie tosses the letters out the window is an homage to a non-fiction scene from the writing of Maeve Brennan, an Irish writer who lived in New York. So there are a few things going on there.

FF: ‘Queen of Tattoo’ is one of those stories dealing with the difficult themes of power, sexuality, identity and bad roads taken – themes you tackle in a lot of your stories. For New Zealand readers, this story will particularly resonate, as the tattoo in Māori tradition is artwork and intricate storytelling, a display of identity and history. Those themes are prevalent in ‘Queen of Tattoo’ also. How did you come to this idea, and is there something about the tattoo artist that particularly fascinates you?

NNC: Yes, I’m kind of obsessed with tattoos, though I only have one myself. I had a poetry collection a few years ago called Tattoo – Tatú, and I have other tattoo stories. I’ve done a non-fiction piece on tattoos as body art too (unpublished as the mag that commissioned it never published it – grrrr.)

‘Queen of Tattoo’ was inspired by the old Groucho Marx song about Lydia the tattooed lady. I love that song and I decided to see if I could invent a life for Lydia. It was enormous fun to write.

On flash fiction and play and the meaning of birds 

FF: Sometimes you are quite playful in you approach to POV, as in the story ‘Roy Lichtenstein’s Nudes in a Mirror: We Are Not Fake!’, first published at Everyday Fiction in 2008.  How does a story like this come to you and how do you decide to take a particular point of view? 

NNC: That one was totally about the voice – the voice came to me and went from there. That kind of story can feel like a gift because it’s like the character tells you the story and you write it down. It’s just occurred to me that I do a lot less obviously voice-driven stories these days, though it’s something I really enjoy.

FF: What’s most challenging about writing flash fiction? And what was specifically challenging about the story ‘One For’ that you wrote for this issue of Flash Frontier? Did it begin from something larger and become something trimmed down? Or did it start out as a 250-word story?

NNC: I wrote ‘One For’ for you! I was in a hotel in Cork when you asked me to submit something and I had seen a magpie on the roof that morning who looked like he was about to throw up. I love magpies – they have such presence – so I started with the bird and went from there; I was also thinking about a friend who recently lost a spouse. I knew the story had to be short so I envisioned it short.

As to what is challenging about flash, well, you have to move and/or surprise the reader and there’s only a certain amount of room. You also have to trust that the reader will get it. I like that flash fiction is amenable to the surreal – it works well in small spaces.

FF: You’ve noted that one of your heroines is Sylvia Plath and that symbols are important to you (and indeed Plath features not only in your poetry but also in your story ‘Cri de Coeur’ in Mother America). Two symbols that recur in your writing are the moon and birds (in your Flash Frontier story as well). Why are symbols so important for you, especially in the forms of poetry and short fiction? And are there particular Irish symbols that are meaningful to you, and why?

NNC: I think things become symbolic to you and, because they do, you carry them over into your writing. I (foolishly) think I am neither religious nor superstitious but I am clearly influenced by both. I was brought up super-Catholic and the church is chockers with symbols – I loved all that and still do: bleeding hearts, mournful statues holding arrows and olive branches, water into wine etc. It was the colourful aspect of an otherwise dull and frightening regime.

In terms of Ireland, we have a rich mythology complete with animal goddesses, emphasis on tripartite gods, fertility charms etc. I love the hare, I love peacocks, I love the moon; I love these things as things of beauty and I love how they can have meaning to a character, so I use them for their vivacity, for their colour.

On your personal connection to places and finding your voice

FF: You grew up in Dublin and now live in Galway. Can you tell us what is special about each of those places to you personally?

NNC: I had a very happy childhood in Dublin – I was a bookish tomboy in a big family, in a rural home-place but I went to the city centre for school and uni, so there were lots of enjoyable aspects to my growing up. I love Dublin’s compactness, grittiness, friendliness; I love its language. I use all that in my fiction, particularly in my novel YOU.

Galway has been many things to me: I became serious as a writer here (maybe I needed to leave Dublin to write it out); I married, divorced and re-married here; I’m raising my three kids here. But, in a sense, it has been an isolating place. It is not my real home and never will be, so I always feel temporary here, even after 16 years. Dublin beckons. I will go back.

FF: Your story ‘Peach’ was the winner of the Jane Geske Award and also nominated in 2011 for a Pushcart Prize (readers can hear you read from it here). Is this story in some way emblematic of your stories, a fair representation of what you try to achieve in short stories?  What elements make this a ‘typical’ Nuala Ní Chonchúir story, if there is such a thing?

NNC: I rarely feel content with a story when it’s done but ‘Peach’ is one of the few that pleases me a little. The pace feels right, unhurried; I like Dominic’s haplessness.

I guess it’s a typical story for me in that it deals with broken love and a man whose default position is dread. An interviewer (male) asked me recently why my male characters are so unlikeable. I was taken aback – I think they are just struggling, like all of us. I have deep affection for my characters because they are flawed not in spite of that. My women are probably equally ‘unlikeable’ in that I don’t write about boring people with boring lives. There would be no point then, no story.

FF: You credit a fiction writing course with Mike McCormack with the turning point for you, back in 1998, when you decided to become a serious writer. Has your writing changed since then? And, given the long and worthy tradition of Irish storytelling, is it easier or harder for an Irish writer today to follow in the footsteps of Joyce, O’Connor et al?

NNC: My writing has changed. I have tried to slow down a bit (I’m always in a bit of a hurry, it’s a personality trait). I have learnt so much over the years from reading other writers and I continue to learn. That’s why I love lit fests – they are an education.

Yes, every Irish writer is inevitably sized up against all our great writers, it’s unavoidable. A reviewer said recently that I was “carrying Edna O’Brien’s flame” which was very pleasing as I have worshipped at the altar of Edna since I was a teenager.  I love the writing of most of our greats and it is nice to be in their company, in whatever small way.

FF: What do you like most in short stories? Who are some of your favourite short story writers, and why? And what about flash fiction? Who are some of your favourite flash writers and why?

NNC: When done well, short stories can be sublime, achingly gorgeous. I love Alison MacLeod, particularly her story ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’; such an elegantly written, moving and original story. I loved Ron Rash’s collection Burning Bright. I cringed and spoke out loud to his characters who were all brilliant wrong-decision makers. Beautifully done. I love Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference – such command of language, such tension. Caitlin Horrocks, Anthony Doerr, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Proulx, John McGahern…

Flash: I love the writing of Tania Hershman (concise, surreal, funny, moving), Nick Parker (funny, off-the-wall), Ivor Cutler (the original short-short maestro), Jim Crace (writes brilliantly about food), Robert Olen Butler (postcards, beheadings, post-coital thoughts – the man is a true maverick who can write anything and make me believe it).

On home and habits

FF: In another interview you mention things that you collect that clutter your writing desk – lucky pennies, things you’ve found on the beach, a paperweight. Are you a superstitious person? Do you have any rituals that accompany your writing or publishing? And do you believe in the luck of the Irish?

NNC: You see, I think I’m not superstitious but why do I collect this stuff? Why do I rub Buddha’s belly every morning? I like charms, talismans, stuff. I guess they are something to fill the religion hole…

As to rituals, I do like to surround myself with things relevant to what I am working on. So for my novel Highland, which is as yet unpublished, I have beach-combed bits from a Scottish beach, the aforementioned paperweight etc. For my novel YOU I made a collage to draw positivity towards the book (it sounds mad when I say that aloud…).

The luck of the Irish? I think we’re lucky that we have a rich literary heritage and that people are literate and like reading. I think we’re lucky that publishers are approachable in Ireland and we have a small scene. (There are downsides to that too, of course!) I think we’re lucky that there is an academic discipline called Irish Studies.

FF: What are you reading this month?

NNC: I have about ten books on the go. I’m reading Silver Threads of Hope a new anthology of short stories by Irish writers in aid of the suicide charity Console. I have another tattoo-related story in it called ‘Squidinky’. I am re-reading Angela Bourke’s fab bio of Maeve Brennan, Homesick at the New Yorker. I am also enjoying Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth. I’m reading Bishop, Chekhov and Scottish author Dilys Rose. I’m reading the current issues of Five Dials and Mslexia. I read a lot.

FF: What are you writing this month?

NNC: This month I am writing a short story set in Brazil where I have recently been. And another one about a man meeting his son for the first time. I am also working up the courage to throw myself into another novel. It is proving difficult. Procrastinators ‘r’ us.

And finally…

FF: Travel is important to you both personally and professionally – and we’ve already seen how your collections such as Juno and Mother America take the reader to many places, from Paris to New York, from Ireland to Mexico. In another recent interview here you say: “There are other places I would like to set stories but I would like to visit them, to get a proper feel – Russia, for example. The Antipodes.” So we wonder: which New Zealand authors leave an impression, and why? And do tell us, Nuala, when are you coming to Aotearoa, and will you please stop in and pay us a visit when you do?

NNC:  Keri Hulme – I read The Bone People as a teenager and was blown away. I wanted to live in that house.

Janet Frame – I loved her trio of memoirs; she was extraordinary.

Witi Ihimaera – I met Witi recently at the Cork Short Story Festival. I had read Whale Rider and loved it. He’s a gorgeous person, warm and sweet and funny.

Alan Duff – Once Were Warriors is a powerful, painful novel. A friend who lived in Australia sent me that when it came out. Jake the Muss lives on in my head.

Charlotte Grimshaw – she writes masterful short stories. I’ve met her too – I was on the jury that short-listed her for the Frank O’Connor Award the first time she was shortlisted, for Opportunity.

Katherine Mansfield – of course! We studied her in school and I came back to her recently.

I would travel to NZ in a heartbeat. My son has family there so it is something we have on the cards for when we are rich. I have been very fortunate with the invitations I have received to travel with my writing and I am hopeful that someday New Zealand will enter that mix. You’ll be the first to know!

Thank you, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, for the interview this month. 

For Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s story ‘One For’ which opens our international October ‘flight’ issue, please go here

Interview: Tim Jones

August 2012

This month, we spoke withTim Jones, who is a poet, editor, flasher and more. Tim’s stories have appeared frequently at Flash Frontier. His short fiction has been included in several collections edited by Graeme Lay, and his poetry has been featured in a number of poetry journals and anthologies. We first became acquainted with Tim when we came across a story of his in TurbineBooks in the Trees, which is also the name of his website where he hosts interviews, poetry and stories. We’re pleased to learn more about Tim’s world this month. We hope you will be, too.

FF: You’re a poet and fiction writer, but also a scientist. Tell us how science influences your writing, and how the relationship between science and imagination is important.

TJ: I’ll own up to being a poet and fiction writer, but I am not, in fact, a scientist – unless you count an ancient BSc in Computer Science. I am very interested in science, though, especially physics and cosmology, and now my son is doing science subjects at high school, the discussions we have – during which he asks me science questions that I can only answer with a helpless shrug and a surreptitious recourse to Wikipedia – have renewed my interest in such things.

My early short stories — which were collected in Extreme Weather Events (HeadworX, 2001) — were almost all science fiction. My second collection, Transported (Vintage, 2008), is about half SF. I’ve diversified to the point where I don’t write all that much core science fiction any more, although a lot of my fiction still has some kind of speculative element.

But I think the main influence of science on my writing – and on my imagination – is that a lot of my stories come from an initial “what if?” In science, you propose a hypothesis and then test it by experiment – in fiction, you propose a hypothesis and then test it in narrative.

FF: How do you think writing poetry influences the way you write flash fiction, and the other way around?

TJ: I think the common denominator is economy. Poetry, or at least the short and shortish poems I write, require economy with words; so does flash fiction, especially as the word limits of the form seem to be contracting – in my day (“in my day, lad, we ‘ad proper flash fiction, non of yer modern roobish”) stories under 1000 words were regarded as flash fiction, whereas now even a 300-word limit seems dangerously lax.

So I am used to working in a form that requires compression, and that definitely helps with writing flash fiction.

I’m not sure how or whether writing flash fiction affects my poetry, but I do know that I now write the occasional prose poem, which I never did before I started to write flash fiction. And, funnily enough, I always know whether I consider a short prose piece to be a prose poem or a flash fiction, even if no-one else can see a difference.

FF: Has writing flash fiction affected your other writing, and how?

TJ: I think it has helped me to focus on what’s essential, and cut out what’s inessential, when writing fiction at greater-than-flash lengths.

FF: Flash fiction lends itself quite often to a serious voice but you frequently find a way to introduce humour and even the absurd into your stories. Do you know the mood of the story ahead of time?

TJ: By the time I’ve had a story idea and jotted it down on my ideas list, I usually know what tone it will have – serious or silly, light or dark. Sometimes, though, when I get round to turning an idea into a serious story, I realise that it is straying too close too unintentional comedy, at which point I either abandon the story or turn it into intentional comedy.

For me, the shorter a story is, the easier it is to maintain the humour – so, of my humorous and/or absurdist stories, most are 200 words or under, and a lot are flash.

FF: Your poetry book Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand was well received and has recently been picked up to go to Frankfurt for the 2012 Book Fair. Do you think it has enjoyed such wide appeal because of the unexpected blending of these two things, sci-fi and poetry? And will it be translated into Vulcan?

TJ: The first thing I should say is that I co-edited the Voyagers anthology with Mark Pirie – and that the anthology was his idea, so he deserves the bulk of the credit.

As I discuss in the recent Frankfurt Bookfair 2012: An Aotearoa Affair feature on Voyagers, New Zealand publishers didn’t see the commercial potential of Voyagers – and, to be honest, I didn’t think it would do as well as it’s done, both domestically and internationally. I think that’s partly down to good promotional work by publishers IP, and partly down to the fact that you don’t have to like SF to enjoy the poetry – or, perhaps, like poetry to enjoy the SF.

I don’t know about translation into Vulcan, but with a quick word to the Klingon Language Institute, I think a translation into Shakespeare’s native language might well be arranged. As they say in Hollywood, your people should talk to my ghotpu’.

FF: What other writers have influenced you, and how?

TJ: A tremendous number. The list of my favourite authors from my LibraryThing account is provided for completeness – and I do mean completeness! – below, but if I had to name just one influence in terms of my flash fiction it is Jorge Luis Borges. For me, he’s the greatest fiction writer of the 20th century, and he never wrote a story longer than 20 pages. If I could come anywhere near the quality of his greatest stories I would be truly happy.

This is a wonderful online resource on Borges: The Garden Of Forking Paths.

Tim’s favourite authors from LibraryThing:

Anna Akhmatova, Dante Alighieri, J. G. Ballard, Alison Bechdel, Jorge Luis Borges, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Angela Carter, Paul Celan, Suzy McKee Charnas, C. J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Jennifer Compton, John Crowley, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Carol Emshwiller, Sergei Yesenin, Ramachandra Guha, Ursula K. Le Guin, William Hope Hodgson, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Bill Manhire, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Mark Pirie, Tim Powers, Helen Rickerby, Harry Ricketts, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, James Tiptree, Jr., J. R. R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Gene Wolfe.

FF: In this month’s issue, your mirrors story manages to balance science and sentimentality. Or is it science and magic?

Gareth Jones, Lighting

TJ:  I think “science and sentimentality” is a fair call, with some fantasy at the end: I don’t think young Kevin is really running at more than 10% of the speed of light, the point at which the dynamic Casimir Effect starts to kick in, although I’m sure he thinks he is.

The challenge in this story was to find a way of explaining the Casimir Effect within the confines of a 250-word story: I chose to make Kevin’s dad the sort of dad whose bedtime stories to his son consist of progress reports on his work, which in this case is in high-end physics research.

FF: What do you do when you’re not reading and writing?

TJ: Listen to music. Go for walks. Watch cricket. Do my (part-time) day job. Play catch with my son while attempting to answer difficult questions about space and time. I’m also active in a number of environmental campaigns, especially the campaign against new and expanded coal mining in Aotearoa – because, if the world mines and burns much more coal, our climate and our goose will be irretrievably cooked.

FF: Tell us about your writing environment. Do you have posters of Isaac Asimov and Dr. Who on your walls? Or is it ee cummings and James K. Baxter?

TJ: I used to write in a little study room at the back of our house, which has pictures of friends and family on the walls. Now I work wherever it’s most convenient to put my computer: wherever I lay my laptop, that’s my home.

But if I did populate my writing space with posters, I reckon I’d put up posters of Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Sheldon aka James Tiptree, Jnr, and Kim Stanley Robinson. Plus a Black Caps promotional poster, to remind me of the folly of human ambition.

FF: What are you reading at present?

TJ: Right now I am reading Hide Me Among the Graves, the new novel by Tim Powers. I always have at least one poetry collection on hand to dip into, and currently that is Graft by Helen Heath. And the top book on my to-read pile is Mansfield with Monsters, by Matt and Debbie Cowens.

FF: What are you writing at present?

TJ: In 2010, the New Zealand Society of Authors was kind enough to award me its Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature. This was to help me write my third short story collection, and, after publishing my third poetry collection Men Briefly Explained last year, I am now writing stories for that new collection – and very much enjoying doing so.

Thank you, Tim Jones, for the interview this month. 

For the AUGUST issue (mirrors), please go here

Interview: Megan Doyle Corcoran, Jac Jenkins & Sally Houtman

July 2012

This month, we’ve interviewed three of our own contributors, who were short-listed in June’s National Flash Fiction Day competition. We welcome the opportunity to learn more about Megan Doyle Corcoran and Sally Houtman, both of Wellington, and Jac Jenkins from Whangarei.

Megan Doyle Corcoran (2012 NFFD Short List for ‘Queen’s Birthday’)

Corcoran at the summit of Tongariro with Ngauruhoe in the background

FF: Tell us where you’re from and where you live now.

MDC: I’m from San Diego which means I’m big on sidewalk greetings and overly friendly encounters with strangers.  Now I live in Wellington where sidewalk greetings are tolerated but not always reciprocated.  I don’t care where I live as long as the ocean is close.

FF: What do you do when you’re not writing?

MDC: Mostly I eavesdrop and stare at people.  I also read and get angry about politics.

FF: What was the first thing you had published?
MDC: A horrible poem when I was 12.  I think it was about mean people.
FF: When did you start writing flash fiction?

MDC: I guess I’ve played around with vignettes for a while but I never wrote flash fiction with any purpose until I saw the term and thought, oh that sort of suits these vignettes.

FF: What do you tend to focus on most when you write a story with fewer than 300 words? Character, voice, setting, mood, language, etc?

MDC: I think vignettes are about playing with perception and memory. I start with a person – usually someone I’m thinking of for a longer piece – and I try to figure out which details of an event would stick in that person’s head. Then I hope that the details will work to convey the person’s story. I like the blank space, the potential for
misunderstanding, as much as the story because I think that’s how memory works.  We fill in the blanks. I fail a lot with the word count.  Seriously fail.

FF: Do you think writing flash fiction influences the way you write in other genres? If so, how?

MDC: Sure it does. Yep. I keep an eye out for irrelevant or inauthentic details.  Also, for unnecessary prepositions and conjunctions.

FF: Describe your writing environment.

MDC: My favorite room right now is white-walled, rundown, with a heater
that brews hellfire and a window that looks at a concrete wall.

FF: What are you reading now?

MDC: A great biography of Salinger and Margaret Drabble’s The Mill Stone.

FF: What are you writing now?

MDC: A novella about a crazy woman.

*  *  *  

Jac Jenkins (2012 NFFD Highly Commended and NZSA Northland Regional Award for ‘Possum Hunt’)

Jenkins reading for National Flash Fiction Day, Auckland

FF: Tell us where you’re from and where you live now.

JJ:  I’m from and currently living in Whatitiri near Whangarei. I live with my teenage daughter, 2 cats and 5 chooks on a hilltop acre with lovely pastoral views, in a 1930s cottage that needs work.

FF: What do you do when you’re not writing?

JJ: I work in two jobs as a librarian, read, indulge in self-analysis and philosophy, drink cappucinos, enjoy my daughter’s company, t’ai chi.

FF: What was the first thing you had published?
JJ: Flash: “Leaving Here” (Flash Frontier, January 2012). Otherwise the poem “The Occupation” (The Northern Advocate, Friday 22 July 2005)
FF: When did you start writing flash fiction?

JJ: January 2012

FF: What do you tend to focus on most when you write a story with fewer than 300 words? Character, voice, setting, mood, language, etc?

JJ: In my poetry I try to use powerful imagery to evoke emotion and I seem to have carried that through into writing flash – the story develops from a central image. Once I have the image in my head I focus on language.

FF: Do you think writing flash fiction influences the way you write in other genres? If so, how?

JJ: Flash fiction has given me an opportunity to show my writing to a different audience. This, and being short-listed in the NFFD competition, has led to an increase in my writing confidence in general. It’s possible that flash has also made me more keenly aware of the unwritten stories behind my poems.

FF: Describe your writing environment.

JJ: I do my most productive writing sitting in Dickens Inn with a glass of merlot and my laptop! I have a big old hospital desk at home which is home to my computer and that is where I write when I’m at home. It is always messy and doesn’t really contribute to good writing. I may change to writing on my laptop on my extraordinarily large bohemian red couch to see if that works as well as Dickens.

FF: What are you reading now?

JJ: Do I have to be honest? I want to say I’m reading an exciting novel by Dean Koontz, but I’m actually reading a book called Staying Sane!

FF: What are you writing now?

JJ: About 10 poems, most of which have been long-time works in progress, plus a flash for the July issue of Flash Frontier!

*  *  *  

Sally Houtman (2012 NFFD Highly Commended and Runner-Up in NZSA Wellington Regional Award for ‘That Night in Miri’s Kitchen’)

Houtman in her backyard

FF: Tell us where you’re from and where you live now.

SH: I was born and raised in the farm country of north central Pennsylvania, in the northeast of the United States. I’ve since lived and worked in many places in the US, most notably six years in Boston and fifteen years in Los Angeles. In 2005 I relocated from LA to Wellington where I live on a hill, overlooking Worser Bay and Seatoun beach, with my kiwi husband and two young children.

FF: What do you do when you’re not writing?

SH: Read. Read. Read. Listen to music. Read some more. Oh, and occasionally talk to my husband and kids. But only if it’s really important.

FF: What was the first thing you had published?
SH: A non-fiction book about being raised by grandparents (To Grandma’s House, We…Stay), published in 1999.  As I’d never written anything before, I didn’t imagine it would be published. But it was, and is in its third edition, still out there today.
FF: When did you start writing flash fiction?

SH: The first piece of what could be considered flash fiction I‘ve ever written was, I believe, the piece for the January issue of Flash Frontier. Prior to that, I’d written and had published several stories, each of which was under 1000 words and now can be categorised as flash fiction, but at the time I didn’t know to call them that.

FF: What do you tend to focus on most when you write a story with fewer than 300 words? Character, voice, setting, mood, language, etc?

SH: For me, two things come immediately to mind, both of which hold true for any form of writing – depth and detail. 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.

As a reader, I like a story to leave me with something more than when I started. Whether it makes me chuckle, pause to think or hurl a shoe. I feel it owes me something in exchange for my investment of time and attention. As a writer, I feel I owe the reader the same. With flash pieces, you’ve got to aim deftly, move quickly and strike hard in order to accomplish this. And you’ve got to do it without resorting to the predictable or falling back on cliché or gimmicks. When this is done with skill, it’s extremely satisfying, from both a reader’s and a writer’s point of view.

This, I feel, is something only achieved through careful and deliberate selection of just the right detail.  As with poetry, the shorter the piece, the more difficult (and the more critical) this selection of detail becomes. There is absolutely no room for waste. And very little margin for error. There’s simply nowhere to hide.

FF: Do you think writing flash fiction influences the way you write in other genres? If so, how?

SH: It should. If it doesn’t, I’m not doing it right. I read and edit my work from the point of view of my enemy, someone examining the structure and looking for the one mislaid brick. I feel with shorter works, the flaws are more easily spotted. One misplaced detail can send the reader off in an entirely unwanted direction. Every brick has to be set correctly or the structure falls apart.

FF: Describe your writing environment.

SH: A mess. Like my brain. This is a clear reflection of the way my creative process works. I’m not the type of writer who can write a linear story, one that starts at point A, progresses through a logical sequence of events and comes to a conclusion at point Z. I admire those who can write this way. I can’t. I don’t consider myself a storyteller so much as a collector of observations which, when ordered and butted together carefully, tell a story of their own. It becomes a matter of sifting through the thoughts I’ve gathered, matching like ideas with like until a theme develops and a story begins to emerge. It’s a messy process. But I can’t work effectively any other way.

FF: What are you reading now?

SH:  I do a LOT of reading in online literary magazines. Because I rely on adaptive technology to do my reading, the speech software I use with the computer makes online reading easier and much more enjoyable than reading printed material. On my desk, however, there are two print books at the moment – a copy of Meg Pokrass’s flash fiction Damn Sure Right and a short story collection by Julie Innis, Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture, both written by writers whose work I discovered online.

FF: What are you writing now?

SH: Aside from keeping my teeth sharp by preparing pieces for Flash Frontier’s upcoming monthly themes, at any given time I’ve got about a dozen things on the go. Again, reflective of my inability to sit down and write a logical story from start to finish, I tend to work on a number of stories a bit at a time. I’m focusing on a couple longer stories at the moment and, in between, working on a series of themed humour/parody pieces. Ultimately, I’m working towards a collection of short stories, but, no matter how much I coax or cajole, the collection just can’t be convinced to write itself.

*  *  *  

Thank you, Megan, Jac and Sally, for the interviews this month. 

For the July issue (the road) , please go here

Interview with Stephen Stratford

June 2012

This month, we spoke with Stephen Stratford, who works from his home in Cambridge as a writer, book editor and manuscript assessor. Over the last three decades he has been a judge of the Wattie, Montana and NZ Post Book Awards, as well as the Spectrum book design and the Culinary Quill Awards. Authors he has edited include James K Baxter, Lauris Edmond, Vincent O’Sullivan, Kevin Ireland, Ranginui Walker and Lloyd Jones. He has published more than a dozen books under his own name and several anonymously, including a cookbook. He is currently writing a history of Family Group Conferences for Auckland University Press. Most recently, he served as one of the judges of the 2012 National Flash Fiction Day competition. Here Stephen writes about his views on short stories, competition judging, e-books and more.

On short stories and the state of literature in New Zealand

FF: In a 1990 essay in Sport (Is Your Book Really Necessary?), your review of The Penguin Book Of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories included, among other things, a critique of the way it dealt with the idea of “contemporary” and its (mis)representation of the preceding decade. What anthologies exit today which portray the first decade of the 21st century particularly well, and why? Which “contemporary” short stories represent our age best?

SS: Paula Morris’s 2009 Penguin Book of Contemporary Stories is the best recent anthology I know. Sport 40 is a good snapshot. Newish short story writers I like include Jo Randerson, Eleanor Catton, Carl Nixon, Sarah Laing and Anna Taylor, who I think is amazing.

FF: You’re well known for your non-fiction, from articles in the New Zealand Listener to your book The Dirty Decade: New Zealand in the 80s. Clearly you are as interested in the world around you as the word on the page. What do you see when you look around you in today’s literary scene? What has changed?

SS: There’s more genre fiction now – crime, chicklit etc. Literary fiction seems as strong as ever with new writers coming through, not all of them from the IIML. But given the economic climate and the woes for publishers and booksellers there are probably – I’m guessing – fewer new writers being published by the multinationals. Definitely more self-publishing, more e-books. It’s an interesting time, not only in the Chinese sense.

On competitions and literary prizes

FF: You’ve been a judge of several important creative writing competitions, including the Montana NZ Book Awards, the Wattie Book Awards and the NZ Post Book Awards. Do you go into each competition with a set of expectations (for yourself as well as the contestants), and how do those expectations usually stack up against the outcome?

SS: No expectations. There are clear criteria which the judges have to follow; ideally there is a wide range of expertise and enthusiasm among the judges. What’s most enjoyable in the process is having another, more knowledgeable judge explain the merits of a book you have overlooked or under-estimated. You really do change your mind a lot. In the old days in the Montanas with three judges it was too easy for one alpha-male/idiot to skew the results. With the new format in the NZ Post awards – there are now five judges – that isn’t possible, I think

FF: You participated on a panel at the 2012 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival that  discussed “if and how literary prizes can remain relevant and serve writers, booksellers, publishers and the public”. Can you tell our readers some of the outcomes of this panel discussion, and if you and the other panellists reached specific conclusions? 

SS: The panel – me, Jenny Pattrick, Dame Stella Rimington and chair Sam Elworthy of AUP – mostly agreed that prizes were nice to win but that selling books was even nicer. Authors in the audience were very much in favour of prizes and thought that short lists should be as long as possible so that everyone’s a winner, sort of. I upset many when I said that I had talked to booksellers – provincial independents and big-city chains (whisper it: Whitcoulls) – and they regarded short lists as irrelevant, that their customers were interested, when they were interested, only in the winners. It’s completely different in the children’s awards where the short list is seen as a reliable buying guide – and there’s a long story there as to why the adult awards don’t have the same reliability factor.

On blogging and flashing

FF: Besides being a writer, journalist and editor, you’re also a blogger. How has the internet changed the way you read and/or write? And what kinds of things do you like to read mostly these days? And what things do you most enjoy writing?

SS: The internet has shortened our attention span because there is always something else to read, watch, listen to just a click away. When I’m writing or editing I turn it off and only turn it back on when I need to check something. I write better with pen and paper in a café, then type it up later, revising as I go.

I read a lot of manuscripts for work – fiction, non-fiction, sometimes children’s, sometimes poetry. Reading for pleasure – that’s crime fiction. Or music biographies, which sometimes read like crime fiction too.

What I most enjoy writing is anything I am paid to write.

FF: What captivates you about flash fiction, as a reader and a writer?

SS:The immediacy. When it works – a situation, characters, setting, some emotional weight – it’s impressive. You think, how did the writer do that?

Thank you, Stephen Stratford, for the interview this month. 

For the hold my hand JUNE issue, please go here

Interview with Marcus Speh

MAY 2012

This month, we spoke with flash fiction writer Marcus Speh, who lives in Berlin but is familiar with New Zealand from his stay here in 2001. Marcus moves back and forth between English and German regularly in his writing. This month he shares with Flash Frontier his thoughts on being bilingual, the importance of place, the discipline of writing and also his take on kiwi jam and flashdance.

On writing in two languages

FF: You are a bilingual writer, moving back and forth between German and English on an everyday basis. Tell us, in which language do most of your stories occur to you? And how do your stories differ, depending on which language you start in? 

MS: Most of my stories do occur to me in English but earlier this year I began a slow climb back home (somehow, I imagine German residing in a castle) to eventually end an “inner emigration”. It’s slow because my German is a use-language, not a literary tool. It’s rather dull-edged, but I hope that’ll change… talk to me again in two years or so.

Take my 240-word flash Contraption. I wrote this piece first as a 130-word flash in German. It began with a diary entry in which I wondered about the soundscape of a madhouse. This is how I began:

“Ich stelle mir vor: das Bibbern der neu Eingelieferten, wenn sie zum ersten Mal die Geräusche des Irrenhauses wahrnehmen, Geräusche, die ihre ganze Welt bedeuten, …”

Literally translated: “I imagine the jittering of the new arrivals, when they first perceive the sounds of the madhouse, sounds, which constitute their entire world…” The sentence goes on: the entire original story was one sentence of 130 words (not simply suppressing a period). This isn’t as unusual in German as it is in other languages, most notably in English where long, convoluted, nested sentences will seem Jamesian at best or contrived at worst to modern readers.

Speh’s alter-ego Finnegan Flawnt in his cottage 2009

However, I wanted to create an English text, so I began to translate it  – close to the original at first. I never finished this first attempt. After about half the words I lost all spirit for the German original (though not for the idea) and began to wholly rewrite it instead, holding onto the original idea but casting it in a different form  – including a change of POV from first to second person  – now this is not me imagining to be an inmate of an asylum, but me asking you to imagine yourself as an inmate who experiences two different worlds of sound. I also added the specific scene of being picked up by your relatives for a weekend outside the asylum. In the end, I liked this so much that I changed the German original by adding this scene in the second part of the piece (when I’m talking about experiences of deaf inmates) and extending the German text. I can’t even say any more which version I like better because rather than being different drafts they’re different stories on the same idea…the English version now begins thus:

“When you first enter a madhouse as an inmate, your learn to fear the sounds: dreams rumble and rattle across the corridors…”

FF: Do you translate your stories often? Do you find the German ones translate better into English or the other way round? And when you write a story, do you imagine it already in the other language, even before it’s on the page?

MS: I don’t translate often for publication, but I often translate as part of my process. Generally, an English original will translate better into German, at least it’s easier for me to judge the quality of the translation. All the stories I ever translated into German can be found on my krautflash site.

The advantages of the bilingual process whereby a text is translated or (more often) rewritten by me in the other language, are: deepening of the experience (of writing); slowing down the workflow (the more important the shorter the piece); sharpening (of individual expressions); changing voice (including POV). I really remember those pieces that I’ve translated in either direction (otherwise I tend to forgot anything that I’ve written – is that normal?).

The last question is a good one: indeed I often imagine parts of a story (a scene, a key sentence) in the other language. I create almost all my first flash drafts (up to 500 words, say) in my head anyway rather than on the page.

On place and perspective

Blowing my nose in 1976

FF: We’ve recently read a story by you that takes place in Texas. How important is place in short fiction, and is it a key component in your own writing? Do you tend to write about the place you find yourself in at one particular moment, or does your imagination wander?

MS: I used to think place didn’t matter at all, which surprises me now. When I read what I wrote in New Zealand, say, I can see now how deeply it relates to my having lived there. Same with that Texas piece: at the time I wrote little and was listening and watching more, and when I began to express myself, it was natural to feed on the environment. When I’m not connected to place but write about an idea, it shows: place helps me to anchor the ideas. No scenes without place. This is true even for Kafka, though like him I prefer to imbue a sense of place that’s not immediately localisable. My imagination definitely wanders all the time, not just with respect to place in a story, but to other elements as well: I’m a lateral thinker and writer and it takes strength to keep the reins and carve out tracks deep enough so that others can follow my crabbed path later.

Reading in Berlin

FF: Alongside place and the specificity of many of your stories, you also frequently write with a more universal eye. Some of your stories linger in mood or character quite beyond the borders of place. What determines the way you go about mapping a story, from character to language to sensory exploration to voice?

MS: What you call a “universal eye” really is my existential anchor, and at least to my mind, it is more important than place or any other individual ingredient of a story. My recently published flash Ginger is an example: there’s a specific place, a prison of his own making, where the narrator, a writer, dwells while both the swallows overhead and the visiting woman represent different worlds. But the key to the story is the writer’s resolve to “write himself out of his cage”, an existential challenge. In this piece, the character himself lingers.

I hardly ever map out short flash pieces: my flash tends to aggregate rather mysteriously around words, sentences or scenes. I don’t need to graft language onto a character or idea skeleton. It’s pretty much all there already. Or not, as the case may be – then it is easily discarded. In an average month, I write 30,000 words or more, submit 100-300 words and post 1000-3000 words via blogs, comments or so (more like non-fiction, though there’s a grey zone where I like to stray, as in my Spring Things To Do list).

On dreaming and discipline

Dreaming, apparently (2009)

FF: You lived in New Zealand ten years ago. Do tell us, what about this place captured your imagination then? And does it continue to fascinate you, even from a distance?  

MS: I’d always wanted to visit NZ even before we finally moved there in 2001, only two months after 9/11 (which made air travel across the US, especially with a 9-month-old kid, into a heroic affair). The immediate reason was that the University of Auckland had offered me a guest position and through that an opportunity to leave the corporate world. I used our year of living beautifully in New Zealand to renew my resolve to write and put a lot of words down towards a novel, which however never quite came together, but it was an important step to take nonetheless.

I’ve written about the relationship with NZ in my blog post for the “Frank­furt Book­fair 2012 – an Aotearoa Affair” Project.

FF: What kind of writing habits do you exercise yourself? Are you a disciplined writer or do you write when the craze hits? And what kinds of writing habits do you recommend to new writers – especially writers new to flash fiction? 

International Literature Festival Berlin 2010

MS: I’m a very disciplined person with a crazy anarchist inside – this must be true for most creatives who also get some work done, right? Due to the multiple demands of my time (writing happens next to family life, teaching, research and management at the school), I have to make the most of every hour of the day. I rise very early to write  –  by 9 am I’m usually done with my 1000 words; outside of term, when time allows or when the muse demands it, I will put in another 1000 words. In the course of the day I may check in with the writing world for networking reasons, but I don’t look at my own writing until late at night before bed. However, I can and will translate and write non-fiction pieces (including short reviews, comments on other people’s work or blog posts) at any time in the day. But I write these with a more mechanical, less musical mindset. Now, that makes me sound like a Prussian officer…I mentioned there was an anarchist to me, too: but alas, he’s a private pleasure.

When I still wrote a lot of flash, I especially loved the fact that flash can come at any time and that the first draft at least can be completed very quickly. In this way, one can cover a lot of ground in terms of genre, plot, ideas, scene, character, and so on without having to worry too much. Obviously, you can (and should) still spend any amount of time on shaping and honing the first draft. But because you’re looking at 100 to 1000 words, you can go through ten drafts in a week or so rather than in a year. This is a great advantage especially for beginners, technically speaking.

From Musil to Tolstoy to the internet

From a collage by Speh’s wife Carlye Birkenrahe

FF: Tell us about short short fiction in Germany. Is there a flash scene, and where does it take the stage? 

MS: I honestly don’t know but I don’t think so. There are early German language masters of the flash genre, most notably Robert Musil (of The Man Without Properties, one of the greatest literary novels) and Robert Walser, who’ve written amazing flash stories  – Walser’s opus almost exclusively is based on flash  – but I’m not aware of anyone who does this (famously) today. This is most likely my own oversight since I’m only beginning to engage with contemporary German literature. Short stories seem to be very en vogue here, at least I see a lot of short story collections in the book stores, not just as debuts. Unlike the US and the UK there seems to be a true market for short stories. I presume this means there could also be a market for flash. And Germans are always starved for translations of foreign authors.

FF: Do you have a story you feel is a typical story about New Zealand? How about Germany? 

MS: Oddly enough, I’ve never written any fiction about New Zealand apart from a short piece that was published in Blue Print Review and later by the Aotearoa Affair Blog Fest 2012. Germany, being German and German as a language all come up in many of my pieces. My favorite flash story on the topic is Cahiers Du Cinema, published in Blue Fifth Review, which also received a Pushcart nomination.

FF: What are you reading at present?

MS: I’m reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection (in German), which is fantastic and stirring, and I’m reading (or rather, listening to, in English) Middlemarch by George Eliot. The latter is perhaps the most perfect novel I’ve ever read. Also, I’m reading non-fiction: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? is a book made up of the answers of many people on the question posed by John Brockmann of EDGE.

FF: What are you writing at present?

MS: Not too much (apart from my daily writing routine) – I don’t have enough attention during teaching term to focus on any one project. However, over the next few months I’m looking forward to complete my mosaic novel Gizella for Folded Press (to be published in 2014, with illustrations!); also I’m editing my short story collection Thank You For Your Sperm to be published by MadHat Press this year, and I’m working on a few short stories in parallel hoping that one of them will want to grow up under my tutelage.

And finally, a round of Flash-Fragen

FF: Beach or mountain?

MS: Mountain (at the moment).

FF: Cricket or rugby?

MS: You could just as well have asked me in Chinese. The answer is: really? Did I mention before that I’m German? (Sorry to you Kiwis – but I AM still hurting for the loss of the America’s Cup, I really am.)

FF: Feijoa wine or kiwi jam?

MS: Kiwi jam is one of the few tickets to an All Black heaven.

FF: Campion or Jackson?

MS: Both. I’m dying to see The Hobbit, but when I stood on the beach where The Piano was filmed, I felt fulfilled.

FF: Flashdance or flashmob?

MS: Flashdance because of the retro chic.

Thank you, Marcus Speh, for the interview this month. 

For the May splinters issue, please go here

Interview with Graham Beattie

APRIL 2012

This month, we spoke with former bookseller and Managing Director/Publisher of Penguin Books NZ Ltd. and Scholastic NZ Ltd., and present book reviewer, book blogger and judge of book awards, Graham Beattie, also known as Bookman Beattie. Art and inspiration, books online and in print, and the virtue and difficulties of short fiction — Beattie covers it all in this short interview.


On Ponsonby-Franklin, Auckland. Photo by Harvey Benge

FF: You are lover not just of the written word but of the arts in general. What art have you recently experienced that has moved you, and why has it done so?

GB: Last week I visited the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. This annual prize has been going since 1921 and is easily Australia’s most iconic and anticipated award. I have seen many of the exhibitions since 1990 and always enjoy them. The award is for portraiture and every year the 40 or so finalists are varied and impressive. One of the aims of this award is to foster the memory of great Australians so resident Australian artists are invited to submit portraits painted from life of men or women “distinguished in arts, letters, science or politics”. Usually there are a number of authors included although there were none this year. However, I did like the portrait of Melbourne-based NZ singer-singwriter Kimbra, painted by Vincent Fatauzzo.

FF: Would you care to tell our readers where you grew up, and what kinds of early influences in your life led you down the path of art and book lover?

GB: I was born in Gisborne and went to school there. The greatest influence on me in terms of love of reading and books were my grandmother, Nana Beattie, and my form one teacher, Miss Fisher.

On competitions and flash

With Lee Child

FF: You’ve been in the book scene for many years, and you are still actively judging competitions and awards. Tell us why you still choose to do this work, specifically? Are you a firm believer that competition brings out the best?

GB: One is invited to be a judge and over the years I have had the privilege of being a judge of many awards, perhaps the most interesting and challenging being the Commonwealth Writers’ Awards. I believe in awards because of the recognition it gives to authors and the publicity it attracts for books.

FF: You judged the BNZ Short Story Award in 2011. Tell us, what do you like about the short story as a genre, and what in particular do you find interesting about flash fiction?

GB: Short stories are a favourite of mine because you can read them even when time is limited – while on the link bus in to the city, having a cup of coffee or for a few minutes when you get into bed even if you are dog-tired. Generally speaking I think the shorter a work of fiction is the more difficult it is to write. You still need a beginning, a middle and an end, you still have to tell a complete story and the less space you have in which to tell it the more skill is required. I think I have most New Zealand short story collections published over the past twenty years or so. I especially admire and enjoy Own Marshall so, unsurprisingly, among my favourites are Own Marshall, selected stories edited by Vincent O’Sullivan, The Best NZ Fiction Vol. 5 edited by Owen Marshall, The Book of the Beach Vols. 1 and 2, selected and introduced by Graeme Lay and then of course there is Katherine Mansfield.

On reviews, the blogosphere and the corner bookshop

In Paris

FF: In a recent article in The Author, David Eggleton wrote about Landfall Online Review, and there were several discussions, also in that same issue of The Author, about the difficulty of writing reviews in today’s oversaturated electronic world. What’s your take on this? Is writing a review different in different media – radio, print or online? How has Beattie’s Book Blog, running for six years now with an international following, changed the way you view the review?

GB: Personally I don’t think the review format has changed at all. The difference is I guess that now anyone can become a reviewer because anyone can create a blog and thus publish their own reviews whereas prior to the digital revolution one had to be invited by a newspaper, magazine or radio in order to present a review.

FF: In your blog in early April, there appeared a story about Google scaling back its affiliation with independent and small e-booksellers.  You also posted an article originally from The Boston Globe about 10.5 ways local bookstores beat Amazon. Tell us, do you fret over the state of the local corner bookshop?  And while e-books are changing the publishing landscape dramatically by the day, what does all this really mean for someone who is, at heart, simply a great big booklover? 

GB: Yes, I do fret over the future of the local indie bookseller and personally never buy online from Amazon or the like unless I absolutely have to. I know people who go into their local indie bookseller to check on books and then go home and order the book/s online. Well of course if they keep doing that the bookseller will soon be no more. I like to talk about the books I am buying with a knowledgeable bookseller, I like to browse at the book and its design, I like to smell the book – none of these pleasures are available online. I have read probably twenty or so books in e-format and I do not especially enjoy the experience. Give me the real book any day.

On inspiration and icons… and cookbooks

In Barnes & Noble, Union Square, January 2012

FF: Children’s books are clearly still dear to you. New Zealand seems to enjoy an international reputation for producing high quality children’s literature. Why do you think New Zealand inspires such imaginative writing in this genre? 

GB: The leadership and inspiration of Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley has much to do with it.

FF: Earlier this month, you were called a cultural icon by Graeme Lay. Who do you consider to be New Zealand cultural icons, people to whom we may look for inspiration or example?

GB: There are many but a few off the top of my head would include Margaret Mahy, Marti Friedlander, Lloyd Jones, Maurice Gee, Owen Marshall, Brian Turner and Bill Manhire.

FF: What are you reading this autumn?

GB: The best international crime fiction as it comes along – Ian Rankin, Peter James, Jo Nesbo – there is an almost unlimited supply, plus any NZ crime fiction as it appears, especially looking forward to Vanda Symon’s new book. And of course I am totally and hopelessly addicted to beautiful cookbooks!

Thank you, Graham Beattie, for the interview this month. 

For the after the party April issue, please go here

Interview with Gay Degani

MARCH 2012

This month, we had the pleasure of talking with Gay Degani, who is an internationally recognised writer of flash fiction and the editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles for Every Day Fiction. She blogs at Words in Place. We asked Gay five questions about the nuts and bolts of writing flash. 


FF: Flash fiction has many different definitions, from Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” to a definition framed mainly by word count (such as <1000 words). What, in your opinion, defines flash fiction?

GD: Flash fiction is to traditional short stories what lightning is to a storm. That to me is the best definition of flash fiction. And if no one has said this before, I want the credit!! But I’m pretty sure that’s where the name came from.

Thunder, rain, sleet, wind and lightning are all part of the excitement of a full blown nor’easter or afternoon thunderstorm. The rush of hard rain opens our eyes; its steady drum on the roof soothes us until that first roll of thunder raises our pulse; lightning makes us anticipate and 1 2 3 count. Then rain again and we wait for another loud crack, more electrical fireworks, the clouds to clear, the skies to blue. A good storm is filled with promise, surprise, fear, suspense, relief, joy, and sometimes sadness. So is a good story.

We experience fiction as we do storms with all their noise and fury. However, flash fiction is more like watching a jag of lightning split the sky to reveal a few seconds of landscape in a larger world.  In the span of 1000, 500, 50 words, flash gives us a crucial moment in a larger, less-defined or “suggested” story.

 Flash focuses on the “crux” of interplay between two characters, or one character and nature, or one character and self, when life is illuminated for the briefest of seconds. Flash creates a “close-up” on that moment when a “balance of being” shifts, even if it shifts ever so slightly.

Getting into it

FF: When you read a flash fiction story, what is the first indication that it’s a great one?

GD: An opening sentence that promises to intrigue, seduce and deliver the goods. A voice that engages me instantly and then something about the content — appearing almost immediately through voice, setting, circumstance, dialogue, language — that promises the story will be fresh and new and that the writer knows what he or she is doing.  I want to feel I won’t be let down, that I am embarking on an experience, large or small, that will surprise and intrigue me; that I will not be thrown any curves that make no sense.

Top Tip

FF: What is the single most important tip for someone aspiring to write excellent flash fiction?

GD: The admonition is probably different for every part of each writer’s journey, but for those just starting out, I’d say, “Don’t fall in love with your language until you’ve determined what it is your subconscious is telling you”. Too often we worry about every line when we’re new, not able to move on until each sentence sparkles. This often kills the initial impulse to write the story. My advice is to get the idea down, then take a look at what you have. Ask yourself who your character is, what does she value, what does she want and what stands in her way. There’s a magic thing happening inside you, the creation of a story. Listen to that voice or follow that thought as far as it leads you. Once you have content — the meat of the story — you will be able to figure out your scenes, what can happen to show the reader who she is and what she reveals about our humanity, and then it will be time to write those sparkling sentences.


FF: Flash Fiction seems to resonate with the current Zeitgeist. Why do you think this is?

GD: Stories have always given us a life experience without having to live through that experience. However, as society speeds up, we seem to have less and less time to sit down and read.  I have always read voraciously, but I struggle to find time to read books. There is always something else I should be doing, something that gets results. Yet I long for the feeling of being part of another world that reading gives us.

 Examples of excellence
FF: And finally, please share with us some flash fiction stories that you think are especially effective, and tell us why.

GD: This is really tough. I could probably list at least 100 stories by 100 different writers, but here are a couple I thought of when I was answering the second question. These have stuck to me.

Conversion by Gasoline by Marsha McSpadden because it says so much so well in so few words. Stunning.
Running by R.S. Thomas because of its natural yet seductive voice and flow, and the wonderful, sad story.  Authentic.
About Things That Are Lost And The Places That Things Get Lost by Andrea Kneeland because of its unique structure and how it forces the reader to think.  How did she think to do this?
A Shanty For Sawdust And Cotton by Sarah Hilary because has the right kind of surprise and a lovely humanity.  Just a damn good writer.

Bulletproof by Divya Raghavan because of voice.

Thank you, Gay Degani, for this flash fiction interview.

Read more interviews here.

For March’s stories inspired by shades of grey, go here.