Guest fiction writer, Frankie McMillan, gifted us seven short stories for takahē 95. This week, she took time out from readying her forthcoming collection, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and Other Small Fictions, to talk fantastic characters, the role of the narrator, and how theatre informs her writing. She emailed with Fiction Editor, Zoë Meager.
Your stories often seem to gather around an extraordinary protagonist, like the titular Father of Octopus Wrestling of your forthcoming collection. Can you talk about that?
Memorable characters are fun to write. I’m often drawn to characters, in literature and in life, who are a bit broken, yet who, despite the odds manage to cheerfully survive.
I find that when exaggerating a character’s traits, in mining the absurd, a deeper, emotional truth can sometimes be found. The Father of Octopus Wrestling describes the protagonist’s night time walks and wrestling in the bath with an invisible opponent but it is also about the missed connections in intimacy.
We often meet these characters just as they are planning some remarkable act, like Big Joe who’s going to walk on water. As a reader, I often experience this kind of slightly cynical anticipation of wonder. Do you need to be careful with the reader’s expectations?
I like to write work that surprises me, that is a process of discovery for myself and the reader. There seems little point in steering readers through a familiar set of observations towards a predictable ending…but having said that neither do I want to leave them baffled or slightly cynical of the outcome. It’s a fine line between the two… I do tend to err on the side of an ending that departs somewhat from the expectations of the beginning. This is how life often happens; sudden shifts in direction etc.
That’s my experience anyway but readers also bring their own experiences into the reading and once the work is out there it will most likely be interpreted in many different ways. In my opening story Seven starts to the man who loved trees I play on this sense of emotional ambiguity that often arises in short short fiction.
Re: wonder – I once read that writers are people who have never outgrown their childhood. They’re still puzzling over things, mouths agape at the wonder of the world. I remember as a kid being fascinated by the story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee and wondering if I might attempt the same. These memories often surface in my writing but seen through the lens of my adult awareness they take on a darkly comic aspect.
If we were reading your work as speculative fiction, we might be tempted to take these characters at face value, but your work doesn’t quite sit in that space, does it?
No, these characters live in today’s world, a world full of extraordinary wonders, a world facing terrible changes, right now. What I’m drawn to is that juxtaposition between beauty and terror, the banal and the extraordinary. When I first began writing I was influenced by the playwrights, Beckett and Pinter who mined this territory so well.
As in two of your stories featured in takahē 95, Dirty Mouth and Father War, we find your narrator is more witness or storyteller than central player in the action. What does it mean for fiction when the narrator is positioned like this?
I often find this technique allows for more risk taking.
You have quite a background in theatre, how does that inform your writing?
Possibly my work is character driven and once I have the ‘voice’ I’m more confident of setting out on a story. Then I write very quickly, very fiercely until the story is complete.
In my thirties I studied different styles of theatre, including Bouffon. This style of performance was often political and aimed at satirizing the establishment.
Some of my stories have been described as a ‘comedian’s long riff’. The monologue form has always appealed to me, likewise prose written in the long breathless sentence.
The cover of your last fiction collection, My Mother and the Hungarians: And Other Small Fictions, was quite bold, sleek, and graphic. The Father of Octopus Wrestling seems to be signalling a bit of a departure; it feels more vintage, magical, handcrafted…does it do a good job of capturing the essence of the collection?
Yes! The book has been described as ‘darkly comic, surreal and full of perceptiveness about human vulnerability and eccentricity.’ The bold lettering, the proclamation such as you might see outside a circus tent, captures these notions so well. In a sense it’s a ‘roll up’ call of a cast of quirky characters and the occasional appearances of an octopus. I love the suggestion of tentacles under some of the lettering and the inky smudged background. I think you’re right re the hand crafted comment (although in fact My Mother and the Hungarians shared similar production values, so maybe it’s not really a departure in that sense). The textured purple background will continue throughout the book and the large font and paper quality help give it an artisan feel. I’m lucky that design aesthetics is an important consideration for Canterbury University Press and that they’re able to use the services of award winning designer, Aaron Beehre and his team at Ilam Press.
What do you think about while you’re doing the dishes?
A rag bag of thoughts, ‘It’s winter, why is my sister still swimming in the lake, what is that pain in my elbow, how are the mosque survivors getting on, how can I write about XYZ in a new way, why can’t I face killing the bush rats, how can I reconcile overseas travel/ writer’s conferences with my concern about climate change, where does the word hogwash come from, why did my ancestor call Hone Heke ‘pig face’ and think she could get away with it, who is my partner having lunch with today, how can I wriggle out of that social engagement, how does writer X achieve that extraordinary effect,’ blah, blah.
What do you wish your students would forget?
The pressure I put them under to bring cakes and home made biscuits to their workshop critique sessions.
Savoury or sweet?
The Father of Octopus Wrestling and Other Small Fictions will be published by Canterbury University Press in August 2019.