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Guest Fiction Interview: Allan Drew

 

takahē 96 features three stories from guest fiction writer, Allan Drew, and we were lucky enough to squeeze a few extra words out of him about non-visual narration, flawed affection, and the (very) surprising in his fiction. He emailed with Fiction Editor, Zoë Meager.

 


In Blind, blind, you parachute us into 17th century London in just three hard-working paragraphs. How do you find the balance between historical and fiction

For Blind, Blind I tried to provide the minimum history needed to establish place, time and mood – and then get on with the story. I think historical short fiction is difficult because the balance you talk about is difficult to strike. You just don’t have the time to write a really textured account of the setting, so you have to do what you can as quickly as possible.

The same story ends with this beautiful last line:

“He wished, if only for a second, that he might see the sky and take the measure of its blue, and within the blue attain some small respite, like a bird that takes to the air to relieve the earth-burden from its legs.”

How did you approach writing Milton’s blindness?

It was difficult, to be honest, and especially at the start. There was a lot of revision required, because I would often fall into visual writing without realising it. When I read it back I would be like, oh, I’ve just made him sighted again. I’ve written more, beyond this story, from the blind Milton’s point of view, and I did get used to it after a while. It was a matter of focusing on his other senses while also using his visual memories and imagination – what he had seen when he was sighted and what he imagined was in front of him – to break up the kind of claustrophobic atmosphere created by non-visual narration. Part of my research also involved reading books by blind authors and books with blind protagonists.

Your characters often seem to be struggling with embodiment in one way or another. Can you talk about that?

Really? Okay. Fair enough. I don’t really write these characters with the idea of embodiment in mind. But I do write them struggling with life, and, I don’t know, maybe life is a problem of embodiment? Like, what do we do with the space we occupy in the world? My stories almost always end up being about some difficult or fraught interpersonal connection, or a difficult version of love, or aborted love – whether it’s between a couple, or a father and child, or friends, or whoever. Looking back at these three stories, it feels to me like in each one the protagonist is offered something – some sort of flawed affection or kindness or love – by another character, and they don’t know what to do with it. That then becomes the struggle, or the reason for the story.

There is a hell of a surprising moment in A New Fairy Tale. Do your characters often do things you didn’t plan, and was that one of them? 

I think my characters always do things I don’t plan, but only because I don’t really plan my stories, at least not as far as plotting them out ahead of time. I began writing this story with only the idea that colours are only our way of perceiving different wavelengths of light – nothing else. When it came time for “that moment” in the story, it seemed like a natural progression, so that’s what happened. She just had to deal with it, I’m afraid.

The punctuation-free dialogue in that story is pretty distinctive. How do you decide when to break with convention?

I honestly don’t know. In this instance, it just felt right, and I like the effect of language free from punctuation – especially questions without question marks. Or, to put it another way, it felt wrong for these characters to speak using conventional dialogue rules – there was too much at stake for them to be bother with convention.

Give us your best compound swear word.

Oh, I don’t swear, and I don’t know anyone who swears. What is swears?

Who should we all be reading more of?

Anything, really. Local writers especially though.

WWJMD? (What would John Milton do?)

Yes, this is the real question, isn’t it? John Milton would rise up, I think. In his era he was a pretentious, snobbish prick, because that was what was required. He was also a great humanist. Were he alive today I think he would be a very kind man, because that is what’s needed.

 

Final Results of the 2018/9 Short Story Competition!

At last, the final results are out. Go to our Competitions page  to see who won, who came second and who was highly commended. Congratulation to all of you. It has been a hugely successful enterprise with many, many entrants. And our wonderful judge, Nod Ghosh, was impressed by the standard of these, so well done and thank you to everyone who entered.

We will be running another short story competition in due course,  but there’s no need to wait for that, our poetry competition is still open and we look forward to an avalanche of entries as the deadline (31 August 2019) approaches.  What better to do in these cold winter days but to pen a poem? So get writing and let us have the fruits of your labours.

catch o’ the day

takahē 96 is all yours, completely free and online now! So come dip your toes in our strange waters. You’ll need no inoculations, but you should probably bring some pluck.

We’re so excited to bring you work by our special guests: Sharon Singer (art), Allan Drew (fiction), and Louise Wallace (poetry).

We also have an editorial from Guest Poetry Editor, Erik Kennedy, and announce the 2019 takahē Short Story Competition results, and publish the winning story.

There’s flash fiction darting through the waters too, from Shannon Beynon, Ellen Morgan Butler, Semira Davis, David Sapp, and Gaye Sutton. And we’ve got longer prose pieces to sink your teeth into, from Kathryn Hummel, Dale Johnson, Sarah Penwarden, and Toni Wi.

Bon appétit!

 

Interview with Reviews Editor Michelle Elvy

We have interviewed our new Reviews Editor Michelle Elvy about her debut book the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction 2019). It’s a story that transcends geography and time, a little like Michelle herself, who has spent much of her life travelling the world in a sail boat. Magical and beyond boundaries, this collection takes the reader to the place where human history began. It has been received with great acclaim, already on The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize long list 2019.

Find out here what inspired Michelle to write “a novel in small forms”, some of her thoughts on writing and the writer’s life, read excerpts from the everrumble, plus find out about an exciting new project for writers of Aotearoa that she’s involved in.

 


Congratulations, Michelle, on your new book the everrumble, published byAd Hoc Fiction in July this year in Bristol and around New Zealand at events held on National Flash Fiction Day. It’s a wonderful title with a beautiful cover painting by Eyayu Genet. Can you tell us about the cover and the artist, how you got to know him and how the cover relates to the story?

Thank you, Gail! I am so glad you ask about the cover, as I think it’s a perfect fit for the book. The artist is a painter from Ethiopia – I met him through Gallery Ethiopia, which was featured in the October issue of Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction – this was our big 2018 AFRICA issue, and we had wonderful stories and art from the African continent. Among the features was a conversation with gallery curator Alessandra Frezza, and the paintings she selected to share with our readers included Eyayu Genet’s. His work stayed with me. 

Months later, as I was working with the publisher and considering cover art for the everrumble, I went and reviewed Eyayu’s paintings again – and this one immediately jumped out. I find there is so much to his painting: the beautiful tree, the light within, the rich sense of earth and sky and life – and if you look closely, you can see animals down near the bottom too. All of it suits the book so very well. I’m delighted with this pairing between Eyayu Genet’s painting and my words. 

 

As the founding editor of Aotearoa New Zealand’s wonderful online journal Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Small Fiction and an advocate for NZ flash fiction all over the world, it is lovely to see that your first book has the tag line “a small novel in small forms”. How did you become interested in the small form? And what is the difference between ‘small forms’ as you have used it for your book, and the term ‘flash fiction’? Also, can you tell us a little about how and why your story is structured in the way it is, and how it came to be a ‘novel’?

I love the small form, and I have come to appreciate how varied it can be. I think that my work with Flash Frontier and also with other small fiction projects, including the 2018 anthology Bonsai and the Best Small Fictions series, has given me a deep view of the form. That experience has shown me just how fluid small writing can be. This book started as a set of stories about one life. Then it grew in terms of scope – not in page count, but in terms of the meaning of that life. Then it evolved, over a year, into a reflection that would be both internal and external: the inner life of this character as she looks out into the world and lives in it. I guess all that led me down the path of realising this was a book that in spirit, despite its fragmented structure, is a novel: a whole life.

 

The story begins with Zettie as a seven-year-old, who, at that age, chooses to stop speaking. It follows her across decades and continents as she pays attention to the sounds most of us never hear. As a reader, I was impressed by the lists of sounds as well as the attention paid to the sound of language itself in the writing, especially in the lyricism of the “Dreamscape” passages. So, first of all, what inspired you to have a protagonist who never speaks? And second, in the writing process, did you listen a lot as you wrote — was it kind of a natural process — or did you set out to find sounds to put into lists and consciously shape your passages into the impressive lyrical pieces they’ve become?

I was wondering what it would be like to deliberately stop speaking, to hear the small sounds around you and focus in on them. I had the idea to write a story about a person who does this. For some reason, this character began as a small girl. The sounds around her at first were the most immediate sounds – the creakings of a house, the rolling of vehicle… Then, I could feel how her perceptions were shifting, for me – how she might be able to hear more, beyond the obvious sounds… that she might hear things very far away, or focus in closely to the vowels coming through lips. And then there were the sounds of the earth: the more Zettie listened, the more I listened, and I started to realise that this one focused act of listening – really listening – would shift all her perceptions. 

For me, whales and elephants are supreme beings, and so it came as no surprise that Zettie could also hear them, all the way around the world. Those parts came naturally – but fitting them together was the challenge. I wrote many passages that had to do with sounds and then I started to see how they linked. 

As for the lyricism – thank you for that. I did not set out to write lists of sounds. It was more that once I knew this was a character whose perceptions could shift so fluidly I could tune in more closely to language and rhythms. The small form allows for a kind of freedom in writing – a shift that allows that space between story and poetry to be blurred. 

 

Some chapters are prefaced by “Book Notes” and these are the notes that Zettie herself has written about the books she has read. The only time Zettie really regrets not speaking is when she thinks about not reading books to her children. How did the books you chose for Zettie help you understand her character? What was the intention behind the “Book Notes”? What connection do books in general have to do with the theme of listening? 

You are what you read. Zettie is a controlled character, without the outward expression that speech affords – and so is also a reader, which allows a glimpse into her mind. She stops speaking and first turns inward. The Book Notes allow a peek at her inner thoughts – things she does not speak out loud. They began as something for a young child – a book diary of sorts – but then it was clear that this was something she’d carry with her all of her life. The books she reads follow her path, and her interest in language goes hand-in-hand with the act of not speaking. 

 

Speaking of books that inform different periods of your life, what are some books that have informed you as a person and a writer? Do they coincide with Zettie’s?

All the books that Zettie reads hold meaning for me. Some are books that my daughters have cherished; most are books that I return to many times. And Michael Ende’s Momo has created underpinning themes in our daily lives. I first encountered this book many years ago, when I was a student living in Hamburg. It is a book for young readers, but the themes are for everyone. The central plot is around a girl who saves her town from the ‘men in grey’ who come to steal time. Momo is the only one who can save them, as everyone is too busy banking time, rushing to earn it, count it, hoard it. Momo holds the key to unlock the city’s grim decline – she is a heroine for all times. 

 

Like Zettie, since you have lived for many years on a sailing boat with your family, you too have also travelled across the continents and met many different people and lands. What of your travel experiences did you bring to this story? And in general, how do you think your lifestyle influences what you write — in a practical sense as well as in terms of themes and passions you explore?

Our boat is named after Ende’s book. Our Momo has been our home for sixteen years. My daughters have been raised aboard the boat, as we’ve meandered slowly through the world, at the edges of continents and across oceans. We move slowly – very slowly. And this slow pace has certainly informed the way I take in the world. It’s an enormous thing – a gift, really – to be able to experience the world slowly. We do not take this for granted. To be able to breathe in it, to be able to sit with the ocean and stars and nothing else for days and weeks on end – that is a rare and wonderful thing. Your own perceptions of time and space change entirely when you sail across oceans, when you drift for days, engineless. When you give up control (when you come to appreciate how little you have) and see what happens, day by day. I think I never would have written this book without this life I’ve lived aboard my boat. 

 

You are involved in many projects — as well as Reviews Editor for takahē, you are Editor for Flash Frontier, founder and on the organising committee for National Flash Fiction Day NZ, fiction editor for Blue Five Notebook, assistant editor for Best Small Fictions. You have judged many international competitions and you mentor writers. How do you balance all of this and your family life with time for your own writing?

I think my lifestyle allows enough time for all this. I work mainly as an editor and manuscript assessor, and I value so greatly the work that I do: it allows me an opportunity to be constantly reading, and it allows the space to do it in a flexible schedule. When it’s daytime for me, it’s often middle of night for a client. A life that is in flow, quite literally, allows quite a lot of freedom for this kind of freelance work. But I do work crazy hours sometimes – so my family tells me. 

I have been lucky to work with people who are efficient, competent and also easy to work with. It is no small thing to have co-editors and co-curators one can rely on; this is the case for National Flash Fiction Day, Flash Frontier, the Best Small Fictions project and last year’s Bonsai book. And let’s not forget the good people at takahē – it takes the whole team to make it work. 

With all that occurs on any given day in my schedule – the reading, the editing, the correspondence, the discussions around shared work – there has also been a built-in rhythm to my time: when we head offshore, we disconnect in every possible way. That requires planning, yes, but also – more importantly – the space to allow for all that quiet. It is often offshore that I do a lot of writing or polishing of my own work. It’s a very good balance. 

 

We’d love to know what your next project is. Can you tell us about that?

Well, besides my current reading schedule for the everrumble – I’m presently on the east coast of the US and have readings in August and September – I am also planning for the next leg of what has turned out to be a very slow circumnavigation (sixteen years – ha!); we’ll go mid-September to Panama to take Momo through the Panama Canal and back into the Pacific. That is a big milestone for us – we will be back in our ‘home’ waters and then slowly heading west again, back towards New Zealand.

On the literary front, I am excited to announce a new anthology that I will be editing with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe. The project is called, simply:

Ko Tātou Aotearoa | We Are New Zealand

It grew from the immediate response to the March 15 Christchurch shootings and is something we hope will be an artistic contribution to the core values of diversity, kindness and compassion in New Zealand.

We will launch the website with the call for submissions this week – watch for it.

Thank you so very much, Gail! 

 

Congratulations once more on the everrumble and thank you for your time, Michelle! 

 

You can order your copy of the everrumble at Ad Hoc Fiction — and watch for the book in New Zealand bookshops, coming soon!

 

Excerpts from the everrumble —

 

from ‘Peek-a-boo’

She sometimes dreamed of colours floating,
and the way the blanket smelled: sky, sea, earth.
She slept with it at the foot of her bed. It grounded
her to earth and even then, even at such a young
age, before vocabulary forms and expresses the
meaning of connections and groundings, it was as
if she needed something to keep her there. As if the
blanket held her in one place – if she let it go, she
may float up to the sky and never come back down.
She crawled under the blanket at night and felt the
weight of it, holding her there. Anchoring her to
earth.

from The bees

Under the bee buzz is something else. A low
rumble. It bores gently into her ear and winds down
the canal, vibrating through her whole body, her
throat, her chest, her tummy. It moves out to the
tips of her limbs, to the very ends of her long brown
hair. Once she hears it she can’t un-hear it.
The rumble is here to stay.


Dreamscape II: willow and moon

She leans over to touch her toes
– a yogic stretch – and the wind
whistles through her branches for
now she is a tree, bending like a
willow. She folds herself to catch
the sorrow in her branches (see
it? it’s down there, hovering in the
earthen dirt, brown and red and
gold and black and all the world’s
colours) but as she moves to scoop
it up with her branches, sinewy
and soft, it floats upward on a kick
of breeze, an updraft, and now she
opens her moon heart and pulls it
back in, envelops it in an embrace
that gives it light, and now she’s
willow and moon, holding sorrow
in her supple arms and sending
light up to the heavens and down
through her roots and all roots of
all trees.

 

 

 

 

Guest fiction interview: Frankie McMillan

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.

By using the narrator as witness it allows for startling observations to be made in a more distanced, impartial way. Often the witness narrator refrains from making value judgments but just describes what they see. There’s not enough room for them to explore their own problems or situation. In both Dirty Mouth and Father War a narrator reports on the relationship between the parents in such a way the reader is privy to the wider implications. 

 

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?

Sweet.

 


The Father of Octopus Wrestling and Other Small Fictions will be published by Canterbury University Press in August 2019.