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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.