In conversation with editor Rachel Smith
Rachel Smith: Kia ora, Tim, and congratulations on your new book, Under A Big Sky – Facing the Elements on a New Zealand Farm (Allen & Unwin). Can you tell us how this book came about – what were the ideas and themes that led you to this book, following your first book, This Farming Life, in 2020?
Tim Saunders: My first book, This Farming Life, chronicled a typical year on our fifth-generation sheep/beef/cropping farm through the seasons. It could have been any year. Under a Big Sky is tethered specifically to 2020, and follows the ups and downs of producing food in the face of a debilitating drought, Covid lockdowns, and family illness. On top of this was an increasing pressure by banks to make a larger profit at the expense of the environment.
Many people have an opinion about farming these days, but not everyone actually knows what goes on behind farm gates. I wanted to write about what farming does right, what can be improved, and to look at issues in relation to the production of food for an ever-increasing population. Under a Big Sky looks at how farming affects and is affected by the elements that surround us – fire, air, water and earth. I explore how farming practices have changed over the years, and how by moving forwards we can maintain balance.
I wanted this book to show how everything is connected and moves in cycles, from ground to plate and back to the ground. But I also wanted to illustrate that everything we do, whether we are farming or living in a city, has a consequence.
RS: Your flash fiction has featured in Flash Frontier as a two-time third place winner of NFFD in 2020 and 2021, as well as in Micro Madness this year. How do you work through the changes in form, from poetry to micro to flash to your longer works? What is your process in approaching longer versus shorter forms?
TM: My original passion was in writing short stories. I am attracted to stories that present a slice of something bigger, and there is a real craft to getting it right. As I honed my craft, I discovered that I enjoyed writing stories that were pared down even further. This is how I came to write poetry – by stripping stories down to just a whiff of their former selves, taking everything away and leaving only the essentials. I liken it to carving – chipping away at a massive stone until something beautiful appears that is only part of what was there before but is still made from the same material. For me, micro fiction and flash fiction are about building a poem into something slightly more substantial, something with the bare bones of narrative. I have always liked art forms that suggest more than they tell – through language and style they put ideas into our heads that are subliminal. It is almost like a magic trick.
When building a large project like a book, I tend to write short sections and then stitch them together into a long narrative. It is like doing a jigsaw, just slotting lots of little bits and pieces into something that flows.
RS: Under a Big Sky is a memoir while your shorter works are fiction. What was the experience like writing about yourself in such a personal way, as opposed to fiction where the truth of a story is more fluid?
TM: It seems slightly strange to write about myself in such a personal manner, but it is also therapeutic and almost cathartic. It is easy to internalise thoughts and feelings, and writing about things is a way of getting them off my chest.
I approached Under a Big Sky in the same way that I tackle fiction in that I weaved character and place and story into an unfolding narrative. I wanted readers to get to know my family, and to care about them as much as I do. It was the same with the animals and the landscape – I wanted to convey my love and respect for them without saying it directly. Animals move and behave with a certain poetry which I try to capture with words, and I get much pleasure from making animals and the environment come alive on the page in a way that inspires people to take more notice of them and care for them more.
RS: The physical environment features significantly in your writing – a number of your wonderful descriptions of landscape and nature come to mind. Can you please tell us about how your daily work life as a farmer, and your continual interaction with the environment, has influenced your writing.
TM: I believe that stories run through every facet of our lives. They exist in all that we touch and see and smell and hear and eat. Sometimes they are hardly noticeable in our day-to-day lives, and yet they are important for our continued survival. Working in the outdoors, close to nature, has made me more aware of these stories, and how everything is interconnected.
Farming gives me time and space to think about stories, and their relation to our lives. It gives me a unique perspective of how stories can connect people from different places and walks-of-life.
RS: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing practice – do you follow specific writing routines or is your writing time more fluid?
I like to be at my desk writing by 5:30am. This is really the only time in the day that I get a chance to be still and silent. I write until around 8am, then it is time for breakfast and farm work. I’m usually too tired at night to write. I do this six days a week.
I always carry a notebook with me on the farm, and I write down any ideas and lines that pop into my head. I note down similes and metaphors, as well as observations and anything that inspires me. I tend to forget things if I don’t write them down straight away. The wide-open spaces help me relax and be open to whatever falls into my head.
There is more paperwork required in farming these days, and I am finding my writing time is becoming a little compromised by the amount of office time. My writing is sometimes being squeezed into gaps. But I try to be strict about my writing – it’s all about practising my craft.
Excerpt from Under a Big Sky
Puddles dotted the paddocks, reflecting grey sky like shards of broken glass. I drove around the farm as showers swept dark shapes from the west. Swollen thunderclouds crushed sunlight and pummelled the ranges. We were in for another downpour.
‘I’d better get you home,’ I said to Sam. He cowered on the back of the quadbike, sleek fur shivering. Sam hated thunder. He panicked in storms, and we’d lost him once when the noise and lightning scared him away. Dad found him hiding in a drain down the road hours later.
I gunned the quadbike towards the woolshed as the air suddenly fell still. It was clear I wasn’t going to make it before the rain arrived. Large, cold raindrops smacked my face, needles on numb skin. The jagged shape of the old hayshed emerged from the gloom. The hayshed had no walls, just an old corrugated iron roof held up by long poles, but it would provide shelter from the tempest.
‘C’mon, Sam,’ I said as raindrops drummed the tin roof. I nosed the quadbike up to the hay bales, Sam jumped off and pushed himself into a corner. I rested my hand reassuringly on his head.
The farm held its breath. Sheep turned their white-crested heads towards the sudden stillness, as if listening to the Earth’s slow turn. In that brief moment between the first flash and thunder, they ran as one towards the far fence. Rain pelted down in rapid barrages and staccato blasts. Salvos battered the paddocks, tiny splashes ricocheted.
Sam huddled closer into my leg as plovers wheeled screaming. Sheep, their broad backs steaming, clustered along fences in tightly clenched fists of defiance. The dashing wind’s blast pulled blue-black clouds across the sky as the ground trembled, bruised by the pounding. Grass dissipated to a hard smudge. Outlines dissolved to smeared shading. Sheep tightened their grip and huddled against the sky’s impudence.
And then it was over.
As quickly as it had come, the rain eased. Thunder left quiet spaces in its absence. Crumbling clouds uncovered clear, scattered hills in the distance. Sheep shook the water from their wool, went back to grazing as if nothing had happened. They spread out from their tight pack as the farm exhaled.
I felt Sam relax beside me, the tension from every muscle and sinew loosened. Stillness returned, an unwinding of springs. The air felt clean and fresh.
‘C’mon, Sam,’ I said. ‘We’d better get back to what we were doing.’
Sam jumped on the quadbike as the dim heart of sunlight seeped through clouds.
About the book
Tim Saunders writes about his life and work on the farm that’s been in his family for five generations. He encompasses drought, farming during lockdown, illness, financial pressure and the drive to become more viable and environmentally friendly.
Woven throughout is Tim’s love of, and respect for, the land, animals and the environment. He describes how farming is intertwined with the weather, how the weather has changed, how the changes affect farmers and what they are doing to counteract this
Tim describes how his forebears farmed, and how methods have changed. He referenced these ancestors in his first book This Farming Life but now he explores how they farmed, who they were, why they did what they did and how that affects him and the farm today.
With the impact of climate change there is a need to change farming practices. Like other farmers Tim and his family are closely studying their farming system, deciding what needs to be done to stay viable. To survive. To work within the environment while feeding an ever-growing population. They are looking at the past to shepherd the future of the farm.
“One of the best.” – Nicholas Reid
“Every line is written by a man who looks at the world through a kaleidoscope of imagination.” – Cristina Sanders
“A book which distils the essence of what it means to farm the land.” – Chris Moore, NZ Listener
Tim Saunders farms sheep and beef in the Manawatu. He has had poetry and short stories published in Turbine|Kapohau, takahē, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Headland, Flash Frontier and Best Small Fictions, and also won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition. Tim placed third in the 2019 and 2020 National Flash Fiction Day competitions, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His first book, This Farming Life, was published by Allen & Unwin in August 2020. His second book, Under a Big Sky, was published in August 2022.