June: NEW ORLEANS issue guest editor Paula Morris in conversation with Flash Frontier editor Gail Ingram
On the novelty of New Orleans, funerals and celebrations, and the fine art of editing and honing
Paula Morris: Flash fiction is a demanding medium, because it’s asking for the shape, movement and resonance of a short story within much more restricted dimensions. Its compressed nature means every word counts, so you could argue it’s closer to poetry than the novel, say. It’s also a deceptive medium, because short doesn’t mean glib, gimmicky, anecdotal or slight.
PM: I lived in New Orleans for six years, and wrote several books there – including Hibiscus Coast, my second novel, which is set in Auckland and Shanghai. But New Orleans shows up in a number of my novels and stories, including Queen of Beauty, written before I moved there. (I first visited NOLA in the 80s when I was researching my doctoral thesis, and two of the writers I was studying – Kate Chopin and Lillian Hellman – had lived in New Orleans.) My first YA novel, Ruined, is a love letter of sorts to the city and its history, as well as its post-Katrina chaos. It’s by far the biggest seller of all my books, in part – I think – because it engages with the city’s rich and complex past. New Orleans is not quite like anywhere else in the US, because of its peculiar history, especially the ‘free people of colour’ of the early nineteenth century. The title story of my recent collection, False River, is set in Louisiana, and begins in New Orleans, at a funeral. There are quite a few funerals in my work, I realise. At funerals, anyone can turn up.
PM: I’m reading Last Stories by the late William Trevor right now, in awe – as ever – of his skill as a writer and his willingness to explore the darkness of human nature in a quiet and acute way. Next I’m going to read the slim novel Speedboat by Renate Adler, which I should have read by now, and envy for its excellent title. The novel I’ve enjoyed most this year, so far, is Vincent O’Sullivan’s All This By Chance.
PM: My story ‘Isn’t It’ is a take on Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’, set in contemporary Mt Roskill, a suburb of Auckland. I wrote it for Katherine Mansfield and Psychology, published by Edinburgh University Press, and included it in False River. It’s from the point of view of the family with the dead relative, not the party-holders. I enjoyed playing with some key elements of the original, and turning one into a Samoan hymn. Also, I got to work in a joke about a sperm-repelling womb.
PM: New Orleans is a hard place to write about. It has a lot of glittering surfaces that appeal to outsiders, but these mask much darker and conflicted realities. The best stories here didn’t take the city at face value: they subverted expectations, or found a fresh angle. They cared about language and made it work hard.
PM: Be ruthless with your work. Interrogate every word, every sentence, every scene, every section. You should apply the skill of close reading to your own writing, not just published work. Why are you using all those adverbs? How can you make it new?
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