Flash Frontier

Interview: Guest Editors David Gaffney and Siobhan Harvey

Interviews and Features

This month, we have been honoured to have David Gaffney (Manchester) and Siobhan Harvey (Auckland) as our Guest Editors. They have both generously donated their time to the selection of stories for the June 2017: JOURNEYS issue, and they also shared their views about writing in small spaces, the line between poetry and prose and their own personal relationship to writing and editing.

We begin with a set of questions for both editors.

Flash Frontier: What draws you most to the idea of compression? And do you enjoy reading short fiction or poetry as much as you enjoy writing it? Are there recent works you’ve read that have knocked you off your chairs?

Siobhan Harvey: I love the way in which compression augurs language, naturally, to dance with richer music and meaning. I enjoy reading per se, short fiction, poetry, novels, nonfiction works, as much as I enjoy writing in all forms. Frankie McMillan’s wondrous My Mother and the Hungarians, and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press, 2015) wows me every time I return to its pages.

David Gaffney: I like the fact that compressing a story appears to keep the best of what you had originally and in the process maybe knocks off any extraneous corners which are not integral to the piece and could detract. In a longer piece your text is in the moment, sure, but it’s also pointing backwards and pointing forwards at the same time as well. I see flash as more like a still photograph, where we can only wonder at the moment afterwards and the moment before. I enjoy reading longer fiction more I think – maybe because I have spent so long theorising about short short stories I need a break from them. I recently loved the work of Anne Williams though – she’s brilliant – and also Kit De Waal.

FF: Do you have a strict writing method?

DG: I always write as long as I feel I need to, so that I can really burrow under the skin of the story idea, so I may end up with 3000 words for what I know might be a 150 word story. Buts it’s like metal detecting. You have to unearth a lot of bottle tops before you find the roman hoard.
I write mainly on trains and in the times between other things. The margins of life. If I am early for an appointment I can write, or if I am stuck somewhere, I can write. The other day I wrote a short story in the waiting room at a hospital.
I think the train is best. There are very few distractions that can make you get out of your seat.

SH: Studying an MA in Creative Writing furnished me with one key learning outcome – have a strict writing method. Ever since I graduated, I ensure I have a weekly schedule of writing time – early morning through the early afternoon sitting on my sofa at home in front of the lounge window which offer a panoramic and inspiring view out over the Tamaki Estuary, east Auckland and as far as the edge of the Hunuas. Need I say anymore!

FF: You both draw a lot from life experiences for your writing. How do you navigate the line between observation / reality and creativity/ story-telling?

SH: I think the communion between life experience and creativity is an intrinsic element to being a writer, and is one which is always being negotiated depending on the genre and plot and circumstances of the creative piece being written. In nonfiction, for instance, the author writes about their reality (which inevitably might be different from another’s), the work being framed by the author’s truth in a creative way. In poetry and fiction, for me, reality is but a starting point from which the creative can be shaped and take the directions (sometimes different from how reality panned out) it needs to – this reality, the fictional or poetic, is one which is authentically realised because it is consistent with life experience and with the motivations of other forces such as character and location.

DG: I get into trouble sometimes for writing about real things, Most of my stories are based on reality. I sometimes ask people for permission. For example, a bloke I know told me all about his pet greyhound the other day and I asked him if it was ok to use what he said in a story and he said fine.

FF: You both write in environments that have recently been impacted by catastrophic events. In New Zealand, writers are constantly aware of earthquakes and the destructive power of Nature, so violent and random. In Manchester, the recent suicide bombing, also violent and random, has the community roiling. How do you think the environment in which you live influences your own personal approach to writing? In other words, this seems a nature v. nurture question: were you born to write, or has your writing changed (and will it continue to change) in response to the world you live in?

DG: I think, certainly in my case, I was born with a need to make things, be they songs or stories, or pictures if I could draw. But I have no idea why and sometimes I see this compulsion more as an illness than as an advantage. I don’t feel a need to comment on current events. I would leave that to the poets, who do it very well.

SH: My writing is deeply attuned to the environment in which I live and work. I have written about the 2012 Christchurch earthquake and its impact and legacy in the 2016 Write Well award winning long fiction, Black Origami Birds. But impact and trauma isn’t confined environmentally to natural events. My current neighbourhood, Glen Innes in Auckland, has been forced by political forces into drastic personal and social unsettlement by what those driving this change have euphemistically taken to calling a “regeneration” process – as if my neighbourhood’s existing vibrant cultural and housing set up was broken and required fixing (which it did not). I have and continue to write extensively about what is going on in this environment too because, as with my writings about the 2012 Christchurch earthquake, I adamantly adhere to the belief that it is a writer’s duty to bear witness to and speak out against wrongs – environmental, social and political – wherever they arise.

And now, more specifically…

A Brief Conversation with David Gaffney

FF: Your most recent book is the novel, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived (launched by Urbane Publications, Feburary 2017), described as pre-urbane noir with a time-travel element – and, relevantly, the story of the impact of crimes on small communities Do you see this as a departure for you in terms of content and style, or is it part of a developing continuum?

DG: It’s actually described as peri-urban noir. I come from an area which is predominately a rough, small-town urban environment plonked in the middle of a huge rural area of national park, with mountains and lakes all around. That’s peri-urban. The book is a real departure because I wanted to write about small places, grit, loneliness and claustrophobia, people who feel different and who are on the edges, but the book sent me on a dizzying trip of time travel and ghosts which I hadn’t really intended to embark on at all and it’s a mystery as to why I took this approach. I am normally a straightforward, realism sort of person.

FF: Your first book of flash fiction was called Sawn-off Tales and included stories that were each 150 words, trimmed down during your commute between Manchester and Liverpool. In what way did word count dictate your early writing, and how much does it guide how you tell a story these days? In other words, does the actual word count matter, or do you feel your way into a story? How do you arrive at a 150-word story versus, say, a 1000-word story?

DG: It’s a strange constraint to work under when I set myself the task of writing stories that are exactly 150 words. I like the way some visual artists work with systems and arbitrary structures and controlled randomness, and I like that the imposed rigidity of my system has no meaning yet it really seems to help me write the best stories I can.

FF: In an interview last year, you noted that a key ingredient in flash fiction is the lack of surprise elements. You stated: “Nothing should feel like a shock, there should be no unexpected corners, walls or openings.” Can you elaborate more on this point? Please share why the aha-moments simply do not work in flash.

DG: I think that flash is too short to work its way up to a big reveal. Flash is more like a circular form, one which you might read over and over, to try and get the meaning, a fractal thing that you dive into rather than move forwards and out of. So I guess I’m always trying to avoid a linear feel so that I can get a sense of striking a chord that sustains forever and never decays, never reaches a climax and is always there humming away in the background.

FF: Flash fiction is a fluid genre that can continuously push at borders, stretch the writing muscles, expand the box. You’ve noted before that fiction writers could learn a lot from comic book writers. And you yourself have been inspired by opera, cat posters and junctions on the M62. You’ve also participated in projects that include presentations as diverse as PowerPoint stories, stories told from a mobile confessional box and, last year, a graphic novel project with illustrator Dan Berry. Can you elaborate on how all this out-of-the-box thinking positively impact the way you approach writing? And, based on your own varied experience, how do flash fiction writers continue to write outside the box?

DG: I began to explore off-the-page projects when I realised how few people actually bought books of short stories and read them. I discovered that more people would read a sign you flyposted in the street than would ever go into Waterstones and buy a book. So I tried to put my short fiction idea into the environment, into performance spaces and into other areas.

FF: Your seven vital signs for writing a good short story can be found at the Bridport site, where you judged the 2015 flash fiction competition. Do you have any further tips to add, or refine? (Note: If not, we’ll include this link in the introduction to the interview).

DG: I think I would add that consider working without a title, as titles often lead the reader too much, and limit the meaning of the story in too many ways. Work without a title or deliberately use a bland title, such as: if it’s set in a field call it The Field. But even that means it’s about the field and not about the people in the field. Maybe call it The People Talking In The Field, something like that. I would think more about an anti-linear way of working too.

A Brief Conversation with Siobhan Harvey

FF: You write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. In all genres, your work tells stories and you’re an accomplished writer of the prose poem as well as creative essays. You also teach poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. How do you see story and poetry weaving together, and where do you draw the line between prose and poetry?

SH: It seems to me that this question is akin to the classic query regarding the chicken and egg. Which comes first the form or the story? In many ways, the work itself, in its genesis, I find, determines the form. The plot comes and it comes in as the shadow of a poem or a story. So the idea draws the line between what will be prose and what will be poetry in some senses. But – and it’s a big caveat for me – as a poet, I find I am drawn to crafting prose which has a musical element and as a prose writer, am drawn to crafting poetry which, to use an old adage, tells a story. Some people see poetry and prose as separate, distinct. I don’t see this – they are different ways of wearing the same outfit.

FF: Your most recent publications were Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as co-editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). Before that you published Lost Relatives and Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals – very diverse works, but each a collection with a central thread, a central story. Do you find your approach to poetry is informed more by language, narrative, syntax, rhythm or something else entirely? And what are you currently working on – and is it a diversion from previous works, or linked somehow to previous themes and ideas you’ve explored?

SH: My approach to poetry – and all narrative – is informed by numerous elements, many conscious and some, occasionally, unconscious. Language, narrative, syntax and music – yes all of these as intersections, individuals in conversation. But it’s also informed by writing in a literature with other writers (different kinds of conversations), influences from other writers (Billy Collins’ approach to crafting poetry is particularly influential), my long history of reading, environment, personal story and so on.

I have just finished writing an intersected piece of creative nonfiction about my struggles with my teenage anorexia. Called ‘When My Best Friend Came to Stay – Or Corporeal Minimalism in Twelve Parts after Philip Glass’, it was recently published by the American journal, Burnt Pine, and is found on their website.

Recently, I have written a few poems related to the upheaval I am bearing witness to in my neighbourhood, too. The first two poems were runners up in the 2014 and 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition, while others have recently been published in local and global journals such as Arc (Canada), Landfall (NZ) and Structo (UK).

FF: You recently became the President of the New Zealand Society of Authors, after being the National Poetry Day coordinator 2008-2013. Tell us what these programs and roles mean to you, in relation to New Zealand writing – with regard to the creative side and the professional component of being a writer.

SH: I have been a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors since first arriving in New Zealand. It is the only organisation which exclusively supports, promotes, advises and defends our writers. I am honoured to be its President, especially as I passionately believe the services we provide such as our fortnightly news email out to members, our mentorships, our residencies and other programs make a difference to writers’ lives. As an illustration of this, I have worked as a Mentor on our Mentorship programme since 2008, and since then have supported seven authors into the publication of their first book. Anyone wanting to find out more about the New Zealand Society of Authors can find out more information at www.authors.org.nz.

FF: Among other things, you are also an editor of poetry: a past poetry editor of Takahē literary journal, the current poetry editor of The Poetry Archive UK and co-editor of Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). How does being an editor of other works influence the way you read/think about your own work?

SH: Like being a teacher, I love editing because it returns me to the fundamentals of the writing process, the literary coal face close to where words, themes, characters and ideas are being fused. As an editor, you get to see and analyses how other writers have achieved successful ‘fusions’ and how others have struggled; whichever kind of work crosses my desk as an editor, I am able to self-reflectively consider these matters in relation to the development of my own work. Also, I just love the high of being able to support a piece of work, long crafted by another author, into print. As with teaching and being a New Zealand Society of Author’s Mentor, for instance, there’s a sense of camaraderie and altruism in the editorship role which heartens me.

FF: You’re an immigrant, having arrived some years ago in New Zealand from the UK. How is your status as immigrant relevant to your writing, specifically in NZ or even more universally?

SH: Being a migrant and a writer are inseparable elements of my being. I have always been/felt like an outsider, a misfit, wherever I have lived. Even as a child that feeling of my ‘being’ as alien came back to the word. I was an alien in my family, a devourer of books and words in a home which contained no books and where words were only ever used as accusations, weapons to destroy the soul. Amongst my known relatives, no one wrote; poor as hell, they worked night jobs and low paid service jobs. The value of literature had no place in a world where struggling to put food on the table was the main focus. So in escaping that world to become a writer, I become un-family-ed, singular, extra-terrestrial.

Unfettered to everything but writing, it was easy in some senses for me to move to New Zealand, especially as I did so for love, rather than because I wanted to create a new home for myself. When you are family-less, when you are home-less, movement to another place is fluid.

The issue of more relevancy though is that, irrespective of the reason for the move, existing as a migrant in a foreign land is always fraught. It erases any past which matters to you, reducing it to that most frail and unstable of elements, memory. Without social, political or economic connection, migrants become ghosts. Given I felt like an alien as a writer anyway, becoming a migrant accentuated, ripened my sense of self as strange, other, outsider. This is problematic to deal with on a personal level; but as a writer has advantages as it gave me a deeply passionate standpoint from which to write. All my narratives, poetic or fictional, are peopled with characters who, in different and similar ways, are ghosts.

Thanks again to our guest editors for June 2017: JOURNEYS

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