Flash Frontier

Interview: NFFD 2021 Judges Paula Morris & Diane Brown

Interviews and Features

The National Flash Fiction Day competition is open! Details are here.

And this month, Flash Frontier Editor Rachel Smith talked with the 2021 NFFD judges about their new books, the art of writing longer works and, of course, tips for writing small fictions.


On Books and Form

Rachel Smith: Let’s start off by talking a little about your own work. You both published new books last year, in a year that was not great for book release events but was great for book sales. And Paula: Congratulations on your Ockham long-listed non-fiction book, Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde (Massey University Press). Can you tell us a little about the process of writing this book, a picture book written for grown-ups, as opposed to your previous novels? Were there any challenges writing in this genre? Did the form of the story come easily?

Paula Morris: Shining Land is creative nonfiction, exploring the life of an iconic writer through some of the small places she lived and worked. The photographer, Haru Sameshima, and I both travelled a lot (to Rotorua, Whanganui, north to the Whangaroa harbour) so we could complete two parallel essays, his visual and mine in words. I had a tight word count for my essay which challenged me to compress and edit. It’s a book that investigates loss and absences, among other things, so the design of the book is essential to its kaupapa. I enjoyed the collaborative elements of working on this very much.

RS: And Diane – Your latest book, Every Now and then I Have Another Child (Otago University Press), was released in 2020. Can you tell us a little about the book and its poetic narrative form? How does this build from your earlier prose/poetic work? What inspired this book?

Diane Brown: It took me quite a while to establish a poetic narrative form that worked for the demands of the narrative. I think of it as a poetic novella, i.e., it tells a fictional story with a beginning, middle and end with different narrators who step in from time to time to give their point of view. I wanted to write a book in poetic form that readers would be able to read from cover to cover like a novel. However, you can also read it for the individual poems embedded into the story. I had written quite a few of these poems well before I even thought about this book. I am an economical writer and don’t like to waste anything so I had to find a way to incorporate them into the story. One way to make the original poems feel part of the whole was to change the form so that they matched the new narrative. Pattern and symmetry are important to me, so I adopted five-line stanzas, with the last line indented for the main narrator’s part of the story, three-line stanzas for the child speakers and for the doppelgänger, a single long stanza with the second line indented. In my previous book, Taking My Mother to the Opera, I used a simple form throughout of three-line stanzas. That was more straightforward as there was a single first-person narrator, namely me.

As for the inspiration, the whole story was based on a dream. I tell my students not to write of dreams, so it was a case of disobeying my own instructions. The dream, which featured a doppelgänger, an unresponsive baby and a setting in the middle of a street riot, was so vivid, I woke up and wrote it down in the form of the poem and called it Every Now and then I Have Another Child, which referred to an aspect of my dreams and also the writing of books. I wrote the book to find out what happened next with the characters who more or less took over the story. It was the first time that has happened to me.


On Ideas and Reading

RS: Ideas for writing can come and go. How do you know when you have come across an idea that will become a novel or longer poetic work?

DB: I often start with a poem in which I see the glimpse of a longer work in the title of the poem. If I really like the title, I pursue the idea so as not to waste it on a single poem. I wrote one novel which didn’t quite work out and in that case I could never settle on a good title. It’s a mysterious business but titles seem to be the driving force for me, even if I flail around for some time trying to make a coherent whole.

PM: I think in terms of subjects rather than ideas. An idea is the thing of a moment, and not always (or often) the seed from which a strong story can grow. Writing is about language and imagination: these sustain you through writing a book, and determine what that book can do and become. The novel I’m working on began with a picture in my head, of a man walking across London Bridge. Who is he? What’s he doing? There’s no idea, just questions.

RS: You both write across a range of genres. Is there any particular genre of book you have been reading recently? What value do you think reading across genres provides the writer – a diet of prose and poetry and non-fiction and graphic novel and everything in between?

PM: Because I teach writing, I must be voracious, as well as catholic in my tastes. Still, I read fiction more than anything else – novels and short stories. Recent reading includes a biography of Alma Mahler, a novel in translation by a Korean author, and the anthology The Best American Essays 2019. During the Auckland Writers Festival I will be interviewing a number of people, and need to start reading for that soon. Last year, when I hosted the AWF’s online Winter Series, I interviewed 37 people, writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. That was a lot of reading. More is always a good thing to me.

DB: I read fiction, nonfiction (mostly memoir but also cookbooks and essays) and poetry, of course.

RS: And what were your top reads of the past year?

DB: I was surprised not to have done more reading during the lockdown. I found doing jigsaws more relaxing. But top reads for last year were Frankie McMillan’s The Father of Octopus Wrestling, and Other Small Fictions, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey, The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, the everrumble by Michelle Elvy, Make it Scream, Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison, Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, Inferno by Catherine Cho, and How to Live by Helen Rickerby.

PM: Two novels: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and Fake Baby by Amy McDaid. In poetry, The Savage Coloniser Book by Tusiata Avia. Nonfiction: Autumn Light by Pico Iyer.


On Small Fiction

RS: What do you look for in an excellent piece of flash fiction? What draws you in and keeps you reading?

DB: Number One is the style of the writing – gorgeous compressed use of language.

Number Two, something that leaves me with questions when I’ve finished reading, that is something that feels it has a life of its own beyond the end of the story. Number Three, whether it is fiction, nonfiction or flash fiction, I am drawn to work that is witty, and also surprising to the reader, offering a new take on the world.

PM: It has to be more than a gimmick or idea. Like poetry, it’s a compressed form, and the language must work hard. Reading flash fiction is a brief immersion in another world, enticing and complete.

RS: What are your three top tips for writing small fiction, for those who may be starting out or have been writing for some time?

PM:

  1. Work with the form and be ruthless with your language so there’s no flabbiness or waffle.
  2. Look for the core of the story: there’s no room for on- and off-ramps.
  3. Write, revise and revise again: polish until the words sparkle.

DB:

  1. Don’t think about it too much; write quickly without second guessing where you are going with it.
  2. Grab different things and sling them together. I was writing small pieces of flash fiction before it had a name. There is a wonderful freedom in not really knowing what you are doing. Start there. Then edit with a cooler head.
  3. If you are stuck for an idea but already have some pieces of fiction or poems, try cutting them up and juxtaposing them together. Again, don’t think about it too much. Trust your instinct. Or open a book of poetry, find a line, take off with it.

Diane Brown is a novelist, memoirist, and poet who runs her own creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin. Her publications include two collections of poetry, Before The Divorce We Go To Disneyland and Learning to Lie Together; a novel, If The Tongue Fits, and verse novel, Eight Stages of Grace, a travel memoir, Liars and Lovers, a prose/poetic memoir, Here Comes Another Vital Moment and a poetic family memoir, Taking My Mother To The Opera. Her latest book is a long poetic narrative, Every Now and Then I Have Another Child, Otago University Press, 2020. Diane will be talking about her newest work at the 2021 Fringe Festival and discussing the bending of boundaries in poetic narratives at the 2021 Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. In 2013 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to writing and education. She lives in Dunedin with her husband, author Philip Temple.
Paula Morris MNZM (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whatua, Aotearoa New Zealand) is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist from Auckland. Her most recent book, Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde, a collaboration with photographer Haru Sameshima, is longlisted for the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Awards. Paula is co-editor of the 2020 anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand and, with Alison Wong, the forthcoming A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa NZ. An Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, where she directs the Master of Creative Writing, Paula also teaches creative writing at festivals, schools and community programmes. She is the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature, and serves on the boards of the Coalition for Books, the Māori Literature Trust, the Mātātuhi Foundation and the NZ Book Awards Trust.

For more about the National Flash Fiction Day competition, please go to the NFFD website.
Please note the adult competition runs through 30 April and is open to all New Zealand citizens and residents, even if living abroad.

The youth competition is international with free entry, guest judged in 2021 by poet Kerry Lane and curated by the youth journal fingers comma toes. Submissions are also open through 15 April 2021.

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