The National Flash Fiction Day competition is open! Details are on the website.
Flash Frontier Editor Gail Ingram talked this month with the 2023 NFFD judges about their experience as poets and storytellers, including a few tips for writing small fictions.
Gail Ingram: Kia ora korua, David and Airini. Both of you multiple-award winners and writers moving in and around genre – Airini for your short-fiction, poetry and essay, and David as our former poet laureate, and reviewer, CD and film-maker and performer. What a pleasure it is to have you on board as our National Flash Fiction Day judges.
GI: Can you tell us what it is that drives you to write? Have you always written?
Airini Beautrais: I’ve always written, actually, since before I could write – I used to dictate stuff to my parents to write down for me. I think the drive is just something innate for me that I can’t let go of. I feel like I don’t have a choice about it. If I stop, I will be miserable. I feel inspired by people. What makes us do the things we do? What happens when we have contradictions and complications in our lives? I am also inspired by history, mythology, and the natural world.
David Eggleton: As a young person at primary school I enjoyed reading. I was educated in New Zealand and that education led me to wanting to write, and so I followed that path.
GI: Have your inspirations changed over time?
DE: Not really. I’ve always been drawn to writing that captures powerful human sensations and feelings in the best possible words. Good writing is about the power of the imagination to connect us with one another when language is working at full blast with energy and self-belief.
AB: Yes, I wanted to be an action-driven young adult writer when I was a young adult! Then I wanted to be a serious poet. Now I just do whatever feels interesting to me and worth exploring. I used to be more interested in landscape and nature writing, but over time, I realised that the thing I am more interested in is how humans interact with landscapes. I can’t really write something that is just about a tree or a bird.
GI: What about your process when you sit down to write? Do you set out specifically on a project or is it more random? Do you have a particular time of day or space you inhabit, a pen you use or a particular piece of clothing you wear?
AB: Yes, I set out on a project. Otherwise, everything just turns into decades’ worth of scribbles in notebooks (I do that as well, but the projects are the books you can see out in the world.) I am best at using my creative brain in the mornings before lunch and the evenings after dinner. When I have writing days I try to ignore emails and admin until after lunch so I can get as much creative work done in the morning as I can. My writing space is my kitchen table. I like being in a multi-use space. I also like to write in a group setting with other people. I have a writing group that meets occasionally to do this.
DE: I prefer pen and paper. I carry a notebook. I write when I can, seeking time from other demands and distractions.
GI: As writers of both short form and other genres – in David’s case as reviewer, film, doco and music maker, and Airini’s as essayist, poet and short story writer – how would you say these genres inform and interact with the other?
DE: Writing begins with words. I shape these to create clarity, resonance, meaningfulness. I am interested in many different genres and also in the ways selected ones might interact. I like small narratives for a number of reasons, but they seem particularly relevant at a time of competing interests for our time. I also like the interaction between narratives made of language and other art forms.
AB: Poetry has a lot of flexibility in terms of form, gaps, breaks, segments and voice. If you want to write about difficult or broad material, I think poetry is a good way to do this.
Fiction is a good way to put on a mask and explore an idea through another persona. Poetry can also be fictional and can be narrative. I find short fiction useful for looking at the psychology of situations.
Nonfiction is the hardest for me. I feel like there is nowhere to hide. You have to be so aware of legal and personal ramifications. I also feel like I have to know exactly what I am talking about, and be able to back it up with references.
Obviously there is a lot of crossover between the genres, and flash fiction is a good example of a form that often occupies a hybrid space.
GI: Related to the above, how do you go about shaping or grouping poems or stories into a collection, and is this much different than writing a small distinct piece?
DE: Steadily writing and developing a personal sense of what works as I want it to eventually leads to a number of finished pieces. I enjoy establishing a relationship between these different pieces, putting them together, intuitively, to make the sum of the parts greater as a whole.
AB: It’s definitely different. It depends on the collection. Sometimes I do it intuitively – what feels ‘right’ to me. In one collection of poetry, Flow, I used numerology and other structural conceits (studying poetic form made me obsessive about numbers). My current project, which is essays, has fallen naturally into groups of three. Perhaps it takes me three attempts to work out what I am saying.
GI: You both have wonderful titles for your recent collections. Airini, I love “Bug Week” for your 2021 winning collection of short stories about unbalanced relationships, sex and death, and, David, how desperate “Respirator” sounds for your soon-to-be-released collection of poems from your time as poet laureate during a pandemic. How did you come up with those titles and, in general, how do you know when a title is perfectly in concert with the contents of the work that follows?
AB: It’s a convention to name a collection after one of the pieces in it and Bug Week was the consensus between myself and staff at my publisher. I also asked some writer friends for advice. I did have some issues with people thinking I had written a kid’s book, which I definitely didn’t! I find names very hard and often ask for help. I think this is okay – it doesn’t always have to be a lonely and individualistic process.
DE: The title of my collection, Respirator, is drawn from a long poem I wrote as a form of Lockdown Journal in Ōtepoti Dunedin, between March and May of 2020. As most of the poems were produced during the pandemic, it seemed right to choose this word, which is the last one in the poem:
As humans, we are always approaching and leaving normal.
Deep breaths then, and a slow and even breathing.
Breath is a vapour. Skin is a porous border.
A poem is a kind of respirator.
GI: What have you been reading recently? And what have been some standout poetry, novels or flash fiction collections for you over the years, and why?
DE: My recent reading includes: Out of the Jaws of Wesley: 1944 – 1972: a Record: Peter Olds, selected and edited by Roger Hicken from Cold Hub Press; Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton; and The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, edited by Tracey Slaughter.
AB: I am reading A Forager’s Life by Helen Lehndorf and Ruin by Emma Hislop. I am reading a biography of Edith Collier by Joanne Drayton. And I am working my way through a list of feminist classics.
Thinking of short forms, Lydia Davis and Anne Carson are long time favourites. I like James Tate’s prose poetry. JC Sturm was someone who was really good at writing short short stories. Recently I read a book of short essays by Eula Biss called Having and Being Had, about capitalism. It was a great example of how the short form can work with nonfiction. Tusiata Avia is one of my favourite narrative and prose poets working in Aotearoa. I also loved Frankie MacMillan’s recent book The Wandering Nature of Us Girls.
GI: What do you hope to see in the flash fiction pieces for this year’s competition? What do you most look for when reading a compact piece of writing?
DE: The demands of the form will set the boundaries of expectations but amongst the possibilities, I am hoping to be surprised, entertained, moved, inspired.
AB: I hope to see people being true to themselves and writing that comes naturally rather than applying any particular formula. I look for technical quality with craft, but I also look for enjoyment! Often I connect with a particular piece immediately because of how it speaks to me.
GI: Your top three tips for writing flash fiction?
Keep the content appropriate to the form: some stories need a longer form than flash fiction, others fit just fine. You will probably notice this as you write.
Have fun and play around with things that interest you.
Enjoy the process. You are doing something creative and that has its own benefits.
Make every word count.
Make every image count.
Set up a field of energy which will continue to buzz and spark: think epiphany.
GI: Tēnā korua, Airini and David, lovely talking to you!
For more about this year’s National Flash Fiction Day competition, please see the NFFD site, here.
Readers can find last years winning stories here.
Airini Beautrais won the 2021 Jann Medlicott Acorn prize for fiction at the Ockham NZ Book Awards for her short story collection Bug Week (THWUP, 2020). She is also the author of four collections of poetry, including Flow: Whanganui River Poems (THWUP, 2017). Her first collection, Secret Heart (THWUP, 2006), won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2007 NZ Book Awards.
In 2016 she won the Landfall Essay Prize, and her work has also appeared in a range of journals and anthologies in Aotearoa and elsewhere. She has also been a judge for a number of awards, including the 2018 NZ Book Awards. She lives in Whanganui with her two sons and two cats.
David Eggleton was the Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate between August 2019 and August 2022. He has edited Landfall and Landfall Review Online as well as the Phantom Billstickers Café Reader. Currently he is back editing Landfall Review Online. His book The Conch Trumpet won the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. Also in 2016, he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry.
David’s collection, The Wilder Years: Selected Poems, was published by Otago University Press in 2021 and a new collection, Respirator: A Laureate Collection 2019 -2022, is published by Otago University Press in March 2023. He lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin.