On Ideas and Themes
Rachel Smith: In your own writing, both of you have created work that reaches across cultural divides and looks closely at what it means to be human: Kathy, your award winning flash fiction Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild written in response to the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, and Mikaela, your novel Sado (THWUP, 2020) a story of womens’ friendship and resilience set in Vanuatu in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 Tropical Cyclone Pam. Can you talk about your process in writing these pieces and the themes they involved – how do you approach an idea which carries such weight and what awareness do you need to bring to them as a writer? And also can you tell us a little about the response to these pieces from readers?
Kathy Fish: As you know, mass shootings are a huge issue in America. It has always been an issue that has concerned me. I had a story cued up to be published at Jellyfish Review for their second anniversary when the mass shooting in Las Vegas occurred. This was 2017. As I often do when I’m experiencing strong emotions and need to process them, I took to the page. I began scribbling and gradually came to the idea of collective nouns. I was really interested in capturing the idea of groups of human beings. Particularly tragic with the Las Vegas shootings, and so many others is, that these are innocent people who are gathered to have fun together. They’d gathered for an outdoor concert.
I wanted to capture the innocence and goodness of certain groups of humans, so I just started assigning them collective nouns. I wanted to move in the direction of the horror of mass shootings without invoking violent imagery (there are no guns or blood or gore in this piece). Then I created the shift of “previously an exhilaration, now a target” and moved the piece to its conclusion. It was important for me to make a statement about this horror without bringing more horror to the page.
Anyway, I asked the editor of Jellyfish Review if he’d publish that piece instead of the one that was soon to be published. I had no idea that it would strike such a nerve with readers and that it would be shared again and again on social media. Unfortunately there were a string of mass shootings close together after Las Vegas which made the piece even more timely. Soon, I was hearing from teachers who were using the piece to begin a conversation about gun violence in their classrooms. The piece has been anthologised widely and was turned into a performance piece by a university theatre department. It has also been read at rallies calling for stricter gun laws in the U.S. I am gratified by the response but also very saddened that six years later it is every bit as relevant as it was when I wrote it. I am hopeful change is happening, if far too slowly.
Mikaela Nyman: I always start with images and specific scenes. Sometimes I write a poem that sparks curiosity or prompts questions that deserve to be explored further. Even the loftiest of ideas and themes are made up of concrete language and imagery, or else it risks becoming too abstract. Multiple layers are always good. My climate fiction novel Sado focuses on how a small island nation (Vanuatu) deals with the destruction caused by a category five super-cyclone and how society, particularly women, cope with the influx of international responders and well-meaning (but perhaps misplaced) charity on top of everything else they are up against (eg custom, tradition, patriarchy, misogyny etc). It is also about relationships, friendship and motherhood. I lived in Vanuatu when TC Pam struck; we were lucky to only lose part of our roof and earthly belongings. I started with the facts: that scary moment when our roof was ripped off, the tangible fear for my own children’s lives, the heat and sounds, the ‘What if…?’ It’s devastating to see the level of destruction in Vanuatu following TC Judy and TC Kevin this week.
I often work in series, whether it’s poems, scenes or fine arts prints. There might be a theme or an overarching idea that kind of hovers above me, but the more specific I am with scenes and imagery, the more subtext and themes I unearth. Art blurbs can be microstories too. In hindsight, I often discover that the main theme manifested itself from the very beginning.
My microfiction in the forthcoming anthology of micros, Te Moana o Reo | Sea of Languages, from the new At the Bay | I te Kokoru publishing imprint, started as a poem. My prose poem ‘And then there’s silence’ could easily have been published as microfiction. Originally published in Swedish in 2019 in my first poetry collection that dealt with the loss of my sister, the loss of language and belonging, it later became a scene in my novel Sado. In 2021 it was published in English in World Literature Today.
A group of ni-Vanuatu women writers were among my first readers and they encouraged me to keep writing Sado. Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen reviewed Sado for a Vanuatu magazine and The Spinoff. To be read in Vanuatu and receive such a response was truly a privilege, very humbling. The year after, Rebecca and I became co-editors for Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology (THWUP, 2021). Several of the poems in the anthology traverse the grey zone between narrative poem and microfiction.
RS: Part of being a writer is also being an avid reader. Can you tell us about the books that are currently in your ‘to read’ pile? Do you find that you read across a range of genres or concentrate more specifically on the forms you most commonly write in?
MN: I read across genres, for pleasure and for craft. I’m reading a lot of Nordic novels, poetry and genre-defying hybrid work at the moment. My English ‘to read’ pile includes Pádraig Ó Tuama’s 50 poems to open your world, The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty, Past Lives by Leah Dodd, A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton.
KF: My reading is quite varied and diverse. I’m interested in everything. I just finished reading a book about consciousness and neuroscience by David Eagleman called Incognito. Right now, I’m reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I’m also reading The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
I just started A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Towes and have been dipping into a collection of stories, essays, and poetry by Grace Paley. I just finished an audio book of Joanna Campbell’s Instructions for the Working Day. I’m always reading friends’ chapbooks and collections for blurbing purposes but also for my own enjoyment. Recent amazing works by Chelsea Stickle (Everything’s Changing), Myna Chang (The Potential of Radio and Rain), Jo Gatford (The Woman’s Part), Kathryn Silver-Hajo (Wolfsong), and so many more. I highly recommend all of these books.
RS: Writing short, Mikaela with your poetry and Kathy with your flash fiction – although we all know of the wonderful overlap that encompasses these genres – requires a skill set quite different from writing longer pieces. Can you tell us what you look for as a reader in these short forms – what is it that draws you in and makes a piece of writing stick in your mind?
KF: I love flash that is beautiful and innovated at the craft level. I swoon over writers who create gorgeous sentences. Originality thrills me. But mostly, as a reader, I look for pieces that really move me emotionally. Those are the ones I remember and that stay with me.
MN: A compelling voice draws me in, surprising observations and images hook me and keep me reading. With microfiction I ultimately want a sense of story, even a glimpse of something more expansive that stays with me after I’ve finished reading, whether it’s heartbreaking, funny or gobsmacking. A stunning first sentence does a lot of heavy lifting in short texts, so does an unexpected ending. The trick with surprise endings is that they can’t come entirely out of the left field.
RS: Editing is arguably one of the most important skills in writing. Can you please tell us a about your own editing process?
MN: Write that ‘shitty first draft’ and get to the end. If I haven’t written to the end yet, I’ll try not to constantly go back and edit, but if I come to think of something vital (or completely wrong), I will go back and revise a scene or section while it’s on my mind. Or put it on my ‘to do’ list so I stop thinking about it! Read it out loud, nothing beats hearing it (yes, even a novel has to be read out loud…).
KF: All first drafts go in the drawer for at least a week or two. Then I take them out and read the aloud. If I’m very dissatisfied with a draft I mind map around some of the key words or phrases in an attempt to go deeper into the material and find some fresh vocabulary for it. Once I’ve done these two things, I find the process of cutting very easy. I’m pretty sanguine about it. By this point I’m no longer so in love with my darlings and know which ones need to go. I’m more able to be sharp and concise in a way I wouldn’t be if I’d set to editing and revising when the draft is still “hot.”
RS: What are your top three tips for writers, both new and experienced, on putting together an amazing 100 words micro?
KF: Well, I don’t feel especially gifted at writing pieces that short. I’m in awe of writers who are! But I guess my advice would be: Arrive late. Leave early. Make your title do a lot of the heavy lifting. I’ll cheat and add a fourth. With pieces this short it is especially important to show rather than tell.
- Write something you haven’t read before. Make it yours.
- Read it out loud. If you stumble on a word, the reader most likely stumbles too.
- Every word counts. Cut the dross and hone in on the gold.
Kathy Fish has been published in Ploughshares, Washington Square Review, Denver Quarterly, Guernica, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and elsewhere. Her work has appeared in three Norton anthologies of flash fiction as well as the Norton Reader. Honors include a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship and the Copper Nickel Editors’ Prize. She publishes a free monthly newsletter, The Art of Flash Fiction.
Mikaela Nyman is a poet, novelist and editor. She writes in English and Swedish. Born in the autonomous, demilitarised Åland Islands in Finland, lives in Taranaki. Her latest poetry can be found in The Disappointed Housewife, World Literature Today, Landfall 244, The Spinoff Friday poem, Madness: An anthology of world poetry and among the 2022 RH Morrieson literary award winners. Some collaborative poems with ni-Vanuatu poets can be found in the climate change anthology No Other Place to Stand (AUP, 2022), Sport 47, A Game of Two Halves: The best of Sport 2005-2019, and Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology (THWUP, 2021). A literary essay and translation of Helen Heath’s poems from Are Friends Electric? into Swedish was published in 2022 as Mikaela Nyman: Helen Heaths elektriska vänner. Shortlisted for the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2020 for her first Swedish-language poetry collection När vändkrets läggs mot vändkrets (Ellips, 2019). Her second poetry collection is forthcoming in September. Mikaela is a podcaster for the Sugar Loafing Arts Cast on Access Radio Taranaki 104.4FM and a manuscript assessor and mentor for NZ Society of Authors. She has work forthcoming in an anthology of micros, Te Moana o Reo | Sea of Languages, from the new At the Bay | I te Kokoru publishing imprint.
Short works by Mikaela Nyman:
National Flash Fiction Day – panel on Fairytales and Myths (June 2022)
‘Iron Throne, submerged’, The Spinoff Friday Poem, May 2022
World Literature Today – And then there’s silence, 2021
Sweet Mammalian, Issue Five