A series featuring writers whose work was published in early issues of Flash Frontier
First piece published here?
Where Can the Children Laugh?
June 2014 | NFFD
“We giggle because of the balloons in our bellies,” said the children and they giggled all the more as the air escaped their bodies and they propelled in jagged arcs across the room and out the open door. He grasped too late for the strings. Red welts scored across the palms of his hands as their sandaled feet, snake-striped by a long summer, skimmed across the roof of the house-next-door. Their laughter pealed out a callous carillon as they saw their childhood home from a new perspective and him so small in their world.
He last saw them lifting away into a bank of clouds filled with thunder as black as tea. The primary colours of their jumpers stood starkly out in contrast and made him think of geraniums and bananas and the sort of hyacinths that his mother would call sailor boys.
He suspects they might have stopped their giggling when the clouds wrapped them in a clammy embrace, the smirks wiped wet from their grubby faces.
He remembers how he’d trusted in his own father when he’d said, “If you eat too many bananas you’ll turn into a banana.” The children at school had mocked him with sniggers and snorts.
He thinks he sees a glimpse of buttercup yellow in the sky but it is gone. Just a card every now and then, a belated birthday or Christmas greeting when they remember.
He’s not laughing now either.
At the time you published your first story at Flash Frontier, what were you writing, and how did you come to flash fiction?
At the time I saw myself as a children’s writer but, following the earthquakes in Canterbury, I’d become overloaded in my teaching job and had no time for novels. I joined a poetry class with James Norcliffe as tutor. I complained to James that my poems kept turning into stories and he said, “Have you heard about flash fiction”. It was a pivotal moment.
What are you writing now, and where has your literary career taken you?
In 2016, I embarked on a Masters in Creative Writing with my thesis focussing on the flash fiction form. That year I won both the National Flash and Micro Madness competitions and was third place winner in the Sunday Star Times Short Story Awards. In 2019 my thesis project, Where Oceans Meet and other stories, was published by Reflex Press , UK. Flash pieces have also appeared in Best Small Fictions in 2017, 2019 and 2020. In 2018 I took on my current role as director of Write On School for Young Writers.
In 2021, I was the Children’s Writer in Residence at Otago University and was a finalist in the RNZ short stories competition and Literary Taxidermy. I am back spending more time on my novels for young readers but still enjoy writing short stories and flash fiction. I have a novella in flash in fragments that keeps calling me back. I am not a big submitter but regularly submit to Flash Frontier. I love that it supports local writers and treasures our stories.
Could you share a newer piece?
A Writer’s Guide to Dead Fish
- Say, your protagonist’s husband is a weekend fisherman and he hands her a gutted fish, but she counts the weekends away and the numerous hooks and lures stored in click-clack boxes, and makes a calculation of the ratio of edible fish to all that. You could use that as the first indication of struggle.
- When writing about a dead fish you can use words that would not have the same resonance if the fish were another creature, or if it were not dead. Gummed gills. Thread-like bones Flaking flesh. A loose scale sticks to a cheek like a sequinned tear.
- Dead fish floating to the surface of a lake, their gills deprived of oxygen, their throats slimed with toxins, may allude to a stagnant silence.
- Remember, a fish knife does not slice cleanly through flesh. It cracks scales and cartilage to disgorge a mess of guts. He says she is like a dead fish in the sack. She fakes it. A wiggle. A gasp.
- When a fish is still not quite dead it flaps recklessly. Your protagonist may behave uncharacteristically once the extent of his infidelity is revealed.
- When she cooks the fish, picks over thread-bones, flings aside a silver skin that cannot be re-scaled, that is the moment she grasps that there is no going back.
- Then, the satisfaction, when she slides torpedo noses of individually frozen sardines into the curtain hems as she departs the house they’ve shared. In days, the stench will be ammoniac sweet. And she, the one that got away.
Heather McQuillan is Director of Write On School for Young Writers in Christchurch. In 2016, her stories placed first in both the NZ National Flash Fiction Day and Micro Madness competitions. She has been published in Best Small Fictions 2017, 2019 and 2020. In 2021 Heather was a finalist in the RNZ Short Story and Literary Taxidermy competitions.
Heather also writes for children and in 2005 was the winner of the Tom Fitzgibbon Award. Three of her novels for young readers have been listed as Storylines Notable Books. Her collection of flash fiction Where Oceans Meet was published by Reflex Press in 2019.