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Interview with Tina Shaw

Dec 2012/ Jan 2013

This summer, we had the pleasure of talking with Auckland novelist, short story writer, editor and judge of the 2012 National Flash Fiction Day competition Tina Shaw. Read on to hear more about dreaming in the Waikato, the importance of local fiction, travel and other inspirations.

tina shawOn growing up and viewing the world

FF: You grew up in the Waikato in what you describe as an ‘idyllic’ childhood. What parts of your own childhood or upbringing have influenced the way you write?

TS: I was lucky to grow up on a farm at Matangi, in the Waikato, and wanted to be a writer from a young age, I think mainly because I used to be quite dreamy and read a lot; in that kind of rural environment, it’s easy for the mind to roam off into the stratosphere, and making up stories always seemed a natural thing for me to do.

FF: You had a stint as a photographer. Does viewing the world through a camera lens impact the way you view the world as a writer? How so, if this is true?

TS: Working as a photographer probably also adds to the creative process in that you tend to focus on both details and the broad picture – bit of a contradiction in terms – but thinking about taking a good photograph, whether it be of a person or a landscape, makes you think about the foreground and the background of a shot, while also wanting to capture the essence of your subject. In writing a short story or novel, much of what I do is about distilling the essence of a story.

HandBook_coverFF: In a recent blog post, while discussing the state of publishing in light of the recent news of the Penguin/ RH merger, you also mention the importance of local fiction.  This seems an especially important topic for Kiwi writers (resonating at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair as well). Can you discuss why this is so?

TS: Having been a published author for many years now, I really think that it’s so important to support our local fiction. I mean, if we don’t, who else is going to? By buying and reading NZ books, then we are supporting our own literature. That’s got to be good for everybody.

On short fiction and opening lines

FF: You were one of the three judges in the 2012 National Flash Fiction Day competition. Since we are a publication for flash fiction, we’d love to hear what you gained from that experience and what you see as most rewarding (for both writer and reader) in this genre.

TS: I loved reading those entries for the competition – what a wealth of talent. The main thing that struck me was how much certain writers could pack into such a short word count. It’s awesome. Again, it comes back to distilling the essence of a story or situation, in a similar way that a good poem can work.

FF: You say that writing short stories is an excellent way to learn the craft of writing. Tell us about some of your own short stories and how they helped you evolve as a writer.

TS: My short stories seem to often involve people at the fringes. The first story of mine which won an award was about a group of protesters wanting to open a road which had been closed by a rapacious landowner. More recently, I’ve been writing short-ish pieces (around 1500 words), about people in rather tentative situations, and I’ve been experimenting with a quite loose story structure – that is, not that much happens. You could say I’m becoming more subtle!

birdieFF: Openings are especially important in flash fiction, but in novels they matter a great deal as well. You open the novel Birdie with the following:

It wasn’t until he had got deep into the bush that he thought there was the sound of her voice. Calling him? Not sure about that. Calling? Anyone? Maybe. He was sure he had heard something. Unless it was the crying of the trees.

This is the kind of opening that forces the reader to carry on. There is movement and longing and mystery and uncertainty here. How much importance do you place on opening lines, and do you think they matter more in short fiction or in longer fiction? And do they come first for you, or are they something you tweak once the draft is finished?

TS: Opening lines are really important. I want to establish the tone and situation of the story from the very beginning. I think you should take your reader quickly into the story, and not muck around with too much setting or abstract thought. And the first line is even more important in a short story where every line counts. I like to get the main bones of the story down, without worrying too much about the first line/s. The thing is, you can always go back and work on the opening.

On setting, myth and travel

FF: Your novels often take the reader back in time and setting – 1935 Berlin in The Black Madonna; 1953 small-town New Zealand in Dreams of America. Both of these books take the reader to places very different from modern-day New Zealand. Was writing the book about Berlin any more difficult than writing the one about a world in New Zealand that is by now quite different for readers as well? What challenges did you face in placing these stories in such foreign settings?

2858lTS: My Berlin novel was easy on one level because I was living in the city at that time and making copious notes about what I saw and experienced, so some of that material went into the novel; it was harder to recreate what it might have been like in Berlin of 1935. That’s where research comes in. Writing about 1950s NZ had similar challenges but I talked to people and read various accounts from that time and looked at photographs. Even though I was dealing with a culture I had grown up in, it also presented as challenge because so much has changed in NZ since the ’50s.

FF: Myth and mystery are important in much of your writing – from the aforementioned Birdie to your novels for children and young adults like The Cloud Rider and Koevasi.  The mysteries you explore always have at their core something about human connection, even when dealing with surreal elements or encounters. Why does mystery work so well for exploring human themes?

TS: I think mystery and fantasy genres can convey story really well because you are lifting the reader out of the ordinary and into a new kind of world or setting, so that the themes can be seen in a different light. Take Animal Farm, for instance, or The Left Hand of Darkness – we remember those amazing settings, but we also become more aware of the themes behind the stories.

51m1HPfA1WL._SL500_AA300_FF: You’ve spent time abroad, for example during your Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency stint, and you seem to bring travellers to life in your work, from the characters in Dreams of America to the anthology you edited, A Passion for Travel. Why is travel so important for writers, and how do your own travels affect your work as an author?

TS: What I like about travel is that it can take you out of your comfort zone and offer a fresh perspective on your own life and where you live. It can be transformational. I like to think that’s something which books and stories also allow us to experience.

Thank you, Tina Shaw, for the interview this month. 

For the Dec 2012/ Jan 2013 the gift issue of Flash Frontier, please go here

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