I first met Owen Marshall in 2001 when I enrolled for his writing programme at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru. I had left my job as a junior office clerk at a local transport company (I had been about to study up for my bus driver’s license) and enrolled because of an attraction to words and writing – but I was clueless as to how to go about it. It was an amazing 17 weeks where my classmates and I learnt from one of New Zealand’s greatest short story writers.
I met Dame Fiona Kidman last year when she generously volunteered her time to talk at Kilbirnie Public Libraryabout her latest novel The Infinite Air. Her novels and short stories span such diverse topics as postnatal depression, the effects of neo-liberal economic policies and historical accounts of immigration. Kidman’s writing is also known for her discussion of the outsider in a conformist New Zealand society.
And she is funny. The short story “Pudding” is a metafictional account of a writer going to a motel on the East Coast to finish a play and inadvertently seeing a young couple have sex in their motel unit. While on the surface the story is a humorous account of the writer’s moral dilemma in watching the couple, the story is also about the nature of writing.
The writer character introduces elements of her story, saying “It is relevant here to give a little of the layout of this motel” and “That is the time and the location. Add to this, the cast.” This reflexive story telling mode draws the reader to the structure of the work, and the necessary elements of fiction, and how a writer picks and chooses action and constructs the fiction that may differ from how action unfolded. It also shows how the writer is an outsider, observing and taking details from others’ lives and using them it their work.
Marshall’s novels and stories also feature the outsider in New Zealand society. “Marshall frequently fastens on the outsiders – the loners and misfits, underdogs and losers – who fail to conform. Some characters make grand gestures they alone understand, others live ‘lives of quiet desperation’, still others – the unlikeable and unredeemable – are caricatures, products of the writer’s ‘corrosive eye’” (Oxford).
One such outsider is Mandrake in Coming Home in the Dark (1995) who has come upon Hoaggie’s family while they visited Mt Cook National Park and killed Hoaggie’s children and wife. Mandrake explains his actions to Hoaggie:
I’m on the outside, Hoaggie. Don’t you fucking get it? I’m on the outside of this whole thing that the rest of you have got going. Nothing connects me with it except bringing it down. That’s all an outside has, you see. What the books calls a negative capability.
In the story Mandrake is an outsider in society and the only way he has of infiltrating it is attacking people who are included in it. The only recourse alienated individuals have in society is random violence.
While Marshall and Kidman both have a remarkable ability to focus on the outsider in their fictional works, they both occupy a place of considerable significance in the NZ writing scene – indeed, one could almost say at the center. And yet despite their significance to New Zealand literature and their respective successes, Marshall comments in The Best of Owen Marshall Short Stories: “the stories are only approximations of what I wished to achieve.”
What Marshall and Kidman also have in common is their generosity in giving their time to writing organisations, advocacy and activities. While both have been active in NZSA/PEN, and Kidman has been involved with Creative New Zealand for years, they also take part in local writing activities, and they have agreed to judge the upcoming 2015 National Flash Fiction Day competition. In light of this, the first Flash Frontier feature of 2015 is an interview with Marshall and Kidman on the short story form.
Rebecca Styles: As writers, what do you enjoy about writing flash fiction, and how do they differ stylistically from longer short stories, or poetry/prose poetry?
Owen Marshall: Most of my short stories are too long to be considered flash fiction. The very short ones tend to be postmodern pieces, or prose poems, both forms that I consider can find a home in flash fiction. I like the sense of experimentation that flash fiction encourages.
Fiona Kidman: I tend to enjoy reading flash fiction, rather than writing it. Earlier in my writing life, I wrote some very short pieces and one or two were published, but the truth is that those incentives to write very short fiction now tend to end up as poems. The difference? Well, there is some development of character or narrative in fiction that alters the tone, an underlying tension, and of course it is not bound by the same demands that poetry does in terms of line.
RS: As novelists, what is appealing and/or inspiring about flash fiction pieces? When you’ve finished a longer piece, do you turn to shorter work? Or is it a case of different story ideas suiting the different forms? And, how do you tell what form a narrative will suit?
OM: Frank Sargeson said that he always knew what length a story idea would become, even before he was sure what it was about. I am the same. For some writers short stories grow into novels, or novels end up as short fiction. That hasn’t happened to me. When writing a very short piece I have a sense of freedom and the willingness to take risks, because if it fails the sacrifice of time is not great. After the lengthy and sometimes arduous commitment to writing a novel, it can be a pleasant change of pace to turn to short fiction
FK: Like Owen, I have a fair idea of the length of a piece of work before I begin. I know when a work is going to be a novel, and a short story just that, itself, something that I am not going to have strain at the seams to fill, it will fill itself. As well as the inspiration, I see it as a shape, not necessarily requiring a beginning, a middle and an end, just a certain knowledge of what it will be, and I suppose that comes from long practice. But it is quite a joyful moment when I recognize what this shape represents. Some of that knowledge comes from recognizing the characters in my head and seeing what they are going to get up to. If there are lots of people, they are going to be a novel. Short fiction, and certainly short short fiction, cannot stand the weight of too many people and ideas.
RS: David Gaffney, a British writer of flash fiction, refers to the form as ‘sawn-off tales’. As readers, and soon-to-be judges of the National Flash Fiction Day competition, what do you think should be ‘sawn-off’ to make a stand-out flash fiction story? What are the elements (characterisation, beginnings, setting, action etc) that make it a satisfying flash fiction narrative?
OM: Start when you must, finish when you can is advice I came across in regard to the short story, and I think it applies to all its forms. Lengthy, set piece beginnings are obviously going to pose problems in achieving balance, as are complex plots and a large number of characters. Despite the constraints of brevity, flash fiction achieves success in a variety of ways. As in all writing the aims should include originality, insight and emotional power.
FK: I can’t identify with the way Gaffney calls flash fiction ‘sawn-off’. But you have offered the elements I would identify anyway: characterization, beginning, setting, action. It seems to me that the writer needs to understand the characters as well as in a longer work, but handle them much more lightly and deftly.
RS: Writers have been writing short short stories for a long time. Robert Shapard, in a 2012 article in Short Fiction (October 2012), says that Petronius wrote short stories in ancient Rome, and Marie de France wrote them in medieval times, and in the 20th century writers wrote short short stories too. There is Hemingway’s famous 6-word story, and Lydia Davis also writes short short stories. Why do you think there has been a resurgence in short short stories recently, or flash fiction, as we now call it? And do you think the Internet has especially inspired flash? There is the BNZ KM Short Story competition on Facebook, for example, or the NZ Book Council Twitter comp called Ramere Shorts.
OM: The short story has a long history, as you say, and an especially significant one in the development of New Zealand literature. I am not an expert on flash fiction and its increasing popularity, however I do think that the Internet has been conducive to its increase, and also perhaps the growth of fiction writing courses and groups. Here as elsewhere there have been successful writers of short short stories for a long time. Michael Morrissey comes to mind. His collection, The Fat Lady & The Astronomer, was published in 1981.
FK: Lydia Davis is an interesting writer, and one for whom I have immense respect. I don’t like all her work, and find more satisfaction in the body of her work, rather than many of the one-offs. Perhaps its because one starts to make connections and see patterns (there’s the novelist at work in me again). I can’t really answer why there is such a rise in interest. However, I am aware that the way we lead our lives these days means that people are ‘time poor’ and the idea of committing to longer works is simply daunting. I take workshops mainly, these days, in memoir writing. One of the early exercises we do is where people tell each other a story for five minutes about some moment in their lives that is triggered by suggestions I make. It’s all very fast. They are then asked to sit down and write, as quickly as they can, the story they have just told – not the other person’s, but their own. I give them ten minutes. Much to their surprise, most people find they have written a very short story in the space of a few minutes. They have been presented with what an American writer called Virginia Valian calls an ‘imaginable, doable’ challenge. It is interesting how their confidence rises at that moment. They can live through the time it takes to write a short short story. And the time that it takes to edit and polish the story becomes an excitement.
But, in answering as I have, I may be diminishing the craft of flash fiction, which I don’t intend at all. I know some writers who work for a long time to polish their short short fiction in the same way that poets do – it’s just a different form.
A writer called Anna Granger won the BNZ Flash Fiction prize last year with a story called ‘Territories’. As she was not able to attend the award ceremony, she asked me if I would. The story is a model of characterization and incredibly tense. I have read more of her work, and would say that she is one of the finest practitioners of her craft working in this country at present. She seems to know exactly what she is doing. She has won a number of other prizes as well.
RS: As teachers of writing, do you think flash fiction is a good place to start showing and practising the fundamentals of short story writing? Why? Do you have a favourite flash fiction piece that you share and discuss with students?
OM: Quick exercise/process writing has a very useful place in writing courses, especially in allowing participants to workshop each other’s writing regularly and develop skills. I have often used Frankie McMillan’s short pieces in my classes, especially `Truthful Lies.’ [Ed. note: Frankie McMillan’s story ‘In the nick of time, a deer’ won the 2013 NFFD competition, and in 2014 McMillan was (with Mary McCallum) one of the competition judges. Her story ‘Truthful Lies’ is included in Flash Fiction International, W. W. Norton, April 2015.]
FK: I think the answer to that lies in my last answer. Internationally, despite some reservations about Davis’s work, when the enigma becomes an unanswerable riddle, she does lead the way for me, and Anna Granger is certainly my favourite New Zealand writer practicing the craft.
RS: I was at a conference recently where a speaker mentioned that it is the gaps in literature, the ambiguity, that allows for a reader to interpret a short story. Do you think this is especially true of flash fiction?
OM: In all fiction there should be room for the reader. Reading is a collaboration: the writer brings a vision and the reader brings her or his own experience, expectations and predilections. Because of its brevity, flash fiction must make the most of every word, and convey much by suggestion, association and assumption.
A final note from Rebecca Styles
While the focus of this interview has been on short story forms, and especially flash fiction, Marshall and Kidman have been highly acclaimed for their novels as well. Recent accomplishments include Marshall’s Carnival Sky, released last year, and Kidman’s The Infinite Air, which has been long-listed for the 2015 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (the short list to be announced 15 April 2015). Both have also released poetry collections as well.
In researching for this piece I have been reacquainting myself with Marshall’s and Kidman’s stories, and I’ve re-read their introductions to their short story collections (must haves for any budding or established New Zealand short story writer) — and I am struck by their commitment and dedication to their craft over many years. As a writer who is nearing the end of her second first novel, I’m hoping like hell I don’t have the same experience as Marshall did with his (having written two whole novels in his twenties before finding publication, finally, with his short stories), but I know that all of it is part of the apprenticeship of writing. Having come through tertiary writing programmes, I sometimes have a sense that it’s publish or die, that I’ve paid all this money and I should get something back, but that’s a neo-liberal way of thinking, and art doesn’t work that way. What matters most of course, is writing, and learning about writing, and having art in your life. As Marshall writes in the preface to his Best Of short story collection, “I’m still learning, and that, too, is part of the satisfaction of writing.”
Owen Marshall has written, or edited, over 25 books. He has held fellowships at the Universities of Canterbury and Otago, and in Menton, France. In 2000 he received the ONZM and in the same year his novel Harlequin Rex won the Montana Book Awards Deutz Medal for Fiction. Marshall is an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury, which awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in 2002. He was awarded the CNZM in 2012 for services to literature, and in 2013 received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction. More can be found at the New Zealand Book Council site and at Owen Marshall’swebsite.
Fiona Kidman has written some 30 books, including novels, short stories and poetry. She has been awarded several prizes and fellowships during her long writing career, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Fiction and the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. She has judged many literary competitions and is always excited by the opportunity to discover fresh new writing. More can be found at the New Zealand Book Council site and at Fiona Kidman’s website.
Rebecca Styles is Features Editor at Flash Frontier and is presently a PhD student of Creative Writing with Massey University. Her short stories have appeared in journals such asTurbine and Takahē and in anthologies The Best New Zealand Fiction #6, Home, Creative Juices and Sweet As (2014). Her work has also been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. In 2013 her flash fiction story ‘Parade’ was awarded second place in the National Flash Fiction competition. She blogs about New Zealand books at nzlit101.blogspot.co.nz and teaches short story writing at the Wellington High School Community Education classes.
Please go here for Flash Frontier‘s February 2015 collection of stories, themed whispers.