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August Feature: NFFD Winner Interviews

This month, Patrick Pink talks with the 2016 NFFD winners about their interest in flash and their winning stories. Read below to find out more about what inspires Heather McQuillan, Nod Ghosh and Linda Moser.


Heather McQuillan

First Prize with ‘Trampolining in the Matukituki’

Why Flash?  What is it about this style of literature that draws you to it?

rsz_heathermcquillanWhen I’m reading flash I’m struck by the stuff that takes my breath away and that is usually a sharply constructed, perfectly timed sentence that peels a layer off me as the reader.  I want to be able to do that for others when I write.

Originally I started writing poetry, and then flash, as a way to satisfy my need to write during a time when I was an overworked teacher/ deputy principal. Both short forms resonate with my mode of relaxation, which is to do cryptic crosswords and jigsaw puzzles. I think they require that same level of concentration, of zoning out everything that is not essential, letting the patterns and pieces fit together and find you.
 
Writing flash, and poetry, is about packing as much as you can into the smallest space, yet making it much more the deeper you go, rather like a literary TARDIS. That’s a huge challenge but I get a sense of great satisfaction trimming away the unnecessary. I spend a lot of time contemplating the effects of word combinations, teasing them out, having fun with the sounds and images that words can make. I’m also experimenting much more with letting the spaces speak as much as the words themselves.

Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?

I recently read Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream, and a lot of what he teaches is the way I often write. Some pieces seem to come from nowhere, then things that I’ve been thinking about, that have been sitting at a subconscious level, well up and arrive on the page.  I keep writing to find out what happens next. This can mean you end up with a messy lump of a first draft but, by paring away, discover something that may be worthy. It’s exciting when you realise that there is something there and just what it is. Sometimes there’s nothing, so you just have to move on from that.

What did you wish to share with your audience with your story, ‘Trampolining in the Matukituki’?

‘Trampolining in the Matukituki’ started with the title, which is not usual for me. Usually the title is the final thing I struggle with. I had a Mrs. Malaprop moment when I said, ‘I went trampolining up the Matukituki’ instead of tramping. (In NZ, hiking is called tramping). I wrote the sentence down and it sat there for a long time, until I realised I needed something for the National Flash Fiction competition and tried to do something with it. As the story began I realised it was based on a memory of that trip and the relationship I was in at the time.
 
As it developed I wanted to express the sensation of being held back by your own fears and by the people you are with, of holding your breath and not being yourself. I also wanted to give permission to be a bit silly, even as we try to be adult in our responses to the world – imagine stuff, talk to mountains, bounce on the trampoline, and let your breath out. Quite a lot of what I’m writing at the moment ends up being about the loss or finding of a voice, the inhibition or release of breath.

Nature and the connectedness with nature features strongly in your story.  Can you share more about this theme and how it influenced this piece and any other works?

I live by the sea, surrounded by hills and sky. I love the sky and the way cloud patterns form and change. I am filled with wonder at the patterns of sand and water. I often stand and stare. The natural grandeur of Aotearoa, New Zealand is something I am very grateful to be able to experience. The Matukituki region, in the Mount Aspiring National Park, is stunning!
 
There was a moment in one of the drafts where the mountain started talking and told my protagonist that she was Hineahuone, a girl made of clay. This references the Māori creation legend when Tāne breathes life into the first woman. Before she exhales, she sneezes. This is the origin of the saying ‘Tihei! Mauri ora’ which literally translates as ‘Sneeze! The breath of life’ but is used in oratory as a claim to the right to speak. This was an exhilarating moment for me; it made me laugh out loud and skip down my spiral staircase declaring, “Bloody hell, now the mountain is talking!” Although the voice changed in the final draft, I think this was an important step in the story development.
 
We are all made of the same stuff as the earth.

What are you currently working on?

I have a Young Adult thriller novel in the works, in which the company that runs both the schools and the prisons makes more profit from prisoners than from pupils. Things happen that are fuckin’ unfair but people are too afraid, or too complacent, to speak up. (Yet another thing about the horror of being silenced!) The manuscript has just been awarded a mentorship through the NZSA and I am excited to get an assessment and guidance from an experienced writer still unnamed.
 
I also have a few short stories that I’d like to finesse, and I have to get some new poems written before the next Canterbury Poets Collective Spring Season.

Next year will be a huge focus on flash fiction as I work towards a collection as part of my Masters of Creative Writing thesis. I shall be very quiet on the FF front until that is completed!  So if you wonder where I’ve gone, rest assured I will be working away.

What are you currently reading?

I have just started Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which sets up such a rich tapestry of early French-Canadian life. I’m heading over on a short trip to Melbourne in a day or so and, as Barkskins is too big, I’ve saved up Thom Conroy’s The Salted Air for the flight over. I also have Best Small Fictions 2015, edited by Robert Olen Butler, tucked into my bag and read a few stories at a time in spare moments. Delicious!

 
Do you keep a writing journal and if so, what are some of those items that are the most meaningful/motivational that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

The cover of one of my journals has this quote from Larry L. King: “Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.”
 
My journals are not organised things. They are a mess of scribblings, thoughts, ideas, doodles, plot structures, character names, chapter tracking. They follow no pattern whatsoever. I pity anyone else trying to make sense of them. I pity myself trying to make sense of them!

What words can you share with others about writing flash fiction?

Write and then edit. Edit with attention to what you don’t say as much as what you do. All that other stuff too – start late, finish early, and don’t be afraid to let a bit of something crazy/ weird/ playful sneak in.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

I work with The School for Young Writers in Christchurch, where I tutor young people and provide professional development for classroom teachers. 
 
If you visit my website where you can find links to most of my online flash fiction pieces. 
 
A poem or two can be found in Landfall 231, Leaving the Red Zone- poems from the Canterbury earthquakes, 2016, scattered feathers (NZPS, 2015) We Society Poetry, 2015 and Poems for Peace, 2014.
 
I also have a Facebook page (and a business card, which one of my students tells me is the first step to world domination).
 
Thanks for the interview, Patrick. It was a challenge and a pleasure (sort of) to have to think about what I do, how and why!

About Heather McQuillan… 


Nod Ghosh

Second Prize with with ‘Shape Shifters on the Bus’

Why Flash?  What is it about this style of literature that draws you to it?

The picture I’m attaching is significant, as it’s from ‘Flash in the Pan’ in Christchurch on June 22nd. I was in my ‘Mad Hatter’ disguise, to talk about ‘Micro Madness’, the hundred-word stories published on the National Flash Fiction Day website in the lead up to the shortest day. It was an honour to co-judge these stories with Robert Scotellaro. The patch of white face-paint missing from my chin is from when Heather McQuillan and I embraced after the NFFD announcements. She had a corresponding white blob on her chin.
Frankie McMillan, tutor at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, encouraged students to write for flash fiction day events in 2012. We read at an event in the Institute, and at a Christchurch library. There was a competition at Catalyst (Doc Drumheller and Ciarán Fox) where ten prompt words had to be included into a 250-word story. This led to an appreciation of how condensed stories needed to be carefully crafted. I also discovered it was fun.

Over the years I’ve read many online flash publications or anthologies such as 100 New Zealand Short Short Stories (edited by Graeme Lay). I’ve seen how story elements including protagonist, conflict and resolution can be incorporated in short form, or omitted all together, if the writer takes a prose-poem approach.

I enjoy focussing on how words sound together, as well as trying to draw the reader into the world I’m making. Flash fiction allows the writer to play with imagery yet retain a sense of mystery. To quote Elizabeth Morton, flash is writing as sorcery.

Where do you get your inspiration for your stories?

Some ideas come from real experiences. Living in post-quake Christchurch has inspired recent flash pieces. Our old home being demolished, the inside of the bedroom wall exposed to the elements. The renovation workers walking across the laboratory where I work, disappearing into a false wall to take part of the building down around us, as we carried on pipetting wearing earmuffs to block out the sound. A stack of letter trays abandoned in the sexual health clinic as it was taken apart by demolition crews. These images cry out to have their story told. The back-stories almost write themselves.

Some ideas come almost fully formed in dreams, or jump into my mind in a state of drowsiness. Someone recently asked how I’d got the idea for ‘Shape Shifters on the Bus’. I’d forgotten. But looking back at my notes reminded me how I’d woken up laughing one morning. An image of a penguin and potato bouncing down the metal steps of a bus had been so real it came with its own tune and rhythm.

Recently I was drifting off to sleep when a herd of miniature horses the size of mice ran across the quilt. Elvis Presley (to scale) was swinging his hips near my feet. He had the face of a fox, and a group of raccoons were doing backing vocals. I guess that needs to become a story.

What did you wish to share with your audience with your story, ‘Shape Shifters on the Bus’?

The concept of changing or multiple identities fascinates me. In my novels, some characters change their names, or present varying personae to different people. The shorter story form allows the writer to take these ideas to extremes. I’ve experimented with shifting forms in a few stories.

In ‘Shape Shifters on the Bus’, I also wanted to play with concepts learnt at school that we don’t use in later life. Words like symbiosis, cloaca and adiabatic came from memories of school science lessons.
I wanted to shift the point of view seamlessly between the characters.

The fantastical resounds in your story.  Can you share how this play of language and the extraordinary influenced Shape Shifters on the Bus as well as any other stories that you have written?

I think it was Joanne Harris who said people want to believe in magic. We know it’s not real, but we wish it were. We wish anti-aging creams would work. We believe an element of luck can help us win a lottery. We so desperately want to talk to our dead mother that we believe she’s really visiting when she steps into our dreams.

There is something irresistible about the supernatural. The unreal allows us to indulge in language we may not use to describe ‘real’ events. I had fun playing with the ‘s’ sounds in “summoning forty pairs of chromosomes and an opposite spiralling cloaca.” The combination of euphonic sounds and impossible imagery has the power to lift a story off the page.

In other stories I’ve mixed commonplace events with the macabre, used a child’s credulous belief in dragons, featured a boy who can turn into a bird at will as a metaphor for gaining control.

Sometimes truth can also be fantastical. I co-wrote a story with my critique partner Eileen Merriman based on the life of Phineas Gage, who survived a metal pole passing through his brain. He recovered well, but experienced profound personality changes.

What are you currently working on?

This month’s folder contains snippets of conversations about a dinner plate and someone with blue hair. They are waiting to be harvested for stories. There is a collaborative piece about the sea my partner and I wrote on holiday, and the first two chapters of a novella about a disabled woman.

What are you currently reading?

The Glove Box by Vivienne Plumb. I rapid-read this collection of short stories when Vivienne was my supervisor at the Hagley Writers’ Institute. Now I’m enjoying a more leisurely read, looking at story structure, and how the author draws on her research of the history of woman hitch-hiking in Australia.

Do you keep a writing journal and if so, what are some of those items that are the most meaningful/motivational that you wouldn’t mind sharing? (This can be anything:  a quote, an image, a book, a painting, a piece of music…)

I’ve had many journals of sorts over the years.

I recently harvested a story from a 1973 diary. I found a collection of addresses in the back, and remembered I’d promised to write to a girl I met on holiday in India. I never wrote to her, and the story was about my remorse. Then I thought ‘what the hell, someone at that address may know where she went’. I sent a letter, and a few weeks later had a phone call from the woman herself. It was a magical way to reconnect.

I keep a reading journal, a habit encouraged at the Hagley Writers’ Institute. It will be useful if my brain turns to mush in old age.

There is the inevitable visual diary and pen on my bedside table for morning words.

I have several ‘creative journals’, where I combine print work, painting, collage and words. Katz Cowley and Celia Coyne introduced me to journaling. It’s an effective way of freeing up creative energy.

Finally I have a series of folders on my laptop where I collect snippets of ideas that have been scribbled in the bedside book, on pieces of paper towel or on the palm of my hand. I harvest these later for stories.

What words can you share with others about writing flash fiction?

Although flash is not an easy literary form, it can be a less daunting way to start writing compared with novel or memoir. You don’t have to wade into complex plot structures and develop multiple characters. I love encouraging new writers, and have often recommended flash fiction.

So much is in the ‘polishing’. I’ve also found flash to be a good way of developing concise effective language skills.

It’s a great deal of fun.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

http://www.nodghosh.com/

Thank you Patrick for your insightful questions. You really made me think about the genre.

A ‘big up’ to Michelle Elvy, without whom Flash Fiction would be at a different place in New Zealand.

Also major gratitude to Eileen Merriman, who gives me prompt feedback on everything I write. She takes my writing from random ramblings to something that looks good on the page. Every writer needs an Eileen.

Nāku noa, nā Nod. 

About Nod Ghosh… 


Linda Moser

Third Prize with ‘The Wheat Field’

rsz_moserFlash fiction is like a solitary sliver of life – a perfectly shaped puzzle piece complete within itself. Inspiration for flash or longer fiction can come from memories, feelings, judgements, thoughts about people we’ve met, places we’ve been, dreams we’ve had.

‘The Wheat Field’ itself is the trigger that transports my narrator, both emotionally and physically, to another time and place. Language and imagery help to create the mood and atmosphere of this place but also help to bring us back to where we started, The Wheat Field.

I don’t get a lot of time to write but I have recently completed a short story I call Distance Over Time Divided by Ten and have also been short-listed for another piece but I won’t jinx myself by saying what or where just yet.
I’m slowly, and not very productively, thinking about getting my two novels, Envelopes and Somewhere North of Heaven, out there. Both were long-listed and one short-listed in the UK’s Mslexia novel competition in 2013. Writing is the easy part; getting it out there is the mystery.

I gave travel writing a go last year and won the ‘best new travel writer award for 2015’ for the AA Directions/Cathay Pacific Multi-media awards. My story, ‘Silante’, was published in AA Directions magazine and the NZ Herald. I’m playing with the idea of putting a book of short travel pieces together… all but three currently reside in my head.

I’m a full-time high school teacher, mother and life partner. I love to write and do so when I can. In this busy life, my love, unfortunately, does not even ride sheltered in the back seat but clings in desperation to the slippery silver rear bumper.

Anyone with a beating heart can write flash fiction. Think of something ordinary and say it in a different way.

About Linda Moser… 


P PinkPatrick Pink grew up in Chicago, Illinois and lived significant amounts of his life in Michigan, Texas and Germany before settling in New Zealand. His work was highly commended in the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day competition, and he is the winner of the Flash Frontier 2014 Summer Writing Award. His work can be found in a variety of magazines, including Chelsea Station Magazine, Headland: Issue 2 and the anthology, Wilde Stories 2015: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction.

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