Michelle Elvy in conversation with National Flash Fiction Day 2019 judge Lloyd Jones
This month, we bring interviews with this year’s NFFD judges. James Norcliffe sat down to talk to Siobhan Harvey, and Michelle Elvy talks with Lloyd Jones. We also bring you a discussion between the two youth judges, Gail Ingram and Eirlys Hunter.
The NFFD competition opens February 15 and runs through April 15. More information is available on National Flash Fiction Day website.
On place and memory
Lloyd Jones: With Splinter I think that was the case. I was fresh from studying ‘place in literature’ at a night class at New York University, and primed by the novels of Doctorow and William Kennedy. What Kennedy did with Albany and what Doctorow manages with Upstate New York (Loon Lake, etc.) I hoped to do with the Hutt. The narrator of that novel slips and comes to grief after a floor splinter pierces his finger – the splinter is also the history of place.
But that was then… I’ve changed my views about what story is, and where it comes from. Primacy of voice is what it is all about for me. A story is seldom born on the back of a view out the window. A voice has to be found to convey what is seen and what is felt. I never think ‘oh, that would make a good story.’ Well maybe I do, but it won’t be a story that I will write. For me, story begins with finding a voice I didn’t know I had in me. If I can stay with it, and hold my nerve, a world will grow around it.
LJ: It is a reference to the failure of the city-builders to completely drain the swamps on which the pre-earthquake city of Christchurch sat. To all appearances they were successful – for what met the naked eye were buildings, asphalt, parks, houses, power lines, etc. But it was cosmetic. The city foundations everyone assumed to be robust turned to water once the earth began to shake (a process called liquefaction). The past cannot be deleted or erased. It awaits its moment to sit and declare: Here I am. Where I always was.
LJ: I grew up in a household where the past was barely ever referred to. I never once heard my father mention his mother or father. For that matter I never asked about them. Mum didn’t mention her father (she never met him) and said very little about her mother. Mum’s adopted parents were the only ‘grandparents’ spoken of, but then not often – both were dead by the time I came along. An ancestral past simply didn’t exist. We behaved as if we had been shipwrecked. No point dwelling on the ship lying on the bottom of the sea. Better to focus on the future and start building a life to get us there. It was a wilful silence – one I suspect is experienced by many Pākehā families – and that silence effectively stalled any proper understanding of our colonial history.
On writing inside and outside New Zealand
LJ: By today’s standards it will seem a bit presumptuous of me to talk about ‘us’ as if the nation sprang from the same nervous system. But in 1905 we were more homogenous… suffered the usual colonial confusions about where ‘home’ might be. I like to think we came into our own consciousness during that All Black tour of 1905. It began with a journeying back to ‘home’ and then turned into a swerve away from. I think it is a better far healthier founding myth than the Gallipoli one we have pinched off the Australians. ‘We’ in the ‘Book of Fame’ narrative refers to both the team and the country. I would be reluctant to use the collective first person now. We’re a different population, more diverse, and cosmopolitan. When we look back to our origins we find ourselves gazing off in different directions – South East Asia, the Pacific, the UK, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Argentina… Auckland’s population has something like 160 ethnicities… I have no idea what a ‘shared consciousness’ might look like now.
LJ: What has made me the writer I am? Other writers, writers from all over the world. All writers are cosmopolitan in that regard. We make our writer selves up from our reading. And, reading will make me the writer I will become in the future.
Writers create their own identity on the back of whoever they read and hold to be indispensable, however fleetingly (since writer crushes are notoriously fickle) – from Camus to Borges to Murnane to Beckett to Coetzee, Sherman Alexei, Kafka, to Chinua Achebe and Gao Xingjian, and Calvino, and Janet Frame and to all the marvellous mind -expanding translations of work around the world. Our reading creates the ‘writer part’ of us, our spine, if you like. Then we build from what is around us, what lies to hand. In which case, inevitably, the ‘sounds’ and the ‘view’ of NZ slips in… the piled driftwood on beaches, the stark hills, the shabby small towns, the shabby cities… all of that is us. The sea bounding in, the skies racing away. A healthy willingness to help a neighbour out – that’s us as well. Along with our sly prejudices and our tinny nationalism.
Were more of us to write in te reo Māori then, yes, I would be inclined to say there is something indisputably unique about our writing. But few of us do. Most of us write in English. For most writers, our first allegiance is to the form, and place grows out of voice.
LJ: Too many to mention. But for a brief sample, see above
On short fiction and current reading
LJ: Different architecture, different ambitions. A short story is as tight as a drum.
LJ: It frees writer and reader from the straight-lining of narrative which tends to close things down. You might think of narrative as whittling a log into shape – say that of a kiwi. The final thing betrays its origins; conventional narrative will not admit those shavings into the story of how it came to be. Discontinuous narrative claims those shavings… it just puts some space between them. It all belongs, in other words. The onus is placed on the reader to find the thread, and so a narrative is at work, but it is less hewn and more obviously a work in progress… It encourages inclusiveness and digression, and that always feels more real, more in keeping with true consciousness.
LJ: Anything at all. Anything is possible. Word length is obviously the constraint. But such constraints tend to make us more imaginative.
LJ: I must admit I do tend to seek out the new and, in particular, translated literature. But, yes, there are certain authors I go back to. And sometimes if I am stuck in some way with what I am working on, I may go back to a writer who I remember having found a way forward on some particular thing. Sorry, that sounds a bit vague, but I wouldn’t want to be any more specific.
LJ: Like everyone else I know, I’ve read and enjoyed Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry. I’m currently reading a critical work (one of the few, perhaps the only one) on John Berger whose novel G feels as groundbreaking now as it did when it won the Booker back in 1970. I like to read contemporary poetry. There’s a lot of good stuff coming out from a much younger generation in the US right now. But, I’ve gone back to an old hand, Robert Hass. Eileen Myles is another.
For a recommendation, Exploded View by Australian writer Carrie Tiffany (Text), due out in March.
More locally, I thought James Brown’s most recent collection Floods another chamber (VUP) was terrific. In fact, I would recommend writers considering the flash fiction format to take a look at Floods another chamber. They might also check out ‘The Fish’ by Elizabeth Bishop which is as much story as it is poem. For ‘storyish-poems’ I would add Jenny Bornholdt, Vincent O’Sullivan, Bill Manhire and Tusiata Avia to that list. A final point – story does not have to be ‘made up’. Flash fiction writers might benefit from taking a look at Damien Wilkins’s True Stories. Also, but for different reasons, Janet Frame’s story ‘Reservoir,’ specifically the section which wraps up a reservoir of the young narrator’s fears.
LJ: I like to think I wouldn’t, but, on reflection, yes, I probably would.