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Interview: Jeff Taylor, NFFD 2019 Winner

Flash Frontier: Congratulations on winning the 2019 NFFD competition with your story ‘The Boat People‘. What of the title? It’s simple and declarative, yet it draws people in based on our common cultural reference points. Can you say something about this – how you decided to use such an evocative, and intentionally misleading, title?

Jeff Taylor: I had it in my mind from one of the regular news reports about refugees. At the first short story course I attended, the suggestion ‘what if’ was drummed in. When I have written something, I look for a word or a passage with what I call a ‘heartbeat’, and then try to give it a transplant. A story about refugees would never do – so it came down to either some low-lifers with nowhere else to live, or maybe the decadent rich and famous cruising the Mediterranean in their super yachts. I chose the former because they would be characters that fitted my dark sense of humour.

FF: There is a steady voice here, with an unhinged narrator – a tricky thing in such a small piece of writing. The tonal balance pulls the reader between the carefully observed details and the uncertainty of the very scenario in which the narrator is living (‘I had about four, if I remember right. Or was it five?’). Did you trust your narrator to get the story right, from the beginning? And how did you come to this voice?

JT: This is one that I use often. A first person observing stuff that’s going on and making snide, often sarcastic comments to the reader.

FF: It is said that flash fiction hinges on what is not said, and in this story, there is quite a lot that lurks at the edges. Did you have the idea of what was lurking there first, and then fill in the parts for the reader to ‘see’, or did you first see what was visible, and then wonder about what was hidden?

JT: It had several rewrites. The state of mind of the narrator came gradually, then it fell into place throughout the story. Initially I wasn’t sure whether to make him affected by drugs, or alcohol, or just mentally unstable. I settled on the alcohol.

FF: And what of the opening and closing lines – both so stark and memorable. Did you begin with the opening line and go from there? Did you see the ending – that twist – in your mind, as you worked through the story, or did it take you by surprise?

JT: The opening is important, but I think the closing ones always nail it with flash fiction. I hoped that my ending would resonate with the reader, i.e., leaving questions about how much of it all was real, and how much imagined. The last sentence did take me by surprise when it popped into my head, but seemed appropriate and fitted the alcoholic/nautical idea.

FF: You have written a considerable amount of funny, or quirky, flash fiction. This story also contains a dash of humour, but it’s not laugh-out-loud comedy. How do you navigate subtle shifts between different kinds of humour in your writing?

JT: I like dark humour! I grew up with Monty Python and always liked the way they would take a normal situation and twist it each and every way in their skits. Also ‘The Far Side’ cartoons by Gary Larson, who would do the same. I’ll use as much humour (dark or funny) in my writing as I can. I find I struggle writing anything deep and meaningful! So most of my stuff is shallow and meaningless.

FF: This year, your micro ‘Musical Break’ was short-listed at Micro Madness. Tell us a bit about writing a 100-word story. And are you a musician yourself? (Jeff, feel free to share as much as you’d like here).

JT: I played in bands in my youth, and call on my knowledge of music and instruments whenever I can. I did this particularly with my ‘The St. Louis Six’ in the New Orleans edition of Flash Frontier in 2018. I threw everything musical I had at it.

100 words are really hard. I prefer 250 to 500. If a novel is an ocean, the short story a lake, flash fiction a pond, then micro is a puddle. My mother told me to avoid puddles.

I recommend anyone who wants to start writing flash fiction should read a lot of it to get the idea. I have self-published a couple of books, and the stress and cost involved would put anyone off! Short fiction is nice and quick with much lower blood pressure.

FF: Let’s talk a bit about your creative space: where do you enjoy writing most, when do you write, how do you balance your day-job with your creative efforts?

JT: Being retired, I have plenty of time to write. My favourite place is the city library. Walls and walls of spines are stimulating and inspiring.

FF: You live in Hamilton and this year we saw the first-ever Waikato NFFD event – exciting for your region! Tell us a bit about the Hamilton community.

JT: It was great to have a Hamilton NFFD event this year. Tracey Slaughter, one of last year’s NFFD adult judges, did a wonderful job getting a number of people together to read out their NFFD pieces. I am always trying to inspire people to write flash fiction and short fiction, and our Waikato Writers July meeting will focus exclusively on flash fiction. We will have some local writers who have been either short or long listed in NFFD over the last few years to come along and read their work. Tracey will also address us on writing flash fiction.

FF: And finally, what do you like to read?

JT: I do read a lot of short fiction and flash fiction, and plenty of our NZ authors seem to be particularly good at it.

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