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Interview: NFFD 2019 Regional Prize Winners

Regional Prizes sponsored by New Zealand Society of Authors branches

Auckland – Leeanne O’Brien (‘Washing-up’)
Canterbury – Rose Collins (‘Over the Fields from Ballyturin House, 1921’)
Central Districts – Tim Saunders (‘T is for Tiger’)
Northland – Michael Botur (‘Shot For The Choc’)
Otago – Pam Morrison (‘Counting on Life’)
Wellington – Tom Adams (‘Breadcrumbs’)

We were pleased to hear from the Regional Prize winners this year – to talk about their approach to flash fiction, their writing more generally, their reading habits and also even a bit about their preferences for desserts, films, pets, landscapes and textiles.
Thank you and congratulations to all!

Rose Collins
Flash Frontier: Titles matter. They set the mood and ignite curiosity. What can you tell us about the title of your story?

Leeanne O’Brien: I found it really difficult to settle on a title for this story. Usually titles come to me fully formed – as if gifts from small flightless birds. However, this time, I was alone and floundering and because I was pushing against the submission deadline, I fell back on a basic description of the actions of the protagonist. Lame, I know. However, I love these titles from some of the other submitters: The sound a horse makes when it comes to drink at night and It might be that you watched everything from a long way off and Cleaning clouds and Funeral hymn for a lost toy. They really demonstrate the proposition put in the question: that titles matter for the purposes of setting mood and igniting curiosity.

Rose Collins: I wanted the title to quickly orient the reader in the landscape and time frame of the story – the west of Ireland in the last days of the Irish War of Independence. I hoped to do that without hitting the reader over the head with the context so that the story can still stand on its own, even to a reader who has no idea about the political machinations lying beneath it. This is a tricky balance and is just one of the reasons writing flash is so damn hard!

Tim Saunders: Titles are very important. You can set up the whole narrative in just a few words, which is of course the whole essence of flash fiction. I look at it like those dolls that fit inside each other – the title fits in the flash story, which then fits into a larger narrative. With ‘T Is For Tiger’, I wanted to convey that it was written from a child’s perspective, and the tiger is an important image and metaphor in the narrative.

Michael Botur: The best title for any story is a title which one of your characters provides. It is bad form to graft a title onto a story from outside. You need to take any title from within the story so the reader feels the title was organically created by the world of the story. Hence ‘Shot For The Choc’ is a title which emerges out of the story. And it has pleasant assonance in the vowel sounds.

Pam Morrison: The title ‘Counting on Life’ came to me as soon as I’d completed the story, and immediately felt right. I liked the way it was a play on words – the counting provided a structure for the story, but also alluded to the urgency and miracle of conception.

Tom Adams: I try not to overthink titles. At some point something will come up, and the chances are that later something better will replace it. To be fair, this was a spur-of-the-moment story, so if I waited a little longer I may have improved on ‘Breadcrumbs’!

Mike Botur
FF: Primacy of character or setting – what mattered most when you were working on this flash fiction?

Rose Collins: Setting is everything in this story. I aimed to write a story about this historical event from the point of view of the mother who is trying to make sense of what has happened to her son. I thought it was a character-driven story and it began with her voice in my head but in the writing the landscape just took over. My narrator is very much embedded in the place and I think the setting is what propels the story.

Tim Saunders: The character’s voice was gnawing away inside my head. I tried several times to capture it, but was never happy with it. I knew the character had something important to say, but had to wait a long time to hear what that was. Once I got the time and setting of the story right, the character just blurted everything out.

Leeanne O’Brien: My instant answer was character, but, on reflection, I don’t think I can be that definitive. To me, this story needs to rely heavily on both factors.

Pam Morrison: In some way neither of these mattered when working on this story. It sprang out a sense of life’s longing for itself, and the creative and extraordinary way we as human beings can take our part in the dance.

Michael Botur: The story is about one character stuck in a box (remand prison / jail interview room) being interviewed by somebody who comes to realise he is stuck in his own box – a box by which interview subjects have their life story taken from them and all they get in return is a patronising chocolate bar. That’s based on a true story of a job I had in 2015-16 (see here).

Tom Adams: My brain is wired for concepts, then scenarios, and lastly characters. The opposite of what makes a good story! I did have characters in mind though, I hope some of that made it through.

Pam Morrison
FF: If you cut this story down to 300 words when you composed it, what did you take out, and why?

Pam Morrison: The story was originally closer to 400 words, and I needed to cull words to make it fit the submission requirements. The hardest piece to cut was a paragraph titled ten, where a woman watches (‘like a child who knows to stay still in the company of small birds…’) as her fingers open and touch and compose themselves into an attitude of prayer. (Glad to get it in here. Thank you!)

Tom Adams: Not much! This one fell into about 300 words naturally.

Rose Collins: I’m not sure when I first heard about the ambush at Ballyturin but the story has been with me a long time and I’ve been circling it and trying to get it on the page for years. This flash piece came out of a longer short story and so I did have to do some ruthless cutting back. The longer story is more generous to the reader – it gives you an easier trail to follow – but perhaps for that reason it lacks the mystery of the very short version.

Michael Botur: I would have undoubtedly cut out the preamble. Whenever we write, we all spend too much time throat-clearing, don’t we? I know I do. In any story, the place to murder your darlings is usually the first third where you have been just warming the page up.

Tom Adams
FF: What do you find most challenging about writing small fictions?

Tim Saunders: The challenge is where the fun lies. It’s like looking at a picture and squinting – you only see bits of it in focus, and some of it is fuzzy. I used to like those 3D pictures, where you stare at a seemingly random collection of dots for days until you suddenly see a shape leap out at you. That’s the challenge in writing small fictions. Finding that shape and grasping it.

Leeanne O’Brien: There is no room to hide imperfections. There is no room for words to draft behind their companions. Each has to work at full capacity.

Michael Botur: Big ideas and ambitions spent on a small page with a small-ish readership. With many stories, I would prefer to turn them into long 5000 word stories BUT that often means stretching out an idea which doesn’t need to be stretched out. There seems to be a bit of prize money with flash, and a more energetic online readership. Those aspects are important.

Tom Adams: To quote one of my top 5 below (clue, she’s female): “A novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” Or, as I interpret it, the words you write are just a framework to support those innate concepts, feelings and ideas conjured up in the gaps between them. With 10,000 words you have quite the infrastructure. With 300 it is a very delicate balancing act!

Pam Morrison: I love the genre, and find that most of my stories end up somewhere between 250 and 500 words. The hardest thing, settling on an idea, has been helped enormously by being part of a small writing group where the three of us each contribute a word for weaving into the next story. The three words seem to beg for connection and the next thing I’ve found a story emerging that I had no idea resided within me.

Tim Saunders
FF: What are you reading at the moment?

Michael Botur: Knockemstiff, an extremely gritty short story collection by Donald Ray Pollock. I discovered it I think just by googling “Dirty realism”!!

Tom Adams: Ursula Le Guin – The Dispossessed

Pam Morrison: I’ve got two books on the go: The Choice by Edith Eger (for the second time) and The Gulf Between by Maxine Alterio.

Tim Saunders: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

Leeanne O’Brien: Fox8 by George Saunders – how I wish I had written this story. It is impossibly brilliant. Also Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar – it was on the ‘Recent Releases’ shelf at the library. I didn’t know anything about the writer before I picked it up.

Rose Collins: William Trevor’s Last Stories and Decline and Fall on Savage Street by Fiona Farrell

FF: What are you writing at the moment?

Tom Adams: Rewriting a short story on conspiracy theorists. In our lives there are few real consequences to having outlandish scepticism towards – well, anything. I transplant this into a situation where disbelief has genuine repercussions and see how that changes things. I submitted it to a competition a while ago but guess what… great concept, not enough character.

Tim Saunders: I’m working on some creative non-fiction about my life as a farmer. I’m also forever writing poetry. I threw a stick for my dog the other day, and he brought back an idea for a short story.

Rose Collins: Lesson plans, legal submissions, shopping lists and some poetry and prose.

Michael Botur: I’m trying to get the novel Crimechurch picked up by a publisher without selling out too cheaply (there are a few really restrictive, limiting publishers and sometimes they want money from you and it’s an uneven trade). I’ve created 14 fresh short stories for my forthcoming collection titled either Joyride or Remember Wrong. Or maybe a different title if I stumble on an amazing title. I want 16 stories because I’m selling this collection as “Short fiction stash #6 – sixteen stories.” The problem is I’m not yet inspired to write the last two stories. I’m sure inspiration will come randomly, when I’m in the middle of traffic, or trying to get to sleep.

Pam Morrison: I have nothing underway right now, but I’m tempted and challenged (and tormented) by the idea that I might write some longer fiction.

Leeanne O’Brien
FF: Flash Five, rapid fire: Ice cream or cake?

Leeanne O’Brien: Cake (sultana)

Rose Collins: Impossible choice

Tim Saunders: Cake

Pam Morrison: Ice cream

Tom Adams: Cake

FF: Mountain or lake?

Leeanne O’Brien: Mountain

Rose Collins: Mountain

Tim Saunders: Mountain

Pam Morrison: Mountain

Tom Adams: Mountain

FF: Sci fi or romcom?

Leeanne O’Brien: Sci fi

Rose Collins: Usually neither

Tim Saunders: Sci Fi

Pam Morrison: Neither!

Tom Adams: Sci fi

FF: Cat or dog?

Leeanne O’Brien: Dog, dog, dog.

Rose Collins: Dogs, always

Tim Saunders: Cat

Pam Morrison: Dog

Tom Adams: Dog

FF: Wool or silk?

Leeanne O’Brien: Wool(f)

Rose Collins: Wool, I’m a south islander!

Tim Saunders: Wool

Pam Morrison: Wool

Tom Adams: Wool

FF: Five authors who bring fire, fantasy or fun to your life:

Pam Morrison: Joan Didion, Amy Bloom, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sally Rooney, Tim Winton.

Tom Adams: Gabriel García Márquez, Ursula Le Guin, Oliver Sacks, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami.

Leeanne O’Brien: Nicola Barker, Peter Carey, Ali Smith, Rupert Thomson, Vincent O’Sullivan.

Tim Saunders: Roddy Doyle, Glenn Colquhoun, Alex Garland, Owen Marshall, Sam Hunt.

Mike Botur: Annie Proulx, Junot Diaz, Kevin Barry, Steven Millhauser, Raymond Carver. Five writers who may change your life.

Rose Collins: Not all of these writers could be described as ‘fun’ to read but they all have fire and they are some of the writers whose work I always return to: George Eliot, Janet Frame, Alice Munro, Margaret Mahy, Catherine Chidgey.

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