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Book Interview: Sandra Arnold, Soul Etchings

A look at guest editor Sandra Arnold’s new collection and a conversation with James Norcliffe.

Interview

James Norcliffe: Sandra, you came rather late to the short form and you were initially quite sceptical about it. I know that once you did become involved, though, you became passionate about its possibilities telling me early on, with something of a retraction, that you now found the form quite addictive. Now, with so many stories published and to such acclaim, would you like to elaborate a little about the addictive qualities you found – and still find – in flash?

Sandra Arnold: I’ll be forever grateful to you, Jim, for introducing me to the flash form. I remember that conversation we had in 2016 when you talked about the upcoming National Flash Fiction Day in New Zealand and I was sceptical that a complete story could be told in just 250 words. You suggested I read Flash Frontier and I was captivated by the stunning work I found there. Since then I’ve read many flash fiction journals and although the quality varies, the better journals are publishing some compelling writing. It’s in the shorter forms that flash is most intriguing, I think, in that so much of the story is implied rather than directly stated. For me, that’s the challenge in reading and writing flash.

JN: Flash Frontier is featuring your collection Soul Etchings in this edition. What struck me, reading the collection, was your range in mood, tone and subject. Do you like to push boundaries when you set out to write?

SA: That’s an interesting question. I don’t set out specifically to push boundaries. The stories I write start with an idea, perhaps a snippet of overheard conversation, a headline in the newspaper, a memory, a dream, something observed. After a few drafts the story takes on whatever shape it needs to.

JN: You haven’t forsaken the longer form, as I write this your new novel The Ash, the Well and Bluebell is about to be launched here in Christchurch. Would you tell us something about this?

SA: About six years ago I read some documents about the Child Migrant Scheme that the British government implemented after the war to relieve overcrowded orphanages and to give disadvantaged children a better start in life by sending them to Australia, Canada and New Zealand. I then remembered the family with more than twenty children who’d lived in the town where I grew up in the north-east of England and that half of them had been sent to Australia on a government scheme. The idea for a novel began to take shape about a group of children growing up in a village in post-war England who experience various forms of discrimination because of poverty, social status, or skin colour. One dies in mysterious circumstances, one is sent to New Zealand on the Child Migrant Scheme and another returns to the village many years later, hoping to find resolution.

JN: Do you prefer writing in long forms or short forms?

SA: I don’t really have a preference. The subject of the work dictates the form. I love the research and slow building of narrative in the novel, the space for detail in short fiction and the need for precision in flash fiction.

JN: With Chauna Craig, you edited the historical stories for this edition. Did you find the short form lent itself to historical writing? Did the historical theme suggest possibilities and / or did it provide particular problems?

SA: Because the word limit for stories in this issue was 1,000 there was more room for narrative development. The least successful stories tried to replicate an era by writing in a stilted ‘old-fashioned’ style. As with all flash fiction, the stories I was most drawn to were those with a deft use of language and enough gaps for me to fill with my imagination.

JN: You have had a very busy time lately, with two books launched in the last few weeks. What now? Do you have projects in the pipeline or are you going to take time off?

SA: I recently finished a collection of short stories that have been in the pipeline for a while and I’m currently writing more flash fiction and a few essays. I won’t be taking time off from writing, but now that Soul Etchings and The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell are published I have more time for reading and for walking the dog. The best ideas come while walking the dog.

Thank you, Jim for this interview.

About Soul Etchings

Death, motherhood, the nature of reality, and the gender expectations of cultural conditioning are woven through these biting little stories in Sandra Arnold’s debut flash fiction collection. Sometimes sad, surreal and sinister, they’re also shot through with love and a deep understanding of humanity.

In gorgeous spare prose that paints a very vivid picture, Sandra Arnold gives voice to characters that are often unheard. From Daisy in Fireworks Night, willing to do whatever it takes to protect her little sister; to Hathor in The Girl with Green Hair who has her body in the world we live in and her mind in the one that not many people see; and Ruby in Don’t Mess with Vikings who finds strength in a diagnosis of illness to stand up to bullies.

With the stories in this collection, Sandra Arnold etches marks on your soul that will last.

Excerpt

The Road to Nowhere

Finalist in the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, judged by Meg Pokrass

You’re leaving the café in the park where you’ve just given your man the ultimatum you should have given him years ago but wouldn’t have if you hadn’t just come from a meeting with your acting-manager who told you in the coffee queue that you hadn’t got the job you’d been doing for the last two years though it was nothing personal she said but the one she selected had more experience in the area she wanted and you want to remind her how you’d supported her through the bullying of her manager and how you’d encouraged her to stay and fight and together you got rid of him but you don’t say this because you’re worn down by the battle with your insurers eight years after the earthquake and thousands of dollars spent on lawyers that has resulted in nothing but an empty bank account and on the way to your car you look back and see your man standing in the pale sunshine under a tree frothed with cherry blossom that drifts around his head like tiny stars and you pass a bridal couple having their photographs taken by the river and you look at their shining faces and know you have no future and just before you get in your car you turn to see a small boy bent over a flower his face creasing into a gap-toothed grin and he points and you follow the trajectory of his finger to a golden-coated bumble bee going about its business in the flower and you remember how that morning after you walked away from the meeting with your manager you felt very cold and Ellen the cleaner noticed you shivering and she took your cold hands in hers and put her warm hand on your cheek.

Where to find Soul Etchings

Soul Etchings was published by Retreat West Books (UK) on 27 June 2019. It was recently reviewed by Sabotage Reviews.

For more information, and to buy the book, visit the publisher’s website.

Sandra Arnold is a novelist, short story and non-fiction writer. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, ‘Soul Etchings’ (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, ‘The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell,’ (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Recent awards include finalist in the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction Competition, the 2018 TSS Flash Fiction Competition, the 2018 University of Sunderland Short Story Award and winner of the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Short Story Award. She won the 2014 Seresin/Landfall/Otago University Press Writing Residency. Her short fiction has been widely published in New Zealand and internationally.

www.sandraarnold.co.nz

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