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Interview: NFFD 2020 Judges Sandra Arnold and Helen Heath

Visit the National Flash Fiction Day Competition page for more about this year’s judges.

On books and the New Zealand voice

Flash Frontier: Welcome, Helen and Sandra! You’ve both had a busy and exciting 2019/20. Let’s start by talking about each of your recent books.
Helen, can you tell us a bit about your 2020 Ockham Poetry Prize-winner, Are Friends Electric? What was the inspiration behind it? How did the collection take shape? How does it compare to your first collection, Graft?
Poet Helen Heath at her home in Paekakariki. Photo copyright Mark Coote/markcoote.com

Helen Heath: Are Friends Electric? came about as the creative component of my PhD thesis. I wanted to demonstrate that the way we respond to technology hasn’t really ever changed. There has always been fear of new technology and the change it may bring. Often those fears are unfounded. However, I think it is really important to have discussions and debate around new technology so that we are approaching the use of it with our eyes open. I don’t think technology in itself is bad, but I think it can be used for bad things — in warfare, for example.

The first half of the collection started out as a collection of curiosity pieces. It became impossible to separate the research from the writing in this collection. This book can almost be seen as a journal of reading and cultural responses. I was writing my way through some big ideas, trying to come to some kind of personal understanding. ‘Thought in motion’ is a phrase that comes to mind. The second half became a response to my brother-in-law’s terminal illness and death.

In my first book, Graft, I was deliberately thinking about science and the domestic as not being separate, also science and art, science and magical thinking. I wanted to depict science as being integral to everyday life, domestic and public.

In Are Friends Electric? I am still interested in social aspects of science, and I am still interested in the point at which two seemingly disparate things converge, but this time, instead of science and magical thinking, the convergence point is between technology and the human body. So, the small scale, intimate, ‘womanly’ ideas and experience is inescapably intertwined with big philosophical ideas and interactions with technology. For me, anyway.

FF: And Sandra, you have recently published a novel and a collection of flash fiction. Let’s focus here on your flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings: How the pieces came together; which ones were perhaps more challenging to write, or to fit into the collection; how you started thinking of the pieces as a group, as opposed to individual small fictions. How was working on a collection different to writing a distinct small story?

Sandra Arnold: Many of the stories were published in journals in New Zealand, the US, Canada and the UK. When I had around sixty-five, I approached Retreat West Books in the UK to see if they were interested in publishing them as a collection. They were. Amanda Saint, the publisher, worked with me to sort through them to see which fitted together best, and we decided on fifty-seven. We identified a few themes during the sorting, for example how some of the characters experience the world in a different way, how those who feel and see too much can be disconnected from those around them, love and loss, light and darkness, the connection to an inner life.

The genesis of the stories came from a variety of sources. For example, ‘A Voice Called Gavin’ evolved after someone told me about an app she’d bought to operate her television. It was all very high-tech and she was excited at being able to talk to this app. I started to wonder what would happen if an app could predict moods or thoughts. ‘Waiting Lists’ came from a memory of a friend from student days telling me she’d found a foot in a boot on the beach. I decided to experiment with form in this story and wrote it as lists of items the character was afraid of which indicated trauma from her childhood.

FF: You were both included in the 2018 collection, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. Would you say there is a distinct New Zealand voice, when it comes to small fictions and prose poetry?

HH: That’s hard to say, I think I’ll have a better idea about that after we’ve finished judging NFFD! I think New Zealanders are very aware of global sensibilities but also informed by our unique place in the world.

SA: Writing emerges through reading widely, drawing on life experiences, imagination, the environment and memory, and through developing skills to distill all these elements into fiction. Sometimes, though not always, there will be recognisable features of a particular cultural landscape.

On inspiration and your writing world

FF: What inspires you to write?

SA: Ideas come from overheard snippets of conversation, memories, newspaper articles, observation of behaviour, listening to tone of voice and asking myself what is not being made explicit, and always wondering ‘what if…’

HH: I try to read a lot, I’m interested in science and technology, non-fiction, the news, the natural world, conversations with other writers…

FF: How does your everyday life interact with your writing life? Does your immediate environment provide a safe and inspiring place? Can you describe your favourite writing space?

SA: I write in my study at home which overlooks farmland with a view of the Southern Alps. In that peaceful, quiet place I can immerse myself in whatever world I happen to be writing about. Sometimes a story arrives out of nowhere while I walk my dog by the river where the only sounds are birdsong and the wind in the trees, but at other times an overheard conversation in a noisy café can set off fireworks in my head.

HH: I write anywhere. I write best when I’m away from the day-to-day routine and somewhere strange to me. A little cottage in the middle of nowhere with a cosy fire and a big pot of tea sounds good to me!

FF: Do you have favourite writers? What is on your bedside table right now?

SA: There are some brilliant writers of flash fiction in New Zealand, the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK. If I start naming them I’m sure to miss some. Many of my favourite flash fiction writers appear in Flash Frontier, Fictive Dream, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, TSS The Short Story Magazine, Bending Genres, JMWW, New Flash Fiction Review – to name but a few. I’ve recently finished reading Auē, Becky Manawatu’s powerful first novel about gang violence in New Zealand. I’m currently reading a series of detective novels by Ann Cleeves, set in Shetland, and trying hard to see the clues and spot the murderer before the end of the book. I like her depictions of character, landscape, dialogue and inner life.

HH: I have a never-ending, big teetering stack of books by my bed. At the moment I’m reading Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which is a fragmented narrative memoir that is also a collective autobiography for a generation. Great stuff!

On writing and reading small

FF: As writers of other forms as well, how do you see the art of writing small interacting with your other work — Helen, your poetry, and Sandra, your novel-writing?

HH: Funnily enough, my poetry is getting longer and my prose is getting shorter and more fragmented so that ultimately I think they will converge in lyric essays.

SA: I started writing flash fiction in 2016, after a friend, Jim Norcliffe, introduced me to the form and suggested I read Flash Frontier. I was fascinated by the way a single moment or a whole lifetime could be covered in only 250 words and, more particularly, how much of the story was implied in what was left unstated. At that time I was writing my fourth book, a novel titled The Ash the Well and the Bluebell which was published by Mākaro Press in 2019. Writing a novel is a long, slow build-up of background, description and character compared to the condensed form of flash which is closer to prose poetry than to long form fiction. However, after becoming more immersed in flash I used the device of leaving parts of my novel unstated to let the reader do the work of filling in a few gaps.

FF: What do you hope to see in the small space of 300 words with this year’s NFFD submissions?

SA: I’ll be looking for stories with a deft use of language, stories that pierce my heart and resonate long after I’ve finished reading. Other than that I’ll keep an open mind.

HH: I want to be surprised and delighted. I want to see people taking risks with language and form. Most of all I want to see people having fun!

FF: Finally, would you each share three tips for writers concentrating on the small form?

SA: For people new to the form who would like to try writing it I would say:

1. Read as many flash fiction journals, anthologies and collections as you can.

2. Write your stories and put them away for a couple of weeks or more so that you can edit them with fresh eyes.

3. Send your work out to journals that are a good fit for your own work and don’t be deterred by rejections.

HH:

1. Start big and then trim, trim, trim, until just the most essential and exciting words are left on the page.

2. Be bold, please yourself and trust your readers to follow you.

3. Remember, the human brain loves to piece together fragments into narrative.

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