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Interview: Emma Neale

Interview

Flash Frontier: Congratulations on your new book, The Pink Jumpsuit. It’s a collection of short stories and we are glad to celebrate it here at Flash Frontier! Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us about the genesis of the book?

Emma Neale: Thank you for the warm reception, and the invitation to chat about the book!

Starting around March 2018, I’d begun writing more and more short fiction, partly because I was reading a lot of high quality writing in this form as part of my editorial job; and partly because I found it increasingly difficult to sustain concentration on long-form projects while also juggling family responsibilities with a busy freelance workload (editing Landfall alongside other publications). Another side to this, I am sure, was also an act of avoidance. I still have a failed novel which I want to rework, but a number of internal hurdles and aesthetic problems remain in the way. It was really gratifying to turn to other ideas and another form in the wake of realising that the novel had major issues.

At some point in early 2020, I thought that I might have enough flash fiction and longer stories to form a collection, so I tentatively approached Quentin Wilson Publishing with the idea. My initial thought was that the short stories might appeal more if accompanied with a suite of paintings by Sharon Singer.

One of the longer pieces I’d already had published online was something I had written in response to her artwork ‘Wanderlust’. I’d discovered her work at an exhibition jointly run by The Otago Art Society and Otago University Press: that event showcased the connections between the artistic and literary worlds fostered by Landfall. Wandering through that extensive and eclectic display, I was struck by a tiny oil painting. It had a slightly surreal air with its radically fragmented blue and white cubist sky, and its proud little dark horse standing like a pointer dog nosing into the wind on a beach. The piece seemed to glow and turn down the light and sound on everything else around me. When I got home that night, I googled the artist, and loved what I could find of Sharon’s catalogue online, for its colour palette and its narrative elements: often her paintings seem like illustrations to strange, unsettling contemporary or futuristic fables. I decided to invite her to submit an artist’s portfolio to Landfall. We met a few times to talk over the selection of works; and I think it was in that process that I first saw ‘Wanderlust’. I found that painting stirred a swift tumble into memories of my family in the 1980s; the title story grew out of following their unpredictable path.

I think that often my stories and Sharon’s paintings touch on similar weirdness, or friction between the real and the imagined; and I loved the idea of a collaboration. Although Quentin also admired Sharon’s work, the costs of producing a full colour book that would have done her work justice was prohibitive even for a plucky, bold independent press – and so the result was that Quentin offered to publish the stories, with a Sharon Singer painting as the cover.

FF: You wrote of ‘Wanderlust’, the cover artwork for the collection’s title story: ‘It seems like someone else’s dream of my past.’ Can you tell us how the title and book cover work together to set the tone and give a hint at what readers will find inside?

EN: Sharon Singer’s painting is an eerie, yet also playfully wry work that still draws me in, and that invites multiple stories to leap from it even now. Where is that little figure trotting off to, so vulnerable and determined, so burdened by baggage, yet still unbowed? Is that an oxygen tank on her back, or is it a pet, in the space travel equivalent of a baby carrier pack? And if it is a pet, is there another kind of animal altogether in the travel crate in her left hand? How does she expect to survive out there, on the blasted sands and in the deepening shadows? Several of the stories in the collection mention climate anxiety, even if it is just in a fleeting way; I like the way the painting makes more overt something that hovers in the background of the collection. The painting also suggests a fusion of the fabular, the fantastic, science fiction, and the current, I think: this little figure, both at risk, and somehow jaunty, could be a contemporary of ours suddenly transplanted to a weird parallel world. And several of the characters in the story experience this switch: there they are, dealing with the everyday, when the sudden swerves of desire, loss, childbirth, psychosis, love, or violence sweep them off into what feels like an alien landscape.

Originally, I thought the wild mayhem of the story “Party Games” might be a good umbrella for the works gathered here. There are several weird encounters at parties in the collection; but ‘The Pink Jumpsuit’ itself is a piece that has a tangle of cross-currents, a mixture of moods, memories and imagination, so I think it’s a good road-sign for the area the stories cover.

The subjects explored in the stories range from confidence tricksters to compulsive liars; bad relationships; the comic disasters of children’s birthday parties; body image, anorexia, misogyny, pregnancy, parenthood, miscarriage, genetic experiments; the weird metamorphosis of fantasy hardening into reality; the mysteries of identity that might also be the arcane territory of laboratory experiments.

Several of the stories share the speculative atmosphere of Sharon Singer’s painting – though I think my main interests are in the psychology of character, rather than the technicalities of how the astonishing findings and possibilities of science might unfurl. Although as a reader I’m gripped and fascinated by those, too; in my writing I always centre on the people involved.

FF: You are also a writer of novels, essays and poetry. Do you think your experience with the other forms influences or weaves into the way you write short stories? What do you learn from other writing that might come into focus as you work through a short story?

EN: I think poetry is really the best discipline for any writing. It teaches us to listen closely to the rhythm and pace of the smallest phrases; it gets us to think more vividly, in the that it demands bright and accurate sense imagery. The challenge, though, when travelling from one form to another is that certainly in the early drafts of fiction, I can get too focused on finding the right simile or metaphor, and that labour intensive part of the writing process can end up bogging down progress. One reader of an early draft of Fosterling, I think it was, told me that I could sell off my first-draft metaphors and similes to other writers, because I had an excess! She also said it seemed self-indulgent, which was an interesting lesson, as I’d thought I was just working hard to get the most accurate way of describing phenomena. What felt like under-confidence to me, looked like ill-discipline to the reader.

I feel as if what I really need to do is carry the experience of writing short fiction back into the world of writing a novel. I’ve loved the liberation of starting in media res; not feeling I need to explain character motivation and background the way a novel requires; letting the brevity of the form carry an urgency and yet also a mystery that allows more ambiguity for the reader to fossick around in. I wish that as a new, young writer I’d been dogged about trying short forms first, novels second. I seem to have gone about things a bit back to front, because I’d taken to heart the adage that publishers don’t really want to see short story collections. (Which, it turns out, of course, was true in my case — but then I found a knight in shining paperbacks! Or rather, I was led to the knight: I knew he’d done a fabulous job of Chris Else’s novel Waterline, and Chris and Barbara Else mentioned that QWP was hoping to expand his literary fiction stable. I’m very grateful to them for that tip.)

FF: In this collection, there are longer stories and some shorter flashes. What is the difference, for you, between writing different lengths of stories?

EN: It varies for every story, I think. But perhaps the main difference in the current collection is that the flash fiction does show its poetry genealogy more clearly: the sensuous, oral aspects of language are more to the fore.

We often talk about flash as the form for shortened attention spans, or the form for our increasingly busy lives, but I’ve been thinking about whether it’s also the form that itself embodies a greater urgency and intensity overall, in the spirit of the age – a heightened sense of time running out, for our systems, for the planet? The process is separate from the content, perhaps, in that sense, for some stories. But it’s maybe also behind the question of why I’ve turned to the short form. I’m ageing, my own time is definitely shortening: but my feelings about planetary stresses are siphoned into this sense of time compression too.

FF: Here, you move from realist depictions to the realm of the surreal, and we wonder if this is a way to manage heavier topics (family histories, mental or physical stresses, unexpected maladies)? Do you see the use of the magical perhaps as a way to help cope with, well, living?

EN: Sci fi, fantasy and horror are all excellent modes for showing how we have to constantly adapt to the bizarre, the strange, the unexpected, the insane … which of course feels very in keeping with what’s demanded of us in a pandemic and in a heating world where governments are criminally inactive about making meaningful energy-use change. These genres of fiction all do a more concerted job of interrogating accepted norms, I think. The strangeness in them can jolt us out of complacent thinking. Nikolai Gogol says, in “The Nose”, from way back in 1836 ‘Utterly nonsensical things happen in this world.’

I used to say that my novels grew out of asking the question what if? And I feel as if sci fi and fantasy are a turbo charged version of that question, where it’s not just about the dynamics between people, but about the very fabric of reality. Sci fi and fantasy have the power to transform metaphor into, or back into, the literal – which can be very useful for making us question the norm, or to register the full hit of an experience.

I hope all the stories feed and foster the imagination, because that’s a muscle we all need to exercise and train more as societal challenges increase; we need to keep developing and practising empathy, close listening skills, but also critical reading and thinking skills, to act as salves and solutions for division and conflict.

I also think of fantasy as a lens that can magnify issues in the present so that we might see how to tackle them in the future. Fantasy isn’t escapist in a pejorative sense; it’s just a different route to looking at human dynamics and relationships. It’s an insulated form of exploring big emotions. I’ve written down this paragraph from the children’s fantasy author Beth Webb, which I came across in The Guardian … which I think is a good base for thinking about adult genres too:

Taking one step away from reality to that ‘safe’ place of pretend prepares us to look the world’s harsh realities in the face. From there we can name the horrors and celebrate the joys before going back, with a clearer perspective on situations that bother us.

FF: Tell us about the closing story – and how this is how you choose to end the collection.

EN: This story grew out of a real domestic event: our youngest son had to have corrective surgery on his eye, for a ptosis. A site on his forehead where stitches were meant to dissolve formed a hard little nodule for a long time. I used to check on it every time he needed a hug; run my thumb over it to see how he was healing. It was a little site of maternal worry. Was the operation successful? Would the small bump ever disappear? (The surgery didn’t work, in fact: he had to have another intervention later on.) I had a moment one day when I was sure the bump was getting worse, rather than better. He insisted there was no pain, but I kept an eye on it in case an infection was developing. The story flew up out of the nest of that worry: what if? And it incorporated the not-knowing of what a child’s adult future will be; of how they will develop and move on from you.

A social realist version of the story might have the parents noticing the son’s indifference, his dismissal of them and their views, or have them quietly grieving his move away from home – but with the fantasy element, the extremes of the physical change conveys the immensity of the loss and separation, I think. There’s also fear about the child’s survival in a heating planet, but that’s almost smuggled in, like a grim nip of reality in the tail. I hope there are multiple layers like this nested inside it (and in others in the collection).

The decision to place “Rack” at the end of the collection was twofold. I felt a bit more confident about it, because it had already been published elsewhere, and I wanted to close with a robust story. The other reason was because it reaches for two things that I’m mulling over all the time. One is that we have to take account of environmental change and destruction, and the other is to acknowledge that even as we do this, we are still dealing with all our human archetypes: the intensely important psychological transitions and questions of how to best handle intimacy, relationships, personal change, loss. The story merges climate anxiety and maternal anxiety, but I hope it also instils a kind of wonder and mystery, and quietly honours the immensity and complexity of love.


Two stories by Emma Neale

A flash fiction, from her new book…

I didn’t know which one to hold first

I’d never known my father-in-law well, yet my husband’s stories about him made something in the air contract, as if light particles could fold up, like wildflowers at dusk.

‘Took off soon as I could,’ Eric often says. He left home at seventeen; travelled north, slept in parks, train stations. Freedom was a cold, hard bed, yet it held delirious quiet. Each morning it spread out like a lake vista, inviting the dally and dandle of his thoughts. Freedom didn’t stand at his shoulder, bawling him out. It didn’t march him back to the garage again, again, to eradicate filth: phantom stains invisible to a kid.

It hurts to imagine my husband as that broom-thin boy, hair gleaming black as a preacher’s shoes, while he scours and mops to exhaustion, face an increasingly expert mask.

I’d seen photos of Eric’s father: cable-knit jerseys; receding curly hair; sturdy knees in belted walk-shorts; everything camel or fawn: 1970s New Zealand a permanent autumn. His smile is hearty in these shots. There’s a chunky, homespun look about him, nothing like the man I finally met.

It was moving day. Our son, Connor, accidentally spilled Styrofoam pellets from a ripped beanbag outside the new house. The filling drifted everywhere: noxious, unmelting snow; an eerie blossom-fall of zombie spores. Some unfamiliar adult fulminated from the back door’s stoop: PICK. UP. Every. Single. Goddamn. One! Connor wept as he tried to trap each flyaway grain: a Suburban Sisyphus in torn jeans.

When I gasped ‘Eric?’, disbelief like an open-handed slap, my husband spun around, instantly back inside his own time-stung skin. He stumbled indoors, punch-drunk, dumb-struck by the blood-ghost he’d just been.


…and a micro

Frère Jacques

Relearning clarinet as an adult, the gladdening beginners’ tunes spring the memory of a figure from my childhood. Thimble-sized, brightly painted, he was a carved wooden boy in a winter hat. The scarlet pom-pom on his beanie was a miniature peg. When you pressed it, the other end poked out, red and impudent, from his mouth.

He lived on a hallway bookshelf, near where I sometimes practised music in winter, if I had to find somewhere that wouldn’t disturb our father, but the garden shed was so cold it stiffened my fingers to crooked twigs. The tiny polished boy always smiled and cocked an ear to my hopscotching-arpeggios, my Grade 3 Mozart with its bumbling, lispy, lost-tooth gaps.

Sometimes, when Dad was particularly stern — silent treatment glittering like hoarfrost on eyebrows, mouth, whiskers — I’d glide out to where the peg boy sat in his scarlet winter cap. I’d press his pom-pom peg down hard, behind Dad’s back.

Now Dad has gone. Mourning bells are ringing. Little steadfast brother, how could I have ever forgotten your quick-tongued, rosy courage?

An earlier, shorter version of the story below was longlisted
in the BIFFY500 Microfiction competition 2019

Thank you, Emma!


More about the book…

The Pink Jumpsuit by Emma Neale
Published by Quentin Wilson Publishing, 1 August 2021, RRP $35.00

In Emma Neale’s first collection of short fiction, the tales range from the surreal to the real; from the true to the tall. This collection includes some of her internationally recognised flash fiction and more extended examinations of the eerie gaps and odd swerves in intimate relationships.

There are confidence tricksters, compulsive liars, emotional turn-coats, the pulse of jumbled childhood memory still felt in adult life, the weird metamorphosis of fantasy hardening into reality.

A woman meets up with an ex-lover after twenty years, to be told an outrageous secret; a mother takes her ailing son to a doctor for an undocumented condition; a bride is left at the altar; a brother and sister reel from a family tragedy decades after the event; a children’s birthday party turns all Queen of the Flies; a hidden family legacy appears in a grand-daughter’s strange affliction.

From everyday realism to the speculative and imaginary, recurring motifs in these stories (the scientist father; the mystery of identity even within families; what we can’t know about even those closest to us) toy with the boundaries between memory and the unknown: the blending of the real and the invented.

For media queries, review and giveaway copies, extracts and interviews, please contact publicist Karen McKenzie, 027 693 9044, karen@lighthousepr.co.nz, www.lighthousepr.co.nz

More on Emma’s website.

Emma Neale has published six novels, six poetry collections and a short fiction collection. Her work has featured in more than 30 magazines, newspapers and journals, and several anthologies. Raised in Christchurch, San Diego, California and Wellington, Emma worked and studied in England. She has a PhD from University College London, UK, and after ‘back-migrating’ to New Zealand, worked for ten years as editor then senior editor for Longacre Press. She now freelances for local and overseas publishers. For three years (2017-2021) Emma was editor for New Zealand’s well known and long-standing literary and arts journal Landfall.

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