Claire Polders talks to Michelle Elvy about her forthcoming stories in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), her work as an editor for Flash Frontier and Blue Five Notebook, and the relationship between fiction and reality in her writing.
CP: You have two microfiction pieces in the just released anthology New Micro, and they are among my favorite stories of this collection. In “Antarctica” you deal masterfully with the absurd, bringing it into reality and somehow passing it off as sensible. At least, that’s how I read it. What is the role of absurdity in your fiction as opposed to the logic of everyday?
ME: Thank you! I think fiction allows us to explore the everyday in new and challenging ways, beyond realism. We can gain a different view of alienation or estrangement, for example, by looking through a new lens. I often feel as if I want to explore the everyday but with a different light, or through shadows. And the absurd is just taking that one step further – noticing how life is complicated and simple all at once. I think that’s how I arrived here: the moments the character experiences are so ordinary, yet hard to explain to anyone outside his own experience. I enjoyed writing a piece that lives in that weird space. There is a simple logic to his rhythms, and yet…
CP: In “Triptych” we read the story of a class visit to a museum where children are studying a triptych of a whale hunt and a boy gets trapped in an uncomfortable yet exciting position near two girls. The “grotesque and dizzying moment” takes place on the painting as well as on the museum floor. How did you manage to keep these two tales so in synch? Do you remember how you wrote this story and can you tell us about the process?
ME: This began with an image – a photograph I came across in the Auckland Museum Library. The photo is from the 1950s and it shows a student trip to the Museum – the students are gathered around a painting, and the teacher is instructing (looking authoritative, as I recall). The story unfolded from there, in three parts. It was an exercise in imagining what might have been happening – the idea of a class being told how to look at something, while really something else entirely is occurring in the air between classmates. I enjoy the challenge of switching between viewpoints, and seeing what we might find if we see a scene from a different angle. In this case, describing the piece of art from three views was part of the challenge. And painting those moments between the classmates gave me a layered approach to writing about the art and its audience.
CP: Your biography tells me that you have travelled a lot and lived all over the globe. From the US to Europe, Canada, Mexico, the South Pacific, East Africa, and New Zealand. How has this mobility influenced your writing? How did the different cultures and geographical locations inspire you?
ME: In ways I probably do not even realize, most likely. I write about experiences or feelings that have emerged in different geographies. So my writing ranges in content and tone: a humorous story about a giraffe writing a letter to the authorities, an encounter with women wearing burqas, a poem about sailing across the equator for the first time, an essay about having our second baby in Mexico. Each encounter is inspiring, and a revelation – some are small, but nonetheless powerful. We’ve had some extraordinary years aboard our floating world – making contact and then departing, exploring the continent’s edges and sometimes only skimming the surface of understanding. I cherish the time we’ve been able to travel, raising our daughters on a sailboat and exploring the world slowly – with a sense of profound freedom, really – because it has helped me situate myself as an individual and a mother first, and then also as a writer and editor.
CP: I was practically raised on my father’s sailboat—we went sailing every summer of my youth and many weekends—and I still am happiest, and most inspired, near the coast. What does water and sailing mean to you and your writing?
ME: How wonderful – it is an experience hard to describe or explain, isn’t it? I love hearing that the coast inspires you. I think it’s the same for many who are connected to the coast: this love for that space between land and sea, where change is the essence of everything. That feeling of freedom that the horizon symbolizes, that sense of letting go when you set out to sea. I happen to be a person who can live with uncertainty; I like the fluidity of life, and all we don’t know – small and large scale. I’ve grown accustomed to rhythms that are not always predictable. The sea’s like this. Mountains are lovely but they box me in – I like to know I can set out across an ocean when I need to, even if I’m not quite sure where I’m going. So… I think my relationship to the ocean has impacted my sense of how I fit into the world. I take the world seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously. I think I feel this way about writing, or any creative endeavor. You move one step at a time – or one sea mile at a time – and you inevitably change and grow, and sometimes you err. But you carry on, and before you know it you’ve crossed an ocean. I think living at sea for long periods of time has given me a modest view of life, but also an optimistic one.
CP: What are your obsessions as a writer? To what subject, theme, or story do you keep coming back?
ME: The ocean. Always.
CP: You are the founding editor of New Zealand’s literary journal Flash Frontier and the fiction editor at Blue Five Notebook. You have also been assistant editor for the Best Small Fictions series, and you worked on the editorial team of Flash Fiction International. And this year, you’ve co-edited Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. In short: you read and have read an enormous amount of stories. How does the evaluation and selection process work for you? What makes you put a story down? Or what do you always look for?
ME: It’s the thing I love most about being an editor with such projects as these: the enormous variety and quality I get to read, on a daily basis. It’s an honor to do that day in and day out. As for the evaluation and selection process – well, it varies from project to project. Best Small Fictions seeks the best works published in any one year, so we find ourselves reading year-round for the next volume. I’m focused most directly around international works, so I reach far and wide to see what works might be eligible. It’s exciting – each year we find more and more. The Bonsai anthology is a New Zealand project, so we were looking for the very best of the small form written by New Zealand poets and fiction writers. Reading for that was extraordinary because we found such a wide range of works that qualified – not only flash fiction but also prose poetry and haibun.
The question of ‘best’ is of course something anyone can debate. Best for whom? It’s a question every editor is aware of, and struggles with – because any selection process is a subjective one. But there is an obvious thrill that comes when you pick up a piece of writing that dazzles in a new way. A wonderful example came when I recently taught a workshop in New Zealand – we were about to launch Bonsai, and then take the book on tour. I was teaching at Hagley Writers’ Workshop in Christchurch. Frankie McMillan (renowned New Zealand writer and also one of the co-editors of the Bonsai anthology, with James Norcliffe) was in the room with me. I asked everyone to work through a writing exercise, and then they shared their pieces. They were of an excellent quality and some were surprising for different reasons: poetic voice, snappy dialogue, care of word choice, etc. And then Frankie read hers – and there were audible gasps. Hers stood out for all of the above, and more. It was startling for the class to see just how good it was – and this was something she had just dashed off in a workshop, and read aloud (muttering about her penmanship) because I had, rather forwardly, put her on the spot. I think that helps illustrate that it does not always take a good editor to see an excellent piece of writing: sometimes it shines for many reasons to everyone in the room.
But there is labor involved in reading, and selecting, of course. Sometimes the editing process means spotting the gem that needs a slight tweak to get it to its best potential. This happens sometimes at Blue Five Notebook and Flash Frontier, especially with new writers. We try to give writers the respect and space to develop more, if that’s something they’d like to do. We will make editing suggestions and point out how a piece of writing may be strengthened – and we get positive feedback, always. Even this is a subjective process, however; we make suggestions based on our own reading experience, but an editor must be mindful that the writing is always the author’s creation. It is an exercise in balance: critical reading of the work on the page, combined with kindness to the writer – this is what I try to achieve as an editor. People put their best into their writing – and editors put their best into reading and supporting a piece that may be published. That’s how it should be, I think.
CP: How does your editing work influence your writing?
ME: It has made me more critical of my own writing, in all the best ways. It certainly has made me a more careful writer.
CP: What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
ME: Write from your heart. It’s corny but true. Never mind the market or the noise – just do what comes naturally.
CP: What’s the best writing advice you are willing to give us?
ME: Write – and read – in a way that challenges yourself.
CP: What projects are you working on right now, or what are your ambitions for the near future?
ME: I’ve had a lot of time to write while traveling, and I feel as if I have meandered my way to a good space (mentally, and geographically), where I’m ready to publish some of my own work. So that is a focus for the immediate future. Two story collections, a novella and a memoir-type set of reflections based on our travels – these are ready to go. I aim to focus on their publication next. I also have nearly finished my first novel – thanks to the mentorship programme of the New Zealand Society of Authors, which paired me up in 2017 with Fiona Farrell and gave me an inspiring push. Meanwhile, we see National Flash Fiction Day growing every year in New Zealand and 2019 promises to be another big year for the small form. So, lots to look forward to. And more editing projects in the works as well. One can never have too much to read.
CP: Thank you for your time! I’m very much looking forward to see these works published and wish you all the time and concentration you’ll need to finish them!
ME: Thank you, Claire and New Flash Fiction Review!
Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor, and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand. She has published poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction, and reviews in print and online journals and anthologies. Recently, her work appears in New Micro (W.W. Norton 2018), and she co-edited Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press 2018). She edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook and is Assistant Editor for the Best Small Fictions series. michelleelvy.com
This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series founded by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.