Steven John, Senior Fiction & Features Editor, interviews Rachel Smith about her two Flash Fictions in Best Microfiction 2019, edited by Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke. Final selections by Dan Chaon. Published by Pelekinesis
SJ: I’d like to start by asking you about the world of ‘What I Now Know’. You take us back in time to a remote part of the world for most of our readers – the South Pacific Islands. The evocative language of vî, tipani trees and pareu, and the horror of ‘kuru.’ (We’ll let our readers do the research!) Perhaps you could give us some background to this wonderful story.
I have been lucky enough to live on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands for 6 years. To give you some idea of scale it takes about an hour to drive around Rarotonga, and the only speed is slow. Life here is slow and wonderful and beautiful. And so all of this comes up in my writing. It may feel like its back in time but the story is set in the present here.
SJ: In ‘What I Now Know’ there’s a compelling rhythm between long and short sentences. Is this musicality something we should work on in our writing, or should the flow happen in a natural way?
RS: I think it is a combination of both. I enjoy a sense of rhythm in stories that I read and much of this occurs in a natural way when writing very short fiction. Of course there are techniques to enhance this and I like to play around with sentence length to mix up the pace and sound of a piece.
SJ: ‘Glossectomy’ is a contrasting story of loss rather than love, set in a largely anonymous modern world rather than an indigenous one, relationships being the common thread in both stories. Do you have any favourite themes and is there anything you find difficult to tackle in fiction?
RS: I would say that I don’t have any favourite themes however when I look back at what I’ve written this year then yes, nearly all of them are around relationships between adults. I think this is because in situations where emotions can be extreme we see more of what it is to be human – that grey middle ground of being which I find so interesting.
As for difficult themes, any subject that I feel very strongly about is challenging to write. I went to an excellent event at WORD Christchurch this year, and author John Boyne talked about coming at a big idea sideways, which I have found helpful as an entry point for more intense themes.
SJ: There’s some remarkable poetry in both of your pieces; ‘the moon lays down its silver’ and ‘our hands are slippery with the scent of husbandry.’ Does microfiction need a degree of poetic language to make it zing?
RS: `I think so but that’s just my preference – the stories I remember are the ones that have beautiful and unusual imagery.
SJ: How do you begin a story? Do you set out to write a story with a strong feeling about it, or is it something that finds itself while writing?
RS: I often start a story with an image, which in the case of What I Now Know was a string of images, or with a character. I never have a plot in mind – the story finds itself as I write.
SJ: Please walk us through your editing process. What are your golden rules and your bad habits?
RS: I write, and then edit and edit by looking closely at each word and each sentence. Then I put a story away, edit some more, put it away again. When I think it’s nearly complete I ask myself over and over what is this story really about, what am I trying to say? If I am unsure then the reader will be too. And I read it aloud many many times. One bad habit would be being impatient with the editing process and sending a story out for publication too early – those ones nearly always bounce back.
SJ: As a journalist in addition to being a fiction writer, what journalistic skills help you in writing short form fiction?
RS: For me all forms of writing help the other as it is all practice at putting words together. Journalism has helped me to be more succinct with my fiction, and fiction has helped bring more storytelling to my journalism.
SJ: Please tell us something of the flash fiction scene in New Zealand. Are there any stand-out literary magazines and are there any up and coming flash writers we should watch out for?
RS: Aotearoa New Zealand has an amazing, vibrant and very supportive flash fiction scene. Nearly all literary magazines include flash fiction now, with one of the first being Flash Frontier which was founded by Michelle Elvy. This is where I had my first flash fiction published. There are too many stand out writers to list. To get a taste of NZ flash I highly recommend reading Bonsai – Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand.
SJ: If you had to rescue three books from going down with the waka, books to keep you company on the uninhabited South Pacific island, what are they going to be?
RS: The English Patient by Michel Ondaatje, The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions by Frankie McMillan
Rachel Smith’s work has been published in journals and anthologies. Her flash fiction has been long and short listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and TSS International Flash Fiction, and placed second in 2017 NZ National Flash Fiction Day. She is script writer for a feature film Stranded Pearl due for release in 2019.