Interview by Sandra Arnold
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Michelle. You have an extremely adventurous and busy life travelling the world and raising your family on your boat MOMO, editing, writing and judging competitions. How do you manage to accomplish all this from the middle of the ocean? You must be super organised.
Ha, well, yes, I am usually fairly well organised ‒ and most often I’m able to schedule things ahead of times and work while coastal ‒ where we can be connected. Both my husband and I work online ‒ he’s a translator and I keep my editing/ manuscript assessment business afloat. Working online allows us the freedom to travel and maintain our budget ‒ it’s ideal, really, for anyone who needs to keep working even while travelling. We work while land-oriented ‒ for two years in Southeast Asia, we were never more than a day or two from being connected; and more recently, in East Africa, we were almost always able to get online, whether in Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania or even Mozambique. When we are offshore ‒ not coastal, that is ‒ it’s trickier and requires far more longer-term planning. This year, for example, we spent April ‒ June crossing the Atlantic, from Namibia to New England, and there were times when I was offline for long stretches, leaving projects in the hands of others. Luckily, the teams we’ve built over the years have become adept at handling everything, and I am grateful for the people who work to make things successful ‒ for National Flash Fiction Day, Flash Frontier and Blue Five Notebook, for example.
Tell us about your background. What makes you want to spend so much of your life at sea? Although it sounds adventurous, I imagine it must be hard work too, contending with storms at sea and possible mechanical breakdowns.
I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay. My family did not sail but we had small runabouts and fishing boats. Water is everywhere in this region, long fingers of streams and rivers connecting and emptying into this estuary that extends 200 nautical miles down to the Atlantic Ocean. If you are raised there, I think water is in your blood. If I’m too far from the sea for any length of time, I feel restless. Even at my husband’s family cabin, I feel hemmed in if I stay too long. Those long stretches of blue ‒ I’m accustomed to that being my view of the world, and I feel at home surrounded by water.
I suspect people in houses have far more mechanical failures than on a sailboat. For us, maintaining the sailboat is a central part of everyday living, just as maintaining a house would be. If you live aboard, you tend to small things almost every day. The maintenance is critical, since it’s keeping you safe at sea, so we are diligent about the smallest details ‒ whether sail repair or fresh water supply or our own health (offshore, you have to carry basic medical care with you, from paracetamol to suture kits).
Storms occur, yes. You can’t really cross oceans without encountering some foul weather here or there. But you sail offshore first and foremost with the seasons (never in cyclone season, for example), and with wind and current. We’ve been in some nasty weather ‒ squalls, gales, etc. But we try to be as prepared as possible, and we rely on the knowledge that our boat is a strong offshore vessel and can carry us through quite a lot.
You were the key person in setting up Flash Frontier, New Zealand’s first online flash fiction magazine. How did this come about?
We began the journal in 2012. I had just come off of the project 52|250: A Year of Flash, which lasted exactly one year, from May 2010 to May 2011. By year-end I was talking with my friend and writer Sian Williams about another online project ‒ this time based in New Zealand (we were both in Northland). Sian and I had come to know each other after teaching a flash workshop together. Everything followed from there; we noticed there was no journal in New Zealand dedicated to the very short form, and we also set it up as a challenge similar to 52|250 ‒ but instead of writing a story per week, we changed it to a story per month. The first two years saw a growing set of contributors, and it was obvious there was real enthusiasm for the form in New Zealand. But we also began seeing international submissions ‒ because the journal is available online ‒ so we added international issues to the mix in 2014.
You also started New Zealand’s National Flash Fiction Day in 2012. How did this happen?
NFFD grew in conjunction with Flash Frontier, with Sian Williams also working with me during the first years. Besides setting up the journal, we established a national competition for the small form. We contacted Graeme Lay as he was the editor of the early anthologies that brought together wonderful examples of 500-word stories. We also spoke with Siobhan Harvey, who was running National Poetry Day. From these two people, we gained excellent pointers and launched the first NFFD in June 2012. Graeme judged the first competition, with Tina Shaw and Stephen Stratford. In the first year, we saw 300 submissions ‒ far more than we had ever imagined. The rest has flowed from there: adding the Regional Awards, with the support of NZ Society of Authors branches; bringing in City Chairs for the main city centres (growing from Auckland to five main centres for the annual celebrations); adding the youth category; welcoming new judges each year who help set the standard and ensure the winning stories raise the bar, time and again.
Flash fiction has grown enormously in popularity and visibility around the world since the 1980s. In New Zealand was it slower to take off? How would you describe it now?
The recent flash ‘explosion’ has its origins in the US, with the introduction of the term ‘flash fiction’ in the 1980s and anthologies proliferating ever since and published by W. W. Norton (beginning with New Sudden Fiction and extending through Flash Fiction International and this year’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction ‒ the latter edited by Thomas and Robert Scotellaro), but the form has been around for a very long time, all over the world. The short short story has always had a place in New Zealand as well, even going back to small compact works by Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame; it’s just not been labelled as such. We started using the term in 2012 with the founding of Flash Frontier and NFFD, and I think there has been a slower acceptance of the term than the form. For some, perhaps the term connotes something too fleeting, or suggests our 21st century inability to focus on longer works. But I think the term ‘flash fiction’ is simply one of many to describe the very short form ‒ micro fiction, smokelong fiction, sudden fiction, quick fiction ‒ and I also believe that we are just as keen about the novel, or the longer essay, as we are about shorter works. The fact that you can read a small story in between bus stops, or on your tiny phone screen, lends itself to being mobile ‒ but that’s not the primary reason it resonates with readers and writers alike. I think its primary interest lies in the fact that literature is always pushing boundaries and the small form is exceptionally good at that: with flash fiction, despite being limited by word count, you are free to experiment in ways that are not as available in the longer forms.
You also edit Blue Five Notebook. Could you tell us how this came about? What are the differences between Blue Five Notebook and Flash Frontier?
Blue Five Notebook began as Bluefifth Review, a poetry journal founded by Sam Rasnake in 2001. He added flash fiction in 2011 and I came on as the fiction editor. The combination of poetry, flash fiction and art is aesthetically pleasing: short, eclectic bursts of inspiration. There is a happy union between the forms at that venue, and we tend toward experimental, ethereal prose at Blue Five Notebook ‒ not something we mapped out with intent, but clearly reflecting the poetic roots and sensibilities of the journal.
Tell us how Best Small Fictions began and how you became involved with the editing of that. What do you look for as an editor?
The Best Small Fictions process is very different to the online journals I edit. As Assistant Editor (International) I work with the other two main editors ‒ Chauna Craig is the Assistant Editor (Domestic ‒ US), and the series editors have been Tara L. Masih, who founded the series in 2015, and Sherrie Flick. Our main task is to work with the publisher to put out the call for nominations to journal editors (works must be nominated by editors; an individual cannot submit her own material for consideration), to monitor the reading process (we have a broad set of expert contributing editors who help us narrow the 1000+ submissions to semi-finalists and finalists) and to help the book along as we move from selections through the publishing process. Our key readers review materials blind, as do the Guest Editors when they choose their inclusions from the finalists. It is a rigorous process, and we are proud that we’ve established such a high standard, with a fairly smooth process, and each year seeing a broader set of inclusions from the US and abroad.
What is it about short forms that you most like? How do you see the form evolving?
I love that something so small can be so powerful. I love that an individual’s imagination can be set free. I love that there are parallels to poetry in that language often drives a small piece as much as character and plot. I love that I can be surprised time and again, no matter how many tens of thousands of small fictions I’ve read by now. I love that it’s an equal opportunity form: new writers are as likely to shine ‒ and to strike a chord with an editor or a reader ‒ as experienced writers.
Which flash fiction journals and writers do you particularly admire?
There are too many fine ones to name, though I would note SmokeLong Quarterly for setting the bar very high for years. Each year at Best Small Fictions we highlight one author whose work is exceptional and one journal whose nominations have gone very far in the review process. So, for example, the 2018 BSF edition features Diane Williams and Jellyfish Review.
Does your editing and manuscript assessment work influence your own writing?
Certainly. I am far more careful with my own work now than I was ten years ago. And I am careful in the language I use bringing up my daughters. All four of us in our family are keenly interested in language (English and foreign languages) and I think that shows in the ways my daughters go about expressing themselves, too. I’m always happy to see that play out.
Does living at sea change the way you look at the world and the way you write?
Yes, of course. We laugh that living at sea, on a small boat, likely intensifies who you were in the first place ‒ and I think that may be the case for me. I like being alone, and I like my freedom (remember, I grew up in the US, so my sense of ‘freedom’, as experienced in the US political and cultural realm, has been shrinking since the 1960s). On the other hand, I also feel lucky to be as connected as I am, around the globe, and I like how the world seems both small and vast all at once.
Which of your own stories are you most proud of? Why?
I like ‘Antarctica’ because it feels like a compact dreamscape ‒ but don’t ask me what it means. I also like ‘Lost and Found in Berlin’ because it draws on my experience of living in Berlin 1988-90, when the Wall came down.
Tell us about your current project and future goals.
This year, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand will be launched at the WORD writers and readers festival in Christchurch (Aug 29 ‒ Sept 2), with a book tour following in Wellington, Auckland and Northland. The book is edited by Frankie McMillan, James Norcliffe and me, and it’s published by Canterbury University Press, with the support of Creative New Zealand. We’re excited about the anthology because it’s the first of its kind in New Zealand, with 200 works of flash fiction, prose poetry and haibun, and essays as well.
Meanwhile, Flash Frontier and NFFD are always evolving and growing ‒ and we learn more each year. We are considering annual print editions, as well as new categories. This year, in lieu of themes for Flash Frontier’s issues, we decided to focus around geographies, and the results have been stunning, with a wider contributor base and audience in each issue: Pasifika (March); New Zealand Flora and Fauna (April); New Orleans (June); Africa (September) and Antarctica (November).
As for my own writing, my first novel is nearly complete ‒ I was lucky enough to land a 2017 NZSA Mentor Programme slot for that, which was an excellent boost to push it to completion. Besides that, I have a backlog of projects that I’ve completed while we’ve been out sailing: a hybrid memoir, which includes stories, poetry and log entries, based on our 2008 Pacific crossing (and I had the good fortune to gain critical feedback in conversation with Fiona Farrell, which has helped shape the project); two flash fiction collections; and a flash novella. All of which means my goals for the remainder of this year and into 2019, besides sailing back to New Zealand, are to see these through to publication.
Thank you, Sandra!
Thank you, Michelle.
Michelle Elvy edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook, and is Assistant Editor (International) of the Best Small Fictions series. Her newest project is Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (CUP 2018), edited with Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe. Her recent writing appears in Borderlands & Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter Press 2016), Manifesto: 101 Political Poems (OUP 2017), New Micros (W. W. Norton 2018) and Feminine Rising (forthcoming, Cynren Press 2019).
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer with a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia. Her work appears in numerous international journals. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominee. Her third novel Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) in 2019 and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings will be published by Retreat West Books (UK) in 2019. More at her website here: www.sandraarnold.co.nz
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