Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and reviews have been published in numerous print and online journals. She lives on her 43’ sailboat with her husband and two daughters and is presently exploring the waters of East Africa. She edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook and is Assistant Editor, International, of the Best Small Fictions series, by Queens Ferry Press.
In this guest interview, Michelle Elvy talks about her work, her life and her passion for short form fiction.
- At Bath Flash Fiction Award, we’re really interested in hearing about the different opportunities for publishing flash-fiction and short-short fiction contests held elsewhere in the world. You are the founding editor/co-ordinator of New Zealand’s literary journal Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day in New Zealand. Can you tell us more about both projects?
Both began in 2012, on a road trip from the far north of New Zealand to Auckland. Sian Williams and I taught a flash workshop together, and soon our discussions turned to starting a journal in New Zealand focused on the very short form. It was great fun, with our first issue featuring writers mostly from the North Island and the first year seeing a monthly schedule, with a theme presented each month. Soon we saw submissions from all over New Zealand. Now, we publish bi-monthly, with most issues international in scope and three, annually, focusing on NZ writing: one in autumn, one in spring and a third, in winter, that publishes the NFFD winning stories. We also sponsor two annual awards, in winter (June) and summer (December). We publish stories up to 250 words, with the exception of our December 2015 issue, which featured micros up to 100 words (and was so fun the editors are contemplating whether to repeat in 2016).
National Flash Fiction Day also started in 2012, with the support of the Auckland writing community and especially Graeme Lay, who was the first to put together collections of short, short stories in New Zealand, back in 1997. Since NFFD’s first year, we’ve consistently seen submissions from across the country, north to south, and we sponsor three main prize-giving events each year, in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.
I’m happy to say the prize money has increased each year, as we’ve seen more and more interested parties step up with donations and sponsorships, with bookshops and individuals supporting our growing literary community. This year, the top prize will be a $1000 cash award.
NFFD is celebrated on or around June 22nd each year – the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Our motto is Because life is short. And so is some of the best fiction.
- You are also fiction editor at the international Blue Five Notebook, a journal that publishes both flash fiction, poetry and essays. As in Flash Frontier, published flash-fiction pieces are themed and have artwork attached, but they appear to have a different style and some of them are a lot longer than the pieces in Flash Frontier. Are you looking for a particular type of flash-fiction for this publication?
Blue Five Notebook is different to Flash Frontier in that the stories can be up to 1000 words and we don’t usually apply themes. We are shifting in 2016 fully to a quarterly schedule. Blue Five Notebook is the offspring of Bluefifth Review, the poetry journal Sam Rasnake started in 2001. In 2010 Sam decided to add fiction, and that’s when our collaboration began. We like poetic writing – of course. We like edgy, experimental work. We tend to shy away from relationship stories unless they contain something quirky and unexpected. If you look at the stories we’ve nominated for recent awards, you will find that we have selected stories about an encounter with a homeless man, a story inside the head of a schizophrenic boy, a thought-piece about a man in prison, a thoughtful walk through an orphan’s new home. The two ‘relationship’ stories we were most fond of in the last year were structured in unexpected and utterly beautiful ways.
In both Flash Frontier and Blue Five Notebook we like stories that can be read slowly, that take their time sinking in. We don’t go for the quick laugh or the over-worked punch line. I like a messy story better than the all-too-neat finish – but that doesn’t mean messy writing. Precise writing is beautiful. The joy of reading very short work is seeing how big ideas can be succinctly articulated and hinted at. Poetics on the page – even in prose form.
- This year’s Best Small Fictions (Queen’s Ferry Press), an anthology of very short fiction, came out a couple of months ago. You were assistant editor, for this publication, which contains wonderful short pieces. Can you tell us about the process of selecting for the anthology and how/if individuals can submit directly to the next collection?
I love this project. We began with a bang, when Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler guest edited the 2015 edition, and we continue in 2016 with flash champion Stuart Dybeck as the guest editor.
One of the things I like best about this anthology is the careful, objective attention to the editing process. We begin with a year-long search (reading for the 2017 edition already underway, yes), as we maintain a watchful eye for exceptional pieces from all over the print and online world of very short prose. The bulk of our finalists come from presses or journals (no, individuals may not nominate themselves) who nominate up to five stories from their pages from the calendar year. We are selective from the get-go, with an emphasis on quality over quantity; the first volume contained only 55 stories from the many hundreds that were in the beginning pool – all of which were outstanding in one way or another. From the pieces that have been nominated, a small group of highly qualified contributing editors pore over the stories that are similar to each other or on the edge of acceptance and help come up with a short list (last year it was 105) to send to the guest editor, who then makes the final selections. The guest editor reads blind.
We were delighted that the first edition saw such a wide range of writing – from international journals, across gender lines, and with both emerging and experienced writers in the mix. And we look forward to even more variety with each year.
- In 2015, you also served on the editing team of Flash Fiction International, eds. James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton), another must-read amazing collection of pieces from worldwide writers, including one by our current judge, Tania Hershman. I’m sure our readers and writers would love to know more about this collection and how the editing team arrived at the final selection.
That project follows in the tradition of the Norton collections of earlier years – from Sudden Fiction (1996) to New Sudden Fiction (2007), both eds. Thomas and Shapard. It was Thomas and Shapard who launched the first flash anthologies in the US with that 1996 volume.
I came in late in the process, joining the team of readers. We spent the better part of a year scoring and discussing stories under consideration. There were thousands of works to consider– I only read a small portion of those. I was not part of the overall editing and compilation work – that was in the hands of the three main editors: a huge project, to be sure. In the end, that anthology also saw, in its conclusion, emerging writers alongside known names. I think this volume also speaks to the enormous talent in the flash fiction world, and the determination by editors to create volumes that include the very best.
- I think you may be based in New Zealand for the moment but I know you have lived, worked and travelled across the oceans with your family on your sailing boat for many years. To me, it sounds like an unfettered life, full of possibilities and challenge. How has your life-style informed your own writing?
To begin with, I think in terms of blues and greens; the sea is never far from my mind. I have lived aboard my sailboat, Momo (named after the German novel) for more than 12 years; it is my home and my workspace, as well as my kids’ schoolroom and my husband’s office, too. We live a very close existence, literally and figuratively. It’s a life with a slow pace and an intense rhythm. We move slowly and deliberately through the world. I am sure there are ways beyond my own conscious awareness that this approach to living has informed my reading and writing. I do feel an enormous freedom to write and read what I like – and that is not something I take lightly. I’m lucky indeed to be able to work from whatever anchorage we happen to be in. Recently, we spent two years (2013-15) in SE Asia; this year we find ourselves in East Africa – currently in Tanzania. It’s challenging, yes –there’s very little space to hide when you share a 43’ boat with three other people. But life is uncluttered and real on many levels.
Because I live outside of a lot of conventional boundaries, I find myself thinking about borders quite a lot: geographical, political, seasonal… boundaries created by wind and waves. I recently wrote a piece about trying on a burqa and how the experience allowed me to view myself and my daughters alongside the Muslim women of Penang, Malaysia. That piece is part of a larger collection of travel stories (and is forthcoming in an anthology called Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, eds. Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk, Demeter Press).
In fiction, I like work that defies boundaries, too – which is why flash fiction appeals. I like the sense of play that flash encourages. I like experimentation. I recently read Philip Brady’s genre-bending memoir-in-verse, To Banquet With The Ethiopians. Not flash fiction, but there are epic moments told with an economy of words in some parts. Brady is a poet who manages to do so much in a small space – something I admire.
- As well as editing magazines and other publications for publication, you also offer editorial services for authors both fiction and non-fiction. Do you offer services to those who might want to publish a flash-fiction collection or think about a flash-fiction novella? I thought writers might be interested on how to fit pieces together.
Oh yes. My work as a manuscript assessor and mentor/ editor ranges from novel to memoir to flash. I am blown away by the variety of material I get to read on a daily basis. I have a crazy-good job.
I’ve edited short stories and flash fiction collections, each one different to the last. In a recent engagement, it was quite gratifying when the writer was excited by the guidance I offered in the selection and ordering of the pieces. To me, there is a dynamic flow from one story to the next – even if a reader may dive into the middle, or start from the end. I like stepping back and looking at the whole. Sometimes an ending of one story will dovetail with the beginning of the next, or a theme may connect two pieces in sequence – even obliquely (those subtle connections are so satisfying in flash). Sometimes language or mood helps segue from one piece to the following.
We focus on sequencing at Flash Frontier, too: once we’ve selected the stories for inclusion, we consider the opening and closing stories, then work our way through the series of stories on the page, one by one. Believe it or not, flash can feel quite chaotic and out of hand if not ordered in a way that has some kind of logical, or at least rhythmic, flow (if it’s all meant to be viewed on one page, as is the case at Flash Frontier). Precisely because of its brevity, flash requires special care, I think, when ordering in a collection, or even in an issue of a journal. It’s wonderful when the moments glide, one to the next.
- In an interview at Smokelong Quarterly you said that for you, ‘deal-breakers’ in flash fiction pieces include an ‘aha’ ending and the trite and clichéd use of the ‘gotcha’ moment. Can you say what you think makes a flash fiction piece work well?
There are many qualities that make excellent flash, from the lyrical and poetic to snappy and sharp. Careful word choice and pacing. Surprising language without surprise endings. A story with a strong center, even if the characters live on the fringe.
Those stories that are so honest they startle and somehow, magically, transcend the words on the page to write truth via fiction – those blow me away.
Examples of flash fictions I’ve read in the last year that, to me, work beautifully in very different ways:
* Frankie McMillan, The House on Riselaw Street – winner of the 2015 NZ NFFD competition
* Shade Mary-Anne Olaoye, You Run – in Brittle Paper
* Jane Flett, Cure for Sickness – in Camroc Press Review
* Sheldon Lee Compton, The Ugly Cry – in Blue Five Notebook (last story on the page)
* Elizabeth Morton, Parting – in Smokelong Quarterly
* James Lloyd Davis, This Story is a Stone – in The Miscreant
* Michelle Wong, Motherly Love – in Apocrypha & Abstractions
* Gail Ingram, Whispers – in Flash Frontier (second story on the page)
Thank you so much for inviting me to share here. It’s a pleasure!