Teaching Alligators at Night – notes by Frankie McMillan

Frankie McMillan introduces flash fiction to her students at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Christchurch, New Zealand by studying works of great writers of short-short fiction. Here she describes how she recently taught flash fiction using Meg Pokrass’s marvellous new collection Alligators at Night, published in July  2018 by Ad Hoc Fiction and available from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop. We thrilled that Frankie is widening the international line up and coming over from New Zealand to teach and read at the next Flash Fiction Festival, taking place at Trinity College, in Bristol, from 28th-30th June 2019. Frankie says:

Every year my creative writing students want to write novels. Big novels with dystopian themes, family trilogies, war torn love affairs, novels that will bring them fame and fortune. Every year I start by saying, ‘Why take an ocean liner out to sea if you’re new at the game, why not take a little sail boat around the lake instead?’ The students look at me sideways, they don’t know what to make of the sea faring talk. I try another tack. ‘While you’re working on your novel, try some shorter pieces too, you’ll learn a lot about craft and possibly be published much sooner.’
I introduce them to flash fiction. Work that has emotional power and is accessible without sacrificing literary merit. We look at the work of Sandra Cisneros, Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybeck, Jayne Anne Phillips, Yasanuri Kawabata, Etgar Keret, Jeff Landon and Meg Pokrass. They warm to Pokrass’s work; there’s a silence in the class after reading ‘Stranded Sea Mammals.’ published July 2018 in Jellyfish Review. Later some of the women students note that loss runs through her collection, Alligators at Night, yet the characters cope and it is that coping that makes the work so poignant, sad and funny. We talk about grief, how complex it is and I ask them how the author conveys this. They point to the mother’s actions; searching for her lost son in a sea creature, waving the apron that he gave her so he would know she was looking for him. Throughout Alligators at Night, they note the vivid imagery:
” there’s a scent of expectation around her,”
“I’d gotten so used to Mike’s nudity that I’d stopped noticing his penis crouched like a worried squirrel.”
“…the sound of alligators crooning like deranged nocturnal cows…”
“… before she collapsed on the sidewalk like a broken dove.”
We look at the dialogue, the superb way subtext is handled. In Barista ( set in a mental health facility) the barista announces ‘ I have to die here for everyone.’ This produces a lot of class discussion about cultural referents, and, like many of the stories in Alligators at Night the students sense the power of implication, that what is hinted at or even withheld often tells the story.
Several students note how quickly character and situation are established by minimal exposition. Often the old rules (eg show, don’t tell) are subverted to create short cuts to the emotional centre of the piece. Each story is a short sharp stab of brilliance.
Lastly they like the honesty, the fearless nature of Pokrass’s work as she taps into difficult feelings. We discuss how her stories are infused with wonder; how we are so mysterious to ourselves and to others yet have such depth of feeling for each other.
This year several of the adult students are keen to do an additional year at the Hagley Writers’ Institute programme. They haven’t yet finished their novel. Others want to come back, get their feet wet, learn how to navigate the world of flash. ‘Listen,’ I want to say, ‘Can you hear the alligators crooning?’

 Frankie McMillan is the author of four books, the most recent of which, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions, ( Canterbury University Press ) was longlisted for the 2017 NZ Ockham awards. In 2005 she was awarded the Creative New Todd Bursary. Other awards include winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition in 2009 and winner of the New Zealand Flash Fiction Competition in 2013 and 2015. Her flash fiction appears in national and international journals and anthologies, notably, Flash Fiction International, 2015 (WWW Norton) and Best Small Fictions, 2017 ( Braddock Books). In 2014 she held the Ursula Bethell writing residency at Canterbury University and in 2017 the University of Auckland/Michael King writing residency. Her latest project is Bonsai: best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, ( Canterbury University Press, 2018) edited with Michelle Elvy and James Norcliffe. She currently teaches at the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Christchurch.

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