Interview with Emma Neale, Third Prize Winner, October 2018

Emma Neale won third prize in the October 2018 round of Bath Flash Fiction Award with her densely evocative and powerful flash fiction, The Local Pool. Nuala O’Connor the judge for the October 2018 round said this about Emma’s story.

I loved the elliptical nature of this flash, the reader is told just enough and the opening paragraph is a perfect blend of language and sense-memory. The story perfectly captures the confusion of adolescents dealing with large issues and does it at a remove that adds to the power of the piece.

In this interview Emma tells us more about the background to the story and shows how one event based in a small community in the past can, in the way it is written, give resonance to many larger concerns, also highly relevant today. So many layers in such a short piece. We very much like her advice to other writers about not rushing to a finished flash but rather leaving it for several weeks to ‘marinate’ so those deeper layers can emerge and then crucially, reading it aloud. Emma’s story is now also available to read in print in Things Left And Found By The Side Of The Road our new anthology of flash fictions from the 2018 Awards and you can also read her story. Courtship which was commended in the Bridport Prize in their new anthology. We also look forward to reading Emma’s new poetry collection, To The Occupant, forthcoming in 2019. It’s fascinating to see where a writer works; there are so many interesting objects on Emma’s wall, desk and door. And also we love the picture of her with the family rabbit which she sometimes pops out to see during a writing stint.

  • There is so much about character and community packed into your brilliant flash fiction The Local Pool. How did this story come into being?
    The initial trigger is in the first line. I really did walk around the corner near the large public pool in the town I live in now, and the scent of chlorine brought back a surge of memory about an incident from my very early teenage years. Recalling it now, as an adult, I found myself thinking about the grief that so many people around the young girl at the centre of the flash piece also felt when the incident erupted in a small suburban community. At the time, I mainly felt a kind of helpless empathy, dread and bewilderment for the young girl. As an adult, I also thought about the guardians around her, who deeply wanted to help and protect her. Not all of them are in this piece, of course. The economy of flash means that so much can only be hinted at. So I don’t mention her parents, her other relatives, or her closest teachers. I think subconsciously this was part of transforming the memory more thoroughly into fiction, which moves towards a closure outside the frame of the historical facts.

    There has been so much public discussion about readdressing past or suppressed incidents of sexual abuse in multiple contexts lately, and I think many women are re-examining their own — and their sisters’, friends’ and mothers’ — histories in this light. One of the results of the #metoo movement is the realisation that we are actually an (involuntarily) bonded community. This aspect of the shared social reeling after a violent crime was working away inside the piece as well.

    Playing underneath this re-examination of the past was also a comment from the New Zealand writer, Tracey Slaughter, whose poetry and short fiction is often searingly brave. (Her flash piece, ‘Compact’, was commended in the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2018.) Tracey was the judge for the New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day 2017, and in an interview prior to that award she wrote:
    “I want to take a sentence on, as poet C. D. Wright said, as a bodily encounter, a ‘personal blow’. This kind of punch and seizure often comes from a piece where you sense the writer has taken a risk, put themselves at stake – so hunt life to its hard places, corner it, eyeball it, don’t look away.”

    This memory was one of the hardest places I could hunt to. I was diffident at first about confronting it: part of me thought it wasn’t my story to tell. Yet the story, as you say, is partly about how the impact of a violent sexual attack inevitably ripples outwards; how it affects the psychological development of the other young people witnessing the aftermath. The narrative voice is really one of those young witnesses: so the tone is one of still not really understanding; still not really knowing exactly how and why some things unfolded the way they did. I think that the brevity of flash was perfect, actually, for evoking that feeling of emotional limbo, of teetering, until the end of the work.

  • You write poetry and longer fiction too. Can you tell us more about your poetry collection, To The Occupant, forthcoming from Otago University Press in 2019? Does it include prose poetry?
    • Yes, it does – and as so many other commentators have said, prose poetry and flash fiction are intimately related; although I do think that when I am consciously writing flash, I am looking harder at the chain of events, at the and then, and then, of how one thing bled or fled into another.

      The poetry collection has a number of poems that play with the idea of letters and correspondence; this partly grew out of realising that the flash piece/prose poem ‘Courtship’ and two other poems ‘Dear Friend’ and ‘Letter from Hamelin’ borrowed or celebrated the letter form. Then I came across The Letters Page, a UK publication, which regularly showcases work that explores the genre, also, and that set me off on a short obsessive writing binge that ended up forming one section of the book.

    • And following on from that last question, do you find you move easily between writing poetry, short or longer fiction? Or does the particular writing form draw out something different from you?
      I used to move easily between poetry and novels; in fact I often wrote poetry when I was struggling to finish the draft of a novel; it was as if it helped to loosen cramped muscles. Or poetry would be a way of processing experiences or making observations that didn’t fit inside the fictional world I was constructing at the time. Now I find it much, much harder to shift between them. I think that might actually be to do with a very pragmatic thing: when I was regularly teaching poetry workshops at the University of Otago, poetry was my daily language. I’m not in that role this year; instead I am editing Landfall and reading much more fiction and non-fiction. So the word music I hear daily is very different. Perhaps I’m a bit of a mocking bird: I call out a response to what I’m surrounded by.
    • Have you any new projects on the go?
      Yes, I am working on a long short story that I thought would be a flash piece, but which bucked me off and galloped away, as it wanted more space. So I am running hard to catch up with it.

      I am also about 50,000 words through the first draft of a novel. This has hit the stage where I need to stand back and do some more research before I feel confident that it is sensitive enough to current social changes in attitudes to gender expression. It’s ever so slightly science fictional, and it is proving to be very hard to keep ‘ahead’ of the present, as the world is changing so rapidly.

    • Where and when do you write? Music on or off? Pets that keep you company? Views that inspire?
      I write between issues of Landfall; in the small pockets of time that my other freelance editorial contracts allow. Music off for the first draft; on for the edits! Music helps me to get through the boring typing-up-of-corrections donkey-work – but it distracts me from the internal rhythms and sonic sculpting that have to go into the first draft of poetry or fiction.

    I do go and talk to my youngest son’s rabbit, PopUp, every now and then. Feeding him (the rabbit!) dandelions, and watching him whiffle them up like a kind of stiff spaghetti noodle is better than any internet cat meme.

  • You also edit Landfall, a long established literary journal in New Zealand. Can you tell us more about this magazine and whether you accept international submissions of flash fiction?
    Landfall publishes short fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, and it also showcases three visual artists each issue; it runs two colour art portfolios and has one monochrome print image as the back page. It was established by Charles Brasch in 1947, and was set up to support and nurture New Zealand and South Pacific related writing and arts. International submissions are occasionally published, but only if they have a clear, vital and relevant connection to New Zealand and the South Pacific.
  • You were also highly commended in the Bridport Flash Fiction Prize this year for Courtship, another piece under 300 words. What advice would you give for developing and honing micros of this sort of length?
    • Perhaps counter-intuitively, my strongest advice would be, don’t be in a rush. There is a common argument that flash fiction and micro fiction are fairly efficient to write; but I think that this might lead to people thinking they can knock off short forms as fast as de-heading old dahlias. The idea for ‘Courtship’ came to me while I was watching my youngest son play in a playground last January, in a southern summer; I scribbled down a first draft in a small notebook while he swung from some monkey bars. But it took five months of re-working it, reading aloud, arranging and re-arranging the pattern, on and off, before I felt bold enough to send it away. I think it is important to walk away from early drafts, let them marinate, and then come back to taste them with a fresh palate and a clear head several weeks later.

      I also think the old advice about reading your work aloud is absolutely crucial to short forms. It is very easy to miss a repetition, not just of vocabulary, but of saying the same thing in a different way, in your own early drafts. Hearing the words sit on the air somehow gives the writer an extra critical distance, so that it becomes easier to perceive where more words can be ditched, or altered, in the interests of both the succinct and the sensuous.

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