Read this fascinating interview with Ellie Walsh, the winner of our third novella-in-flash award with her wonderful novella, Birds with Horse Hearts.
This year, the Award was judged by Michael Loveday. In his judge’s comments copied here, Michael gives a synopsis of the novella. He writes:
Three women take centre stage in this novella-in-flash, a rich and poetic study of a poor farming family in Nepal, with whom a woman from Iowa is staying, for unnamed reasons, after the death of her husband. Here the impoverished and marginalised are, for once, placed in the foreground, and the story is partly about how we can and must find beauty and love amidst harshness and deprivation. At the centre of it all is the enigmatic, beguiling, and tragic figure of the young prostitute Putali, at once trapped in a difficult life, and yet as free-spirited as a butterfly. This is a novella shadowed by loss and the search for belonging; it is also, in its own quiet, subtle and radical way, a love story. The quality of the sentence-making is stunning, the characterisation vivid and unique, and the narrative compelling and effortlessly handled, layered with skilful exposition, motifs and foreshadowings. I couldn’t fault the decisions that had been taken by the author and, although there were several other very fine manuscripts of clearly publishable quality, in the end this dark jewel of a story haunted me the most out of all the submissions – as soon as I encountered it, the characters, setting, and storyline simply refused to leave my head.
We are very pleased that Ad Hoc Fiction is publishing Ellie's stunning novella-in-flash in a single-author book later this year. It’s a must-read. Ellie is also a member of a panel at the Flash Fiction Festival UK in June, discussing the Novella-in-Flash, with Meg Pokrass and Charmaine Wilkerson. Michael Loveday is chairing the discussion and facilitating Q and A.
- Jude: Your novella-in-flash has a compelling and moving story. Can you tell us what inspired you to write it?
Ellie: Thank you, those are very kind words. I like to tell people it all really happened, and then they start crying, but then I have to say, “No I’m kidding, it’s just a very sad story that I made up.” It was inspired by everyday life in Nepal, I guess. Nepal is strongly defined in the West by depictions of the Himalayas and specifically of Everest, and those depictions have been controlled by Westerners since the first writings of Nepal. So I was keen to write about the jungle regions that people have rarely heard of, and to put Nepali people at the centre of the story. I wanted to write about women and their relationships with each other. Last year my Nepali mum (not a blood relative) was attacked by a crocodile near our home, which is not something people usually survive. I actually wrote the first draft of the novella lying on a foam mat by her bed on the trauma ward. I spent a lot of that time considering her stoicism and bravery, and the strength of many Nepali women I know. The way she handled this near-death experience as if it were something she half-expected stuck with me. So I wanted to depict that kind of toughness in my female characters.
- Jude: Birds with Horse Hearts is a striking title – how did you arrive at that?
Ellie: Well a title should raise questions for a reader, and I hope this one does. It’s a sort of grotesque image however you interpret it, but that’s fine because the novella has its own share of grotesque imagery. Birds and horses are important motifs in the story too because they’re attached to themes of imprisonment and escape. But more than that, the story is ultimately about women who have nothing but each other: it’s a story of endurance and durability, of women refusing to leave one another behind. So I liked the idea of the birds – who seem meek and simple because they’re outwardly compliant – harbouring these secret resources of fortitude and loyalty.
- Jude: How did you discover the novella-in-flash form and what was the most interesting thing about writing in this way for you?
Ellie: To be honest, I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t stand to look at my own poetry. I think that happens when you do a PhD. I don’t want to knock the PhD experience; I had amazing supervisors who put a lot of work into making me a better writer, but I just felt burnt out by the time I submitted my thesis, so I took a shot at a novella-in-flash because I needed to do something different and my prose poems were the only pieces of writing I didn’t want to wrap in sausage meat and set fire to. I spent years living in Nepal and writing a thesis that made all these arguments about poverty, about gender inequality, about politics – and yet the things that mattered the most to me about fieldwork – the stories – never featured in the academic writing. My fieldwork took years, and in that duration so many significant things happened. Earthquakes in 2015, a flood that left Chitwan completely submerged in water last year. There were people I couldn’t stop thinking about, so many stories and nowhere to put them. Birds with Horse Hearts was a way to capture the everyday lived experiences that aren’t relevant to an academic thesis, and yet they feel like they should be the most important thing in the world, because why research poverty or injustice if not because of the people who are affected?
- Jude: You have nearly completed a PhD in Nepalese Feminist Literature, which sounds fascinating. Is there anything that particularly stands out from this literature which we should know about? And did your findings inform your novella-in flash?
Ellie: Well, it’s an exciting time for poetry in Nepal, because a significant body of female poets is beginning to emerge. These are poets whose writing is not only aesthetically wonderful, but is politically articulated, that opposes not only a male-centric canon of literature but also that exposes gender-based injustice in Nepal and articulates authentic female experience. I don’t know to what extent that body of work has influenced Birds with Horse Hearts… I went to a Canadian university and fell into the CanLit lobsterpot, so I still write using a contemporary Canadian style. But my study of Nepali women’s writing definitely helped develop my sense of responsibility and vigilance in my writing. I take representation seriously, especially, as I’m writing about under-privileged, illiterate women, who are the last people who get to tell their own stories. In that sense, I guess it’s not a piece of work that is totally absolved of problematic interpretations. The misconception that women in rural areas of Nepal must lead unhappy and unfulfilled lives is acutely Western, so a story in which Nepali women plan to leave their marital home potentially risks proliferating that fallacy. But in writing about sex workers, illiterate hustlers and fierce go-getters, independent women who are out for a better life for themselves, I hope I’m writing the stories of women who exist in Nepal but have been largely omitted from a historically male-dominated canon of literature. I like the idea that Birds with Horse Hearts belongs to a new trajectory of writing that places the female underdog front and centre of the story.
Jude: That’s a great picture of you with (I think) a parrot on the winners’ page. Do you have a muse – animal, person, place that helps with your writing?
Ellie:That’s Petuu, he’s a plum-headed parakeet! He looks cute but he’s a total gangster; I once left a bag of bird hearts on the porch that were meant for my dog, and Petuu ripped the bag open and started wolfing them down. There are parakeets in the novella, along with other animals that are always underfoot in Chitwan like goats and stray dogs. I don’t know if I would necessarily categorise them as muses, I’ve never really thought about it that way. They’re certainly integral motifs to the story. They have a familiarising effect in a story that can otherwise feel unfamiliar. Not only is the novella set in another country and a different culture, it is also quite surrealist, and dips in and out of the characters’ fantasy worlds. So animals that are universal symbols, like caged birds or hungry dogs, are a useful tool for connecting readers with a world with which it might otherwise feel difficult to connect.
- Jude: Can you give a few tips for anyone thinking of entering the 2020 Novella in Flash Award?
Ellie: It feels like the novella-in-flash form is still relatively undefined, so I think any type of writer can take a crack at it and create something organically without having to stick to a clear, prescribed structure. I’m a poet and when I started piecing together this novella, I just had poems to work from. I didn’t have an idea for a plot, I hadn’t even settled on a speaking voice. It was a huge learning curve for me because I’m unpractised in things like character arcs and formulating a plotline, but it was just fun and different, and it’s exciting to join an emergent form of literature. Sorry, I realise that’s not really a tip! I guess my tip, then, is to not think of a novella-in-flash as something that is outside your remit – it’s for any type of writer and I really would encourage anyone to take a shot at it.