Interview with Michelle Elvy about her hybrid collection, the other side of better

Ad Hoc Fiction, our short short fiction press, published the other side of better, by Michelle Elvy in June this year, exactly two years after publishing her innovative small novel in small forms, the everrumble, launched at the Flash Fiction Festival, held in Bristol in 2019. This new book is equally innovative, traversing the line between prose and poetry. In this interview Michelle tells us more about the book, the book launches which took place in New Zealand in June to co-incide with National Flash Fiction Day, NZ and what New Zealand poet laureate David Eggleton said about it. Michelle also talks about how she arrived at the title and the striking artwork for the cover by New Zealand artist, Jennifer Halli. the other side of better is also available from Nationwide and book shops in New Zealand as well as directly from Ad Hoc Fiction and in August and September Michelle is recording some online readings so we will all be able to hear stories from the collection. We are also delighted that Michelle Elvy, who judged our 2021 Novella-in-Flash Award, is judging the 2022 NIF Award which is open for entries now and closes on January 14th 2022.

Interview with Michelle, by Jude Higgins

  • It’s wonderful that our short short fiction press Ad Hoc Fiction has published the other side of better the second of your books, two years after the everrumble. Can you tell us more about how you arrived at the title?
    I am so happy that my new book is also published by Ad Hoc Fiction where I see a lot of innovative work being published. It’s wonderful to work with a publisher that welcomes that blurring of the line, that takes chances with a writer who wants to push up against established forms or norms. There are quite a few examples of this at Ad Hoc; I know I’m in good company.

    The title came when I was considering the idea of the Fuddy Duddy Editor and how she evolves over the course of the book. There is a poem at the end of her section that indicates she’s coming out the other side of some things. When I stepped back to think about that poem, I saw the hints of the title: what is on the other side, and what is it the other side of? I imagined, without explicitly stating it, how the idea of ‘better’ was the right idea for the questions on ‘the other side’ – both of which are in the poem, though not together. It seemed to suit the collection, too, as there is some question around the ambiguity of the phrase’s meaning (pessimism or optimism?) – which underscores the ideas I’m exploring in the collection.

  • The Fuddy Duddy Editor is a character that returns several times during the book, including stories in one longer section and we think this character acts like a kind of chorus to the rest of the book. Was that your intention?
    I love that: Fuddy Duddy as a chorus! Because she is in fact many things at once. She is meant to be at the edges – the reader who is always there. She’s a bit like that inner voice we all carry with us: the one who critiques and the one who encourages. We don’t write in a vacuum, and I like the idea of realising, even on the page, that there are many voices at work in our jottings. There is nothing monolithic about the enterprise – it is full of layer and innuendo and questioning, of certainty followed by uncertainty. We move back and forth in conversation with ourselves – whether we are writing or not. We are constantly in exploration mode, in our mind: searching, seeking, sometimes even finding. Fuddy Duddy also moves in and out of conversations with others, as a writer and as an editor – Lydia Davis, or Werner Herzog, for example. And she of course is in conversation with me, always.
  • We love the striking art work for the cover, with is textured look. Can you tell us more about the artist?

The art work on the cover is by the artist Jennifer Halli, who is pictured here in Dunedin with her collographic print series (photo by Che Rogers). I first came to her prints when I worked on the New Zealand anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand (published last year by Otago University Press, edited with Paula Morris, James Norcliffe, and art editor David Eggleton). That anthology began as a response to the March 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch and included works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and visual art, exploring questions of identity and place in Aotearoa New Zealand. Jennifer’s work was selected by David Eggleton for inclusion, and as I got to know more about her and her prints I became intrigued by the way she uses natural materials that exist all around her for her work. I like the idea of her art being something that is layered and even mysterious, how it reflects the concrete (in her case, sand, earth, colours extracted from our natural world, like lapis lazuli) and the ephemeral. This piece – titled ‘Winging’– was perfect for the other side of better, visually. When I asked Jennifer about it, her response confirmed that this was the perfect match:

Through the exploration of abstraction, I was striving to capture a moment in the transition of life, of travel. The print is both grounded and airy, eager to drift to a better place but too weighty to do so. It is laden with potential; floating to a better place was in my thoughts at the time

Her reflection is included in the back of the book. The design of the book (thanks to Ad Hoc’s wonderful designer!) aligns with the contents, the white frame around the print hinting at the invitation to look further, to examine what is held between the covers, to explore what may be just under the surface. All of that came together so beautifully.

And at the launch in Dunedin, New Zealand, David Eggleton remarked:

{Elvy] is a haptic writer, a tactile writer, too, and this is echoed by Jennifer Halli’s splendid cover illustration with its abstract black inky squid-like interlacings over a nibbly, gritty sea-bottom surface.

Jennifer made a new set of prints specifically for the book launch, and we did a joint art show and reading. Her collographic series is pictured here (photo by Che Rogers). Her work is simple to look at but sophisticated and inviting. You look once and have your first impression; then you look again – and again – and you start to see so much more. You might go all the way to the sea bottom. What more could one want for a cover of a book?

  • The layout of your work inside the book is also very pleasing to the eye and I know you spent a lot of time with the Ad Hoc Fiction production editor getting this right. It seems the use of space is always very important to you in your writing. Is this correct?
    Yes. I think the way material is presented on the page reflects the writing and ideas: form and content working in tandem. The design team was careful with the way a poem or story might sit on the page, and how the space around the writing may matter. There are pieces here that required particular movement, to get just right: mirror images, or gaps, or particular stepping qualities. All that conveys meaning, even if it’s not apparent at first glance. This idea, again, of looking once, then again, and finding more each time you view a piece (whether visual art or writing): that is something I aim to do with my small form writing, and I love that the design team at Ad Hoc is so keen to work with the writer to get those details just right.
  • The collection was published on 18th June and launched New Zealand as part of National Flash Fiction Day NZ celebrations and events. Can you tell us more about the NFFD and launch events? And will there also be videos or any online events?
    It was wonderful to launch the book as part of the New Zealand NFFD events this year. Here in Dunedin, we held a series of events that took place over the weekend leading up to June 22, our National Flash Fiction Day (which was Tuesday). And there were other events as well – online, internationally, and around the country (including other book readings, youth projects, an emerging writers series, music and dance performances).

    It was fun timing that book launch kicked off the weekend in Dunedin. David Eggleton launched the book, and Tracey Slaughter and Diane Brown were special guests, as well as the cover artist Jennifer Halli. It was a lively evening – and I was really honoured to have these friends supporting my work. Such generosity from everyone, and high spirits. Tracey Slaughter is a champion of the small form and short story (and one of New Zealand’s best), and we are on the NFFD committee together. Diane Brown is a master of narrative poetry and crosses the lines between reality and fiction, prose and poetry, in all her work (and happens to be my neighbour – I discovered this only upon arriving in Dunedin for the first time, back in November 2019). David Eggleton is New Zealand’s current Poet Laureate and, well, there’s too much to say about his astute sense of rhythm and art, his vast knowledge of poetry and story, and his generous nature. I will share a small piece of David’s launch speech here; which began:

    Virginia Woolf in her novel To the Lighthouse writes: ‘The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.’ ‘Illuminations of the unexpected’ – that statement captures something of the sense of what I get from gathering my thoughts after having read Michelle’s new collection of stories, the other side of better.

    I must say that I was pleased that David’s launch speech began with Virginia Woolf and included, among others, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Márquez and even reference to a haiku that was made from Homer’s Odyssey that David referenced when speaking of microfictions capturing what he calls ‘a kaleidoscope of wonders’:

    Aegean forecast:
    storms, chance of one-eyed giants
    delays expected

    His speech included his characteristic sense of humour and insight. And he ended with a reference to Witi Ihimaera, which added some unexpected sweetness, as my current project (Love in the Time of COVID, an international online community that has been running since August 2020, with an anthology forthcoming) is something I’m co-editing with Witi, and I feel a special connection with his adventurous spirit.

    In his memoir Māori Boy, Witi Ihimaera tells us that lie is not about waiting for someone to come and rescue us but about finding instead the courage to strike out for that distance shore, wherever it is, and that is what the other side of better has accomplished.

    Here in Dunedin, we’ve been lucky to have no cases of COVID for a very long time, so we are careful about tracking our movements and keeping safe, but we are also able to gather for events. The launch was quite a festive gathering in the creative space of Alexander Pianos (hosted by the wonderful Adrian Mann who, among other things, built the world’s longest piano) – and really made my heart sing. The book is dedicated to my mother, who is very far away in the US, where I grew up. Like everyone else, we have been denied seeing each other since COVID arrived. It’s unusual for us to go more than a year without seeing each other, even though I’ve lived abroad most of my adult life – so the book and its launch felt quite intense to me, as – even if it’s fiction and poetry – it connects me with people I love, even across oceans. I suspect a lot of writers or artists producing work since 2020 feel the same way, that sense of our personal connections being intensified through our work.

    Relatedly, we are planning some online readings in August and September. When the everrumble was released in the UK in 2019, I did readings in the US before arriving in New Zealand, so this book will also see some online events so I can share with international communities. I am looking forward to those.

  • The book is available directly from The Ad Hoc Fiction online bookshop and from Amazon worldwide. Can people also buy it in New Zealand bookshops?
    Yes! It is distributed in New Zealand by Nationwide Books which is also the distributor of the everrumble (as well as the anthologies Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand and Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand<– these can all be found here).

    I’m grateful that these books are available in New Zealand, where I make my home. There is a lot in this new book about travel and place, about finding the way – that adventure of moving forward, seeing where you go and/or land. So having the book published in the UK but also appearing in New Zealand feels just right.

  • Has writing this book and thinking about form and structure sparked off ideas for further colllections/novels?
    Oh yes – there are always ideas churning. When I did a radio interview with Lynn Freeman for Radio New Zealand. Lynn remarked to me that reading this collection was like being in 140 different places in my imagination, all at once. That made me laugh. There are usually many things happening at once, perhaps related to the way I am both a writer and an editor. The challenge is to reign them in, to find the shape of them in one set of stories or poems. And also to let them pace themselves. I write feverishly at times, but I also need to let everything simmer. Again, that is likely related to my editing: my advice for others, and for myself, is not to rush. Working over one idea, turning it inside out and upside down: that’s one of the things I love about writing small forms, how you can explore a theme in many different ways, How the space matters, in all ways you can imagine it. How one edit leads to the next thing…. and the next.

    I come back to idea of the chorus of voices. They are sometimes harmonising and sometimes getting the tone all wrong – that happens too. Sometimes they need to sit a long while in silence.

    So, what’s next? Besides several anthologies looming, there are also the works a new hybrid collection, a longer piece of fiction (yet to be determined: novel or novella) and a set of poems. I am not sure where (or whether) the Fuddy Duddy will appear again, but she’s always with me.

    And finally: the 2022 Bath Novella-In-Flash competition! I’m delighted and honoured to be judging this important competition again this year. To me, it is one of the most exciting – and challenging – forms. I look forward to reading the short list and wish everyone who is writing their novellas the very best!

    Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor who grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake and is now based in Ōtepoti Dunedin, on the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. She teaches writing online at 52|250 A Year of Writing. She is founder of National Flash Fiction Day and Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, and Reviews Editor of Landfall / Landfall Review Online. Her editorial work includes the anthologies Best Small Fictions (Assistant Editor since 2015), Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press 2018), Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand (Otago University Press 2020) and Love in the Time of COVID: A Chronicle of a Pandemic, which she is presently curating with Witi Ihimaera, with an anthology forthcoming. Her work has been widely published and anthologised, and her books include the everrumble (2019) and a new collection, the other side of better (2021).

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