Many thanks to Michelle Elvy for her dedication and enthusiasm for the novella in flash form and for judging our Novella in Flash Award for two consecutive years. This year, Michelle has chosen a first prize winner, two runners-up, two highly commended and two commended novellas in flash. Do read down through her general comments on the longlist and all her insightful remarks about each of the ten writers on the shortlist. We begin with comments on three shortlisted novellas, followed by the commended, highly commended and runners-up. Comments on the winning novella in flash, Lessons at the Water’s Edge are at the end of this post. And you can read the bios of all seven of the winning and commended writers here. Bios of the rest of the shortlisted writers coming soon.
The novella-in-flash form is growing in both popularity and writerly skill, and judging a competition of this standard is no easy task. I read the long-listed stories and noted the range of approach, and all of them captivated me in one way or another
Some take as their starting point a line from someone familiar to us – Margaret Atwood, for example. One novella begins with a Japanese proverb, and one with a Vietnamese legend. I admired the historical detail in some, taking us back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s, even further. In one we encounter Shelley and Byron; in another we see the family story around the history of the perambulator. We see biases and boundaries poked, and we see how fiction can push at the edges and open new spaces. Cultural histories are examined and questioned, too, from India to Hawai‘i. There’s coming of age and coming to terms.
Like all good novels, the novella-in-flash can tackle big themes and pay attention to the finest detail. And this year’s set of long-listed stories did this so well – which presented the first challenge: selecting the short list.
Here I chose a set that represents the variety that the form can take. In all of these, the writing was finely honed and the stories explored their themes in unique ways. There is grief and loss, and growth and joy – perhaps typical human themes but in this short list they are presented in ways that stayed with me.
Here are samples I find memorable from this year’s SHORT LIST:
Pixie Lore – This quiet set of stories moves between the real and imagined, the idea of what we are and what we might be. Confronted by the reality of what’s not to be, as we watch the narrator as she endures a series of miscarriages, we also linger in the world where one can imagine and perhaps live again, the place of fairy tales and dreams.
Here is a scene with the narrator on her trusty horse, a scene that indicates the struggle between living the life she has and trusting Nature, with all its contradictions:
Galloping’s too much like flying. For a few moments all four hooves are off the ground, disconnected, a fist of legs preparing to land. Our favourite is a canter. Red Pepper’s basically a lazy horse, she doesn’t get off on speed, and perhaps she senses cantering is when I feel most at one with her. Waltz-time, rocking, always linked by one leg to the earth. Tripping along a wide soft track, up the field, a breeze on our faces. My thighs gripping, my body melding with hers. Eyes closing briefly, trusting.
It is a quiet story about loss and enduring hope, and it manages the themes with an easy touch.
Summer 1969 – A novella that weaves in and out of a family life, and the events of the day, some dramatic (fires and space exploration), some mundane (a mother’s habitual pulling at her eyelashes, a father’s obsession with a cat). Slowly, the writer builds expectations around what’s in store; there’s NASA and the Florida beach and the moon shot and the war in Vietnam.
The writer includes specific details that riff on common themes, applying the abrasive scrubbing quality of a Brillo pad or the ‘hot popping’ colours of Key West Lilly Pulitzer fabric, a boy reading The Pokey Little Puppy or a dad watching The Beverley Hillbillies. It is a disquieting family portrait, set in a particular time and place – a place that is hard to escape. Here is one micro in its entirety, a hint at the narrator’s world:
Alligators Haunt My Dreams
I’m outside, running around the house, fast. A small alligator chases me. I look over my shoulder. It’s not a caiman or a lizard, it’s a gator and close, four steps behind my every two, snapping its jaws, smoking my heels. I don’t yell for help. I keep running.
The Clothes Make the Man – This is a story that examines external and internal truths: how people see an individual, and how the individual explores the Self. It’s also worth noting the novella’s title here – fitting in the way it is declarative, yet drawing the reader’s attention to questions around the outer wrapping and what lies beneath.
In the following excerpt, we see how the space between two people, professor and student, is opened up; it’s a simple exchange but one of importance in a world where spaces feel shut down. We come to this scene early in the novella, and it captures the themes of the novella-in-flash carefully and suggestively:
Even in the sturdy chair, Amanda takes her time sitting. Her thigh muscles tense as she carefully allows her weight to settle on the seat. I hold my breath. How devastating would it be for both of us if this chair should break?
Her body relaxes as she realizes the chair will hold her. She once told me this office felt like one of the only safe spaces in the world. Now, it’s actually true.
…She waits, half-smiling, holding the papers in her thick fingers. “Professor. Are you okay?”
I want to make this world easier for you, I want to say, but instead, I reach for the bundle. “Yes,” I say, my voice cracking as if I haven’t spoken for years. “Of course, I’ll read it.
Presence – An ambitious set of stories that explore ideas around identity and loss. It opens with the definition of ‘presence’, and the reader is alerted to the complexities of the stories to follow: presence is a noun – something or someone – but also a word formed differently by a girl named Susy and a sense of nearing ‘reality’ in a virtual reality world. What intrigued me most is how this novella takes risks – in storytelling, in character building, in allowing so much mystery to rest between the stories, and in the way it holds together.
We follow Chun-Hua and her story that forces us to see her many layers – lost, as some of them are; recovered, some; also discarded forever, others. The movement between reality and near-reality or virtual reality, with the parallel story of Stella Chen’s ‘ReGrow’, suggests that we must be vigilant in the way we ‘see’ people, the way we understand their many stories. Story within story: a character reading a brochure, a character talking to a psychologist, a character listening to her mother, a character calling up her past. It’s no easy thing, this life, and we gain the sense that every detail here will matter. Here is a scene that sticks with me:
Her phone trills, on the passenger seat. It’s Ma again. Chun-Hua’s therapist doesn’t know what it means, how significant it is, for a Chinese child not to answer a parent’s phone call. If he did, he would start every session that way, instead of telling her to sell her house.
You can’t sell the house you grew up in.
The inside of her car feels swampy, the heat turned on high. The radio cracks with static. The voice is breaking up. It sounds like laughter
The bridge shifts on the surface of the lake, but Chun-Hua knows that most people never even feel it. Most people always believe they’re on solid ground.
All their Favourite Stories – A novella that sets up an ensemble cast of characters and invites us into their world(s). This is a place of great empathy and energy – we are taken to The Flowered Hill, a rest home for the elderly where we gain an understanding of the lives of the residents and carers, both present and past. And all is never as it may seem – which we are shown from the very beginning, when the first story carries the weight of history, and the meaning in (mis)pronunciation of a name, and (mis)communication across the space between two people. The writer applies varying voices and styles across these flashes. We watch characters as they encounter each other, and as they sift through memories.
Here, in a list story called ‘Brother-in-law Said I May Need This List, Should I Ever Get a Lawyer’, we are given an almost report-like summary of what this collection contains – and yet it’s not a spoiler, for there is much to unpack as we move through the stories of these lives:
Mocking my Polish accent, when it’s just the two of us, and speaking slowly, when our guests’ families are here, pretending I don’t understand, and what I’d like to tell her is that it doesn’t matter if I have an accent or not, in this job. What matters is that I know enough to understand, and care enough to listen. They all want to be listened, to be looked after, to be hugged, and reassured, and to have someone who cares enough to sit next to them while they tell you yet one more time that story they love so much, their favourite story that nobody cares to listen any longer.
HIGHLY COMMENDED NOVELLAS
Gull Shit Alley and Other Roads to Hell – The title sets the tone and the titles of flashes follow suit: ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, ‘Pissing in God’s Ear’, ‘Councillors of Fraud’ and so on. This story explores a town and its people, both ‘perpetually in the process of re-invention’. It’s a jaunty roller-coaster ride, taking the reader through young Danny’s world as he gets lost and found and lost again. There’s pleasure and pain, guilt (some of it, inevitably, Catholic) and more guilt. Anti-heroes and superheroes, too.
There are layers of this world, peeled back so we can see – and touch, hear, smell, too (sometimes it’s a dirty world). The writer has a sense of the sensual, in the grittiest manner. And it’s about longing, too – and the burn of temptation. Here’s an early scene, from a chapter cleverly called ‘Dante & Virgil’, between Danny and Gryff, one that sets up much of what’s to come:
If it’s money you want, Slinker, you need to get down there,’ [Gryff] said, waving his arm over the labyrinth of ticky-tacky lockups, kiosks, arcades, and burger bars – the whole flamboyant, garish, hedonistic-dip-your-hand-in-your-pocket-kit-and-caboodle
‘But it’s—’ Danny searched for the words to dismiss it without admitting that he felt intimidated by the disreputable sleaziness, the bravado and swagger, the pickpockets and scamsters, the kiss-me-quick, cheap thrills, easy sex, wrong side of the tracks.
Gryff thawed again, the shadow cleared from his face and he nodded. ‘It’s like the circles of hell down there,’ he said. ‘But if you want to get anywhere in this town, it’s where you need to be; you need to get down there, man. It’s . . . lucrative.’
Gryff laughed at him, ‘Don’t worry, Dante, I’ll be your Virgil.
Essence – This novella stands out for its structure and control. I admire the way it plays with the meaning, through its subsections, of the phases in the characters’ lives, and the way it shifts reader focus and expectations. We are introduced to the story in an easy familiar scene: Michael reaches for the alarm clock and hits snooze. But as we read through the opening pages, we see there is more to discover about what appears to be the start of a regular day. We come to other stories too: other characters, other histories. It’s a tightly woven set of characters, but the writer takes their time showing us how they all fit together.
This novella demands patience, in all the right ways. In one quiet scene that references Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, we are at an intersection, with a red truck, a lone jogger, a mother and a boy with a balloon. This convergence results in a small connection between the narrator and the boy – and lands on the idea of possibilities. This happens early in the novella, before most of the stories unfold and before we see how they overlap and the what the characters mean to each other. It foreshadows what’s to come by the time we work our way towards the last line of the last story. And here, these lines hold together – gingerly, tentatively – like the whole novella:
Beside you Sam [the boy] hunches over, gripping the balloon between his knees
What are you doing? says the mom.
Sam holds out his balloon, the surface now covered in black felt tip
I’m going to let it go so that it flies across the world and somebody in another country can find it and write me back
Don’t be silly, says the mom. It will just get snagged in a tree or fly too high or be lost at sea if it ever gets that far
There’s always a chance, you say
The mom looks at you and turns away
Let it go then, she says. What do I care? Come on
She drags Sam across the street, pushing the stroller with her other hand. He looks back at you and smiles and releases the string.
Ahead of you the signal flashes green. The jogger gives the truck driver the finger and carries on
The balloon rises on the wind and drifts away until it is nothing more than a speck disappearing into the palest blue
It’s flying, you say. Look at it soar.”
The Twisted Wheel – A novella that opens with lines by Halldor Laxness and a simple idea: a dandelion striving to live. This, along with the structure of the creation story of Northern England (‘On the first day…’, etc.), is the framework for the narrative arc. It’s perhaps the most complex of all the novellas, with a cast of characters and happenings that keep the reader guessing, with a modern Ripper story set against a bleak landscape. Here we see the place and mood, plain and clear, laid out as instructions in the opening:
Cut grooves in the hills with a long knife, and look down, and be glad. Those will be your valleys. Now for a few towns, squashed like secrets into the cracks. Make them Bradford. Make them Halifax. Make them Leeds.
Let some clouds in, from the West. Float them in bundles over the potato-growing plains, and then bully them over the rises.
Keep it raining, until the people down there in those grooves invent new words to describe it: mizzle, piffle, keffle, dreek.
This dark opening lingers with its misty film as we come to Mrs Trivet and the siblings Shell and Spencer and their mum and dad. This is what sets this novella apart, too: the way the writer captures the place. Here, Mrs Trivet’s driving out of town:
Beyond town, as her van climbed, the roadsides grew empty of people and Mrs Trivet entered a wasteland of quarries and windswept grass. Few trees, many pylons. One or two bushes scribbled with cassette tape. Dead mine-workings. Forgotten trenches.Then the moors. A place between, a place apart. If you found them ugly, so what? The moors weren’t bothered about anyone’s opinion. They hadn’t filled the skyline for you to look at or hike over or write poems about. If you wanted anything from them, you’d need to bring it up the hard way, by gouging and hacking.
A place between, a place apart – that the space where these people change and grow. There is a mystery afoot, and a sense of danger. There’s a school play (and a hint at a play within a play). There’s a hard edge to it all, and tenderness between the characters, seen through dialogue with Shell and her dad, Shell and her mum, sick in hospital. Also, Shell and Spencer, encouraging each other in their frank brother-sister ways. Centre stage is Shell and her own agency, determined to write a play (she says playfully) with no blokes, to go out and discover what she can – about the Ripper, about herself. Shell’s mum reflects on her daughter’s view here:
You couldn’t spend all your time in the shadows, her daughter was right. You’d to go out and live, while you still could. Maybe, when she got home, she’d dig out her dancing shoes. Now that Shell was older, perhaps she’d take her, teach her a few of the moves. Yes, Barbara would show Shell what Larry had taught her: how to spin away out of yourself. How to merge with something bigger.”
And that is the intricate charm of this story: inside the mythical and dark structure is the simple idea of how to live. It’s a story of ‘soft things in hard places’.
It Felt Like Everything – Told in two parts, this novella explores a year in the lives of two teenagers, first Kate, then Marin. There are memorable lines in this writing, as the voice of each young person drives the two halves.
In the first set of stories, we follow Kate as she negotiates her feelings for Martina – whom she secretly longs for. In a tender moment with her mother near the end of this section, Kate comes close to confessing her love for her best friend when she says, ‘I have too many feelings… About everything.’ It’s here we come to understand the weight of the title of this novella. In between the teen feelings, there is the everyday stuff of growing up and going to school: papers on Hamlet, opinions on the DiCaprio/ Danes Romeo & Juliet. Then there is a first kiss – not with Martina – and another near-confessions of Kate’s real feelings.
Then, in the second part of the novella, we see the world through Marin’s eyes. Marin, the younger sister of Angela (of the earlier Kiss-Me-Kate scene), develops a sort of friendship with Kate after Angela goes off to university. It’s an ensemble cast but not confusing: everyone is connected but in their respective roles, asking their respective questions. This is what’s so appealing: this is a story about young women in their various stages of discovery but nothing is forced; everything is real. The pacing and dialogue gently hold control over the should I/ shouldn’t I feelings, the yearning to belong. There’s Belle and Sebastian, and Cat Power, alongside nods to Shakespeare and Sappho. And a building connection to Marin’s mother. The tenderest moments are around the confessional love scenes – for example, when one wants to say it but can’t, or when one admits it and the other’s not sure how to respond. Here, Caleb tells Marin he loves her, and she reels off options for replies:
I knew all the ways my response could go – I’d seen Ghost and season one of Gilmore Girls. Don’t say thank you, don’t say ditto. Don’t say nothing, don’t lie. More than anything, I just wanted to stay right there in that car, pressed against Caleb’s chest, talking about nothing while he touched my hair. The heat from the vent tickling my neck and Jim singing to us forever. Wasn’t that love – a safe and warm place you never wanted to leave? Couldn’t it be?
So I let the words out nice and easy. I took a good breath and said it back to him. It wasn’t even hard.
Like the rest of the story, this scene is understated and quiet but hits you with its reality when we arrive at the last sentences. The affirmation and lurking questions, bundled together. And in the end, despite all the hardships and disconnects that come with trying to grow up, this novella leaves the reader in a closing scene that is not about yearning or romantic love but about some small degree of optimism, some sense of the possibility of forward motion.
- WINNING NOVELLA-IN-FLASH
Lessons at the Water’s Edge – This novella captivated me from the start, with the suggestion of unreliable memory. From there, a natural rhythm develops, with stories flowing like water. The ‘Departure’ of the opening story indicates leave-taking but also hints at arrival – and the stories are bookended between two train scenes. The world we enter is a world of new experiences, new people – an education, indicated in the title. All that is to come is hinted in the close of the opening story:
As the train pulls away, I take a tissue out of my pocket and flap it theatrically out of the window. Cobwebs glisten all along the embankment. I sit down to check my small backpack for tickets, passport and money. Really, these are the only things I need. The suitcase sits there like an unwanted chaperone: silent, bulging, and far too cumbersome.
Trains and boats, water and movement: these weave through the stories, quietly and with acute attention to detail. The main protagonist arrives in a new city (never named) and takes up a job teaching English to two young girls (bellissima!). The narrative around water – flowing, rippling, moving into things – fills in spaces, as water always does. There is mist that moves in slowly – la nebbia. There is bath time for the protagonist’s two young charges – a place to share, a place to protest. The storylines glide, skim, sometimes sink below the surface and then emerge again.
The shifts in point of view create seamless movement between flashes. And the ‘language lessons’ that appear between other scenes are clever and tender, building something, step by step; they are the grammar of this novella. And yet, with the structure firmly in place, there is always the hint at things that are not in our control: we can pack the suitcase and plan the trip, but we can’t hold back inevitable change: ‘The water creeps in overnight on the high tide.’ Things move between here and there, too – between the place we are and the place of the past. Concerns from home come to haunt the protagonist, and even as she comes to terms with what’s before her, there is the meaning of language – always language. In this scene, she walks with a friend after hearing news from home:
We stop on a bridge, shoulders leaning together. I tell him I feel knocked off course, like a, like a – I don’t know the word – like a train off its tracks. ‘Deragliamento,’ he says. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it’s that.’ And I repeat it over and over until it sounds like the very opposite of its meaning.
Here – and I do not wish to give anything away – we come to a description that offers a precise summary of all this novella holds:
A city, laid out on the water like the map of a mind, all folds and twists and hidden knowledge; connections made to new words, new people, new tastes; my footsteps in the alleys; a punctuation of touch and gesture…
Finally, it is a sure hand that writes this novella-in-flash, and the dreamlike quality of the writing floats from page to page. This micro, called ‘Swifts’, carries the story’s themes, in its 35 words:
The swifts arrive, screaming and banking over the low walls at the back of the apartment. They play like aeronautical dolphins in the small spaces of sky over the canal, then soar away into invisibility. For evermore, their cries, like some sonic elixir of eternal youth, will take me back to this place, where the skies are always blue and the water catches the sun.
A wonderful set of novellas-in-flash! Thank you to the writers for sharing your stories!
Dunedin, New Zealand