I am delighted to welcome two New Zealand based writers to the blog today, Leanne Radojkovich and Rachel J Fenton, who is also a visual artist. Leanne's début short story collection First fox, illustrated by Rachel, is just out from The Emma Press, a really exciting English publisher producing beautiful books.
The Cuckoo Review says this 'collection of unusual, fairy-tale like stories… brilliantly enchants and enthralls the reader… First fox [is] unique. With its oddly complex realities mixed with bizarre yet magical moments… The power of these stories… resonated with me long after reading.'
The title story is my new favourite flash and I can't wait to give it a close-reading with students soon. Listen to Leanne read 'First fox' on YouTube here. And you can buy First fox here.
Leanne Radojkovich lives in Auckland and her flash fiction street art has popped up all around the world from USA to France and Tanzania, as well as in New Zealand. Her stories have appeared in many journals and been placed in numerous competitions.
|Rachel J Fenton|
Rachel J Fenton writes poetry, graphic poetry and short stories. Her work is published widely. Her unpublished novel Some Things the English was runner-up in the Dundee International Book Prize and shortlisted for the Cinnamon Press debut novel prize. As Rae Joyce, she co-edited Three Words, an Anthology of Aotearoa Womens Comics.
I began my interview with these two fine, creative women with a few questions to Leanne first, then to Rachel, then some to both.
Nuala: Leanne, talking cats, a woman kept prisoner, birds appearing from walls. There are echoes of fairytales and, therefore, Angela Carter in the stories. Would you count her as an influence? Fairy and folktales in general?
Leanne: I love folk and fairy tales’ matter of fact bare-bones style, and how in these tales the everyday and the otherworldly exist in the same dimension. Juxtaposing fantastic and ordinary elements in a story can feel more truthful, somehow, and bring to light a new way of looking at a situation. However, much as I admire Angela Carter’s stories I don’t think of her as a direct influence. I’d count Grace Paley as number one in that regard; the pared-back brevity of her stories, their frank tone and sharp sense of humour.
N: The stories are awash with references to plants (paw paw, frangipani, banana leaves), birds (cockatiels, crows, roosters) and other animals (cicadas, fox, cat). Is the natural world a go-to place for you as a writer?
L: The natural world is what I enjoy most on my daily rounds – anything growing, flying, running about; perhaps this is why so many creatures and plants seep into my stories.
N: Children and adults often clash in your stories, with startling consequences. Is this a theme you consciously explore?
L: I chose stories for First fox that seemed to spark off one another - and then saw a theme emerge in some of these regarding children and adults. I hadn’t consciously considered it before, but it’s definitely present in this collection.
N: You have been using new ways to get flash fiction to diverse audiences, such as via YouTube and graffiti. Can you tell me about that?
L: I’ve shared filmed stories on YouTube and SlideShare. SlideShare is my favouritebecause the viewer clicks through the images at their own pace and the story unfolds like a book of captioned photographs. I’ve posted about a dozen YouTube videos, too. I think of them as a kind of audio/visual chapbook, they’re all filmed using the same three constraints: one continuous shot, from behind, as I walk in bare feet along a beach or a road or the bush - unless it’s freezing, then I wear shoes.Perhaps the most fun has come from posting my street art PinUps. I place one of my nature photos in a $1 frame, paste a story on the back and add a tag saying Please take me home, I’ll look good on your wall. Then I Blu-Tack the frame to stairwells, shop windows, public toilets, park benches. Several strangers have contacted me to say they’ve taken a PinUp on further travels. My favourite came from an American who picked one up in Auckland and took it home where it hangs in his lounge “in the hope,” he wrote, “that someday it will disappear from our wall, one dinner-party evening, to look good on another wall and carry the story into another imagination.” PinUps have popped up in lots of countries from USA to China, Sweden and Indonesia, thanks to wonderful friends and family who wish to be part of the experiment.Nuala: Rachel, you’re a writer and visual artist. Can you talk about the process of illustrating work that is not your own?Rachel: Illustrating other people’s work is something I’ve shied away from on-the-whole, partly I think because of not wanting the responsibility. With Leanne’s work, it was different: I knew and loved her stories, she’s an amazing talent, and I knew her personally – the NZ lit scene is super small – so I felt like I had a good handle on her vision for First fox and I felt I could deliver an interpretation that could fulfil Leanne’s and The Emma Press’s expectations but also satisfy my own creative vision for a cohesive body (albeit it small body) of art.My brief from The Emma Press read along the lines of Six black and white illustrations, some full, some partial, and one cover illustration – details yet to be finalised.The practical process was a case of closely and intensively reading the stories and jotting or sketching the strongest imagery from them, the moments that felt key without acting as spoilers. I had a choice of two or three strong concepts for each story and I picked out my favourite, worked it up in pencil then my own mix of black and sepia water-based ink, scanned it and converted it to black and white and sent it to Emma, founder of The Emma Press.N: How did this collaboration come about?R: I’ve been posting work-in-progress on Instagram, @redhousemary, from the graphic biography that I’m working on, and Leanne was really drawn to one image of Charlotte Brontë walking arm-in-arm with Ellen Nussey – there are few positive depictions of women’s friendships, I feel, and so this perhaps resonated with Leanne and some of the themes in First fox. Leanne had sent a link to this image to The Emma Press and Emma contacted me to invite me to pitch for the job.As a fan of all things blue, I was immediately drawn to the beautiful cover. You’re no doubt happy with the design, look and feel of the book. Can you talk about that?I’m chuffed to bits with the book, from the generous layout to the attention to detail; everything about it speaks of quality and care.Emma had a clear idea of what she wanted for the cover, in keeping with The Emma Press brand: the press’s pamphlets are distinctly recognisable and it was important that the cover of First fox be obviously part of The Emma Press stable. I had been given carte blanche for the interior illustrations, beside their having to be black and white, but the brief for the cover was very specific. Essentially, I had to leave space for the text that, along with the typesetting, was done by The Emma Press. But when it came to the image itself, Leanne felt so strongly drawn to one of the illustrations intended for the interior that it became the cover and what should have been the cover illustration went inside. I work in brown ink, so Emma changed the colour to the specific shade of indigo she had in mind. From the start, Emma communicated so well her clarity of vision for Leanne’s book that I had complete trust in her. It was really a dream job.N: How do you blend your practices (art vs writing). Is it hard to have enough time for both?R: I don’t see it as art v writing; it’s all art. Words are fast for me to put down but take effort from the reader to decode. Visual art is a vastly slower practice but I think it can be decoded easier – humans communicated with images before written language, so maybe it accesses a more primal part of the brain? I feel visual art is a necessary part of my language tool box, though I haven’t always had the home circumstances for it. Until recently my practices had a preferred order of works within a day. For eg, poetry on waking, revising, new writing, editing in the evening, drawing or painting and poetry. But the graphic biography requires up to twelve hours drawing per day, interspersed with research and writing – deadline looming – so I’m missing story and poetry writing, and when I finish this biography I’ll throw myself at them. There’s never enough time. My working-class background has never accommodated my artistic ambitions. Add motherhood and you’re left aching for a room of one’s own. Constraints can be more productive than opportunities, luckily.
N: You both write short stories and flash. There is a lot of debate (and some disgruntlement) about the definition of flash fiction. Do you have a favourite definition, or a personal way of defining flash that makes sense to you?
L: For me, short stories are are built up in layers; whilst flash fiction relies more on gaps. This is what attracts me to flash - how small the stories seem, yet what vast spaces they can conjure for the imagination to roam in. With short stories it’s almost the reverse, instead of this outward roaming I feel more more absorbed into the story as I sink into the layers.
R: I think definitions can be limiting more than helpful, and worse, sometimes cliquey. It’s the nature of the categorising endeavour: as soon as you put something into a box, something else is pushed outside it. I write stories, they take whatever shapes and forms best suited to their telling. I don’t want to get caught up in semantics.
N: First Fox is published by The Emma Press. You both live in New Zealand. What made you choose a small English publisher for this book?
L: I’d long been a fan of Emma Press’s poetry pamphlets, how fresh and vibrant they are, how beautifully produced. When their poetry pamphlet “Oils” by Stephen Sexton arrived in the mail, I stared at it for ages almost bewitched. This was exactly how I’d dreamed of having my stories published one day – in a slim volume with a stunning cover, and lovely card and paper. A while later, Emma decided to publish prose and invited submissions. I sent in a m/s of First fox and was stunned to have it accepted, alongside a m/s by Jan Carson called Postcard Stories. Some time after, Emma thought it would be lovely to have her first prose collections illustrated. She considered several artists for First fox and I was stoked when she commissioned Rae - not only a fabulous artist, but one who knows this country’s landscapes, trees and plants that feature in most of the stories. Then a final magic touch, Emma coincidentally chose a similar rich blue for the cover that she’d used for “Oils.”.
R: See next Q.
N: How healthy is the New Zealand small press scene?
L: There are quite a few small presses in NZ producing beautiful work such as these two recent poetry collections which I treasure: Elizabeth Morton’s Wolf published by Mākaro Press; and Anahera Gildea’s Poroporaki from Seraph Press.
R: There are numerous university presses that give priority to writers within their institutions or specific regions, then there’s a smattering of niche publishers. I think the nature of these can be determined by the fact that indigenous and Pasifika writers turn to publishers that necessarily publish only works by indigenous and Pasifika writers.
N: Which short fiction writers make you think, ‘Yes!’?
L: Grace Paley, Lucia Berlin, Katherine Mansfield.
R: Tina Makereti, Zadie Smith, Frances Gapper, Trisha Hanifin, Colin Barrett, Katherine Mansfield, David Constantine, Zoe Meager, Raymond Carver, Lydia Davis, and you!
N: What is your writing/creating process – morning or night; longhand or laptop?
L: I’m happiest writing very early in the morning when the birds outside are up and busy. My stories begin as stray words and phrases scribbled on scraps of paper. When enough scraps have accumulated, I spread them out on the floor and cobble them into some kind of order. Then I start typing.
R: I like to get a story down in one go, so mid/late morning, laptop.
N: What story or flash do you love? (You know the one that begs to be re-read over and over.)
L: These past few months I’ve been returning to “The Geography of a Name” by Frankie McMillan (in My Mother and the Hungarians) and Zoë Meager’s “Sharp Stars” (in To Carry Her Home). Both stories concern migrants. They evoke - with the lightest touch possible - losses their characters sustain as they are forced, one way or another, into new lives.
R: I go back to Mansfield’s “The Doll’s House”, Davis’ “Break It Down”, Constantine’s “Tea at the Midland”, Thisbe Nissen’s “Deer at Rest”, that I first saw mentioned in an interview you gave to Flash Frontier, I think.
N: Is there any writing advice you received that stays with you always? What one piece of advice would you offer novice writers?
L: When I’m stuck I re-read Grace Paley’s story “A Conversation with my Father” in which the narrator and her father argue about the purpose of short stories, and how to write them. I’ve also learned a great deal from several Fish Writing Courses run by Mary-Jane Holmes.
R: Paraphrasing here: 'Everything’s been written by someone but not by you' – from Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Detail what you alone can.
N: What are you working on now/what can we expect next?
L: The scraps box is filling…. more short stories are on the way.
R: I’m on the home straight of a graphic biography of Mary Taylor, Charlotte Brontë’s bestie, that I got CNZ arts funding for. I’ve a couple of short story collections and a poetry collection out on submission and I’m looking for a home for two novels. I’ve another novel outline waiting in the wings as well as poetry and stories to write.
Thank you, Leanne and Rachel, for a wonderful interview. I hope the book does really well for you both. Readers you can buy First fox here.