Author Interview: Sam Reese

Sam Reese Author Photo

Sam Reese is an award-winning critic, short story writer, and teacher. His first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published by Platypus Press in 2019. His latest book, On A Distant Ridgeline, was published this week – you may read my review here. I was delighted to be invited to interview him and hope my readers enjoy the answers he gave to my questions as much as I did.

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I’m originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, and I lived and worked in Australia and Europe before settling in York, where I teach at York St John University. I have been writing for as long as I remember, and my first published works were poems while I was at high school. Then, I discovered the short story—and fell in love. I completed a PhD on midcentury American short stories, and have published two critical books (on short fiction, and on jazz and literature) alongside my two collections of short fiction.

Can you tell us about your latest book, On a Distant Ridgeline?

On a Distant Ridgeline is a thematically linked collection of short stories, centred on desire, relationships, and connection to place. The stories span remote parts of Aoteaora, rural Spain, downtown Sydney, the highlands of Peru, and a village in Japan, but share a focus on how we navigate the things, people, and places we yearn for.

You describe yourself as an insatiable traveller. The short stories in your collection are set around the world, exploring themes of displacement and belonging, emotional as well as physical. Where do you feel that you belong?

That is a complicated question! Like most New Zealanders I know, I am deeply attached to the landscapes and rhythms of the country where I grew up. But as a pākehā—someone who is not indigenous to the country—I am also aware of my status as a visitor. Like some of the characters in my collection, my family moved to Aotearoa from France and Norway, along with Scotland and Wales, over the 19th century—and that family mythology has shaped my sense of who I am. There is part of me that has always felt a pull away. I haven’t lived in Aotearoa for more than ten years now either. Still, it is my point of reference when I think of feelings of home.

Although locals feature in the stories, main characters are often incomers. Were they developed from your personal experience or did you conduct research at settings?

My characters draw on my own experiences and research in equal measure. One of the things that I think is most powerful about fiction is the way that it can take an experience we think that we might understand, and reimagine it, opening up new ways of looking at ourselves—as a reader, as much as a writer. Many of the stories started with a memory or feeling I have had. But I use research, including conversations with people who have had quite different lives to mine, to help me reframe those experiences, shape them into something new.

I liked the idea of people being inherently different in how they understand – read – other people. Taking your descriptors, would you consider yourself an archivist (gathering knowledge) or an architect (able to see underlying
patterns)?

Yes, I find that there is often a wide gulf between the way that I understand other people and the way a friend might read them. I think that I’m more of an archivist, observing, noting down, and storing—though I aspire to an architect’s vision in my writing!

There are several mentions in your stories of: free diving, pottery, etymology and Greek myths. Are these personal interests?

They are! My undergraduate degree was in classics and English, and Greek myths have helped me make sense of my world since I was small—they also link On a Distant Ridgeline with my first collection, Come the Tide. My interest in etymology, too.

The motif of pottery—especially of shaping clay—is part of my larger interest in things made by hand. There are carvers and carpenters in these stories, too, reflecting my fascination with craftsmanship, and my curiosity in offering different ways of understanding the process of writing. I believe that writing is a craft, after all.

Free diving, and descriptions of lakes, rivers, the ocean (not to mention drowning) all reflect a similar double concern. I love the ocean, and feel a deep connection to the water. But swimming, diving, and submerging all offer powerful metaphors for understanding our fears and desires, and can shift quickly from comforting to terrifying.

Have you dived at the Whenuakura (Donut Island) lagoon?

I have visited Whenuakura, but I haven’t dived there—yet!

What is your favourite part of being a writer?

I love the feeling of immersion in the shaping of a story. When I write, I have the same feeling of the world disappearing that I get from swimming. It is a sense of flow. I also love the satisfaction of finding that what I have written has answered the challenge or problem that I set myself—of seeing something that I have shaped and
honed to the very best of my abilities.

And your least favourite?

I hate the process of submitting stories to magazines or competitions. And the feelings of jealousy or competition that the literary marketplace creates (and thrives on).

As a published author, what is the best advice you have been given?

Well, I think the best advice I’ve read was in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel prize address: that three dimensional characters are less important than three dimensional relationships. But the best advice anyone has given me in person was to focus on writing in a style that feels true to yourself—rather than trying to write for what you think the market wants.

You are yourself a literary critic. Do you seek out reviews of your books?

I do—I can’t help it. I know some writers avoid reviews of their work, or find that reading negative reviews really affects their confidence. I find that the insights I get from reviews are always useful in some way, though. My critical brain helps here—a lot of my work focuses on the reception of short fiction, so I have a broader perspective that helps to contextualise what reviewers say. I often think that I would love to read a very critical review of my work—but that might just be inviting trouble!

What small thing do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I buy myself a book! The more I read, the more I want to read

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

When I was a teenager, and theoretically poised for ‘coming of age’ stories, I absolutely hated them. But lately, I’ve been reading and loving some eccentric bildungsroman: Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture
Show, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit.

Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction, and why?

My dream dinner would be with my favourite mid-century writers—Mary McCarthy, Ralph Ellison, Paul and Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty. Not because I’d want to talk to them about their writing per se (I prefer to let writers’ books do that), but because I’d want to talk to them about everything else. It might be unfair on my peers, but I find that those writers had so much sharper (and usually more interesting) insights on the world.

What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

“Why do you write?”

distant ridgeline

On A Distant Ridgeline is published by Platypus Press

Book Review: On a Distant Ridgeline

distant ridgeline

“Although truth is something that we can experience, it is never possible to express it properly in language because there is always some part that will resist the expression – that will stay unsaid.”

On a Distant Ridgeline, by Sam Reese, is a collection of twelve short stories set around the world. The scope and breadth of the settings are matched by the subjects explored within these pages. That said there are recurring themes: man’s affinity with water; the beauty to be found in creativity; etymology and Greek myths. The tales are tinged with a melancholy born of thoughts of what might have been had other choices been made. Characters are searching for home, to be found in people rather than place.

The author employs each of the senses to create evocative imagery. Food has colour, texture and aroma as well as taste. Music draws out aspects of characters, previously unseen. The way individuals view greens and blues highlight the variations in how surrounds are experienced and remembered, even by those there together. Memory is fragmented, offering comfort as well as regret.

In a note at the end of the book Reese writes of the short story form:

“because they are so short, they must work by implication, giving us the precise words that will make us see a room, a dawn, the start of love, a death. A short story takes a person’s life, perhaps a single day, and shows us the world.”

In leaving much to implication, the reader is trusted to understand both the dissonance and connections in each relationship, how it is only possible to know a fraction about how another person parses their world.

I am unfamiliar with the many locations in which these stories are set but most of the characters are recognisable travellers across time as well as space. Placing characters away from where they grew up enables their sense of belonging and displacement to be explored. Decisions taken haunt with what might have been.

“Did you know that’s what I have admired about you from the start – not your hand per se, but the way you stretch it out and grasp. You want to know more, to begin to glimpse the way that things relate to one another, brush aside the veil, see the place where they connect. It is different to me, the way that you find connections. You are not an archivist, shoring bits of knowledge up against a future loss; you’re an architect, someone who can see the underlying pattern”

A life is described as ‘a whittling, a loss’, in the way fragments of wood get discarded to enable a craftsman to create a desired shape. Others live through gathering, collecting what may appear disparate clutter but has potential to come together as a thing of beauty.

The stories are of: family and friendships, finding love and suffering loss, regret and redemption. Characters include fathers, brothers, lovers, colleagues, young and old friends. Such universal motifs are wrapped within prose that absorbs and transports the reader. There is darkness and yearning but also radiance.

A finely varied collection that is rich and rewarding to read. These are stories to be savoured.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Platypus Press.