Book Review: Here Be Icebergs

here-be-icebergs

“we often fail to recognise the brutality of families when observing them from the outside – or even at times from the inside”

Here Be Icebergs, by Katya Adaui (translated by Rosalind Harvey), is a collection of twelve short stories that lay bare many of the often unacknowledged issues that erupt within a diversity of family units. There is little talk of love in these tales although it clearly exists. What is being explored are the resentments that fester alongside feelings of duty and expectation. The scars that form in childhood continue to affect.

Many of the stories adopt a non-linear, episodic structure. The reader is trusted to fill in the gaps in both timeline and reasoning. There is brutal honesty in the recognition of lasting damage inflicted by words thrown in moments of difficulty. The collection should not be rushed as it delves into challenging themes.

“Adaui examines the way we ceaselessly attempt contact despite all the evidence that each of us is an unknowable island”

A favourite story was We, the Shipwrecked in which the narrator is trying to cope with the death of her father. His demise was expected due to diagnosed illness but still she did not feel ready. The remaining family members provide little comfort, making decisions that grate.

Also particularly enjoyed was The Hamberes Twins with its subject of assisted dying. Structured as an interview with the doctor who agreed to help, this short tale offers much to consider.

The complexity of individual reactions to the same experiences alongside the unreliability of shared memories provide grist for the mill in the everyday subjects mined so skilfully. Families need not be dysfunctional to suffer disagreements. It was satisfying to read of subtle shades of acrimony, unadorned with the more usual personal justifications.

Although set in Latin America, the families featured are more everyman than is often acknowledged in fiction set in a place foreign to the reader. Parents and children, partners and siblings, all harbour feelings at odds with how their relations behave.

A taut and engaging collection that presents a wide variety of concerns faced and regretted across generations. Another excellent release from this high quality small press.

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

Book Review: Dubliners

dubliners

In his upcoming essay collection, Multiple Joyce, David Collard describes Dubliners as ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. It is the only book by James Joyce that I have read. This was many years ago and I seemed to remember I was not impressed, finding too many of the characters irritatingly vulgar and vexing. However, with such a recommendation from a writer whose opinion I rate, I decided to give the book a reread. Perhaps, I hoped, with my added life experience and wider literary knowledge I could be more appreciative.

The collection contains fifteen short stories of varying length. Each has a plot of sorts but this is secondary to the portrayal of characters and the lives they lead in their particular time and place. There are boys and men seeking an escape from the repetitive boredom of their everyday existences. Where women feature, many are depicted as downtrodden, having used their wiles to ensnare and now having to deal with the aftermath. Marriages are rarely happy affairs. Drunkenness is common. Resentments fester.

Even the better behaved men are portrayed as selfish, often foolishly jealous. They come across as stunted emotionally, lacking empathy due to ego. Their struggle to control desires and concerns is well developed but did not prompt sympathy.

I was disturbed by the violence against children, although understand this was commonly accepted at the time in which the stories are set. Those suffering poverty, who spend what money they have drinking with friends while their families go hungry, may be realistic but such behaviour is still frustrating. Descriptions were unpleasant – not so much the grime and odours but the images offered of moist mouths and propensity for spitting.

Of course, I can recognise the quality of the writing, although the shorter stories worked better for me, some of the longer ones dragging on with their repetition. I do not question that the characters could be representative of Dublin residents when Joyce lived there – although this does offer some explanation as to why ‘the Irish’ were so widely disdained elsewhere.

My reaction to this work had me questioning what makes literature impressive. Readers’ opinions will always be subjective but I remain perplexed by the esteem in which Joyce is held. However clever a piece of writing, there must be more to engage the reader. Sadly, once again, the stories in Dubliners did not impress me.

I will be reviewing David Collard’s essay collection in which he shares his views on Joyce’s writing and legacy. While this amused and often resonated, making me rethink my views on Joyce and his enthusiasts, it appears I remain a ‘philistine’ when it comes to the supposedly great man’s work.

My copy of this book was published in 1973 by Penguin Modern Classics.

Book Review: Jacobé & Fineta

jacobe and fineta

Jacobé & Fineta, by Joaquim Ruyra (translated by Alan Yates), is a slim volume of two short stories preceded by an introduction by Julià Guillamon. I would advise skipping the enthusiastic introduction until after the stories have been read as it contains spoilers.

The first and longer story, Jacobé, is narrated by a young man named Minguet who has returned to visit the coastal town where he grew up. As a young child from a wealthy family he was placed in the care of Nursie, a widow with a daughter two years older than the boy. The pair were lively playmates and enjoyed each others’ company, developing a deep affection that abided long after Minguet was sent away to school.

The tale opens in autumn. The author uses descriptions of weather and the natural decay of the season to create a shadow of pervading melancholy. The comparison between this and the happy memories of Minguet’s time spent with Jacobé and Nursie portend some deterioration in events to come.

It has been Minguet’s habit to visit his former playmate and carer when home during holidays from school. He is always made welcome, although Jacobé’s enthusiasm could at times be uncomfortable.

“even though such a warm welcome was enough to stifle in me all feelings except tenderness, those ‘little one’ pricks felt very offensive to a man who had already turned twelve.”

By sixteen Jacobé was considered beautiful – ‘healthy and full of vitality’. She was, however, starting to display worrying behaviours.

“Jacobé would welcome me with exaggerated enthusiasm, and with a rather indiscrete interest in what I had been doing.”

Within a few short years this behaviour developed into a psychosis alongside which Jacobé’s physical health deteriorated markedly. At this stage there is a suggestion that she is being punished for the sins of previous generations. Minguet ponders such an idea under the tenets of his religious faith, which I personally found a tad off-putting. That is not to question its authenticity given period and setting.

The narrative voice employed in the telling is smooth. The dialogue between characters is somewhat coarse at times. I wondered if this was to highlight differing social statuses and associated opportunity in education.

Metaphors make much use of natural phenomena to portray how people appear and behave. The growing agitation felt by Jacobé and then Minguet add to the tension.

Although poignant, the denouement offers what is almost relief after the suffering described. While the religiosity did not work for me, the comforts to be found in nature, especially the sea, were skilfully wrought.

The second story, Fineta, tells of a sixteen year old girl left alone at home while her father and brothers go out to sea, fishing for days and nights at a time. She fears the darkness in her solitude so rises early, encountering a woodman who is new to the area. Later in the day, her fears dispelled, she walks to a nearby beach. Here she swims and feels at ease, until the man reappears. Her long term reaction to what happens next is more complex than expected.

Both stories evoke the time and place to effect as well as providing much for the reader to consider. The elements of dark behaviour depicted suggest a transience in happiness through lived experience, although both plot and character development are secondary to the author’s artistry with language.

A book worth reading, offering much that will linger. A compact but still satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa.

Book Review: Stewkey Blues Stories

stewkey blues

In the press release that accompanied Stewkey Blues Stories the author writes:

“Short story collections usually harvest the results of a decade or so’s commissions. But this one, in which all pieces are newly-written, emerged out of the 2020 lockdown, a time when I was pretty much confined to my home county of Norfolk.”

This is not, however, a collection that mentions the pandemic. Each story is set mostly in Norfolk, exploring the ‘oddity of the place and the effect it has on the people who live there’ across different timelines. Characters are a mix of visitors, incomers, and others whose families have inhabited the terrain for generations. Some stories offer snapshots while others precis decades lived unremarkably. What pulls them together is how apparently ordinary the lives depicted are, so ordinary that under the author’s piercing lens they are shown to be extraordinary.

I enjoyed all fifteen of the stories that make up this collection. Each is finely crafted with relatable characters whose quirks are mined for interest and plot. Varied relationships are explored: friendships, love affairs, work colleagues, school contemporaries. Several brought home the awkwardness inherent in being of a certain age.

I particularly enjoyed CV which takes the reader through the life of Danny as he navigates a never quite what he was aiming for future. Brief mentions of memorable events, contemporary at the time, help to anchor what is happening at each stage. While the reader may root for the protagonist as he moves from job to job, it is easy to understand his wife’s frustrations.

The Boy at the Door brought back the unspoken miseries and loneliness of childhood on the cusp of adolescence – the emotional intelligence still to be developed. Unlike many portrayals of this age, the boy is not seeking illicit experiences but rather trying to navigate events of which he has little understanding.

In Breckland Wilds features a long time resident, Hecky Knock, who inherits and then sells the family farm, retiring to a cottage. There is some resentment from his sister due to the divvying up of proceeds but this is nothing compared to the resentment Hecky feels when property developers appear down the road. When let down badly by someone he considered a new friend, his reaction is explosive.

Couples featured are often blinkered to the other’s needs. Sunday with the Bears tells of an amusing visit to the home of three elderly and privileged men by an arts journalist and his new girlfriend. The men indulge in much name dropping and vapid cries for attention, all the while wanting things done just so. The young woman observes her boyfriend in a new light under their influence.

“he was just like every other man she had ever known, which was to say ever so slightly insecure and getting by on self-confidence rather than talent. This posed the question: just what exactly was she getting by on?”

One story offers up a reminder of the inadvisability of attending a school reunion after decades of negligible contact with anyone else involved. Another features a self-entitled rich girl who decides a day spent fruit picking could be a lark. Polite, middle class kids are taken advantage of. Families on holiday discover they do not all enjoy activities promoted as worthwhile entertainment.

I was somewhat surprised by the number of characters with links to Oxbridge given these halls are closed to the vast majority. This did not, however, detract from the fun to be poked at those who believed themselves admirably cultured, either through wealth or contacts. There were also plenty of characters with more grounded experiences, some poignant, others through choices made.

Somewhere Out There West of Thetford is set on a residential caravan park. A lorry driver offers help to an elderly woman, discovering she is mostly estranged from her daughter. The ending was unexpectedly satisfying.

New Facts Emerge takes a Norfolk based accountant into London where she must work on Christmas Eve. It is a reminder that the county, despite its atmosphere of remoteness, still feeds workers to the capital.

The wide variety of experiences explored keeps this collection fresh and of interest. The author writes with elan as he excavates the core of the human condition. The reader is left hoping that Norfolk avoids the encroaching homogeny of modern expansionism. Each story provides a highly enjoyable and still lingering read.

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

Book Review: Wilder Winds

wilder winds

“Life had taught her that stability wasn’t to be found outside on the streets. That as soon as you get used to how others live, everything changes.”

Wilder Winds, by Bel Olid (translated by Laura McGloughlin), is a collection of sixteen short stories exploring the myriad conditions under which families and individuals must live. These are stories of the young and the old, of the contented and the displaced. One theme running though is how little control any person has over changing circumstances, and how they must adapt if they are to survive.

Some of the most powerful stories are those that bring to the fore comparisons in how people of similar age end up existing, often due to the accident of birth. In the opening story two young girls meet when one is thrust unexpectedly into the other’s home. The reader is shown how shadowed a life can become when surrounded by illness.

“she was such a spirited contrast to my dry, sick, elderly mother, but I was struck by the image of the splendid woman before the mirror”

The lasting impact on children of chance encounters occurs again in Red. A young girl walks in, unseen, to observe a birth, that leads to a death.

Other stories portray the lives of refugees who must live for years in basic camps while being processed. As well as the effect this has on inmates, there is the difficulty faced by staff and volunteers when they start to care about individuals. A humane response brings with it its own pain.

This type of pain is evoked brilliantly in Three. A mother of triplets works with the children of convicted criminals. To survive her job she must retain emotional distance. In working long hours she worries about the breach this creates within her own family.

Invisible tells of an undocumented worker living a hand to mouth existence. In detailing her day the reader is shown a life revolving around survival, amongst those who choose to look away.

There are stories about the impact of conflict. At times an uprising can be euphoric. There are also tragedies.

Linda tells of the everyday conflicts women face by simply existing in public spaces. When one young women responds with unexpected violence, the media reaction is one of surprise.

“‘We still don’t know why the young woman reacted this way,’ say the police officers in charge of the investigation. Yes, that’s the problem right there, thinks Lola; they really don’t understand.”

As well as writing of the complexities of relationships – of shifting dynamics over time – the stories tell of love, duty and occasional irritation. The voices are often visceral yet beautifully rendered. I was particularly touched by Anna, Anne, Anna, in which a young girl finds a book that changes her.

In Plus Ultra, the author makes a brief foray into the supernatural.

In Cabaret the body of an obese woman who enjoyed her size is inhabited. In losing weight, she feels she has lost some essential part of herself.

“me singing and dancing and laughing. Round, full of curves and complexities me, splendid and happy me, imposing my body wherever I went. Me taking up all the space needed and more.”

Although important issues are explored, the stories are about the people living with the effects of what is happening around them more than the whys and wherefores. The writing style is taut but also tender, characters are nuanced and portrayed with sympathy.

This is, quite simply, a stunning collection that I am now eager to recommend. Another fine read from the Fum d’Estampa Press.

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

Book Review: No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall

building a wall

No One Has Any Intention of Building a Wall, by Ruth Brandt, is a collection of eighteen short stories that explore, in eminently readable and engaging prose, a myriad of challenging lived experiences. Whilst there is an undercurrent of melancholy, this is infused with the beauty to be found when one pays attention. Love, with its many shades, is valued yet cut through with the cruelties inflicted by individuals who, inevitably, look out for themselves. There is also humour alongside an appreciation of transitory moments that prove pivotal. It becomes clear that the now can only be experienced through a lens coloured by what has gone before.

The collection opens with Happy Ever After, in which a mother waits desperately for news of her grown son, who is missing. The structure is clever and effective in offering the reader events from a variety of perspectives. The ending elicits sympathy despite its shocking nature.

Several stories explore child and parent relationships – the love and the disconnects alongside the damage inflicted by parents’ chosen actions, however well intentioned.

Strands features a young boy as he is moved between foster homes, a process that colours his development into adulthood, his ability to trust others and himself. He is regarded as trouble and continues to believe this.

There are a number of stories that follow the difficulties encountered due to sexual attraction. Petrification, set in Iceland, follows a hoped for holiday romance. Lifetime looks at the worries caused by age difference, but in a wonderfully off-centred way.

I enjoyed Superstitions in particular with its supposedly practical and fact valuing protagonist. She is taking part in an experiment involving a ladder and a cat but with questionable measures and aims. The humour provided in the ending was neatly executed.

Many of the stories have a pleasing ‘life is for living’ element, one that feels particularly valuable given our current situation. In Heading West an elderly man sets out to visit the seaside. His pursuit may seem foolish yet comes across as hopeful. His attempts to gender a young driver who helps him adds nuance to a poignant yet uplifting tale.

Snow Blindness is set during a ski holiday. A woman is spending her time focused on living longer by not taking risks.

“obsessing over whether the next check-up will be clear, retreating from the world to live in total safety all those extra minutes, months or years gifted her by expert doctors.”

Meanwhile, her partner determines to enjoy the moment, however foolhardy this may appear to a woman who believes he should deny himself pleasures she does not approve.

“Today he is going to squander his life, spend every last moment of it. Christ, today he feels alive.”

Stories include: spies and refugees, the bullied and depressed, young carers and children caught up in parental conflict.

Stop all the clocks imagines a seventeen year old Turing, dealing with school in the aftermath of his best friend’s death. Knowing how this affected him in real life adds to its power – how authority at the time tried to quash and ignore what was a desperate cry for understanding.

The writing is skilfully rendered, offering stories that are affecting and humane. There is much to consider in how we choose to live, the effect choices and personally proclaimed edicts have on others in the longer term, the walls being built between loved ones when they will not act in an approved way.

This is an engaging, timely and worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

Book Review: Colchester WriteNight

colchester writenight

Colchester WriteNight is a monthly community event that offers members the opportunity to learn from guest speakers, write together, and share their work. The group has been running for ten years and decided to commemorate this anniversary by publishing a short prose collection, in collaboration with Patrician Press. The contributors are a mix of published and as yet unpublished authors (until now…) – members who accepted the invitation to contribute a piece that would fit the theme Open/Open Book. The editors’ choices provide an eclectic mix of short stories from writers honing their craft.

I found this book a tonic to read. On a personal note, when I first started writing I enjoyed creating short works of fiction inspired by weekly prompts put out by the editors at Yeah Write. After a year or so of taking part, and carefully considering the feedback given, it became clear to me that I did not have the requisite skills to write the novel I had dreamed of. What I had learned was that writing is fun and therapeutic but writing longform quality fiction requires a high level of imagination, research and dedication. It takes time, and at the end there may be no publisher willing to take it on. It was this that made me decide to attempt to raise the profile of others’ books rather than create my own. It is good to know that community writing groups exist elsewhere – in person when allowed – and offer encouragement to writers wishing to test their mettle, either for fun or as a stepping stone to potential publication.

What we have here then is sixteen tales, some raw, a few finishing somewhat abruptly, but all highlighting the eagerness of the storyteller to entertain readers. There are impressively imaginative ideas at play in places – Jesus On A Park Bench by Jonathan King was a particular favourite. Life sparks from the pages in many forms.

Recurring themes are explored. Isolation, especially within families where role can subsume innate character leading to often unacknowledged despondency, struck a chord – especially given the ongoing effects of lockdown. Couples struggle with emotional bullying. On Reflection by Helen Chambers takes a possible alternative life to a new level.

There are also more hopeful stories. Lives open up new vistas following the death of a partner. Humour is employed to effect. Open by Wendy James was fun to read despite being about a relationship breakdown.

I enjoyed the idea behind Ms Wiffle’s Open Book by Katy Wimhurst, in which a young woman finds herself capable of offering fellow village residents very specific warnings of future events. I also appreciated the meta aspects of Open Book: 1995, 2009, 2021 by Alice Violett.

The book is described as a ‘celebration of community creativity’. It is a delight to see these writers being given the opportunity to reach a wider audience. It is also good to know that groups like WriteNight exist to offer them friendship and support.

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

Book Review: Dead Relatives

dead relatives

Dead Relatives, by Lucie McKnight Hardy, is the book for the spooky season. It is a collection of thirteen short stories – eight of which have previously appeared in other publications, the remainder original to this collection. The author is expert at writing the macabre into the ordinary. The shadowed and shifting undercurrents permeate characters’ everyday interactions and behaviour.

The titular opening story is also the longest, building tension from the first page. It is told from the point of view of thirteen year old Iris, who lives with her Mammy and their two loyal servants in the crumbling family mansion. Iris has never been beyond the grounds, which she remembers were once well maintained. Set in the 1960s, the family own neither television nor radio. She learns of the outside world only from the array of ladies who periodically come to stay. Iris’s best friend is her doll, but even this must be kept hidden.

“‘Cold hands, cold heart,’ I say, which is what Mammy always says, and I smile my special smile, just for her. I want to show her Dolly. I think Nancy would like Dolly, because Dolly is a lot like me and it seems that Nancy likes me. But I remember what Mammy has said, and so I keep quiet about Dolly. Instead, I put my hand out and rest it on Nancy’s belly.”

The second story, Jutland, tells of a young family moving to the Danish island where the artist husband hopes to concentrate on his painting. The wife, Ana, is a writer, struggling to revive the novel she was forced to set aside following the birth of her second child. The couple’s firstborn has yet to speak, communicating with gestures. Ana is not happy, resentful of her husband’s demands now her role is defined as mother and milking machine.

“He paints shit. He paints like shit. He is shit. But me? I’m a writer. Would you like to hear about that? About the awards I have won and the reviews in the broadsheets?”

There are subtle links between individual stories, small mentions of features previously employed in the varied narratives. What runs through each tale is the unhappiness inherent in families. Some revolve around tragedies, others ingrained character traits. All are nuanced, the reader trusted to make connections.

The Pickling Jar is as shocking as it is darkly humorous, telling of a village community with competitive traditions that are seriously questionable.

Cavities is one of the shorter stories but packs a powerful punch. The lingering sadness makes it hard to blame the protagonist for her actions.

Likewise, Resting Bitch Face, provides a warning of the potential repercussions when women are badly treated. Many of these stories are not for the faint hearted.

Some of the later tales move in the direction of the supernatural rather than the macabre. Mostly these uncanny elements invade insidiously. Children in particular struggle through lack of what they long for, even those being raised by parents who care for them. Those whose lives are followed into adulthood carry with them the damage inflicted.

Wretched is set in a near future Britain and provides a timely warning about acceptance of government propaganda. Citizens are given a Value Index that determines what goods they have access to, including food. The Initiative clears the streets of undesirables, processing them to provide a compliant labour force. Even those who perceive what is being done often choose to look away for fear of social censure and personally damaging repercussions. There is a chilling recognition of the direction England could currently be heading.

The final story, The Birds of Nagasaki, details a key event in the lives of a young brother and sister. The cruelty featured is deeply upsetting despite centring on an item of clothing. The skill with which the author makes readers care is impressive.

In fact this entire collection is impressive. The writing is taut and fluid, disturbing yet compelling. The horror is subtle yet penetrating. A darkly fabulous, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.

Book Review: The Song of Youth

song of youth

The Song of Youth, by Montserrat Roig (translated by Tiago Miller), is a collection of eight short stories that explore universal themes – love, loss, grief, aging, memory, sex – but touched on from angles that tell the reader much about themselves. Although set in a Catalonia shadowed by the Franco regime, the tales explore human experiences and attitudes that will resonate widely. The writing is taut yet expressive, conveying the conflicting emotions of situations without including unnecessary detail. Characters are not always likable but will draw reader empathy.

The collection opens with the titular story in which an elderly woman is lying on a hospital bed, in a ward reserved for those expected to die soon. She is regarded as difficult by the busy nursing staff. She is not yet ready to expire despite being barely able to move. As the woman observes comings and goings around her she relives a key event in her life, prompted by a doctor who reminds her of a former lover. She ponders the changes to her body caused by aging.

“She raised a hand and held it against the ray of sunlight coming in through the window. It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains.” 

When youthful and regarded as pretty the woman chose to indulge in an act of rebellion against the path her parents expected her to take. Now approaching her end, she continues to push back in small ways available.

My favourite story in the collection was Love and Ashes, in which a middle-aged woman, Maria, travels abroad for the first and last time with her husband. They must borrow money to make the trip but it is an experience he wishes to indulge in before he dies. There is much humour in this tale, from the frenemy who has travelled frequently and insists on sharing every detail, to the ridiculous husband whose behaviour ends up freeing Maria to enjoy what time remains. 

Mar is another strong inclusion, exploring the impact of a friendship on family and community when a woman will not conform in her behaviour. Both Mar and the narrator are married with children, the latter being an intellectual with socialist ideals that she comes to recognise ‘only existed in our heads’. Early in the story we learn that Mar is now in hospital, kept alive by machines. The narrator is pondering the year they spent together, one that led to the breakup of both their marriages.

“Perhaps I was attracted by what I perceived in her as innocence but which was, in fact, a merry immorality. She unearthed feelings I didn’t care to define but which had long been lurking deep inside of me, as dark as the thoughts I didn’t dare express”

It is posited that those who condemned Mar did so due to their own unhappiness. It is a story of ideals and the lies we tell ourselves about what we believe in, how we wish to be perceived.  

I found the final story, Before I Deserve Oblivion, disturbing. It offers a depiction of a man with sexual proclivities few would admit to. As a boy he masturbated while secretly watching his parents have sex. As an adult he is caught spying on schoolgirls he is teaching as they undress in a changing room. The man also worked as a censor of literature, ensuring the public could not read the erotica he had access to in order to remove it from texts. He is trying to explain his unsavoury behaviour. Whilst acknowledging he will be condemned by others, it is unclear what he believes to be acceptable in thought and deed.

Although covering numerous challenging topics, the stories are relatable in the characters that populate each page. The writing flows easily, maintaining an engaging pace. There is depth as well as humour, a poignancy in the unflinching portrayal of how people judge both others and themselves. A deftly written collection of short form fiction that I am glad to have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa Press. 

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