“The realm of feeling and understanding”: An Interview with Michelle Elvy

by Megan Giddings See all Guest Readers
story art

Make a small reading list of flash pieces that you think people trying to get into flash fiction should read.

“Possession(s)” by John Smolens, in PANK

“Why Do Houses Creak” by Ron Reikki, in The Kentucky Review

“Truthful Lies” by Frankie McMillan, in Sport, also in Flash Fiction International, W. W. Norton, 2015

“The Light Eater” by Kirsty Logan, in The Scottish Book Trust, also in Flash Fiction International, W. W. Norton, 2015

“Tweet” by Sabrina Orah Mark, in The Collagist

All of The Best Small Fictions, edited by Robert Olen Butler, Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015 – which is perhaps a shameful plug for a book I worked on, but I do believe it represents terrific variety and diversity in the genre

You write in many different forms (essays, review, fiction, prose poetry). When you have an idea, how do you figure out which form best suits it?

Usually it’s clear to me from the start. A travel story or essay is most often inspired by some place I’ve been, or something I’ve witnessed. But often the same thing may inspire two different outcomes, and I love the flexibility that this allows: one place/ event/ mood may result in an essay and a poem. And one thing may lead to another, too – sometimes I take a longer piece and trim it so much that I’m left with something quite sparse – and I like it better. I’m not afraid to hack away (it always feels good), and I am never wedded to a particular form. But if I think in general terms about the things I write, it’s clear to me that characters drive novels and longer stories, while moods and episodic moments of clarity inspire poetry and flash. Also, something specific will most often lead to a shorter piece; I can write a flash about a red bucket, for example, but I am not sure I could write a whole essay about it (nor would I want to). But you never know – it could be a good starting point for a novel. Or – obviously – a limerick.

What is your definition of story?

To me, story is something that carries you forward – it’s inevitable movement, something in progress. Not the beginning, middle and/or end but all of it, the flow itself: that is the story. Of course, it’s a relating of events and people – told in a way that has its own inherent natural logic and time (even if scattered and experimental) – but to me story implies movement and motion, always.

Roland Barthes is often noted in talking about narrative: “The narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; the history of narrative begins with the history of mankind; there does not exist, and never has existed, a people without narratives.” Oral or written, pictures or words: people tell stories.

And story is always – even on canvas or in a song – about movement, about something or someone going somewhere (even if the characters are not sure where that is). The sum is exponentially greater than all the parts. Through movement, as things unfold, something becomes elevated, even magical. Something moves into the realm of feeling and understanding even beyond the narrative – carried forward by the perpetual motion of the story itself but emerging well beyond the plot points and character stops along the way.

One of my favorite novels – one I come back to again and again, my whole life – is John Barth’s The Tidewater Tales. Set in the Chesapeake in 1980, it’s the tale of a man and a woman — both storytellers — on a small engineless sailboat who spend the pages of the book moving from anchorage to anchorage, seeking a moment of quiet before the arrival of their expected twins (Katherine’s 8 ½ months pregnant when they cast off the lines in an impetuous moment that kicks off the novel), encountering characters real and imagined along the way, admiring other sailors and ships and enjoying each other (on sticky Chesapeake afternoons), as they dip in and out of their own love story. The book is a masterpiece of post-modern story-telling, a web of metaphor and fun, stories winding in on themselves, moving backward and forward in time, flowing out and looping around. Wordplay and worry dominate (the crises at hand are many: political, social, literary), while an earnest joie de vivre and optimism remain at the heart of it all.

And the boat that Katherine and Peter sail is named Story. It’s a marvelous name for a sailboat. Life on a sailboat can only be about change – wind and current are forever pushing and pulling you along, one way or another. There is constant movement on a sailboat, even at anchor – and, with the tiniest breath of wind, there is inevitable movement forward.

I know we already interviewed you about “Antarctica,” but here’s one more question about it. One of the things that really struck me while reading it is its sense of discovery. What do you wish you–and all of time and space is open to you for this–had first discovered?

Ah, well. I’m not someone who wishes for things like that – being the first at anything is not something I ponder. The idea of discovering something big – fire, cocoa, coffee, pork rinds – isn’t in me. I was not the first-born in our family of five children; I was the middle child – so maybe that’s why. But I do like small, powerful moments, moments that explode, moments that result in understanding just how little we know, how small we are. I’d love to have been there, watching or listening, for example, when Jane Goodall observed that chimpanzee with his stick in the rainforests of Tanzania, in 1960. Those kinds of moments of discovery are things I seem to ponder a lot.

In my own life, I love sea life; I feel intensely drawn to life of the underwater world. Whales and dolphins and sea turtles – I am moved each time I encounter one of these creatures. And underwater I am drawn to the tiniest electric blue fishes pulsing in the current, clownfish darting in and out of the anenomes, the crazy shape-shifting and camouflaging octopus or even the choreographic movement of a school of ordinary trevally. I can observe life around a coral reef time and again and still want to go back for more. There is always something new to see, if I just keep looking.

We experienced something quite extraordinary, once, when we witnessed an unusual bioluminescence around our sailboat, anchored in the Gulf of Thailand, and we felt an indescribable thrill when that happened. And I would love to see this rare sea turtle, too.

I don’t necessarily feel compelled to discover anything, but to see things, to marvel again and again — and to keep looking – well, there is real joy in that.

About the Reader:

Michelle Elvy is a writer, editor, and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand. She has published poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction, and reviews in print and online journals and anthologies. Recently, her work appears in New Micro (W.W. Norton 2018), and she co-edited Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press 2018). She edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five Notebook and is Assistant Editor for the Best Small Fictions series.

About the Interviewer:

Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly  and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016.  She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.