Thank you for sending this story to SmokeLong, Rob. I chose it (not only) for its layers and its beauty at the sentence level. Why did you end up writing about these characters in this setting?
I think the idea was planted when I was hiking through the South Island of New Zealand, somewhere in the Marlborough Region. I was stuck out in the middle of a farming valley and was struggling to catch a ride, but came across a small, local landmark, an old cottage, surely renovated, which had purportedly been lived in by a European family back towards the time of the first white settlers. That got me thinking about being stuck out in the middle of a foreign wilderness with your own brood to protect and raise, and then in my mind the story grew into something a little more fantastical. I think I was quite dehydrated at the time, which may have helped.
It has been a while since I read the story, but the family dynamic, their harsh circumstances and dependence on nature, are all still fresh in my mind. What do you think the key is to creating a memorable story? Or keys?
I really wish I knew! I think unusual images and clarity of phrase can help, especially in short fiction. With longer works I think it’s more about the tapestry that gives the lasting impression, the bigger weave—you don’t necessarily have to rely on small, distinctive tableaux in quite the same way. But I think the number of ways to make a story memorable are pretty numerous and difficult to identify. I know that I’m never sure whether I’ve written something memorable, even after I might have stumbled into something which sticks. That’s why I’m very flattered that this piece seems to have managed to stick with you in some way!
Are you a mountain person? I could move to South Tyrol and live in a little hut with a cow and some chickens—as long as there were internet. I don’t think your characters have internet.
I don’t even think my characters have paper and pen. I’m certainly a mountain person but probably because I’ve been born and raised in some of the flattest places in England—Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Essex, and then London. Any mountains I’ve come across, I’ve had to journey to see. I wonder whether I’d grow used to them, like any other landscape, if I lived amongst them—I’d certainly hope not. I’m writing something that might turn into a novella where a woman marries a Nepalese man and lives in the Himalayas, then has to pretend to any tourists she bumps into that the mountains still take her breath away, when in reality she’s bored.
Did you have a particular, real place in mind when you wrote “Sharp Sticks”? Or, as the characters seem to be an archetypal nuclear family, is this place an archetype of the harsh, natural world?
Although it spun out of Marlborough, I think the land in the story is very much archetypal. For me the world they live in is a symbol of general malaise, struggle, and wonder all put together—”in the ache this land calls fields,” “the ocean having its own summer,” etc. A lot of their emotions are tied to the Earth and vice versa. There’s also for me quite a dreamlike quality to the whole thing. The characters don’t feel that real until they get injured; you’re not quite sure where their edges finish and the land begins.
What are you working on at the moment?
Aside from the hesitant novella, which is looking like a small family drama in three parts, I’m trying to brush up some short stories. I’ve written a couple of novels previously, neither of which were particularly good, so I have decided to try to hone my skills with more manageable lengths of prose. I’ve definitely been running before I can walk, which has its merits but also results in some embarrassing efforts. I don’t seem to be writing much poetry at the moment and the stuff I am writing is slipping towards prose poetry, whatever that is. I released a short collection last summer called The Distance Between Things, which I think has acted as a bit of a chapter break when it comes to verse writing.