IMBO: Welcome to I Must Be Off!, Michelle. It's so great to have you here. Let's hit the ground running. How would you describe your writing?
Imagery that locates the specificity of the story, or of a place, is important to me. Sounds and smells, the metallic ticking of a cheap clock, or the greyish smell of dark wet mushroom. Last week I read a poem containing the image of hiding in skyscraper grass. I love specific images like that, against the backdrop of a much larger story or idea. That’s something I try to do in my own writing as well.
|Winter Sailing in NZ|
IMBO: And I can connect to so much of what you've said. The characters' voices, the precision of the image, exploring connections. What has influenced you along the way?
Hailing from the American South, my mother has always felt a deep love for writers like Reynolds Price, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter. I grew up in a literary household; one brother studied poetry at Duke (and yes, we were as enthused about college basketball as literature). Me: I wrote bad poetry and musicals all through primary and middle school and more forgettable things in high school. Then university and post-grad studies led me into Lit and History and academic research and writing.
But even then, the creative element was always central to the task of writing. As a university teacher (my specialty was German history), I always focused on writing – on the telling of the tale. Never mind what people think about history; never mind about how we’ve all been scarred by mindless high school lit or math or history classes (“Class? Anyone?”) – memorizing dates ain’t history. History is all about point of view, perspective, voice. It’s how you tell the story. History and memory, whether it’s Primo Levi or William Styron: that’s what it’s about, for me. Lately, I’ve been pondering how to turn my dissertation notes into a novel. All the material is there: a whole century of conflicted German characters, questions of identity and loyalty, an exploration of literature and architecture, tensions between mercantile interests and art, perceived progress and disappointment/reality (I’d throw in a lot of sex too). The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof is a grand setting for drama. It’ll be a blockbuster, no doubt: a Buddenbrooks for the 21st century. Unless I end up writing shorter and shorter works, a la John Barth’s Peter Sagamore’s “Bb”.
IMBO: And being an expat? Has being a Weltbürgerin influenced what, and the way, you write?
IMBO: You're not just an expat; you're a special type of expat. You live on a boat. Is your writing, um, more fluid because of this? Groan, OK. But is your writing more . . . daring?
We seem to like extreme living. Even if we don’t do extreme sports. I think all this has informed how I order my life (which is a farce of course, because how much order can there be, really, except for the way we insert commas, or hyphens – or perhaps a sigh or a shrug or a smile, though those are more often than not involuntary and unplanned… the way they should be). I guess I like order and chaos in the right doses. Sailing across oceans in a world of unknowns, filled with natural wonder and poetry and fiction, does me just right. Life moves at a slow speed. We meander. My husband translates and I edit (and edit some more) and write and write about other writers too. And we brainwash our kids in our own way, without television, so they’re pretty much immune to Cocacola or Barbie or – the horror! – Bratz. Thus far… (again, I recognise that control is limited and fleeting, even in my own children’s lives).
|Great Barrier Island, NZ|
And yet… juxtaposed with my preference for transience, for life on the edge, for an identity that defies labels and loyalties, I find deep in my centre a feeling that I might just belong here in New Zealand. From a practical perspective, it’s a wonderful place to live on a boat (better climate and less red tape than almost anywhere we’ve travelled). New Zealand is a place of possibility. It’s a place where my emotional landscape connects with the physical landscape around me. It nurtures the part of me that leans toward a life of action, and the part of me that is more reflective. It’s a relatively new country of course, and its past is intimately wrapped up with its present – and future. This is something that interests me enormously as a writer.
IMBO: Care to share some of your work with us? Please?
1) Lately, I find myself writing more about New Zealand landscapes and people. I am influenced by the idiom, by the cadence and rhythm of language, by the mood of this place. It’s a quiet place, not loud or brash. I wrote a story a couple weeks ago for Flash Frontier, my Kiwi flash project; it’s a quiet story, in a characteristically Kiwi beachside setting. It begins with a platinum sky, something I see a lot of round here this season. “Timpani” (scroll to last story on the page)
2) This story was recently included in my recent proposal for a New Zealand Society of Authors/Auckland Museum Library grant for a collection of stories I am writing this year, a series of short stories set across the landscape of New Zealand’s history. This one’s contemporary, but it indicates a relationship to Place, which is at the centre of the collection. It was written last year during my 52|250 challenge. Some of my stories chronicled my own path, directly or more obliquely. “Nothing Happens at Sea” marks a personal transition. It reflects the tension of coming and going, of staying and sailing away. The pounding in the character’s chest is a pounding in my own, a powerful pulling back toward something -- back to Aotearoa. That is quite new for me, and extraordinary.
IMBO: How about a link to a story or an article written by another expat?
Claire King’s story “Redux” is jam-packed. It’s powerful and dark. She does anger extremely well. But there is also subtle, tender movement. And language so specific it makes me squirm.
IMBO: How has your concept of “home” changed over the years?
IMBO: Michelle, this has been fascinating. What an incredible life. Thank you for sharing it with the readers of I Must Be Off!
I must be off,
READ MORE INTERVIEWS WITH EXPAT AUTHORS
Michelle Elvy reads and writes and edits and lives in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. For more about her projects, you can find her at Glow Worm, Facebook, and Twitter.
Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type. Allen writes fiction, creative non-fiction and of course this here blog. His work has appeared in numerous places both online and in print. Read more about him HERE.