Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Expat Author Interview with Michelle Elvy

Michelle Elvy
From a spacious Edwardian mansion to a little green sailboat, Michelle Elvy has come--or drifted--a long way to a larger, yellow sailboat named Momo. She was born in North Carolina but grew up in Annapolis, Maryland. She's lived in New Orleans, Berlin, Hamburg, Munich (yay!) and Leipzig, a thrilling place to be in the post-Berlin Wall days of the 90s. She's now a "permanent" resident of En Zed, where she's becoming involved in the thriving artist communities there. Her latest projects are NZ-oriented: Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and the Aotearoa Affair Blog Fest, co-edited by Dorothee Lang in Germany. 

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?

Momo
Hmmm. I don’t know how to describe my writing, actually. It changes from story to poem to real-life recollection. I know what I like. I like it watery, liquid, flowing. But sometimes I like it staccato and punchy. Sometimes I like pulling on a large pair of pants and prancing around like a Big Man. I’m a post-postmodern girl: I like layers and movement back and forth in time; I like conceptual dilemmas embedded in a simple story. But at the end of the day, I tell a story in a fairly straightforward manner. I do like writing about hard things. I like trying to find the right word(s) to describe an impossible feeling, beyond happiness or sadness or fear. And I like creating characters who are perhaps unpredictable. I like getting into the heads of those folks who are in my head. And I like hearing them talk – they always have some kind of accent, to me. Even the pissed off elephants.

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
And finally, writing is all about connection. Between the writer and the reader, between the characters on the page, between the past and the present. How can it be about anything else, really? Connection comes in many forms: language and sounds, as well as other sensory experiences. A fingertip brushing a shoulder blade, or a raucous fuck: these are both about connection. And then there’s disconnection, too, which can also come with either of those, the finger or the fuck. Exploring the connections, and the disconnects, is important to me.

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?

Sunset Lookout
Well, to begin with, I’m now tuned into removing the series comma before and, and also writing honour and neighbourhood and organisation. Being an editor in various versions of English keeps you on your toes. I might be a wee bit schizophrenic – in a good, E.L. Doctorow way (“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”; see Len Kuntz’s blog, March 5). I like that feeling of straddling two places, or even three. I feel a romantic attachment to the Chesapeake, and to Germany, but I don’t belong there. A good friend said recently that I occupy the between, and I think she is right. I’ve been living geographically detached for some ten years. I have felt passing attachments to certain places we’ve sailed to: the majesty of Alaska, the mana of Hawaii, the warmth of Mexico (where my second daughter was born).

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
But living on the edge of things suits me, and I’ve discovered it makes me all the more tuned into observation of people and places. I often keep an intellectual critical distance (that stems from academic training, no doubt) but dive right into experience: whether it’s boiling the eyes of reef fish or pounding kava. I like this complicated challenge in my everyday existence: finding a way in while not quite belonging. I’m pretty sure this tension between detachment and belonging impacts my writing – both my travel writing and my fiction.

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.

Northland, NZ
All of my interests – the imperfections of memory, the difficulties of portraying reality, the search for meaning in the mythical while living a feet-on-the-ground everyday routine, the sense of one’s own history (looking at it in a forward-viewing sense, not backward-leaning) – all of these are right in front of me here in New Zealand and offer a very rich environment in which to write. And whether I write about personal (as in my own memory, reality, myth or history) or something more fictitious, New Zealand is becoming, on an almost daily basis, the place I want to do it. Ultimately, I feel optimistic living here. And that’s saying something.

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? 

Home has always been where I am. And over the last ten years, I carry my home with me, quite literally. My children have grown up on Momo; it is their only home. But as I say, I am gaining a sense of New Zealand, a country whose psychology and history is informed more by the sea than by any other I’ve lived in. And I quite like this new feeling. But I’d be lying if I did not say I miss my mother, and the Chesapeake. And friends and family on the east coast of the US and the west coast of Canada and Germany. It is hard being oceans away from people who are my family.

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,
Christopher


READ MORE INTERVIEWS WITH EXPAT AUTHORS
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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 WormFacebook, 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.