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An Interview with Michelle Elvy, the judge of the 7th annual I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition

Thank you, Michelle, for judging the seventh annual I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition. Each year we read hundreds of stories by writers around the world. In June we led a workshop focused on travel writing. What in your opinion makes a great piece of travel writing? 

Thanks for having me, Chris – and for hosting this competition each year! I think the elements of great travel writing include many things that parallel good writing in general, and specifically elements we talk about in flash fiction: diving right into the scenes you are painting, without preamble; getting the setting right; choosing words carefully that convey the mood; making the sensory experience real for the reader. The voice is important in travel writing, too – you’d think it’s all about place, but it’s also equally about the voice telling the story. The best travel writers know how to establish an expert view while maintaining humility, how to introduce humour into the scene (even serious scenes can be written with a light touch) and their portrayal of themselves, how to look at something from a new angle that shows both a shift in content and form. 

You've sailed around the world for nearly two decades. Is there a place you haven't been that's on your bucket list? 

I don’t really have a list of places as goals. We travel slowly aboard the good ship Momo and see what develops. Usually we end up in places that are both unexpected and curious – places that may not appear on a must-see list but that grow on us as we stay longer. Best examples of this are small islands in Indonesia, where we were often the only foreign boat (Tual, in the Kai Islands, for example, where we sailed in 2013) or the tiny town of Tanga, Tanzania – where we based ourselves for two years (2015-17) and came to appreciate the rhythm of life and low-impact existence that we could maintain there. We were pleasantly surprised by St Helena in the South Atlantic (where we were in 2018), as well as less remote places such as Hawaii and Southeast Alaska (2005).  

Having said that, there are a few places I’d love to go, whether via sailboat or otherwise: Antarctica, Cape Horn, the Arctic, Sweden, St. Petersburg… Also, the island of Rodrigues, which we missed because we had to bear away from the wind in dangerous conditions in the southern Indian Ocean (we changed course to sail directly for Madagascar that year instead, giving the islands further to the south a miss); perhaps one day we’ll get back there. More locally, we’d like to explore more of New Zealand’s coastal waters – this is a perfect place to live if you are an ocean-oriented sort of person. And there are mountains and lakes too! So much to see at our doorstep, now that we are looking at some years closer to the place we call home. 

Your book the everrumble came out recently. A few of the top stories in the I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition will be receiving this amazing book. Can you tell us a bit about how the everrumble came to be?

I started writing this a few years ago when we were in Tanzania, when I was overcome by the space and beauty of the African continent. It is not surprising to me that Zettie ends up travelling to East Africa as well. But she starts out in a modest town in Maine – I guess I tend to approach things with the ‘start small, and see where it leads you’ motto.  At the same time I was thinking about young Zettie, I was also overwhelmed by the idea that there is so much to listen to in the world: birdsong alone can fill one’s day. We spend a lot of time in quietude aboard our boat, too; you tune into every noise when at sea – some loud, some almost imperceptible. I began thinking about what it would be like to stop talking and just listen to the world. 

The idea of this young girl evolved naturally: first she hears her immediate environment (house, family, neighbourhood), then she starts tuning into things a bit farther out. Her stories grew for me as I started listening in on how she’d perceive the world – and it was fun to imagine what she’d hear, and how she’d feel about it. It was also quite fascinating to write the stories and then see how they could be ordered. The novel covers her whole life, from birth to death at age 105, and she is on the move for a lot of it – so there was plenty of material to think about/ listen to. I had to do quite a lot of travel with Zettie as she explored the world. Eventually, so much opened up for me as I had to tune into sounds as Zettie does – that was a wonderful process, both challenging and gratifying. 

In terms of travel writing, who are some writers you respect?

Swell off Fatu Hiva


Besides the obvious nod to Bruce Chatwin or the ornery Paul Theroux, I of course love writing that captures our watery world(s). William W. Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers is a book I grew up with, about the Chesapeake Bay. Classics such as Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea are books I go back to again and again – the last time I read The Old Man and the Sea was aloud with my kids as we were crossing the Indian Ocean. I add to those the classic by Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us. I cherish a book called Sea Change by Peter Nichols, who also wrote A Voyage for Madmen about the first nonstop round-the-world sailing race in 1968. Nichols is a terrific storyteller, whether writing about his own sailing experience or those of others. I also highly recommend two other sailing books: Miles Hordern’s Sailing the Pacific: A Voyage Across the Longest Stretch of Water on Earth, and a Journey into Its Past and Dallas Murphy’s Rounding the Horn: Being the Story of Williwaws and Windjammers, Drake, Darwin, Murdered Missionaries and Naked Natives--a Deck's-eye View of Cape Horn as they are not merely examples of travel writing but also, as their titles suggest, views into history and cultural encounters. James Nestor’s Deep – about free diving – is new to me – and so engaging. And new on my reading list, too, is Ocean Notorious: Journeys to lost and lonely places of the deep south by Matt Vance.

For travel writing that doles out a steady stream of wit and humour, J Maarten Troost’s books are exemplary, especially Gettting Stoned with Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Not long ago, I also read The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind- And Almost Found Myself-On the Pacific Crest Trail, in which Dan White recounts, with humour and humility, his attempt to ‘conquer’ the Pacfiic Crest Trail – from Mexico to Canada, some 2,600+ miles.

I like lesser known travel writers too – the ones you come to sometimes quite by accident. I fell in love with an article in National Geographic by Paul Salopek, who took a seven-year trek from Africa to Tierra Del Fuego, following the footsteps of Homo sapiens from their earliest moment in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa to the last continental end of Tierra del Fuego. I admire people who write with a raw sense of adventure – who are perhaps not polished ‘travel writers’ but who have an adventure to share. I like the jaunty style of Ewan McGregor’s and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Down, and I enjoy French sailor Bernard Moitessier’s writing for its unconventional nature. Possibly the best adventurers I have come to appreciate are individuals who did not set out to be famous adventure writers at all: Miles and Beryl Smeeton, for example, who were early 20th century pioneers, mountaineers and eventually sailors. 

I find anthologies about a place or travel inspiring as well. Recently I have come to a collection about New Zealand alpine writing called To the Mountains (Otago University Press 2018, edited by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey). And there was a volume some years back, edited by Bill Manhire, called The Wide White Page: Writers Imagine Antarctica. This is, as the title suggests, a collection that includes fiction and nonfiction to paint the landscape of Antarctica. Another Antarctica book worth noting is Rebecca Priestley’s Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica (Victoria University Press 2019) – the southern continent looms large in the Kiwi imagination. While I am thinking of books produced in New Zealand, I’ll also note a beautiful collection created in the wake of the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes called Leaving the Red Zone, edited by James Norcliffe and Joanne Preston. These titles are not exactly travel writing that transports the reader there to a very specific place and time. 

Which brings me to writers who are not authors you’d first think of as travel writers but who take us to a real place nonetheless, even in fiction. Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy are two favourites for the way they write about place. I think travel writers can learn from fiction writers who have a gift for capturing the light on a particular field, or the way mountain air might catch in your chest, or a moment in time between two people occupying the same place. 

Also, there are writers whose work captures a sense of someplace else. These include Ivy Alvarez (Philippines), Catherine McNamara (West Africa and Italy) and Marjory Woodfield (Middle East). Their poetry and fictions transport you to those places, in sensory and poetic ways. 

What projects are on your desk at the moment? 

I am currently working on several things at once, including a new draft of a novel that I put away for a year and a hybrid travel memoir that includes poetry, essays and log notes from sailing – for which I hope to find a publisher in 2020.  Besides my own writing, there are also projects that keep me busy with my editor hat on. Best Small Fictions 2019 has just come out and we have readings in many US locations as well as two coming in February in Christchurch and Auckland. Meanwhile, we’re already reading for the 2020 edition of the anthology, guest edited by poet Kwame Dawes. I read for BSF year-round; it’s an ongoing pleasure. In New Zealand, I am curating an anthology with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe that we expect to see published in 2020; it’s called Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand and will include fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and visual art celebrating the voices, experiences and ethnicities that form contemporary New Zealand. This book was born in the wake of the March 2019 attacks in Christchurch. 

On a personal front, I’m currently settling into a residence in Dunedin, NZ. I’ve been on the move since I was 19 – never living more than a couple years in any one place – and living aboard our sailboat for nearly two decades. This is a new and very different kind of adventure for me. Among other things, I’m discovering Dunedin’s secondhand shops. Today I purchased a book shelf, a table and two lamps. Furniture is not something you think about when you live on a sailboat.

 

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Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor originally from the Chesapeake Bay and now based in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is Assistant Editor for the international Best Small Fictions series and founder of Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day NZ. In 2018 she co-edited Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand and this year she is co-editing Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe. Michelle’s poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction and reviews have been widely published and anthologized. Her book, the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction 2019) – a small novel in small forms – is her first novel. michelleelvy.com

 

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