Both the title of Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, 2019) by Sandra Arnold, the cover with its crackled baby-doll faces, and the uncapitalized chapter titles throughout, prepare the reader for the unease found in the pages of this collection of very short stories. The author seduces us into her world, subverting expectations, almost always putting the reader on edge. In much the same way as a carefully-constructed quilt appeals to the eye, these small stories appeal to the heart, except for one thing, the author has left in the pins. Each “patch” comes with its own prick to inflict the reader with a jolt of reality. The threads holding the whole together are twined with dissonance, shock, and inevitable truth. Here are some of the questions I wanted to ask Sandra Arnold when I finished reading her very satisfying group of stories.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings, and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. She is a guest editor for Meniscus and Flash Frontier.
Gay Degani: Sandra, some of your pieces, especially in the first half of your collection deal with children who haven’t developed much of a conscience yet. The norm for many stories about children is to show bad things happening to them. You’ve flipped this around by having your characters do bad things to others. I was pulled in, anxious to find out what you would show me next. Can you talk about what made you take this particular approach? Did you start with one story, then realize that you wanted to develop more in the same vein or did it just happen?
Sandra Arnold: The first flash fiction story I wrote was ‘The Dragonfly’ and this was published in Flashflood in June 2016. Its roots were in a primary school rugby game I attended many years before in which my young son was playing. It was the first time I’d been to a rugby match, and I was horrified to hear the language used by some of the mothers there: “Kill’em ya girl!” “Don’t be a wet blouse!” The violence of the language directed towards children playing a children’s game stayed with me for a long time. Many years later a poet friend told me he used to hide his poetry books in a tree and go there to read so he wouldn’t be visible when his friends came to ask him to play rugby, which all boys in New Zealand were expected to love. These elements came together when I started writing The ‘Dragonfly.’ After that, I wanted to explore ideas about how people who are different from the social norm are treated by both adults and other children and several stories around that theme emerged.
GD: The theme of “differentness” is evident in your stories and “different” almost always leads to tension between individuals. As mentioned above, your titles and the format used, enhance this experience. In the same way, your first sentences pulled me in. You do them so well. They raised my curiosity because they sound beautiful and/or they carry a jolt. Some of my favorites include:
The lighthouse keeper: “Red knot, Caspian tern, Mongolian dotterel.”
A perfect match: “Until the day Briony came home from school and found her father dead in the kitchen, she hadn’t paid much attention to detail.”
Grave concerns: “The main topic of conversation on our street was the issue of digging up the bodies.”
The woman with a thousand faces: “All the strands that held me together on my climb up the mountain began to unravel the moment I hauled myself over the last rock.”
I see you are careful with every word you use. Please talk about how you go about drafting and editing to achieve such effective language. Do you have any tricks or rules you might want to share with other writers?
SA: Each story begins with an idea and this might come from a memory, a snippet of overheard conversation, a piece in the newspaper or something observed. I write a rough draft so I can see where the story is going. After that it’s a matter of editing and re-drafting until I’m reasonably happy that it works. Then I leave it for a few weeks. When I look at it again I tweak the sentence structure, change words, and then leave it again. This process is repeated until I can look at the story without wanting to change a single word.
GD: After reading “The seeing kind,” I wrote this note: “Sandra deals in magical realism with her characters often displaying special abilities that, while very close to normal, slip into the realm of the fantastic.” This element in many of your stories, some more than others, gets stronger as the collection unfolds. The first few pieces are straight narrative until “The girl who wanted to fly” which suggests what might follow in the progression of stories. “The girl with green hair” begins the genre in earnest. This arrangement feels deliberate to me, a build toward the more fantastical pieces that eventually follow. What was your thinking when you got down to organizing the pieces? Was this an intentional build?
SA: When I started organising the collection, I put together stories with a similar theme, so in that sense, it was intentional. I wrote those magic realism stories with the idea that there is more in the world than we see on the surface. This also includes the power of imagination – all the what-ifs when we observe an apparently ordinary situation.
GD: Some of my favorite stories from the collection include “Seraphina’s star,” “Marlene,” “Monday’s child,” “Stoicism,” “Child’s play,” “Esbos Blue,” “The woman with a thousand faces,” and “A voice called Gavin.” Can you pick three or four stories that you particularly like and tell us why in terms of language, subject matter, theme?
SA: Some of my favourites include ‘The lighthouse keeper’, ‘River’, ‘Inside story’ and ‘The road to nowhere’. ‘The lighthouse keeper’ began on a holiday in Golden Bay at the top of the South Island in New Zealand. We had visited the lighthouse there many years ago before the lighthouses were automated. On this most recent visit I remembered some of the things the lighthouse keeper had told us. What struck me at the time was his sense of living exactly the kind of life he wanted to live and his joy in every day. Back at the house we were staying in I wrote the story and chose language that would give a sense of poignancy about two people experiencing their visit differently.
‘River’ is a story about a sensitive child being bullied by his father and his longing to leave that world. ‘Inside story’ appeared after a friend from the city said she found my house in the countryside too quiet. However, for me, the quiet environment is permeated with all the lives that have been lived there, all the conversations, the worries, the hopes, the people who have been born and died. ‘The road to nowhere’ emerged in one long sentence as a cry of pain from the character that ended with a glimmer of hope in an unexpected act of kindness. It is one of the few stories I’ve written that needed very little tweaking.
GD: Can you talk a little bit about how you began to write seriously and what your literary plans are for the future?
SA: I’ve always been a voracious reader and wrote stories, poems and plays from the age of eleven and throughout my teens. In my twenties I was busy travelling, teaching and raising children. We came to New Zealand when I was in my early thirties. After my third child was born, I took a creative writing course and started writing stories for radio. Over the next couple of decades my work was also published in journals and anthologies and I had two novels published.
Then my youngest daughter died of cancer at the age of twenty-three. For a long time afterwards I could neither write nor read. We changed our environment by living and working in the Middle East for a year. I began a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. This led to a PhD on the topic of parental bereavement and part of my thesis was published as a book, ‘Sing no sad songs’ in 2011.
In 2014 I travelled back to the UK for three months to visit family and friends and to do some research for a novel I was planning. On my return to New Zealand I held a writing fellowship in a remote part of New Zealand where I wrote the first draft of the new novel. It was published this year as The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell. Three years ago I starting writing flash fiction stories after a friend introduced me to the genre and these were published in the collection Soul Etchings in June this year, two months before the novel, so it’s been a busy but very fulfilling time. Future plans include a collection of short stories and another collection of flash fiction.
GD: Thank you, Sandra, for taking the time to answer my questions and allowing me to get to know you better. Looking forward to reading more of your work. I also want to add that I’m very sorry for the loss of your daughter.
SA: Thank you, Gay, for such interesting question, for your response to Soul Etchings and your kind thoughts.
Gay Degani has received nominations and honors for her work including Pushcart consideration and Best Small Fictions. She’s published a collection of eight stories about mothers, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place, gaydegani.com.
Note: The differences in punctuation are because the interviewer lives in the US and the interviewee lives in New Zealand.