This interview between Tincture editor Daniel Young and writer Angela Meyer took place via email, to celebrate the release of Angela’s book Captives (Inkerman & Blunt), which is a remarkable collection of flash fiction. Two of Angela’s flash pieces can be found in Issue One of Tincture Journal.
DY: Hi Angela. Firstly, congratulations on the publication of your flash fiction collection Captives. Can you tell me a bit about your writing background and elaborate on the process of getting this book published?
AM: Thank you! I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and writing seriously for about ten years now. I’ve written in many different forms, short and long, but when I began writing more of these morsels of fiction—very short stories—something really clicked. First of all, they just felt wonderful to write. Secondly, people were responsive to them, including your good self. My publisher, Donna Ward, decided to publish a collection of them after having only read a few. She’s incredibly supportive of my writing and I still can’t quite believe my luck. It’s true what a lot of writers say: that all it takes is one person to come along and take a chance on you. There’s a lot of work before and after, but that moment and that person will present themselves when you least expect it.
DY: The book is sub-titled “Bad things happen. Or they might. At any moment”. This alludes to some fairly dark themes throughout. Was this intentional, or something that emerged as you began to bring the pieces together into a single collection?
AM: It’s definitely something that emerged organically, although I’ve been aware for a while that my best writing tends to emerge from the place where my anxieties lie (which is not far removed from my passions). There’s a knife’s edge between happiness and melancholy, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, and my writing is attuned to that. The knife’s edge also separates what is considered ‘normal’ from what is not. That’s something that fascinates me and is another theme that runs through the book.
DY: The pieces are also organised into various sections, mostly titled by binary oppositions such as “On/Off”, “Up/Down”, “In/Out”, etc. Did these structures emerge after all of the pieces were written, or throughout the writing process? Were the categorisations noticed by you, your editor, or other readers?
AM: How interesting, in relation to the previous question: melancholy/happiness, order/madness… I guess I’m alert to the often invisible shift across some line. I think my brain revels in structures, but that’s a flipside of the anxiety as well; chaos is frightening (and always possible). That’s what makes these pieces stories and not poems (I think), because there is a tension or conflict, and a shift (perhaps from one side of that line to the other, sometimes back again). Ordering the stories and giving the sections titles was a joint effort, between myself and my wonderful editor Amanda Curtin.
DY: Two of the flash fiction pieces, “Glitch” and “Apocalypse”, appeared in the very first issue of Tincture Journal, and a number of the other pieces first appeared in other publications. Do you have any advice for other writers about contributing their work to literary journals? Did this publication history help or hinder the process of getting the entire collection published?
AM: The publication history helped it, for sure. A publisher will be more inclined to look at your work in the first place if you’ve had some success in journals or through competitions. That said, plenty of authors get published without having gone down that road first. Regarding journals, I’d say: try to read as many as you can and get a feel for where your work would fit. Follow the editors on social media and take note of their influences and interests. This’ll all help you decide where to send your work. Send pieces when they’ve been reworked and polished, never first drafts. And rejections are always a bummer but EVERY writer gets them—tons of them. Often your work isn’t right for the place at the time, or maybe it needs more attention. Maybe it is just a crappy piece, but you’ll realise that yourself eventually. Write others, write more, READ more, keep failing; every now and then you’ll get through.
DY: You’ve spent a lot of time on the writers’ festival circuit, either chairing or being a member of various panels. There’s also a story in Captives that is set in a festival green room. Did this story come to you while at a festival? I’m sure your experience at festivals has led to many insights into your writing process: is there anything in particular you’d like to share?
AM: It did, actually! I wrote quite a few of the stories in Captives during the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year. I wrote the story you mention, “One of the crew”, after seeing a woman talking into a microphone on her chest, conducting “official business”, and wondering if someone could get away with pretending they were meant to be there, that they were part of the crew. Why would someone do that? You suspect she’s unstable, that she has broken dreams, that she wants to fit in. Because why wouldn’t you want to be a part of a writers’ festival? They’re magical bubbles of time where readers and writers get together and celebrate books (and get drunk and make faux pas). They’re also incredibly nerve-wracking. I emerge at the other end an exhausted wreck. But it’s always worth it.
Through writers festivals I’ve learnt that there’s no one way to write or publish, that every writer is completely different, that each book is different. Even publishers are basically guessing at what will make them money. Everyone in the book industry is winging it (or making educated guesses, if you want to be more polite). I guess more of the insights I’ve gained from festivals are about art in life and life as art: philosophical questions about why we strive, what we’re hoping to find (and/or express), how we live (with this need to explain or express) daily and going onwards. The ‘identity’ of writer, or artist, and its relation to the final product(s), is interesting to me.
DY: Photography and cameras are one of many recurring motifs that I spotted while reading Captives. Is photography a particular interest of yours? Do you think this and other themes emerged subconsciously as you wrote, or is it more deliberate than that?
AM: This one hasn’t been pointed out yet, and I hadn’t noticed it myself! I am a very visual person. I studied both film and literature, and my dad has always filmed and edited family videos. I’ve been involved in video projects, too. I love visual art and film, and I do think of these stories as being very visual. I hope the reader is left with an after-image, a melancholic vision, like the rocking horse that belonged to the protagonist’s sister Jean in the story “Highland Pickers”, cantering to stillness in the tray of the van. Why do I want the stories to have this effect? I’m not entirely sure. It’s important to experience another person’s fear or sadness (no matter how challenging or different to your own experience).
DY: One of your stories ends with the striking image of the lonely protagonist, a traveller, taking selfies with wax figures in Madame Tussauds. Has your own travelling influenced your writing? Do you feel that travel is an important part of being a globally engaged writer?
AM: This one is autobiographical—direct from life. Other stories were written while travelling last year, and I am currently working on a manuscript set in Scotland. So yes, travelling has definitely influenced my writing. Perhaps because when you’re travelling you’re always encountering new landscapes on which countless stories are already etched. And you’re encountering people, art, situations—travel opens your mind to potential settings, characters and scenarios. Last year my partner Gerard Elson and I also stayed for longer periods of time working and living with families, so we really got to see how (some) people live everyday (in Scotland and Norway), and how they see the world. There are aspects of certain settings you just can’t get from a book, to know the smells (my Speyside is barley, shortbread, dog hair, cut grass), sounds (the lone robin singing in the morning, the gruff owl at night), the quality of the light. That’s one thing I’ve noticed in my travels: light is different everywhere; daylight, dusk, night. I saw some true Munch-ian sunsets in Oslo. That said, there are some amazing writers who only work from secondary source material, writing about places they haven’t been. Never underestimate the power of imagination. And there are also those who writing purely about Australia that I would still say are ‘globally engaged’, due to their engagement with globally relevant themes.
DY: It seems strange that I want to avoid giving spoilers for such short stories, but “Foreign Bodies” was such a surprising and wonderful piece that I wouldn’t want to ruin it for others. However, it did lead me to wonder where the idea came from. Does inspiration come to you when you sit down to write, or do you have to carry a notebook to avoid losing ideas that come to you at random moments?
AM: I did have a dedicated notebook for this project, and I would transfer other notes from smaller notebooks and from my phone into the ‘flash fiction notebook’. As I mentioned earlier, my mind needs order (some semblance of it, anyway). “Foreign Bodies” came out of reading something about the prevalence of ‘pica’ in institutions (swallowing foreign objects). And of course the story becomes a little absurd, because I’m influenced by writers like Kafka and Beckett, and Janet Frame. God, if I could write an institutional scene like Janet Frame… No one could ever write like her. For the novel I’m working on, I also have a dedicated notebook, a huge pile of research books, a folder on my computer, and a folder of favourites in my browser. I also have a physical pin board with relevant pictures: historical interiors, ripe fruit, animals, lochs and glens.
DY: You have a strong background in book reviewing. As a writer, are you looking forward to the critical engagement of having your book reviewed, or do you think it’s best to avoid reading reviews of your work?
AM: The couple of reviews I’ve received so far have been positive and I am very grateful for that. What I like most is seeing which stories the reviewer thinks are strong (it’s always different). I’m gaining insights into people when they tell me their favourites. I love that. Because I have been a reviewer for some years now, I am completely prepared for the possibility of negative reviews. And I think it would sting a little but be OK. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste—it’s a dark book, and some people don’t ‘click’ with short stories. A reviewer may find points where my writing can be strengthened, and that would be fine. There are plenty of books I’ve found flawed that other people have loved. You can make an educated critical assessment of a book, but you are inescapably approaching it from your own tastes and background. I’d be annoyed if the review itself was badly written! But reviews or no reviews, Captives is already finding its feet—it’s tucked into people’s pockets all over Australia and the world. Mates, peers and colleagues, old school friends, my long term blog readers, and I’ll be meeting plenty more potential readers at festivals, events and writers’ centres this year.
Editor’s Note: these events are all listed on the Events Page of Angela’s blog, including a number of sessions at the upcoming Sydney Writers’ Festival.
DY: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
AM: I mentioned Kafka, Beckett and Janet Frame. Woolf, Plath, Orwell, Richard Yates, Albert Camus. Mary Shelley. Michael Cunningham, for a contemporary writer. Roald Dahl, as a kid. David Bowie. A ton of filmmakers: Kubrick is the one I think of off the top of my head. And artists like Edvard Munch. I guess there are similarities between these: swirling inner states, threatening (and beautiful) worlds, melancholy, strangeness, dissolving lines (gender, position, morality, life/death…).
DY: Angela, thanks so much for your time.
AM: Thank YOU.
Angela Meyer is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, the Australian, Crikey, The Big Issue and many others. Captives, her chapbook of flash fiction is published by Inkerman & Blunt and is available now. Angela recently completed editing an anthology of creepy short stories for Spineless Wonders, titled The Great Unknown.