Monday Jul 22

FrankieMcMillan Frankie McMillan is a New Zealand writer and poet. Her latest book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions was longlisted in the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Recent work appears in Best Small Fictions, 2018 (Braddock Books).

Frankie McMillan Interview with Jonathan Cardew

Thank you so much, Frankie, for joining us at Connotation Press with your two wonderful stories.

It wouldn’t be an issue without me publishing a New Zealand writer. And it wouldn’t be an issue without me publishing flash. New Zealand writers seem to do flash so well! Pray tell the secret sauce you all take down under.

We keep the sauce bottles upside down. Shaking seems to help. After the Canterbury earthquakes 2010-11 there was a flurry of art activity across the region –street art, music and literature. Our secret recipe could be seen as one handed down to us by previous generations. By that I mean New Zealand/Aotearoa has a long tradition of the short story and flash owes as much to this as it does to poetry.  

I loved both of your stories in this issue! “The Father of Octopus Wrestling” is such an excellent piece of fabulism, as is “Big Joe, walking on water” (though the lines are blurred in this one). How often do you use fabulist elements in your fiction and poetry? Why eschew realism?

Thanks, Jonathan. I often use fabulist elements in poetry and just lately have been finding myself using this in flash as well. I think, with flash, I’m pushing the boundaries of the form, seeing what I can get away with. I find the world to be fabulist, I’m often awe struck by the wonder and terror of it all so this finds its way into the work.

Your recent book, My Mother and the Hungarians, is a collection of flash fictions centered on the lives of immigrants from Hungary. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of this book? What are your thoughts/experiences on using family history/ genealogy in fiction?

For a long time I’d been wanting to write about my early experiences of living with a solo mother and Hungarian refugees. It was a pretty chaotic childhood and often I couldn’t make sense of the adult world. Previously I’d tried writing it as poetry, then short stories but it was flash – moving as it does from one slightly anxious moment to the next – that seemed to fit the subject matter. I chose fiction rather than memoir partly because I’m a fiction writer, but also because these events happened a long time ago and my memories ( sometimes unreliable!) come to me in fragments. By fictionalising the work it also allowed a greater range of point of view.  

The book launch was attended by members of the Hungarian embassy and soon after their government invited me to participate in the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. This astonishing turn of events saw my partner and I travel to Budapest in 2016.        

What are you reading at the moment? Read any good short stories recently? (please provide us with a link or two)

At the moment, I’m enjoying two novels: ‘The Green Road,’ by Anne Enright and ‘The History of Wolves,’ by Emily Fridlund.

Recent flash stories I’ve loved include Alligators at Night, by Meg Pokrass [and] Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild, by Kathy Fish.

What creative projects are you working on at the moment? What’s in the pipeline?

I’m working on a novella length project of prose poems and flash fiction. I’m experimenting with point of view and drawing on childhood experiences of being in a gang. I’ve also just finished co-editing ( with Michelle Elvy and James Norcliffe) an anthology of short short forms in New Zealand/Aotearoa. ‘Bonsai’ is due out in August, 2018 ( Canterbury University Press).

We expect splatters of sauce to be found on every page!

We all want to come to New Zealand. Write a short and unorthodox (possibly even fabulist!) introduction blurb for the New Zealand Tourism Board.

In New Zealand we are always singing or making films, or sailing boats or climbing mountains, or getting lost in the bush and we are always eating, mainly sausages and our Prime Minister is always in her apron feeding the masses and we are always saying kia ora koutou at the beginning of things and the All Blacks are always running over fields with their ball and the rivers are always telling the cows not to step into their water and the men are always telling the women to slow down and the women are always telling the men to hurry up and the old people do not grow old but join motorbike gangs and yoga classes and we are always locking up people and building bigger jails and the young people are always saying surprising things like don’t bitch about coastal erosion but be grateful to the sea that has let us live here for so long and then everyone says yes, yes, we are just a blip in history, and lastly we are always saying welcome welcome and showing our good teeth and hoping there will be enough beds and hoping there will be enough kai and hoping the overseas visitors will find their way out of the bush and remember to drive on the left hand side of the road.      

Kai is Maori for food
Kia ora koutou is Maori for Hullo everyone

The Father of Octopus Wrestling

My father sleepwalks, his arms outstretched as if to strangle someone. My mother doesn’t bother getting up for him. Before bed time she clears the stairway of any shoes or dropped items that might trip him and that is that.

My father is noisiest in the bathroom. Roll up! Roll up! he cries. He turns on the bath taps. The overhead shower. Water pours from the sink.

My mother says she’s had it with him. She says there’s a medical name for a broken heart – Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. A Japanese surgeon named it after he saw the broken heart’s resemblance to an octopus trap.

My father is naked in the bath. He starts wrestling with an invisible opponent.

My mother buys a big aquarium tank. At the bottom is a little city of ceramic houses, bubbles rising from the chimney. She lowers my father feet first into the cool water. Underwater his head looks enormous.

My father presses his beaky lips to the sides of the glass.

My mother cries. She wishes she had three hearts instead of one – that way they could start all over again.

Big Joe, walking on Water

Because we wanted a miracle, like loaves and fishes and because we wanted to believe that none of us would ever die like fishes, our throats cut and our bloodied mouths still gasping but wanted the other which is going straight to heaven and our mamas and daddas on the same golden path and because they’d fired a monkey into space and it never came back and because evolution was a story to scramble your brain, because of all this when Big Joe said he would walk on water, would walk right across the lake on Sunday at 12pm we said we would be there, hell or high water and then we was kneeling down to inspect Big Joe’s feet, his splayed toes and his soles as pale as flounder and he was saying he had to work himself up for the deed because he was heavier than Jesus and because later when Big Joe was tying a white scrap of cloth around his fat belly and the wind rippling the oily sheen of the water and the trees waving around we held our breaths, the gills of our throats until Big Joe steadied himself and began walking straight in and held his big arms up high Halleluiah, and we all cried Halleluiah, and we moved closer to the edge to see if it was no trick and he really was going to walk on the water and some of us saw Big Joe wading deeper, his stiff hair blowing in the wind until then he stumbled on something and down under he slipped but others said that for a minute the waters parted and Big Joe rose up, and there he was walking on water, clear as day and because nobody was right and nobody was wrong but because everybody saw Big Joe climb out of the lake naked as an ape, and weeping, that is the thing we remember most to our very last breaths.