Fiction writer and creative writing teacher Anna Taylor answers our five questions of the week. She will be on of the hosts of our upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat teaching a workshop on revising short prose and sharing her expereinces and learnings about writing in lively discussion spaces.
1. What drew you to writing?
A love of reading drew me to writing. As a kid, I would rewrite the endings to favourite novels if I thought they should have ended differently. I would try to capture the writer’s voice and style so that my version (or so I thought, aged 7 or 8) could believably belong in the book. When I was 11, and needing a form of escapism to cope with a family trauma, I took that a step further by attempting to write a novel inspired by the books of my favourite writer of the time, Robert Westall. I wrote it by hand and my grandfather typed it up for me on his electric typewriter. As an adult, the impulse is still the same – the exhilarating impact of reading something wonderful, and thinking, I want to respond to that. Writing, like reading, feels like a kind of intimate companionship.
2. You mentioned last time we spoke about turning to young adult fiction as a means to explore pressing concerns such as environmental sustainability or climate change. What is it about young adult fiction or what is the limitation in adult fiction for exploring this kind of work?
One of the stories in my collection, Relief – ‘Electricity’ – is speaking, in part, to my concerns about climate change and our tendency as a society to look the other way. That was written nine years ago now, and in that time the realities of climate change, and its impact on the planet and all of its species, has become so much more alarming. As my concerns have intensified, I’ve found that attempts to write fiction exploring them tend to reveal my preoccupations rather clumsily – my concerns as a person, rather than a writer who is just allowing work to surface, elbow their way onto the page and stomp around righteously. I’m finding that my only way to speak to what really matters, in a time of such planetary crisis, is to fast forward into an imagined future, and to write that. I don’t know why this is. I began a YA novel when doing a writing course 10 years ago that I’ve never been able to throw away, and I’ve now realised that it has the potential to be ‘cli fi,’ as it’s so been termed. I’m currently seeing if I can find a way to make it work.
3. What do you think makes a ‘great’ short story?
I guess this is entirely subjective, but for me, as a reader, I look for stories that have an emotional authenticity that is so persuasive that I lose myself in them entirely. There are also truly great short stories that are interested in doing other things – and I love and admire stories like that too – but it’s the ones that seem to have a beating heart – that make me feel something – that I love the most. A few years ago a read a story about a Liberian war refugee in America in Anthony Doerr’s magnificent collection, The Shell Collector, and I was so stunned by it that I couldn’t do anything but sit and stare at the wall for hours afterwards. And to manage that in only a few pages! Astonishing
4. What are you working on now?
I worked on a collection of three interlinked novellas for years after finishing Relief but I just couldn’t get them to come alive. I read a wonderful quote by Lloyd Jones recently describing reading an unsuccessful draft of his as being like ‘coming across artifacts’ and this was my experience exactly. Having released myself from the constraint of trying in vain to make that book work, I’m now playing around a bit – writing a little bit of creative non-fiction, the beginnings to stories, and quietly working away at the YA novel.
5. Tell us a bit more about your workshop. What are you hoping to impart and what should people expect?
I find the process of sitting in a room together and really investing in each other’s work exhilarating. So we will talk writing – yours, as participants, as well as published pieces – and we will work on writing too. The revising process can be challenging, and feel exhaustingly grim at times, and so we’ll play with ways to re-envision material that will hopefully free the process up a bit. I’m hoping that participants will leave with a sense of how to move forward with a piece of writing that has become stuck – but also what to look for if your writing isn’t gaining traction and you can’t figure out why. More than anything, though, this workshop will be an opportunity for us to come together, united by our love of language, and to really allow ourselves to drop in to what words can do when we cup them in our hands, shake them around a bit, put them down, pick them up again…