1) Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with flash? Why it appeals and what frustrates you?
It began with a bang! I started writing flash fiction in earnest in 2010, when I started 52|250 A Year of Flash with John Wentworth Chapin; we both wanted to push ourselves with a regular weekly challenge, and it ballooned almost overnight. In that year, I discovered a wide community of enthusiasts, and I was able to sharpen my own writing through regular weekly focus and through feedback and editorial work. I got my first series of publications, and my first Pushcart Prize nomination. I think that sense of momentum and the fun we had that whole year set the tone for my engagement with flash. That sense of community buoyed me too. It is an inclusive form – nonthreatening, inviting. But it wears many outfits and is not afraid to experiment – it can be tricky too. It’s not one-size-fits-all – on the contrary. I like how it’s hard to pin down. It’s equally comfortable in stilettos, in gumboots or barefoot. It shapeshifts; it lives in the now. And it knows how to have fun – that’s really important to me. But it’s not loud and shouty; there is a subtly, too, something you only see if you look a bit longer. It’s overtly open and embracing, but usually houses deeper, quieter spaces. We are complicated beings; flash is a complicated form.
At the time of that 52|250 project, I was just starting to feel my way around the New Zealand literary community and I discovered there was no journal for flash fiction there, so I started one in 2012. Flash Frontier was a new adventure, along with National Flash Fiction Day, also founded in 2012. I have been editing flash fiction daily ever since, and teaching it as a form that can unlock many secrets to writing. With my editing hat on, I see how the form is flexible and flowing – like water, reaching into small crevices. I like how it can do that: go into spaces where other forms may not be able to. I also like how it can push a writer to be more precise, more focused – but also more expansive, perhaps even ask more of themselves. It can be whimsical or elegant, or both. I think what I love most about this small form is that, though limited by word count, it’s boundless. I like the energy it generates.
I have not really discovered anything about the form itself that frustrates me. Flash is sometimes judged as something small and fleeting – easy, even. In New Zealand, it has been a slow steady road to find its own place, usually at the edge of things. It’s interesting to me that the short form has a rich history in New Zealand – if a bit hidden. Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, for example, both have small works one might call flash fiction. And new volumes of flash can introduce a new audience to the form. Take, for example, a volume that I co-edited in 2022. Breach of All Size: Small Stories on Ulysses, Love, and Venice brought together 36 writers, each one writing a very tight flash fiction that began with a phrase from James Joyces’ Ulysses. Most of the contributors were not experts in flash; many were poets or newcomers to the form. But they all stepped up to the challenge and produced a remarkable range of stories and styles. Celebrating Joyce – and Venice – in such a confined space required real ingenuity. You can imagine the fun of it.
2) In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from other genres – in particular poetry (including prose poems) and the short story?
I think flash fiction shares characteristics with both poetry and short story. It carries a narrative but also requires focused attention to language: the phrasing, the rhythms, the sonic liaisons, the spaces between what is said. A very good flash fiction finds its own unique rhythm and voice: sometimes sharp and jagged, sometimes lyrical and slow-flowing. Just as with poetry, it’s hard to put parameters around what flash can do, because its abilities stretch so far.
In terms of narrative arc, people like to note the beginning, middle and end, and I think writers of flash fiction like to play with that; they seem to be aware of it, but also how to turn those seemingly simple things into something unexpected. Technically, flash fiction can employ many different approaches to writing. But one thing that usually stands out is a sense of control – a writer who knows how to exercise control even while letting the voice, or the story, or the frame, expand in unexpected ways.
3) Fundamentally, for you, what makes a flash piece successful?
I think a successful flash fiction knows who and what it is. It’s like people: if you are comfortable in your own sense of Self, you can be real. I think flash fiction that tries too hard immediately reveals its own discomfort: a word out of place, an idea forced, a metaphor stretched thin. The best flash fiction has language that’s suitable for the story – where you think it couldn’t have been written any other way – and finds a sweet spot in the way it might push boundaries but also feel exactly right. Take, as an example, Tracey Slaughter’s novella-in-flash If there is no shelter. In each piece of writing, there is a potent urgency, a sharp edge that is relentless and sometimes uncomfortable, but which also suits the setting (post-earthquake Christchurch) and mood (world crumbling, inescapable trauma), so much so that one is left feeling shattered, but also, from a writing point of view, wholly satisfied.
4) What flashers do you admire and why? Are there any specific pieces that you found compelling?
We’ve just finished reading for the new Best Small Fictions volume, and I must say that every time I pick up one of those collections, I’m blown away by the variety of stories one can find there. The same can be said for the Best Microfiction volume. Both of these annually published series demonstrate how flexible and powerful the small form can be. With BSF, we see more new names and emerging voices with each year – a new writer can come to the form and find their voice and even be selected by a team of editors from thousands of submissions. And I love how we see more and more international writing, from the US and UK to Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. The BSF guest editor this year is Louise Umutoni Bower, from Rwanda.
So rather than naming any particular names, I’d suggest that readers pick up these collections and read not only the people we know and admire but also people who you may not have encountered before. That’s the beauty of flash: there is always a wide range of writers, some whom you may not know, and the work is expansive, exciting, inviting.
5) What flash piece of your own are you most proud of? Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
That’s a hard question! But there are some that are oft anthologised, which I suppose means they fit into exemplars of the form. That’s nice to know. On a slightly different note, I like how I can view pieces I’ve written with a new lens when I am considering a collection. Deciding which pieces fit, and which do not. How they might hint at something bigger, even as each piece is a small distinct thing on its own. Sometimes, stories will occupy new spaces when I consider them in relation to other pieces I’ve written. They belong together, in new ways. Thus, ‘Antarctica’, which I wrote in 2015 (first published in SmokeLong Quarterly), opens my collection the other side of better and ‘Whale Shark’, which featured at Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2016, became part of a dream sequence in the everrumble. My next collection centres around the sea, and lives somewhere in that space between poetry and story, a space where I feel comfortable, where I can breathe. There is new work in that collection, but some earlier pieces find their way into it too. Again, there’s that liquid nature of the form: if I take a set of distinct stories that I’ve written and stir them, then pour them out, they move and flow in new ways.
Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor in Ōtepoti Dunedin, on the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Her books include the everrumble (2019) and the other side of better (2021), and she has recently co-edited, among others, the anthologies A Kind of Shelter: Whakaruru-taha (2023), A Cluster of Lights: 52 Writers Then and Now (2023) and Breach of All Size: Small stories on Ulysses, love and Venice (2022). Founder of National Flash Fiction Day NZ and Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction, Michelle also teaches online at 52|250 A Year of Writing. More at michelleelvy.com