A writing life – an interview with Sandra Arnold


Sandra Arnold

Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her flash fiction and short stories appear in numerous journals including the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour. Her work is forthcoming in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, New Flash Fiction Review, Connotation Press and The Airgonaut.  Four of her previously published stories have been selected for display at the Creative Process.

Find out more here:  www.sandraarnold.wordpress.com

Why do you write?

Quite simply, I love making up stories.

What were the early influences on your writing?

My father was a great story-teller. He used to tell me tales of his travels to exotic lands from when he was in the Merchant Navy. Later, he made up stories for me from the titles and themes I gave him. He knew the epic poems of Kipling and Longfellow and Shakespeare’s sonnets and recited them for me with great dramatic flourishes. He also introduced me to the adventure type books he’d loved as a boy, such as Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines. My mother taught me to read and write before I started school. She didn’t mind the mess in the house when my brother and I played our imaginary games or when we re-arranged the furniture as we performed our plays for the grown-ups. Books and drawing materials were my main birthday and Christmas presents. The precursor to writing was painting. In my final class at primary school, my teacher, who was a tyrant in many ways, was a brilliant English and drama teacher. She read a story to the class every day and illustrated it on the board with coloured chalk. She encouraged reading and creative writing and was a stickler for correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. I told her I wanted to be an archaeologist and she asked me to spell it. Of course, I couldn’t, and she made me keep looking in the dictionary until I found the word. In her class I wrote a play which was performed by my classmates. At the same time I was writing poems and made an illustrated book to keep them in. I loved painting and I loved painting pictures with words.

Throughout my teens I continued to read voraciously, encouraged by another brilliant English teacher at grammar school. I was undecided about whether to major in art or English Literature at college. I chose Eng Lit and my lecturers turned out to be inspiring individuals who were hard task-masters, but passionate about their subjects. I had, by then, long abandoned the idea of being an archaeologist, mostly because it required maths and all my maths teachers were psychopathic bullies who induced in me a morbid hatred of the subject. I found that what interested me in literature was what lay beneath the surface, so literature was archaeology of a kind. The authors I was reading at that stage included Elliot, the Brontes, Austin, Hardy, Doesteovsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf. These days my favourite authors include Fiona Farrell, Maggie Rainey-Smith, Sue Wootton, Catherine Chidgey, Paddy Richardson, Maxine Alterio, Hilary Mantell, Kate Atkinson, Cate Kennedy, Eva Hornung, A.S. Byatt, Donna Tartt, Pascal Mercier, Colm Toíbín and Margaret Atwood.

When did you start publishing your writing?

In my twenties I taught, married, travelled, and had children. There was no time for writing. In my thirties we moved from the UK to New Zealand. I attended a creative writing course at the University of Canterbury, run by novelist Michael Morrissey who was the Writer-in-Residence at the time. Soon after that I wrote a couple of short stories which were accepted by National Radio. Another was included in an anthology compiled by New Zealand poet and editor, Louis Johnson. At the book launch I met poet David Howard. After lamenting the lack of literary journals in New Zealand we decided to start our own. David would edit the poetry and I would edit the fiction. While we were trying to think of a name for our new journal my husband Chris suggested Takahe after a bird that had been thought to be extinct, but was re-discovered in the South Island in 1948. So the magazine became Takahe and, like the once endangered bird, it continues to thrive to this day though David and I left the magazine in the mid-1990s to focus on our own writing.

Over the next decade Chris and I lived in Brazil for a year and Oman for another year. I published a couple of novels, completed a MLitt and PhD in Creative Writing and published a book on parental bereavement. I wrote more short stories while at the same time teaching Academic English at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. Three years ago I realised that my ever-increasing workload meant I was never going to finish the third novel I’d started, so I resigned from teaching and Chris and I spent three months travelling in Europe and the UK. On my return I took up the Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writing Residency and was able to complete the first draft of the new novel.

In mid-2016, I discovered the New Zealand flash fiction journal, Flash Frontier, edited by Michelle Elvy. I loved the way these compressed stories showed only a fraction of what lay beneath the surface, but suggested enough so that the story continued in my imagination. I decided to set myself the challenge of trying write in this form. In the process I discovered that writing flash fiction is excellent discipline for writing in any genre and it has helped me be more ruthless with the editing revisions of my novel.

As mainstream publishing shrinks, it has been exciting to discover a whole world of flash fiction journals and to discover some innovative new writers along the way. Meg Pokrass, Santino Prinzi, Gary Duncan, Jonathan Cardew, Sheldon Lee Compton, Nod Ghosh, Eileen Merriman, Heather McQuillan, Frankie McMillan, Sophie Van Llewyn, Emma Bolden and Alison Wassell are just a few of my favourites.

What are you working on now?

A collection of flash fiction and short stories.

What advice would you give to new writers?

Read widely. Keep your eyes and ears open. Keep writing. Use rejections as a learning opportunity to improve your work. If you’re half-hearted about writing, you may as well give it up now and save yourself a lot of anguish. If the idea of giving up writing is akin to giving up breathing then keep at it.

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