Sue Emms is the fiction editor of Bravado magazine, and also a novelist and author of short fiction. She made a big splash with her first novel, Parrot Parfait, and subsequently published her second novel, Come Yesterday. I interviewed her recently about her past and current writing, her plans for the future, and the bubbling literary scene in Tauranga.
You’ve had two novels published to a good response, Parrot Parfait and Come Yesterday; you had a story included in The Best New Zealand Fiction: Volume 3; and you’re the fiction editor of Bravado magazine. But would it be fair to say that things have been a bit quiet for you lately on the literary front, and if so, would you mind saying why?
Two things happened at more or less the same time. Along with fellow writer and editor Jenny Argante I was asked to create a writing programme for the Waiariki Institute in Rotorua. We first created a Certificate in Creative Writing, developed it to Diploma level, and added manuscript mentoring. I must have written about 400,000 words for the courses, and it’s been great fun – plus we’ve had excellent feedback from writers who have taken part (always good), but it has been time-consuming. I’m hoping to cut back from course development to just tutoring and mentoring this year, to allow more time for my own writing.
At the same time, things were going to custard on a personal level. I was nursing my mother through a long illness and, a few months after her death, my brother was diagnosed with brain tumours. I cared for him until his death, which arrived far too quickly – only 5 months from diagnosis. I was left fairly shattered, to be honest, and unable to write anything that I’d consider fit for publication. It was all personal, cathartic stuff. Now, a year or so down the track, I feel I’m coming to a place where I can write for publication again.
When did you first start writing fiction, and what made you decide to become a professional writer?
When do writers begin writing … that’s a question! Formally, I made a start in the mid 80s, and even had some successes, but then I had a crisis of confidence and gave it all away. In 1998, I decided that the dream hadn’t died, and I was going to give it a go: if I failed, so be it. Why fiction, and why professional? Because I love reading, love nothing better than falling in to a fictional world that feels more real than the one I live in. I love the act of crafting a body of words so they make sense; because of all the things in life I can’t do, writing is the one I can.
Who are some of your favourite authors? Would you say that these are the authors who’ve had the most influence on your own writing, or do you have a separate set of influences?
Ah God. Favourite authors … I’m a gourmand when it comes to authors, not a gourmet. Worse, I am fickle. I fall in love with an author, and out again. But some enduring writers are Thorne Smith, Anne Tyler, David Brin, Kate Atkinson, Anna Quindlen, Janny Wurtz, Elizabeth Berg, Jasper Fforde and dozens of others depending on my mood. I’m not sure if any have had a specific influence that I can identify – I’ve never set out to write like anyone else. But sometimes I write something or get an idea, and am aware there is a subconscious nod to a previous writer. My work in progress is A Man of Many Lives about a man who has half-a-dozen skeletons for company. Thorne Smith wrote a book called Skin and Bone. That has to be an influence.
Other influences? Life. Because I’m the kind of person who is always trying to make sense of it all – I know, that’s the path to madness, but still. Doesn’t stop me trying.
I have never been to Tauranga — shocking, I know! – but there seems to be a vibrant literary scene there, with Bravado one of its most visible manifestations. Has the Tauranga literary community been an inspiration to you — or perhaps I should ask, have you been an inspiration to it?!
It’s fair to say it’s a two-way street, a kind of mutual generation of vibrancy. Jenny Argante is probably one of the driving forces around here. She’s the ideas lady – and I’m the one who putters quietly away behind the scenes. Having said that, I dropped out of the scene to a great extent with my family considerations.
Bravado is heading for its fifteenth issue, which is a considerable achievement — and it does keep getting better and better. How does the Bravado crew manage to do it?
We share ulcers! LOL. Keeping a lit magazine going is not easy. But we’re all passionate about writing and writers, and believe implicitly that writers need to be read. That’s our driving force. A great love of writing and writers.
What do you regard as the highlight of your writing career to date, if there has been a single highlight?
I don’t think there’s been a single highlight – I could say “my first novel” and it was, of course, a great moment. But writing is an accumulation of words to create something meaningful and in the same way, writing achievements are an accumulation of small things. Yes, I’m delighted every time a story or poem of mine is published, or placed in a competition, accepted for an anthology or broadcast on radio. The success of Bravado pleases me. My aim is to publish more books, and when that happens, I know I’ll be kicking my heels. But there is something about the day-to-day craft of writing that is enormously satisfying to me. If it wasn’t, publication wouldn’t be worth it.
Although you are best known for your fiction, you are also a poet, and there are some of your poems on your web site. Do you envisage writing more poetry in future, and who are some of your favourite poets?
I have written poetry, and I would like to write more but am very aware there is a large gulf between good poetry and bad. I have a lot of bad stuff tucked under the bed where it shall stay for ever and ever amen. In the hands of a craftsman, though, poetry is astonishing. I make a point of reading as wide a variety of New Zealand poets as I can. I don’t know that I like to name favourite poets – but Cilla McQueen, Allen Curnow, Kelly Ana Morey, Elizabeth Smither, Sue Wootton, Anna Jackson and Glen Colquhoun are just a few poets I’ve read and enjoyed recently.
If you’re willing to reveal them, what are your current plans as a writer?
The last few years my focus has been writing non-fiction in the form of creative writing tutorials. I’m happy with what I’ve done, but I’m missing fiction, and my big plan is to get back to writing it every day. I have two novels in progress, A Man of Many Lives and Council of Fools. I aim to finish those by the end of the year – to first draft status, anyway. I also have a completed novel, The Kindred Stone, which was accepted for publication but never made it to paper as the publisher, Hazard Press, fell over. I would like to find a new publisher for this manuscript. I’m keen, also, to compile a collection of my short stories. Not sure if there’s a real market for them but, at the moment, I have stories scattered far and wide. For my own satisfaction, if nothing else, I like the idea of creating an anthology of them.
It would be fair to say, I guess, that I want to put fiction writing back to the centre of my life and just see where it takes me.