Three Questions With Elena Bossi

I’m a fan of recently-established Dunedin ebook publisher Rosa Mira Books, for several reasons:

– I like the publisher, Penelope Todd
– I like the idea of a New Zealand publisher tackling ebooks head-on, rather than side-stepping nervously around them, and I want to see that effort succeed
– They publish good books.

But there is a fragment of self-interest in there as well. Rosa Mira Books launched with the short story collection Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, which includes my story “Said Sheree” and lots of fine stories from New Zealand and international authors.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is “The Ache”, by Argentine writer Elena Bossi, translated into English by Georgia Birnie. It distils romantic yearning down into two lovely pages.

I recently asked Elena three questions about her writing, and here are her answers. English is not Elena’s first language, and so she asked me to tidy up her answers for an audience of predominantly native English speakers. I have tried to do so without losing the flavour of her replies.

Three Questions For Elena Bossi

1. Besides the quality of the fiction, one of the things I like the most about “Slightly Peculiar Love Stories” is the wide range of countries the authors come from. How did a writer from Argentina become involved in an anthology of love stories edited by a New Zealander?

I knew Penelope, and many of the other “Peculiar” writers, from the International Writing Program in Iowa in 2007. Of course, all of them read me in English translations. That’s it. Penelope and Kavery Nambisan (from India) helped me a lot with translations. As did two different students from the Translation Workshop of the University of Iowa.

2. Your story “The Ache”, which is one of my favourites in the anthology, was translated from the original Spanish into English by Georgia Birnie. Do you enjoy the process of having your work translated?

I really do like the process of translation, it is actually like reading another story again and now I can read it as other. It is very “peculiar” to see our own words as the words of others and this make me think that our words are always strange in some way. We have some strange insight which is a little scary too.

3. In New Zealand at least, the publishing industry is changing rapidly, and all but the best-established writers have to be adaptable to keep getting their work published. Is now a good time to be a writer in Argentina?

I think a better time to be a writer in Argentina was during the ’60s and the ’70s. After this time, and also because of the military government, a commercial change began which concentrated all the little publishers we had into big ones and began to be more interested in selling than in literature. The figure of the publisher/editor disappeared and a regular manager took the place.

Now, little by little, big international publishers are losing space and a lot of more or less familiar publishing houses are coming again. So I hope things are going to change a little but the volume in our bookstores is too big (more than 10,000 books) to allow authors who are not very best sellers to stay on tables enough time. So, we can say it is quite difficult to live like a writer. A little easier, to make a living writing children’s literature.

Book Review: Slightly Peculiar Love Stories

(Disclaimer: Slightly Peculiar Love Stories includes my story “Said Sheree”, which I have not attempted to review!)

Slightly Peculiar Love Stories is the second book, and first short story collection, published by Rosa Mira Books, the new New Zealand publishing house set up by Dunedin author Penelope Todd earlier this year. I was honoured to have a story included in the collection, and have blogged about that previously.

There are a couple of things that should attract any reader to Slightly Peculiar Love Stories. One is that really cool cover. Another is the really rather extraordinary range of New Zealand and international authors who have contributed new or reprinted stories to this anthology:

  • From New Zealand, we have Craig Cliff, Sue Wootton, Janis Freegard, Tina Makereti, Bryan Walpert, Coral Atkinson, Claire Beynon, Latika Vasil, Linda Niccol, Maxine Alterio, Susannah Poole, and Tim Jones.
  • International authors include Alex Epstein (Israel), Angelo R. Lacuesta (Philippines), Brenda Sue Cowley (USA), Christos Chrissopoulos (Greece), Elena Bossi (Argentina), Lawrence K. L. Pun (Hong Kong), Salman Masalha (Israel), and Tania Hershman (UK).

That’s quite the lineup, but the proof of any short story collection is in the reading. The good news is that there is a lot of good reading here, and a lot of different takes on love. My favourites at the moment include:

  • The sets of short-short stories by Alex Epstein and by Tania Hershman (four apiece)
  • Janis Freegard’s ingenious and moving “Mill”, which won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award in 2001
  • Elena Bossi’s lovely and poignant “The Ache”
  • Claire Beynon’s magical “Trapeze Artist”
  • Angelo R. Lacuesta’s “Space Oddity”

– but there are so many other good stories here that I imagine your favourites will differ from mine.

There’s something I haven’t mentioned about Slightly Peculiar Love Stories: it’s an ebook. The good news is, you don’t need an ebook reader to read it. I read it on my computer in PDF format, and (as a person who doesn’t generally like to read large amounts of text on-screen) I found it easy and enjoyable to read. The fonts are crisp and the layout clear.

So, if you don’t have an ebook reader, don’t let that put you off. Slightly Peculiar Love Stories is easy to read on a computer screen, and more to the point, it is well worth reading, because there is a lot of good fiction in here.

Slightly Peculiar Love Stories Is Launched


At 5.30pm Wednesday, New Zealand time, Rosa Mira Books launched Slightly Peculiar Love Stories, an anthology of 26 love stories by New Zealand and international authors, edited by Penelope Todd, and including my tale of love and literary funding, “Said Sheree”*

What a range of authors! They come from Israel, the Philippines, the UK, the USA, Greece, Argentina, and Hong Kong, as well as Aotearoa. Some are internationally well-known; some are well known within their own countries; some are near the start of their literary careers, and some well along in those careers. One is pseudonymous.

I haven’t read the anthology yet, but from what I’ve read about the contributors and their stories on the excellent Rosa Mira Books blog, I expect some of these stories to be slightly peculiar, and some deeply peculiar. Which is appropriate, because that’s the way love is.

I’m delighted to be in the company of so many writers I greatly admire. Please raise a glass to Slightly Peculiar Love Stories. Please help it make its way into the world.

*First published in Transported.

An Interview With Penelope Todd

Penelope Todd is a writer, editor and manuscript consultant currently living in Dunedin. She has had seven young adult novels published by Longacre Press, including her Watermark trilogy, and a memoir, Digging for Spain: A Writer’s Journey. Her latest novel is Island, published by Penguin (2010), an adult novel.
(Photo of Penelope Todd by Claire Beynon)

Has it been a difficult transition from writing fiction for a young adult audience to writing fiction for an adult audience – and is it a transition you had been intending to make for a while?

I think the transition is proving more problematic for marketers and reviewers than it has been for me. One wrote of my having to ‘leap a gulf’ but I consider the distinction more or less arbitrary. I’ve always written what I wanted to write. After seven novels about teen experience, I wrote a memoir in which I outlined the changes, inward and outward, that had been precipitated by so much fiction writing (or that had precipitated the fiction – cause and effect are not easily distinguishable). That seemed to mark a shift also in my method of obtaining the story – as if through the airwaves instead of digging it up from underground – a much lighter process in some respects.

I knew Island would interest older readers so I allowed interactions, events, and my characters’ thoughts concerning desire, fate/destiny and mortality (themes evident in all my fiction) to play out more fully. So, no, the transition wasn’t consciously made but my characters had been growing older with each YA novel so, looking back, a shift in marketing was inevitable.

When I saw the title of your book, I thought of Quarantine Island in Otago Harbour. Was your own experience of visiting Quarantine Island an important source for the geography and “feel” of the island in your book, even though the location of the titular island is not specified?

We used to hop (in a boat) across to that island – a.k.a. Kamau Taurua or St Martins Island – when our children were young, to stay weekends in the big old house. We’d wander over the hills and shore, pat the donkeys, fish off the rocks and visit the sad little graveyard with its small earth mounds. I absorbed the atmosphere of the place and a sense of its history, and have since overlaid it with my own fictional island and 130-odd years’ distance. However, this might be any quarantine island near any colonial port late in the 19th century. While historical accuracy is important, detailed recreation mattered far less to me than the viability of this fictional community, its members, and their relationships.

Penguin’s publicity material for Island describes it as “literary fiction of the highest quality, and an intensely romantic page-turner”. Do you think that’s a fair description of what you are trying to achieve in Island? If so, how easy a balance is that to maintain?

Well, the blurb came later so I wasn’t aware while writing of teetering on that particular tightrope. I enjoyed diving into a deeper language pool than I would writing ‘current’ fiction, and my sentences are always written with an ear to sound and rhythm. Besides that, I hate to bore myself or the reader so the unfolding story is reasonably pacy and yes, there’s attraction and desire, a little sex, varieties of love – eros, philia and agape, at least.

As for romantic? I might be happier with the r capitalised. It’s not a ‘romance novel’. However, a late mountaineering uncle (Colin Todd after whom the hut was named) was recently described as ‘a romantic idealist’. That weakness runs in the family. But mixed in with the human warmth generated on the island is the grit of an attempted suicide, a diphtheria epidemic and several deaths. I’ll leave readers to judge whether the publicity is fair.

Looking at your entry on the New Zealand Book Council website, I’m intrigued and impressed to see that you recently “travelled to Argentina in order to complete the writing, translation and adaptation of a bilingual novel with Argentinian writer Elena Boss”. That sounds fascinating! How did this project come about, and what can you tell us about it?

I can tell you that I feel very privileged to have had this experience. A fuller account of the process is to appear in the next Booknotes, but Elena and I met on the International Writers’ Programme in Iowa in 2007 and, in order to keep in touch, wrote a novel together – employing characters from each of our countries, and taking alternate chapters. I met Elena again in Buenos Aires last year so we could firm up our translations. We now have a bilingual novel of which Elena is currently entering the Spanish version in MS competitions in South America before we look for a publisher in English, too. I dare say it’s the first-ever bilingual NZ-South American collaborative novel!

In one of your New Zealand Book Month blog posts in 2007, you mentioned the continuing lack of visibility afforded in New Zealand to writers – and in particular woman writers – from south of Christchurch. Quite apart from the inequity of this, it can’t help when promoting a new novel. How can this be circumvented?

Oh, sigh. If anyone has answers to this, could they please tell us, and our publishers? Should we move north to where the publishers, the media engines, the book organisations and the money (in Auckland recently, I heard ‘super-yacht’ slipped into several conversations – what is that?) reside? If it were simply our own invisibility it would hardly matter, but when new work slips through the cracks so quickly, it gets irksome. Getting better at what we do seems not to make an appreciable difference.

There’s some beautiful, under-sung writing happening down here, but we get awfully tired of saying, ‘It’s the process that matters’. Apart from that, I suppose we could all aim to become younger, more attractive, more extroverted… Or, roll on the digital revolution with the democratisation of the publishing process. I’m doing my bit towards that.

Which writers have been most influential on your own writing, and which are your personal favourites? Are there any writers who haven’t received the publicity they deserve that you’d like to recommend?

I hate to single out writers down here – too many are friends and acquaintances -but I name a few in the link above. Off the top of my head, I’ll be eager and curious to read Emma Neale’s and Maxine Alterio’s next novels, and Sue Wootton’s next volume of poetry. The whole country should be. Thoughtful readers should read Ruth Pettis’s two novels. She died two years ago this month – she’s really invisible now, but her work ought never be.

Do you have a plan for how your writing career will unfold? If so, and if it isn’t a secret, where do you see yourself and your writing in five years’ time?

I’m quite a good plodder so I see more fiction unfolding, back and forth in time and place. I always have some longish thing on the go. Meanwhile I want to work more collaboratively so I’m also plodding towards the production of an ebook publishing site – excellent writing carefully selected, sensitively edited and artfully designed, for global sale. But that’s complex and I’m learning on all fronts as I tackle the brand new aspects of this project.

How to buy Island

Island is available online from Fishpond. It should also be available at all good independent bookstores, and is available from some Whitcoulls branches.