Rym Kechacha talks to award-winning short story writer, Leanne Radojkovich, about the importance of Aotearoa New Zealand’s landscape to her fiction, Independent publishers as the future of literature and the need to re-indigenise writing.
I first came across Leanne Radojkovich’s work when I was asked to review Hailman, her second collection of stories, for LWP. A quick google, a browse of a website, I found that yes, I did want to review the book. Then I was asked if I wanted to interview Leanne, and since talking to writers about writing is one of my favourite things in the world, naturally I said yes. We spoke on zoom one day in August. It was morning for me and evening for her, a kind of balancing between two poles. Leanne is gently spoken and considered in her words, measured but extremely warm. After our conversation, I spent a whole day wrestling with zoom to retrieve the recording of the conversation. I managed it, but perhaps that influenced the mindset in which I sat down to transcribe it, one of gratitude and deep listening to this file that almost became lost inside a server, never to be seen again. I typed what I heard very literally, every ah and um and you know. Then a part of me wanted to write the interview up properly, paraphrasing what we’d said and making us sound very clever. But as I went through correcting my speed-typing mistakes, I found something startling and honest about the cadence of Leanne’s speech, something very true and passionate that I wanted to preserve. I decided to punctuate the sentences, edit out some repetitions and delete all the bits of me jumping in and saying yes! How interesting! What about this too! and keep that feeling of a free flowing conversation with tides and eddies and funny kinds of jagged cliffs when I inexpertly tried to swim back to the questions I’d prepared.
Could you tell me a little about your path to publication?
I’d had quite a long publication history in journals in Aotearoa New Zealand, but in about 2014 I came across my first Emma Press title which was Oils by Stephen Sexton. I was totally entranced by the poetry, but also by the kind of artisanal production values, beautiful card for the cover, beautiful illustration, everything felt fresh and modern. I immediately started following what they were publishing and I would spend a lot of time just looking at Oils and thinking that if I ever published a collection then this is what I want. And it was a really nice, comforting day dream with no hope of happening. Then about a year or so later Emma did a call out for prose manuscripts and I entered one and it was accepted along with one by Jan Carson. And that’s how it happened, like a miracle!
I read your collections on my kobo ereader, but would you say that the book as object is important to you? You’re also a librarian, aren’t you?
It is. It’s a personal thing; for me I love hard copy. I’m actually an art librarian so all my stuff is hard copy, and a lot of it is rare and old and beautiful. I just love turning pages, I love the smell of books and I love holding them. I spend so much of my time online at work, I don’t want to have my pleasure reading online too.
You and I are both published by independent publishers. How has that experience been? And, more widely, how do you see indies within the wider publishing ecosystem?
I think they’re the future. They’re passionate about new fiction, they’re small and nimble and responsive, they’re really invested. Most of the books I read are from indie presses anyway, so I’m invested in it too. I love getting away from the big five.
I think there’s also something interesting about the independent press scene harking back to our past. There’s something about the zeitgeist that makes me think of the first hundred years after Gutenberg?
New technology’s allowing it. It’s a new phase of printing press, it’s flowering again and it’s in the hands of the people.
Yes! For good or ill, almost like a fairytale, sifting through the straw for the gold.
Before I read your biography I hadn’t actually heard anyone using the Māori terms for place names in New Zealand to describe where they’re from. Although I didn’t know the term, or a translation, I instinctively thought it must be about land recognition and I resolved to be more aware in future to support those trying to acknowledge that past. How does being from Aotearoa New Zealand infuse your work? (Here I asked how to spell the Māori word and Leanne helped me.) I found the stories definitely from another culture to my own but so subtly I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – it was in the birds, the trees, a certain sense of space often missing in European writing of all languages.
In terms of my writing, I was born and brought up here, although my family is from Dalmatia. This is my home and it’s what I know. I strongly feel that nature grounds our stories and people, so when I’m writing a story I write in that setting and I write in that time. So then I can wander and see what’s happening with flowers and trees and incorporate those observations into the piece of that moment. I feel that gives an immediacy and infuses the writing with the sense of Aotearoa’s nature. In terms of changing the names – the Māori language is one of three official languages – Māori, English and sign language, so it’s all there already, structurally, in the language. More and more people are learning Te Reo and to approach life here from a Māori world view. So I’m not Māori, but I’m on this journey too and I think everyone in this country is on the same journey. We’re re-indigenising Aotearoa, that’s the aim, we’re imagining new futures for all of us here.
I once heard something that is supposed to have been said by Michelangelo but is possibly apocryphal which (in a rather grandiose way) perfectly describes my own writing process. ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ I feel I discover a book or story that is already there rather than make it. How do you go about writing a short story? Where do you start and what do you carve at next? How do you match up tone and narrative – some of your stories have a folktale vibe to them (particularly in your first collection) and others this beautiful elegiac tone.
This is the system I’ve evolved over the years. I just work on one story at a time and I start with a new exercise book, filling it up with random thoughts and images and observations. Then the content grows and at a certain point I feel there’s enough for me to comb through all the bits of random and see if I can find things that work together or speak to each other, and then I take all these little bits and I make a kind of collage. And that delivers the first draft. So once I have this collage I have an idea then of what the characters might be and then the rewrites start. They go on for some time, building different strands and removing them, just the continuous trial and error of redrafting. To your point about tone and narrative, I think that just evolves in the doing. When I write I read aloud as well and I’ve found that my ear is my biggest ally. So I’m constantly reading aloud and trying to feel what my heart is trying to express as I move through the story. Then I reach a point where I think it’s almost done and I chop off the beginning and the ending. It’s just worked out this way. The beginning and the ending kind of pin the canvas in place while the story’s being made and they’re not necessary, or that’s what I’ve found in my kind of writing. And then I have to wonder – where do I chop it off?
Yes, I’d love to talk a bit more about this. How exactly do you know when to end? I’m struck by the point at which you finish your stories, very finely balanced at a moment where your characters have been somewhere – often internal – but not quite when the fat lady’s singing.
Once again, it’s just something by feel and by instinct. The most recent story I chopped off the first thousand words – a third of the story – but that was required for it to have a sense of release. And that can happen at the end as well. There’s no real hard rule, but I find less is always more.
What for you is important about the short story form? I wrote a little in my review of your second collection Hailman that I felt that “short” equals a certain word count between 1000 and, say, 6000 words, was not any way to categorise writing by you or anyone else. Length seemed the least relevant thing to your work.
I can’t remember who said it, I think it might have been Edgar Allan Poe, that a short story is something you can read in one sitting. So I love short stories because they’re portable and you can read them in a few minutes and you can more or less put them in your pocket and get on with your day. You can pull them out and consider them in a different light, let it decompress in you, grow in you. Short stories haunt me and I love them! Also you have space from them. My reading experience of novels – which I love but I don’t want to write – is that I get completely possessed by them, totally absorbed into that novel world and I find it a bit claustrophobic. So I read novels quickly and short stories slowly so I can escape out again.
Do you have plans to write in other forms? Poetry, novels, scripts?
No. Only short stories. I’m lucky because when I was growing up I had a much older sister who loved translated fiction and I read everything and was always running out of things so I would sneak into her room with the ‘grown up’ books and read them. I can’t say I understood them but that’s where I encountered Colette and Guy de Maupassant. Then I was set for life and it was short stories for me, as a reader and a writer.
Can you tell me about your favourite writers, books or influences.
I do have three really powerful influences. When I was in my twenties I encountered Grace Paley and it was an electric experience. Her voice went whoosh, straight into my heart and I just thought this is it, this is what I’ve been searching for all these years. I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it and the same thing happened with Lucia Berlin and Keri Hulme. I love Keri’s novel The Bone People, but she also did amazing short stories as well. With Keri there were two electrical situations because it was not only her voice but also she was from Aotearoa. Those three writers I would call completely foundational for my work because it encouraged me to find my own voice and whenever I feel lost or confused in my writing I just return to those writers. It helps me find my bearings again and I would feel deeply lost if they weren’t in my life.
What have you been reading at the moment that’s resonating with you or you’d like to recommend?
I have two major obsessions at the moment. One is translated fiction. And Other Stories have an amazing range of writing. Yuri Herrara and Claudia Hernandez are my current immediate favourites. My other obsession is fiction from Aotearoa and it’s really pumping here because there are tons of readers and writers and a really active ecosystem that just keeps generating treasure after treasure. Currently I’ve been reading a poetry collection by Jackson Nieuwland, Iona Winter, Hana Pera Aoake. So much good stuff, it’s like a tsunami! And I would like to give a shout out to Frankie McMillan who’s a magical short story writer from Aotearoa.
One of my obsessions as a writer is the folder that lurks on my computer filled with scenes cut from other stories, novels that don’t work and never will, half-finished stories I’m still trying to rescue. Can you tell me a bit about these places (physical or virtual) for you?
I always kept remnants and offcuts and wonky stories because I thought that’s going to be useful at some point, or I just couldn’t bear to get rid of them. I put them into another folder and then into boxes and then more boxes and there were so many boxes of stuff! So a year or two ago I realised I never looked at the material and it was just a lot of baggage – worse, it was obstacles rather than possibilities so I threw them all in the bin. And it was amazingly relieving! The sense of release was enormous. Instantly this whole empty space opened up where new things could come. It was an experiment to do it and I’m pleased to report it went well.
This is inspiring me to have a bit of a digital clear out of all my old stuff.
Do it! You have to trust. Everything you’ve put away in the folders is still in you and it will come out if it’s called upon in the future. Trust in the process. You did it once and you can again.
Can you tell me a little about what you’re working on next?
I work in waves of interest. When I was working on the stories that became First Fox I was thinking a lot about fairytale narrative techniques and combining them with contemporary stories. Then I wanted to return to realism and I was really interested in how the past and the present work together in short stories and in Hailman I feel like the past was quite deeply centred in those stories. But now I want to change it up again; I’m not interested in the past anymore I’m interested in the future and I want to write stories principally in the here and now with little shimmers of the future here and there. That’s about as much as I know; I just feel comfortable in that time zone now.
Do you think some of that process of re-indigenising will come through into your writing?
I think in time it will. As the environment is evolving, so will the created products that come out of it, including my own. But in my practice I’m not doing anything consciously, I’m letting it evolve naturally. In my daily life I am trying to be more mindful, thinking about my language, trying to embed it in my life more. It’s a really amazing time to be here, so much is happening in that area, starting with children. Children learn the language here, in all schools, and the kids are teaching us! We’re having our first public holiday next year, Matariki which is the Māori New Year, which will be in June or July depending on the lunar calendar. So many of these cultural practices are shared and becoming ordinary and commonplace.
I think that’s really exciting, the thought of people of Māori and European settler descent coming together to create a new indigeneity for the twenty first and twenty second century and I can only hope that can gain traction and spread to all of us across the world.
My interview with Leanne lasted just over half an hour, a small still pool of warmth and connection across the globe at the beginning of my day and the end of hers, a meeting point between writers working in different forms with different kinds of preoccupations. Since our conversation, I’ve been thinking about how I can re-indigenise myself, and what that means to someone living in the UK when the concept of indigeneity can be twisted and corrupted to suit a xenophobic agenda. I’ve been thinking about the digital baggage of all the writers I was and wasn’t; the beginnings and endings of things; and publishing as a complex ecosystem. I’m grateful to Leanne for sharing her thoughts with me and sharing this moment of kinship in such a busy, noisy world.
Hailman and First Fox by Leanne Radojkovich are published by The Emma Press and are available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Lucy Writers would like to express their heartfelt thanks to Rym Kechacha, Leanne Radojkovich and Pema Monaghan (of The Emma Press) for this interview.