ON THE COUCH WITH ... Elizabeth SMITHER
ELIZABETH SMITHER was born in New Plymouth, New Zealand, in 1941. Although best known as a poet, she is also a novelist and short-story writer. She has spent much of her life in New Plymouth where she still lives. She recently retired as a librarian but still work as a book reviewer and journalist. She has two sons and a daughter. She is the author of four other collections of short stories, Nights at the Embassy (1990), Mr Fish (1994), The Mathematics of Jane Austen (1997) and Listening to the Everly Brothers and Other Stories (2002). Her latest collection of short stories, The Girl Who Proposed (Cape Catley, 2008) is on the longlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is also the author of four novels: First Blood (1983), Brother-love Sister-love (1986), The Sea Between Us (2003) and Different Kinds of Pleasure (2006). She has published 15 collections of poetry.
Smither spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I found out about the longlist from a writer who sent me an e-mail.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
The first thing I did was to go on Google and check for myself.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them? Have you read any of them?
I’ve just reviewed Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures for the New Zealand Listener and I’m hoping to read as many other finalists as soon as possible.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I had heard about the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, especially since a New Zealand writer, Charlotte Grimshaw, made the shortlist last year with her first collection of stories. It is not only a prestigious award but it seems very open in its judgements.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
The short story, I think, is more intense and perhaps it more resembles the way we imagine our lives to be. Incidents that change us, pivotal events or conclusions, or even something like the beginning of doubt. The short story is a marvellously inventive form. It can not only range from very short to very long, it can also be highly experimental, much more so, I think, than the novel. If a short story is like us looking back on the highlights of our lives, the novel is the whole life, into which highs and lows seem to disappear and dissipate. I was thinking recently that the sharp emotions we have when we are young, even if they are mistaken, may be more valuable than the blander wisdom when we are old. The short story is on the side of the sharp emotion.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish acclaimed collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m delighted short stories are enjoying a renaissance since they are so suitable for our modern lives. Far better to read a riveting short story before you fall asleep than a few pages of a novel. I think the short story needs a big advertising campaign to help it on its way. I think young people particularly are finding they enjoy them.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
So many to choose from: most recent favourite is Tim Winton’s The Turning. I also deeply love Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories. Mary Lavin’s Irish ones.
What’s the publishing scene in New Zealand like? Is it easy to get your stories published in New Zealand?
The New Zealand publishing scene, perhaps because it is outside the mainstream, is peculiarly vibrant. Quite a few publishers are publishing short-story collections—not in the same quantity as novels but they are not saying no either.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell. Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
I think we need to think laterally. Show the history of the short story and its wonderful practitioners. Televise them, read them on the radio. Put big advertisements on the tube. Leave the collection you’ve just read at a bus stop. Above all have faith in them because they so wonderfully reflect human life.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008