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In Conversation With Sam Reese

June 15, 2019

 

 

 

Come The Tide is the debut collection of short stories from Sam Reese and is published by Platypus Press. The collection has received universal praise and acclaim; fellow writer Pradba Yoon claims that "stories like these can make existence feel convincing, and creation worthwhile." The opening story, Cliff People, is available on our site. Our editor was fortunate enough to interview Sam about the collection and beyond. We hope you find his answers as fascinating as we do.    

 

 

 

 

Editor:

 

The collection is preoccupied with issues of place and characters who struggle to locate themselves. As someone who now resides many thousands of miles from your native New Zealand, are these issues you have faced yourself and to what extent can they be considered fictional in the collection?

 

Sam Reese:

 

I feel that distance from Aoteaora most days, often very keenly. I grew up with a very strong connection to place, to the contours of the New Zealand landscape—the mountains, the bush, the ocean—and that distance from home and a familiar environment shapes the way I look at things; it definitely makes me more aware of the specificities of places, and to feelings of disconnection. But while this has been great creative fuel, and shapes my sensitivity to estrangement and dislocation, none of the stories in the collection are autobiographical per se—instead, I wanted to explore how characters respond to dislocation, and to see how such an unease might connect to humanity’s fraught relationship with the natural world.

 

E:

 

Many of our readers won’t know you’re a lecturer in English as well as a writer of fiction. How distinct are these two aspects of your life and how does one inform the other?

 

SR:

 

I think every writer also needs to be a reader; working as a critic and lecturer means that I am always learning more about the mechanics (and the mystery) of fiction, and that I am always finding new inspiration or fresh threads to follow in my stories. It has also helped me cultivate a better eye for editing and shaping my own work. At the same time, I tend to think of my critical brain and writing brain as two separate spaces; if I’m stuck with a story, I can move on to my next article or academic book, and vice-versa. This mental space is often exactly what I need—although the most helpful thing is normally to go and read something completely different to what I’m working on!

 

E:

 

Like many collections, these stories feel loosely connected, notably by the presence of water and the aforementioned prominence of location. I’m curious as to whether you thought of these stories as part of a collection while writing each one or whether the links became more pronounced and apparent at a later date?

 

SR:

 

I had been working on individual stories for a long time, but Come the Tide only started to come together in 2017, when I realised I had a cluster of three or four stories with strong thematic connections. From that point onwards, I wrote very clearly with a collection in mind—I found that focus immensely clarifying and stimulating. Then, once I started working with my editor at Platypus to shape the collection, we realised a couple of the original stories did not quite fit—I wrote replacements with a clear sense of gaps I wanted to explore, or resonances I wanted to amplify.

 

E:

 

How long have you been writing fiction and what was it that compelled you to write?

 

SR:

 

When I first started writing, I wanted to be a poet! I was—and am—really drawn to a lyrical expressiveness, a sense of mystery and revelation. The turning point for me was when I realised that short stories could play with language in the ways poetry does, while also doing something different with storytelling and narrative. I have been writing short stories for twelve years now—I realised recently that one story in Come the Tide is anchored around a scene I wrote ten years ago!—and throughout that time I have been driven by a sense that storytelling is vital: it is the way we make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and the relationship between the two.

 

E:

 

You have mentioned in the past that you feel short stories embody the ‘island mindset’ you possess. I wonder if you could expand upon that?

 

SR:

 

I think an island mindset asks you to pay attention to small things, and to exactly where you are. It is a narrowing of focus, but always with a background awareness of the vastness of the world outside. Great short stories leave the reader with a sense of mystery, a yearning to know more, that draws on this same tension and that is completely different to the storytelling in a novel. I have always loved the intense compression of the short story—the crafted focus on an individual, a place, a moment that, through an alchemy of dilation and contraction, gives the reader a sense of revelation, of opening out, of expansive possibility. Like islands, stories are at once small, individual, and particular in their terrain, but also a kind of microcosm, a world in miniature. I feel this particularly when I read short story collections, where the stories connect to one another like islands in an archipelago—through shared affinities, separate but related.

 

E:

 

Water returns again and again as a central theme in the stories, sometimes as a benevolent force which acts as a reminder of home and, other times, as a disruptive or destructive beast. What is it you find so artistically compelling about the element?

 

SR:

 

I have always been fascinated by the ocean; the feeling of swimming in the sea is nothing like a pool or bath, and just walking along a beach or clifftop, you are reminded of your smallness, of the power of the natural world. In Aoteaora, you are never far from the sea (although the UK is an island, somehow I often feel cut off from the ocean here) and, for me, water is life, it is sign of beginnings and of home. At the same time, I think it is the duality you hint at that makes water such a generative image for me: it can be capricious or outright dangerous, and it is inexorable, wearing all things down. Rising sea levels are also one of the most visible (and worrying) signs of climate change, signalling the complex, and increasingly destructive struggle between humans and the natural world.

 

E:

 

Do you think there are certain tropes which are best explored in short stories as opposed to novels or poems? Furthermore, how do you account for the enduring popularity of the form?

 

SR:

 

If I were cynical, I might say that the current resurgence in the short story’s popularity is thanks to our shortened attention spans—a five- to ten-page story is all we can manage in this age of distraction! But, honestly, I think the enduring popularity of the short story is down to its distinctive way of telling stories. In most cultures, the short story has its origins in folk tales and fables—stories built around an allegory, or a strong emotional response (laughter, fear). So although I think there is some truth in the old cliché that short stories are about individuals, and novels are about communities, I also think that the short story narrates individuality in such a way as to suggest the allegorical, or to hint at something essential about human nature. Because of its compression, focus on small details, and attention to individual response, the short story is really well-suited to describing surreal events and extreme experiences; the most successful (and interesting) stories, though, are often the ones that examine the small scale, the ordinary, or the merely uncomfortable—that put our routines and discomforts under the microscope.

 

E:

 

What can we expect from Sam Reese in the future?

 

SR:

 

More short stories—I am working on a new collection, focused on secrets, lies, inheritances and (maybe unsurprisingly) dislocation from the world. I would also really like to write a closely interconnected series of stories, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples. I am also working on a co-authored literary biography of Paul and Jane Bowles.

 

E:

 

Finally, what is your favourite release on Iceberg Tales to date?

 

SR:

 

That is hard to answer—there are some great pieces already! I’m a big fan of Krishan Coupland’s writing (I love his book, When You Lived Between the Walls, from Stonewood Press) and so it’s probably not surprising that I really enjoyed his piece, Moving. But Manor of Thy Friends, by Josep Corcorán, also really speaks to my island mindset.

 

 

 

 

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