Sitting at the crossroads between flash fiction, poetry, and the novel, Michelle’s Elvy’s debut book in short form, the everrumble, is an allegory, a fable, a love affair with the world, and, considering what is happening to our planet right now: it’s a warning. In Elvy’s hands the everrumble is alive, the beating heart of the world. Only one small child can hear it. But sometimes one is enough.
Nancy Stohlman: This is your first book, congratulations! Talk about your path to publication with Ad Hoc fiction.
Michelle Elvy: For me, things usually happen serendipitously. I had two collections that were completed and ready for publication, mid-2018, and after thinking over the ideas behind both I decided I’d like to see the everrumble as my first book, because it holds something meaningful for me personally, and because the timing felt right. Jude Higgins at Ad Hoc agreed, and we worked towards publication for the UK Flash Fiction Festival, where the book’s launch seemed fitting, as it’s a small novel in small forms.
NS: I see this story almost as an allegory, similar to a book like, say, The Alchemist. Did you set out to write that kind of book or did it happen organically? Talk about the evolution of this project.
ME: It was an organic process – I had not planned to write the book it turned out to be. The idea of this young girl who would not talk came to me back in 2017, and I started writing down some of her stories. I did not have a biographical time line in mind; I just found moments from her life that seemed intriguing and followed them. Some came from her childhood, when she first starts to speak, then I wandered into her teen and adult years. It was an exploration from the beginning, moving step by step, tuning into Zettie in each situation – much like she listens to the world. First, there was Zettie’s immediate world. Then, I looked a bit further out – down the street, across town, in a different county. And soon I realised that Zettie (and I) did not need to be confined to the immediate physical surroundings – she could tune in beyond what felt like her ‘real’ physical space. As Zettie encountered new sounds, I’d have to tune in as well; I found myself thinking about how she’d respond, how she’d navigate through the different worlds she encountered, where she’d go next. It was an adventure.
NS: You have personally traveled the world many times over (for much of that on your boat), so your view, like Zettie’s, must have a sense of the world as a larger community. How are you like Zettie? How are you different?
ME: It’s true that my travels influence my world view, and therefore certainly the way I write. But as to how I’m like Zettie? Very hard for me to say. I find it liberating to think of this as fiction.
A bit taken from life: the books from Zettie’s Book Notes are all from our family travels and experiences – these are books that hold personal meaning. So in that way, there is a piece of me in Zettie’s story.
NS: Have you ever met a Zettie in your travels?
NS: One of the important moments in this story is Shamu’s capture. Without giving anything away, can you speak to the importance of this story within a story?
ME: I grew up with the idea of zoos and live aquarium shows. Seeing wild animals up close is exhilarating for a young child. Then we moved onto our sailboat and set out across the sea – we left North America, with no idea of where we’d end up. That was nearly twenty years ago. We have spent these years moving slowly, meandering across oceans and observing life at the edges of continents. We are often alone with no one around – no people other than our little community on board Momo (me, my husband and our two daughters) for weeks at a time. My appreciation for quiet and solitude has grown over these years – not something I planned, but something I now need, this space for reflection and energetic examination of my own relationship to the world.
An accumulation of experiences over the last twenty years has deepened my awe of the natural world – and also my sense of loss. Shamu’s capture is a dark moment in our human story. And it’s symbolic of so much more; our entire relationship to the wild animal kingdom is out of balance. From overfishing to contaminating our waterways with plastic to hunting rhinos to near-extinction to the massively corrupt and inhumane ivory trade. You know where I stand on elephants. That’s in Zettie’s story, too.
Am I an activist? Not really. But I feel the pull to saying something – and fiction is perhaps the best place to examine hard truths. I’m not someone who aims to write with a message. I really just wanted to see how Zettie might engage creatures whose voices may be lost.
My husband and I set out to live a small, quiet existence. But as it turns out, our personal encounters have changed the way we move through the world. We’ve seen diminishing fish populations firsthand, and we’ve seen far too many dying coral reefs. But we see the sea thriving, too – and that is inspiring. We’ve seen orca, humpbacks, dolphins, manta rays and so much more – vibrant and wild. Sharks and penguins, seahorses and octopuses, turtles and humpbacks. Also an inexplicable and powerful encounter with bioluminescence.
Our personal desire to simply disengage from the noisy world – Let’s go sailing! we said, back in 2000 – has given us experiences that I can’t quite measure. I guess it’s inevitable that they find their way into my writing. And so: Shamu and Zettie. Zettie and the African elephant. Connecting across thousands of miles.
NS: Zettie stops speaking at age 7 so she can start really listening. Do you think too much talking/not enough listening is the main crisis of modern humanity?
ME: I do not know if that is the main crisis – but it’s certainly a characteristic of the world we live in. I think we are in a moment in our human trajectory where the noise is very loud indeed: social media, television programming, news that may or may not be news. We seem to be putting out more than we are taking in – or than we ever could take in. I’m not alone in feeling the world is a bit out of balance.
So yes, sure – and I am not the first one to say this: we ought to try to listen more. To each other, to other creatures, to the sounds of the earth.
NS: If Zettie could speak and she could say only one thing what would it be?
NS: The Everrumble is what I would call a flash novel—coming right at the intersection between flash fiction and a novel. Yet this story could surely be a novel with all the nuances of a novel. What do you think are the advantages and/or limitations of using the short form to tell a big story?
ME: Oh I love the way a small story can convey so much – all that is between the lines, all that is left unsaid. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with listening: we can quiet down, read thoughtfully, and see what emerges with all that space.
In the case of these connected stories, yes: Zettie’s life unfolds over these pages in a way that feels like a novel to me. It’s more – I hope – than the words on the page. It’s what is there, and not there.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
ME: Sit down and start writing. And keep reading all the things – and listening to all the voices – that inspire you.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ME: Thank you, Nancy, for talking with me. It’s exciting to see the book out in the world, and I appreciate you taking an interest!
(Links to buy the book/other promo links)
Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor originally from the Chesapeake Bay, now based in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her book, the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction 2019) – a small novel in small forms – was published in 2019. She is Assistant Editor for the international Best Small Fictions series and founder of Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day NZ. Her poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction and reviews have been widely published and anthologised.
As an editor, Michelle works with novelists, short story writers, memoirists, essayists and poets to help them find their voice and hone their words. This year, in addition to her regular manuscript assessments and editing work, she is teaching an online writing course, 52|250 A Year of Writing, and co-editing the anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe (August 2020).
More about Michelle’s editing, teaching and writing at michelleelvy.com.