28 June 2019

Interview with Voiceworks alum, Elizabeth Kuiper author of Little Stones

Here at Express Media we love celebrating the milestones and achievements of our alum! Excitedly, one of our Voiceworks authors, Elizabeth Kuiper has very impressively written her first novel, Little Stones. Drawing upon her experience growing up in the last decades of Mugabe-era Zimbabwe, and originally published in Voiceworks as ‘Snow in Africa’ (Voiceworks #97 HABIT), Little Stones is a testament of how far Elizabeth has come. 

We sat down with Elizabeth to talk about Little Stones, Elizabeth’s writing journey, and a small story about a bicycle called Grim.  

A version of Little Stones (Snow in Africa) was published in Voiceworks Issue #97 HABIT, way back in 2014. Since then, a version of Little Stones was longlisted for the Richell Prize and you received the Express Media prize for the best work of fiction as well as reading aloud an excerpt at the Wheeler Centre’s ‘The Next Big Thing’. What a journey! What impact did being edited by Voiceworks and published in the journal, have on Little Stones as it stands now?

I could not be more grateful to Voiceworks for providing me with a platform, which ultimately led to me publishing my debut novel. I often wonder how much of a different trajectory my life would’ve taken if I didn’t receive that early encouragement of my writing and that particular story. It was due to Voiceworks recognising some burgeoning talent within me that I was subsequently invited to read an excerpt of my piece at the ‘The Next Big Thing’. At that event, I met Aviva Tuffield who also lent her voice to the encouragement and became my publisher several years later. It was that initial vote of confidence from Voiceworks that made me feel as though I had created something special worth sharing.

Being a part of Voiceworks saw Snow in Africa undergo editing by the Voiceworks editor and team of edcommers. Naturally, there would be a great difference between the editing and publishing processes for journals vs novels. Can you speak to some of those differences/your experience?

The Voiceworks team were truly great, and I loved working with Rafael S.W. to put the piece together for publication. I was 18 during the editing process for #97 HABIT, and 21 when I first started working with Aviva, so it’s hard to say whether the differences I perceived in the process were due to a shift in medium, my increased writing experience, or my age. Probably a combination of all three.

I had a squiz at some old emails out of curiosity and came across this gem from April 2014 (a message I sent to Rafael after the first round of edits): ‘I haven’t used track-changes before, but I think I’m gradually getting the hang of it!’ Of course, I’m now pretty familiar with track changes after having spent two years working on a novel – it was a fundamental communication tool for my editors and me. So, I think the processes, in both a technical and creative way, are quite similar but everything is heightened and on a larger scale; you’re still thinking about the themes of the work, how best to communicate ideas to the reader, grammar fixes, publishing deadlines etcetera.

You can see a lot of Little Stones in Snow in Africa and visa-versa, while there are also some subtle differences. How did you tackle the task of transforming one work into the other, and what inspired this idea that there was more story to tell?

The vignettes in Snow in Africa give the reader fleeting insights into life in Zimbabwe; a motorbike ride on the farm, a Shona spelling test, a petrol queue. While I do believe the story worked as a self-contained piece, I received really encouraging feedback from people who said they wanted more, who wanted to live in the world I’d created a little bit longer. I think almost all of the scenes that formed part of the original 3000 words made their way into the novel and it was simply a task of locating their place in the broader narrative.

Some writers believe short stories are harder to write than novels. With Snow in Africa clocking in under 3000, what was that process like for you fleshing out the stories vignettes into the full length novel Little Stones

I actually found it quite tricky not to write in a very bare-boned and impressionistic manner, so accustomed I was to writing short stories in which every word had to fight for its place to be there. However, I also enjoyed the freedom I had to flesh out characters, explore issues in greater depth and cultivate dramatic tension. I find it really hard to compare the two because your goals and priorities as an author are so different.    

Your bio in Voiceworks #97 HABIT says your first story was the ‘adventures of a talking bicycle’, can we ever expect to read this masterpiece?

I’m starting to think I should update my current author bio to include that titbit – clearly the highpoint of my literary career!

The story in question is a piece I wrote in Grade 4, one that I treasure deeply. I’ll have to unearth a copy from a storage box, but the basic premise is that a young girl has been longing for a new pair of rollerblades for her birthday yet receives a run-down second-hand bicycle instead. She’s not too pleased about this until she realises … he can talk! I named the bike ‘Grim’, which I think is adorable. The story received an accolade for my year-level at the Zimbabwe Institute of Allied Arts and my mum kept a copy of the judge’s comments, which read: ‘Keep working at your story writing. I expect to hear you have written a book one day’. I’m going to try track down the person who wrote the comment so that I may let them know their premonition was correct. I think that would be really nice thing to do.

When did you first decide that you were going to be a writer? Can you share some advice to other young writers starting out?

Well, from the above anecdote, it appears I gravitated towards writing from a fairly young age. I can’t say I ever made a decision to ‘be a writer’. The desire to write just for myself (in fact, mainly for myself) has always been there.

My only advice to those starting out is to keep writing and creating. The first piece I submitted to Voiceworks (when I was 17) was not chosen for publication. If I had taken that as a sign to give up, or an indication of my potential, I wouldn’t have submitted a second time, and the piece that morphed into Little Stones wouldn’t have been published. Also, Voiceworks is a pretty incredible publication. Very few journals will give you feedback on an unsuccessful submission – so treat that as a valuable learning resource.

Your character, Hannah, is growing up in Harare during the time that Robert Mugabe was in power, which one can see from Little Stones is quite fraught. How much does Little Stones draw upon your own experience of Zimbabwe and childhood there?

Hannah’s life and my own share a lot of commonalities. I remember the occasions on which my mum would wake me up early in the morning, bundling me into the backseat of the car with a blanket and pillow, before we’d park in a petrol queue for a several hours. I also remember the many, many power-cuts that were disruptive and frustrating. But I also remember playing monopoly by candlelight and being thrilled to have a credible excuse for not having done my maths homework.

I drew heavily on my childhood experiences to create the world of the novel and to capture that period of time in Mugabe-era Zimbabwe, which, indeed, was quite fraught. But I like to think that, through my characters, I also highlighted some of the moments of great beauty, humour and resilience that formed part of my experience.  

How difficult was it to translate the political situation of Zimbabwe and similarly difficult themes/topics present in Little Stones through the eyes and voice of a young protagonist?

It was difficult in some ways and easier in others. There’s so much of Zimbabwe and its complicated, fascinating history that I wanted to capture and I’d sometimes feel limited by the capacity of a young protagonist – there’s only so much they can be privy to. At the same time, I think that holding back has made for a more powerful and evocative novel. The reader is able to connect with Hannah’s personal story, whilst still obtaining insights of the broader socio-political context from things Hannah overhears the adults around her discussing, things she sees on the news, and sometimes from her direct observations as well.

You’ve said that ‘Writing Little Stones helped me reclaim this part of my identity and to make sense of my memories.’ How did the writing of Little Stones help you do this?

I was still quite young when I left Zimbabwe. I know that my mum viewed our move to Australia as a fresh start and saw Perth as a safe place we could put down roots. However, I think that in the process of trying to make Australia our home, we often shut out a lot of our past. Perhaps it was too painful to revisit or perhaps there was a fear that living in the past would make us feel disconnected from our new present. In writing Little Stones, I had both the creative and emotional space to reflect upon my life in Zimbabwe, to enjoy the memories that came flooding back as I continued to write, and to critically engage with those formative childhood experiences.

What are some of your recent favourite books?

I’ve just got stuck into Amanda O’Callaghan’s short story collection, This Taste for Silence, which shares the same pub date with me at UQP – it’s really excellent. I recently finished and adored Sally Rooney’s Normal People (along with almost everyone else in Melbourne, it seems). Another one of my big favourites from this year has been Less by Arthur Sean Greer.  

What’s next for you?

I am currently in my second year of postgrad law at the University of Melbourne – I completed my semester one exams roughly a week ago. Finalising edits on Little Stones and engaging in all the book publicity whilst studying has been incredibly exciting (but also occasionally quite exhausting). I now have a month-long period to recharge and think about my next big creative project, which I am very much looking forward to.

Elizabeth Kuiper’s Little Stones is available now through University of Queensland Press (UQP).

Voiceworks is Express Media’s flagship publication, a national literary journal that features exciting new writing and art by young Australians twenty-five and under.