How much do you feel a connection in your stories to Britain and its Commonwealth ties?
I think my stories reflect my sense of place in the world, and Britain does feature in that. I’ve spent about a third of my adult life in the UK. I first went there as a student on a Commonwealth Scholarship, so in that respect being part of the Commonwealth has had quite a big impact on my life.
I’m a fifth generation New Zealander, but my ancestors came from England, Scotland and Germany, and I did feel a sort of archaeological curiosity about those countries. Britain was certainly part of my imaginative world before I ever set foot there. I remember arriving in London and seeing a red double decker bus for the first time, and it was such a familiar image – so exactly like I expected it to look – and yet so weirdly real – that I just stood there amazed. I looked at things differently when I left New Zealand, and differently again when I came back.
Does having a global readership alter the way you approach writing stories?
New Zealand has a vibrant literary community, but there is no escaping the fact that our market for fiction is small. So I do write with the hope of being part of a wider literary world.
I feel like the purist thing would be to say this has no impact on how I write or what I write about, yet I’m sure on some level it must. I’ve occasionally caught a kind of self-consciousness stalking me when I write about New Zealand. We have a joke about our cultural insecurity: the moment a visitor steps off the plane, we ask them, ‘What do you think of New Zealand?’ Perhaps this is unavoidable when you’re a small country at the bottom of the world that nobody pays much attention to. But I’m not sure that eagerness to please, that need to be approved of, is the best standpoint from which to write fiction.
Luckily we have some excellent writers who avoid this pitfall. It does make me appreciate the importance for any country of having its literature take a place on the world stage – of telling stories that go against the grain, that don’t obediently align themselves with tourism marketing campaigns, or political ideology.
Is place, the landscape and language of where you’re from, something that has a bearing on your writing voice?
Place is very important to me. I often find when I write a story, it’s the setting which comes first, before there are any characters or plot to speak of. But I’m not sure about the impact on my voice; I don’t know that I write with a distinctively New Zealand inflexion. I think my voice is probably more influenced by what I’ve read. As I teenager I obsessively read and reread the novels of Jane Austen. I’m not sure why – it was really a little odd. I knew vast swathes of Pride and Prejudice by heart; I suspect that may have been a bigger influence on how I write a sentence.
Emma Martin grew up in Dunedin. She studied philosophy at the University of Otago, later accepting a Commonwealth Scholarship to the UK. She started writing fiction in mid-life, completing an MA in Creative Writing at the Victoria University of Wellington in 2010. Her stories and essays have since been published in literary journals and anthologies in New Zealand and the UK. She lives in Wellington with her partner and two children, and is working on a collection of short stories.
Emma Martin was the Regional Winner for the Pacific in the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Read her story, ‘Two Girls in a Boat’.