Quick questions with Frankie McMillan – WORD Christchurch

We are asking quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival on from 24 to 28 August.

Frankie McMillan is an award-winning short story writer and poet and teacher, the author of The Bag Lady’s Picnic and other stories and two poetry collections, including There are no horses in heaven. Her latest book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions, is being launched during the festival.

Frankie McMillan (photo credit: Andy Lukey)
Frankie McMillan (photo credit: Andy Lukey)

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

I like the proximity of the Port Hills, the various walking and biking tracks, the new art galleries popping up, watching the rebuild take place but most of all having my family members live nearby.

What do you think about libraries?

I’m interested in the changing role of libraries. I’m heartened to hear how Auckland Central library caters for the homeless with a regular book club and movie club. Libraries are fantastic places.

What would be your “desert island book”?

I’d take ‘The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor’

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

In my thirties I trained in physical/improvisational theatre including skills such as fire breathing. Once I stood on the shoulders of my friend and blew out such a massive ball of flame it scorched the theatre ceiling.

Frankie McMillan appears in:

Cover of My mother and the HungariansMore

Poetry at the library

dressing-for-cannibals-inviteIn the next two weeks the Central City Library is lucky enough to be hosting three poetry events featuring Christchurch poet Frankie McMillan as part of Christchurch City Libraries 150th Anniversary celebrations. 

On Thursday 20th August Frankie will be launching Dressing for the cannibals, her new book of poems, at 5.30 pm and on Friday the 21st of August at 12.30 pm she will be joined in a poetry reading by an illustrious group of fellow poets.

Ross Brighton (Pelt, a shrub, a soil sample), David Gregory (Push), Bernadette Hall (The lustre jug), Michael Harlow, (The tram conductor’s new blue cap) Helen Lowe and Joanna Preston (The summer king) will all be reading from their work.

For those inspired by these readings or looking to add to their skills in writing their own poetry Frankie will be leading a workshop on Saturday the 29th of August at 10 am.

I asked Frankie some questions about her own work prior to her sessions at the library. She began writing poetry at the age of 14, in what she describes as a “vain attempt to attract boys”, possibly inspired by a movie or TV show where the beautiful heroine sat on a high stool and stared wistfully into the distance while she thought of POETRY.

As a small child Frankie was mistress of the 10 page story, written in an attempt to impress her teachers and all with a strange theological bent they shared with her drawings of the time. Moving from theology to drama, Frankie credits the two year Performing Arts Diploma she undertook in  Sydney, where she studied  devised theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, dance and improvisation, with informing her writing.

Her first book of short stories, The bag lady’s picnic and other stories, was published in 2001 and in 2005 she received the CNZ Todd Bursary to write a second collection. Work on this collection continues with her stories being selected for Best NZ Fiction in 2008 and 2009.

Many writers talk about the need to write every day, to sit down and make themselves get something on the paper. Frankie tends to alternate stages of being highly disciplined and writing up to 500 words a day, with periods of waiting until she builds up a head of steam and a sense of urgency. She doesn’t write every day but she is carrying around thoughts about writing and storing away observations for future use.

With poetry she tends to work quite quickly, with the premise that the first idea is the best idea (nothing is original after all), and seeing what thoughts attract themselves to that idea. Bill Manhire’s observation that the words themselves should be part of the process of discovery and not just a recoding device for a familiar set of observations is one that resonates.

So who is her favourite poet? There are a few but one will also be reading on Friday so we can all see how he “uses symbol and image in a tender and magical way” – Michael Harlow, current Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

Other favourites incude Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney (both in my Pantheon), Robert Bly, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds for their ability to surprise and unsettle, to reaffirm what it is to be human and their dexterity with language.  

As much as contemporary literature Frankie credits the two year Performing Arts Diploma she undertook in  Sydney studying  devised theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, dance and improvisationwith informing her writing.