Finding Our Flamingo: Rijn Collins on taxidermy, audio fiction and winning the inaugural Sarah Awards
'Almost Flamboyant', written by Rijn Collins and produced by the ABC's Lea Redfern, recently took the top prize at the newly-created Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards (more simply known as 'The Sarahs'). We spoke to Rijn about the intricacies of audio fiction, the thought process behind her prolific output, and the influence of new places, broad tastes and a background in linguistics.
Firstly, tell us about how 'Almost Flamboyant' came to life. Did you initially write it for radio – and if so, what does that mean? What did you have to specifically consider?
‘Almost Flamboyant’ is a somewhat surreal tale of a young woman who finds a taxidermy flamingo in a rubbish skip in a Melbourne alley, and the resultant relationship when it turns out to spout rather foul and feathered wisdom interspersed with gravelly voiced Tom Waits lullabies.
It arose from two sources: my interest in taxidermy (the protagonist in my novel is an amateur taxidermist) and my love of word play. My research told me that when taxidermy fell out of favour in the 1800s, museums literally threw out their creatures in rubbish bins. When I read that on one occasion an entire giraffe neck was found in a skip outside London Museum, I knew I had my story. To find which animal would feature, I went through a list of collective nouns: a murder of crows, a husk of hares, a flamboyance of flamingos. It was that lightbulb moment when I started to grin, and reach for my pen.
It became evident quite quickly that the voice of the flamingo, in all its splenetic, smoky glory, was the key to the story, and I knew it would find its feet in audio form. Focusing on the sonic elements meant paying attention to bringing the clang and chaos of Melbourne city streets to life: train whistles, the smash of glass and slap of footsteps. Getting the tone of the girl’s voice right, whose character I narrated, took practice, and finding our flamingo took time. Both my producer Lea Redfern and I were thrilled when Jacek Koman agreed to do it, and he was perfect in the role.
How did your collaboration with [RN Earshot producer] Lea Redfern begin, and what did you learn from that process? Was it the first time you've collaborated with others on your work?
I ran a writers’ group for seven years where collaborations were welcomed, so I’ve worked with musicians, photographers, visual artists and other writers on many occasions.
'When I read that on one occasion an entire giraffe neck was found in a skip outside London Museum, I knew I had my story.'
My first ABC audio piece came from a text story in Pool, a (sadly now defunct) collaborative website. To my delight, it was recorded as part of the City Nights project, and through that my writing came to the attention of several ABC producers. I’ve so far recorded a dozen stories in the Melbourne and Sydney studios, voicing all but the first myself.
I’ve found the perfect working relationship with Lea Redfern, my producer on ‘Almost Flamboyant’ and many of my other ABC stories. She understands both my writing and the best way to bring it to life, and has taught me the art of writing specifically for radio. Our Sarah Awards win wouldn’t have happened without her faith in my writing, and her stellar production skills – she was the one who believed in us enough to submit our work to the Sarah Awards in the first place.
How much of the 'writing' of an audio fiction piece like yours takes place within the realm of 'producing'?
I’ve been fortunate in that my producers have always worked with me to ensure our piece finds its best form in audio. I’m aware, after almost 100 published or performed stories, which ones work in written form and which would best be presented in audio form – so once I bring a story to my producer, I’m fairly sure it’s best suited to that format. No real structural changes have been needed, although my choice of words is sometimes challenged: I recall debating the use of ‘whorls’ in a person’s hair pattern, as it was perhaps too close to the phonetic sound of ‘halls.’ An awareness of how words sound instead of look is crucial.
Hearing Jacek growl the first line of the flamingo’s dialogue was a remarkable experience, and brought the whole work to life for me. As he raised his arms in the studio for emphasis, I could almost see the pink feathers fluttering down all over the console.
'An awareness of how words sound instead of look is crucial.'
Sarah Awards co-founder Ann Heppermann has said she hopes the awards stir producers to 'make radio drama for the 21st century'. What, to you, does that mean?
An appreciation of good writing will never go out of style: celebrating fiction in all its incarnations is a wonderful way to reach a wider audience. Podcasts are so popular now that as writers we need to embrace the opportunities they offer, and both the rewards and challenges they present. People who might hesitate to pick up a book may love listening to podcasts as they drive to work, for example, so utilising this format to incorporate fiction pieces is a great opportunity to reach those who may be outside our usual audience.
I love Ann’s quote, and the image it brings to mind for me of a whole family gathered around the radio in days past, tuning in eagerly for their nightly stories. Audio drama is able to be shared, to be enjoyed together, to foster community and creativity. I’m so inspired by the recent focus on audio fiction, and I can’t wait to see where it leads.
As a writer, what do you feel are some key conscious influences on your work?
I’m constantly influenced by my travels, and the kernels of quirk they throw up. My professional background is in linguistics, so I’m always drawn to faraway lands and their wild and wonderful languages. Many of my published stories have revolved around sitting on Rachmaninov’s old bed in St Petersburg, Russia, flirting with a snake milker in the Amtrak station in Jackson, Mississippi, or drinking cherry beer at my windowsill in Brussels, Belgium.
I’ve also been hugely inspired by my writing residencies – one in a remote fishing village in far northern Iceland (setting of my novel), and another set deep in a Finnish forest, snacking on reindeer and swilling cloudberry wine.
As for my more literary influences, I will always return to the short stories of Raymond Carver, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Nabokov, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas, and the memoirs and diaries of Gorky and Anais Nin. I’m aware these are disparate influences, but my stories come from different sources, as do my influences.
Finally: what did it feel like to win the inaugural award – and to meet your collaborator only a couple of hours before the event? Given all the above, is that a sign of a uniquely contemporary collaboration?
The whole trip to New York for the Sarah Awards was incredible. What a week! Lea and I were only told we were in the top three shortly before the awards, and I did deliberate over whether I could even go. They generously provided travel assistance, however, and so I found myself in a café on the Lower East Side waiting for Lea to walk in, an hour before the ceremony.
Lea and I have worked together for two years – but with her in Sydney and me in Melbourne, we’d never actually met. It was quite a surreal way to do it, laughing over coffee before walking over to the headquarters of NPR (National Public Radio) and into the ceremony.
I think I was so happy to be in the top three that I didn’t really consider the possibility of winning: flying over to New York for my writing seemed an adventure enough in itself. But when they announced the third place winner, and then the second, and neither was us, Lea and I turned to each other in the front row, eyes wide. And then I slowly reached out and pinched her, just to check if it was really happening.
I found out later that the whole event was streamed live, with my people in Melbourne watching and cheering. If I’d known that, I possibly wouldn’t have named my taxidermy in my acceptance speech (Goose Willis was greeted with mirth) but the whole experience was amazing, in ways I’m still discovering.
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