“Take Two: A Conversation with Caroline & Vivian Thonger About Collaboration & Experimental Forms”—curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Caroline Thonger (CH) is a technical translator from French and German, and writer of historical non-fiction work The Banker’s Daughter (Merton Priory Press, 2007) about her German grandmother’s family. She was Chief Editor of Hello Switzerland! magazine where her articles, investigations and editorials were published. She volunteers with the Geneva Writers Group; her short stories and poems have regularly appeared in the GWG publication Offshoots.

Vivian Thonger (NZ) is a psychologist who studied Creative Writing with the OU. She set up the Bay of Islands Writing Group to focus on flash and has been published online at Flash Frontier, Flash Flood, short and long lists for NZ’s annual Flash Fiction Competition, and has twice won Northland’s Short Story prize. Her work features in Bonsai—Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (CUP, 2018) and Te Ripo Wai (Pavlova Press, 2021) about Kerikeri; poems appear in 8 print editions of Fast Fibres Poetry.

In 2021 and 2022, both sisters had flash pieces shortlisted and published online in the final of Micro Madness international online competition https://nationalflash.org/micro-madness/

Take Two is the Thongers’ first collaborative project: parallel-writing memories and evidence of their shared past in short, experimental forms. Earlier versions have been longlisted for the Bath Short Memoir and Reflex Novella prizes.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell us about Take Two.  What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Caroline Thonger: The essence of Take Two is encapsulated in the description on the back cover. This is a unique work because it is co-authored by two sisters and is the result of deep-memory mining. Although it can be termed a collaborative work, what we have managed to produce is a sort of parallel writing probing into a shared childhood with two pairs of eyes, and two widely different experiences. We would like the readers to delve into this book with their minds open and their curiosity turned up at full volume. This is a book that can be read and interpreted on so many levels: it can be dipped into; it can be read cover to cover. While the manuscript follows an approximately chronological path, most of the pieces are stand-alone and contain hints for the reader to be able to determine which sister has authored which piece. There is also a device that acts as identifier—up to the reader to discover for themselves. And while some of the locations may be unfamiliar, we hope the underlying themes will resonate with readers on a universal level.

Vivian Thonger: This book is an exploration of memory itself, a parallel search for personal truth by two people who shared some of their lives. You don’t have to be/have a sibling to join us on our journey. If you’ve shared a time, a place, an experience—even an object—with someone else, and found that your recollections differ, this book will ring your bell. If you’re used to long-form writing such as novels and biographies, get ready for brevity, for lack of explanation, for having to work things out, for a bit of puzzling.

KMD:  From a practical standpoint, how did the collaboration work?  What were the rules and parameters?

CT: With one of us living in New Zealand, and the other in a chalet in a Swiss mountain village, we had to devise a strict writing regime. Alan Thomas (our illustrator) acted as a neutral catalyst. He sent us a new random word each week, and we then had a week to write about a memory using the word as a prompt. We exchanged our writing on the day of the pre-determined deadline, wrote a critique in blue at the end of the other sister’s piece, sent that back and then had a FaceTime discussion. Then the next word was sent. Words included ‘bubble’, ‘gravel’, ‘boys’, ‘grass’, ‘German’, ‘cities’ …

All this was initiated in 2015, but right from the start our intention was seriously aimed at producing a finished book. Our early pieces were fashioned in many varied forms: sometimes a poem, sometimes a flash piece, sometimes a ‘splurge’ of flow-writing, sometimes sheer description. There was no word limit then. At the end of 2016 I undertook my first (and only) voyage to New Zealand and spent a glorious six weeks in the antipodean summer. It was a very productive time when we disciplined ourselves to specific types of writing that we felt were missing. Working in different rooms in the house, we two sisters ended up producing our individual descriptions of the dramatis personae of our intended book.

VT: In the system Caroline has described, our process initially included no rules for how to respond to each other’s work. And sometimes, we absolutely hated what we read—or what we’d written. How to keep the momentum going, how to keep spirits up? A few rules emerged naturally that kept us on track when critiquing:

1) keep initial comments and discussion about content and approach only (we wanted to get our facts right),

2) reserve thoughts about style/form until later,

3) find some positive elements, things that worked or that could work,

4) respect the writer’s truth.

Within the span of writing this book, these rules never failed us.

KMD:  As you worked on Take Two, what surprised you most about collaboration?  About your own writing?

CT: In terms of the memories evoked, we were surprised in different ways at the similarities versus the huge discrepancies in our individual evocations of our childhood. We engaged in many discussions and arguments but in the end, we came to respect the truthfulness of each sister’s nugget of memory. The book is formed of a patchwork of pieces where each sister owns that memory without interference or contrary input from the other.

In terms of the writing, the most surprising thing for me was the evolution of each other’s critiquing. At the outset, we were somewhat timid in criticising the other’s work, the general tone being, “Well, hmm, you’ve made a few good points …” After a couple of years of exchanging work, our critiquing had become more refined, pertinent, pointed, and where required, cutting.

From a very early stage (about one year into the writing) we were both submitting various pieces for peer review in our milieux on the opposite sides of the world. And we had to learn to harden our skins, because we each received a constant flow of negative reactions. In one critiquing class to which I submitted an extract of my work-in-progress, for example, the overriding problem was the point of view (it was not comprehensible to the reader who ‘you’ was, even though this was co-written by two sisters). This is how we ended up using first person, third person and occasional second person throughout the book.

In terms of editing, that’s a whole other story. By mid-2018 when my sister spent 10 days in my chalet during their annual European visit, I printed out our entire production and spread the pages all over the floor. In a rough count I estimated we had written a quarter-of-a-million words between us. The final book ended up at 22,000. Go figure the amount of polishing, paring, and rejecting that had to be undergone.

VT: I was surprised by how quickly we both learned to value and accept each other’s comments and edits on new or changed pieces of work: within a year (which might seem a long time for sisters, but we were never previously good at communicating about our shared childhood, we were in a state of ‘strangement’ which writing this book upended), we started to fully trust our strength as a team and began to grasp how useful a good editor is, how essential in uncovering the best writing, the best expression in a piece. Our cautious, encouraging, tiptoeing comments turned into frankly expressed, open and direct notes to each other.

I was surprised that there was more true collaboration in fitting the pieces together—in figuring out the shape of the book, how it would begin and end—than in individual pieces of work, each of which was slowly whittled by alternating edits to reveal a particular snapshot/nugget from one standpoint, one person’s eye-view. During this intense time, my own writing took a back seat, I admit. Another surprise. Most of my submissions to competitions or anthologies had this book in mind—it became central to my writing practice.

KMD:  What advice do you have for writers who are interested in collaborating, but are afraid or hesitant to try it?

CT: The most typical comment I encountered in the whole eight-year process it took to produce this book was, “Oh my goodness, I could never imagine doing anything like that with my sister!” My only advice is go for it, because what started out as a hotchpotch but regular exchange of writing exercises blossomed into a truly experimental, multi-coloured and multi-layered mosaic of writing. An even more intriguing collaboration was then engendered between us two sisters and Alan, our illustrator (and Vivian’s partner). The book finally consisted of the writing interspersed with firstly objects, and secondly a musical soundtrack, both categories being deeply evocative of the closely shared parts of our childhood.

VT: Try doing what we did: grab your people (2, 3 or more) and see where the thought ‘Let’s write a book together’ takes you. In our case, by starting our Take Two project as ‘parallel memory writing’, we wrote simultaneously about our times together or with family/friends, without any allocation of roles or expectations as to where the writing might lead—it didn’t emerge as a memoir until several years down the line. The word collaboration simply means ‘working together’—you can take it wherever you like. In our experience, the result is greater than the sum of its parts and profoundly satisfying.

KMD:  What has collaboration opened up within your practice as an individual writer?  How are your solo projects inflected by your background as a collaborator?

CT: The most significant factor has been that by indulging in so many regular critiques of another person’s work, I have not only gained an intimate insight into my sister’s style and talent, but also gained confidence in self-critiquing my own work. And together we have dared to submit various of our pieces for individual publication (the list is published on the back page of the book), and to national and international writing competitions.

I also feel that the publication of this book has encouraged me to want to undertake and be involved in a much wider gamut of writing genres (flash, poetry, playlets, experimental pieces, dialogue, internal monologue).

VT: I’ve developed a conviction that everything is collaboration. Over the past year, I’ve been collaborating with Alan Thomas on several art projects that combine found text alongside visuals or sounds—my collaborative tendencies and pleasures are expanding if anything. But I will aim to hit a few deadlines for individual flash fiction, micro and poetry competitions and events. Performance is another collaborative interest of mine: isn’t an individually written story, read in silence, just as much a collaboration between writer, book and reader as a dramatic monologue, spoken onstage to an audience?

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What else can readers look forward to?

CT: We have just resumed our weekly exchange of writing, using Alan as our neutral catalyst. The outcome so far has been mixed, but the current rule is no pressure, nothing is ‘wrong’, all styles are acceptable. And so far, we have no outcome in mind, simply to accumulate more experimental writing. However, I’m sure our ultimate goal is another book. Our joint book launch in Bloomsbury in London (shades of Virginia Woolf), in October 2023, was too much of a highlight for us not to wish to repeat the experience.

VT:  What she said. Thanks for your thoughtful questions, this has been fun. Must get back to writing.

For worldwide delivery of Take Two (free delivery in the UK): https://www.cbeditions.com/Thonger.html.

For an independent review and worldwide delivery: https://volumebooks.online/p/take-two?barcode=9781909585546&search_key=Take