BackStory: Five Questions with Frankie McMillan

Bertie the Germ posters
BackStory: Five Questions with Frankie McMillan

Author of We, the School Dental Nurses, 1960

What inspired you to write ‘We, the School Dental Nurses, 1960’?

A friend posted me a photo as a writing prompt. The photo, a woman with a transparent cone over her face, made me think of dental procedures and from there to my memories of school dental nurses. They all looked similar in their white uniforms and red cardigans. I saw them as a collective, waging a never ending war against Bertie Germ.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I was intrigued by the school dental clinic posters showing the war against tooth decay. Patriotism associated with the Second World War was harnessed to advance the case for fresh fruit and vegetables, which were dropped by a bomber plane on the unsuspecting Bertie.

What is your least favourite part of the writing process?

Revision. Most of my stories come out in the one sitting and I tend to be impatient if I have to do too much rewriting. Also, I find the revised pieces never have quite the same energy as the quickly written pieces.

What do you like most about writing flash?

I love the immediacy of flash and how the small space puts language under pressure. Writers can use the short-short form to tell small stories that might otherwise not be told. Often an idea, an atmosphere or impression can be sustained in flash but not in a longer form.

How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

In my book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions (referencing the 1956 Communist Uprising in Budapest), I didn’t stick closely to all the historical facts but instead through the ‘fictional lie’ hoped to create an emotional truth whereby characters felt authentic.

Frankie McMillan is a poet and short fiction writer from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Recent work appears in New Flash Fiction Review, Blue Nib and Best Microfiction, 2020 (Pelekinesis).

Dental health posters featuring ‘Bertie the Germ’ issued by the New Zealand Department of Health, 1950s from Archive New Zealand (CC BY 2.0).