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Interview: Megan Doyle Corcoran, Jac Jenkins & Sally Houtman

July 2012

This month, we’ve interviewed three of our own contributors, who were short-listed in June’s National Flash Fiction Day competition. We welcome the opportunity to learn more about Megan Doyle Corcoran and Sally Houtman, both of Wellington, and Jac Jenkins from Whangarei.

Megan Doyle Corcoran (2012 NFFD Short List for ‘Queen’s Birthday’)

Corcoran at the summit of Tongariro with Ngauruhoe in the background

FF: Tell us where you’re from and where you live now.

MDC: I’m from San Diego which means I’m big on sidewalk greetings and overly friendly encounters with strangers.  Now I live in Wellington where sidewalk greetings are tolerated but not always reciprocated.  I don’t care where I live as long as the ocean is close.

FF: What do you do when you’re not writing?

MDC: Mostly I eavesdrop and stare at people.  I also read and get angry about politics.

FF: What was the first thing you had published?
MDC: A horrible poem when I was 12.  I think it was about mean people.
FF: When did you start writing flash fiction?

MDC: I guess I’ve played around with vignettes for a while but I never wrote flash fiction with any purpose until I saw the term and thought, oh that sort of suits these vignettes.

FF: What do you tend to focus on most when you write a story with fewer than 300 words? Character, voice, setting, mood, language, etc?

MDC: I think vignettes are about playing with perception and memory. I start with a person – usually someone I’m thinking of for a longer piece – and I try to figure out which details of an event would stick in that person’s head. Then I hope that the details will work to convey the person’s story. I like the blank space, the potential for
misunderstanding, as much as the story because I think that’s how memory works.  We fill in the blanks. I fail a lot with the word count.  Seriously fail.

FF: Do you think writing flash fiction influences the way you write in other genres? If so, how?

MDC: Sure it does. Yep. I keep an eye out for irrelevant or inauthentic details.  Also, for unnecessary prepositions and conjunctions.

FF: Describe your writing environment.

MDC: My favorite room right now is white-walled, rundown, with a heater
that brews hellfire and a window that looks at a concrete wall.

FF: What are you reading now?

MDC: A great biography of Salinger and Margaret Drabble’s The Mill Stone.

FF: What are you writing now?

MDC: A novella about a crazy woman.

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Jac Jenkins (2012 NFFD Highly Commended and NZSA Northland Regional Award for ‘Possum Hunt’)

Jenkins reading for National Flash Fiction Day, Auckland

FF: Tell us where you’re from and where you live now.

JJ:  I’m from and currently living in Whatitiri near Whangarei. I live with my teenage daughter, 2 cats and 5 chooks on a hilltop acre with lovely pastoral views, in a 1930s cottage that needs work.

FF: What do you do when you’re not writing?

JJ: I work in two jobs as a librarian, read, indulge in self-analysis and philosophy, drink cappucinos, enjoy my daughter’s company, t’ai chi.

FF: What was the first thing you had published?
JJ: Flash: “Leaving Here” (Flash Frontier, January 2012). Otherwise the poem “The Occupation” (The Northern Advocate, Friday 22 July 2005)
FF: When did you start writing flash fiction?

JJ: January 2012

FF: What do you tend to focus on most when you write a story with fewer than 300 words? Character, voice, setting, mood, language, etc?

JJ: In my poetry I try to use powerful imagery to evoke emotion and I seem to have carried that through into writing flash – the story develops from a central image. Once I have the image in my head I focus on language.

FF: Do you think writing flash fiction influences the way you write in other genres? If so, how?

JJ: Flash fiction has given me an opportunity to show my writing to a different audience. This, and being short-listed in the NFFD competition, has led to an increase in my writing confidence in general. It’s possible that flash has also made me more keenly aware of the unwritten stories behind my poems.

FF: Describe your writing environment.

JJ: I do my most productive writing sitting in Dickens Inn with a glass of merlot and my laptop! I have a big old hospital desk at home which is home to my computer and that is where I write when I’m at home. It is always messy and doesn’t really contribute to good writing. I may change to writing on my laptop on my extraordinarily large bohemian red couch to see if that works as well as Dickens.

FF: What are you reading now?

JJ: Do I have to be honest? I want to say I’m reading an exciting novel by Dean Koontz, but I’m actually reading a book called Staying Sane!

FF: What are you writing now?

JJ: About 10 poems, most of which have been long-time works in progress, plus a flash for the July issue of Flash Frontier!

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Sally Houtman (2012 NFFD Highly Commended and Runner-Up in NZSA Wellington Regional Award for ‘That Night in Miri’s Kitchen’)

Houtman in her backyard

FF: Tell us where you’re from and where you live now.

SH: I was born and raised in the farm country of north central Pennsylvania, in the northeast of the United States. I’ve since lived and worked in many places in the US, most notably six years in Boston and fifteen years in Los Angeles. In 2005 I relocated from LA to Wellington where I live on a hill, overlooking Worser Bay and Seatoun beach, with my kiwi husband and two young children.

FF: What do you do when you’re not writing?

SH: Read. Read. Read. Listen to music. Read some more. Oh, and occasionally talk to my husband and kids. But only if it’s really important.

FF: What was the first thing you had published?
SH: A non-fiction book about being raised by grandparents (To Grandma’s House, We…Stay), published in 1999.  As I’d never written anything before, I didn’t imagine it would be published. But it was, and is in its third edition, still out there today.
FF: When did you start writing flash fiction?

SH: The first piece of what could be considered flash fiction I‘ve ever written was, I believe, the piece for the January issue of Flash Frontier. Prior to that, I’d written and had published several stories, each of which was under 1000 words and now can be categorised as flash fiction, but at the time I didn’t know to call them that.

FF: What do you tend to focus on most when you write a story with fewer than 300 words? Character, voice, setting, mood, language, etc?

SH: For me, two things come immediately to mind, both of which hold true for any form of writing – depth and detail. In any story, particularly a very short one, I feel it’s essential to create some resonance, a sense that there is more here than meets the eye, a feeling of before and after, a sense that the story has life or significance beyond the words on the page. A successful piece of flash fiction, to my thinking, should create a feeling that, in the palm of your hand you are holding something immense.

As a reader, I like a story to leave me with something more than when I started. Whether it makes me chuckle, pause to think or hurl a shoe. I feel it owes me something in exchange for my investment of time and attention. As a writer, I feel I owe the reader the same. With flash pieces, you’ve got to aim deftly, move quickly and strike hard in order to accomplish this. And you’ve got to do it without resorting to the predictable or falling back on cliché or gimmicks. When this is done with skill, it’s extremely satisfying, from both a reader’s and a writer’s point of view.

This, I feel, is something only achieved through careful and deliberate selection of just the right detail.  As with poetry, the shorter the piece, the more difficult (and the more critical) this selection of detail becomes. There is absolutely no room for waste. And very little margin for error. There’s simply nowhere to hide.

FF: Do you think writing flash fiction influences the way you write in other genres? If so, how?

SH: It should. If it doesn’t, I’m not doing it right. I read and edit my work from the point of view of my enemy, someone examining the structure and looking for the one mislaid brick. I feel with shorter works, the flaws are more easily spotted. One misplaced detail can send the reader off in an entirely unwanted direction. Every brick has to be set correctly or the structure falls apart.

FF: Describe your writing environment.

SH: A mess. Like my brain. This is a clear reflection of the way my creative process works. I’m not the type of writer who can write a linear story, one that starts at point A, progresses through a logical sequence of events and comes to a conclusion at point Z. I admire those who can write this way. I can’t. I don’t consider myself a storyteller so much as a collector of observations which, when ordered and butted together carefully, tell a story of their own. It becomes a matter of sifting through the thoughts I’ve gathered, matching like ideas with like until a theme develops and a story begins to emerge. It’s a messy process. But I can’t work effectively any other way.

FF: What are you reading now?

SH:  I do a LOT of reading in online literary magazines. Because I rely on adaptive technology to do my reading, the speech software I use with the computer makes online reading easier and much more enjoyable than reading printed material. On my desk, however, there are two print books at the moment – a copy of Meg Pokrass’s flash fiction Damn Sure Right and a short story collection by Julie Innis, Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture, both written by writers whose work I discovered online.

FF: What are you writing now?

SH: Aside from keeping my teeth sharp by preparing pieces for Flash Frontier’s upcoming monthly themes, at any given time I’ve got about a dozen things on the go. Again, reflective of my inability to sit down and write a logical story from start to finish, I tend to work on a number of stories a bit at a time. I’m focusing on a couple longer stories at the moment and, in between, working on a series of themed humour/parody pieces. Ultimately, I’m working towards a collection of short stories, but, no matter how much I coax or cajole, the collection just can’t be convinced to write itself.

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Thank you, Megan, Jac and Sally, for the interviews this month. 

For the July issue (the road) , please go here


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