This month, we feature Jude Higgins and the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and a whole bevy of books by Flash Frontier contributors, beginning with Nuala O’Connor (Ireland) and Trish Nicholson (New Zealand). We also hear from three authors of new stories-turned-novellas: Gay Degani (US), Townsend Walker (US) and Guilie Castillo-Oriard (Mexico/Curaçao). All three of these have been published by the independent presses of indefatigable Matt Potter (Australia), who also has a new travel memoir to discuss.
It has been a productive year for these hard-working writers and editors. We thank them for taking time to share!
Jude Higgins and the Bath Flash Fiction Award
FF: Tell us more about the Bath Flash Fiction Award – the inspiration behind it, how it came to be.
JH: I’ve been co-running the Bath Short Story Award since 2012 – the word limit for this competition is 2200 words with most entrants writing to that length. I thought Bath needed another international contest devoted to very short fiction. I also love reading and writing flash fiction myself and wanted to encourage others to try their hand at writing short pieces – to spread the love!
In my interview with her for the inaugural award, the 2015 judge Annemarie Neary said “a successful flash should leave something behind – an image, an emotion, a stain.” I think of this statement often when I am reading competition entries or writing my own pieces. I also like this quote from my recent interview with Tania Hershman, the 2016 judge: “In terms of what makes for a great flash fiction – when I run workshops I ask the participants what needs to be left out in a tiny story, and we come up with a list: characters, backstory, description, dialogue, etc…Then we read examples and we see that nothing needs to be left out, and anything can be done in 300 words.”
FF: Does the Bath Flash Fiction Award see more women or men entering? And do you have a breakdown of age groups (and is it age-restricted?)?
JH: The competition is for any writer over the age of sixteen. Our commitment to entrants’ on-line privacy means we only gather information essential for the Award to operate. Email addresses and postal addresses are automatically collected via PayPal, the system of payment for entries. All stories are judged anonymously, and at the end of the inaugural contest, when names were matched to pieces, interestingly, there were nine men and eleven women on the short list. Amongst the winners we have two men and three women of various ages.
In terms of reaching a wide group of entrants, we are very interested in reducing barriers to creative writing. Obviously, not all writers have funds to enter writing competitions. Many do not have PayPal facilities in their countries. Our very popular project, the free weekly micro competition, Ad Hoc Fiction, was created to address this issue. Set up by our talented web application developer in a user-friendly way (easy submission, word counter, voting system, count-down timer, contributor list, nicely laid-out stories), it appeals to a wide audience. This free contest gives world-wide flash fiction writers and those new to the form the opportunity to try their hand at writing short-short fiction and to get published on the site. Each week entrants also have a chance to win a free entry to the main competition. The winner is chosen by public vote. Usually there are about sixty pieces published each week.
FF: Where do you see this award in five years? Do you have goals for flash in Bath, and connecting Bath to the rest of the world?
JH: The competition is already international – one of the aims from the beginning was to encourage entries from all over the world. In the inaugural award, entrants came from over twenty different countries and it’s the same this time round. Ad Hoc Fiction also attracts weekly entries from many different countries and several different continents. Winners of Ad Hoc so far have come from, Canada, the USA, France, South Africa, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand and the UK. We work hard using social media to keep in contact with other flash fiction writers and projects. I find that very enjoyable. The international twitter community, is brilliant for sharing flash fiction news.
The winners in the inaugural Bath Flash Award represented four different countries – two from the UK, one from the US, one from New Zealand and one from Singapore. Next year we hope to publish a digital and print anthology of stories from the first competitions. The web-developer has very innovative plans for the Ad Hoc Fiction project, some of which are rolling out soon. I’m not sure where we will be in five-years – but I am sure it will be exciting!
FF: At Writing Events Bath, you include, among other things, writing prompts and workshops. How has the Internet changed the way people in your community reach each other and share stories?
JH: Our writing workshops at Writing Events are friendly and popular. The aim of the organization was always to bring writers together and people do love to get the support of others in the room – a mix of beginner and experienced writers prompted to write several short pieces they can work on later. We frequently have feedback from the writers who say it’s good to hear different voices, learn from others, get encouragement and have fun. Writers also like the prompts on the website. They can dip in and out as they choose. If they have no funds or time to come to another group, they can continue on their own. I think many writers who use the internet enjoy doing that. I do.
FF: Your love affair with flash began several years ago, against the backdrop of novel-writing. Can you tell us a little more about that? And how has your own writing changed since you started writing flash?
JH: I did the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in 2012 primarily to try and finish a novel I was writing. Looking back now, I believe I was never writing that novel from my ‘white-hot core’. I had good feedback on the prose, but the plot needed work. It became a duty to try and finish the manuscript and doing something from duty is never a good way to go. I’d always liked writing short stories and have been successful in competitions but when Tania Hershman ran a workshop on flash fiction in 2013 for Writing Events Bath, I began to read more very short pieces and found I loved writing in that form. So much can be said in so few words. I like reading novels but these days they often seem baggy. I like the discipline of paring everything down.
My writing is tighter and more adventurous. I’m getting better at endings and starting in the right place. This piece I recently wrote for Visual Verse, which was later highly commended in the Ink Tears Flash Fiction Competition, was a lot of fun to write.
FF: You run workshops and writing prompts, and you have recently taken an intensive flash fiction course with Kathy Fish. What do you learn most when you are teaching writing? And what do you learn most as a student of writing?
JH: I do love teaching writing and thinking of examples to use. I’ve always found that I learn a lot from running a session. It forces me to read more, look at books on craft and grammar and think carefully about aspects of writing. I wouldn’t be doing so much of that otherwise. Kathy Fish’s course was excellent. In her on-line classes, when she is getting people to draft, she suggests other people in the group only give positive feedback. I agree with this. It’s what we do in Writing Events for first drafts – it keeps the energy at a high level. If people are unhampered by criticism to begin with, they are happy, and can be freer. The critical edits come later. Kathy’s approach and her brilliant lectures, tips on form and style, meant that during her course I generated a lot of different pieces without worrying about being ‘right’. And it was great reading the other writers’ work. I always learn from reading.
FF: Tell us about word trimming, in your view. What words do you feel most adamantly about?
JH: I would kick out ‘just’. It wheedles its way in. Also ‘now’.
FF: Tell us about your physical writing space – where you live and what you see outside your window as you write. What about your environment inspires?
I live in between Bristol, where I practiced as a Gestalt psychotherapist for around twenty-five years and Bath, in the countryside in a village called Stanton Drew, not far from a group of standing stones. I love the buzz of the city but this location is perfect, because it’s only eight miles from each place. If I face the window while I write, I can see an ancient ash tree two fields away and some elderly pet sheep, a pig, a goat called Murphy and a turkey in the neighbour’s smallholding. I grew up in mid-Wales and I’ve always liked walking in the lanes and looking at plants in the hedgerows. This quote from the classic book on writing, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, appeals: “The imagination needs moodling, long inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” I do a lot of that.
More about the Bath Flash Fiction Award here.
People From Our Pages: Nuala O’Connor’s new novel, Miss Emily
The poet Emily Dickinson was a study in contradictions – a reclusive spinster but devoted friend, a prolific and passionate writer who shared her work with only a handful of confidantes. Unknown in her own lifetime, her concise, emotionally-charged poetry is now everywhere, from school textbooks to greeting cards. But what was she really like? Nuala O’Connor’s new novel,Miss Emily, imagines the poet in mid-life, alive with the power of poetry yet in a world already shrinking to the confines of her family’s property. The arrival of a housemaid, the newly immigrated Ada Concannon, sparks an unusual friendship between Emily and the young woman – one that crosses class lines, earns the disapproval of the Dickinson family, and changes the two women’s lives forever.
As a young Irish immigrant in Massachusetts, Ada is judged by her background; even her employers, the Dickinsons, suspect the Irish are liars and cheats. To Emily, however, she is a breath of fresh air who expands the scope of the poet’s solitary world. While Ada is Nuala O’Connor’s invention, the fictional character stands in for the many Irish immigrants of the nineteenth-century who experienced the same challenges. Miss Emily is filled with fascinating details of the typical social struggles of that era, and includes in equal measure aspects of Emily’s more upscale lifestyle, drawing on the poet’s personal letters and family history. The book paints a vivid portrait of everyday life at that time, particularly as experienced by women, whether as servants or those who were served – the reader is immersed in Emily and Ada’s world. In addition, O’Connor creates a context for Emily’s brilliant poetry, depicting her inspiration and creative process, and she weaves the poet’s words into her own narrative. Miss Emily is written in graceful prose, full of nuance and imagery, and, at its core, is an intimate and deeply affecting story of female strength and friendship. O’Connor’s fictionalized version of Emily Dickinson is a smart, sympathetic character, and Ada is the perfect counterbalance to Emily’s strengths and flaws, with a fascinating perspective all her own.
As the novel progresses, Ada and Emily blossom in each other’s company, and the young servant in particular thrives in her new American life. She is hardworking, feisty, and clever, and she soon falls in love with another employee in the Dickinson household. Unbeknownst to Emily, however, a violent and tragic event begins to unravel Ada’s happiness; although the young woman makes a stoic effort to contain her secret, Emily finally discovers the shocking truth. Inspired by her dedication to Ada and her desire for justice, Emily finds a hidden well of inner strength – committing an act braver than she thought possible in order to save her beloved friend.
People From Our Pages: Trish Nicholson’s Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals
While the author copes with crocodiles under the blackboard and sorcery in the office, survives near-fatal malaria, mollifies irascible politicians and an ever-changing roster of bosses, humour and human truths emerge like flights of birds of paradise.
With a background in anthropology and a successful management career in Europe, five years on a development project in the remote West Sepik province of Papua New Guinea more than fulfils Trish Nicholson’s desire for a challenge. In rugged tropical terrain with few roads, she travels in alarmingly tiny planes, landing on airstrips cut with grass knives and squeezed between mountains.
In remote valleys, students build their own schools, babies’ weights are recorded in rice bags, and women walk for days carrying their produce to market. Inside the Crocodile tells their stories and shares Trish’s adventures in this ‘land of surprises’, including the hair-raising trail from Oksapmin to Kopiago, and Frisbee, the dog she inherits.
Published by Matador, October 2015, 288 pages with 18 colour plates.
Available in paperback from the Book Depository here: http://tiny.cc/nq6yzx or order from your local bookshop, and in digital form from your favourite online supplier.
And a foot-tapping video trailer, a mini-trip to Papua New Guinea, can be enjoyed here: bit.ly/1T6doLP
Vote for Trish’s book for the People’s Book Prize here – and see the photograph of a cockatoo from Papau New Guinea, caught mid-flight by Trish, in the December micros issue.
People From Our Pages: Gay Degani, Townsend Walker and Guilie Castillo-Oriard on their newly published stories-turned-novellas
Gay Degani on Rattle of Want
On linking short stories to a longer narrative…
I remember specifically how the idea of using a community came to me. My husband and I were out walking at sunset. Everything had that golden glow and as we strode by this property of five tiny refurbished cabins, the afternoon light made me think about when they were built, back in the early part of the 20th century, most likely used for vacationers from the Midwest and how I could use them to link a group of contemporary characters together.
I wrote month-to-month without a clue as to what would happen next. Maybe my subconscious knew and was knitting away toward the final project, but I only dealt with the questions: how do I connect this with the previous month, what’s going to happen now and to whom, and how do I make each segment stand on its own and still connect to the whole. It was exciting and scary and challenging and drew out of me more than I ever thought I had to give.
By March, I knew I had to do these characters justice – I was so fond of them – and give them real-life problems that I could thread throughout the whole piece. They needed more from me than just a string of loosely woven stories. In other words, I couldn’t help myself thinking about the project as a possible novella. Since I was writing fresh each month and was limited to only 1500 words, give or take, I knew additional scenes would need to be rewritten before the stories would feel like chapters in something longer. And I didn’t know the ending. I couldn’t wait for December to find out how everything would unfold.
Once I began rewriting, it was like having most of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in place, and then realizing several of them are missing. I had to get down on my knees and search the floor, open the vacuum cleaner bag and dig around in the dust, accept the fact that some of the pieces were lost. Yet for me, I can still see the puzzle pulled together, understand what it is, and accept as something I take pleasure in and hope others do to.
Townsend Walker on La Ronde
On interlocking scenes…
Three or four years ago I saw the French film La Ronde. Directed by Max Ophüls, the 1950 release is based on the play Reigen written by Albert Schnitzler in 1897. The dramatic structure of the movie and play consists of interlocking scenes between pairs of lovers. Each character appears in two consecutive scenes, with a character in the final scene having appeared in the first.I thought the structure was inviting (as did Roger Vadim, David Hare and a dozen others) and was casting around for a way to use it when Matt Potter proposed the 2014 series. 2014 features thirty-one authors writing a story in the present tense on the same day each month. What would be the driving force that linked the monthly stories and what would make it interesting? A Park Avenue woman puts a price on her husband’s head. The search for a hit man was the thread. She doesn’t know one, but does her friend, or her friend’s brother, and so on? The interest to be provided by the variations in the victim’s description as told from character to character (the telephone game) and the variety of characters and settings. The tale includes wannabe movie producers, lovers (straight and gay), personal trainers, Wall Street bankers and Russian FSB agents. It moves from Manhattan to Jersey to Brentwood to Venice and back to Manhattan, with a detour in Brooklyn.
Also in my head were Dickens and Dumas who wrote a number of their novels as weekly serials. The necessity of keeping the reader’s interest from week to week by putting a character on a cliff at the end of each week’s story, and the need to recap a bit of the previous week’s story to maintain continuity.
Putting the stories together into a novella was relatively easy because the story line was established. The first task was to make sure that the characters cohered from chapter to chapter, their vocabulary, their syntax, their view of the world. At the same time I worked on characters I felt could use more depth. Something that would make them more distinctive. On the second pass I worked to remove references to the month in which the original tales were written. Even in the original set of stories it took a suspension of belief that twelve months would elapse between the initial search and the denouement. An additional check was made on locations. When I went to New York last year I ate at the restaurants, drank at the bars, sat in the parks and cemeteries used in the story.
Townsend Walker lives in San Francisco. He draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. His novella, La Ronde, was published by Truth Serum Press in August 2015. Some seventy short stories have been published in literary journals and are included in eight anthologies. He won first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest, and has enjoyed two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. Educated at Stanford (economics and creative writing), New York University (economics and anthropology) and Georgetown (foreign service).
Guilie Castillo-Oriard on The Miracle of Small Things
On maintaining integrity…
Once a piece has been published, subsequent republication should require minimal revisions. Which is why, when Truth Serum Press suggested republishing my 2014 A Year In Stories material as a novella, I agreed to a 30-day deadline for delivering the manuscript.
These stories had been published (and, one hopes, read) on a monthly basis; now that they’d be collected into a single volume, a few things needed tweaking. It was no longer necessary, for instance, to include subtle reminders of previous plot points. Characters didn’t need to be reintroduced. Certain narrative devices could be streamlined.
But, finally, these stories had already been published. I’d sharpened each to the best of my ability before submitting them, then the Pure Slush editor had used his finest-toothed comb over them. Every piece made it into print as perfect as we could make it.
So, really, how long could revisions take?
They took eight months. Two hundred and forty days (and nights), give or take, from start to the final proof copy. And no, it wasn’t because we discovered a trove of typos or purple prose.
The intended revisions – the streamlining tweaks – went fast. Or would have, if I hadn’t kept getting sidetracked by all these other things. A few sentences that I clearly remembered as examples of splendor in prose now felt lackluster and feeble. Some of the word choices – seriously, what had I been thinking?
Mostly, though, it was a matter of overwriting. No, not in the originals. Now that the word-count restraint was off, the possibilities dazzled me. I could expand on the setting, for instance. Curaçao is a place few people have heard of, even fewer have visited; I wanted to bring the island and all its quirky gorgeousness to life. And all those gaps enforced by the 2014 A Year In Stories monthly-installment format — it was so tempting to fill them, to go into more detail, to explore more secondary character viewpoints, to state the understated, to elaborate on the subtly suggested.
In the end, the publisher and I agreed this was a slope too slick with slime to navigate. Some of that greasy gunk was bound to clog the clean lines of the story, which we’d already invested so much time in achieving. Ultimately, we believed the monthly breaks in narrative were part of the story’s integrity. We believed they work not against but in favor of the story: these breaks, and the limit of the single-day-episode format, are like the spotlight on a dark stage: they drive attention to the only place that needs it.
People From Our Pages: Matt Potter on his new book, Hamburgers and Berliners and other courses in between
Hamburgers and Berliners is as much about me and my experiences (a man in his early 40s having the world’s longest mid-life crisis while living on the other side of the globe) as it is about the food I ate and the people I met and the trains I waited for and the rain I trudged through. The book I’ve read that comes closest to it is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. (Fermor trekked through central Europe in the early 1930’s, just after the Nazis came to power.)
I lived in Hamburg in 2008 and Berlin in 2009, and wrote regular emails home to Australia (as we would have once written letters) to family, friends and work colleagues. These emails were then collected (and edited just slightly) and published as a book six years later.
A Goodreads review notes of Hamburgers and Berliners, “Experiences of travel and work are rarely recorded so completely or so richly, so that, wherever you are or whether you are travelling or not, you can gain something real from the unfailing honesty and candid humour.”
I might not always come out of the experiences in Hamburgers and Berliners looking like a man of the world or an ambassador for good cheer and endless understanding, but the experiences are mine and real and having read countless I-went-to-live-in-a-foreign-country-and-had-a-wow-of-a-time books (and mostly loving them all), I am pleased that readers of my book are left with much laughter, detailed observations, and incidents that leap off the page because you’re in my skin.
I lived in Berlin again in 2010, but this time, I did not write emails home. I was too busy living my life to record it. But I discovered flash fiction and the zillions of websites devoted to it and I started submitting short stories – finally! a venue for those great snippets I’d been carrying for years in notebooks and my head! In December 2010, back in Australia, I established Pure Slush online. In 2011 I began publishing print books. In February 2016 I will publish my 40th book.
Hamburgers and Berliners is not flash fiction, nor is it flash non-fiction, and despite not intending the emails for publication, what writing them showed me is that stories or incidents don’t have to be long. A riff on the German love of potato salad is ¾ of a page. A discussion on young men on national service is a page long. Yes, a moment in time can be described in a moment of reading time. Not all things need be lengthy or a full meal. A snack or a nibble can be equally satisfying.