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Interview: Sue Kingham, North and South Short, Short Story Competition winner

Flash Frontier: Kia ora, Sue, and congratulations on winning North and South’s Short, Short Story Competition with your wonderful story ‘Swan Song‘. It’s a layered story where the outer world – the news of mistreatment of swans and the events that follow – reflects the inner world of the characters – the disintegration of a marriage. I wondered if the story of the swans inspired the story of the relationship, or was it vice versa? What inspires your stories in general?

Sue Kingham: Thank you for your congratulations. I was thrilled when I received the news from North & South; this win was a great encouragement.

Like most writers I am a bit of a magpie. When I have a shiny nugget of an idea I store it away, sometimes for years. Sitting down to write, I re-look at my note books or news clippings, and stories sometimes emerge. Swan Song is based on the shooting of a pair of swans, which occurred in Christchurch in 2016. I was intrigued by the idea of contrasting a pair of swans mated for life with a couple in a failing marriage. I researched wedding anniversaries and discovered that glass was the third anniversary and I decided that a shattered glass swan would be a great image on which to end the story. I got the tip of ending a flash fiction on an image from a workshop run by Frankie McMillan.

FF: There’s a fabulous image of a long hood that vets use for covering swan’s heads to minimise stress. How did you come by this image? Do you often do research for your stories? And what, in general, is your usual process for writing flash fiction?

SK: I watched a clip about the swan being treated by the vet on YouTube. The black hoods over their heads looked so ominous I knew I wanted to include them in the story.

It’s hard to say what my usual process is. I wish I had a formula that worked every time! I usually get an image or a word and start to mentally play around with it. I like using an opposite to contrast with the original idea – for example, the loving swans against the failing marriage. It is in the tension between the two ideas that I often find the story.

FF: You have been writing flash fiction for several years now, winning the Canterbury regional section for NFFD in 2014. Has your writing changed over that time? In what ways?

SK: I hope it has improved! I know that reading and writing regularly are the only ways to develop as a writer, and I also find belonging to a critique group extremely helpful.

FF: You are a member of South Island Writers’ Association (SIWA), which caters for writers of all genres. Do you write genres other than flash fiction? Would you recommend being part of a writers’ group? Why?

SK: Being a part of SIWA has been essential to my development as a writer. The feedback I have received from entering SIWA competitions, along with belonging to a critique group, has been enormously beneficial. A big misconception I had was in my belief that a story had to be perfect immediately. I now appreciate that critical-reader feedback is invaluable.

FF: What do you like to read, and have you got any favourite writers?

SK: I have a very eclectic reading taste. I am a fan of Anthony Doerr, Margaret Atwood, Jessie Burton, Jane Gardam, and I recently enjoyed reading Heloise by Mandy Hager.

FF: Congratulations once again on your win. It’s especially nice that it came with a prize! How are you going to celebrate?

SK: I did get a bunch of flowers from my husband and another from a friend. I won a lovely Cross fountain pen in the competition, and was delighted when another friend asked me to sign her copy of North & South. I hope to get an opportunity to use my signing pen again in the near future.

Read Sue’s story ‘Swan Song’ on North and South magazine’s Fiction finale: North & South’s Short, Short Story competition winners

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