Rebecca Styles with Five Featured Writers
In a celebration of National Flash Fiction Day (Monday, June 22) we invited five long-listed writers and regular Flash Frontier contributors to share their favourite story. Pete Carter, Leanne Radojkovich, Kate Mahony, Celine Gibson and Louise Miller also give insights into their writing process and inspiration.
Pete’s story ‘Waiting Room’ illustrates how a crossword puzzle can bring strangers together in the impersonal and yet personal space of the doctor’s waiting room, and what we know – and what we don’t know and learn – reveals elements of our character. The glimpse into a ‘slice of life’ is also used in Leanne’s story ‘Cot Death’. Lists are used to convey a transitioning moment, and the directness of the list items are emotional punches without sentimentality.
There is also experimentation in the selection. Leanne’s story, in the use of short paragraphs, looks like poetry more than prose, whereas Louise’s story ‘Dormez Vous’ creates space between a word’s syllables, breaking them apart where they have been fused. While Pete’s story literally looks at the spaces between words in a crossword, he also notes “how important the words are but also the spaces that can be created.” It is not only what is said in a story, but the gaps created that add depth.
The setting of two stories is distinctly international. Kate’s story ‘Red’ focuses on the innocence of a child and how they suffer the consequences of conflict, which is similar to the experience of the girl in Celine’s story ‘The Taster’. Celine’s character puts her body on the line. The stories show that, although flash is short, it can touch on international and historical events by focusing on the experiences of individuals.
The writers’ techniques emphasize the discipline and economy of language required to reduce a story to its essential elements. As Celine says, writing flash has “taught me to cull fluff, flakiness and other extraneous matter”, and Kate revises her stories “four or five times” before submission. This attention to detail was rewarded when Kate was long-listed for the Fish Publishing (Ireland) competition this year.
Yet, within the discipline of making every word count, there is playfulness and flexibility which Louise says “makes flash a rich form.” And the compression of stories allows the reader “to fill in with their own thoughts and feelings,” Leanne says. Flash fiction is an interaction between the writer and reader, and different conclusions can be drawn. This interaction means that the reading time is actually slowed down, rather than the popular notion that technology has decreased our attention span and propelled flash fiction’s popularity.
Leanne says that the last line of her story has a positive implication; however in my interaction with the story, I felt those “autumn leaves…sinking slowly” as analogous to the the length of the grieving process, hinting that the character has a lot to endure before spring arrives. The image of the leaves carries the emotional transition the character is starting, and as the reader, I can intuit how long the winter will be.
The writers have also acknowledged that the form has a long tradition, and the proponents of flash fiction that they admire. Leanne noted, in her recent interview in The Sunday Star Times, that the form dates back to Aesop’s Fables (620 – 560BC), and that Charles Dickens was also noted for his short fiction. Kate and Louise have been influenced by Lydia Davis, while Leanne finds Grace Paley’s stories inspirational, and flash fiction’s relationship to poetry is also noted by Pete, who writes in both forms.
One of this year’s NFFD judges, Owen Marshall, said in The Sunday Star Times interview, that flash fiction “is about control of language, perception of human nature, originality, [and] emotional power.” The five stories featured here show the essential elements of the form. These writers make every word count, and I look forward to reading more of their stories in the future.
Maggie reads the clues and we all dig in. What was Margaret Thatcher’s pre-political profession? Chemist we all agree as an old couple shuffle in. I jump up so they can sit together, they both smile and make a great show of holding hands. The lady beside me says she gets the paper every day but never knew there was a quiz, another says she tries the crossword, Maggie says she does the easy Sudoku. I tell them the quiz is the first thing my wife and I do in the morning. They all pause, turn and look at me.
Laura, says the receptionist as the crossword lady is summoned into the nurses room. She pushes out of her seat with both hands, before bending slowly back down for her bag. What was the main weapon used at the battle of Agincourt in 1415? We’re not sure, there are hands on chins, heads scratched, cannons says one, it can’t be bow and arrow can it asks the old fella, still holding his wife’s hand. Laura comes back out and sits down again, the wife of the couple gets called in. A male doctor comes out and smiles at the lady beside me, she smiles back and follows him in.
My doctor comes for me, good luck Maggie says and laughs. I’m in for a while, but only for a middle-aged check up. The indignity of the digital (in the old sense) inspection, blood pressure, breathe in, breathe out, you really should try and lose some weight. I walk out relieved and pay.
The waiting room is empty, they’ve all gone. I check the paper over a coffee. The old fella was right, bows and arrows.
I don’t write much short fiction but I do write quite a lot of poetry. Much of it starts with things that happen and they then proceed on their own. This piece and the two pieces I have submitted and that were both long-listed for the NFFD prize (this year and in 2013) started this way. I was at the doctor’s, I was there when a tractor caught fire, someone did throw a bottle out of a van in front of me….
Reflecting on it I’m always surprised at how much you can say in 300 words. How important the words are but also the spaces that can be created. It’s a great reminder for anything else that I am writing. I have a novel that has nearly been finished for several years and some other projects that need attention. If only 300 words were enough for them!
Pete Carter has published one small book of prose and poems, It’s your dad, and has another coming out in August, working title Not my dad. He is undertaking a rewrite of a children’s book specifically to fulfil a publisher’s request; the book was illustrated by his nephew and will be out in 2016. The novel has yet to be completed and a non-fiction project is underway. Pete is married, has a son who lives in Bristol and a daughter in Sydney. He has an old dog and a young dog and has written about both of them.
Six pairs of knickers laid flat.
Six pairs of matched socks.
Bras folded in half and stacked one of top of each other like soft paper cups.
You’re not a woman who does things quickly. Even running away is done in a careful, measured way. You no longer wear make-up or rings or even, some days, remember to brush your hair. You’re gradually losing yourself.
You click shut the suitcase. As usual, you’ve given yourself plenty of time, there’s still a few minutes left. You turn, crossing to the window where the bassinet once sat. Outside autumn leaves float in the still air, sinking slowly.
I like very small stories I can slip in my pocket like a pebble, and then pull out to examine, and examine again. These stories often scale down using compression and suggestion, leaving spaces for readers to fill in with their own thoughts and feelings.
‘Cot death’ is shaped like a pebble I’d pick up off the ground – round, flat and smooth. The reader begins with the title, although this title makes little sense until the story circles to the end. The second-person narrative creates a flat tone distancing the reader from the protagonist, yet this builds tension as the story releases glimpses of how painful it is to be that protagonist in that moment. Finally, I’m pleased with the last sentence’s positive implication, after autumn and winter – spring.
I’ve loved these kinds of miniature stories since encountering Grace Paley’s many years ago. Her stories weren’t bogged down in stodgy exposition and transitions. They were small and spare, and at the same time both spacious and intimate, because of all the gaps my imagination could roam.
Leanne Radojkovich’s stories have appeared in literary journals in the UK, USA and New Zealand, and she’s been short-listed for prizes in NZ and Ireland. She shares her work on SlideShare and YouTube and posts flash fiction street art around town in unexpected places. Please see her website if you would like more information: www.leanneradojkovich.com
Red (from Flash Frontier‘s April 2014 scattered issue)
Every day when I go to the market with my sister to buy oranges and freshly baked bread, I see little Mohammed. He plays in the street near his grandmother’s stall. He has a cheeky face, and large brown eyes. He wears a bright purple shirt and khaki trousers. Sometimes he pretends he is a soldier. He marches up and down. When he was born, there was something wrong. One of his small arms hangs limp, like a dead weight.
This day, I say hello to Mohammed. His grandmother sells old toys that have been scavenged from the rubble of homes around the city. Sometimes they are still in their boxes and the plastic is dirty and discoloured.
The fruit at the market today is speckled and unhealthy-looking but I take some anyway. I buy nuts and dates as well. My sister and I turn back along the street. There is a loud noise. I pull at my sister and drag her towards an alleyway. We shelter, she tightly against me. Bang, bang, bang.
I hear screams, wailing, screams again. Men in heavy black boots run away through the alley, knocking my shopping bag. The nuts are scattered on the ground.
Silence. I take my sister’s hand and edge out onto the street again. I see a flash of purple and a splash of red.
Mohammed’s lifeless little hand lies on the ground, and where his face should be is just red, red, red.
My favourite story is ‘Red’. During my first foray into flash fiction Flash Frontier editor Michelle Elvy kindly encouraged me to revise my attempts maybe four or five times. ‘Red’ was, however, accepted by Michelle and guest editor James George with only one small suggested change. The story came from the [unpublished] novel I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing. Its setting was a writing class in which a woman from war-torn Iraq ‘wrote’ this story for class. At the time I’d unwittingly written a flash fiction story. It fitted very well into the theme, scattered.
I’d also enjoyed the work of Lydia Davis long before I started writing flash – but had not known there was a genre called flash. Discovering this genre saw me move from writing 5000-word stories to writing 250-word stories and loving the challenge and expertise required. Since then my flash fiction has been published in many places, including one (‘Regrets’) being longlisted for this year’s annual Fish Publishing (Ireland) competition. ‘Rumours’ was longlisted in the 2015 NFFD (NZ) competition. My ideas come mainly from my observations of life including miniscule moments that may not make a 5000-worder, but make a perfect flash which, like all good stories, has a beginning, middle and end!
Kate Mahony is a Wellington writer. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, Wellington. Her short fiction has been widely published. Her short story ‘The Journey’ received an Honorary Mention in this year’s Fish Publishing (Ireland)’s short story competition, and her flash fiction ‘Regrets’ was long-listed in the Fish Flash Fiction competition.
The Taster (from Flash Frontier‘s June 2014 sugar issue)
Anna places the tray before him, waits. The man clicks his fingers. Anna fishes a cake fork from her apron, slices off a tidbit, puts it into her mouth, chews and swallows.
She regrets the smidgen of cream she cannot savour.
The man pulls out a fob watch. He grows an erection…which soon deflates. The man sighs.
Anna tongs five cubes of sugar into the man’s tea, stirs, then draws a measure up into a dropper to release down her throat.
The man brightens again, licks his lips between eyeing Anna and the ticking minutes. He raises his left buttock; a volley of farts ricochet against leather.
Anna is polite. She doesn’t laugh.
Anna doesn’t die.
A fist is clenched, unclenched. A thumb indicates the door. Anna bows, backs across black marble tiles, vacates his space. She’s marched down corridors by booted minders.
One of the minders says something rude about Anna’s great-grandmother and tells Anna she’s bleeding from her bum. She hears him laughing as he locks her in her room.
She perches on her bed, puzzles over her damp, uncomfortable bottom. She picks up her rag-doll to cuddle. The man whose food she tries every day stares from a photo on the wall. Anna worries about him. She thinks her rag-doll should too.
“Imagine…five sugars in five teas. That’s twenty-five sugars per day, Mitzi! Poor Herr Hitler must spend an awful lot of time at the murder house.”
In writing this sugar-themed story, I wanted to convey the double-edged sword of Anna’s life: she is a prisoner in Hitler’s headquarters but, unlike her peers, has regular access to food and drink.
Also, Anna is about to experience her first period. In writing this passage I tried to imagine how hellish that would be, considering her present circumstances.
Without the comforting presence of a mother, all Anna has is her ragdoll Mitzi who represents the loss of innocence, the loss of childhood.
Flash writing has made me a disciplined writer. It has taught me to cull fluff, flakiness and other extraneous matter. Flash is not easy; it can be a lengthy, arduous process where first and second drafts often evolve into something entirely different. It’s a demanding, challenging genre where power is derived from economy – ruthless slash and burn, and relentless mining for that deeper, stronger story.
Flash has become my glorious addiction; I have no intention of giving it up.
Céline Gibson currently resides in Oamaru, North Otago, and shares her home with a cat and a bagpiper. Her most preferred genre is stage/screenplay writing followed by flash-fiction then short-story; recreation is naughty limericks. When not engaged on any of the above, Céline dons her other hat as co-producer and co-presenter of Writers’ Block – a Plains FM radio show for writers, about writers. Céline has been published nationally and internationally in both online and paperback form. If the impossible were possible, she would love to read a 21st century flash penned by Oscar Wilde.
Dormez Vous (from Flash Frontier‘s September 2014 falling issue)
A gentle heat radiates through the duvet onto a leg. Through all this darkness, sunlight from a distant galaxy. The cat. The hand held close to the cheek is his hand, is my hand, is a cheek plasticised. Unincorporated. Un incorporated, un in corp or ate.
The comedian’s mom stands beside him on a jetty out over a placid Californian sea. She is delighted by the camera. It is the 80s, gelato coloured loose shirts for men, primitive face lifts for the women.
She holds up a picture.
“He always say he was fat as a child. Is this a fat child? Does this look like a fat child to you?”
A sepia child sits on her younger lap, a part of her. A small alert shield. One body, four eyes. Incorporated.
The comedian has this. He is on. A veritable peaking cat on a hot tin roof. Each riff a leap. Each riff saving his mother from herself, saving himself from herself. Such an old role, so wearing on a soul.
Later he returns with his third wife to live in his mother’s house, long after her death. There he chooses to become unincorporated. To take the corp out. To peel off the prosthetic. How does it stretch? It stretches like dough, body dough rising in a warm bed.
Peeling away into the blackness leaving a storm of noughts and ones passing through, passing through.
I selected ‘Dormez Vous’ as it shows the ability of flash to move across the prose poetry divide. It is this playfulness and flexibility that makes flash a rich form. The piece came after watching a YouTube clip of a youthful Robin Williams during the media frenzy following his death. The mother and son relationship has always seemed mysteriously powerful to me. ‘Dormez Vous’ also triggered the one and only comment on my online flash page which was exciting, even if it was only to express bewilderment.
I have always written short observational pieces but it wasn’t until the happy discovery of Lydia Davis’ writing a few years ago that I realised this was a valid literary form with a long tradition and not just ‘scribbling’.
Louise Miller currently lives and works in Auckland. She has contributed flash writing to Flash Frontier over the past year and has a blog of very short fiction and creative non-fiction: Life in Hydra.
Rebecca Styles is Features Editor at Flash Frontier and Wellington City Co-ordinator for National Flash Fiction Day. She placed second in the 2013 NFFD competition. She blogs about New Zealand books at nzlit101.blogspot.co.nz and teaches short story writing at the Wellington High School Community Education classes.
Please go here for Flash Frontier‘s June 2015 collection of stories, themed shadows and featuring 26 writers from around Aotearoa.