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Interview: FlashBack Fiction Editors

A conversation with Ingrid Jendrzejewski, K.B. Carle, Emily Devane, Anita Goveas, Damhnait Monaghan, Sharon Telfer, and Judi Walsh

About the journal

Flash Frontier: Please tell our readers how the journal began. What was the genesis of the project — and how did the editors come together?

In December 2017 a group of writers who had published historical flash were included in a Twitter conversation discussing markets for historical flash – or rather, the lack thereof. We decided to fill this gap. By January 2018 we had opened for submissions and we’ve never looked back.

There are seven of us on the FlashBack Fiction editorial board: Ingrid Jendrzejewski, K.B. Carle, Emily Devane, Anita Goveas, Damhnait Monaghan, Sharon Telfer and Judi Walsh. We also have to mention Chris Drew who was a founding member and made invaluable contributions to the project during our first year.

FF: Did you know/ work with each other before you launched this project?

A few of us had met previously but for the most part we knew each other only on Twitter. We started out by sharing our own work and by starting what are still ongoing conversations about what historical fiction is to each of us individually and to us as a group.

Although most of us have now met in real life, our FlashBack work occurs almost exclusively online. We message each other quite a bit, sharing our own writing news and have become a great source of support for each other.

FF: How have submissions or contents changed since you started the journal? Do you see any trends over the months or years? Do people tend to go to the same themes, or are you surprised by the subjects chosen by writers who contribute to your issues?

When we first started, we received a lot of pieces that covered aspects of history from perspectives we’ve seen before in novels, short stories, film and pop culture.

It’s interesting to see how submissions can cluster around certain themes, characters or ideas. We’ll often see work linked to an upcoming anniversary or event, and there have been times when we have received clusters of submissions about similar topics for reasons that are harder to pin down. For example, we received a number of wonderful stories about nuns in our first season or two.

Now that we have a back catalogue that writers can explore, we’re receiving a higher percentage of submissions that explore less well-covered aspects of history – or tackle more popular topics from unusual angles. It’s always exciting to receive pieces that cover some aspect of history unfamiliar to some or all of our team. We can only publish a fraction of the submissions we get, but we love learning from our submitters and it’s a real treat to read each and every piece that come through our queue.

Also, as you might be able to guess from our Timeline, a vast majority of the stories we receive are set between 1880 and 2000. We’d love to see more work set in earlier time periods. There are centuries of history to choose from!

We’re excited that we’re starting to receive more international submissions. We really want to encourage more writers outside Europe and the US to send us something. We set out to create a positive, inclusive space that celebrates strong writing and reflects a diverse range of time periods, locations, events, people, cultures, and social backgrounds. In general, we’re interested in work that helps fill in some of the gaps in our history books, that challenges our assumptions about the past, and that questions and explores what historical short form writing can be.

FF: Does historical fiction in flash form tend to be serious and contemplative? Or can you see humour in historical flash as well?

We love humour and would be delighted to see more of it! When writers start experimenting with historical fiction, many turn to the big events that are highlighted in history books. Wars, oppression, inequality, working conditions. This often leads to a submission queue rife with misery and suffering.

However, we’re pretty sure that people in history experienced things like joy, delight, bliss, love, as well, and that laughter is not a twenty-first century invention.

Our individual tastes in humour differ, but at least three editors read each piece submitted and all seven of us read and discuss pieces before an acceptance. This gives individual editors some scope to champion funny pieces that might not resonate at first with everyone.

About the editors

FF: How did you come to flash fiction yourself — even before historical flash fiction?

Ingrid: When my daughter was born, I was struggling to make progress on my draft novels. Given lack of sleep and limited time, I thought I’d focus on small, self-contained writing exercises to keep my writing muscles in shape so that when I did have time to work on the novels, I could hit the ground running. I ended up loving these tiny little pieces as much, if not more, than the longform work, and then discovered the incredible flash scene that had sprung into existence since my days studying creative writing at university.

Damhnait: I started writing flash fiction after my novel manuscript was rejected so many times that I needed a distraction. I instantly became hooked on flash and am so grateful for the friendly, supportive Flash community on Twitter.

Anita: I started writing flash after the Word Factory had a fantastic monthly competition for stories on an identity/citizenship theme. It took me several tries to write something that I liked under 500 words, but then I was hooked!

Sharon: In January 2015 I spotted Faber Academy’s 250-word weekly ‘QuickFic’ competition on Twitter. I didn’t know anything about flash but, full of New Year resolution, had a go. After that, Twitter drew me deeper and deeper in.

K.B.: I discovered the world of flash fiction after taking a generative workshop with Robin Lippincott and K.L. Cook through Spalding University’s Low-Residency MFA program. I thought that my short-lived flash career would be over with the conclusion of this workshop, that I would return to my desk and continue writing short stories. However, the challenge of containing a story within 1,000 words or less intrigued me. Once I started exploring the world of flash fiction and the numerous forms it provided, I couldn’t stop!

Judi: In 2012 I did an introduction to prose course with Unthank school, and found I always wanted to condense what I wrote in the starter exercises rather than expand!

Emily: I started writing flash fiction before I knew its name, after entering a couple of competitions with low word counts, for which I was unexpectedly placed (Flash 500, Fish and a local competition run by Haringey Literature Live – the prize was coffee and cake!). I found the process of distilling a story pretty addictive and the rest, I guess, is history. Through those competitions, I discovered the amazing flash fiction Twitter tribe, which led me to that FlashBack conversation.

FF: How do you connect with historical fiction, individually? Have you written a lot yourself, or is it more something you like to read?

Damhnait: My flash fiction pamphlet The Neverlands is set in Ireland in the 1950s. I have written a few other historical flash and I really enjoy reading it too.

Anita: I’ve written some for specific comp calls, and some when I’ve been intrigued by a situation or a character in a non-fiction book. I see historical fiction as a chance to put underrepresented voices into history, which is important to me being British-Indian and growing up with the viewpoints on the history of both countries which didn’t always mesh.

Sharon: Historical fiction is a baggy label. I think more in terms of fiction with a historical setting. Middlemarch and War and Peace are both historical novels, after all. I grew up loving the alternative histories of Joan Aiken, Alan Garner and Philippa Pearce. As a writer, I find historical settings can give distance and perspective. I do some research but I’m more interested in what connects us across time than getting every detail just so.

K.B.: I love reading and writing historical fiction. One of the reasons I am drawn to this genre is because it provides authors with an opportunity to delve into the histories of those who have often been erased.

Emily: Though many of my stories are set in the recent past (twentieth century) and are ‘historical’ in that sense, I prefer to read historical fiction. Writing it is so hard! I have huge admiration for our writers. Having studied – and then taught – history for a number of years, I struggle to shake off my instinct to inform and educate. This can get in the way of a story, and I always think the story should take centre stage. I once embarked on a historical novel but got bogged down in trying to get every detail just right – the story was being suffocated. Reading so many brilliant stories for FlashBack has influenced my writing choices, though, and I increasingly dabble writing historical fiction myself.

Judi: I love reading historical fiction – it’s hard to do and when it’s done well it is such a pleasure to read. I have very loose limits on what I consider historical. Similar to my FlashBack colleagues, for me, emotional resonance is always the key.

Ingrid: Most of the historical flash I’ve written hasn’t yet seen the light of day as it tends to take the form of interconnected stories. These projects include one based on the fragmented stories I’ve inherited from my father’s side of the family, one set in the US during the Vietnam era, one based on the Aeneid, and a series set the US Midwest circa 1980. (I’m not entirely sure these are all separate projects as they keep influencing each other!) I echo Emily 100%; I admire our writers so much, and have learned so much from everyone who has submitted to us.

FF: Writers of historical fiction you’d recommend – either full-length books or flash fictions you feel are especially innovative or exemplary of the form.

Sharon: The vivid and immediate voice of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels is extraordinary. Sarah Moss’s taut Ghost Wall is radically short but packs so much into its 1970s setting and Iron Age references. Penelope Fitzgerald’s luminous short novel of pre-revolutionary Russia, The Beginning of Spring, is at once elusive and beautifully observed. Iain Pear’s An Instance at the Fingerpost retells its story from four contrasting perspectives. Ronan Bennett’s Havoc in Its Third Year is a chilling and timely warning against political extremism. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, with its parallel pastiche seventeenth-century and contemporary narratives, is the creepiest book I’ve ever read. Kate Atkinson’s plays with our notions of time and history in Life After Life. CJ Sansom’s occasionally gory series about Tudor detective Shardlake is convincing and enjoyable. If you are curious about historical flash, Nuala O’Connor and Fiona J Mackintosh are fine starting points.

Anita: Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a teenager was so important to me. It crystallized that history is really built up of stories, and different viewpoints affect what is written down and repeated, and it’s more opinion than fact. And the language and imagery is fantastic. I also love Barabara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible about the Belgian Congo in the 1960s, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun set around the Nigerian civil war and Romesh Gunesekera’s linked short story collection Noontide Toll which gives great insight in Sri Lankan politics and recent history. I think more contemporary histories are important too, because we don’t often learn about what happened outside of our own country.

K.B.: Some of my absolute favorite examples of historical fiction include The Underground Railroad by Coleson Whitehead, Maus by Art Spiegelman (a historical graphic novel), Silk by Alessandro Baricco which, I would argue, is a historical novel-in-flash, The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Wench by Dolens Perkins-Valdez, Kindred by Octavia Butler, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and The Street by Ann Petry.

Emily: I love to read books written by writers contemporary to the historical periods that interest me (so not strictly ‘historical fiction’): F Scott Fitzgerald on the jazz age, Mikhail Bulgakhov on Soviet-era Russia, Odon von Horvath on the rise of fascism, Andrey Kurkov on more recent Eastern European history.

Recently, I was wowed by Sara Collins’ stunning novel The Confessions of Frannie Langton, which puts an educated slave at the heart of a very gothic story.

My children and I adore the historical fiction of Michael Morpurgo, who writes stories predominantly for young people. He’s one of the finest storytellers around. I’m currently enjoying Melissa Harrison’s All Among The Barley, set in a rural English community in 1933.

Ingrid: Some of the historical fiction closest to my heart are those that first inspired me to seriously try my hand at writing. When I was young, I was absolutely floored by the way writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, Gloria Naylor, Salman Rushdie and Jorge Luis Borges could interweave history, politics, magical realism and storytelling into beautiful, resonant, multi-faceted entities.

Damhnait: Most of the writers I would mention have already been mentioned above, but I also have a soft spot for the historical flash written by my co-editors here at FlashBack .

FF: Do you think there is room for experimentation in flash fiction that takes an historical view? Can you give some examples if you have them?

Sharon: Flash is the perfect place for experimentation. Shit Cassandra saw… by Gwen E Kirby shoots us forward through the history of women; Sophie van Llewyn’s Phoenixes uses haibun and surreal imagery to capture the upheaval of the Blitz; Helen Humphreys writes a different flash for each year the river has frozen in her beautiful series The Frozen Thames; Mary Somerville’s Celestial Disruption by the wonderful Helen McClory reimagines a scientist’s awakening; the marvellous Carys Davies writes short dense work which cleverly flips the reader’s expectations way beyond any clichéd twist.

Emily: Sophie van Llewyn’s ‘Bottled Goods’, Johanna Robinson’s ‘Homing’ – both of which play with structure. The novella-in-flash is a wonderful form for the historical fiction writer, as it’s particularly suited to exploring more complex histories, changes over time and multiple viewpoints, while keeping that punchy flash quality.

Ingrid: We welcome all manner of experiment, risk-taking and play. It’s worth noting that we’re open to prose poetry and hybrid work as well as flash fiction. If you have an unclassifiable something that engages with the historical, fits our word count, is prose-ish, and can be reproduced on a website, then we’re happy to consider it.

We asked the editors to share a piece of their own work this month, too. You can read their historical fiction pieces on the story page.

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