Interview with
Clodagh O’Brien
Bath Flash Prize Winner


Clodagh embarked on reading all the unread novels on her shelves in order to inspire her to write flash fiction. We think reading one form of fiction to prompt ideas to write in another is a great idea. Her third prize winning story, Billy is a wonderfully creative response to the novel ‘An Ocean in Iowa’ by Peter Hedges. In this interview Clodagh also tells us about her love of flash fiction, her favourite writers and where she best likes to write.

  • Can you tell us the story behind your winning piece – was it prompted by a word, a memory, a scene, a wish to write in a new way?

‘Billy’ was inspired by the novel ‘An Ocean in Iowa’ by Peter Hedges. I was reading it as part of my blog project, which involves writing a flash fiction piece each week inspired by unread novels that have been on my bookshelves for too long. Mid-read one day I finished a chapter and took out my laptop and wrote ‘Billy’ in about an hour. That’s how I work with flash fiction, or at least, what I find works best; write in one go and quickly. Often things are lost or added or change completely on a read through, but it means I have a scaffold to work from.

For me, ‘Billy’ stemmed from the idea of a child living a unique life as a caregiver and struggling to cope with the responsibility. I tend to be attracted to outsider situations where the character is often on the margins of society or are more comfortable as an observer. In addition, I enjoy writing in a child’s voice, although it can be a tricky one and I have failed to do it justice on many occasions. ‘Billy’ allowed me to experiment with a fragmented story, one with repetition and short sentences, all of which I love. I was just lucky it all came together!

  • What do you particularly like about the very short form? Have you been writing in this genre for long?

I discovered flash fiction by accident. Originally I wrote poetry and short stories but found neither of them truly connected with me as a writer. One was too steeped in form and the other just seemed to run away from me and I would lose momentum three-quarters of the way through. One day I just started writing the way it felt, irrelevant of word count and found I often ended up with stories of less than 500 or 1,000 words. Only afterwards did I discover there was a name for the form.

For me, flash fiction combines brevity with powerful language and every word has to count. Plus I love the subtlety the form can bring. I am not a fan of stories that whack you over the head with detail. I like to fill in the blanks when reading, and therefore, like to write that way. It’s a wonderful form.

  • Which short story writers have inspired you and what is it about their writing that appeals to you?

Aimee Bender is amazing; her language, ideas, originality. When I read ‘Willful Creatures’ I wanted to cry! A recent discovery is Kirsty Logan, another writer with originality pouring out of her fingertips and her descriptions are amazing. I tend to read a lot of novels, particularly ones with multiple narratives as each chapter is a story in itself and the craft of linking them into a cohesive whole is an art. Colum McCann seems to do this with ease in his novel ‘Let the Great World Spin’ as does David Mitchell in ‘Ghostwritten’.

I think flash writers can learn a lot from reading poetry. Zelda Chappell writes wonderful prose poetry and I’m a huge fan of Simon Armitage whose poems are startling and funny, a difficult achievement.

  • When and where do you do your writing?

Before I had my son I spent a lot of time thinking about and planning writing rather than doing it. Now I take any opportunity to write, whether it’s writing down the first line of a story on my phone (the Simplenote app is invaluable) or carving out an hour to write a story from start to finish, be it good or bad. It’s amazing how much you can achieve in short bursts if you just get down to it.

My favourite place to write is in bed. There’s something about the comfort, the warmth and a window that allows me to watch the seasons change through the colours of the partial one tree I can see! My ideal place to write would be looking out at sea.

  • What are your current writing projects? Have you further writing ambitions?

About a year ago I decided to focus my writing as I was trying to do everything; write the second draft of a novel, short stories, flash, poetry. Now I concentrate on flash fiction and motivate myself by having a blog that I post to on a weekly basis. The stories aren’t always great and there are some experiments thrown in there, but I find a weekly commitment means I write more. My ultimate ambition in the near future is to have a flash fiction collection of stories I am proud of.

I also have a short story (5,000 words ‘short’ ironically) that I can’t let go of. There’s something about the voice and language that makes me want to get it right. So this year I am going to try to perfect it and submit to a competition I have always wanted to get shortlisted for. I just have a feeling if I can get it right, it will be a stunner.

  • We’d love to know your best tips for writing flash fiction.

Write the story from start to finish in one sitting if possible. It doesn’t matter if you scrap most of it on a re-read, it’s the idea and character you need to get down.

Read flash fiction. You can’t write it if you don’t read it!

Try word mapping. I find it really useful when I’m stuck. Don’t rely on it though as it can give you gold or pyrite…

Get your writing out there. Whether it’s through a writing group, writing course or by submitting to magazines or competitions. Sometimes what you get back is surprising.

Above all, write what makes your heart thump and the odd tear appear.

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