- 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?
I’d been ruminating for some time on the shadow cast by a moving train. It was a familiar sight on a favourite walk, and I’d used it as a small detail in the draft of another story. But the immediate prompt for the story that became ‘Shadowtrain’ was a gentle parody by my friend Ashley Chantler of the wonderful prose poems of our colleague Ian Seed. I began my own parody, attempting to up the ante, as a bit of fun; but the piece kept running off the parody rails, so eventually I boarded the runaway train and went with it. I changed the title to ‘Shadowtrain’, removed references to Ian and to specific times and places, and made the song allusion more oblique. I wanted the story to be concrete in its physical details, yet elusive. I tried to make it phantasmagoric and philosophically absurdist, but I couldn’t entirely resist the plain absurd: ‘buttocks bulging through the elasticated mesh’ is a remnant of the parody, but it tickled me so much that I kept it in, hoping it added a bodily awkwardness to the traveller’s existential disorientation.
- What do you particularly like about the very short form? Have you been writing in this genre for long?
The first three flashes I had published were in An Anatomy of Chester: A Collection of Short-Short Stories (2007), edited by Ashley Chantler. The following year, Ashley and I founded Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, a biannual literary journal publishing stories and reviews of up to 360 words. We’ve edited sixteen issues so far, featuring writers from over forty countries. It’s a real pleasure to read the better stories that are submitted, and I enjoy the incredible variety of subjects, settings, and styles that the limited word-count makes possible in a single sitting. From a busy writer’s perspective, the very short form can be a practical choice, since a first draft can be completed in a matter of minutes. Brevity is nevertheless exacting, presenting problems of selection and concision; but it’s liberating to realize that a little can go a long way, that less is often more.
- Which short story writers have inspired you and what is it about their writing that appeals to you?
There have been so many great short-story writers that it’s difficult to choose. I like good anthologies, from which the short-story form itself emerges as an inspiration, in all its variety. Favourite individual writers in the form include Nadine Gordimer, whose stories are fearless explorations of the enmeshment of individual lives in contemporary (usually South African) history. I’m fascinated by Gordimer’s combination of empathetic involvement and analytic detachment. Her stories are often word-perfect, particularly those from the first half of her career. ‘Jump’ and Other Stories (1991), a slightly later collection, is breathtakingly good. I also like Bernard MacLaverty, John McGahern, and William Trevor, whose quiet restraint I admire. Amongst writers of very short stories, I really enjoy Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybek, Dave Eggers, David Gaffney, Vanessa Gebbie, Tania Hershman, Liesl Jobson, Etgar Keret, Dan Rhodes, Robert Scotellaro, David Swann, Meg Tuite, and Tony Williams – and others too numerous to name. They all demonstrate that a flash can be just as powerful as a longer story. There’s a lot of throwaway quirkiness in flash fiction, but I tend to prefer it when the humour is a gentler bemusement, especially when it’s in the service of serious insight. In this regard, Lydia Davis and David Gaffney are exemplary.
- When and where do you do your writing?
I don’t have any set writing time. I jot notes at odd moments (occasionally in the middle of the night, so I keep a notebook by the bed). Generally, I’ll write at my desk, at home. The first draft of a short piece is usually done by hand, with a propelling pencil. I’ll type it up, print and annotate the page with scribbles, then tinker onscreen. I’ll do this at least a few times. Then I’ll leave it aside for a day or two so that I can come back to it with fresher eyes. Meanwhile, I’ll be mulling things over, often subconsciously. Sometimes, while walking or swimming, or even while I’m asleep, the ‘right’ word will pop into my head.
- What are your current writing projects? Have you further writing ambitions?
I usually have a flash and/or a poem in progress, and eventually I’d like to produce a collection of each. Co-editing Flash magazine is an ongoing creative project too. The bulk of my time, though, is spent on teaching and academic research. Current critical-writing projects include an essay on flash-fiction theory.
- We’d love to know your best tips for writing flash fiction
It’s virtually impossible to get everything right in the first draft of any kind of writing, so re-drafting and editing can be crucial. Most of writing is actually re-writing. In flash fiction, where space is so very tight, it’s especially important that each word works hard to earn its keep. This applies as much to the title as to the rest of the story. So I edit out unnecessary words and other superfluous elements (minor characters, subplots, incidentals). As a reader, I enjoy original descriptions, so I try to make at least some of my details striking. Endings are difficult in flash fiction: there’s a temptation to conclude with a surprising twist, or by spelling out the story’s ‘meaning’. But flashes I admire often leave intriguing gaps, trusting the reader to fill them with their own conclusions. Once I’ve got to the end (as a writer, but also as reader and editor), I ask myself two blunt questions: ‘Who cares?’ (Does the story make its environment interesting and its scenario compelling? Has it made the reader empathise with a character and care about their fate?) And ‘So what?’ (Has the story made the reader think? If so, what are its implications?) If I’m not satisfied with my answers, the story needs work. Once it seems finished, I show it to a critical friend or two. Then I set it aside for a while, before giving the flash a final tweak.