Helen entered her incredibly moving first prize winning story just before midnight on October 12th, the final day of our last Award, judged by Robert Vaughan. Her ancient computer kept crashing and nearly stopped her from entering and we’re glad to say the prize money made it possible for her to buy a new one, pictured in the photograph here. In this interview she tells us what the title of the story, One in Twenty-Three means – a deeply shocking and sobering fact. She also describes her writing life in the hotbed of talented writers in Norwich. Her supportive writing group played the theme tune to ‘Rocky’ when she walked in soon after her win! I think cake might have been involved too. Take note of Helen’s top tip for prospective entrants – don’t let a lack of self-belief stop you, just go for it.
- Can you tell us how your wonderful first prize winning story, One in Twenty Three came into being?
We are living alongside a huge, evolving tragedy in the Mediterranean. The contrast of this great tide of grief and human suffering with the cheap, xenophobic, racist narrative in some press and social media is very hard to take. The destruction in Syria, the risks people take to try to escape, from there and other places across the Middle East and North Africa – it’s a universal story, but it breaks me. We are so privileged that by pure accident of birth we happen not to be the ones living it out.
Writing allows you to set the narrative straight in one tiny corner of the universe, even if nobody else ever reads it. I don’t really know how else to deal with it.
The first draft came out of some scriptwriting I did as part of a community theatre project. It was such an important theme to me that I didn’t want to leave it, so I tried rewriting to see if I could make the heart of it into a short story. I nearly didn’t enter it for the award at all – twenty minutes before the midnight deadline I still felt it needed work, and my ancient cranky computer kept crashing. I’d seen the standard of entries in previous rounds and didn’t expect it to get anywhere. The long listing was a genuine, huge surprise; when I scrolled idly through the page to find out who had won and saw my own name there, the shock was not something I recovered from quickly. I’m so, so pleased though, obviously from personal point of view, but also because of the solidarity, seeing the reality behind the story moving people. The title is a UNHCR statistic: one in twenty-three of the people who try to escape by boat across the most dangerous Mediterranean route will die.
- In your bio details, you suggest that Norwich is a hotbed of talented authors. How does that atmosphere support you as a writer?
I don’t have an academic background, and I’m currently doing small part-time jobs while I’m looking after my 5-year-old, so I don’t really move in literary circles, as such! But the UEA’s legendary creative writing department means this is a city of incredible writers, and I was lucky enough to be taught by some of them when the university was running its continuing education creative writing courses a few years back. Ian Nettleton, whose novel The Last Migration was runner up for both the Bath and Bridport novel awards in 2014, was one of them – I’ve been part of a small work-shopping group he tutors for the last two years and that’s transformed my writing, I would say. Often the things about your writing that actually need to die are the stylistic touches you are particularly pleased with, and you need other people who are willing and able to point this out. As a group, we’re very supportive of each other’s work, and hold each other to account in terms of writing time with a weekly Walk of Shame, the fear of which helps keep us all going. The first session after the Bath Flash results they played the theme to ‘Rocky’ as I walked in. We also eat a lot of cake. That’s important too.
- What do you enjoy about writing in the flash fiction form?
I like its closeness to prose poetry, which I wrote to express things I felt strongly about before I discovered micro-fiction. I love pared-down writing, especially on emotive subjects. There’s something incredibly moving about an unsentimental rendering of something heart-breaking. I want to learn to do that better, and flash fiction lends itself to it, as there’s no space for extras. There’s also a real kick to be had in taking a story that you can’t imagine could possibly be cut down and savagely slashing it down to a tiny word count, and seeing it distilled and improved by it.
- Who are your current favourite writers of short short fiction and what do you like about the way they write?
The first flash fiction piece I read was Kit de Waal’s Romans Chapter 1 Verse 29. I loved the rhythm and the pace of the story, her clarity of language. Phrases from it stayed with me – the minister whose sermon to the straying wife “traces footsteps from her husband’s bed all the way across the road, around the corner, down the hill and she has weeks to wait before God looks away.” I wanted to be able to do with 250 words what she did. Of course I can’t, but it still inspired me to try flash fiction. I’m reading Tania Hershman’s My Mother Was An Upright Piano at the moment and am a bit blown away. Tiny fragments of life, strange and profound which have that special quality of speaking directly to your heart in between the words – things that your mind can’t quite catch. That is my absolute favourite sort of writing. Then there are David Gaffney’s tiny tales that slide into your head and live there forever. I’m also just now discovering Kathy Fish and the lovely Bath Flash Award judge, Robert Vaughan. I’m a bit of a newcomer to the form, so I’m still coming across well-known writers for the first time on a regular basis.
- You say in your bio that you have been writing since you were very young. Which authors influenced you then?
I was a child of the 70s so TV was pretty sparse. I lived in a sort of technicolour world of imagination, I found writing stories so exciting. I was quite a strange kid I loved CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, and books like Penelope Lively’s A Stitch In Time, and Susan Cooper’s Dark Rising series. I had pretty terrible taste, too, compulsively re-reading Enid Blyton school stories and endless novels about middle class kids’ struggles with their gymkhana ponies. I wrote about time slips and ghosts and dark forces of the earth. Later I moved on to science fiction by writers such as Isaac Asimov, and emotional teen-lit about death and alienation by authors like Judy Blume. I wrote short stories with awful denouements and comedy diaries half-rooted in fact. At sixteen I was told there was no way to study creative writing any further. It was often on my mind, but life always intervened and I didn’t write fiction again until I signed up for my first UEA course, when I was staring down the barrel of forty and starting to panic.
- Having won this round of Bath Flash Fiction Award, what advice would you give prospective entrants?
Don’t let lack of self-belief stop you. I wasn’t going to enter because I thought my story wasn’t up to the standard of the competition, and two hours before I saw the long list I spent some enthralling time telling a friend what a lousy writer I was. You’re better than you think. Trust me, you really are. Go for it.
Helen can be found on Twitter @helenrye.