Interview with Emily Devane
February 2017 Flash Fiction First Prize

Emily tells us about jotting down ideas for fictions in her notebook, wherever she is. Her habit has resulted in two flash fiction stories shortlisted in previous rounds of the Award and now published in To Carry Her Home: Bath Flash Fiction Volume One and her first-prize winning story from the February 2017 Award. It’s fascinating to read about what inspired all three stories. In her winning story, seeing an angling magazine took Emily back to past memories of fishing. She tells us how she shaped the story to include the child’s shift of perception, the central idea of the piece. Emily also describes how her former career as a history teacher helped her write stories that have subtext and certain inferences. We learn about her time as a Word Factory Apprentice and how it has taken her writing to different places. And she has some great tips for flash fiction writing at the end of the interview.

The Hand That Wields The Priest is such a quiet story, I hesitated before pressing ‘send’ on my submission, assuming it lacked the ‘dazzle’ of a competition piece. I sent two stories and had much higher hopes for my other one (which didn’t make the longlist – shows what I know!). When my name popped up as the winner, I was genuinely surprised – and delighted, of course. The other commended and prize-winning stories are stunning.

My story came about during a recent spell of hospital treatment. An elderly patient got chatting to me and I happened to notice an angling magazine in his hand. I’m never without a notebook, and soon got scribbling. It was a form of escapism, conjuring that scene by the river. My father used to be a keen fly fisherman and so the descriptions came from my own vivid recollections. I wanted to get a sense of the skill involved, the ceremony. It’s a game, really: spotting where a fish lies, choosing a fly that the fish might take a fancy to, then mimicking the fly’s movement. The instrument used to kill the fish – the ‘priest’ – intrigued me as a child and it took on a new significance once I found my title. I shaped the story around that central idea of a shift in perception: that the same hand can soothe and harm, that love can be complex and changeable. The shift is a small one, and yet here is a child seeing the world anew. Kathy Fish talks of ‘movement’ in flash fiction – but this doesn’t need to be dramatic; small moments can resonate deeply without being earth-shattering. The whole thing was written in two or three drafts.

  • A couple of your other stories, And The Sea Rolls On and All The Time in the World were shortlisted in previous rounds of the Bath Flash Fiction Award and are now published in Bath Flash Fiction Volume One. Can you tell us about what inspired those two pieces?

At this point, I’d like to congratulate you and the Ad Hoc Fiction team on producing such a beautiful anthology. It’s always a thrill to see my words in print and the opportunity for publication is one of the things that makes this competition so special.

All The Time In The World was written during an online flash course with flash fiction writer Nik Perring. His wonderful prompts inspired lots of stories. I also wrote Bubblegum Barbie, which ended up in last year’s National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, during that course. All The Time In The World is about a woman who keeps seeing notes pinned to a tree on her way to work. It’s based on a very specific tree, near where we used to live in London. There was a lot of graffiti on the walls, including some wonderful street art. I like the idea of people leaving messages for each other in public spaces, of new words popping up overnight. In this story, I used rainbow colours to give the piece a magical, unreal quality.

And The Sea Rolls On is almost a prose poem. With this piece, I deliberately played with the form. Having read an article about maths and writing – suggesting that sentence length affects our enjoyment of writing, and that a pattern of mixed sentence lengths is most pleasing – I decided to write a piece where the sentence lengths adhered to a pattern, just to see what would happen. I didn’t expect much. I started with a one word sentence, then two, then three, and so on. Continuing with longer and longer sentences, I realised, would be an enormous challenge, so I allowed myself ‘verses’: one to ten, then back to one again. What happened was interesting. On the page a shape began to emerge. And a theme. There was something tidal about the look and feel of it – a sort of rolling rhythm. Seemingly from nowhere, a story unfurled. It’s about a devastating day at the sea-side as remembered by two siblings; the relentlessness of their memory mirrors the motion of the waves. I’m a firm believer in pushing myself to try new things in writing. Sometimes, straitjacketing yourself forces you to find a creative way out of a problem.

  • Do you think your career as a history teacher provided a good ground for your fiction writing?

That’s an interesting question. For a time, I felt that it held me back. I struggled at first with the transition from teacher to writer. Initially, my writing was too clear. I also assumed that I should write about history. I had to un-teach myself, stop myself from over explaining everything, and learn to have confidence in the reader. In fact, history and story-telling have much in common. As a teacher, I got to tell stories. Sometimes I had to condense them from something complex to something simple. The difference now, I suppose, is that I get to make it up as I go along. With fiction, I’m not constrained by the facts, though the principles are the same. Telling a story in a persuasive, engaging way – enough to keep a classroom of teenagers, or a tired reader, on board – is a skill that requires hard work and practice. Something I love about flash is the precision of the words. The historian reads for subtext and inference in source materials, gaining a forensic feel for language. In flash fiction, word choice can make the difference between a piece that falls flat and a piece that sings. Now I think about it, the ingredients for becoming a flash fiction writer were developing long before I put pen to paper.

  • We’d love to hear about your year as an apprentice at the Word Factory in 2016 and how it has helped your writing.

Cathy Galvin and her team have created a very special community with Word Factory. Attending their events at Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, is how I got hooked on short stories in the first place. Being an apprentice has been a pleasure – and I’m pleased to say it’s an ongoing relationship.

One highlight of my apprenticeship was meeting with my mentor, Ailsa Cox (Professor of Short Fiction at Edge Hill University). Together, we discussed my work in progress and I began to shape a short story collection. Her feedback, and her short story wisdom in general, has been invaluable. I re-read Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid on Ailsa’s recommendation, and she gave me the confidence to write a story of my own ‘borrowing’ inspiration from Munro’s techniques, especially her brilliant use of time. Few other writers utilise the passage of time so nimbly. I read the resulting story, How The Light Gets In at a Word Factory salon dedicated to Munro’s work. It could have been intimidating reading alongside Ailsa and Tessa Hadley but that’s the lovely thing about Word Factory events – there is a melting away of the ‘us and them’ barriers that sometimes exist. Writers happily chat away to the audience, and audience members are invited to respond to what they hear. It’s a dialogue: everyone is welcome to contribute.

Attending masterclasses and talks by so many brilliant writers has been a great source of literary sustenance. From each writer, I have learned something new about the craft.

My fellow apprentices, Divya Ghelani and Claire Adam, are brilliant. We encourage each other to try new things and take delight in each other’s successes – Claire recently secured a book deal with Faber, which is incredibly exciting, and Divya’s novel is attracting a lot of interest. Between us, we’re currently plotting some exciting short story events, picking up on this year’s Word Factory programme: Citizen, The New Story.

  • What writing projects do you have on the go at the moment?

As well as finishing my collection of short stories and continuing to write flash, I am tentatively working on a longer project. I’ve learned from experience to keep stories to myself when they’re still new and fragile, so I won’t say too much – but I’m excited about spending more time with this particular character. Recently, I wrote a novella-in-flash and I love the idea of mixing quirky flash pieces in with full-length, short story-like chapters. There is some fantastic rule-breaking fiction around at the moment – and flash has a place in that. Watch this space…

  • Finally – tips for anyone planning to enter Bath Flash Fiction Award this time round?

I hesitate to offer ‘advice’ because I think what makes flash fiction so exciting is the variety of approaches. Reading the first volume of the Bath Flash Fiction anthology is a case in point. Stories range from straight to surreal, funny to sad. Some toy with structure, others are more conventional. Each writer brings something new to the form.

Sometimes, re-reading a story (and I always read them out loud, to check for problems of rhythm), I realise that my first idea lacks originality. For a story to stand out, it’s important to avoid following the obvious path. My advice: think, think again; keep striving to create something new and fresh. If writing about well-worn topics – love, death, relationship break ups – it helps to have a different angle that sets your story apart. In my view, readers like to be taken somewhere else. They like to be surprised. But mostly, they want to feel something. Stories should grab you by the heart as well as the head. I suggest mining your life experiences for those rich moments of intense feeling, using material that is particular to you. I like to use sensory details in my stories. The details you choose give your writing its own particular flavour and the right ones, used well, can be so evocative. On that note, avoid working towards a punchline, a story built around an ending that seems contrived. Don’t over explain; let your reader do some work. And finally: the best stories end beyond the page.

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