Interview with Emma Zetterström
February 2017 Flash Fiction Third Prize

Emma lives on the edge of a Swedish forest and tells us that when she is writing, she often compares the landscapes of Sweden and Scotland, where she is from. In Sweden the seasons are definite, unlike Glasgow, and the skies are very dark with many visible stars. Working as a translator and a teacher of Swedish to refugees, she thinks about words very carefully, and draws inspiration from her knowledge of different languages, the similarities, the differences and the gaps in between. She refers us to a poem to illustrate this. Emma moved from song writing, to writing lyrics which felt like a natural shift and she loves the enormity of what flash can express in a small amount of words. Like many of our other prize winners, her tip for writers who want to enter the Bath Flash Fiction Award is to keep re-reading your work and to get other people to read it too and edit a great deal. Then take the plunge and send. That final action is always worthwhile.

  • How did your wonderful third-prize winning story Manganese come into being?

It began life quite differently as a story for a themed submission. The theme was 25 years and as I started making notes and looking up facts about 25 I found out that Manganese has the atomic number 25. I read somewhere that in ancient times there was thought to be a male and female version and it is linked to magnetism. I liked the idea and went from there although the original story didn’t really work so this version is quite different.

  • You live in a red house on the edge of a forest Are your short stories often inspired by the house and nature?

Probably not so much by the house but definitely by the landscape. Here the seasons are so definite, unlike Glasgow, where I am from. Winter is winter as it is in stories: snow, icicles, dark, short days. Then overnight spring arrives. You wake up one day and everything is melting. The trees are dripping and it feels like it is all in motion, the birds are overjoyed and everyone has stopped to feel the sun on their face. I find the seasons and the northern daylight/darkness fascinating – that life changes so much from season to season. Where we live there are no streetlights so in winter when it is deeply dark it is something I have never experienced growing up in a city – and the stars – it is total city-shock for me still that there are so many!

I often find myself comparing the landscapes of Scotland and Sweden and thinking about that when I am writing. I have been used to seeing the hills at the edges of my vision. The countryside here is flat and I find it almost disorientating sometimes to be able to see so far with nothing breaking the sky. Like Scotland, Sweden is extremely beautiful in places but also quite harsh. I find people’s connection to the land and the landscape fascinating. That you often zoom in on the parts that express your emotions.

  • It seems that you straddle many different cultures in your work in translation and teaching Swedish to refugees. And you are also a Scot living in Sweden. Does this also have an impact on your writing?

I think being exposed to lots of languages makes me think about words more carefully. Sometimes finding out how other languages express something makes me reconsider how to write it in English. There is definitely lots of inspiration from other languages and ways of communicating – like in Scots there are lots of words that are the same or almost the same as Swedish words – so when I learned Swedish it was fascinating (barn-bairn, gråta-greet, hus-hoose…) I like the gaps between translations as well and the puzzle of trying to fill them – which I hope informs some of my writing too. I read this poem recently which I love because it is all about those gaps (Safia Elhillo quarantine with abdelhalim hafez) and also the things that we all know are true but that no language can say quite correctly.

  • What drew you to writing very flash fiction in the first place?

I moved from writing lyrics for songs to writing flash fiction which felt quite natural as they both express a story in a limited space. I like the compactness but that it can also be enormous. Also I read a friend’s collection and was totally absorbed in this other world that is created in the space of a few words. Pretty magic! I wanted to do that too.

  • Can you tell us about your current writing ambitions?

I write a little in fits and starts as space in life often shrinks or grows for me: work, kids, trains, translations… but I try to write all the time as I enjoy it and I want to become a better writer. I am working on something longer but probably get my energy from short stories as there is joy in getting something finished!

  • Do you know if flash-fiction is popular in Sweden? And is there any flash in translation you know of that we could read?

Hmm… Shamefully I am not sure! It feels like poetry is more popular here… although I might be missing something. As I write in English I usually read in English. The last book I read in Swedish was by Jonas Hassen Khemiri which I can recommend and I know he also writes short stories although not sure about flash.

  • Finally, a tip for anyone thinking of entering the next round of Bath Flash Fiction Award

Reread, get a friend to read, reread, edit, edit, and then Send! It was a great feeling so definitely do it.

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