A fascinating interview here with Fiona J. Mackintosh, who won first prize in our October 2018 Award,judged by Nuala 0’Connor for her historical flash fiction Siren. Fiona, who began writing young, as you can see in the picture of her with the type-writer, is a self-confessed research junkie, writes (in her head) in the shower and stresses the importance of researching “the hell out of a competition” before entering it. She also tells us the music she likes to play while writing, where she writes and about the projects she’s currently working on. We’re longing to read more of her writing – more flash, or her short story collection and also her five novel saga that begins in the early part of the twentieth century sounds wonderful. It’s exciting that the first volume of this will be ready for submission in spring 2019. Fiona ends this interview with some great revision tips for micro writers. We love this – “Revision is like playing your scales over and over”. And there are many more excellent nuggets of writing advice. Read on…
- Can you tell us how your wonderful story Siren came into being?
Thank you so much for the compliment! As often happens with me, the story started with a single phrase that popped into my head, “She has the juice of silver fishes in her veins.” And then immediately after, I saw the image of the girl putting the cherries over her ear, which we all used to do as kids, right? And (ahem) some of us still do! Then I had to find a way to fill in the middle part of the story, but once I hit on the jealous landlubber admirer, I was off to the races. So the plot fell into place pretty easily; it was the language that took longer to hone.
- A group I teach was interested in your drafting process as they loved your use of language and the historical details in Siren. Can you tell us about this and about any research you did?
The idea that anyone is teaching a piece of mine is an absolute wonder to me. Thank you so much for choosing it, Jude.
With regard to the language used in Siren, I wanted to achieve a certain rhythm that mimicked the sound of waves against the shore. I also wanted to make sparing use of the Scots vernacular, and I ran the piece past several readers to make sure that the meaning of words like “haar” and “draves” could be deduced by their context.
As for research, I’m a junkie – love it, love it, love it – but this piece actually needed very little. It’s set in my home town of Anstruther in East Fife, where fishing was the centre of life for hundreds of years and was still an active industry when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s. So I was already pretty well informed about the history of the North Sea fishing communities. If anybody wants to read a glorious poetic account of growing up in the area a decade or so before me, I highly recommend Christopher Rush’s Hellfire and Herring. It’s funny, moving, and beautifully written and the sense of place is palpable.
- A few people on social media said they would love you to write more about the characters in this story. Is that something that interests you?
Well, I hadn’t thought about it before, but the idea is very intriguing. I definitely have more to say about Anstruther so you never know!
- You also have an historical flash fiction in the latest Flash Fiction Festival Anthology and you have been published in Flash Back Fiction, the online journal dedicated to historical flash fiction. Is writing about historical subjects your main interest?
Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment!
- Have you any other writing projects on the go at the moment?
Oh yes – far too many! My main project is a five-novel saga that follows two main characters and their families through social and political changes in Britain between 1911 and 2001. It has the overall title of Albion’s Millennium. I’m currently doing a rewrite of the first novel in the series, The Virgins of Salem, and hope to have that ready for submission by the spring.
I’m also working on putting together Niagara’s Island, a book of short stories set in contemporary America but with the occasional foray into the early 20th century as well (the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the early days of Hollywood, etc). History always forces its way in somehow!
- Where and when do you write?
Mainly in my home office in Silver Spring MD, a suburb of Washington D.C., which is where I also do my paid job as an editor for The World Bank. On the days when I’m not on a tight deadline, I often toggle between editing economists’ sentences to inventing worlds of my own with just a quick change of screen. And like all writers, I never stop writing in my head – at the grocery store, cleaning the kitchen, and above all in the shower. My very best break-through ideas have always come to me in the shower! And I work best in the evenings – it’s when I’m most productive and least likely to be bombarded by emails and messages.
For several years, a dear friend and I were lucky enough to have the occasional use of a house on a bluff above where the Susquehanna River flows into the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. We’d write all day looking out over the tidal waters, and in the evenings, we’d eat, drink wine and read to each other what we’d written during the day. Once while we were there, I almost got knocked down by a galloping groundhog, but that’s a story for another day!
But right now, I’m typing this at a beach house in North Carolina overlooking the Atlantic, which is a) not as posh as it sounds and b) very, very temporary but you seriously cannot beat the view!
- What in particular supports your writing – people, pets, music, etc?
Music definitely. Sometimes for atmosphere, sometimes just for filling that wandering space at the back of my mind. Some faves – Vivaldi, Vaughn Williams, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Dixie Chicks. No pets any more – not that our two cats were much help as Daphne would race me for possession of my office chair and Velma used to leap into my lap while I was typing and knead me through my thin leggings with very sharp claws! I’ve been extremely well supported by various groups of women writers over the years, with each woman leaving her mark on my work in her different ways, but none more so than my hugely talented and dear friends Jan Linley and Beth Millemann. And not to sound too Nancy Reagan about it, my husband is the best support I could ever imagine. He gives me the space I need, listens to my doubts and complaints, rejoices in my successes (and buys bubbly to celebrate!), and makes me laugh. Of course, he’s also untidy and has a memory like a sieve, but nobody’s perfect – ha ha!
- It’s been a fantastic year for you for winning prizes for your writing. You won the prestigious Fish Prize for flash fiction, the NFFD micro fiction contest and came second in the Reflex Flash Fiction Award this year. Can you give a few competition tips for writing micros?
Thank you very much. It’s been an extraordinary year, and I’ve loved every minute of it. And I’ve been blown away by the support and enthusiasm I’ve received from the flash community. What a truly generous and inspiring bunch of people – and pretty damn funny too!
As for tips, that’s a hard one because writing is so personal and also because the best advice is the most obvious but here are a couple of things to bear in mind.
Be ruthless in eliminating not just clichés but any phrase that sounds limp or over-used. That’s really hard – I’ve been sitting here trying to think of one single new way to describe how the waves roll in and I’ve got nothing!
Have other people read your piece and try not to be defensive in receiving their responses. They won’t necessarily be correct, but if something they say rings a gong inside you somewhere, accept it for the valuable gift that it is.
Nobody writes the perfect story on a first draft, nobody. Expect to have to do the work, to go over it again and again. Maybe you’ll only change a single word, but in a flash, that one word can turn the whole thing around and make it shine. With every revision and with every hard-fought breakthrough, not only is your story improving but you’re becoming a better writer. Revision is playing your scales up and down the keyboard over and over. But, of course, you all know this already!
Take lots of showers – see above!
As for submitting, it’s always a bit of a crapshoot, but a bit of sleuthing and strategic thinking can definitely improve your chances. What works for me is being super systematic. I keep a master list of upcoming competitions/calls for submissions complete with deadlines, word counts, and fees, and I update it regularly. It’s just a simple Word document – I’m hopeless with spreadsheets. Then I research the hell out of the contest or magazine and the judges or editors before deciding whether and which piece to submit. It sounds time consuming, but it really isn’t, and it all helps to maximize your chances.
For example, as the deadline for the October Bath Flash Award was approaching, I was playing around with three different draft flashes, but knowing that the judge was to be the wonderful Nuala O’Connor, historical novelist extraordinaire, I focused on Siren because I was pretty sure it was the kind of story that might appeal to her. And I’ve never been happier to be right in my whole life!