Interview with new Ad Hoc Fiction author, Diane Simmons

Ad Hoc Fiction, the small independent press that publishes our Bath Flash Fiction Award Anthologies recently published Diane’s Simmons debut full collection of flash fiction Finding A Way. Diane tells Jude how the book came into being and the pictures on this post and in the gallery below are from her recent packed book launch with family and friends at St James Wine Vaults in Bath on February 9th. The collection is available in print to buy in several different currencies from the Ad Hoc Fiction online bookshop and also as a Kindle or Nook ebook.

  • Jude: Ad Hoc Fiction is delighted to publish Finding A Way , our tenth published book and second single-author collection. Can you give us a short synopsis of the book and tell us how the flash fictions work together?

    Diane: Finding a Way comprises fifty-one linked stories that show a family over a three and a half year period as they deal with devastating loss. Although the stories are connected, each can be read in isolation and in any order.
  • Jude: This book is not a memoir, but the stories within it were triggered by real life events, most notably the sudden death of your daughter, Laura.Can you say a bit about this and tell us your distinction between memoir and fiction?
    Diane: My daughter, Laura, died in 2015 just a few weeks after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. After she died, I wasn’t able to write for quite a while. The first story I wrote afterwards came from my realisation that my modest collection of jewellery would no longer need to be shared by my two daughters when I died, that my younger daughter would inherit it all. My daughters had often borrowed my rings and necklaces for family occasions and used to joke about which pieces they would have when I died. I liked the idea of them inheriting my collection of rings and earrings and them remembering occasions where I’d worn it. In the months following Laura’s death, I imagined what it would be like if I no longer had a daughter to inherit my collection and kept imagining a woman throwing her jewellery into the river, it no longer being needed. Eventually, this inspired the story A Collection. But I’m not the woman in the story – I’ve never thrown my jewellery into the river. The story came from a feeling, an emotion and many of the stories in the book were inspired by such a feeling. They are not the truth, but there may be a small autobiographical thing in them that’s sparked off the story. Or they may have been inspired by events that have happened to my friends or relatives, or they may be things I have read about. Often, I would take a small fact and play ‘what if’ with it.
  • Jude: In January 2018, on behalf of Ad Hoc Fiction, I said we wanted to publish your collection if you could extend it to around 21,000 words. It was about 6000 words at the time and you accepted the challenge. Can you tell us about your writing year?

    Diane: Exhausting would be my first thought, but 2018 was a totally absorbing and satisfying year. Within hours of receiving the email offering publication, I’d probably come up with another twelve story ideas to the ones I already had. I’m not a prolific writer normally, but I only had a tiny moment of doubt about whether I’d be able to produce enough stories and didn’t hesitate in accepting the offer.
    At the time of receiving the email, I was in the final stages of writing a novella-in-flash, so I had to ignore the collection for a few weeks. But I started a file and typed up my ideas, adding to the list whenever I came up with something I thought might work. I was quite systematic about it, but once I started writing in mid-January, I certainly picked the easiest stories first, wanting to get as many pages written as soon as possible. I set myself a rough target of a story a week – or at least the first draft of a story and then edited them as I went along. I loved the process of always having a new story on the go and of having lots of others that needed to be worked on, each story at a different stage. When I was happy with a story, I gave it to my writing friends to critique. As the year went on I submitted a few of the stories to competitions and to National Flash Fiction Day, and receiving publication and competition shortlistings (and in one case second prize), really helped my confidence. There were moments of crisis and changes of direction, but not many and by the time I had fifty-one stories, the collection felt complete. I then sent it off for editing and to several trusted readers and weeks of tweaking and the odd re-write followed. I was surprised by how much work had to be done once the stories were finished – choosing the cover, writing the bio etc was very time consuming. I felt a little lost when the book finally went off to the printers – writing those extra stories took up practically my whole year, the project never far from my mind whatever I was doing.
  • Jude: How did you arrive at the final sequence?

    Diane: It wasn’t too difficult to do because many stories had to happen at a certain time to make sense. For example, there are several set on a birthday or anniversary. But I wanted to make sure that there weren’t too many dialogue heavy stories in a row, or too many short or long ones grouped together. I printed out all the stories and arranged them on my living room carpet in what I thought was a possible order, then messed around with them until I thought I had the right balance. Because there was a narrative link it was quite a dangerous thing to do because I then had to check the dates etc still tied in and everything made sense.
  • Jude: The stories in Finding A Way are unique in that they concentrate on ordinary everyday experiences from the POV  of  four different characters in the aftermath of a devastating loss. I think they will be very helpful to others in similar circumstances. Did you have this in mind when you wrote the collection?
    Diane: Following Laura’s death, I realised that I had written quite a few stories on grief and wondered if it might work as a collection. Originally intended as a pamphlet, I wasn’t long into the process before friends started suggesting to me that the stories might prove helpful to other people, with one friend who works in the health service suggesting they might work well as the basis for discussion in workshops. As I wrote more, I realised that they could perhaps help not only people who were grieving, but also those who were dealing with grieving friends and relatives.

  • Jude: There are a couple of stories which make explicit the impact of some frequently held beliefs about the grieving process. There’s a pivotal moment in the story Six Months Yesterday, which was shortlisted by David Swann in the  Bath Short Story Award, Oct 2017, where the character, Liz chastises herself for  asking a friend, whose husband has recently died, ‘How are you?’ Rather than ‘ How  are you, today?’ — as if she’s learned nothing. In this  simple though extremely powerful interaction, you show how grief doesn’t progress neatly, but can catch you unawares on any day, at any time, Another myth about the grieving process is challenged in the story Over It where Christopher encounters  a new work colleague who visibly relaxes when he learns it is two years since Christopher’s daughter died. As if the passage of time, (and two years is often quoted as a magic number), makes the pain recede instead of often emphasising it more. When you were writing these and other stories, was it your intention to draw attention to other  people’s  difficulties in reacting to the deaths of loved ones?

    Diane: Yes, I think those stories you mention were written out of frustration about how bad many people are at talking to someone who has experienced loss (and I include myself in this). When I was faced with talking to an acquaintance who I knew had just lost her husband, I reacted in a way that shocked me. I felt total panic and contemplated not even acknowledging her loss. I was horrified at myself and I see others struggling when talking to me. The question, ‘How are you today?’ was something my son-in-law told me about not long after Laura died. He explained that it gave people the opportunity to say how they were feeling at that precise moment which is a much more manageable thing to do. Grief often varies minute-to-minute and it certainly does day today and there are periods when it is more difficult: anniversaries, Christmases, when you are tired … Asking someone how they are just doesn’t take that into account.
    People often say that time heals and I tried in the story Over It to tackle that. My own experience is that time doesn’t heal. As time goes on, a grieving person often learns to live with the loss, that loss not at the forefront of the mind quite as much, but for me when the memory of the loss re-emerges, the pain is no less. In many ways the pain is worse as the permanence of the loss sinks in.
  • Jude: The cover is an original sketch, with colour added digitally, by writer and artist Jeanette Sheppard. Can you tell us why you liked this image and how you decided on the final cover design?

    Diane: Admiring Jeanette’s work, I emailed her to ask if she had anything that might be suitable for my book cover – something that might fit a theme of grief. She told me that she had just done a sketch that might work and sent it straight over to me. At this point Jeanette didn’t know the title of my book, but as soon as I saw the cover I loved it immediately, thinking the road in the picture was a suitable metaphor for a journey of grief. The image was black and white at the time, but Jeanette very cleverly added colour to the image. Only weeks later, after discussion with friends about whether the sketch actually showed a river or a road, I asked Jeanette and she said it was neither – it was just a line. I liked the image even more then, loving the idea that it could be whatever the person seeing it imagined it to be.
  • Jude: I know a writer’s own self assessments can shift all the time, but which stories in the book are you currently most satisfied with?

    Diane: I suppose the stories I’m most satisfied with are ones that people have responded well to and those tend to be ones I’ve read out to an audience. I particularly like the first story in the book, A Collection. It’s one I’ve read out on the radio and it was recorded for 100 voices for 100 years podcast and also I’ve read it at NFFD and BFFA events. I am also particularly fond of the stories that wrote themselves, that just spilled out on to the page. I’m thinking here of Silenced, Another Chance, Over It and Images. Images is the oldest flash in the collection, written in 2013 and included in that year’s National Flash Fiction Day anthology Scraps, and subsequently in The New Flash Fiction Review.
    Diane is a co-director of National Flash Fiction Day, Hospitality Co-ordinator for Flash Fiction Festivals, UK and has been a reader for the international Bath Short Story Award, an editor for FlashFlood and is one of the judges for NFFD 2019 micro competition. Her fiction has featured in a variety of places including Mslexia; New Flash Fiction Review; Flash Fiction Festival, Vols One and Two; Flash I Love You (Paper Swans); FlashBack Fiction; Micro Madness; three Bath Flash Fiction anthologies and six NFFD anthologies. She has also been placed or shortlisted in many flash and short story contests. Finding a Way, her debut collection on the theme of grief, is published by Ad Hoc Fiction. You can follow her on twitter @scooterwriter.
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