Interview with Debra A. Daniel, author of ‘The Roster’, highly commended in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, 2019

The Roster by Debra A. Daniel was published in June this year and launched in the UK at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. Our 2019 judge, Michael Loveday, had this to say about the novella:

This “ensemble cast” novella has a fresh and original concept — a sequence of stories about a teacher’s pupils at a school, more or less one story for each pupil. The students’ eccentricities, rebelliousness and vulnerabilities are depicted with warmth, fondness, and very often, an absolutely heart-breaking poignancy, as in the case of the child with brittle bones, or the young boy grieving his sister. There is black humour too, in places, and endings that are intensely lyrical. The characterisations are superbly individualised, vivid, inventive and memorable, and are written with beautiful variety of expression. A novella-in-flash of immense charm that has real emotional substance.

Debra has also launched the novella in the US now. The pictures in this post are taken at one of her launches and we’re thrilled that her husband, song writer Jack McGregor, recorded three songs based on characters within the book, which you can listen to here, on sound cloud. You can buy the novella directly in paperback in several different currencies from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop.Our 2020 Novella Award is open for entries now until mid January 2020. Read Debra’s excellent tips on writing one at the end of this interview with her.

Interview with Jude

  • Can you tell us about how you went about writing The Roster your novella-in-flash, highly commended by judge, Michael Loveday in the 2019 Bath Flash Fiction Award? Did it emerge from an initial story, or did you have a whole idea?

The Roster probably started burrowing under my literary surface on my first day teaching elementary students decades ago, but most of the stories didn’t emerge until last November when I began Nancy Stohlman’s NanoFlash challenge. In truth, I didn’t write until I’d collected all the prompts which allowed me to combine ideas and focus on details that opened narrative lines. The first story I wrote was “Apology Letter from James M” which was a scary, angry, unpunctuated rant against the teacher and the world, in general. Then the prompt to involve smoke birthed the story about a family whose house burned. At that point I pulled out and edited two previously published stories about students, “Impressionists” and “Through a Glass Darkly” that fit the theme of children whose special needs required accommodations so I started listing possibilities, children with obvious wheelchairs or glass eyes and children with invisible issues like grief or emotional abuse. That list grew into the title story and would be the theme for the entire book. The rest of the stories erupted rather quickly. The Roster frames powerful needs and their impact on students, parents, and on the teacher

  • What did you find most satisfying about writing it?

I wanted this novella to show the care and involvement teachers devote to their students and how their daily jobs are much more than vowels and vocabulary, addition and subtraction, recess and homework assignments. In a single classroom you can find dozens of special needs, countless little issues, dramatic forces that influence how a teacher manages behavior and lesson plans and how a child learns or doesn’t. In writing this, I could honor educators and pupils and call attention to the powerful bond between them.

  • What was most tricky?

It’s always difficult to blur the line between truth and fictional truth. All of these stories and characters are works of imagination, but they come from very real places. composites of real people, blends of true situations with headlines and anecdotes and nightmares and wishful thinking. When you teach, there are certain children who leave a mark that stays forever. Even though the teacher is the narrator, I wanted to make a place for those students for whom life-altering events caused them to struggle. While I wanted the stories to have weight, I also wanted to let in some light. Balancing humor and somber stores of death and violence and pain without becoming trite or sentimental or preachy is quite a juggle.

  • You have recently had a couple of successful launches in the USA and your husband wrote some songs to go with the stories, which we think is such a wonderful idea. We have included a soundcloud link to the songs and him singing them, above Did he capture something extra you might not have been aware of in the novella in these songs?

When my husband, Jack McGregor, agreed to write songs to accompany the book, I knew he would create another dimension. Melody and rhythm, harmonic blending, the shock of some discordant passages, lyrics, and musical spacing took the stories to another level. He changed the point of view to the parent’s or the child’s. He added emotional air when poignancy was needed and racing rhythm when the stories were urgent and frantic. A beautiful line of notes can find its way into your ear and resonate, letting the story’s essence sing.

  • Are you working on any new writing projects at the moment?

Currently, I’m working on several projects. One project involves the comic exploits of a rather quirky couple, the optimistic husband and his wife who is ever-willing to accompany him in all his unusual ideas to enhance their bliss. Another project circles around people with odd careers. I’m thrilled to be taking an online flash course with Michael Loveday and am immersing myself in reading as much flash as I can to explore voice and style and narrative devices

  • Best advice for anyone embarking on writing a novella in flash for our next contest which ends in mid January, 2020?

Read, read, read. Read great examples of flash. Find the ones that speak to you and analyze how the author accomplished that piece of work. Go out and search for inspiration in art galleries and soundtracks and gardens and dog parks and the dentist office. Write descriptions for people you see on the street or in the coffee shop. Imagine if you were married to the letter carrier, the person who invented the spatula, the person who names paint colors. Take your longer stories and edit. Cut until you can’t cut any more and then cut more. I think my best advice Is to enjoy it. Work hard on making your flash as good as it can be, but don’t brood over it or grouch yourself up. Keep the weight and heft but also keep it airy so that it floats. Flash should have a bit of a burn and scorch but it should also flicker and spark

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