Interview with Marissa Hoffman, First Prize Winner October, 2019

  • Can you tell us what inspired your powerful and moving winning story, ‘Angie’?
    Early in my career I worked on a project for the United Nations Refugee Council (UNHCR) where I spent time with people who were variously labelled but who shared the same predicament, they could no longer stay where they had always called home, they had no choice but to leave. They made huge sacrifices, travelled in danger and arrived unwelcome. The images of Angie Valeria and her father made real people of the word ‘migrant’ and I wanted to do the same using flash fiction.
  • You mentioned on Twitter, that his piece began in a ‘Fast Flash’ online course with Kathy Fish and you worked on it for a long time afterwards. Can you tell us how it progressed from your first draft?

    That’s right. Kathy’s Fast Flash course drew out of me a set of instructions for migrants. At the time the image of Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned on the sand was making global headlines and thousands were of people were fleeing their homes walking on mass through central America. I came across the sentence, ‘holding hands is a natural response when seeking safety’ and the idea of the paper doll chain fit so perfectly for me. Over time it became clear though that that piece wasn’t flash fiction because it didn’t get close enough to a character. Readers are empathetic people. Readers want to connect with the emotion or the intention of a character. My story went through a year (yes, a year) of close editing in that structure of instructions before I took a few words of advice and decided I had to extract what I thought was the heart of the story and start again from scratch. Angie and her father lost their life shortly before that decision and it felt right to attempt to keep their memory alive through fiction. On a blank page, I brought the story in tighter, to a shorter space of time, to a single location. I added a father’s motivation and an active relationship, I introduced love.
  • On your blog, you said that your flash fiction ‘The Chalk Line’ which was shortlisted in the Bath Award in 2018 and published in Things Left And Found At The Side Of The Road the 2018 Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, was the first one you submitted anywhere. What got you interested in writing very short fiction?
    ‘The Chalk Line’ was written as an exercise during an online fiction course (not flash) when I didn’t know what flash fiction was. That piece had been sitting on my computer unread for seven years and when I first heard about flash fiction from a friend, I thought, what have I got to lose? I’ll be honest, at that time, I considered it worthy of submitting purely based on the fact that it met the word count requirement. After that story was well received, I became fascinated by flash fiction. Ad Hoc Fiction and Bath Flash Fiction have been instrumental in offering me a space to grow as a writer, as have Reflex Fiction. Flash suits me because I work extremely slowly, and it has the readership is discerning and prepared to work. I love to research and when I finally get to the writing stage, I simultaneously write and edit in minute detail. I need time to allow writing to rest so that I can look at it again with a critical eye. I am always admiring of those who can thrash a story out in a workshop environment, I’ll be lucky if I get a couplet or a phrase. Possibly, I am an editor before I am a writer if the two things can be separated.
  • Both ‘Angie’ and ‘The Chalk Line’ are political in nature. Do you think you write more about the political than the personal?
    I am very motivated by injustice. For instance, I tried to understand a father’s fear and helplessness raising daughters in world being destroyed in, ‘Mistakes Multiplied by 3.14159’ (Reflex Fiction). Sometimes that sense of injustice feels personal, like the teenage character under the kind of strain a child should never have to feel ‘Them Naming Me Trespasser’ (New Flash Fiction Review). Many of my stories feature parenting at their core, I have three children, it’s what I spend the bulk of my time worrying about. Writing ‘political’ marries my interests and my love of writing. It gives me a reason to research and learn.
  • You also work as an editor. Do you offer your services to fiction as well as non-fiction writers?
    My editing work comes in fits and bursts and is hugely varied but I also enjoy helping friends edit their fiction, in the way we all help each other as writers. I could imagine doing it more professionally if the project and relationship felt right. I always invest hugely, so I’d need to feel whomever I worked with put their trust in me, and why would they, it would be a leap? I’m conscious that editing fiction requires a different approach to non-fiction. A fiction editor encourages the writer to find their own way, suggesting, nurturing, spiralling a succession of drafts upwards towards something they love.
  • People are often intensely interested in where and how writers write? Do you have a special time of day or place to write? And do you like music on or off?
    I certainly can’t work to music that I would want to sing along to. I love singing and that would be a distraction. I wrote a story about raising a child born to be an executioner a generation before the French Revolution, ‘Blood in Paris’ (National Flash Fiction Day Blog) and I found it very helpful to listen to baroque chamber music during that time. Usually though, I prefer complete silence or white noise, like in a busy space. The most important thing for me is time. I need solid blocks of deep concentration. It often means I work in the tiny hours of the night, my kitchen clock ticking time which is entirely mine.
  • Have you any fiction writing projects on the go at the moment?
    I am resetting at the moment. I am diving into some wider reading and hitting the textbooks. I’m someone who loves studying the technical elements of writing and close reading. That gives me comfort while the ideas are brewing. I want to write some short stories and I’d like to take on a big project (whispers, a novel), hopefully there will be more flash too. I’d really like to get myself on a course or in a structured programme when funds allow it, or a scholarship opportunity arises.
  • What would your main advice to competition entrants be?

    I like to ask myself, why read this? What am I saying? If I can answer that in a single sentence, the chances are I have a beating heart in my story.

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