Interview with Mary Jane Holmes, First Prize Winner, 2020 Novella in Flash Award

Mary Jane Holmes won our 2020 Novella in Flash Award, judged by Michael Loveday last month with her stunning novella in flash Don’t Tell the Bees. Read Michael’s comments about it in his judge’s report. And you can also read more about Mary Jane, who currently also happens to be the judge of our 15th single flash fiction Award, on our winners’ page. Mary Jane, who is a poet, prose writer and for many years a teacher of flash fiction and other forms, has had an extraordinary few years where both her flash fiction and poetry has achieved much recognition. Ad Hoc Fiction is delighted to be able to publish Don’t Tell The Bees, which is her first novella. It’s really interesting to read about what inspired the story, to see inside Tom, Mary Jane’s writing caravan and to have her insight into the pitfalls and pleasures of writing in this form. We expect the novella to be out later this year.

  • Can you give us a brief synopsis of Don’t Tell the Bees, your winning novella-in-flash?

    A stonemason climbs the steeple of the village church to mend the weathervane his father had made many years before and falls to his death, leaving a family to survive in a 20th century but feudal run rural backwater of western France. The story’s main focus is the youngest child, a girl with a love of maths, who has to negotiate poverty, sexism and the arrival of a new road into the village where she lives.

  • What inspired Don’t Tell The Bees?
    The majority of this story is based on real events and then adapted to what the story needed. I lived in France for many years and had a neighbour that did indeed fall off a church steeple (he survived luckily) and another neighbour who was the last child of 26 children and had never met his older siblings. Merged with the fact that the villagers who worked the land were still paid in wine and there was a schism in the village caused by events that took place in the second world war, it was a rich seam to craft a story from. Oh! Not forgetting that a bypass was built.
  • I am sure readers who are interested in writing in this form would love to know more about your writing process. Did it take some time for you to arrive at the final order for example?
    It did take a relatively long time because I initially fell into the trap of not moving sufficiently away from the ‘true’ events, which meant that the stakes were too low and the focus to linear. Once, I had worked out what the story needed to drive the animating tension, it fell into place a little quicker. And importantly, once I realized that this genre can accommodate devices such as POV change in a way that doesn’t take away from the investment in the characters, I felt a lot freer to widen the lens, which in turn helped build the bigger narrative arc.

  • All this may have changed in the present circumstances, but do you have a special place/time to write where you live? Music on or off? Pets as distractions or muses?
    Normally I am hopping about all over the place teaching or facilitating workshops or writing retreats, so I have never been too fussy where I write – a bus, plane, train, hotel room. But when I am home (which is always at the moment of course) I have a 1970’s caravan named Tom, where I hole up and have all my books and thoughts scribbled on bits of paper. I tend to decide on what I am working on and then walk across the moor where I live, holding the narrative in my head. My writing tends to be quite ‘poemy’ so I find it useful to work on rhythm and pacing while striding up and down the countryside.
  • And following on from the last question, f you had a soundtrack for your novella, what sort of music would be playing?

Gosh that is tough – probably a mixture of Edith Piaf and Jacques Dutronc.

  • Pitfalls and pleasures of writing in this form?
    The pleasures include the flexibility and experimentation it affords. Writing a novella-in-flash has really shaken up my creative praxis. And I have learnt that risk taking is a great way to move towards original and surprising storytelling.

    In terms of pitfalls, there is a tendency to think that because you have more words to play with, the lens can be more wide-angle than zoom, but this is still flash which means that focus is key. It is all too easy to try and cram in too much plot, or want to add subplot when really the novella-in-flash is like holding a diamond in the palm of your hand and seeing the light bounce off all its different facets.

  • You are judging our 15th single flash award, which closes in June and you gave some great tips for writing flash fiction on your judge’s interview. Is there something in particular about writing a novella-in-flash you can add to this list?
    In any work of art everything is laden with affect, and whenever you put two of anything together, a third thing emerges. I think the power of juxtaposition is really interesting when it comes to a novella-in-flash. Moving these little flashes around, changing the order, really did change the impact and focus, not just to the final draft but to the process of building the story as a whole. It was very liberating to work in this way and was a sort of epiphany for me.
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