We’re delighted to share an interview with Johanna Robinson, who won first prize in the October 2020 round, which was judged by Nod Ghosh. The story plus two other listed stories of Johanna’s is included with all the other winners and longlisted writers who agreed to publication in Restore to Factory Settings Bath Flash Fiction Vol 5. released this week from Ad Hoc Fiction. Johanna was a runner-up in our Novella-in-Flash award in 2019 with her wonderful NIF, Homing. It is now available as an ebook from kindle as well as in paperback from the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop. Links to worldwide kindle are on the bookshop page. So if you want to read more of Johanna’s work, it is instantly available. We’re so interested to learn that her win, ‘Blessings 1849’, another historical piece, is a story which had been submitted into various competitions previously in different forms and had actually also been sent to BFFA before and not been listed. Johanna describes here how she edited it and we’d love to take up her offer to show the various versions of the story, in a new post on the site. It also gives encouragement to others, as she said, not to lose heart over a piece you are dedicated to. It might need working on, but it can still be successful in finding a home as a competition winner or in a magazine.
- Congratulations for your 1st prize win,‘Blessings, 1849’ selected by our October Award judge, Nod Ghosh. What inspired this story?
First, thank you so much to the BFFA team, the early-round readers, and Nod Ghosh for their dedication to this wonderful competition. It’s a real privilege to be a part of it.
‘Blessings, 1849’ is an early chapter from my novel-in-flash (more of that below) and in that sense, its setting in time and place was dictated by the character and the plot. But the image of the pregnant woman planting potatoes came to me independently. I liked how the physical impact of childbearing could be transferred to a physical result in and of the land, which in turn impacts the family living on that land. Lots of my stories turn out to be about mothering in its various forms (though this is always subconscious), and here I wanted to emphasise huge physical and mental toll that child-bearing, over and over, takes, especially in rural, poor communities – past and present. While the mother here (Molly) doesn’t have the option of birth control, there are many other aspects of her experience that I think many people could identify with.
Molly is a secondary character in my WIP, but important in terms of plot – and she has a strong voice that seems to make good flashes! She perhaps needs to have a word with some of my other characters…
- We’d love to hear more about your novel-in-flash. Thanks.
The book is set in Victorian Liverpool, and therefore the Irish emigration is an inescapable part of that setting. I’ve lived near Liverpool for the first eighteen, and the last ten, years of my life, and my father’s side of the family are Irish. Although, regretfully, I’ve only been there a couple of times, the family history has been deeply researched over the years and I find it very easy to ‘tune in’ to that. But, as I say, Liverpool is where most of the book takes place, with some chapters in Ireland and some in South America. It intertwines mothers and daughters, myth, the botanical world (to which there are small references in ‘Blessings’), obsession, and friendship. There’s still some way to go, however!
- That sounds fascinating. And back to your winning story, you have, as our judge Nod Ghosh, said in her comments, compressed a great deal into a few words. I think it would be interesting for our readers if you could tell us how you went about writing and revising this piece to include so much.
Thank you! This story was written in August 2019, and then revised as a standalone piece three more times over the next year – in part due to varying word counts for flash competitions. In its earlier forms it had been longlisted (Mslexia), almost longlisted (Reflex), and not listed at all (Bath, a previous round). As you can see, I was pretty dedicated to it! Having said that, this was a piece I edited and then tagged on as a third story. I had only intended to submit two, which I had written for the competition, and in which I had much more confidence.
There isn’t a vast difference between the first draft of ‘Blessings’ and the Bath one, but I suspect the differences are important ones. The main developments that weren’t at the micro/word level were the change from first person to second person (which was actually a change that took place in the WIP around the same time as the BFFA deadline and the alteration of the structure on the page to resemble steps/rungs, which was a very last-minute change.
I remember at the same time picking up the first mention of ‘rungs’ to bring in again later on. I see now that this kind of change can ‘complete’ the story; to take the metaphor of knitting, this change closed a hole that wasn’t even that noticeable but neatened up the whole story into a pattern.
At the micro-level, over the various drafts, I stripped out quite a few words and phrases that made the piece tighter and gave it a rhythm and force. I’d be happy to share the comparison of these two versions if that is useful to anyone.
- That would be so interesting to share those versions. We’d love a post with them all seen together. You also have two other excellent pieces ‘Backfire’ and ‘(Insert title here) a novel’ which were shortlisted by Santino Prinzi and Mary Jane Holmes, the other two judges for the February and June rounds of our 2020 Awards People will be able to read them in our forthcoming anthology. All the stories are different in style. Is experimenting with structure something you enjoy?
- Thank you – I’m very excited that all three are in the anthology, together with all those longlisted flash fictions we haven’t seen yet.
For me, seeds of ideas tend to drop every so often, and I’ll let them sit there for a while until I have the time or guts to turn them into something. Most of what I write emerges this way, rather than through prompts (with the exception of certain online courses, where I’ve been writing as part of a longer work, where I knew the setting and the characters (Meg Pokrass’s and Nancy Stohlman’s courses, specifically)).
Sometimes the idea-seed is in the form of a character; frequently it’s an object – or it might be a concept linking things together, or an unusual structure. ‘Backfire’ spent a forgotten year on my computer between drafts, but it started with reading a piece on forced rhubarb, and the noise it makes when it grows. I did quite a bit of research for that one. ‘[Insert Title Here]’ is a very odd structure, but one I had wanted to try for a while after reading lots of books by Victorian travellers as research for my WIP. I wanted to steal the form of chapter summaries – I loved the idea of compacting a whole chapter into a few words, leaving so much out for the reader to fill in. But of course, with this story, there is no chapter to move on to. That one was written in about an hour and a half, because it was either going to work, or it wasn’t.
- Do you think your work as a proof-reader has helped you with writing very short fiction? I was thinking this about this because of the close focus on words and language.
I’m sure it has. I am very unsentimental about getting rid of words and lines, sometimes whole chunks of text. I’ve cut short stories of mine from 3,500 words to 2,200. From 2,500 to 1,000, and from 1,000 to 300. I love it. But even when I was doing my English degree nearly 25 years ago, the modules I liked best were the close reading ones, where you might spend a week on only a paragraph, and look at the power of each word or combination of words. That was probably a clue to what I have ended up writing over the last three years!
- On this subject, you have recently shared on social media that you are opening up your proof-reading services to creative writers. Can you say more about what this service entails?
- Thank you. Up to now I have kept creative writing separate from my day job. However, recently I’ve had the pleasure of proofreading a few novellas and collections for writing friends, and it’s been so rewarding to see these fantastic books go out into the world. I decided therefore that I’d extend my proofreading offer to a fairly niche area of flash collections, novellas-in-flash and similar. All the details can be found on my writing website www.johanna-robinson.com, and I’m really looking forward to this new aspect of my work.
- And just for fun, because everybody loves such facts, where do you write? Music on or off? Pets as muses?
- I always used to find it important to write away from my ‘work’ desk and ‘work’ computer but circumstances changed and now I have a very small but pretty shed in the garden where I both work and write. It was put up just before 2020 imploded back in February and has been a good escape from the other family members who have been home a lot more than usua! My space is always very messy. I wish I were tidier. I work and write in silence and since I’ve got older, I find my brain isn’t as good as it used to be at sensory multi-tasking. We just bought a kitten though, three weeks ago, so he’s great company…
- What do you think prospective entrants most need to remember when entering a flash to our Award?
Based on this experience, I’d say that if you have a piece that hasn’t succeeded somewhere – keep playing with it. Even when you think it’s finished, put it away and then try again. I bet there are still changes you will see could be made for the better. Sometimes 400 words is too long, and it will come into its own in 300. Sometimes it’s the other way around and it needs a little more breathing space – which another competition might give it.
And that story you might think is a ‘reserve’ – send it in.