David Rhymes wrote his brilliant novella-in-flash The Last Days of the Union over several years, as he describes below and it is a very interesting read about a real life incident just before the break up of the Soviet Union. The timing of the book going on pre-order, which co-incided with the Russian invasion into the Ukraine was, as David says in the interview, totally unplanned. David talks about his process in writing the novella and the angle he chose to take. Those who came to the February 26th Flash Fiction Festival Day will have heard him read a moving story from the novella and he is attending the next online day on March 26th to read a further story from it.The Last Days of the Union is published the day before, 25th March, 2022. And you can pre-order it now at a 25% discount from Ad Hoc Fiction. On publication, it will also be available in paperback from Amazon worldwide. We also heartily congratulate David for his first prize win in the Retreat West Novelette-in-Flash Award, judged by Mary-Jane Holmes, with Monsieur, another beautifully written book,which I (jude) have been fortunate enough to read already. This is based on another real-life historical character. We’re looking forward to seeing that in print too. Both highly recommended reads.
- Can you talk a little bit about the background to the Last Days of the Union?
When I started the project in 2019, people asked me, “Why is a Brit living in Spain writing about the Soviet Union at end of the Cold War? What got you interested in that?” I told them I was fascinated by the story of Mathias Rust, the young West German aviator who, in 1987, rented a Cessna sports plane, and flew it all the way to Moscow, landing, by a series of small miracles, alive in Red Square. He was hoping to speak to Gorbachev about peace.
As a youth I saw this on TV and thought he must be crazy. This was the time of “Protect and Survive”, when everyone was terrified of nuclear meltdown, just one year after the Chernobyl disaster. We were only just beginning to get an idea of what was really going on in the Soviet Union.
Later, I learned from an article in the Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine that a bizarre string of mix-ups and miscommunications were what lay behind Rust’s unlikely success, his having flown unharmed through the much-vaunted “Russian ring of steel.”
I thought, “What about a historical novella-in-flash in which the main protagonist hardly features at all? A story told obliquely via related narratives, like beads on a thread, in a kind of post-modern mosaic? Stories about sleepy air traffic controllers, distracted missile silo watchers, helicopter pilots, even Gorbachev and Reagan – all connected in some way to (or by) the main thread of the journey?
I knew Gorbachev had turned Rust’s flight to his advantage, used it as a pretext to fire key defence leaders, to purge many of the hardline Soviet military opponents to reform. How this had enabled him to move forward on the issue of nuclear de-escalation, and eventually make faster progress towards ending the Cold War. In later drafts, I centred in on this period of uncertainty, Gorbachev pondering how to use Rust’s flight to his advantage, to precipitate change.
- With unplanned synchronicity, pre-orders for your novella opened on the very same day Russia invaded Ukraine. How did you feel about that?
- Dismayed. Like everyone, I’m praying the situation resolves quickly and that the current wave of solidarity with Ukraine continues and does not pale and that her people and European democracy come through this tragedy with the least possible suffering.
- Does your book deal in any way with the contemporary political situation?
No, not really. “The Last Days” isn’t really a political book at all, or even a book about Russia now. I was exploring a very specific moment in history, a period of tension in the eighties, in which a number of Cold War myths and assumptions were starting to crumble. The world was pole-axed by Rust’s story; leaders immediately began distancing themselves. A torrent of speculation followed in contemporary press sources – Was he a terrorist? An agent of the CIA? An anarchist? A Dada artist? I became interested in this process, how speculative narratives were “spun” warped, exaggerated by people on all sides. A good part of the novella dramatises the many in-the-moment speculations on the meaning of events.
But of course, I was very aware throughout the writing of the fragility of the post Cold War settlement, of Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and now, in Ukraine, of Putin’s pychosis. Also, the contemporary problem of Russian “dezinformatsiya” and fake news saturating the airwaves.
- What attracts you especially to the novella in flash form?
I love the freedom to switch angles, to use jump cuts, white space, the power of juxtaposition. I think a lot about the Kuleshov effect, the way two disparate pieces or settings or shots or whatever can be laid alongside one another to create a third effect, to generate meaning from the interaction between the parts. So the quick changes between short pieces suit the way my mind works, as if the material were hyperlinked in some way. The form suits my restlessness.
- How did you go about developing the manuscript?
- The first draft shortlisted in the Bath novella in flash competition, and in the wake of that I worked with Michael Loveday to develop the story further. There was an understanding that when Michael signed it off, Ad Hoc Fiction would publish it. My writing buddy Jupiter Jones helped me with the structure. Finally, I went back to Michael again for copy-editing. Michael kept me going when I was ready to give up, even mailing me a reminder to get on with it in lockdown, after I’d been months without writing a word. So to any other writers at work on longer pieces I’d say this – just keep going, no matter what.
- You recently won first prize in the Retreat West novelette competition. Your story Monsieur will appear in the anthology some time in the summer. Are there any elements in common between the two stories?
Both stories are about outsiders. Interlopers. One is an aviator, the other a mariner. Both are about journeys, one by sea and one by air. In “Monsieur” Jeanne Baret travels to the South Seas disguised as a man. Both pieces are also based on real life historical figures. Both move in fragments, making a lot of use of white space.
- What are you working on now?
- I’m hoping to write another thriller-type story about a real world spy, a master of disguise, another interloper, whose amazing life at the beginning of the twentieth century took him all around the world. Currently, I’m at the research stage, though I’ve written the first page and think I have the voice.
- Biographical details.
David Rhymes lives in Navarra, Spain. He grew up in Nottingham and has a degree in English Literature from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He earns his living as a freelance translator, trainer, and instructional designer.
His fiction has appeared in the Bath Flash Fiction, Reflex Fiction and Fish Publishing anthologies, and has won prizes in the Bath Flash Fiction and Barren Magazine competitions. Other short listings include the Bridport, LISP, Desperate Literature and Smokelong Quarterly flash fiction competitions.
For more details, you might like to follow David on Twitter