Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born British writer. Her novel, The Normal State of Mind, was published in 2015 by Parthian (UK) and Bee Books (India) in 2016 and was long listed for the Words to Screen Prize, Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) Film Festival in 2018. Her collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2018 and won The Saboteur Prize for the Best Short Story Collection in 2019. She teaches contemporary fiction at Winchester University. She was Writer-in-Residence at Word Factory in 2021. She is a regular workshop presenter at the Flash Fiction Festivals UK. She lives in Winchester.
- Thank you for agreeing to judge our 26th award that closes in February 2024.
You write novels, short stories, poetry and flash fiction. Do you find in your writing that you switch easily from one form of writing to another?
I’m so excited to be the judge for the Bath Flash Fiction competition. I enjoy writing across forms and I love working in a new medium as I always love a challenge. I don’t necessarily write everything all at once, but I may have a phase of writing lots of poetry. Or a phase of writing flash fiction. Attending festivals, writing group events, workshops is helpful as a lot of work or ideas of new work get produced there. The novel is ever present in the background, and I dedicate chunks of time to focus on that when I can (which is why that is the slowest) and with short stories, I work on one idea at a time until I feel I have perfected it. Getting commissions is great, because then I have a deadline, something to work towards and most of my nonfiction writing is done through commissions. So is writing for radio. My flash fiction writing spree is particularly active closer to National Flash Fiction Day and before and after the Flash Fiction Festival! I don’t juggle all the balls at the same time, but I try and focus on one form for a while, or for a project or competition and then move on to the next. Poetry, I think, is a constant. I don’t share it as much, but I definitely write a lot more poetry than anything else.
- What do you like about writing flash?
I love flash for the immediacy, the sense of urgency in a story. It’s punchy and experimental, and although it could be even 100 words long, it’s no easy feat to create a narrative in those many words which has a plot, character development, emotions, conflict and a punchy that often leaves the reader breathless. It’s a great challenge and to achieve a successful flash fiction requires great skill. I love the flash community as well. Most flash fiction writers are very supportive and enjoy being part of the community without being to competitive. There’s a lot of encouragement to keep writing flash, and lots of events that help this community to grow.
- Recently, some of your short stories were broad cast on BBC radio. Was that under a special theme and is there still a link to listen to them?
- I’ve had a few stories on BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra.Table Manners was serialized for Radio 4 Extra and I was commissioned to write 2 short stories and a non-fiction piece for Radio 4. The latest is on the theme of Golden Eggs, where five British Asian writers take folktales or traditional stories and rework them in contemporary settings. My story is called ‘The Gift’, and you can listen to it here.
- You are an associate lecturer in Creative Writing in Winchester and have taught workshops and courses in numerous places, both for adults and young people. What upcoming events are you involved in?
I teach on the BA and MA programmes at Winchester University and I really enjoy it. I worked with ArtfulScribe’s Mayflower Young Writers for several years, and found that the young writers find the flash form really exciting as well. At the moment, I run the ArtfulScribe SO:Write Women’s Writing group, which is online on the 1st Thursday of the month and in person in Southampton on the 3rd Saturday of the month. It’s a fantastic way to meet women writers, talk about writing, write together and share work. We’re loving writing flash fiction at the moment!
I also developed and run a short story course for Professional Writing Academy.
What I’m currently excited about are the projects I’ve co-founded with Aiysha Jahan, Bridges not Borders and Write Beyond Borders, which are a combination of mentoring writers from South Asia and UK, doing folkart in schools around the Solent region, producing an anthology of short stories and having an exhibition in Portsmouth Guildhall in July next year.
- You have been a professional writer since 2005. Can you tell us some of the highlights of your career so far?
I think it depends on what one might call ‘a highlight’. Of course, having a book published is always a highlight. So having my debut novel, A Normal State of Mind, published by Parthian was definitely a highlight. Publishing by short story collection, Table Manners, with Dahlia Books was a highlight, and then winning the Saboteur Prize for Best Short Story collection was a highlight. Being a regular BBC Radio 4 listener and then having my stories aired on Radio 4 is a highlight.
But the true highlights that I will hold dear to me are the little things: readers appreciating my work, readers reaching out to me to let me know my words have moved them. For example, finding someone reading my novel in a hospital waiting room was a highlight! A terminally ill friend of my husband’s parking his car to ring him, to let him know he’d just listened to my radio essay about cancer and how much that had resonated with him that meant so much to me. A Year 2 child in my children’s school where I used to work as a dinner lady would stop me on the way to lunch hall to give me ideas for my next book. (They’d been shocked when I had visited their class to talk about writing and shown them my book! They had said, you’re our Dinner Lady. And I had said, Dinner Ladies can do loads of other things outside of the lunch hour!) My daughter forgetting her reading book in secondary school, and her teacher fishing out a book from her bag to give her to read. ‘It’s your mother’s book,’ the teacher said. ‘Have you read it?’ ‘No,’ said my daughter, probably embarrassed at all the attention she would now get. Then all her classmates googled me, and she came home, saying, ‘mum, you’re a celebrity! Google recognizes you as a writer!’ That made me chuckle! Being invited to Cardiff University to talk to MA students about my writing journey has always been special. It’s always a ‘this is where it started, this is how it’s going’ experience! These are some highlights I will remember fondly and forever!
- Finally, as our judge, can you say what sort of story would stand out as a winner for you?
For me, a flash fiction should immerse me in the story. It should feel immediate and also layered with meaning. It should leave something for the reader to work out, or have a moment of epiphany at the end. It could be a story about a theme without mentioning the theme. Think about Hermit Crab style or other ways of approaching a story. The story should make me wake up in the middle of night, still worrying about the characters, or trying to work out how they could work out the stuff they’ve been put through. A standout story would involve me as a reader, and make me care intensely for the character/s. In cricketing lingo, a story should not target the reader head on, give me a good googly ball – a sudden spin that will get you if, as a reader, you’re not ready for it!