We’re delighted to welcome Sara Hills as the judge for our 25th Award open today and closing in October. Sara is the author of The Evolution of Birds (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2021), winner of the 2022 Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection. She has won the Quiet Man Dave flash nonfiction prize, the Retreat West quarterly prize, and the National Flash Fiction Day micro competition. Sara’s work has just won second prize in our 24th Award, judged by Tim Craig. Previously, she’s been twice commended in our Award. She’s also placed second in the Welkin Prize, and was selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2021 and 2022. Her stories have been widely published in anthologies and magazines, including The Best Small Fictions 2022 and 2023, SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, Fractured Lit, Cease Cows, Flash Frog, X-RAY Lit, Splonk, New Flash Fiction Review and elsewhere. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites. Read in Full
Tim’s General Comments
Damn, but this was hard. And inspiring. And fun. But hard.
I don’t think there were many stories in my long list of 50 which didn’t at some point occupy a seat, however briefly, in my short list of 20. Such was the standard.
You will doubtless disagree with some of my choices. I disagreed with some of my choices. But, in the end, the stories which made my final list of five were those which battled for my attention, won it, and held it for a long time after I’d finished reading them.
There were many stories on the long- and short lists which were beautifully structured and beautifully written; some which evoked powerful and/or tragic historical events; several which found new and clever ways to harbour time-worn human truths; which experimented with form and language in ingenious, original ways. To the writers of these wonderful tours de force of flash, I can only apologise there weren’t more places in the winners’ enclosure.
Ultimately, I was drawn to those stories which felt perhaps less formulaic, less heavily structured; stories where character and mood were granted at least the same weight as plot and theme, and which didn’t necessarily give up all their secrets on first, or even fifth, reading.
Thanks to everyone who entered this amazing competition for giving me such difficult decisions to make, to the readers who did such a great job of whittling the original entries down to the long list, and, of course, to Jude and the team at Ad Hoc Fiction for the honour of being its judge. Read in Full
Our big thanks to writer, editor and teacher, John Brantingham for his judging our 2023 and final Novella-in-Flash Award. John made a close read of twenty six novellas on the longlist and his enthusiasm comes across. His comments on the whole process of reading the longlist of 26 novellas in flash are very encouraging. We appreciate his offer for writers to reach out to him which he made in his previous comments when the short list was announced. We entirely agree that there were so many excellent examples of this exciting novella form among these and the other novellas submitted to the contest. We look forward to Ad Hoc Fiction publishing the top three novellas this year and hope that many of the others will find publishers soon. Read in Full
Originally from Manchester, Tim Craig lives in London. A previous winner of the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction, his short-short fiction has placed or been commended four times in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and has also appeared in the Best Microfiction 2019 and 2022 anthologies. His debut collection Now You See Him was published in 2022 by AdHoc Fiction.
A big thank you to Tim for being our judge. Our small press, Ad Hoc Fiction was honoured to publish Tim’s fantastic debut collection, Now You See Him last June. You can read more about the book here in an interview we did with Tim prior to publication. Christopher Allen, of SmokeLong Quarterly wrote on the back cover:
‘Tim Craig is a master of microfiction. With enviable confidence, Craig spins the most varied, playful and poignant tales. The stories in this collection, most a single tight page of killer prose, all deserve revisiting again and again and again.’
Our big thanks to the 23rd Award judge, Sudha Balagopal for selecting the twenty stories for the short list within our narrow time frame and for writing such interesting and insightful notes. Her general comments on the process and her specific comments on the winners are below.
Thank you, Jude Higgins, for giving me the opportunity to judge the Bath Flash Fiction Award, the gold standard of very short fiction. Truly, this has been such an honor.
I knew choosing the winners would be difficult right after my first perusal of the stories on the longlist―a compendium of so many gorgeous tiny tales, varied in styles, in subject matter, in approach, in geography, in history. I read about grandfathers and newborns, children and youth, sports and food, animals and colors. And, I read them again. I went over the wondrous assortment several times before I whittled them down into a shortlist.
Once I created the shortlist, I knew an even more daunting task lay ahead: choosing the five winners, which includes the top three and the two highly commended stories. I did a lot of sorting, I did a lot of thinking, I read the stories out loud and, at times, even wished the list of winners could be longer.
The language, the unsaid between the lines, the tightness of the prose and the resonance are all paramount in such small stories and the winning pieces exemplified all those elements. These tales, I believe, will leave an indelible impression on the readers’ minds. I still think about the stories, days after I first read them.
Thank you, writers, for the gift of your precious words. It’s been my pleasure to inhabit the alluring worlds you’ve created.
Congratulations to the winners! I cannot wait to find out who penned these stunning gems.
Notes on Individual Stories
Market Forces 1
This story captivated me upon first read, and the second read and the third read. A sense of displacement, of not belonging, pervades this touching, well crafted story. The juxtaposition of the celebrating football fans, and Juma―who escaped his homeland and made it to Milan under harrowing conditions―makes for a painful contrast. The reader aches for Juma, for his loneliness, for his struggle to survive. At the end, we welcome the rain so he can sell his umbrellas, and for once, make enough to fill his belly. The tale might focus on one person who’s leading an in-between, temporary life, but underneath, the story hums with issues that are larger, stretching across countries and continents.
Walking to Wollongong 2
The details in this story are mesmerizing. An entire continent comes alive in a very small space. While the richness of Australia is illustrated via a tablecloth that doesn’t quite fit on the rectangular table, below simmers the story of a protagonist who craves information, for any snippet of knowledge that may help unearth their own history. This craving tugs at the reader and we find ourselves rooting for this young person. We too, walk that map of Australia as we ponder about the unspoken story hidden at Wollongong.
Lakota Widow 3
This poignant story about an old woman evokes such a majestic sense of place, of nature, of connection and all of that in five economical paragraphs. Yes, it’s about two people forging an unexpected relationship―a ninety year old woman and a hospital worker who becomes a friend. However, it’s also about the history of a people, about that which is sacred, about that which is so much bigger than us. In this lyrical, mystical piece the reader can breathe the air of those hills, see the buffalo cross the river, observe the broad sweep of sweetgrass and revel in all of that magic.
The Astronauts Meet for a Picnic on the First Thursday of Every Month (Highly Commended)
The unusual and deft use of the third person plural drew me into this story about a group of astronauts. The story is set at a picnic, not exactly a place where you’d expect astronauts. Beautiful details―the strawberries, the hot dogs, the ants—serve to ground the astronauts. They talk about what they wanted and what they have now. The real story, though, resides in the shared experiences they don’t discuss, in the things that hover in their minds, in the things that are present at the picnic and yet absent at the same time.
Fissure (Highly Commended)
The urgency and the pace in this one-sentence story kept me rapt until the very last word. We are with our ice-skater as she performs her routine, with the thoughts in her head, with the strain of everything weighing on her mind. We can comprehend her stress, see how she’s pushed and pulled, understand how enormous the burden of performance must feel and we want her to succeed, despite Ryan, and then, there’s that finish, the unforgettable, climactic finish to the story.
Bio: Sudha Balagopal is honored to have her writing in many fine journals including CRAFT, Split Lip, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc fiction in 2021. She has work included in both Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions, 2022. Her work is listed in the Wigleaf Top 50: 2019, 2021, longlisted 2022. Find her on Twitter @authorsudha
- We’re delighted to welcome Sudha Balagopol as judge for our 23rd Award which opens November 1st and closes on Sunday, February 5th, 2023 (Results out at the end of February). Read Jude’s interview with her below, where Sudha tells us about her long writing journey and how she became interested in writing flash. There are links to some of her own wonderful stories, and stories by others, showing her interest in different styles and forms of flash fiction plus tips on what she is looking for in competition entries.
Our big thanks to Emily Devane for all her work! We so appreciate her comments here and for working to our quick turnaround time.
First, I’d like to thank Jude for asking me to judge this round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award. It’s a competition that’s close to my heart – I’ll never forget the joy of having my story selected by Kathy Fish back in 2017. This award sets the gold standard for writing competitions in terms of organisation, engagement and quality. I love the buzz that surrounds deadline day, with entrants proudly sharing their Last Minute Club badges and cheering each other on. The reading team works incredibly hard to turn the stories around so fast. And goodness, what an amazing longlist of stories they picked.
The next stage – whittling down the fifty-strong longlist to just twenty stories – was quite a challenge. If you got to this point, seriously well done. It was such a pleasure reading your words. There was something to admire in every story on that longlist, and the selection was brilliantly varied – some made me laugh, some made me think in a different way, some took a piece of my heart, while others made me swoon at their boldness and originality. In a bid to ensure those stories were treated as if they were my own, I read them through then printed them out, shuffled them and read them again in a different order. It’s interesting how some stories grab you from the off, while others rise up the pile and demand more attention with each re-read. There were several stories I struggled to part with – stories which a different judge, or even me on a different day, might have put through. I’m excited to find out who wrote them all.
When it came to deciding the winners, I had a few sleepless nights, I can tell you. Every story on that shortlist was a potential winner. So, how to choose? Having read and re-read each one, I put them through a series of tests. Was there a sense of meaningful movement or shift? Was language used with precision? Was this story telling me something new or particular? Did this story resonate on an emotional level? There’s always that unknowable element, that magical alchemy that occurs between writer and reader. Ultimately, I had to be guided by instinct when making those tough final decisions. The stories I selected for my final five were those to which I kept returning. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
First Place: The Metamorphosis of Evaline Jackson
This bold and striking story got better with each re-read. There’s not a word out of place. The use of language is confident and playful, with brilliant flourishes and repetitions that mimic the ‘evolution’ of the titular character, Evaline Jackson. We have those ‘cling-cling shorts’, the ‘pop-pop’ of the boys and those dangerous rolling eyes. This is a writer absolutely in control of his/her craft. The theme is a resonant one, too. It tells us so much about teenage girls – how they long to be desired but they fear it, too. Here, the girls follow along behind Evaline Jackson, cutting and glinting and stealing and painting their way to Skittle Town Bowl, only to be appalled at what they’ve unleashed. I loved this so much.
Second Place: McDonald’s
This was one of the shortest stories on the longlist, but there is remarkable power behind it. McDonald’s is a gorgeous, unassuming story that sneaks up on you and leaves your heart in a puddle. The fast-food restaurant setting grounds us from the start. What I loved here was the elegant way in which the writer took us, in very few words, and with wonderfully specific details, into this mother’s experience, showing us how grief can ambush us in unexpected ways. We’re drawn in from the first line, which begins as if we’re already there: The boys again… I can’t read it without getting a lump in my throat. That last line is exquisite: it lands so gently, so beautifully.
Third Place: Fourth Grade Science Lesson, Chickasaw City, Alabama
I knew from my first read of this story that it would be among my top five. It’s a gorgeously written tale of hope. The clear, uncluttered prose brought to mind one of my favourite novellas, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The central image of the papery, brown bulbs that seemed doomed to fail, becomes symbolic of our hope for Rylee’s future – that, contrary to Olivia Hewett’s assertion that ‘flowers are born looking beautiful’, they can be nurtured from very little, ‘those funny-shaped husks hiding something wonderful.’ I love what this story tells us about the transformative power of education.
What bowled me over with this piece was the grandmother’s voice, which feels so vivid and alive. It’s a story about loss, but this is also about the ongoing effects of trauma, how the stories we hold are passed on to those around us. And this grandmother is fiercely protective, with her warnings about lightning that ‘seeks out animals’ and ‘bursts through faucets and drowns you in electricity’. There’s a recognition here, too, about the importance of listening. This child’s simple act of sitting in the dark, while her grandmother sits in her rocking chair recalling the story of her sisters, is as moving as it is haunting.
Highly Commended: A Beachcomber’s Guide to Desert Grief
This is a dreamy piece of writing. I chose it because of how it made me feel. The joy of this piece is in the imaginative use of details and vivid sense of place: we have a character wishing to immerse themselves in grief – the exact nature of which we never find out – by pretending that the desert is a seascape. But the attempts at healing are thwarted by the presence of a boy whose breath ‘is root beer soda and barbecue sauce’. A boy who is ‘not dead’. The lines between what is real and what is imagined are blurred at the edges. This writer drew me into the dreamlike world of this character’s sadness with such quiddity, I kept returning to it, turning up more layers of meaning.
We’re delighted that award winning writer, editor and teacher Emily Devane is judging our 22nd Award, open now and closing on Sunday 9th October.
Read her bio and her really interesting answers on what she considers when she writes and reads flash.
- Emily Devane is a writer, editor and teacher based in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. She has taught workshops and courses for Comma Press, Dahlia Press, London Writers’ Café and Northern Writers’ Studio. She has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Northern Writers’ Award and a Word Factory Apprenticeship. Emily’s work has been published in Smokelong Quarterly (third place, Grand Micro Contest 2021), Best Microfictions Anthology (2021), Bath Short Story Award Anthology (2015, 2017 and 2021), New Flash Fiction Review, Lost Balloon, Ellipsis, New Flash Fiction Review, Janus, Ambit and others. She is a founding editor at FlashBack Fiction. Emily co-hosts Word Factory’s Strike! Short Story Club and runs a monthly social writing group at The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley. She was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing. Find her on Twitter @DevaneEmily and @WordsMoor.
Q & A
- You have been very successful in writing both flash fiction and longer short stories. Among many other successes, you won the Bath Flash Fiction Award, judged by Kathy Fish in 2017 and third prize in the 2021 Smokelong Quarterly Grand Micro Competition. You were shortlisted in the Bath Short Story Award in 2021 This year, you were one of four writers shortlisted for the prestigious Mogford Short Story Prize. Do you find your flash fiction and short story writing, is very different in approach?
- That’s a great question. Instinctively, I’ve come to know if an idea is better suited to the flash or short story form. I tend to write a first draft, or sometimes notes, and then take a long, hard look at what’s in front of me. There’s a balance to be struck between clarity and depth. For some stories, distilling them down to one intense moment is the best way to tell them –anything else feels like padding. But while I’m all for efficiency in storytelling, there are times when a story is crying out for more space in which to breathe. Perhaps it would be better told in a sequence of scenes, or maybe there are several layers to explore, and a shorter version just isn’t doing the job.
- Usually, I have an idea what sort of length I’m aiming for before I start, but it’s not set in stone. I think of writing as a process of excavation – what I want to end up with is something that feels true, and complete. For a long time, ‘Too Long Under Water’ (which won third prize in the Smokelong Quarterly Grand Micro Competition, 2021) was just two paragraphs of a child queuing in a reptile house. It began with a coin clutched in a child’s hand, and that metallic
smell left behind on the skin. I kept going back to it, knowing there was something powerful in that scene, if only I could find it. When Uncle Billy arrived in a later draft, the story finally took shape. And it’s happened the other way around, too. ‘Maria Belfiore’s Shoes’ (published at TSS) had to be pruned right down – in sacrificing a secondary plot, I was able to sharpen the story’s focus.
- One thing I have noticed about your writing, which makes it very powerful in its resonance is that you include great sensory details. Is that something you always payattention to carefully in your writing?
- Thank you. In truth, I’ve always been keenly aware of my senses – sensory details are woven into the fabric of my memories. For me, including them in my writing feels quite natural, I don’t have to think too much about the process. But those details serve a purpose, too.Something that transformed my writing was being taught, early on, to consider the reader’s experience. Writing is all about getting the reader to feel something. The right details can seta tone, create tension, establish character and even suggest narrative – I’ve talked before about how, in flash, description can do ‘double duty’. That said, those details need to be the right details
- If sensory details seem forced, or confusing, then they don’t work. They need to feel right for the story. Describing a character’s toes pressing through wet, gritty sand, or the rough bark of a tree, or the high screech of a kettle, or the particular metallic smell of a coin,brings the reader into the story – he or she has to dig into their own sensory memory bank,and with that comes a whole raft of emotions, all of which add depth to the reading experience. These details are like emotional hot keys. With them, we can make the reader feel fear, disgust, warmth, compassion. When editing a story, I’m mindful of how it works on different sensory levels, from the rhythm of the sentences to the images, sensations, smells and tastes it evokes.
- You teach flash fiction and short story writing online and in person for Moor Words and Comma Press. Can you tell us a little more about this enterprise and what you have coming up soon?
- Teaching is in my bones – I love it! Over the last few years, I’ve taught workshops and courses for various organisations, including Comma Press, London Writers’ Café, Retreat West and Word Factory. I trained as a teacher, and there’s nothing quite like the buzz of being in the classroom – though, admittedly, story acceptances are hard to beat. I set up Moor Words and started teaching local classes in Ilkley before the pandemic. When lockdown began, I was midway through a short fiction course and had to quickly adapt to online teaching. It was a steep learning curve!
- I’m especially grateful to Farhana Shaikh of Dahlia Press. Back in 2021, she invited me to deliver a masterclass on her A Brief Pause programme, along with a wonderful group of teachers and writers. Through the excellent training she provided, I discovered that online learning can be warm, engaging, fun and inclusive. For many, online workshops have opened up new possibilities: writers in varied time zones can participate asynchronously, and those unable to travel can tune in from home. It’s not perfect, because not everyone has online access, but it’s a step in the right direction. During lockdown, especially, those regular human interactions became so important.
- I have lots going on at the moment. I’m currently teaching a 6-month short story course in Leeds for Comma Press. It’s great to be teaching in person again. I’ll be co-leading a workshop with Sharon Telfer at the Flash Fiction Festival. I also co-host Word Factory’s Strike! Short Story Club, and I recently set up a monthly social writing group at Ilkley’s Grove Bookshop, where I work part time. I’m taking a few weeks over the summer to focus on my own writing projects, but I have new online workshops and courses brewing for the autumn,so keep an eye out for those.
- What do you like about teaching flash fiction in particular?
- Flash fiction is an incredibly versatile form. It’s a great introduction to writing short fiction –although that’s not to say it’s easy. The form is perfect for workshops, because a first draft can be written in a few minutes. Once that first draft is written, editing and polishing it seems do-able. It’s so rewarding to hear when writers have come away from a workshop brimming with new ideas – even if all they have is one phrase that pulls at them to write more, it’s a start. Because of the short word count, a wide range of flash stories can be shared in their entirety, which makes it perfect for teaching different aspects of craft. There’s so much fun to
be had trying out various ways of presenting a story – experimenting with structure, exploring voice, setting and tense. I recently introduced a group of young writers to the form. It was so exciting seeing what they made of it – to say to them: don’t worry about grammar rules for awhile, just play.
- There are very many astonishingly good flash fictions we can read these days, published online and in print. Which flash fiction stories have made a strong impact on you recently?
- Oh goodness, yes. Where to begin? It’s sometimes hard to keep up with all the amazing work being published. I adored Angela Readman’s collection, The Girls Are Pretty Crocodiles, which includes a number of flash fictions. She writes in a way that is so particular to her; her descriptions are often surprising, and yet perfect. I also loved Nora Nadjarian’s gorgeous ‘Baby, be mine’ in the Flash Flood – she has such an ear for rhythm. It’s at the short story end of flash fiction, but I so enjoyed Nod Ghosh’s ‘The Mouthfeel of Another Accent’ at Fictive Dream – who couldn’t resist a stammering cat? We recently published a beautiful micro by Struan Gow at FlashBack Fiction, called ‘RRS Discovery’, which made brilliant use of perspective. I also recommend reading the latest issue of Smokelong Quarterly – it’s packed with great stuff. ‘My Americanah’ by Vincent Anioke was especially powerful. I can’t stop thinking about it.
- You are also an editor for Flashback Fiction, an online magazine that publishes historical flash fiction. And with Sharon Telfer, you are running a workshop at the 2022 Flash Fiction Festival.What have you learned about writing historical pieces from being an editor of the magazine?
- Editing at FlashBack Fiction has been a joy and a privilege – I’ve worked with some great writers, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow editors. It’s all about setting the scene,weaving in historical details in a way that feels natural, and allowing the story to shine through. As a former history teacher, I have to avoid the urge to explain the history – I often get stuck in the ‘head’ stage of writing rather than allowing the ‘heart’ part to take over. With historical detail, it’s usually a case of less is more, although I admire writers who pay attention to those things. We tend to think history should be told in a grave tone of voice, but I am
always delighted to see stories with a playful take on the past, like Salena Casha’s ‘This is not a story about my grandfather’, which takes the perspective of a suitcase lost at sea.
- Any tips for writers who might be considering writing a flash of 300 words or under for our Award?
- It might help writers to know that I almost didn’t send my BFFA-winning story, ‘The Hand that Wields the Priest’. My husband read it and urged me to send it in. I assumed it was too quiet,too unexciting. I submitted the story, along with a piece I thought stood a much better chance in the competition, but I suspect I’d edited the life out of the other story. So, the moral of the tale? Have a go. Send in the piece that feels like you’ve put a piece of your heart on the page,
the piece where you took a risk, the piece that makes you feel a little bit scared to share. I’m so excited to read your words.
A big thank you to US based writer, editor and teacher, Tommy Dean for being our 21st Award judge and for selecting a wonderful short list and winners from our fifty fantastic longlisted stories for the June Award, 2022. Read all his interesting comments below and read the winning stories by clicking the titles.
I was thrilled to be chosen by Jude Higgins to judge this round of the micro contest. What I love about micro fiction is that there’s no set way to write such short stories! There are a million ways to open a story and gain a reader’s attention, and the writers on the longlist provided excellent examples of how stories can start and how they can grip a reader through conflict, through character, through precise and beautiful language. The writers here trusted me as a reader leaving much of the story out, compressing the details into specific gems, and asking me to trust them as they took me into worlds that were familiar, unknown, and at their best a bit of both!
Micro fiction is a livewire act of balancing so many craft elements all with the design of telling a great story, of allowing the reader to invade the stage of the story and put themselves deeply into the narrative at hand. These writer’s compressed until the brevity sparkled with gritty realism, with fantastic fantasy, and showed me the joys and horrors of being human.
Specific, concrete and surprising details dominated these stories, and helped me inhabit the “hot spots” of their character’s lives. So many unforgettable stories that I have no doubt will find great homes in literary magazines big and small. Every story touched me in a way. Stories have always been a balm, an escape, but also a way of reckoning with the world around me, and I thank these writers for bringing their souls to the page, for filling it with truth and beauty, and sorrow, and humor, for giving me a chance to enter their worlds, to live so many lives, to commune with their wit and perspective.
No matter where you finished in this round, please be proud of the work that you’ve accomplished that your stories matter, that it’s only a matter of time before they find readers hungry for your words, your moments of distilled truth and beauty
I’m a sucker for a long winding sentence that does its best to cram in as much pertinent information as possible. I love how the first sentence winds around like the neighbors’ cars taking them to work. I love a story that has such a fierce desire, the truth of waiting for others to leave, to have this private moment. I love that we as the reader are privy to this private moment, one that resonates in its pain, its search for relief. I love how we are on this search for the best place to exert our emotion alongside the character, how specific the details are here, how specific the places of retreat are, how they help me see the character’s desperation, to feel it, to won it. How really screaming isn’t enough, how art isn’t helpful, how frustration is somehow sentient, an antagonist. A masterful portrayal of unmet desire.
I love a story that feels somehow commonplace, but because of its character takes us to a new place of understanding, of truth, of beauty in our human desire to be more than we are. I connected with this idea that we leave something of ourselves behind, that our jobs take something from us, that we don’t always know we’re losing something. How Juliet is more than this job, but she can’t quite see that, feel that, that she often disappears, but this story creates this delicious tension of the opposite of that, this story makes her live on the page! I love the fantastic details here, how the writer is so confident in their use of minimalism, how they refrain of telling us how to feel, how that image of Juliet at the end is murky with sadness, but for us, she has become visible!
Don’t mistake me for your crabapple
I love a writer who takes the risk of using the 2nd person point of view. It can be so intimate, like a cover of a great song that makes you pay closer attention to the lyrics. Another story that made me trust the writer from opening sentence. Another story that made me sit up a little straighter, to pay a bit more attention. And who wouldn’t with these great details and images, the way the narrator demands my attention. And that masterful use of dialogue! Just a few sentences but they create unique and specific characters who are talking past each other, occupying the same space, but not quite on the same page! A glimpse of a specific and unique relationship, one that I wish I could know more about! And that ending image!
On Our Daughter’s Wedding Day
I love a story that starts i the negative, that tells us something they didn’t do or in this case didn’t miss. The negative creates a ghost of two stories that creates so much tension just by using this device! The character is in conflict, but they’re not quite acting, and yet I’m pulled in! On the other side of the negative is the things the character did do or in this case did miss, and that shift from the negative does so much work to reveal this character in a specific and unique way! This is at the heart of any great story! There’s something quite lovely about a character choosing to do something they don’t want to do!
The Shape of the Situation in Apartment 23C on a Sunday in September
Oh, the specificity and intrigue of this long title! I love a story that uses the title to ground me in the setting before I read the first word of the story. There’s so much tension in moving from the title to the opening sentence! Titles like this jumpstart a story, and intrigue a reader, and this story had a high bar to cross to live up to this title, and it did it in spades! I loved the sense of play, the creation of this allegory, how it takes something commonplace, and twists it enough to delight and intrigue the reader! It’s fun, sure, but it also hits hard with resonance!
John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022. He has nineteen books of poetry and fiction including Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He is the founder and editor of The Journal of Radical Wonder. He lives in Jamestown, New York.
We’re delighted that prose and poetry writer, teacher and editor from the US, John Brantingham, is judging our 2023 Novella in Flash Award. He has so much of interest to say in this interview, to inspire you to write a novella-in-flash. We hope you will give it a go and if you want to read a survey of the form and exercises to help you structure, and finish your novella as well as get ideas, the new craft guide book Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash, from blank page to finished manuscript by Michael Loveday,recently published by our small press, Ad Hoc Fction will help you with the writing process.
- Thank you for judging our 2023 Novella in Flash Award!
As well as many poetry books, you have written three Novellas-in-Flash yourself. Inland Empire Afternoon, which was a runner up in the 2019 Bath Flash Fiction Award and published by Ad Hoc Fiction the same year, Finding Mr Pembroke, The Wapshot Press and Life: Orange to Pear, published by Bamboo Dart Press. Can you give us a few sentences about each of them and their themes?
Inland Empire Afternoon follows a new character in about forty flashes, all linking to the others to tell the story of a region of the Los Angeles area. The Inland Empire is a much-maligned section of California. It is stereotyped and insulted because it is not nearly as wealthy as Los Angeles, and I don’t like that human tendency toward provincialism and hatred. I wanted to capture the humanity, grace, and craziness of the area, which might be anywhere.
I wrote Finding Mr. Pembroke after a particularly difficult semester of teaching. It had been overwhelming physically and emotionally, and one day, I shut down. I just couldn’t move, so I wanted to capture that experience. Along with that, I’m well into middle age (as long as I live beyond 100), and it surprises me when I realize that I’m not in my twenties any longer. I wanted to deal with self-concept as well. It’s a book done in one long sentence, and I was hoping that it captured part of the reality of rumination, and the way I was feeling at the time. I couldn’t go to sleep, and I was never really awake.
Life: Orange to Pear was written slowly, and I understood halfway through that I was asking and answering a question. It is about an alter ego of myself. I started out my adulthood on a journey to become an academic and dropped out of a Ph.D. program in favor of an MFA and the life of a writer. Sure I taught at a college, but the writing I was doing stopped being academic at that point. I was a dismal academic writer. My articles tended to explore the obvious. I also missed the experience of fatherhood, so this answers the question to me of how my life would have been different with those two changes. The answer I came to was that I would have been a boozy, erratically employed father of someone I loved deeply. I’ve written a shadow companion to it called Finnegans Awake to ask and answer other questions about myself. Actually, that entire collection was inspired by an exercise at the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last autumn.
- What interests you in the novella in flash as a form?
I like the way that it breaks away from previous modes of expression that were damaged by financial concerns. So much of writing before the new technologies of today was limited by the realities of print media. It was too expensive and too difficult to distribute forms like flash or the novella. A friend of mine wrote and published a flash novella in the 1970s, Gerald Locklin’s The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen. It is an absolutely brilliant book that changed the way I understood fiction, but it never got the kind of distribution it needed. It asks us to reconceptualize not only what fiction is but what life is because it can be a series of interlocking moments with or without narrative arc, as our lives often are.
- The problem with this is that when we limit forms of expression, we limit what we can say, and voices that should be heard are silenced. It is part of the process of gatekeeping, and I want to hear as many points-of-view as possible. It’s not just about the kinds of stories that we can tell, but the ways that we see. It’s not just story; it’s point-of-view. Not all concepts can be expressed in 100,000 words, and so these new forms, like the novella-in-flash, allow us to explore other selves and ideas (We need to be able to see from other people’s perspective. David Foster Wallace tells us why.).
- For many years you were a professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College, California,where you coordinated the creative writing programme and ran the yearly creative writing conference. But you have recently left teaching there and moved to New York State.
Have you plans to teach elsewhere?
- I might. Technically, I’m just on leave so I might return to Mt. SAC, but currently I’m feeling that I’d rather not. The work I did there was good and important, maybe the most important work I will ever do, but I’d like to focus more on creative writing than I did there. I had a kind of hybrid assignment where I taught creative writing and essay writing, and I worked with and evaluated part-time professors.
What I’d like to do now is teach creative writing exclusively. I don’t know what the realities of the United Kingdom are, but in the United States there is too much gatekeeping, starting with professors who do not help their students find their own voice and platform. Many educators ask their students to mimic their voices. I want to help people create something that is true to them and their experiences. I love to help marginalized students find their audience for the same reason I love new forms of fiction. I want to hear new things. This might be at a formal college or university or in places like flash fiction festivals. It could be in the United States or outside of it. I don’t know. I’m so new to not being a tenured professor that I’m still spinning a little; after all, for twenty-five years my first name was Professor. Now, I’m back to being John.
- Have you any new writing projects on the go?
I always work on many projects at once. I just finished a collection of 100 ekphrastic sonnets about four artists who lived through times of war, Miro, Klee, Goya, and David. Some of their art gives a path forward through international trauma. David often celebrates tyranny, propping up dictators like Napoleon. Of course, this is the nationalistic quest, and I see many in my country acting in the same way. I’d like to understand those people, but I doubt I ever will.
At the same time, I’m working on a flash novella or novel following the life cycle of one person born during WWII. We follow his life and the effect that war has on him. It resists the idea that there are individual wars rather than just one war that shifts all over the world. If we say, WWII ended, then there’s no way that it can. There’s more to it than that. There are other throughlines like how returning to nature heals, but that was the impetus for the work.
My third collection in progress is a series of free verse poems looking at empty spaces and why they have been abandoned, and how that abandonment feels in a world that is often hostile and feels meaningless to people who live in it. I live in a rural part of New York State and people are leaving for places like the Inland Empire, California. There are abandoned factories and houses everywhere.
The fourth project, which I’m more or less done with, is about the Santa Ana River Watershed. It’s an 80 page haibun about what makes a watershed. In the Los Angeles area, where the Santa Ana River is, water is so scarce that it must be used and reused. If a drop of water lands on a mountain, it’s likely to pass through 3 or 4 people before it reaches the ocean. That means the human population is part of the calculation that the water resources people make when they try to understand how much water there is. This fact makes it clear that we are a part of nature, not disconnected. We are in fact a part of the watershed; we are a mobile reservoir. I try to explore those connections to nature. “Connection” is even the wrong word because it implies disconnection is possible. It is not. We are of the rivers that run past and through us.
- You have also recently started The Journal of Radical Wonder on Medium. Can you tell us more about it and how people can submit and what you are looking for?
It’s a journal that came out of years of conversations with my writing partners. I agree very much with Hannah Arendt about the dangerous nature of the banality of evil, and we’re trying to extend that idea a bit. Being able to see this world, any part of it, as banal is where evil begins. The lens of banality is a way of seeing beauty, oneness, and connection as being disposable (Have you heard Cosmo Sheldrake’s song against boredom? Here it is.). Not everything needs to be positive, but it’s trying to understand how everyday moments are not simple or humdrum. It fights cynicism, which is a sophomoric approach to life meant to make someone seem smart without taking the time to understand.
What I’d like people to submit is anything that lays bare what is true in this world. I don’t want to read anything merely clever. I hate smugness and punching down. I assume that I’m wrong about a lot in this world. I want to be shown the truth.
Okay, so on a practical level, what would l like to see? Flash of all sorts. Poetry, although formatting on medium is very limited, so I think it’s best to send poems that rely on shape to other publications. Essays. Book reviews. We’d love more book reviews. Interviews. Art and images, these don’t go to me but to Jane Edberg, the visual arts editor.
Here’s the link to our submissions page. Please send me work. At heart, I am more of a teacher than an editor. I’d love to have a conversation about your work: Link to our submission guidelines.
- If you are able to answer this, it would be very interesting to know what kind of novella would particularly grab your attention?
I want to understand other people in a profound and meaningful way. I want to have a moment of humanity. I’m driven by character and setting. Kathy Fish, Kendall Johnson, Romaine Washington, Aimee Bender, Grant Hier, Tony Barnstone, Pamela Painter, Karen Jones, Lynne Thompson, Michael Loveday, and Stuart Dybek move me. Kareem Tayyar always floors me. I think he’s one of the best living writers. All of these writers and poets show us what it means to be human. Of course, I love others too, but this kind of writing tends to reach me.
- A tip for the difficult moments in writing a longer narrative in flash fictions?
When I am having trouble moving through writing, it usually has to do with me running from trauma. When that happens, I try to understand what it means, and what pain I’m afraid to work through.
A psychologist friend of mine once said that nightmares are not the problem, they are the solution your body is giving you, and you need to listen to them. When we’re entering fiction, we’re entering dreamtime. If you’re struggling, it could very well be this. It also might be that it’s dangerous in these moments to proceed alone. Support systems matter. The image of the alienated writer is a warning, not an aspiration.
On top of that, if you’ve had the kind of shame-based vaguely religious childhood training grounded on groupthink and cognitive dissonance that I had, everything in your stupid brain will tell you that if you enjoy an experience then it must be without value, that if you create something, it has no meaning, and that everyone around you always has greater insights than you do.
Let me tell you this:
Your work is important.
Your voice matters.
The world needs to hear what you have to say.
Also, if you are a beginning writer, please watch this: Ira Glass’s flash essay.