We’re delighted to publish a Q & A with Kathy Hoyle who won our 22nd Award, judged by Emily Devane The picture here shows the coastal town where Kathy was born and brought up, with rainbow. And her stories always offer such a range of colour, tone and depth. She’s had a great year writing-wise and summarises her successes below. We’re looking forward to seeing her first prize winning story in print in the seventh Bath Flash Fiction Award paperback Anthology, which is a little delayed, but out soon from adhocfiction and Amazon and to seeing her at the flash fiction festival weekend, 14th – 16th July 2023 where she will be offering another of her high-energy, inspiring workshops. Another photograph in this interview, shows her in full flow at the 2022 festival weekend.
Judy Darley’s third collection, The Stairs Are a Snowcapped Mountain’ was published by Reflex Press earlier this year and launched at Waterstones Bristol around the time of the spring equinox. Jude’s delighted to review this splendid selection of stories just before the winter solstice. Put it on your reading list for Christmas! It is available directly from Reflex Press.
Read more about Judy’s work on her website SkyLightRain, which includes links to her other collections, writing prompts, news of her teaching activities and her own excellent reviews of books and theatre productions. She has reviewed many of the books published by our small press, Ad Hoc Fiction and we are very grateful to her for careful and thoughtful reviews.
Review of The Stairs Are a Snowcapped Mountain
There’s an elemental feel to The Stairs are A Snowcapped Mountain. Both because the stories are often located outside in the ‘elements’ and also because many include elemental themes. Judy Darley is skilful in her use of metaphor. She recasts fairy stories and conjures new mythological worlds including creatures and humans, showing how closely connected we are to other living things both physically and psychologically. Oceans,seas,lakes and rivers are frequently present. People traverse them, are soaked in a deluge or are on holiday in frozen landscapes. We learn about lonely and captive sea creatures. ’Honey in Solitude’ is from the point of view of a Bottle Nosed dolphin in captivity in Japan. ‘Why Rivers Run to the Sea’ a story from the point of view of a river, ends tellingly, with the line,”There’s a storm brewing, we’re all invited.”
One story with a title that suggests much about the very young protagonist’s life is called ‘The Sea Lives in Her Mum’s Head’. The girl’s Nanna has explained why her mother cries and wails. “Storms rile up the waves inside her, and tears happen when the spray breaks free”… “Her moaning, Nanna says, is the sound of the wind whipping salty air over the sea.” It’s only occasionally that the mother is calm.
Both the pieces mentioned above are very short and the collection comprises a mixture of short ‘flash fiction’ pieces and longer short stories. There are several stories concerning disrupted relationships — between sisters, parents and children and lovers. The use of the elements often echo themes in these stories. A favourite story of mine, ‘Fermented Cherries’, tells of a grandchild visiting their estranged grandfather in a Fado club to tell the old man the mother, his daughter, is dead. Again this begins with a metaphor of the sea: “The Fado rolls out, washing over me. It’s a salt-weighted tide that ebbs and rises above the listeners’ heads.” As in all of the stories in the collection, much care has been taken with the composition of sentences,the sensory details and the overall structure.The language is beautiful, metaphor deepening the story and adding universal resonance.
Another favourite story, ‘Old Friends’, does not involve the sea, but instead other aspects of nature. This is a touching story about a relationship between a father and a daughter, where the daughter joins her father’s dawn chorus walk with his old male friends. Everyone on the walk must tell a story. Her joining this long-standing group is an important occasion for the father. It evokes another much earlier shared father/daughter experience which she refers to in her story, reconnecting them all over again.
As well as stories successfully employing elemental metaphors, there are others with plainer language and excellent dialogue. Judy writes convincingly in the voice of children or young people. ‘In Kitten Shoes’ is a story showing the longing of a tall girl who wants new white patent leather kitten-heeled shoes but who only gets to keep the coveted pair for one day before her mother says they must go back. Judy also brilliantly captures an outsider adolescent’s breakthrough into being part of something, in a story about clubbing, called ‘The Go-Get-Gone’.
There’s humour, too, in these stories.‘Stealing from Windowsills’ is a darkly wry story based on the fairy tale Rapunzel, where ‘Zel’ hoodwinks the prince into letting her wear his jodhpurs and doublet and leaves him captive while she escapes on his horse.
I have read this collection a few times now and different aspects of these brilliant and varied stories strike me anew each time. The collection is a full and satisfying read.
Jude Higgins, December 2022
It’s just over two weeks until our 22nd Award closes on Sunday October 9th. And here’s a Q & A with Rachel Blake our first prize winner, from the 21st Award. Rachel won with her story ‘Sequelae’. She talks about how she wrote this powerfully impactful piece, which was selected by judge, Tommy Dean, and we have reproduced his comments below, just before her answers to the questions. It’s worth a read of both if you want to look over your own pieces again and submit to the next Award which is judged by Emily Devane. There’s lots of interesting things to think about in Tommy’s comments and the interview with Rachel. At the end she’s offered a visual prompt to inspire you to write a story in the time that is left before the deadline. Read in Full
Tim Craig’s brilliant debut flash fiction is released for publication, this Friday, 1st July by Ad Hoc Fiction, and it will then also be available on Amazon in paperback worldwide. You can still buy it before July 1st on preorder at a 25% discount from Ad Hoc Fiction. There’s a mini launch of the collection at the Flash Fiction Festival 8th -10th July in Bristol, where Tim will read a couple of his micros and another book launch on Wednesday 20th July at Ink@84 Independent Bookshop in London. Jude’s going to be there representing Ad Hoc Fiction, and it will be great to see lots of other flash fiction enthusiasts at the launch to hear Tim read, drink some wine and buy the book. It’s the first in-a-bookshop-launch coming up for an Ad Hoc Fiction published book in ages! Read the Q & A to find out more about the book and how Tim put it together.
Q & A
- Congratulations on the publication of your debut flash fiction collection Now You See Him with Ad Hoc Fiction. We know building a collection involves sifting, resifting, ordering and reordering. Can you tell us about your compiling process? And how you arrived at the title?
I’m so pleased that Ad Hoc Fiction is publishing Now You See Him. Thank you, and for your patience as I prevaricated, messed around, changed the title, the cover, and the stories, a million times.
The title came from the story of the same name (which placed third in the Bath Flash Fiction Award last year). The story was about a man – not unlike my father – who had a habit of disappearing when the heat of family conversation was turned up. The cover sketch – by the portrait artist, Alan Coulson – is from a photograph of my dad as young man. I like that it isn’t clear whether he’s appearing or disappearing.
Deciding which stories to include – and the order – was a process not unlike that of writing a story. A combination of logic (eg it seemed to make sense to finish with the story ‘That’s All There Is, There Ain’t No More’) gut feel, and trial and error. But, as with writing a story, I think you can overthink it. I wonder how many people sit down and read a collection of flash from beginning to end. Oh dear, have I just given myself away?
- Do you think the collection has an overall theme?
I’m not sure it has one clear overall theme, but there are definitely some subplots! I think loss / death is a significant subject in the collection – as it has been in my life. My relationship with my parents – and theirs with each other – also features in several stories. Sadly, they’re both gone now, but I guess I’m still turning the Rubik’s cube, trying to work it out.
- Your writing style is very distilled and one of the compelling things about your fictions, is how more is revealed on each re-read. You are on a panel at the forthcoming Flash Fiction Festival where you, Sharon Telfer and Hannah Storm, talk about how your day jobs influence your writing of short-short fiction. You have worked for many years in radio. Do you think this work has influenced your facility in creating layers of meaning in your stories?
I think the distilled style is certainly informed by writing for radio, where, because you have a lot to say in a very limited time —and because on radio you don’t generally have the opportunity to flit back and forth as you do on the page — the language needs to be extremely succinct and clear. I think any story worth the effort of reading will always have different layers of meaning, not all of which I think the author necessarily intends!
You are (or have been) a reader for Smokelong Quarterly and other magazines. Do you think this has influenced your writing of flash fiction too?
I was so honoured to be asked to read for Smokelong Quarterly. It is widely – and rightly – thought of as the best journal of short-short fiction. I was also very pleased to be asked to read for the wonderful Janus Literary which, in a very short space of time, has managed to elbow itself onto the top table of online literary magazines. I would encourage anyone who is offered the opportunity to read for a journal to snap it up. It’s a lot of work, and usually unpaid, but it gives you such a great overview of the work that’s out there, and forces you to confront why you believe a story works or doesn’t; generally, you learn to spot stories which are ‘dishonest’ with the reader, and thereby, hopefully, learn how not to be dishonest in your own writing. I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past.
- You are also known for your wit, which infilitrates much of your writing. Were you a stand up comedian in a previous life?
I’m reminded of the old Bob Monkhouse line: ‘People used to laugh at me when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.
- I’m far too much of a coward for stand-up. (though I have written comedy for BBC and independent radio, and elsewhere) Humour is very important to me in my writing. Someone once said ‘all fiction is irony’ and humour is a great tool. It’s an age-old gripe amongst writers that ‘funny’ stories rarely win the big prizes. But that’s as true for the Booker or Pulitzer Prizes as it is for most Flash Fiction awards. Having said that, ‘funny-for-funny’s sake’ has never really appealed to me. It needs to be working harder than that.
- Now You See Him is being launched at The Flash Fiction Festival and you also have a bookshop launch planned in London on Wednesday 20th July. Details please for people who might like to attend, have a glass of wine, hear you read from your book and hopefully buy a copy.
It’s being held at the brilliant Ink@84 Bookshop, 84 Blackstock Road, Highbury Park, London, N5 2XE, from 6.30 pm -8.00 pm. Do come along and say hi!
- You have been very successful in writing competitions in the last few years and have been placed three times in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, as well as being commended there and winning The Bridport Flash Fiction Prize. Now you have completed this publication, are you taking a break or working on anything else at the moment?
After I finished writing for the collection, I found it difficult to write anything else for quite a while. Then the deadline for the latest round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award began to emerge from the mist, and my typing fingers started to get itchy. (‘I don’t need time, I need a deadline’ – Duke Ellington)
- It’s funny, though. People do ask if I might try writing a novel now. In the same way that, through all my years in radio, people have always asked me if I’ll ‘move up’ to TV. With radio, I felt at home straight away, and never felt any need or desire to go anywhere else. I feel the same way about flash / micro fiction. It’s not a staging post – it’s endlessly satisfying and surprising, both to read and to write. Why would I go anywhere else?
- (This almost certainly means the next thing I write will be a novel:)
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.
Caroline Greene won our 2022 Novella-in-Flash Award in April this year with her wonderful Novella in Flash, Lessons at the Water’s Edge and the novella is now available on preorder from Ad Hoc Fiction at a 25% discount until publication on July 1st. We’re delighted Caroline’s novella will be launched at the Flash Fiction Festival 8th-10th July. The 2023 Novella-in-Flash Award will be open soon and Caroline has some great advice here for writing one. Scroll down the post of our judge Michelle Elvy’s report to find her interesting comments on this novella. It is a marvellous, absorbing read with many layers and we thoroughly recommend it. You can also hear Caroline talking about it next week on a panel about novellas-in-flash for National Flash Fiction Day New Zealand, 19th June.
- Can you give us a brief synopsis of Lessons At the Water’s Edge?
- What inspired you to write it?
- In her comments Michelle Elvy points out how the novella, which is set in a watery city (unnamed) flows like water and, she remarks that ‘the story lines glide, skim, sometimes sink below the surface and then emerge again.’ Were you aware of the elemental component of your writing, when you were structuring it?
- What is the most challenging aspect about writing a novella in flash, in your experience?
- What did you most enjoy about the process?
- Have you any other flash fiction projects on the go?
- Top tip for someone thinking of writing one?
Q & A with Caroline Greene
It’s the story of a young woman leaving difficulties at home and going to live in a different country. But it’s also the story of the family she goes to live with, and the changes she brings, from their point of view. There are new discoveries about identity, but there are also love stories that intertwine – the love for a place, for family, and an unrequited love too. And it’s about how language connects and moulds us, with ‘language lessons’ that thread through the whole.
This has been a very long time in gestation! Many, many years ago I wrote a short story called ‘The Father’, about a dedicated single father, bringing up two girls. It was inspired by a story by Natalia Ginzburg called ‘The Mother’, about an erratic single mother bringing up two boys. But I never really did anything with it. Then, a few years ago, when I discovered flash fiction, I wrote a couple of scenes based on my experience of living in Italy. I had an idea of combining elements of the short story with the flashes, but was very dithery and unconfident about it. Then when lockdown began and I started to get messages from Italian friends I just thought, now is the time to celebrate the experiences I had there and the people I met.
I love that Michelle picked this out. In a way it was the most subconscious outcome. On a conscious level, I tried to weave the three strands together in a loose way to convey how the various experiences and the different points of view informed each other. But the water imagery was doing this too.
I would definitely avoid trying to think of the thing as a ‘whole’ from the start. That’s too daunting. Although I had a story, I only had a rough idea of how it would be put together, so I just wrote scenes in a random order and gradually a patchwork pattern emerged. The beauty of writing a novella in flash is that you can construct scenes individually and follow thoughts where they want to go, without trying to follow any strict linear structure or plot line. But it’s sometimes hard to be ruthless when you have a suspicion that a certain flash doesn’t work within the whole and so it needs to go.
Once I’d thought that I could create a novella out of the early pieces I had, I absolutely loved the impetus it gave me for writing more. I loved living with the characters and I had fun with the language lessons. While life was strange, difficult and uncertain during lockdown, I also had this other world of the novella going on inside my head.
Once I’d submitted the novella, I felt as though I’d never write anything ever again! But gradually ideas have crept back and I trust myself more now to follow them through.
Trust the process. Follow inklings and instincts. Eventually, it feels as though the separate flashes almost tell you where they are all going, and how they fit together.
Michael Loveday judged our Bath Novella in Flash Award in 2019 and 2020 and has run many courses on writing in this form, and given feedback to and mentored those writing novellas in flash. We were delighted when he agreed to write a guide book on the subject. He’s been working on it for around two years, some of the time with the support of an Arts Council Grant, and it’s published next week, Tuesday May 17th, with our small press Ad Hoc Fiction and available then in paperback from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop as well as in paperback on Amazon, worldwide. Like the well-known writers and writing teachers who have given Advance Praise within the book, we believe it will become a classic in this genre. You can preorder Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash at a 25% discount until Monday May 16th. from Adhocfiction.com. Last week we published an extract on this site, to whet your appetite. Here Michael describes how writers might use Unlocking the Novella in Flash and more about his work as a mentor. Michael is also teaching two workshops on the novella-in-flash at the Flash Fiction Festival weekend, 8th -10th July in Bristol, U.K. and signed copies will be available to buy there. Read in Full
In this interview, first prize winning writer, Louise Mangos from our twentieth Award, judged by Karen Jones, tells us how her winning piece came into being. We learn more about how she began writing flash, there’s a link to one of her first prize wins (illustrated by her) from the weekly 150 word story contest run by Ad HocFiction. Before the contest had to stop in 2019 when Ad HocFiction began publishing books in a big way, Louise won it six or seven times. She also tells us about her crime/suspense novels and other projects on the go. Her latest suspense novel,, The Beaten Track is launched in London in a couple of weeks (hope Londoners can get there!) We’ve also wonderful pictures of the Swiss Alps where Louise lives and great tips at the end for flash fiction writers. If you are coming to the flash fiction festival in July, you will meet Louise there and hear her read this story. Read in Full
Robin Thomas’s novella-in- flash fragments, Margot and The Strange Objects is available from our short fiction press, Ad Hoc Fction on pre-order at a 25% discount on the cover price until this coming Friday, 25th March, when our small press is publishing it, along with David Rhymes’ novella in flash, The Last Days of the Union also available for pre-order on discount and Flash Fiction Festival Anthology, Vol. Four, (more details on this anthology coming soon). A great trio of books for the Spring. Here, Robin tells us more about his novella, the process of writing it and more about one of the other absurdist novellas he has been writing in the last months It’s really heartening to know how creative writers have been in the lockdown period and how many different styles of very shortfiction are illustrated in these three books. We love the cover of Robin’s book, shown here. It was designed by Ad Hoc Fiction and we think perfectly conveys the odd and intriguing characters and relationships in this unusual novella.
- At Ad Hoc Fiction, we’ve described your novella, Margot and The Strange Objects as in the absurdist tradition and Michael Loveday, in his cover endorsement, suggests its style is in the same arena as the writings of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Can you give a synopsis of the story lines and characters? And did that style of writing influence you?
Margot has been left a peculiar collection of ‘strange objects’ by her aunt and is on a quest to find out something about them. Helping or hindering her or engaged on some other project entirely are: two men with a burden called Nimrod, a group of children in search of sardines and ice-cream, a taciturn man with a mysterious hat, a schoolboy who’s good at asking questions, a small dinosaur, a brace of giraffes, an August Personage, George the Oak Tree (a Portuguese-speaking arboreal author), a talking building, a camel, an interfering author and Nobody. Each of these has his, her or their own story line which make minimal contact with each other until the last few pages when they all come together.
I have always enjoyed all kinds of the absurd and surreal – Lear and Carroll certainly but also surrealist painters like Magritte, the writings of Beckett and Borges, the films of Bunuel etc. I think all these and many others influenced me but mostly unconsciously. I think I probably have absurdity in my soul.
- What motivated you to write your novella?
This is very interesting – a few years ago my wife and I were watching a tv programme about Phillip Pulman. On hearing that he aimed at writing a certain number of words a day Mary, my wife turned to me and suggested I do the same. I ended up writing 400 words a day for several months. After a while it looked like it was turning into a story. And that, with many changes, deletions, additions and many helpful comments by others, became Margot.
- Margot and the Strange Objects is a novella in flash-fiction fragments, rather than in stand-alone chapters of flash fictions. Some of the individual pieces are just a couple of sentences long. How did you go about building it and arriving at the final structure?
My unconscious must take much of the responsibility for the content. Consciously, I had to make sure that each of the story lines made ’sense’ in its own right, made contact with the other story lines at appropriate moments and played its own part, being neither dominant nor subservient. An important stage was adding titles to each ‘fragment’ which really helped me ensure that the structure was properly balanced. I had to do quite a bit of work to bring it all together at the end. This involved a lot of trial and error and a lot of checking that no loose ends had been left.
- What were the most challenging and the most satisfying parts of this process?
he most satisfying part was undoubtedly the writing of the 400 word fragments every day. In this phase of things I tried not to look back too far so that each fragment had a chance to develop by itself. Most challenging was the need to delete some parts that I thought worked in their own right but didn’t fit the emerging whole. Checking for inconsistencies, red herrings, things that just didn’t sound right and as I mentioned, pulling it all together at the end of the novella was also very challenging and time and energy consuming.
- You have had several collections of poetry published. Can you tell us more about them?
I’ve had four collections of poetry published now. I like to write about history, family, paintings, music, especially jazz and like to mix up the serious and the less serious with quite a few excursions into the absurd. My last book Cafferty’s Truck, published last year, is a kind of shaggy dog story with one leg in the absurd, the other in the diurnal. Cafferty himself never speaks, the action centring on his truck which goes ‘from here to there and there to here’. It shares some genes with Margot.
- What are you working on at the moment?
Apart from poetry, which I work on every day I have a number of novellas in flash or fragments on the go: there is Lord Merrichip’s Foray which is most advanced and which has something of a similar structure to Margot. It involves a literature and philosophy loving elderly military man and lord of the manor, his gardener cum butler with exemplary knowledge of philosophy, a pair of commoners, Pontius Pilates who habitually speaks in verse and Maid Mary-Anne who speaks in down to earth prose, her mother, who thinks she is rather posh and whose means of advertising it is to speak in Franglais, Mary-Anne’s dad, who has been working in China and who has become an expert on Confucius, Jenny Renne, an inventor responsible for No.17 which is a bad-tempered electric logic chopping machine, Ralph, a vegetarian lion and victim of a category mistake who speaks mainly Cow and whose best friend is indeed a cow – Bets-y-Coed, ducks, sheep, a tram which rides the old Spice route and others. Then there is an absurd novella about the doings of society and club members on the memorable ’Societies Day’ in suburban Loughton in Essex and a novella about Peter, whose soul is in for its yearly service. There are and one or two other novellas in very much an early stage.
Robin Thomas completed the MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University in 2012. His poems have appeared in many poetry anthologies. He has published four poetry books with Eyewear, Cinnamon and Dempsey and Windle. Margot and the Strange Objects is his first novella-in-flash. He currently has two more simmering away.
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