Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Emily! We are so excited to have you as our guest judge and look forward to sharing your thoughts with the Flash community. Let’s begin with some general questions – what do you look for in a piece of Flash Fiction?
Thanks so much for asking me – I’m honoured! Great flash fiction makes me think differently. If a story delivers some kind of emotional hit, then I’ll take notice. I like sad flash, strange flash, experimental flash, funny flash, but I have to feel that there is something more going on between the lines. I admire stories that operate on different levels, opening up all sorts of brain windows. The very best stories are the ones that float around my head for days, weeks, months afterwards – it’s busy up there!
Flash is one of the more experimental forms of writing – but are there any things you’d recommend readers try to avoid?
I’m open to experimental flash fiction – part of what I love about flash is that it allows for play in a way that might not be sustainable in longer pieces. That said, the clever idea must enhance, not detract from, the story. I would also avoid trying to fit too much in at the expense of mood and tone. Some stories are crying out for more breathing space, especially in those important final lines. An abrupt ending can spoil an otherwise brilliant story. Pay particular attention to this. I think of last lines as being like the final chord in a song: choose it deliberately, carefully. Let it shock, or intrigue or linger. Don’t be tempted towards the fade-out ending.
There’s a lot of death in short fiction. If someone’s writing a piece that involves death, are there any suggestions you can offer to help authors make their writing stand out?
There are plenty of brilliant stories that deal with death. The problem comes when everyone is writing the same thing in the same way. The interesting stuff happens when we explore beyond the obvious. I once heard Colm Tóibín address an audience about this very thing (incidentally, he writes beautifully about death). He advises writers to discard their first, second, third ideas. Aim to write with a fresh gaze. Look at death differently: by talking about the person’s favourite pet spaniel, or their abandoned allotment, or the grief-struck spouse compulsively eating stale biscuits while sitting in the wardrobe. Give death the side-eye.
Perhaps you could also tell us a little about your own writing process – where do you write, how often, how many drafts do you do, and where do you get most of your inspiration from?
I write as often as I can – although I can go for whole weeks without writing a thing, and that’s okay. Where I write depends on what I’m writing. I’m able to edit pretty much anywhere. I enjoy the bustle of a café or library, and find long train journeys conducive to writing. I start in a notebook, often with ideas sprouting from a central word or theme, then move on to my laptop for shaping and editing the story. Because I enjoy the rhythms produced by putting words together, I sometimes keep whole sentences untouched within my stories. There is an energy in those messy first drafts, when I’m trying to capture an idea. I see editing as a delicate balance: I avoid submitting a piece before it’s ready, but over-editing can take the life out of a story. Reading a story out loud, or asking a valued write friend to take a look, can expose problems. As for inspiration, I love getting out into the world and experiencing it. It’s worth casting around for ideas by looking at interesting things. Delving into strange books in libraries or museums is one of my favourite ways to find inspiration. There’s a remarkable kind of alchemy at work in writers’ brains, where what we read and see and hear connects with our lived experience and spills out as stories.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a sequence of linked stories. I’m nervous to call it a novel but it’s heading in that direction. That said, I can’t help but intersperse fantastical flash episodes through the narrative. Writing flash fiction changes the way one tells stories. I recently read ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr; I loved that it was formed from a patchwork of very short chapters, mimicking how memory works.
I have too many ‘favourite’ authors to mention them all here. Do seek out the poetry and prose of Tania Hershman – her work is gorgeously playful, emotionally generous and rich. ‘Rift’ by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan is a masterclass in the versatility of flash fiction; I’m excited about Kathy’s new collection, ‘Wild Life’. There is wonderful work happening in the novella-in-flash form. Sophie Van Llewyn’s ‘Bottled Goods’ was one of my favourite reads this year. I also loved Charmaine Wilkerson’s ‘How To Make A Window Snake’ (the book includes superb novellas from Ingrid Jendrzejewski and Joanna Campbell), and ‘Three Sisters Of Stone’ by Stephanie Hutton, which left me feeling as if my heart had been ripped out and put back in. And talking of emotional reads, Damhnait Monaghan and Diane Simmons have collections coming out soon – I have a feeling the flash world is going to love them.
Lastly, if someone’s reading this and wants to enter, but they’re either too nervous/unsure or are stuck in a writing funk, what would you say to them?
Don’t hold back – have a go! We writers are hyper-critical of our own work, not always realising which of our stories resonate most with others. My most successful stories have been the ones I almost didn’t send, and I’m always an eleventh-hour submitter (sorry, Rupert!). Keep getting your work out there. Judges have very different opinions, so don’t be tempted to put a story away after its first unsuccessful outing. Stories can’t get any love if they’re stuck on your hard drive: dust them down and get them back out there. Good luck with your stories, TSS readers. I can’t wait to read them.
Emily Devane, a teacher and writer, lives in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Her stories have been published widely, most recently in Ellipsis and The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology. Emily won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2017 and was a Best Small Fictions Finalist. A former Word Factory apprentice, she last year won a Northern Writers’ Award for her short story collection-in-progress. Emily is on the editorial team for historical flash fiction literary magazine FlashBack Fiction and she is the judge for the TSS Flash 400 competition this winter, 2018.
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