Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Hannah, thanks for chatting to us. You started the #flashfamily last month – what can you tell us about it?
Over the past couple of months, I’ve thought a lot about how much the flash fiction community means to me. It’s provided support, solace and solidarity throughout a pretty tricky year, especially at times of real sadness and stress, but also on occasions when I’ve had something to celebrate.
This goes for people I’ve never met beyond the online universe, who I count as my friends, and those I’ve met in person through fabulous events like the Flash Fiction Festival.
I’m relatively new to this community and I feel like I’ve been welcomed with open arms, so when it became clear we were going to be in lockdown, I thought it might be nice to start something to offer solidarity and support to anyone needing it, as well as a place to celebrate our work.
#Flashfamily is open to anyone, no invitations or tagging needed. All you do is record yourself reading then add the hashtag to connect us on Twitter. Then we can see and hear from friends, whether or not we know them in real life, and celebrate the power of words to help recognise we are not alone.
How has writing helped you in the current lockdown?
At times I’ve found writing tough during lockdown. I think it’s important to manage our expectations too – I remember at the start of lockdown seeing loads of social media comments about how ‘so-and-so’ wrote an award-winning novel, or created some kind of iconic piece of art when they were effectively in lockdown. The world is uncertain and stressful right now and there are other challenges we have to deal with which weren’t the case a few weeks ago.
I’ve had days where I just didn’t feel able to write with everything else going on – a full-time job, home schooling, other stressors. Even when I did feel like writing, sometimes I couldn’t and it was like my words were just stuck in treacle. I tried to cut myself some slack, set myself some manageable targets. I’m really fortunate to be working with Michael Loveday who’s providing me with some creative mentoring and he’s helped me immensely in setting realistic targets. I’m also grateful to be in frequent contact with a few writing buddies on whatsapp and Facebook, especially Victoria Richards and Johanna Robinson, and they’ve been amazing.
When I have written it’s helped me in a couple of ways: it’s given me a method to process some of my feelings, my fears, my anxiety; it’s also provided me with a distraction and I think the nicest thing that it’s provided me, on the best days, is both a sense of control and escape.
We know your Flash Fiction ‘Hooked’ was highly commended in the recent Cambridge Flash Fiction Prize, what else can you tell us about your own work?
I only really discovered flash fiction a couple of years ago and I have Vanessa Gebbie and Cynan Jones to thank for that. I was on an Arvon course, working on a version of a novel, but feeling a bit stuck, when I started tiny fictional stories inspired by many years working as a journalist. I’d never heard of flash fiction before then, but it felt like someone was offering me a key to a world of wonder.
I was used to writing pieces with tight word limits for my work and I had such a treasure trove of material from travelling the world, meeting extraordinary people and visiting inspiring places. I realised then that I had been writing little pieces – that I’d called postcards – for a while, so I suppose I had actually been writing flash without knowing it as a term.
It was a while until I began to recognise that a lot of my work follows similar themes – my family thinks all I write is dark, depressing stuff – but there is a lot in my work that reflects my experiences of gender-based violence and my personal experiences of trauma. In that regard, writing has been a really great form of therapy for me too.
In the past couple of years, I’ve benefitted from workshops and learning from some of the great names in flash and I’m so grateful for everything they’ve taught me – people like Kathy Fish, Tania Hershman, Michael, Vanessa, Nuala O’Connor, Meg Pokrass, and Ken Elkes. They’ve helped me realise I have a unique voice and hopefully a different type of story to tell.
I was so grateful to be recognised by TSS for ‘Hooked’, which was inspired by my time in Rio, and I’m also thrilled that I have been recognised in other competitions this year – winning the ‘I Must Be Off!’ travel writing prize, and being shortlisted in Bath Flash competition, Retreat West and Flash 500. It’s a great encouragement to keep on going, and it inspired me to pull together a flash collection – as well as that I’m also trying to finally finishing the long-drawn out novel!
Can you recommend some Flash Fiction collections?
The very first flash collections I read stick with me – I loved Tania Hershman’s ‘My Mother Was an Upright Piano’, and Vanessa Gebbie’s ‘Storm Warning’.
Two of my favourite collections are Ken Elke’s, ‘All That Is Between Us’ and Kathy Fish’s ‘Wild Life’. I also really admire the brave writing of Gaynor Jones and devoured her collection, the same with Christopher Allen’s courageous work.
Recently I’ve been reading more Novellas in Flash, after Michael Loveday introduced me to them and I love Sandra Cisnero’s ‘The House on Mango Street’ and ‘Bottled Goods’ by Sophie Van Llewyn.
But I have to say three of my favourite Novellas in Flash are Michelle Elvy’s ‘The Everrumble’, for the sheer beauty of its rhythms and movement, and for the magical journey it weaves, ‘The Neverlands’ by Damhnait Monaghan, for its fabulous voice – Damhnait has been such an encouragement to me – and ‘Homing’, by my dear friend Johanna Robinson, who’s been an absolute rock in my writing – and who I met at last year’s Flash Fiction Festival.
That reminds me, I also love the anthologies that are produced from the festival and for NFFD. And, I also have a rather large list I haven’t yet read, so if I’ve not name checked you, that could be why.
What encouragement can you offer to other writers looking to start their flash fiction journey?
Flash is the perfect art form. It can be whatever you want it to be – though I imagine those who are more established in this genre may disagree. Flash is playful and serious, wild and irreverent. It can encapsulate a lifetime or an instant, it can take on different forms and structures; and it often stays with you for so much longer than it takes to read, morphing in the rereading. I think because it is, by nature, short, then perhaps it’s not as daunting to write as say a short story or a novel. To anyone looking to start their journey, I’d say do it. The community is wonderfully supportive; flash is immensely rewarding.
Yes, there will be times when people don’t get what you write, because art is a subjective craft, but don’t let rejection get you down. Keep subbing and keep writing if you can. Know there are people out there who will champion your work, who want to lift you up and want to read and hear your words.
Lastly, what advice would you give to those looking to join the #flashfamily?
Do it. Please. I’d love to hear your work, your voices, see your fabulous faces. This family is inclusive, global and big enough for us all – and ready to welcome you. I know that might seem scary for some people, but we are our own worst critics and I promise you that! All you need is to record yourself reading and upload to Twitter with the hashtag and hopefully it will provide you with a sense of solidarity in these uncertain times. And thank you TSS for amplifying this project.