Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Ingrid, we’re so glad to have you as the guest judge for the TSS Flash 400 summer competition. Please could you give our readers a feel for what kind of Flash Fiction you love reading?
I love all sorts of flash, everything from traditional storytelling to strange hybrids that co-opt other forms or straddle the boundaries between flash and prose poetry. I like work that takes risks, explores unusual themes or makes me see the world in a different way, but I also like quiet stories that use language, nuance and subtext just so.
My favourite pieces are layered and multi-faceted. When judging a competition, I’m likely to read the short-listed pieces twenty or thirty times at the very least, so I tend to look for pieces that shift and bloom with each new reading. If a story relies on a twist, surprise or punch-line endings, there needs to be enough in the rest of the piece that makes me want to come back over and over again, even after I know what happens.
When did you first discover Flash Fiction and how has your understanding of the form changed over the years?
When I was in my teens, I went through a period of reading anthologies of short stories in order of story length. I thought it might be an efficient way to determine which authors I liked. I went through volume after volume of short stories in our local library reading the short stuff in each volume and then moving on to the longer stuff if and only if the writing in the short pieces was compelling. I remember inhaling very short prose pieces written by the likes of Borges, Kafka, Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, even though I didn’t distinguish these as ‘flash’ at that time. I also recall coming across an anthology series of American ‘short shorts’ and enjoying these.
When I studied creative writing, the focus for prose writing was on the novel and on longer short stories. We studied a few classic shorter pieces, but we tended to aim for heft in our own word counts.
Then years passed. I gravitated to novels and my subscriptions to literary journals lapsed. I didn’t discover flash as a phenomenon until quite late in the game, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was to discover the explosion of shortform writing that had materialised whilst I was looking the other way.
I think this is an incredible moment for flash. There’s a real appetite for it, and so much exploration and play with the form. I feel quite lucky to be reading and writing flash in the here and now, as the momentum builds….
How would you define Flash Fiction?
I wouldn’t. One of the things I love so much about flash is that it is constantly playing, pushing boundaries, asking questions, redefining itself. Every time I think I’ve landed on a definition that ‘works’ I read – or write – something that defies that definition.
I often gravitate to pieces that have some sort of shift – a change of some sort that drives the piece, whether it happens on or off stage. However, even this isn’t a necessary element. Sometimes a character doesn’t change whatsoever, but the piece is still satisfying. Maybe the story centres on a moment which could change everything for a character, but doesn’t. Maybe the focus is a resonant image that suggests a whole world of stories. Maybe the piece is a list or a memo or a page from an address book or a a computer’s error log. Maybe the story is waiting in the white space, ready to attack the unsuspecting reader. I am just as open to these as I am to more traditionally-structured tales.
You studied Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Evansville before going on to study physics at the University of Cambridge. How has your education affected your writing?
I’ve always been torn between the humanities and the sciences. I have a love of both and think it’s tragic that we often have to choose one path or the other. Both require discipline, passion, creativity and innovation. Although I wouldn’t claim that studying physics is the most efficient way to become a writer, I can certainly say that many of the skills I’ve learned have directly affected my creative writing, and flash writing in particular. Whatever we do away from the page informs and enriches our writing.
Learning how to think to write a good lab report or efficient code or an effective mathematical proof taught me a lot about the art of storytelling. One has a tale to tell, and one has to tell that tale in concise, specific, compelling language. Problem solving skills are required whether you’re trying to work out why your equations are giving you a result that doesn’t make sense or whether you’ve got a story that isn’t working and you don’t know why. Both realms have a sense of beauty and aesthetics and often seek to move beyond communication that is merely functional. (For those who haven’t thought of science or maths in these terms, the Wikipedia page on ‘Mathematical beauty’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_beauty – is a nice place to start.)
Which Flash Fiction writers do you particularly admire at the moment?
Oh gracious, I admire so, so many flash writers out there; for every one I might mention, I’d leave out at least fifty. If I do this every time I’m asked, I think I’ll tweak the question to ‘Which Flash Fiction writers do you particularly admire who you’ve read in the past several days’. If I do this every time I’m asked, hopefully I’ll get around to mentioning just about everyone, sooner or later!
Today’s list includes Chaya Bhuvaneswar, April Bradley, Lori Sambol Brody, K B Carle, Tyrese Coleman, Nod Ghosh, Yasunari Kawabata, Michael Loveday, and Jane Monson (I’m counting her prose poetry as close enough to flash for these purposes). If I could sneak in some tinyletters, it would be Monet P Thomas’ AwayAgain series.
You also write poetry – when you’re starting out on a piece of writing, do you know what form it will take, or does it guide you as you start getting words down?
Once in a while, I write something for a particular purpose or with a particular form in mind, but usually I just write first and then categorise only if I have to decide whether to send the thing to a journal’s poetry or fiction editor.
I’ve had pieces successfully ‘pass’ as both poetry and prose poetry. Many of my ‘poems’ are written in paragraph form and I have some work I consider ‘prose’ which contains line breaks. Labels like ‘prose’, ‘flash’, ‘poem’ and ‘hybrid’ often bring along with them assumptions about what a piece ‘should’ be and how it ‘should’ work; removing them means we’re forced to accept a piece on its own terms and learn what rules it creates for itself as we read.
Sometimes, I’ve conscientiously adapted my prose into poetry and poetry into prose, but even in those cases, I’d prefer to present the work without a label and let the reader decide if and how they’d like to pigeonhole it. I try to ignore labels when I read other people’s work as well.
What are you currently working on?
What am I not working on? I’m always writing flash, but I also have some longer projects on the go, two of which have an underlying flash-like structure, and two of which are more novel/novella-like in feel.
I’ve also started a publishing project with some other fantastic writers of flash. FlashBack Fiction is an online journal that focuses on short-form prose that in some way engages the historical. We’re open to everything from traditional storytelling to experimental and hybrid work, and we’re enjoying the continuing conversation we’re having with readers and writers about what historical flash can look like.
Finally, I’m working on a series of online and in-person workshops on subjects like prose poetry, co-opted forms, and historical flash.
Lastly, what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I used to horde ideas. Somehow, I had it in my head that I shouldn’t ‘waste’ my Great Concept until…I don’t actually know what goes after the ‘until’. Until I was an Established Writer? Until I had More Experience? Until I had Unlimited Writing Time so that I could Do The Story Justice? There were three pieces of advice I came across that helped chip away at that ‘until’.
* Don’t wait to write that piece you’re burning to write because you don’t think you’re ‘ready’. You’ll never be ready. Just do it. (This has applied to so much more than just writing.)
* Ideas beget ideas. If you hold on to that big idea and do nothing with it, it’s easy to get stuck. However, if you just jump in and attack it head-on, new ideas will flow freely. When you’re actively writing, there will always be more ideas.
* You can’t control anything about the why, how, or when the muse will visit, but you do know where s/he will show up: at your desk when your bum’s on the seat.
I would love love love to cite the sources and say a big thank you to whoever came up with them and/or amplified them at just the right time and place for them to reach me, but the details are lost in time. Thank you, whoever you are!
Ingrid Jendrzejewski studied creative writing at the University of Evansville, then physics at the University of Cambridge. Her work has been published in places like Passages North, The Los Angeles Review, The Conium Review, Jellyfish Review, and Flash Frontier, and she has won the Bath Flash Fiction Award and AROHO’s Orlando Prize for Flash Fiction among other competitions. Her short collection Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping was a runner up for BFFA’s first Novella-in-Flash competition. Links to Ingrid’s work can be found at www.ingridj.com and she occasionally tweets @LunchOnTuesday.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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