Interview by Fran Mulhern
Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I’m reclusive, day-dreamy and annoyingly cheerful. I laugh a lot and sing loudly and badly. I love watching series such as X-Files and Fringe, but because my mind drifts, I constantly have to have everything explained to me. I love being with my family – my husband of thirty-four years, our three grown-up daughters and a new granddaughter. I live in a very old cottage which always needs dusting in a small village in the Cotswolds. I’m at home all the time, either writing or reading, and need to be reminded about all the other important tasks that need doing, having lunch for example. I don’t like motorways, moaners or meat. I do like spiders, mint sauce sandwiches and getting up at dawn. I procrastinate by watching gymnastic fails on YouTube.
I’m a full-time writer and started ten years ago with short stories for the women’s magazines and also darker stories for the competitions. One of my stories turned into a novel, Tying Down The Lion, about a road trip to Berlin set in 1967. This was published in paperback three years ago by Brick Lane. A year later I had a hardback collection of my prize-winning stories, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, published by Ink Tears. I have always wanted to be a writer ever since I learnt to read. I was a very shy, stodgy sort of child, who only came to life when I read aloud in class or was given any creative writing task.
I love languages and studied German at university in the seventies, with East German literature and culture as my specialist subject for my finals. I have taught English to German students and vice versa. I have tried working in retail and in finance, but was a spectacular disaster at both. I took a proofreading course before I started writing in earnest and particularly love the editing process. It makes me feel like a hermit crab shedding an ill-fitting load for one which sits right.
Do you write every day?
Yes, unfailingly. From Monday to Friday I start at five in the morning and carry on until five in the afternoon, but with breaks for reading and procrastinating in between. At the weekends I only write in the early hours, so I’m free to annoy my family the rest of the time. If I write one good sentence in a day’s writing, I’m happy with that. I never create targets or look at the word count. I’m only interested in the characters and the quality of the writing which shapes them. Most of it is deleted the following day, but that’s the rewarding part. It’s something to celebrate. Everything discarded makes the rest shine.
I am only just beginning to secure the two things I believe a writer needs: confidence and focus. The focus part is only attainable if the confidence is in place. And by confidence, I don’t mean you imagine you are always going to succeed in competitions or win over an agent, but that every time you sit down to write, you have faith in your capacity to improve.
Flash Fiction is a very particular form – its nature requires a certain pace and conciseness that is in some ways even more demanding than short stories, let alone novels. Why did you start writing flash, and how do you find it differs – for you – from other forms?
The enjoyment is in the challenge. And the challenge is in the brevity. The less space your characters have, the greater the pressure on them to confront and to change. They’ve begun in media res. They’ve arrived late to the party and they have to leave it early. So they can’t waste time. They have to explode onto the scene.
I like writing all forms of short fiction because of the emotion you can tap from the smallest scrap of a life, the faintest heartbeat. If a novel is an invitation to rummage through the contents of your character’s attic, opening cases and boxes, leafing through books and photograph albums and letters, then a short story is standing on the third step of the ladder to the hatch that leads to the attic, craning your neck and being allowed a split second shine of your torch. In the moment of illumination, you see an object, sense a movement, hear a voice, and from there your imagination touches the past. A flash fiction piece is when there’s no ladder and the hatch is only fractionally open, and all you can do is listen to the wind whispering through the gaps.
When I finish a flash story, it’s painful to look at it again. I’m re-reading Boy in a Bearskin through my fingers, as if it’s a scene in a horror film, the sort involving eyeballs and syringes. I’m not shrinking from it because I want to change anything, but because my intimate connection with it has broken. Something special has been terminated. It’s especially hard to finish a flash because its rawness and intensity makes me love it in a protective way. After all these years I miss the Boy in a Bearskin. That is the hardest part of writing—and real life—for me, the necessity of moving on.
Where did the idea for your winning TSS Flash 400 piece ‘Boy in a Bearskin’ come from?
I don’t think I actually have ideas. I don’t consciously think about my writing or plan the narrative. I can’t work with prompts or notes. What I do is sit at my desk and close my eyes until one of the many blurred and unconnected images constantly in my head eventually jostles to the front. I can’t force it. I just wait for it to come. These images all stem from memory, from something I saw or heard or read about, however long ago, or fleeting, or misremembered it might be. That’s the starting point for developing the main character, then the story unrolls from that person. I don’t have a clue what it’s about until I’ve written several drafts. That’s when I get to the core. I’m very slow on the uptake.
I like it when a flash fiction piece reaches its climax via a deceptively simple action. The action is ephemeral, yet has far-reaching repercussions. It also unearths a truth from the past, the simplicity of the action providing the key which unlocks the emotion in the reader. When, for example, Sam puts on his father’s ‘bearskin’, with the evocative sticky buds still clinging to it, his liberation from a terrible childhood is complete. It was bringing in the bearskin (it wasn’t in the early drafts) which made me feel the story itself was finished.
The bearskin was the penultimate detail I added and the final element was the mention of the mother’s veins. I added this at the very last moment before submitting to the competition. Initially, I felt that describing only her bicycle would make her a vague and shadowy character, in keeping with her inability to prevent the father’s abuse. I didn’t want her to come into focus too sharply because I didn’t want the characters to battle for position, not in a flash piece where space is limited. I especially didn’t want to let anyone take the spotlight from Sam. But it felt important to show that her powerlessness meant she suffered too, while simultaneously suggesting the other tragedy for the brothers: that their mother had allowed, even facilitated, the abuse to happen.
What was the writing process for Bearskin? For example, did you write it in a week, a month? Was it one of a number of stories you started with before whittling down? How many drafts did you write? Did you have any particular challenges when writing it?
In the original story, which was called Severing Connections, memories were stirred when the brothers went into the boot-room, then they left with the coffin, buoyed and galvanised by this brief connection with the past. But it wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel satisfied by their story. It was moving, but not very original, Also, it hadn’t taken the brothers on a journey. When considering the piece as a reader, rather than its writer, I wasn’t sure the story had taken me on a journey either, not an enriching one.
After allowing time for the story to ferment, I knew that laying down the coffin and going into the boot-room were acts which set the brothers free. There was a sense of release and renewed strength. More importantly, there was a willingness to move on, both literally and symbolically. And I wondered why that would be the case. The father’s bicycle entrapping the others, the pedal caught inside the spokes of Sam’s wheel, began to mean something different. I’d thought the father had been a protective man, intent on keeping his family safe, albeit in quite an imperious way. But now I suspected he was far more sinister than that. Something had happened, a terrible suffering, and it was something I had to suggest, rather than spell out.
So I let the story sit for a long time, for seven or eight years in fact, revisiting it sometimes and wondering about the brothers and the torment they might have undergone, especially the eldest, the only one I named. Sam said he felt cold. Those were the only words I’d given him and I was sure there was more to it than that, something he hadn’t told me yet. So I continued to wait. While some stories arrive fully formed—rarely for me—there are many more which deepen if left alone.
The brothers had travelled such a long way from their childhood resignation, their quiet despair. I couldn’t let their outpouring of emotion at finally being released culminate in the single tear falling on the coffin. There had to be more. I sensed their fury, their need to show each other how they felt, without words. And as the writer, I had to honour that. I needed to reveal their anger by their actions. And that was when I added the dismantling of the bicycle. The catharsis complete, they could continue to carry the coffin, but without their burden.
In so doing, I turned a quiet narrative into a story of pent-up rage. What had been a touching glimpse of the brothers carrying their father’s coffin was now an interlude of violence with the power to heal, a destructive act with the promise of recovery.
Severing Connections was shortlisted a few times in competitions, including twice with the Bridport, but never placed. That was when I took Sam and let him bleed my heart dry. It was always waiting to happen and I couldn’t see it until I reached the stage where I was about to set the story aside again. It is significant perhaps that it was the character himself who saved this story. I let him crack it open and show me what was really inside. Maybe I’d always known he was abused, but didn’t want to face it. This is a mistake when you write fiction, flinching from pain or conflict when that is exactly what the story needs.
So I wrote the part about the father taking Sam aside during the bike rides. It took a long time to get it right, to feel sure I’d deleted enough words. The horror could only happen in what was left unsaid. My favourite part is when we see the sticky buds spiking the coat. Like the memories, they continue to cling. But, empty now of its owner, the coat can be worn like a shed skin.
I liked the rhythm and assonance of the original title, but wanted to change it because at last I knew more about Sam and he needed to dominate. It was a metaphorical choice of course, because he can at last dominate his father. So it is a triumphant title and far more intriguing and memorable, I think, for the way it homes in on the character, rather than an abstract notion. And once again, it had a good rhythm with an innocent, almost nursery rhyme, quality.
Our house is stuffed with books. I read all the time. I couldn’t write a single word if I didn’t read. I can be halfway through writing a sentence and break off to pick up a book. Afterwards I can write with more confidence because I think reading releases parts of your imagination which have silted up. I especially love William Trevor’s short stories because so much is left unsaid and every so often you come across a line which seems deceptively gentle, yet carries inside it so much devastation.
Over the years I have loved Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elizabeth Strout, Penelope Lively, Joan Lingard, Maggie O’Farrell, Dorothy Whipple, Sarah Waters, John Wyndham, Graham Greene, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, John Steinbeck, EM Forster, Franz Kafka, Edith Wharton, Alice Munro, Evelyn Waugh, Kazuo Ishiguro, Claire Fuller, Ian McEwan, Thomas Mann and André Gide.
I like books which are wholly original, confident in style and beautifully written. They don’t need much, if any, plot. They just need wonderful characters from whom the narrative evolves. I like bleak books, especially those in which you keep stumbling across the humour inherent in dark situations. My favourite book ever is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons because its characters make me laugh so much and I’ve never come across anything else like it.
Joanna Campbell is a full-time writer from the Cotswolds. Her work has been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Mslexia, The Salt Book of New Writing and twice in The Bristol Short Story Award. Her story, ‘Upshots’, won the 2015 London Short Story Prize. In 2017, her flash-fiction story, ‘Confirmation Class’, came second in the Bridport Prize, and the Bath Flash Fiction Award published her novella-in-flash, A Safer Way To Fall. Her short story collection, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, published by Ink Tears, was shortlisted for the 2016 Rubery Book Award and longlisted for the 2017 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. In 2015, Brick Lane published her novel, Tying Down The Lion. In 2018 her story, ‘Nearly There’, was chosen for publication in 24 Stories of Hope for Survivors of the Grenfell Fire. In the same year, her story, ‘Brad’s Rooster Food’, shortlisted in the Royal Academy Pin Drop Award, was chosen for A Short Affair, an anthology published by Simon and Schuster. She is currently editing her second novel. More can be found at her website here. Joanna recently won the TSS Flash 400 competition with her flash ‘Boy in a Bearskin’.
Fran Mulhern is an Irish writer whose fiction and poetry has appeared in the likes of Litro, The Honest Ulsterman and A New Ulster. His poetry has been nominated for the Forward Prize for Poetry, and his fiction has been longlisted for the Fish Prize. His non-fiction has appeared in the Irish Times, Belfast Telegraph and on the BBC. With a Creative Writing MA from Lancaster University, Fran is currently working on his first novel. He lives just outside of Manchester.
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