Interview by Marie Gethins
Barbara you’ve been quite successful in short stories and flash competitions. Do you have a preference?
As a reader, I probably have a slight preference for short stories, simply because I grew up immersed in the form and its influence has never left me. In school, the genres were helpfully divided into three separate volumes: Poetry, Prose, and Short Stories. Nothing in-between – certainly no ‘flash fiction’ or ‘prose poems’ blurring the lines.
I did a workshop with Tania Hershman a few years ago where we were invited to identify ‘rules’ of flash fiction. We came up with lots: no metaphors, no exposition, etc. And then we read a wonderful selection of flash fiction and those rules crumbled.
As a writer, I love the time I spend living in the construction of a short story, pushing it into shape, playing with different directions as the final draft evolves. Flash fiction can take as much work and time as a short story but it is usually much quicker to edit, so for practical reasons it’s often a piece of flash rather than a short story that I’ll edit and submit in time for a competition deadline.
How do you decide the length or, in other words, when you have an idea do you know if it will be a short story or flash?
I rarely know before I start writing. Occasionally I’ll know in advance that the distance I’m going to cover will fit into a flash fiction space. More often, what in early drafts looks like a short story, later reveals itself to be more effective as a flash. That’s not to say that flash fiction is a distilled version of a longer story; to me, it’s a simply a story that works better in a smaller space.
In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from the short story?
Writers far more qualified than me have given their insights in answer to this question. However, I’ll go back to what I learned at Tania Hershman’s workshop – there are no rules of construction consistent across flash fiction, and so no absolute differences between flash fiction and short stories. The only difference generally agreed on, is that flash fiction is shorter than a conventional story. Of course there’s no consensus on exactly how much shorter it should be…
What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?
It’s what makes any story successful. It must be a piece of writing that stays with me long after reading it. It might leave me with a powerful image or a particular phrase or something that’s not in the story at all but suggests itself in what’s left unsaid.
What are your favourite pieces in your many publications? Where can people read your work?
‘Favourite’ is a strong word! I have a difficult relationship with my published stories. If a story is accepted for publication, I open a copy of the original submission and read over it once, cowering behind an imaginary cushion. Shortcomings immediately taunt me from the screen.
A story I am happy with is ‘Whalesong’, recorded by RTÉ in 2014. I was touched by Aonghus Óg McAnally’s sensitive reading, his understanding of the emotions I wanted to convey. You can listen to the story (and others) here.
Considering other writers (in flash and any other form), who inspires you and what do you admire about their work?
Some of my favourite short story writers are Alice Munro, Frank O’Connor, and George Saunders. I love the well-intentioned characters who struggle through Saunders’ surreal landscapes. We see ourselves in their many failures and tiny triumphs.
I’m also a fan of Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry. I’m really looking forward to hearing Kevin read at the West Cork Literary festival in July.
We’ve been in a writers’ group together since 2011, meeting every two weeks. How do you think this has influenced your work?
It’s wonderful to be part of a group of committed writers who edit and critique work with such expertise. The critical exchanges within the group have influenced lots of my stories and saved many half-formed ideas from fading away. Analysing other writers’ work teaches me so much about how to analyse my own. I’d recommend a writing group to anyone who is looking to improve their writing.
Any events and/or projects that you are looking forward to that are coming up?
My next event will be our seminar on writing groups at the West Cork Literary Festival on 19th July (Click here to read more). Our session is going to explore how to develop and maintain a successful writing group, and should be of interest to anyone who’s seeking ways to improve their writing. Marie, I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas on how to recruit like-minded group members, and Danielle McLoughlin’s discussion of how our group influenced one of her best-known stories will be intriguing.
Finally, what advice as a writer and editor would you give aspiring writers?
If you don’t know where to start, take a workshop or any creative writing class. Don’t put it off, just start somewhere. Ten years slipped by before I finally ‘got around’ to writing.
Read as much as you can. And when you start writing, put feelers out there – show your work in class or submit it to a magazine or competition.
You’ll hear lots of good advice and loads of conflicting opinions on how to write. Try things out, see what works for you.
I was once confused by the advice that fiction writers should tell the truth. I understand that ‘truth’ now as sincerity, an avoidance of artifice. For me, good writing is writing that tells the truth.
Barbara Leahy is from Cork, Ireland. She started writing in 2010, and since then her stories have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and won competitions including the Wells Festival of Literature Short Story Competition, and the Words With Jam Shortest Story Competition. Her stories have appeared in the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, the Irish Literary Review, and been broadcast on Irish national radio.
Marie Gethins’ first encounter with TSS was via her flash fiction win ‘Blood-ties’. Her work has also featured in Litro, Firewords Quarterly, 2014 and 2015 NFFD Anthologies, Flash, NANO, The Lonely Crowd, Firewords Quarterly and others. She has won or been placed in Tethered by Letters, Flash500, Dromineer, The New Writer, Prick of the Spindle, and 99fiction.net. Marie is a Pushcart and Best of the Short Fictions Nominee. She lives in Cork, Ireland, working on her MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.
Submit an interview to TSS.
Support TSS Publishing by subscribing to our limited edition chapbooks.