Interview with Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for TSS Publishing, Clare. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work.
You write both short stories and short plays. In what ways do you think the different genres complement each other, and what influences your choice when you’re deciding which medium to use?
I think there are strong similarities between short stories and short plays in that both have to pack a substantial punch in a short time. For me, they both need to have a strong narrative arc, convincing characters, a compelling dramatic conflict. There is danger with them both to try to cram too much in.
When I first choose to explore a subject, the form of the story often dictates the medium – so I wrote a verbatim play about Camilla Batmanghelidgh, which could not have worked as a short story. If I want travel inside a character’s head, then a story is an easier way to go. However, I often write stories in the first person, and those stories can easily stray into monologue, so I think that my boundaries between story and script have become rather blurred.
Do your stories and plays explore similar themes? Do you have any themes you return to again and again?
I find that the stories and plays I write often unintentionally reflect the preoccupations I’m having in my own life when I’m writing. When my parents were at the end of their lives, I wrote a lot about aging. I live with my daughter and I frequently write about mother/daughter relationships. I find that it is only after a time that I can work out the theme of a story or a play. I wrote a batch of stories when I did my MA and the tutor observed that they were all about characters striving to fulfil their potential and their destiny. She was right. I thought the stories were completely different, and their thematic similarity hadn’t occurred to me.
When did you start writing and what inspired you to start?
I’ve loved stories all my life. When I was a child, I always had my head in a book. I worked in television for many years, in documentaries and then in drama, where I was a script editor. I loved working with writers, and eventually I felt brave enough to try my hand at it myself. I started with short stories, and surprised myself at the worlds I found I could create.
I notice you have an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University. People often say creative writing can’t be taught – what are your feelings on this?
I found my MA at Bath Spa very useful indeed. For me, it gave me the confidence to say ‘I’m a writer’. I’d hardly shown my work to anyone before I went, and I found it very liberating and inspiring to share my writing and get feedback on it. I suspect that when people say ‘creative writing can’t be taught’, they mean that creativity cannot be taught, perhaps the initial spark of an idea. However, what can and is taught is the ability to look critically at one’s work, to edit it, to improve it, to structure it and to try different approaches to it. It is also possible to teach the ability to read critically, to work out and discuss how authors and playwrights create their works. The one-to-one professional mentoring was invaluable. I thought it was a fantastic experience.
Your Short Story Fridays, held quarterly in Bath, is enormously successful. How did the idea to do this come about, and what have been the difficulties and rewards?
After doing my MA at Bath Spa, I worked with a story telling company in Bristol, Heads and Tales, reading stories at festivals and events throughout the south-west. When that came to an end, I missed performing, and I missed working with other writers. Writing can be very solitary, and I like working in a team. I knew Olly Langdon and Caroline Garland of Kilter Theatre, and I suggested to them that we put on a story telling evening. That was over four years ago now, and we’ve put on about 25 events, with more in the pipeline.
The rewards are fantastic. We have a loyal and committed audience, who come along to our events – we often sell out. We have some fantastic writers who regularly write new stories for our events, which is an incredible honour. Many of those stories have gone on to win competitions or become the seeds of novels and plays. Each Story Friday we have one or two writers who are new to us, and it’s always interesting to see how they respond to the evening, and see if they’ll come back. It’s great to watch writers’ careers develop, to hear what they are working on, and, for me in particular, to read all of the stories that are sent in. I think it has had a major effect on my work.
The greatest difficulty is turning stories down. We always have far more stories than we can use. To curate the evening, we choose a mixture of stories that will work together to create a satisfying experience for our audience – we can’t have six comedies, or indeed six political polemics, or our audience would become restive. So inevitably we have to turn down stories that are strong and interesting, and I have to hope that the writers try us again. Sometimes the writers are offended, and I can understand that. But we simply can’t choose everyone’s stories – an evening of 30 odd stories would have our audience running for the hills!
You have a very creative approach to stories. I see you created and ran a story promenade event at derelict Georgian lido, the Cleveland Pools in Bath, Story Fridays Goes Swimming, dubbed ‘a huge success’ by the Bath Chronicle. Can you tell us some more about this, and how it worked?
I really like writing site specifically, and I was interested in combining some of the performance strands of my work and the short stories. I had thought for a long time that it would be fun to have a Story Friday that was inspired by a particular place, and something clicked when I went to the Cleveland Pools. It had the romance of a ruin (although it is far from ruined) and the charm of a hidden, forgotten space, overrun by nature. It also had ten little performance spaces, in the shape of Georgian changing cubicles. We worked out we could fit a storyteller and seven audience members comfortably in each cubicle. We commissioned 8 writers to write 10 five minute stories, and the audience, in groups of seven, promenaded from cubicle to cubicle and listened to stories inspired by the history, the present and the future of the pools. While the audience were waiting they were entertained by musicians in the empty, cracked children’s pool, and by student dancers who formed tableaux around the site. I think I’m safe in saying that the audience loved it. It was strange and unusual, a wonderful day out – and we were lucky that the sun shone.
You write and perform short stories. What do you think are the differences between stories on the page and stories performed?
Ah, this is a question which I think about a lot. I think that my stories are now almost all written to be read out loud. I read a lot of short stories, and some are much easier to read on the page than they would be to listen to. Stories which are very descriptive and wordy look lovely on the page, and can die on stage. Complex plotting is a problem – if a reader has to go back to the beginning of the story to check who is who, that will be lost out loud, the listener cannot do that. Too much dialogue and multiple characters might work on the page, but it takes a very skilled performer to do more than two ‘voices’ and make sure that the audience knows who is talking. It is very easy for a listener to switch off and start thinking about what they need to get in Sainsbury’s, or tomorrow’s work list – so stories need to grab and intrigue quickly. The listener should be thinking ‘ooo what’s going to happen next?’ A strong beginning and a good end go a long way in a story which is being performed. However, stories can be literary – an unforgettable image works as well out loud as it does on the page, as long as it is not too convoluted. Audiences like to laugh, and they like to be moved. They don’t like to be patronised, confused, and above all, they don’t want to be bored.
A regular audience member said to me last week that his favourite part of the evening was always the beginning of a story, when he had no idea when or where the story was going to take him. Then he could be transported to a spaceship, to a forest in wartime Russia or to the basement kitchen of a flat in Bath. He finds that thrilling, and I thought it was useful to remember when writing. Audiences want to be transported into worlds that they believe in and that intrigue them. That’s what we try to deliver.
And lastly, do you have a short story which you are particularly proud to have written?
I found this a really hard question. I was inordinately proud of my first short story, written years ago, about a woman who wanted to pan for gold – I was proud of it because it was funny, and I finished it. I doubt it was any good. I don’t often enter competitions, but when I do, I always like my stories which win prizes – so ‘Living in the Shadow of Venus’, ‘Invitation’ and ‘Swimming Away’ are firm favourites.
I think the piece I’ve been most proud of recently was written for Story Friday Quilt, which took the theme of a patchwork quilt my mother had made. I used three pieces of material in the quilt to inspire memories of my mother’s life. I think she’d have liked it, and that makes me proud.
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Clare. It’s been fascinating to hear your thoughts.
Thank you for asking me! It’s been a pleasure.
Clare Reddaway writes scripts and short stories. Her stories have appeared in anthologies, in magazines, in print and on the web, and have won and been shortlisted for national competitions. Clare’s short plays have been staged, performed and recorded, mainly in the south-west where she lives, but also in Wales, Cambridge, Hereford and London. She runs a popular and regular live literature event in Bath called Story Fridays. You can read more about her work at www.awordinyourear.org.uk.
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn has written three novels. The most recent is ‘The Broken Road’. ‘Unravelling’ was published on 2010, and came second in The Rubery Book Award in 2011 and won the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Award. ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ was published by Cinnamon Press in 2013, after winning their novel writing award. Lindsay also writes short stories and flash fiction, which have been published in various anthologies, including Fish, Cinnamon and Rubery. She has an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and combines writing with her work as a creative writing tutor.
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