Interview by Marie Gethins
Jane, you’ve won and placed in many short story and flash competitions and are widely published in literary magazines. How much does each form dictate your approach?
For both flash and short stories, I used to think there was a difference in competition pieces and those published in magazines. Of course, there is not. It’s about finding a style of writing, or having a play about until you find something to call your own. I don’t have a method that differs for flash or short stories, but I do now have a method.
Poets Jo Bell and Tania Hershman (also short fiction writer extraordinaire) have given me a wonderful lesson in ownership and authorial allowance: on Twitter, followed up in person, and in much of their writing. I’m with them. You have to allow yourself everything in your writing. No holds barred. This isn’t school, there are no marks, there is no right or wrong. Take risks. Go outside of your comfort zone. Channel and harness that power within that screams “I HAVE to write this, in this way”. Then, be brave, have a bit of faith, and send your writing out. If you want to send it out. You don’t have to.
I have great respect for any editorial team sifting through reams of submissions. I still find it would be a great dishonour not to read the magazine or series before making a submission or contribution. Sometimes, with new publications that is not possible, but polite questions to see what might be required is key. Some publications just will not fit in with a specific work or style.
Do you have a preference between these two forms? Do you find one easier to write than the other? If so, why?
I find myself analysing flash fiction more when I read it than I do when reading a short story now. I need to invest in each word the writer has chosen, locate the rhythm of the story, the essence of it. And then I wonder where it leaves me as a reader, before I go back and re-read it. My approach to writing flash fiction is similar and possibly more time-consuming per word.
Short stories tend to flow more in the initial writing, just as they do when I read the work of others. It could be my impatience to get ahead and get a handle on the main events and characters of the story.
However, I do not believe in preferences for one format of words over another. Words are the love. In whatever format.
Recently Françoise Harvey, Bernie Deehan, and I launched Literary Salmon (a fun play on a literary salon, of course!) and its first collection of twelve short fictions, “The Casual Electrocution of Strangers”. The free-to-download project is a celebration of short fiction written under one title alone, written by flash fictioneers, short story writers, novelists, poets, publishers, festival founders, and spoken word performers. Follow the Literary Salmon, and let us know what you think:
Twitter: @LiterarySalmon and #LiterarySalmon #LitSal
Your work often has mythological and historical echoes with quite dark themes. Do these areas offer triggers for a piece or do you work in the references after a basic skeleton of the piece is set out?
I was always fascinated by mythology as a child, and then went on to study Classics at Cambridge. Old subjects, old books, dead languages, and old buildings. It is hard not to reference things with which you have spent so much time and enjoyed so much.
Interesting, too, is the idea of twisting these mythologies into something fresh. That’s where those dark recesses of the mind come in to play. Excavations of different strata in the ground are a good example of how I approach some stories now: you dig around, find an intriguing artefact, and place it in its original context – or perhaps somewhere entirely new – and the story morphs into being. That is the brain stage. The writing stage is a far more linear, considered affair. Although I admit sometimes I become mesmerised by certain words; in several stories I have known that I have wanted to place a word there more than I have an idea of how the story develops. Frivolity. Everybody needs a bit of frivolity now and then.
Explorations of loss are common in my work, undeniably because it has figured so much in the last few years of my life – both love and death; perhaps this also ties into an education of looking back at events, people, and places. Without the dark, it is impossible to conceive the light; without ugliness, how would we know beauty? A few stories – yet to be submitted anywhere – are dark, yet comedic, pieces that explore quite different territory.
Based in the South Shropshire hills on the border of Wales, I am inspired and enchanted by nature. This “nature writing” is sacred to me. It rarely gets an outing as shorter works. It might well form the basis of a longer work of fiction that I have begun work on. It might not.
How is flash fiction different, in your view, from the short story?
My thoughts on flash fiction for Wales Arts Review, also available as a podcast – “Distilled Writing: The Art of Flash Fiction”:
What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?
With a successful flash I find that it has an immediacy that is sometimes absent – or buried – in other writing. It lands a punch that leaves you floundering or enthralled or confused for minutes, hours, days, years after reading. That ability to remain embedded in the memory.
Considering other writers (in flash and any other form), who inspire you and what do you admire about their work?
Cynan Jones for a clarity and precision that could scrape bones clean. Jon McGregor for risk-taking, invention, and observation. Amit Chaudhuri for delicacy and lyrical description. Lydia Davis for taking the minute and making it large. George Saunders for being George Saunders.
There are too many writers to mention, in truth. Every time I see my name alongside someone I admire, I look for the differences in our work, not the similarities. It is the differences that are to be admired.
I have an admiration for anyone on the margins, anyone who does their own thing: whether it somehow marries up into the mainstream of world literature, or not.
Finally, what advice would you give aspiring short fiction writers?
In reading, we become writers. It is important to maintain a good reading habit, more so than good writing habits.
Write when you want to write. Write wherever you want to write. Write about what you want to write about.
Celebrate every success and mourn every rejection. Then forget about both and move on. But it is important to go through these stages. How can you qualify where you are in terms of your aims if you never admit the successes and always wallow in the rejections?
Share the highs and lows with people. You might find someone can offer an interpretation of your work or your approach that could be invaluable to moving forward.
Life is too short to be offended by comments on your work. Not everyone has to like what you do. The world would be a dull place if we all agreed. But all of this can be achieved without rudeness.
There are words out there for everyone. There are words out there that will never before have been placed in the exact order that you place them. These two facts should make you smile, as a writer and a reader. The possibilities are limitless.
Jane Roberts’ short fiction has been published in various anthologies and magazines (including: Litro, Bare Fiction, Firewords Quarterly, Hark Magazine, The Lonely Crowd and Wales Arts Review). Among her fiction credits: shortlisted for Bridport Prize Flash Fiction 2013, Fish Short Story Prize 2015; winner of Writers’ and Artists’ Flash Fiction 2013. She can be found on her website here and Twitter: @JaneEHRoberts
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