The Short Story Interview: John Holland

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Interview by Rupert Dastur

How old were you when you began writing short stories?

I have been writing short stories and flash fiction since 2011 when I was 59, although, because I was born in a leap year, I was actually about 236.

I had written before but mainly committee/cabinet reports for county councils and topical/satirical gags for Radio 4 (Weekending), Radio 2 (The News Huddlines) and Punch magazine (Sideswipes). I tried to make people laugh for a decade.

You’ve mentioned to us that your short fiction writing has recently become more humorous – could you explain why this is?

I suppose I’m trying to find my voice. I have written in all kinds of styles but it would be good to write in a more consistent way. I am by nature funny/ironic so maybe this should be my true voice. If such a thing exists.

Do you think too many short stories err on the side of being overly serious?

I think there is some evidence of that. In my Stroud Short Stories experience, audiences love to be amused, to laugh. But there is a paucity of genuinely witty/ironic stories, especially ones which are also poignant or meaningful. It’s really challenging to write in that way. I’m not sure that such stories are always sufficiently appreciated by publishers or competitions. So hats off here to the Momaya Press Annual Short Story Competition, who, last year, gave first prize to my short story about a masturbating monkey. It can’t have been an easy decision for them.

You’re the organiser of Stroud Short Stories – what can you tell us about this?

It is the aim of Stroud Short Stories to showcase and promote the work of local authors. SSS is a twice yearly (spring/autumn) non-profit making event in which writers read their work to a large and appreciative audience. Authors send me their stories, and I (and a fellow judge) choose ten to be read. The event is extremely popular – a packed room of 70/80 people – sells out every time. The quality and quantity of submissions is amazing. It started in 2011. I took it over in January 2014, and take my responsibility very seriously. It’s very demanding of my time and energy but really worth it. I truly love it. At present we accept short story submissions from Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire authors. Our next event will be in autumn 2015. We have an anthology out which you can read here.

What are you looking for in short stories when you judge submissions to Stroud Short Stories?

I’d be the first to say that judging is subjective, which is why I always have a fellow judge to try to get at least some balance in selection. Very briefly I’m looking for short stories which engage from the first line, have a consistent authorial voice, are in some way surprising (I don’t mean unpredictable twisted ending) – rather than mundane, include nice turns of phrase, a central idea and an ending that gives the reader at least a moment’s pause for thought. I am personally addicted to irony too. Well, you did ask! Of course few short stories hit all those buttons. There really are no rules, and I will have selected stories with none or few of these credentials because somehow the short story worked.

Has the Stroud project influenced your own writing in any way?

It has, and not just from reading/hearing the best stories submitted which are superb. I have learned as much from reading some average short stories as I have from the best ones. Particularly I see the need for an appropriate ending to stories. Although different stories require different endings, many writers try too hard to resolve the ending or to make it overly clever. I think it was the short fiction writer David Gaffney who said that an ending should sound like a bell. Give the reader at least a small pause for thought. To me that means not over-resolving the ending. When it comes to endings less is often more.

Why do you write short stories?

 I like to show-off. I’m vain and egotistical. And I like to entertain.

What do you draw your inspiration from?

I quite often draw inspiration from, and write about, relationships and love. I think it was Lulu who said “Love loves to love love to love love to love.” (November 1967. Columbia Records. No. 32 in the UK charts). Impossible to disagree with her. Sometimes it’s dark, strange love that I write about. The kind you might have for a masturbating monkey. Or a large chain-smoking fish.

I have also been writing about ventriloquism since the sad death of Keith Harris and the associated loss of Orville the Duck. You haven’t! I have!

Do you have a writing process?

Not really. Sometimes long hand, sometimes straight on to the screen. I edit, edit, edit countless times. I have a writing buddy who reads and comments on everything. I reciprocate. I try quite hard to ignore her comments, but she’s good and she knows it. She described my last short story as ‘sour’.

Which short story writers have influenced you the most

Ivor Cutler for sure. I was also pleased to read that another of your interviewees, Mark Newman, likes Jon McGregor’s collection of short stories This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You which is brilliant. As is ‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello. Tania Hershman. Then there’s the usual suspects – Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Carson McCullers, Etgar Keret, JD Salinger. Let’s not forget David Sedaris.

I’m also influenced by both popular and unpopular recorded music.

[N.B. You can read about Jon McGregor and what he has to say about short stories here in our review of the London Short Story Festival. You can also read Mark Newman’s interview.]

What advice would you give aspiring short story writers?

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. And join a local writers’ group. Try not to take it personally when (rather than if) you submit to a competition and your short story doesn’t make it. Fire-bombing is illegal.

What fruit would you compare the short story with? And Why?

The banana – because the short story is a slippery m**********r.

Why do you think publishers and agents are wary of short story collections?

Fear of the unknown?


John Holland writes short fiction with a number of stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. He also likes competitions and has done fine. Recently (June 2015) he won the WorcsLitFest Flash Fiction Award, and was long listed for the Bath Short Story Award. You can read more about him here. Or find him on Twitter @JohnHol88897218 John is also the organiser of Stroud Short Stories, a twice yearly short stories event in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

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 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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