Interview by Marie Gethins
Jude, you’ve had great success in both short story and flash competitions, in addition, you co-founded the Bath Short Story Award and founded Bath Flash Fiction Award and Ad Hoc Flash Competition. How has administrating these competitions informed your own work in both genres?
Fortunately, there’s a web application and development team who deal with submissions, website maintenance and innovations on all the competition sites. That’s left me free to concentrate on the stories themselves. Along with the other readers, I’ve read thousands of entries over the past few years and have thought a lot about structure, short story subjects and themes. I’ve learned so much from all the stories submitted. Reading so many has made me more able to look at my own work with a critical eye. It’s easier to see if my language is clumsy, the voice is weak, the ending is wrong or the story lacks weight. The experimental styles of flash fiction have helped me try out different ways of writing. Writers are so inventive with the short form.
What’s your process and do these different genres (novel, short story, flash) inform each other in your work?
Nowadays, I prefer writing very short fiction and usually start writing from prompts or exercises. Either visual ones, like the photographs and pictures posted by Visual Verse, or from books I like such as the 3 AM Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley. I sometimes try out the one-word prompts we create for the weekly contest at Ad Hoc Fiction. Agreeing with others to produce fiction to a deadline also works for me. An online two-week course I did recently with the wonderful flash fiction writer Kathy Fish, gave me the impetus to write every day. In 2015, I set up a month of writing daily flashes with three other ‘twitter’ friends. Also last year, I attended a Stinging Fly weeklong summer writing workshop and tutor, Sean 0’Reilly’s, oft-repeated comment is firmly imbedded in my head– ‘What’s the story (really) about?’ I now ask this question of anything I’m reading, whether it’s a novel or a shorter piece and although it’s never clear to me on the first draft, I ask the same question of my own writing. That’s a new habit. I’m definitely a late developer.
Do you prefer to focus more on character or setting? How much does the form dictate your approach?
I don’t have a preference. The best flash pieces I have written recently emerged out of strong sensations or feelings and have a distinct voice.
How is flash fiction different, in your view, from the short story?
I would agree with Kathy Fish and others, that a flash fiction is not a truncated short story, although sometimes it might follow a distinct story arc. I also like this well-known comparison of fictional forms by writer Luisa Venezuela:
“I usually compare the novel to a mammal, be it wild as a tiger or tame as a cow; the short story to a bird or a fish, the microstory to an insect–iridescent in the best cases.”
I believe you only truly grasp the difference in flash fictions and short stories by reading more and more short and shorter fiction. Then you feel the difference in your body, even if you can’t put it into words.
What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?
It’s when, after you’ve marvelled at the title, the beginning and the language of the piece, it ends in exactly the right place and lingers long afterwards.
Considering other writers (in flash and any other form), who inspires you and what do you admire about their work?
I like Tania Hershman’s bold experiments in form and subject matter. She ran a short introduction to flash for Writing Events Bath a few years ago and soon afterwards I began writing very short fiction. There’s a long list of other writers I admire. Currently I’m inspired by Carys Davis,The Redemption of Galen Pike. Many of her stories have such startling endings. The collection contains longer stories and a couple of breathtaking very short pieces. Images and scenes from several stories in Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection, Dinosaurs on Other Planets, remain with me vividly. I keep re-reading her stories to discover how she does this. I’m also reading Lucia Berlin’s collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, fiction inspired by her eventful life. The stories are vibrant, the pacing is brilliant – she’s a great story teller. I think Stuart Dybek has that story-telling quality too. In my view, it’s partly natural talent, and partly a result of fine-tuned observational skills and attention to detail in language. I’m fascinated by the variety in structure and style of the flash fiction pieces in Rift, the new collaboration by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan and I keep dipping back into the anthology of Best Small Fictions by Queen’s Ferry Press and Flash Fiction International, published last year and edited by Robert Shapard, to see what world-wide flash writers are producing.
Finally, what advice as a writer and competition administrator would you give aspiring writers?
Read and study the structure and language of a lot of different short stories and flash fictions. There are so many online, both classic and contemporary. If you want to write stories for competitions, choose an unusual subject, character and theme. Everybody who organises contests and edits magazines says this – but unless you have a very interesting angle, avoid writing about dementia, murdering-a-partner and relationship break-ups. There are always dozens of entries on these subjects.
Jude Higgins (judehiggins.com) is a writer, writing tutor and writing events organiser. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and is published in the Fish Prize Anthology, 2014, the Landmarks Anthology for National Flash Fiction Day 2015, Flash Frontier online journal, Cinnamon Press and Visual Verse. Jude launched the Bath Flash Fiction Award last year and co-runs Bath Short Story Award and Writing Events Bath. Twitter: @judehwriter
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