Interview by Marie Gethins
Safia you’ve won and placed in both short story and flash competitions, but you studied poetry in the past—what’s your process and do these different genres inform each other in your work?
Choosing to research the work of two male, Irish poets for my PhD was a personal challenge to be honest. I mean, I’d studied literature since the age of 11 and had been an avid reader before then, but as my tastes developed, it was the novel to which I became addicted as a reader. It would have been much more predictable for me to do a PhD in prose fiction. When I started writing fiction in 2011, it was with a novel, which would you believe is still going through revisions as we speak? I sort of fell into short story writing when I was an active member of a peer review site, www.youwriteon.com where a professional critique from big-name publishers was up for grabs each month. I noticed that short stories seemed to have rather more success in this competition than novel openings, so I gave it go. Within a matter of weeks, the first short story I’d ever written, ‘Rent A Chair’ was at the number one spot, finishing in third place by the end of the month and getting a great critique from an editor at Random House.
I’d found the process of writing to around 2,500 words came fairly easily to me and I do believe my brain is naturally wired to the structure and pace of the short story genre. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on novel writing. In fact, I have a second one at a pretty advanced stage which I planned, rather than flying by the seat of my pants as I’d done with the first. As for the influence of poetry on my work, I’d say, no, it doesn’t particularly inform my prose writing. I’m not one of these ‘poetic’ short story writers who place great emphasis on ‘surprising’ with vocabulary. When it comes to descriptions, I have to work quite hard, being more concerned with making something happen in a story and interweaving themes which add layers to the work and encourage the reader to think a little more deeply and beyond what’s taking place on the page. Having said that, the occasional colloquial word from a Seamus Heaney poem might creep into my stories and poets have figured in two of my most recent pieces, but that’s not the same as poetry ‘informing’ my work which is what you asked about.
You’re originally from Northern Ireland but live in the UAE now. How has location influenced your writing, if at all?
That’s an excellent question. Location has influenced my work to a very large extent. I could divide my short stories into two columns, one headed ‘Irish’, the other headed ‘Arab’. My first three short stories were of the Irish ilk, semi-autobiographical of course, one more so than the others and more rightly classified as memoir. These were accepted by Ether Books and in the meantime, I decided to locate my novel in the UAE. This was because I found myself in such a unique situation – newly married to an Egyptian, living in a very traditional village between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in a sense ‘going native’; it really demanded to be recorded in some way lest I forgot the details later. I had an insight into the many immigrant and local cultures and these feed into the novel–the intersections, negotiations and frequent collisions. The multi-cultural nature of the UAE is of utmost importance in that novel as it is to me on a personal level. I’ve met some fascinating people from all corners of the world here and often a shred of their story, or a snippet of information slipped into a conversation became the germ of a short story. I’ve had some success with these ‘non-Irish’ stories, for example, Haverthorn Magazine published ‘The First Wife’ (also on my blog) and The Incubator published ‘No Blue Roses’ which was inspired by the imprisonment of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt. Another short story which might be considered ‘political’ by some readers has been shortlisted for Flash500, but generally, what I’m finding is the ‘Irish’ stories do better in international competitions. I did win the Abu Dhabi National short story competition in 2014 with a story set in Dubai, but that was about a robot in the future (on my blog)! I’ll keep on producing short stories from both locations though which seems fitting as my greatest ever piece of work, my daughter, is half-Arab and half-Irish.
Do you prefer to focus more on character or setting? How much does the form dictate your approach?
Oh, character every time for me! I’d say all my writing is character-driven and I can’t get into the story until I know who the voice or voices should be. When I started writing fiction four years ago, it was usually in the third person, but more recently I’m finding the first person more suited to the short story form because of the intimacy it invites. I’ve been reading the 20 stories in the 2015 Bath Short Story Award Anthology as my book at bedtime this week, and it struck me how many (including my winning story ‘That Summer’) are in the first person. It’s not essential to use ‘I’ to connect your reader with your character/s of course, but in the short form it is a very effective way of drawing the two elements together, as if the main character is having a private conversation with the reader. Yes, setting comes into most good stories, but for me, this should be drip fed into the story as an integral part of the character’s situation; his/her struggle, conflict, turning point might be dependent on the setting but for me, character always predominates.
How is flash fiction different, in your view, from the short story?
There’s simply no time to wipe your feet on the doormat with flash fiction – you’ve got to get straight into the middle of the story from the first sentence and after that, every single word has to count, must advance the action or reveal something essential about the character/s. Flash is like a monologue in which asides are forbidden, whereas in the short story, with a longer word count, the writer has the privilege of enhancing the text with backstory, characters’ thoughts, maybe even a paragraph or two of descriptive, so-called ‘purple prose’. Not so in flash, where every word must be moving us towards the final denouement and earn its keep. I think this was put really well by Nick Black, a flash fiction talent to watch. Commenting on my Allingham Arts prize-winning flash, ‘Viennese Whirls and Pineapple Creams’ (on my blog), Nick said the writing was ‘tight as a biscuit tin lid’. Who could put it better than that? Also, in my opinion, there’s little place for ‘mundane’ vocabulary in flash – verbs and adjectives require particular attention, but this is true in most fiction writing. As always, editing is the real writing, but I’d say in flash there should perhaps be a higher level of scrutinising.
What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?
If it keeps my eyes glued to the text, if the language creates sharp, unambiguous images and the story moves me in some way – to anger, to loathing, to sympathy, to sadness or to joy, then I think it’s been successful.
Considering other writers (in flash and any other form), who inspires you and what do you admire about their work?
I find this kind of question very difficult to answer because I read so widely and inspiration comes from so many places and people besides the work of other writers. In addition, although I adore the short stories of James Joyce, Mary Lavin, William Trevor, Carol Shields, and Lorrie Moore, for example, I think novelists have probably inspired and influenced me more – some names from my 2015 reads would be Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Arunadha Roy, Jon McGregor, Celeste Ng, David Vann, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, and Per Pettersen. Now there are a few authors there who have published short story collections as well, so I guess I believe the quality of the writing, regardless of the form, provides me with inspiration and motivation. Also, like most writers, my bookcases are full of books from years, decades ago and every one in some way, subconsciously or otherwise, has fed into my psyche and may very well pop up in my work at some stage.
I have an anecdote to illustrate this point. After I won the Bath Short Story Award with ‘That Summer’, Dean Lilleyman, a novelist, contacted me to say he’d enjoyed it and it reminded him of the Joyce Carol Oates story, ‘Heat’ – had I read it? I replied that I hadn’t, but I’d look it up. I remembered I had an old Oxford Book of American Short Stories on my shelves (1992) and it was edited by Joyce Carol Oates, did she have a story in there herself? Yes, it was ‘Heat’ and my bookmark, still in the book, was marking the story immediately after ‘Heat’. So, I must have read it. Perhaps at the time, more than twenty years before I’d even contemplated writing ‘That Summer’, I’d made a connection I wasn’t aware of, or perhaps not. Perhaps we all have childhood memories of hot summers and if we write about them and are lucky enough to get them published, someone, somewhere, thousands of miles away will empathise because we have succeeded in putting them or a version of their earlier self, right into the midst of the story.
Having said all that, I am constantly amazed by the wonderful work that appears today as a result of fiction competitions such as the one run by TSS Publishing and it is certainly inspiring for others to read work such as your own flash fiction piece, Marie, ‘Blood Ties’ which recently won a TSS competition. I think for new and aspiring writers, reading prize-winning stories online or in magazines can sometimes be just as inspirational as taking a book by an established, best-selling author off the bookshelf at Waterstones.
Finally, what advice as a writer and creative writing instructor would you give aspiring writers?
One of the things I would NOT push on aspiring writers is the ‘write every day’ adage, unless you are working on a story that’s taken over your every living moment. I think creativity has peaks and troughs and some days are better reserved for reading, research, note-taking, and/or thinking about how a story might take shape rather than forcing yourself to sit in front of a blank screen becoming frustrated and questioning your own ability. I would advise keeping notebooks to jot down ideas as they come, adding details which will inevitably drift into your mind when you are doing something entirely unconnected to writing. In the beginning, it was important for me to set aside a particular time for writing, ie, when my young daughter was at nursery. When you know this is when you can write without interruption, you must plan to be ready: with your notes, perhaps the killer opening sentence that came to you when you were sitting on a train, and some idea of the structure of your story. If you are a procrastinator, be strict with yourself, pledge to start at 9 or 10 am, or midnight, or whatever suits you and then write. Keep going as long as you can, expect the first draft to be pretty dire, but keep going, even after a break of days, start where you left off and write to the end – finish that first draft before doing any editing. Never say ‘it’s finished’ until you see nothing to change in your story; so edit, read, edit again, put it away, read it again, edit some more…keep going.
Safia Moore is a writer, editor, and creative writing tutor from Northern Ireland, published in journals including The Incubator, Haverthorn Magazine, Severine, and The Honest Ulsterman. In 2015 Safia won the Bath Short Story Award, came second in the Allingham Arts Flash Fiction competition and was twice shortlisted for Flash500. She can be found on her blog: www.topofthetent.com and on Twitter: @SafiaMoore
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