Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared in various publications such as The Guardian, Carve Magazine, Crack The Spine and the 2014 and 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. Her radio dramas have won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service and she has been twice shorlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is a Senior Advisor and Editor for Mash Stories and a Resident Reader for Carve magazine. You can find her online at www.jenharvey.net
1. What drew you to writing short stories and how has this developed over time?
The first serious piece of fiction I completed was a radio drama I entered for a competition run by the BBC World Service back in 2001. For some reason I seem to ‘hear’ dialogue more easily than other aspects of prose writing (description is still a very difficult thing for me) and so writing a play seemed to come naturally. I ended up winning the prize that year for best European drama and this gave me the confidence to consider writing more. So I set about turning the play into a short story just to see how it would work and I found this experience so challenging and rewarding that I’ve been writing ever since. Writing is very much a continuous learning curve and the most important thing I have learned since I first put pen to paper in 2001 is to read, read, read. Especially short stories. The range of techniques writers play with in the short form is more varied and interesting and experimental, I think, and the more you read and try these things yourself in your own writing, the better you get. It sounds obvious, but it’s hard work.
2. You read submissions for Carve Magazine and are a judge for Mash Stories, tell us what you look for in a submission. Can you define what hooks you into a story?
The submissions for Carve and Mash are so different, so I read them with different criteria in mind. For Carve we accept short story submissions up to 10,000 words whereas Mash specialises in flash fiction up to 500 words. For Carve I tend to have a more ‘literary’ hat on so a story has to work on all levels for me – character, narrative voice, plot, pace, description etc. All the technical aspects need to be working together so that the story flows well and reads easily on the first read. It’s only on subsequent reads that I will try to get a better sense of what draws me emotionally to the story and often this comes down to the characters. If I instinctively feel interested in them then I will pass a story up the line to the editors. For Mash it’s a whole different thing. Flash fiction for me works best when one aspect is leading the story, be that the language, the plot, or the narrative voice/characterisation. In 500 words you don’t often have the space to deliver a complete story. Kathy Fish put it very well in a recent interview when she explained that Flash doesn’t necessarily need a plot, it often works better when it has movement. And I tend to agree with her. A killer, for me, is a flash story that aims for a twist at the end. It very often fails and comes across as gimmicky.
3. Tell us about your columns for Litro Magazine and how you got into more journalistic work?
I have blogged, all be it intermittently, since 2005 because I like to have a little space where I can throw ideas out into the wide world. When Dan Coxon approached me to come on board for Litro I jumped at the opportunity because it allowed me to interview the writers submitting flash fiction to Litro for their weekly Flash Friday series. I loved talking to writers about their stories and every now and then I still do this, but at the momentI have stopped conducting interviews because I am working on a thriller which is taking up all my time and brain capacity. So, for now, journalism will take a back seat.
4.How did you find the Advanced Creative Writing Course with Oxford University and the Curtis Brown Creative courses in terms of what you learnt, and how have they impacted your writing?
The tutor feedback with Oxford was, as you can expect, excellent. They require two written assignments from the students and the detailed tutor feedback is very useful. One of the pieces I wrote for this course as an exercise found its way into the 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthology and I am working on the two assignments I submitted to edit them into pieces I can submit to journals at some point. Curtis Brown are also amazing. Their course is very much geared up to getting you started writing a novel and alongside tutorials they provide useful tips about the publishing industry and the whole submissions process. The course itself relies more on group feedback from the other writers on the course, but I was really pleased with this as the group I was in was very motivated and full of writers who clearly knew their stuff. In terms of the impact on my writing I would say the biggest thing I took away from them was self-confidence. I am a terrible self critic so having other people, tutors and writers, tell you you are on the right track is very motivating and on those days when the self doubt kicks in I now have that experience to fall back on and remind myself that I can do it and I just need to knuckle down and keep writing. I also think courses such as these help you to hone your critical skills. Having to read and think not only about stories written by accomplished writers but those of your fellow students really teaches you what to look for in terms of what makes a good story work and what sort of problems are causing a story to miss the mark. I think every writer should attend such a course at some stage. Learning is something we all need to do and, for me, it’s a lifelong process.
5. You have also written poetry and plays. I really liked your poem for The Guardian Poetry Workshop, It’s Only When he Turns the Pages, Touches the Paper that His Eyes Light Up. Do you think one form of writing feeds into another in any way?
Definitely. Writing flash fiction helps me focus on the language and the voice a lot more – the fact that it forces you to think very clearly about what it is you are trying to say is a very useful exercise. Drama of course really helps you to craft realistic characters – in some ways writing can be a bit like acting in that you need to get under the skin of your characters and think and feel the way they do and, for me, finding their voice, literally hearing how they speak is a really useful way to develop that deeper understanding.
6. What and who are your writing influences?
It changes a lot and often the book I am reading at any particular moment will be the thing which is guiding me in some way. So right now that would be Cees Nooteboom and Richard Brautigan. A lifelong influence on me, from the moment I first encountered him on T.V. is and will always be, David Bowie. He taught me the invaluable lesson of curiosity. To look around at everything and absorb it, then see where it takes you creatively. It sounds simple but it’s actually a very daring approach – to be limitless in terms of influences. This is what made Bowie an artist and not just a musician. I owe him a lot.
7. Give us an interesting fact about yourself.
When I was a kid, I lived in Zimbabwe and went to school where the teachers were all German nuns. Every day started with ‘Guten morgen kinderen!’ And I think this experience opened me up to different cultures and languages.