Flash Fiction Evening with David Gaffney and Tania Hershman

The Milton Keynes Literary Festival moved online this year, with a series of events for their autumn program, which culminated in a wonderful evening of flash fiction readings from David Gaffney and Tania Hershman and a Q&A session of questions from participants. Most, not easy to answer, but, as Tania mentioned, there are no rules. We talked about what flash fiction is, or what it might be, and about permission to leave things out, to be daring.

It was good to see familiar faces, and meet new ones. David Gaffney swept us up into the world of his clever graphic novel, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, which began as a performance, based on several of his micro-fictions, and is the title of one of my favourite stories in his collection, More Sawn-Off Tales. In amongst this brilliant collection of 150 word stories, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head describes the men she hides in the cellar. “Sometimes she would bring three of four ex-boyfriends up from the cellar and arrange them into scenes – a trad-jazz band, or a dispute around a pool table – and she would move their jaws and make them speak in scratchy voices.” He draws us into the world of Valerie’s life of inept lovers and weird obsessions.

Thought-provoking lines from Everything’s West Of Something began, mid-action, with a vase flying through the air. “You can discover everything about your girlfriend by tossing a breakable object towards her.  Is she poised? Confident in her judgements? Does she seem willing to take responsibility for someone else’s actions? Is she comfortable with spontaneity? What is her attitude to risk, debt, transgression, sin, guilt? How does she experience the passing of time? Does she appear to believe in an afterlife? An interventionist god? Ghosts, fate, predestination?”

All Mod Cons was another wonderful reading, about Jake, who “invented a prescription glass windscreen for his car so that he could drive without wearing his corrective lenses. He enjoyed the feeling of freedom – no plastic pads digging into his nose – and it had the added advantage that car thieves couldn’t drive the vehicle unless they happened to have the same degree of myopia.”

We discovered the way that stories formed as he listened and observed details of every day life, with Potato Smiles evolving from an overheard conversation between a couple, where the woman had inadvertently been looking at the children’s menu, had never heard of potato smiles, and ended up ordering them with her steak! These are the nuggets of information that listeners savour, the moments that fuel and form a story.

He talked about inspiration drawn from Lydia Davis’ writing as a short story author. As he read a 150-word flash fiction piece about Eggborough Power Station, a slide show was projected on to the wall behind. This was a work of art in itself. The stories were varied, and, as always, utterly captivating. You can find David’s books at Salt and elsewhere.

Photo credit: Sarah-Clare Conlon

Tania Hershman treated us to readings from her collections, The White Road and Other Stories, My Mother Was an Upright Piano and Some of Us Glow More Than Others, as well as stories from many other places. She has an almost hypnotic style of reading, drawing you into a scene and holding you there, momentarily. Listen to her read a selection of work on SoundCloud. Her writing, often based on Science, is bold, quirky and gives a brutally honest insight into human nature and nature itself. Tania’s Science Journalism background, along with a Writer in Residence year in a lab, feeds into every fibre of her writing. She read two of my favourite stories:

Vegetable Mineral took us into some snappy and insightful dialogue, keeping us hooked to the end. “When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid. ‘Let’s run away,’ I said. ‘Barbados, Brighton, Bermuda, Brooklyn.’ ‘Only B’s?’ you said, and slumped onto the couch. ‘Today is brought to you by the letter B,’ I said. ‘Animal,’ you said. ‘Domesticated?’ I said as I shoved the bills down the back of the armchair.’”

How to be Here, took us on a journey to a riverbank. “Hover, over exactly that spot on the river, half way between the locks and listen. After an hour, century or minute, land on this bank, wait, in long grasses and inhale.” Tania’s stories leave you clasping hold of the final few words, willing them to stay and tell you more. You can find Tania’s books on her page at Bookshop.org.

Sipping from an enviably beautiful cup, Tania answered questions about story length and how to balance narrative with dialogue. She talked about a 800 word story, which took two and a half years to write, and when asked about story length, we learned that David has been asked by editors to expand his work at times, whereas Tania often cuts down her writing, culling the words and reforming a story. Both talked about the feel and shape of a story, and felt that no two writers work the same way, and no two stories are created by any specific process. She discussed her hybrid writing, the freedom of form, and the idea of losing labels. We talked about the importance of permission to be freer with what you write, to take risks.

Photo credit: Tania Hershman

I have, by no means, covered all the stories we heard, but I hope this gives a flavour of the evening. A recording of the session will be available on YouTube within the next few weeks and I’ll add a link here for you to watch. Thank you to the Milton Keynes Literary festival for organising this event, and to Dave Wakely for chairing. Next time, we’ll all bring cake!

Author Interview with Vineetha Mokkil

  1. Who or what inspired you to write short stories and when did you begin writing?

All the writers I read and digested inspired me to write. I was a voracious reader as a child. I started writing when I was in middle school. Some of those stories were written for competitions held at school and some stayed on the pages of my notebooks. I’ve loved books ever since I can remember. Reading stories was such a pleasure and a fascinating voyage of discovery—of other lives and worlds—and I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying my hand at writing them. I was enthralled as a reader and I wanted to see if I could write stories to recreate that immersive and magical experience for my readers.

  1. How has living in various places – New York, Delhi and Taos affected your writing? Do you think travel helps to inspire your work?

Every place I’ve lived in or visited shapes my writing in particular ways. The energy of a place—inspiring, soothing, manic or comatose—rubs off on me. The essence of a place stays in my heart long after I say goodbye. The people I meet and the stories they tell, the sights, sounds, skies, and hidden histories of a place all spark my fiction. Travel is inextricably linked to my process. New places jumpstart my imagination. The memories they gift me are fertile ground for stories to germinate.

  1. Do you create a structure for your stories before you begin or are they more fluid?

I tend to write short stories and flash fiction in a fluid way. I have a basic idea of the flow of the story, but it’s not strictly structured before I begin. Whereas with my novel, which I’m currently working on, I found that I had to create a solid structure before I started.

  1. What advice would you give to writers wanting to submit work to literary journals?

Get your story into the best shape possible. Rewrite, refine, edit and polish vigorously before you submit. Keep at it inspite of rejections. Appreciate the feedback editors give you and incorporate it into your work. Acceptances will eventually come your way.

  1. How has winning writing competitions affected your journey as an author?

Writing competitions come with strict deadlines and they force me to sit down at my desk and finish a story on time. Competitions make me a more disciplined writer in this sense. Winning a competition makes me feel my hard work is being appreciated. That’s a wonderful boost for a writer. It gives you reason to believe in yourself and your art and to carry on writing in a world which is largely indifferent to creative endeavours.

  1. Can you tell us about your collection, A Happy Place, and your route to publication with Harper Collins?

I didn’t start out with a collection in mind. The stories were written one at a time. The title story was published in the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal. My eternal gratitude to the editors for that acceptance! Then, a few more of my stories got published in literary journals and magazines, and that gave me the confidence to consider putting together a collection. Once I had enough stories, the hunt for an agent started. It was not easy. Some agents loved my writing, but they were running scared of taking on short stories. It took a lot of effort and patience to find an agent who believed in the collection’s possibilities. She sent it out to several publishers and I was thrilled when HarperCollins said yes to it.

  1. Who are your favourite short story authors?

It’s a long list. To name a few: Chekhov, O. Henry, TC Boyle, Anita Desai, Lucia Berlin, Anne Enright, EL Doctorow, Akil Kumarasamy, Chimamanda Adichie, KJ Orr, Deborah Eisenberg.

  1. What do you think is the essence of a good piece of short fiction?

Telling detail, tension, humour, nuance, startling imagery, and the ability to make a word resonate in different registers at the same time.

  1. What are you currently reading and which book would you take to a desert island, and why?

I am currently devoting all my time to working on my novel, though it’s a tough challenge to resist the call of my very attractive to-read pile. The last book I read and was bowled over by was The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly perceptive and well-written novel about friendship, loyalty, loss, and grief. My desert island pick would be Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. The copy I own is falling apart because I’ve re-read it so many times. This novel surprises me every time I read it. It is so lyrical, insightful, wise, and immense in scope—I’d be delighted to be marooned on an island with it.

 Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, A Happy Place and other stories (HarperCollins), which was listed as one of the Ten Best Works of Fiction by The Telegraph. She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award June 2018, shortlisted for the Desi Writers Lounge Short Story Contest 2018, and is the winner of the New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2018. She was a nominee for Best Small Fictions 2019. Her fiction has appeared in Barren, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fictive Dream, The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab, Singapore), GravelJellyfish Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and chosen for the Longform fiction pick-of-the-week.

You can find Vineetha on Twitter @VineethaMokkil and her books on her Amazon author page

Author Interview with Taylor Byas

Taylor is a black, fun-sized Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in English and a Master’s in English, Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She is now a second year Creative Writing PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati. Her work appears, or is forthcoming, in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Jellyfish Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Empty Mirror and others. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and Best New Poets 2020.

1. How did your writing journey begin and did anything in your life particularly influence this?


I’ve been writing since I was much younger, probably in my early teens. I used to write poems in the middle of my diary entries, so I always had a love for poetry. When I went to college at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, I was an English major with a Creative Writing concentration, but back then I focused more on Fiction. I was still writing poems, but I wasn’t really studying and reading it outside classes. In my senior year, I took an Ekphrastic Poetry class, and that was what caught my attention. Looking back, I was in a really terrible romantic relationship at the time, and my father was starting to become more noticeably abusive around that time, so I think poetry saved me during a really hard time in my life. After that class I switched my concentration to Poetry for my Master’s degree, and I’ve been dedicated to writing it ever since. Of course, I branch out and write other things, but writing poetry is essentially second nature to me now.

 2. What have you learned from your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English, and has this changed the way you write?

Since my Bachelor’s degree was so heavily focused on fiction, my poetry is often narrative-driven and it’s really important for me to get the details right. I’m almost always trying to tell a complete story within a poem and to tell it so vividly that my reader is right there with my speaker. When I was writing poetry during my Master’s degree, I was still finding my voice as a poet. Those two years were me figuring out how to make a poem as strong as I possibly could. How can I make these line breaks have more impact? How can my verbs do more work, so I can then spend less time describing things? How do I write about the subjects things with a fresh twist? My Master’s was really a two year study in making my language come alive on the page.

3. What is the area of study for your PhD? 


I am currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, focusing on poetry.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your poetry and your creative non-fiction work?


Lately, I’ve been writing more heavily about race and thinking about what it means to be a Black woman in this world. My first completed poetry manuscript touches on themes of ancestry and black womanhood, and I believe those threads run through everything I write, and will continue to be currents running through my work throughout my career. The poetry that I’m writing now in this moment is essentially a part of this larger project, to write the kind of poems I wish I had read when I was a younger Black girl. I think I would have come to poetry much sooner if I was reading poetry in which I could see myself. So the poems I’m writing now are about being in love, having a difficult family, loving my body, and experiencing racism. My creative non-fiction work has been a space where I’ve given myself permission to write about some of the more traumatic things in my life, such as my alcoholic father and body dysmorphia.  I want to eventually complete a collection of essays looking at all of the things that have shaped me and made me the woman and writer I am today, and I think a big part of that is looking at the obstacles I’ve overcome along the way.

5. How has being nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and Best New Poets 2020 affected your profile as a writer? 

Being nominated for two Pushcarts and for Best New Poets was such a shock. I’m not sure if it has necessarily affected my profile as a writer, but it did wonders for my own personal view of my writing. It’s been a little over a year now that I’ve started submitting my work, so to get those nominations right away confirmed that I was doing something right. This time last year, I was getting ready to start a PhD program with writers who were older than me, more accomplished, had awards, books and tours. I was joining the program with only a handful of publications to my name. I know that playing the comparison game is never a good idea, but impostor syndrome was very real. Those nominations were like a voice that said, “keep going,” during a time when I wasn’t sure I belonged in this world.

6. What advice would you give to new writers?

Write about what matters to you. There is no right or wrong way to write a poem. Don’t just read poetry, read things outside your genre, outside of your interests. Always shoot for the stars, you miss every shot you don’t take! 

7. Who or what are your inspirations?


This is such a hard question because there are so many writers publishing some really amazing writing. One of the writers who completely changed my life was Erica Dawson. I was introduced to her during my Master’s and that was the first time that I realised I could write about what mattered to me. I could write about being black, I could write about my grandmother, I could write about getting my hair done. I also admired the way Erica wrote in form, and I’m now a formalist at heart myself. She definitely changed the entire landscape of what I thought poetry could be for me. Danez Smith is another poet who continues to stun me with the way they use language (Danez is non-binary). Their poetry manages to be joyous even while being about heavy subjects. They have a gift for rhythm, for music. They put words to feelings that I never knew I had. I am always connecting to their work and feeling seen in their work and that’s so important to me.
Two other really incredible Black female poets that come to mind are Ashley M. Jones and Tiana Clark. Ashley is unapologetic in the way she writes about race and blackness and it’s so admirable. Tiana transports me into another universe every time I read her work.

8. This is a difficult but necessary question – How has being Black affected your life?

I would say that the area that is probably most affected by my race is education. I didn’t have teachers who looked like me until I got to college. The texts I read throughout high school were mostly by white, male authors. My knowledge of black history is nowhere near where it should be, and I’m doing the work of catching up on my own, and even writing about those gaps in education in my poetry. In my Catholic high school and middle school I experienced racism from my teachers. An 8th grade teacher equated sounding unintelligent with “talking black.” In high school, black students were drug tested far more often than white students, and the school tried to penalise students with false positive test results. When I lived in Birmingham, I was called a “nigger” at the gas station the morning after Trump was elected president. When I was dating a white man, I ended the relationship because I didn’t feel like he would fully understand my position and the position of our children in a world like this. In the world of academia, I often have to be twice as impressive as my white peers and counterparts. I’m fortunate to be on a PhD course where I have other women of color as peers, but I know that other PhD courses aren’t as diverse as mine. I worry about what life may be like in the future if I work in academia, and if the environment will be one in which I’m constantly fighting to prove my worth and be heard. I go back and forth on whether I want to bring children into this world. Just within the past few days, the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag has put a spotlight on the disparities between how writers of colour and white writers are paid for their work, which has been a little disheartening to see. It bleeds into everything. But I’m so proud to be Black. I love being Black. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

9. Can you recommend any good literary journals run by Black editors or Black writers that we can read, support and follow? 


A poet I follow on Twitter, Natalie Eilbert, compiled a really wonderful list. I would suggest Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Fiyah Lit Mag, The Hellborne, and Kissing Dynamite, to name just a few.

You can find Taylor at taylorbyas.tumblr.com or @TaylorByas3