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 – Nick Black

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Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including Open Pen, the Lonely Crowd, Severine, Funhouse, Firefly, Spelk and Litro.  They’ve also won various flash contests and been listed for the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the Spread the Word Prize.

1. Your short fiction is intense and atmospheric, what do you think draws a reader into a moment in a story?

I think the right entry point is essential.  I read some advice once to try chopping out your story’s opening when revising, which has often been a wise move for me.   It might take a few lines or paragraphs for the writer to find their feet, feel where they’re going, but the good stuff (for the reader) might not start until that’s done. Start the story there. You don’t always need a lead in. Get in quick with a good hook.

I think a strong premise can be as important as beautiful language, much as I love the latter when used well.  I read a lot of chin-strokingly admiration-worthy zingy lines and images these days but don’t see as many big short stories that I’ll remember… the next day. I read an Arthur C Clarke story one time, when I was 13 or so, that I can still remember to this day.  I could paraphrase the plot now and it would still stand up. Roald Dahl, Somerset Maugham, Saki, Shirley Jackson, Kipling, du Maurier… they could write stories like that, too.  I’d love to be able to do that, come up with plots strong enough to work re-told, even with all the original effort and style and craft taken away.  Which has wandered a little away from your question, sorry.

2. What inspired you to write and do you have any key influences?

I had a hugely encouraging English teacher at secondary school who’d make me read my stories aloud to the class.  Every weekend we were set Creative Writing homework and I’d churn out three, four times as many pages as we were asked to do, my own takes on Stephen King, the ‘Dune’ books, Ray Bradbury, the Bond film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video… A few years later, I studied English and American Literature at university, mostly the latter.  As far as short stories went, this meant ‘The Complete Stories’ Flannery O’Connor, ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ Sherwood Anderson, Ann Beattie’s first collection ‘Distortions’, Bukowski ‘The Most Beautiful Woman In Town’… Also Hemingway’s short stories and ‘The Stories Of Raymond Carver,’ those two were ruinous for my own writing for years.  I started stripping out everything I possibly could, but it really didn’t suit me, and I ended up barely writing at all.

Then I went the other way after discovering Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow, and I started writing long multi-claused sentences with – to me interesting, to everyone else unreadable – syntaxes and rhythms.  My friends would tell me they’d enjoyed what I’d shown them…. but that it was slightly hard work.  I’ve tried wearying people less in recent years.

At the end of the day, I’ll always credit Stephen King and Ray Bradbury for torching my fuse in the first place.  They both talked about the thrill of getting early stories published in magazines, being paid for their crazy fever dreams, and that seemed so exciting, and possibly one-day do-able…

3. Do you have any advice for new writers who are wanting to submit to literary magazines and writing competitions?

Definitely do it. Success, if and when it comes, is the best fuel! For a long time, I was writing a story a year, if that, for friends and family until I was flicking through GQ magazine in a supermarket one day and saw they had a short story competition. I wrote something, sent it in, ended up shortlisted and printed in a little pamphlet they produced.  The following year, I saw another competition advertised I’m not even sure where, wrote a story, etcetera etcetera, and ended up at a launch party for the Spread the Word Prize, now the London Short Story Prize, as one of the shortlistees.  I spoke to a few people who asked about my writing habits before telling me theirs, and I was really embarrassed to confess to my one-story-a-year sloth, so started writing more, and submitting more.  You wouldn’t even be sending me these questions if those two competitions hadn’t woken up my teenage dream.

Advice? Not that I’m in a position to give any, but from my experience…  Accept that you’re going to get a lot of rejections and no-shows. A lot. Don’t take it too much to heart, these judgements are entirely subjective, and that same piece may well succeed elsewhere.  Or at the place you try after that. Or the one after.

Find out what the people you’re subbing to seem to enjoy.  Competitions can be an expensive hobby so, unless you’ve got unlimited funds, target them well. I’m still trying magazines and competitions that are well above my punching weight, so this is a lesson I’m still learning.

Try and identify what your strengths are and work on them, make them work for you. I have a friend called Kate Jones, for example, who writes incredibly fast but her stories always come out well shaped, well proportioned, everything in the right place. CG Menon’s a writer who somehow manages to pick words that almost audibly pop off the page.  I wish I knew how she did that!  I’d rip it off faster than a plaster! Sara Lippmann’s an American author who sneaks readers into her characters’ privatest desires and feelings to an almost uncomfortable degree – I’ll read anything by her. So, see what you can bring to the table that other people aren’t already, and write what you want to read, that other writers are failing to supply.

Finally, be prepared to fall off the horse. Get back on the horse.

4. How did you find it speaking at the London Short Story Festival and how valuable do you feel it is to do readings and speak as an author?

It was in the beautiful art deco foyer of Waterstone’s Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, though, so people were wandering past, looking over. One gentleman stopped and stayed for the whole thing, and spoke to me afterwards…  I really enjoyed the experience, even if ‘I was invited to read at the first London Short Story Festival’ sounds more impressive without the full facts. I did my second reading, for Open Pen, just over a week ago, to a bar full of people half my age, … which ages me…. and it was interesting to see which parts of a story I thought I knew ‘worked’, and which lines maybe weren’t as funny as I’d thought they were. I though that might have been down to my delivery.  I might slap my thighs more next time.

5. You spoke at the festival about your favourite American authors. Can you tell us more about them and what you think is different stylistically?

I was interviewed by a two-person roving camera crew, and on the spot named a lot of American authors… I think there are cultural differences, – or certainly have been, until recent years – where America has a tradition of Creative Writing courses we simply didn’t have in the UK, affecting the sorts of stories being produced.  I went to the University of East Anglia, late ‘80s, which I wanted to go to because they had this country’s first Creative Writing MA programme.  Now I was the first member of my family to study anything beyond secondary school, so I didn’t have a clue what the difference between a BA and an MA was, suffice to say the closest I got to the Creative Writing programme’s Malcolm Bradbury was holding a door in a corridor open for him once.

I did take an undergraduate Creative Writing module for one whole term, and the interesting thing was that 99% of the class’s students were American.  I don’t know if nobody else fancied it, or didn’t take it seriously. Anyway, whether it’s because more American writers have done such courses, analysing writing, having theirs tested and supported and hot-housed in that kind of environment, or if it’s a difference in national psyche, personality, but American short stories often feel far more ambitious, confident, visceral, uninhibited, rude,energised, sexualised, hyper-clever, super-steroided…  Which can be daunting if you want to submit to US magazines or competitions.

6. Is there a short story that you return to and why?

For ruthless efficiency and memorability, ‘The October Game’ by Ray Bradbury.  For its elegance and tenderness and incredible dialogue, Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’.  Somewhere between the pulpy cheap nasty thrills of the former and the wit, sophistication and emotional depths of the latter you’ll find the story I’m always aspiring to write.

7. Give us an interesting fact about yourself.

Sometimes I’ll think of an old song and it’ll come on the radio within hours or even minutes of my thinking of it. I can’t control it or make any money from it, or impress anyone but myself with this wild, mysterious gift, but I hope I never lose it.

 

Transatlantic Anthology: The very best of Litro fiction.

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I’m thrilled to be able to share the news that one of my short fiction pieces has been published in the US in the Litro Anthology, Transatlantic. I am in the company of some wonderful authors and will be excited to read this in its entirety. The collection will be published in the UK next spring.

SYNOPSIS

Transatlantic: The Litro Anthology collects some of the best writing to have passed through the pages of Litro magazine, including stories by Anthony Doerr, Sean Beaudoin, Nikesh Shukla, Lucie Whitehouse and Jenn Ashworth. Litro has always taken a global view of the literary world, and this collection is no exception. There are stories from authors on both sides of the Atlantic, spanning locations as far apart as Ithaca and Nairobi – and even the surface of the moon. What connects them is the strength of their voices, and the vibrant originality of their storytelling. Transatlantic contains disturbed choristers and post-apocalyptic survivalists, aspiring rock stars and morally bankrupt nuclear power plant workers – but more importantly, it contains some of the most exciting and unique new voices to have appeared in modern fiction over the last few years.

The Magic of Short Stories

Today’s guest post is written by author Carys Bray, winner of Salt Publishing’s 2012 Scott Prize. Thank you, Carys. I am really enjoying the complexity of these short stories which are honest and gritty accounts of family life, bound up in a collection which leaves its mark long after the pages stop turning. Highly recommended. Carys also had a recent piece of short fiction published in Literary Magazine, Litro. My Brother is Missing is an emotionally charged story and just as gripping as her collection.

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I gate-crashed an undergraduate seminar a couple of weeks ago in order to listen to guest speaker, Chris Beckett. Chris’ collection The Turing Test won the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize and his novel Dark Eden was the Sunday Times SF novel of the year. During the seminar Chris talked about the way he approaches short stories by combining seemingly disparate elements in order to make his fiction three-dimensional. I once heard short story writer Adam Marek say something similar – I can’t quote him exactly, but he talked about how he often takes something fantastic and combines it with something ordinary.

I don’t believe there’s a ‘recipe’ for writing successful short stories, but I suspect Chris Beckett and Adam Marek are on to something when they talk about the way they mix their ingredients: short stories need depth and many of my favourite stories blend the mundane with the magic of the impossible.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is about a father whose son’s Tamagotchi has AIDS. On the surface, the story is about an impossible thing – a terminally ill toy, but it’s really about a father’s relationship with his son and the fundamental helplessness of parents. The father in the story can’t fix the Tamagotchi and he can’t ‘fix’ his son’s developmental issues. There is clearly a connection between the Tamagotchi’s illness and the son’s development – the metaphor may sound laboured as I attempt to dissect it, but it isn’t. The story is touching and funny, a beautiful exploration of a father’s need to make everything right.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is about an elderly woman who is both fascinated and repulsed by new technology. Clarissa is an Outsider in the Urban Consensual Field, a virtual city constructed in the image of London as it was when it ‘still seemed feasible for millions of physical human beings to casually consume what they wanted of the world’s resources.’ As one of the few physical people left, Clarissa can view the consensual world via an implanted switch. Old and frail, she embarks on a journey through the ruins of London to see the lights of Piccadilly Circus as it was in her childhood. It’s a wonderfully clever story set in an extraordinary world. Beckett addresses aging, our perception of reality and whether something is real if it can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch.

I think there’s something wonderful about these impossible stories. At first glance they’re entertaining, but they’re also illuminating; the blend of the familiar and the impracticable can challenge a reader’s perspective and assumptions.

When I started writing short stories I had tremendous fun creating improbable scenarios; supermarkets where children are bought, a baby carved out of ice, and an old lady constructing a gingerbread house. But in each case I suppose I was also writing, or at least thinking, about something else; the commodification of children and childhood, infertility, and the way outsiders are treated.

I’ve been working on a novel for some time now, but earlier this week I spent a day editing a short story I began last summer. It was lovely to handle something small again, to attempt to blend seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Tobias Wolff said, ‘There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.’ I agree, and I think that same joy can be experienced when reading short stories, particularly the kind of stories that illuminate the everyday with a little bit of impossible magic.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is found in his new collection The Stone Thrower, published by Comma Press.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is found in his collection The Turing Test published by Elastic Press.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Remember the Bride Who Got Stung’ is available to read at Thresholds, the international short story forum.

Read about Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden in the Guardian.

Author pic from EH Prize edited Carys Bray’s short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines. She currently teaches at Edge Hill University and is a co-editor at Paraxis. She is working on a PhD and a novel.