I’m thrilled to share the news that my story was longlisted, then shortlisted, and was this week placed as a runner up, along with 3 other wonderful stories. You can read my story at Lunate.co.uk
Entries were judged by the fantastic founding editor of EllipsisZine, Steve Campbell. You can read a blog interview with him here. If you haven’t come across this literary magazine, I would highly recommend a read. You might also find a few of my stories in there.
I hope you enjoy the stories. I’m off to celebrate the news!
The woman sitting opposite me looks like the guy I used to date. Her face is angular, her eyes fixed to the page of a book I cannot see. I wonder why she reminds me of him, and whether her features are particularly masculine, or his more feminine; maybe both. The door clunks back into the frame of the train’s carriage. A thud as it stops makes me jump and a man with a trolley walks through and scans the seats.
“Tea? Coffee?” he asks, glancing at the ex-boyfriend lookalike.
“Neither,” she says, her eyes remaining fixed on the pages in her hands.
He looks at me. “Coffee, black, no sugar,” I say, without waiting to be asked. He lowers his shoulders, exhaling slowly as he pours me a cup from a large metal coffee pot. Steam rises from the spout, the scent of it licking at my nostrils. Saliva fills my mouth in anticipation….continued at Lunate.co.uk
And, in case you missed this one, Do You See Me Coming, was also published in July at the new Burnt Breakfast Magazine.
Do You See Me Coming?
Do you see me coming, when the days are short and the nights feverish, when the family gathers round, wondering whether to call the doctor or let you slip away, peacefully. Do you see me coming when the flicker of evening light reminds you that your ancestors are beckoning you home. You think about your childhood and remember days where you came inside, covered in dirt and Mother shooed you away with a flap of a hand, and the smell of creosote where Father had painted the fence. You loved the smell but you weren’t supposed to. It was toxic, you were told, but you also loved the hot scent of tarmac. You always liked the things that you weren’t supposed to. You remember the way the swallows came in to nest then left, like Father, when I had come to him, too. He saw me coming. The rest of you only saw me leave, taking him with me …. continued at Burnt Breakfast
He strides across the room, ignoring your sentences. “I’ll chat to you about the job tomorrow?” You say, almost as a question. He waves an arm, mouth full of food, and leaves the room. You have tried to talk for several nights, but he has been preoccupied. A child is crying upstairs. He is rarely ever in; tonight he is on his phone in the kitchen, calls out and asks you to go. You head up, because that’s what you do. Your daughter wants a cuddle. You settle her, stroking her curls, and go to bed alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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), Gravel, Jellyfish Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and chosen for the Longform fiction pick-of-the-week.
You previously worked for the NHS, what did it take for you to move into the arena of writing, and can you tell us about your journey?
It was a long-ish process of realising that I would never be truly fulfilled while my writing was taking second place to my NHS career. As I got more senior in my post in a children’s hearing service in South East London, I found I had less time at the end of the working day, and more importantly, less energy for my writing. It was making me miserable, as I’d always wanted to write and publish novels and that dream was slipping further away. So I decided to go part time in a more junior job and use the rest of the time to write. I told myself I’d give it a couple of years of really throwing my energy into writing and then assess how it was going. Not long after that, I enrolled on a creative writing course at the Faber Academy, and started work on the book that would become Before I Go to Sleep.
Your debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, was turned into a film staring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, how closely did it remain to the storyline of the novel, and how much input did you have in the script?
I had no input, directly, but I had a good working relationship with Rowan Joffe who wrote and directed it, and also Liza Marshall who was the producer. So they ran ideas past me and checked I was happy with what they were doing, which was great, and in almost all cases I was. It was like having the best of both worlds – creative input without responsibility! But for the main part I let them get on with realising their vision – I see the movie as being like a cover version of a song. It’s a different piece of work, Rowan’s job was to take something that worked as a 350 page book and make it work as a 90 minute film. So, while it doesn’t incorporate every element of the book, and some things have been changed to make it more filmic, it’s very much true to the story.
Do you have a writing routine and what is your workspace like?
I try to do my creative work in the mornings, with afternoons left for admin and ‘life maintenance’ tasks, though if my writing is going well I’ll find it bleeds into the afternoon. I don’t work well with rigid boundaries, I prefer having a vague plan for the day. It depends on what I’m working on, too, and what stage I’m in. When I’m drafting I aim to write at least 1000 words, at least five days a week. Sometimes it’s much more, when it’s going well, but when it’s not I’ve learned not to force it. It’s important to trust what the work is telling you. When I’m editing I can get through a lot more in a day, though much of that is cutting and rewriting. I’ll often do that in the evenings, when I seem to have more of a critical head on.
My workspace is messy. There are books, notebooks, post-its, pens, ink, receipts, bills, plus of course my laptop and keyboard and so on. I’d like to be someone who keeps it tidy, or who refreshes it at the end of the day, but I’m… not. And I’ve accepted that, now.
Do you plan the structure of a novel, and do you begin with the plot or the characters?
I’m getting to be more of a planner with each novel. Before I Go to Sleep was very much ‘dive in and see where I end up’, whereas Final Cut, my new book, was planned fairly meticulously. I like to leave some room for the book’s own alchemy to take hold though, space for the unforeseen bit of magic. I usually begin with an idea, an area I want to work in or explore, and from there I think, ‘what could happen?’ and also, ‘what kind of person would that thing happen to?’ So, I suppose I’m thinking of the two things in parallel. A book can’t really happen for me until the characters are up and walking and talking, though, so that becomes the main thing.
What can you tell us about your forthcoming third novel, Final Cut, and the inspiration behind the story?
Final Cut I was inspired by several different things. I’d been thinking about voyeurism and filmmaking, and I started to become fascinated by documentaries, particularly those dealing with ‘ordinary life’, and reality TV. I was thinking about the everyday moments, dramatic and otherwise, which make up a life. Alongside that, I’ve long been interested in the modern-day urge to document, to record and share everything, almost as if otherwise it doesn’t seem real. When I was growing up I took 24 or 36 photos a year, on my annual holiday, now some people get through that many a day. These ideas coalesced into a narrative about an ordinary town in which dark secrets were hiding under the surface, which would be brought to light as a documentary filmmaker examined the village.
So this was the surface, but underneath my subconscious was also working away, and when I came to write the book I realised that my main character, Alex, was someone who once again only had a partial understanding of who she was. So, like Before I Go to Sleep, I was once again looking at the realm of memory and identity, albeit through a different lens and in a very different story.
Can you share something about the book, or about you, that readers won’t know?
I scrapped an entire book before writing Final Cut. I liked it, and loved the characters, but in the end decided it just wasn’t good enough.
Which book has had the greatest impact on your life, and why?
That’s sort of easy, and sort of impossible. Before I Go to Sleep changed my life completely, in almost every imaginable way. But I suspect you mean a book written by someone else! It’s so hard to choose one, but I’d probably say either The Lord of the Rings, which I read as a child and which first made me want to write, or The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter isn’t even my favourite Atwood novel, but it’s the book that, when I read it about fifteen years ago, made me realise I needed to revisit that childhood ambition and take it seriously.
What advice would you give to writers wanting to get a book published, and what do you enjoy most about the publication process?
I’d say, concentrate on writing the best book you can. When I speak to groups of aspiring writers I always ask why they think most books aren’t published. Too often they say it’s because the writer hasn’t got a big enough social media profile, or they’re not famous in a different field, or whatever. The truth is, the books that most people write aren’t good enough. So an aspiring writer needs to concentrate less of their energy on ‘getting published’ and more on being the best writer they can be. Once their book is unassailably good, then is the time to start to think about getting it into the hands of readers, or agents, or whatever. That bit is relatively easy, believe it or not. Agents are looking for books to represent just as much as writers are looking for agents. The tricky thing is that the books have to be amazing.
There are lots of really special moments along the way in the publishing process – seeing the book typeset for the first time, seeing the jacket the designer has come up with, when it first appears on your doormat in physical form. But I think I love meeting readers the most. It’s always lovely to hear how people have connected with the work. It’s going to be very different this time round, with most festivals having to be online. I shall miss it.
With photography as an interest outside writing, and an Instagram page of creative photography, does this link with or inspire your writing?
Very much so. When I’ve been writing intensively I’ll go out and take some street photographs, and when I’ve done that for a few hours I return to my desk energised. Each seems to feed the other. One is physical, one sedentary, and both require intense observation, but also I think it’s because they’re almost exact opposites. In writing fiction I’m trying to take a narrative and from it create images in someone’s head, whereas in photography I’m trying to weave a story out of a still picture. So each compliments the other – they’re ultimately both narrative arts. Or maybe I just love both because I’m incredibly nosy.
S J WATSON’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success and has now sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year and has been translated into more than 40 languages. The film of the book, starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, and directed by Rowan Joffe, was released in September 2014. S J Watson’s second novel, Second Life, a psychological thriller, was published to acclaim in 2015, and his forthcoming novel, Final Cut, will be published in August 2020.