Author Interview with Sarah Hegarty

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Sarah’s short fiction has been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Cinnamon Press, Mslexia, the Momaya Annual Review, Hysteria 2, and on the web. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Short Story Prize and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her second novel and is writer in residence at the George Abbot School in Guildford.

 

1. You have said that, ‘some stories will feel more precious.’ Which of your stories hold that place for you and why?

It’s a combination of the time and effort involved, and if a story taps into something difficult and personal. (Those are the best ones, obviously). My story ‘Something Hidden’ is dedicated to my sister, who died when she was a baby. Writing it was a way of remembering her and celebrating her life, which I was unable to do at the time. It was a long, slow process to uncover the shape of it, and to understand what I was trying to do. I love Stephen King’s quote – from his brilliant book, ‘On Writing’ – that ‘stories are relics […] the writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible’. Writing is definitely excavating for me. My story ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’, recently published in the MIR #14 anthology, is precious for a different reason: I wanted to show life in Beijing in 1980 – a world that has vanished. I also hope it gives voice to people whose stories have rarely been heard, particularly in the West. It took me years to wrestle onto the page, so I’m pleased it’s found such a good home.

2. How did you end up becoming a reader for The Brighton Prize, and what are you looking for in a good piece of writing?

I submitted a story, which didn’t make it, but was asked the following year to be a reader.

I’m looking for voice, first of all. A character I want to spend time with, who pulls me in, and makes me forget I’m reading: I’m just listening. I want to be in the story. Show me what your characters can see. Let me feel what they feel. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be curious about them. Keep the pace moving. And then – let’s have a satisfying ending. Not twisty – but an ending that illuminates what’s come before, and makes you feel, yes: that’s how it should be. Beyond that, I love to see that the writer has cared enough about the work to check for spelling errors or typos. Of course, this answer is much easier to produce than a piece of original, engaging writing! That comes from endless reading, and endless practice. So the other thing I’m looking for is evidence that the writer is a reader, who has absorbed the shape of a story through reading other writers’ work.

3. How do you adjust to the changes between the long haul of the novel writing process and short fiction?

Badly! When I’m mired in editing and re-drafting, there’s nothing more tempting than the idea of a 2,000-word story, neat and perfectly formed (at least in my head). Being able to work on the arc of a short story in one go is hugely satisfying. One way I keep going with the novel (apart from searching out deadlines that make me sit on my chair) is to see each chapter as a short piece. I keep endless lists, and charts, and tick things off as I go, to give an illusion of progress… I’m always curious to see what my characters are up to, but I’m very bad at giving myself time to sink into the world of the book. It was a brilliant boost recently to be longlisted for the Mslexia Novel competition. That’s been a great incentive to keep working on the draft.

4. How did you feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Bridport Prize First Novel Award and how has it impacted your work?

It was a great feeling. I entered on the off-chance, and was thrilled to get down to the final five, out of over 1200. It gave me a huge confidence boost, and the impetus to get on and finish the manuscript. I was lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the prize-giving whose feedback also encouraged me to keep at it.

5. You manage to create great tension in your writing. How do you capture the reader’s attention in just a few short paragraphs?

Thank you. By endless re-writing! I have a terrible tendency towards throat-clearing although I’m getting better at cutting to the chase. Before writing fiction I worked as a journalist, and I try to report what’s happening so that the reader can be in the story; in the moment. ‘Keep Moving’ is a useful motto. But it’s all down to re-drafting; trying to be clear about the focus of the story; and giving it time to cook.

6. You run creative writing workshops for students. What do you enjoy teaching and what do you use as inspiration?

I love the whole process of engaging with students and hearing their work. I always enjoy workshops on character, but I’m happy to teach viewpoint, dialogue – whatever might be useful. I love being able to talk about the technical process of writing – the tools at the writer’s disposal, if you like – and then handing the toolkit over to the students and hearing what they come up with. It’s always interesting, and unexpected. I feel privileged when they share it with me.

For inspiration – all sorts of prompts, word games, challenges. I love using physical objects, as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – anything that catches my eye. My stories have often been prompted by a visual clue, and I hope that works for my students too.

7. Who are your favourite writers or inspiring quotes?

Too many to mention! I love Lucia Berlin’s short stories. Sebastian Barry’s prose is perfect. One of the best books I’ve read this year was ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain:  a fascinating and poignant imagining of Ernest Hemingway’s life with his first wife, Hadley. It sent me back to his work with new eyes. I’m currently reading VS Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ about his Indian heritage and his life as a writer. And I’ve just started ‘The Dawn Watch’, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Joseph Conrad.

The quote I keep on my desk is, ‘You get knocked down, you get up again. I also think writers must have great courage, the courage to trust your own life and your own voice.’ It’s from screenwriter Ashley Pharaoh, who co-wrote ‘Life on Mars’ (as well as many other things). It inspires me.

8. Can you tell us about the Mechanics’ Institute Review ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop?

It was organized by the editorial team at MIR, as part of the preparations for MIR Live, events around the UK where the MIR#14 authors read extracts from our stories. We learned how important it is to relax before reading. One of the ways to ‘loosen up’ was to lie on the floor, humming – a good ice breaker! We looked at the kind of extract that works well, read aloud: short, simple and clear. And we practiced reading – and breathing in the right places. It was a fun evening that gave me lots of useful ideas. I’ve written about it in more detail on my blog: www.sarahhegarty.co.uk  The next MIRLive events are in London (November 17) Birmingham (November 23) and Manchester (January 12). It would be great to see you at one of them!

9. If you had an opportunity to ghost write, whose biography would you choose to write and why?

I hate the idea of ghost writing. Each person’s voice is unique. I would much rather teach someone how to find that voice, and trust it – and then hear what they have to say.

10. Where and how do you write best, are there better times of the day, or helpful locations?

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops with a pen and notebook, and the intention to write, but I find other people too fascinating and distracting.  I can really only write at my desk, surrounded by photos, and cards from friends, inspiring quotes (see above!) and towering piles of books. The other place is Arvon. I’ve been lucky enough to go on an Arvon course, and it’s exhilarating and inspiring to sit at a desk overlooking a peaceful garden, mug of tea to hand – and nothing to do but write until the next meal!

I used to love working late into the night but reality kicked in with family life, and I tend to keep office hours. If I’ve got a deadline I still might creep back to my desk after dark. While the family sleeps I’ll drink endless cups of tea and stare in panic at the screen, and feel like a student again.

You can find Sarah at sarahhegarty.co.uk or @SarahHegarty1

 

 

Author Interview with Anthony Black

Today I interview author, A. Joseph Black, from Carnlough, Ireland. His short stories and flash fictions have been published online in literary magazines and in print anthologies. His story, Just Thinking, is in Schooldays, a collection of poetry and flash fiction from Paper Swans Press, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Anthology. His long short stories By the Lake and Nora have been published as chapbooks in Australia. He has recently been Shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017.

  1. What drew you to writing short stories and do you have any key inspirations?

I should probably declare straight away that I’m not a person who feels they have to write, that they’ll die if they don’t, that they just don’t make sense when they’re not writing. I would use the analogy of snooker, rather improbably. You like watching snooker on the TV, so you ring a friend and begin to play for an hour every week at the local snooker hall. You enjoy it as an observer at first, then you decide that you might enjoy actually trying it yourself. And that’s the basis on which I started writing. Late in life relatively speaking, at 44, I just thought, “I should have a go at this myself”. There are writers I love, obviously, but I’m quite undiscerning in what I read, as I think many readers are. I just like good stories well told. I mostly buy books in second hand shops, where immediately there’s a “found” aspect to it – you haven’t gone there to buy a specific book – and as the reader I love the different dynamic that creates. The last four books I bought were by Katherine Mansfield, Michael McLaverty, Raymond Chandler and Nick Hornby, all second hand. Does that tell us anything? I’m not sure it does.

2. Do you plan your stories or do they evolve as you begin to write?

After my long short story first piece, I continued by starting to write microfictions and flashes, as low as 100 words. With a piece that short, you can’t have character development or a narrative arc. Most often the “idea” is a single point of light – a noise, a phrase, an image – and you just place that in a sympathetic, complementary environment, like setting a jewel. I could have some of those written, revised, edited and pretty much finished in my head before I ever put a word down on paper. Of course, that only worked with very short pieces.

By the time my stories had reached 4,000 words and beyond, like Nora and By The Lake, I found I was planning as a necessity. I find it much more time-inefficient to not plan, and I have to really fight for my writing time, so for me it’s “well begun is half done.” And now I’ve come to enjoy planning and plotting. And it doesn’t mean, in my case at least, that the story can’t still surprise you, change materially, veer off, as you’re drafting it. They absolutely still do that, and it’s a big part of the fun of writing for me. But I do now find it prudent to provide myself with an outline superstructure when I start.

3. Is there any advice you can share with new writers who might be thinking of sending their work to literary journals or competitions?

Just get the really obvious stuff right: familiarise yourself with the type of material they publish, respect the submission guidelines, and never submit anything until you’re absolutely certain you can’t improve it any further. Impending competition/submission deadlines can make for some poor decisions about the quality of your work, in my experience. Also remember that if you’re not generating copious amounts of material then you need to manage your subbing carefully, noting response turnaround times etc. You don’t want your work tied up for months in a competition or with a lit mag. Even just waiting until right on the deadline before submitting mitigates this. You can simultaneously submit of course but do you really want that plate-spinning exercise to manage along with everything else?

And be realistic, for your sanity’s sake: there’s no reason not to shoot for the stars, just as long as you’re not then plunged into despair when your second ever finished piece is rejected by The New Yorker or doesn’t win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

4. Your writing is very descriptive. Do you picture the scene as you write or draw from your own experiences?

I like to picture it, to feel it, smell it, listen – and I want the reader to do all that as well. Again, it’s a function of the type of books and stories I myself enjoy reading. I love good descriptive writing. And it’s kind of frowned on a little now, I feel. Looked down upon almost. Like it’s telling, not showing. And yet if you read Daphne du Maurier, who I think is fantastic, she describes things endlessly: natural landscapes, physical appearances, even the weather. But the story’s barrelling along and you’re right there as the reader, in among the sights and sounds, and it’s exhilarating. If I can even get close to providing that sort of immersive experience for my reader I’d be delighted.

Some contemporary fiction leaves me a little cold, if I’m entirely honest. Too often it feels like an exercise in demonstrating how clever or erudite the writer is, with little or no consideration for the reader’s experience. Much of is actually too intellectual and abstract for my taste. And the lack of defined endings! I suppose I’m steeped in a very orthodox Irish storytelling tradition, but when I read a 5000 word short story which just stops – doesn’t end, or conclude, it just runs off – I find that so infuriating. Like I’ve been robbed of the time I spent reading it, however well written it was. As a reader I  want a well-defined, narratively satisfying ending, and I suppose that orthodoxy is apparent in my own stories.

5. How much does the writing scene in Northern Ireland influence your work and are you connected with other writers or groups?

Haha, I would never be a part of any scene that would have me as a member! There is some tremendous writing happening in NI presently and a thriving litmag scene with The Tangerine recently launching, and The Incubator, who were first to publish one of my stories, and first to give me the opportunity to read my work in public, which I love doing. Staring your listener in the eye is a blast because most of the time we’re closeted away in our writing space.

So I do know a few of the writers and editors like Michael Nolan, Kelly Creighton, Ruth McKee from readings, and I interact a lot with other NI writers on Twitter. As well as reading them, of course (six months after their book has come out and I can find a copy in a second hand shop). But I don’t think I’m much of a “scene” person. I can’t do the rounds of book launches and what have you – I have a full time job and five children all pulling on my time before I even get to my writing time, much less “scene time!”

There is definitely something in the air with NI writing at the moment though. I don’t know if anyone has ever satisfactorily defined “a scene” but I’d guess that’s what it is.

7. You mentioned beginning to write later in life. How did it all begin and what have you learned along the way?

It really was most unremarkable. Having enjoyed reading all my life, I just wanted to see if I could actually write. About six years ago I searched online for a writing prompt and found one that said “write a story in which the two main characters do something illegal and something immoral, but the reader retains sympathy for them.” And I wrote my first story, “An Encounter” (the title being a nod to Joyce, which is of course mandatory for all Irish writers or they revoke your citizenship). I realise now that was probably the worst/hardest prompt I could have found, but I wrote the story, learnt a lot in the process and – crucially – I enjoyed it. So I decided to write another one.

I do think I approach writing differently now than I would have in my 20s. For example, I don’t really set myself goals – there are things I wanted to achieve and did, such as having a story in translation in a foreign litmag, getting into a print anthology, my own name on the front of a book. But I’m not on a mission. I don’t have that iconoclastic zeal of youth. I don’t feel I need to kick over the statues, unseat the establishment and reinvent the novel. I just want to produce writing that people enjoy, that takes them away from their everyday life for the brief time that they’re reading my story.

8. What are you planning at the moment?

I didn’t write a word for almost 18 months last year and this, then I fell off the wagon in the summer when I wrote a short flash purely for my own pleasure. Immediately upon finishing it I saw that the Bath Flash Fiction Award closed at midnight so I submitted it (I’d never sent them anything before, but then I hadn’t had serendipity on my side before either) and it was shortlisted and will appear in the print anthology later this year. I suppose that reminded me of how fun and interesting and rewarding writing can be.

So with my fast broken, I’ve since finished the first draft of the short story I was working on when I downed pens last year (yes, I actually gave up writing right in the middle of a story, although the specific story wasn’t the problem, it just all felt like it had become a bit of a drag). I’ve now planned out a much longer piece, straying into novel-length territory, set in 1950s New York City. It’s inspired by three Edward Hopper paintings. I always look at the people in Hopper’s paintings and wonder what their story is –  What are they thinking? Are they waiting on someone? Who? And then I thought, “Well, why not take some of them and give them that story?” So that’s what I’ve done: the main figures in Hopper’s paintings Nighthawks, NY Movie and Gas are now Eddie, Marion and Victor, my three central characters. It has kind of a “noir” vibe, and it involves a crime, but beyond that I’m not really sure how it will look or sound if it ever emerges. But that’s the fun of writing.

And for me, writing should be fun. Writers who complain about how hard it is to write are the worst! If it isn’t fun, then you probably need to do it differently, or stop doing it altogether. I mean, it’s not heavy lifting and you’re inside out of the weather almost all of the time.

You can visit him at www.ajosephblack.com or join him on Twitter at @a_joseph_black.

Rock Pools

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‘Look, a starfish, bright orange. Look at it.’ Sophie points to the ripples in the rock pool, her pigtails drop down over her cheeks, cover the freckles that have faded in the sun. ‘Billie, look.’ He is further from her, closer to the shore. He jumps across the rocks, one leg followed by the other, to where she is crouching down, pointing.

The wind stirs up the water. It is difficult to see beneath the surface. He scrunches his eyes almost shut, but not quite. ‘It was there, I promise,’ she insists, but he is unsure, wonders if it was worth the distance. He had been disturbed from scooping up mounds of volcanic sand into a cracked blue bucket that he had found outside the barn this morning. He had wondered if it was there to be used or whether he should have left it alone. There had been lots of old deck chairs lined up against the stone wall, the wood frames held together by sun-bleached fabric a few rips and holes. They had looked as though they were waiting to be used or restored. Nothing looked as though it had been let out for some time and he had decided that the bucket, at least, deserved some time at the beach. There hadn’t been anybody about to ask… Read the rest of the story online in Vending Machine Press

 

Publication in Spontaneity Magazine

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One of my short stories, A Question in a Gallery, has just been published in Issue 5 of Spontaneity Magazine. It was written in response to this image of Waterloo Concourse by photographer Mark Charlton, also published in Spontaneity. Spontaneity is a new arts journal which seeks to link prose to visual art, poetry and music, and is one of the most original journals I have read in recent years. Dip into their pages and see what you find. It’s truly inspirational.

A Question in a Gallery

‘Mind the gap, please.’ The voice sounds cool, void of emotion.

I push through the doors, the signs for St Paul’s Station lining the walls as though I might miss my stop. I have managed to avoid the rush hour, having taken the day off work. The air is thick with anticipation, or maybe it’s fear. I don’t know.

I weave through the tiled corridors and find the bottom of the escalators. There are more signs – the St Paul’s wording replaced with To Street, like an instruction on a board game. Posters pull me into a world of colour and cabaret. A woman holds the hands of two small children, as they pass me travelling in the opposite direction. They fight over who will hold the moving handrail. Her face remains unchanged, as though they do not exist…

Continued at Spontaneity.