Unbraiding the Short Story: An Interview with Author and Conference Co-Director, Dr Sylvia Petter

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I met Sylvia recently and fortuitously through twitter via a mutual connection. I was grateful to hear of another writer in Vienna and we have met on several occasions since, including at a reading of her newest short story collection at Shakespeare and Co. in the city. She is an inspiring and enthusiastic writer who is organising events at the International Short Story Conference in Vienna in July 2014. I wanted to find out more about the conference and share with you some of Sylvia’s experiences and writing. Her short stories are thought-provoking, often touching on social and political issues.

Hi Fiona,

Thanks for giving me space on your blog!

What drew you in to writing short stories and what is it about the form that appeals to you?

I came late to writing. In the late 90s, on the way back from a course in the UK I picked up my first writing magazine. There was a contest for a story about a ghost in a computer room. I started writing and couldn’t stop; I wanted to find out how the story would end. Magic? The story got nowhere, but I was hooked. I had to learn how to write fiction and I’ve been learning ever since. I learnt a lot in the Geneva Writer’s Group and also online in the pre-web days in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp where a group of us had to analyse not only our own stories but also stories from the Best American Stories series. That was an intense three years online, my “MfA”.

The form seems to come naturally; my cruising count is relatively short – under 2K. But it’s a difficult form. There is story and story, and what I’m looking for is resonance.

Which writers inspire your work and do you have any favourite short stories or collections?

I love the work of the Australian expatriate, Janette Turner Hospital, and the Canadian, Timothy Findley, who also wrote short stories. Edna O’ Brien’s stories move me, as do Alice Munro’s and stories by the Australians, Cate Kennedy and Paddy O´Reilly.  Favourite collections would be ones by Janette Turner Hospital – Dislocations, Isobars, North of Nowhere, South of Loss, and her most recent prize-winning collection, Forecast: Turbulence. I’m also fond of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl. There is so much good short-story writing around in different media – online, audio, and the reading I attended at the Word Factory in Soho this summer to listen to Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway and Mary Costello. Then there´s terrific flash fiction by Tania Hershman, and a host of others.

You’re an Australian living in Vienna, having also lived in Geneva. Have the cultural differences helped to give you new insights or fueled your writing in any way?

When I was in Geneva, my stories were mainly set in Australia, although taking inspiration from happenings in the region. The same thing is happening in Vienna, but to a lesser extent. This may be linked to the expat experience and also to the fact that I feel at home in Vienna now – despite the word ‘home’ being a difficult one to pigeonhole. Many of my stories have a political tinge to them, so the setting depends on who the characters are and the issues that are making me and sometimes them say ‘what if?’

Your reading of the collection, Mercury Blobs, at Shakespeare and Co. in Vienna in the Summer was a wonderful event. Your short stories are full of life and exude the enthusiasm that flows through in to your conversation. How much of your character and experience filters through into your work?

Thank you so much for your good words, and I’m so glad you had fun that night. The atmosphere was terrific and the audience attentive. That makes things easy.  And I was so pleased that Annie Evett, my Australian publisher, was there and that the kids made some videos and didn’t fall asleep. Most of my stories are triggered by some happening I’ve experienced, or been told about, or read about in the papers, and then I do a lot of ‘what iffing’. I suppose bits of me and bits of people I’ve met are all mixed up in the characters. So, beware, you may find bits of yourself in a future story.

As Co-Director for the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in 2014, you are organising the conference held in July next year with Dr. Maurice Lee. What are your hopes for the conference in raising the profile of the short story form and what are your expectations for the event?

I’ve been going to the conferences since 2002. I only missed the 2006 one in Portugal because I was moving from Geneva to Vienna. I’m very excited that the 2014 conference will be happening in Vienna, and the international mix is bound to demonstrate all the things the short story can do. There´ll be several stories in English translation from the local Austrian writers and from writers from Asia. The event is timely as recent international recognition of the genre – the Man Booker to Lydia Davis, the Giller to Lyn Coady for a short-story collection, and of course, the Nobel Prize to Alice Munro – will put a spotlight on the Vienna conference. Behind the scenes with her magic wand is also Dr Susan Lohafer, who vets all the papers and proposals.

I expect to have a week devoted to the short story, with readings and panels and workshops and networking, where there´ll be sharing and learning, cross-pollinating, and enjoying the buzz of immersion in this exciting and all too long somewhat neglected genre. There’ll be more than 70 writers attending, as well as a host of scholars. We want people to leave Vienna with a new and stronger appreciation of the short story and how these conferences promote them and their writers, and we want them to want to come to the next one, and the next one and the next. This conference is sort of my home, wherever it may be held.

There is a wide range of authors attending, can you tell us about how you chose and invited the various writers to speak and to get involved in the workshops?

One of the things that impressed me at the first conference I attended in New Orleans in 2002 was that Dr Maurice A. Lee, the Director, told us all to leave our egos at the door – the big ones and the little ones. The conference brings well-known and lesser-known writers together on an equal footing. We are there for story. Of course, there are some big names, but what we are looking for are writers who are ready to be there together and celebrate story. We’re expecting over 70 writers from all over the world. There is a tremendously inclusive atmosphere of sharing and cross-pollination, and we have fun.

Regarding the workshop leaders, all had to have demonstrated teaching experience in the genre, and we wanted a certain geographical distribution. Some of the participants have been attending since the first conference in 1988, so writers who had attended before were asked if they wanted to come to Vienna, and many do come back again and again. Thanks to the possibility of getting the word out about the conference via the website and social media like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and by word of mouth, new faces will be at the Vienna conference.

Each conference also showcases work by local writers translated, where necessary. We’re honoured to have multi-prize winning writer, Friederike Mayröcker, attend, along with Clemens Setz, Doron Rabinovici and others. The exciting thing about the Vienna conference is that participants will also see the theme of ‘unbraiding’ a little like the unbraided plaits of Empress Sissi, reaching out into perhaps unfamiliar directions, as well as the braids that when opened allow for an investigation  of the techniques, history and psychology underlying a short story. The local approach added to this, I feel, will help underline the universality of the genre itself even though it is one that is difficult to pigeonhole.

Cutting edge papers also play their role in bringing writers and scholars together—the birds and the ornithologists, as Robert Olen Butler once said. I remember at the 2012 conference in North Little Rock when writers and scholars attended a round table on flash fiction. The next day, a young scholar from Portugal spoke about the work of Lydia Davis. Flash fiction writers were in the room, and this year, flash fiction practitioner, Tania Hershman, was invited to address a colloquium at the University of Braga in Portugal. This year, too, Lydia Davis won the Man Booker for her micro-fiction. Synchronicity? Whatever. But some magical connections do seem to take place.

The presentation of papers as a more formal representation will be held alongside other formats, including performance, art and film. How do you think the different angles on the short story will appeal?

The conference has always had paper presentations interleaved with reading sessions, although performance and film have not been very present. The paper/reading tandem works very well. Some papers are sometimes on the work of participating writers, which adds a certain edge for both the presenter and writer concerned, and also for the audience. In Vienna, there may be some new offerings in the area of performance and film, but that all will be seen in the final programme which should be available in a few months. The Call for Papers is open until 10 January 2014.

How it will appeal? I think story can have so many different ways of being disseminated. The idea of performance and film also brings together different manners of representation. Everything is changing in the way things are presented. But hasn’t that always been the case? It is easy to look back and see the changes, but when you’re in the middle of change, it may sometimes appear a little overwhelming to some. We want to look at a variety of possibilities in a nurturing and supportive atmosphere. I also think the readings will appeal to the local Vienna population, so there will be great international mingling for them, too, when they come to hear writers from Austria, Australia, Ireland, Canada, UK and the USA.

How can people get involved in the conference and workshops and how can they support the event? 

The conference proper opens on Wednesday, 16 July and ends on Saturday night, 19 July 2014. But there’ll be kick–off events open to the public: a reading at the Alte Schmiede on Monday 14 July, ten workshops by seasoned and well-known teachers and writers on Tuesday, 15 July, readings on Thursday and Friday evenings. Of course, we would like people to register for the conference so as to take advantage of the mingling and the atmosphere, the learning, and to enjoy and be stimulated by the readings, papers and panels. There´ll also be a luncheon reading for conference participants and a farewell dinner at a Heurigen. Shakespeare & Co is also planning a books & brunch event on the Sunday morning for those leaving Vienna later.

People can support the conference by registering to attend, by going to the readings, signing up for the workshops—I don’t think Vienna has ever seen such a fantastic group of teachers in one place at the same time—by entering the short story contest which closes in April, by submitting papers and proposals by the 10 January deadline, by joining the Society for the Study of the Short Story by making donations, and by spreading the word about this wonderful event that I’m so happy to see back in Europe, and hosted in Vienna.

sylviaBorn in Vienna, Sylvia grew up in Australia and after more than 25 years in the Geneva area, is now living in Vienna, Austria. She started writing fiction in 1993, and her poems, articles and stories have appeared in print and on the web. The Past Present, her first collection of short stories, was published in 2000/2001 in paperback and eBook formats by IUMIX, UK. Her second collection of stories, Back Burning, won the IP Picks Best Fiction Prize and was published in 2007 by IP, Australia. Her stories also appear in the charity anthologies 100 Stories for Haiti, 50 Stories for Pakistan, A Pint and a Haircut – True Irish Stories, 100 Stories for Queensland and New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan.

You can connect with Sylvia on twitter, her website, blog or facebook.

 

Interview with Costa Short Story Award Winner, Avril Joy

I would like to introduce you to our guest author, Avril Joy. With a degree in History of Art and experience as a social worker then a teacher at Goldsmith’s College under her belt, Avril has travelled widely, and it was her experience of working and teaching in prisons which drew her to my attention, as well as her clear gift for short story writing. Avril is a wonderful person and a truly inspiring writer. Her short story, Millie and Bird, won the first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. download (3) You have travelled to India, Kashmir and Nepal. Is travel a key source of inspiration for your work and how does it inform your writing?

I’m not sure about travel exactly, although my travels in India and Sri Lanka do feature quite strongly in my novel The Orchid House, but place is definitely an inspiration for me. For me, an idea for a story or novel often begins with a place and then obviously I have to go in search of the characters. I’ve always loved reading fiction that’s rich in place and atmosphere. I think travel is for the naturally curious and it’s good for a writer to be curious about places and the people who live there. I notice that Asian characters often pop up in my writing. I do love going to new places – I’m off to Venice for the first time soon and will definitely be keeping a journal to scribble down observations and ideas – but I also think that there is a rich source of inspiration to be found in the places where we live.

How did you begin teaching and then writing in a women’s prison, and in what way has the experience affected you as a person?

I began teaching in prison when I came back from my travels. I took a temporary post, just because it was on offer, which turned into a lifetime (certainly in terms of prison sentencing!) commitment. It affected me deeply but it’s not necessarily obvious in my writing, although it’s always there underneath. I’m always drawn to people, especially women, living on the margins, or in their own internal prison. Invisible lives interest me, the lives of those who have no voice. I learned a lot from the women in prison about freedom and survival, about laughter, and about not feeling sorry for yourself. There’s a great deal of pain inside a women’s prison but also a surprising amount of fun and also friendship which I’ve written about in my long short story (on Kindle), When You Hear the Birds Sing. I met the author Wendy Robertson in prison when she was appointed Writer-in-Residence. We struck up a great working relationship and ultimately a lasting friendship. She was the first person to encourage me. She told me I could write and in many ways that changed my life.

What drew you to Literary Fiction in particular?

I think this was simply a result of my life as a reader. I’ve always read and loved Literary Fiction and Poetry, so it was natural for me to write in a similar way.

You won the very first Costa Short Story Award in 2012. What is it about short fiction that many writers often love or fear?

What I love about writing a short story is that it allows you to experiment, to try different voices, to use language not so much as a vehicle for narrative but for its own sake, although simplicity and clarity are what counts. I love the intense nature of the short story and it’s ambiguity – the way you leave space for the reader to bring their experience and imagination to the piece. You have a chance with a short story to make it as perfect as you can. What I fear is that writing which is not good enough will be immediately exposed, it’s a very unforgiving form. Also for me I am often afraid that there isn’t enough of a story there and I’m not good at quirky or different and I can’t really do funny which I think is a real skill. I think perhaps my stories are too quiet for some taste but then those are probably the kind of stories I like to read.

What advice would you give to new writers in terms of publication and entering competitions?

I think competitions are great for getting work published or anthologised, also submitting to magazines and for this reason I feature opportunities for both in my free weekly newsletter which anyone can sign up for on my blog. It’s important to think about the particular competition you are entering or magazine you’re submitting to and to look at what they’ve chosen or published in the past, they often have a house style. Also make sure you follow the rules, but my best advice is to write the story you want to write and try to make it, in Nadine Gordimer’s words, ‘burn a hole in the page.’ The reader has to be affected or moved in some way by your story. Oh yes, I should also say, make the beginning good, draw the reader in. How to do all this? Learn from the best by reading the best.

Your blog posts are informative and inspiring, what have you gained from blogging?

I’ve been blogging for more than five years and in that time it’s given me a great sense of audience and helped develop my writer’s voice. I love that you can just hit publish and your words are out there, and this sustained me when my work was not being published. It’s also been a great place to celebrate mine and others’ successes. Blogging makes you a good editor and if you blog regularly it means you exercise the writing muscle. Also blogging has allowed me to share my experiences as a writer, both the ups and the downs, and maybe, I like to think, help or inspire others – once a teacher always a teacher I guess, it definitely fulfils that need in me.

The new short story collection, The Story: Love, Loss and the Lives of Women: 100 Great Short Stories, edited by Victoria Hislop, is out as an eBook with the hardback edition newly released on 26 September. Can you tell us about the collection?

It’s a wonderful collection of 100 stories written by women, selected by Victoria Hislop. I still can’t quite believe I’m in the anthology along with queens of the short story like Alice Munroe, Helen Simpson, Angela Carter, Katherine Mansfield… the list is remarkable. Of course my inclusion is down to winning the Costa which has given my writing a huge boost and a brought me a whole new audience and I’m very grateful for that. As well as being a cornucopia of stories the collection has a great introduction on the selection process, the nature of short story writing and what makes a good story. I think it would make a thoughtful and lasting gift for readers and writers alike. There is something for every taste here. Although I’ve been reading the collection on my Kindle, marvelling at one brilliant story after another, I’m most looking forward to getting my hands on the book itself in hardback, images (9) Featuring two centuries of women’s short fiction, ranging from established writers like Alice Munro and Angela Carter, to contemporary rising stars like Miranda July and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, this is the biggest and most beautiful collection in print today. Handpicked by one of the nation’s favourite novelists, Victoria Hislop – herself a great writer of, and champion for, short stories – and divided thematically into collections on love, loss and the lives of women, there’s a story for every mood, mindset and moment in life. CONTRIBUTORS INCLUDE: Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Daphne Du Maurier, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Katherine Mansfield, Hilary Mantel, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Ali Smith, Muriel Spark, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. Special promotional price to celebrate the short story (limited period).

Avril’s collection of short stories, Millie and Bird and Tales of Paradise, will be published in 2014 by Iron Press. You can find Avril at www.avriljoy.com

Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

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‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 

The Chemistry Between Writer and Reader

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This is a guest post by Trish Nicholson. I first discovered Trish because of her blog posts on writing and the connection between the reader and writer. Her love of travel resonated with me and her approach is unique. Writing has always been an important part of her life, contributing to columns and features in national media, and books on management, and anthropology. Several of her short stories have won prizes in international competitions and been published in anthologies.

Trish is a social anthropologist and a keen photographer who has worked and travelled in over 20 countries, including extensive treks in Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. She has an MA in Anthropology and an MSc in Rural Development. In 1997 she was awarded a PhD from the University of the Philippines for research on culture and tourism in Mogpog, Marinduque Island. Her work has taken her from the UK and Europe to Vietnam, Austrailia and the Philippines where she researched indigenous communities and worked in the Philippines with Voluntary Service Overseas, and on to Papua New Guinea with the World Bank Development Project.

Now settled in New Zealand and writing full-time, Trish combines her passions for anthropology, stories, travel and photography by writing creative non-fiction, which she describes as: “professional research and experience narrated by a storyteller, whispering in the reader’s ear as they walk beside me.”  Thank you for your post, today, Trish:

Each piece we write is a creative expression from a specific moment and place within us, a unique presence, and I suppose we shouldn’t have favourites but most of us do. While writing Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, the chapter that brought me the most pleasure, and the greatest challenge, was Voice, Language and Dialogue. Although the whole book explores in various ways the relationship between writer and reader, this chapter stretched me to explain how that chemistry works through their distinctive voices.

Voice in literature is a fascinating subject rarely written about in depth, perhaps because it is one of the most elusive concepts in writing technique, so I am happy to accept C. F. Malby’s invitation to share with you how I visualise that relationship.

Everyone has a voice – the expression of who we are, our persona – but it’s not quite as simple as that because we are complex beings. We present ourselves differently to the various people we relate to – spouse, sibling, colleague, local librarian – not only in the things we talk about, but the words we choose and the gestures we use. We have a multiplicity of voices – what I have called a ‘chorus’, a personal ‘madrigal choir’.

Our writer’s voice is expressed most distinctly in the style of writing and the kind of stories we write, but also in the characters we create. We choose which of our voices to use for a particular piece, but for our characters, we have to become sufficiently familiar with them to write consistently in their voices – represented not only in dialogue, but in thoughts, actions and body language because these are all parts of voice.

Developing a character’s voice is a deliberate and careful act for which we draw on our own chorus as well as on our observations and general experience. None the less, both character voice and writer’s voice are partly subconscious and reveal aspects of the author’s persona; a feature picked up by a reader who brings his or her own ‘madrigal choir’ to the relationship and creates an individual interpretation of the story.

Among our friends and acquaintances, even people met for the first time, we recognise that we enjoy listening and talking with some more than with others, and we appreciate them in different ways. We may find what they say more, or less, interesting, but their ‘voice’ as we perceive it, also indicates their attitude towards us. Some people call this personal ‘vibes’. They can influence our thinking and even our feelings about ourselves in a similar way to a story that relates to our own experience.

Perhaps because of the permanency of the written word, this effect seems even stronger in the relationship between a reader and a writer when they meet in a story. Each reader responds emotionally in a different way, both to the author and to the characters, especially when an author allows readers to use their imagination rather than feed them with every detail.

But when I read a novel, I want to identify with the characters, not with the author. This is the crux of what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’. By showing character through all the aspects of character voice – thoughts, dialogue, gestures and actions – a reader can engage with them; if we are told these things directly, the author’s voice predominates and gets in the way.

Whether a work is fiction or non-fiction, readers react to an author, and create their own interpretation of a story, with the voices they bring to the reading. In Inside Stories I discuss this and other aspects of creative writing in greater depth, using short stories as illustrations because the voices are often louder and clearer in the intensity of literary short fiction.

As writers, we choose the voices we use to create a particular story, as readers we complete it through our own voices – and in each cases, it is achieved both consciously and subconsciously. This chemistry between writer and reader arising from prose is at the heart of writing, whatever the genre.

inside storiesInside Stories for Writers and Readers looks at the creative process for readers and writers and offers a unique insight into the different themes of writing and reading novels, short stories, fiction and non fiction.

You can connect with Trish via twitter or her website and find her other books here.

So When Are You Going To Write A Proper Book, Then?

I am pleased to welcome the Director of National Flash Fiction Day, Calum Kerr, for a guest post on the short fiction form. His new collection, Lost Property, brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction, featuring Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. The collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrates the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.

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If you are a writer of flash-fiction, short-stories, possibly poetry and maybe even non-fiction, this is a question which may be familiar to you. The person posing the question might be a complete stranger, maybe at some reading or signing event, but is more likely to be a friend or even a relative. You proudly show them your collection of stories or poems, or your book on how to knit cartoon characters, learn economics or install a Linux system on your PC, and they glance through it, nod appreciatively, and then they work their way towards the question.

“So. Well done. This looks good, doesn’t it?” is the opening move.

“Yes. I’m very pleased with it. I think it’s come out very nicely,” is your response.

“Must have been a lot of work.”

“Yes. But enjoyable. Apart from the editing, ha ha…”

“Ha ha, yes.” They nod and look through the book again, then up at you. “So…” they start, and this is where you should stop them, because you know what’s coming next.

“It is a proper book. It has a cover. It has loads of words in it. I did research and everything. People will buy and read it – okay, not in JK Rowling numbers, maybe, but some of them. It has an ISBN number and can be bought from Amazon and those funny old places that people used to go into. You know, bookshops.” Is what you want to say. But you don’t. Instead you let them continue.

“So… when are you going to write a proper book, then?” they ask, and you somehow restrain yourself from swinging for them.

Because, of course, they don’t mean to say that your collection or non-fiction opus is not a ‘proper’ book. They mean ‘when are you going to write a novel’. That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it? Collections of things are nice, but they’re just little stories or poems, not a good chunky page-turner. Non-fiction books are useful, but you don’t settle down on the sofa on an autumnal afternoon to read them. They live on shelves until you have occasion to reach for them. No, they’re talking about the All-Powerful Novel and the place it holds in the public imagination as the pinnacle of writing and the thing that every writer is surely aiming for.

And this is the problem for writers, especially of flash-fiction or short stories. Because each of the small parts looks inconsequential; trivial. There might be many of them, and they might make up a 200 page collection containing 60-70,000 words, but still, you can see the joins; you can see where the writer started and stopped. Not like the seamless flow of a novel (which was surely written in a single, sleepless week of endless typing). And, of course, you are writing prose fiction, so surely you must be working your way up from these little things to try and join the big boys with their ‘proper’ books.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many flash-fiction and short story writers do have aspirations to be novelists, or at least have found an idea coming to them which is too big to cover in just a few hundred or few thousand words, and so are working towards a much longer piece. But that does not mean that they have finally, in some indefinable way, graduated to the big leagues. They have not left behind their childish play with those tiny tales and taken the brave step to write longer. They are simply following their muse where it takes them, and sometimes your muse takes you longer.

But all of those same flash-fiction and short story writers who are dabbling in the world of novels, at least those I know, still love and respect the short form. They are not what we write because we can’t manage the long things. They are the things we write because there is a value to a short story or a flash-fiction, an intensity, a chance at experimentation, and a specific purpose that you simply can’t achieve in the novel.

We don’t write stories because we are waiting for our turn to write a ‘proper’ book. We write stories because they need to be written, and because we love what they can do that all of your ‘proper’ books can’t.

So next time someone looks at your collection of flashes, poems, or your non-fiction work and seems about to ask that fateful question, stop them, point to the cover and ask them: “So, when are you going to read a proper book, then?”

calum-200x180   Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.

Two New Short Story Publications

It has been encouraging to receive such a positive response to my first published short story, The Bench. Take Me to the Castle is continuing to sell well, both in paperback and eBook formats. Several readers have been asking when the next short story will be released. I am pleased to announce the publication of two short stories: BLOOD RED and BIRD. You can download copies by clicking on the images on the side bar at the right. Here is a little information on each one.

Blood Red

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This short story set in India reveals the hidden tension in the mind of a young boy as he has to let go of the girl he loves for an unknown young bride chosen by his parents. But as the wedding day approaches, will he be able to follow his parents’ wishes in the face of his passion and quiet desperation?

Bird

Bird cover
A caged bird, an aging mother and a family loss that noone will talk about. This short story delves into the pain and longings of a girl caring for her mother with an insight into the world through her unspoken wishes.

Book Review: The Pre-War House and Other Stories

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I have eagerly awaited the publication of Alison Moore’s debut collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. As regular blog readers know, I am an advocate for short fiction and I read and write as much of it as time allows. It’s a real joy to be able to review this collection of short stories.  I was kindly given an advanced copy by Salt Publishing, for which I am very grateful. The Lighthouse, Moore’s debut novel, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and I read it in one sitting. I hoped for the same emotional tension, her attention to detail, and a surprising climax in her short stories, and this collection did not disappoint.

The short stories in Pre-War House are drawn from a selection of magazine and anthology publications over a period of twelve years, alongside new and recently published work. Moore’s stories have been shortlisted for more than a dozen different awards (see below) including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2013 for this collection.

The stories are evocative and often sinister, honing in on the details of everyday life with extraordinary insight into human nature and the many fears, often unspoken. Moore has a great sense of control over her prose, her language is understated and therein lies the power of her writing. She uses words which evoke a sense danger, of loss or unease.

I had previously read When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, and reading it again provided the same sense of threat and menace through the tightly written sentences as they wound their way towards an uneasy ending. There is something inherently satisfying in reading a story of this quality which makes you catch your breath as you turn the pages.

Overnight Stop left me gripping my seat as I read in disbelief. The plot lends itself to a novel length prose and this is no mean feat for a short story. This piece is a perfect example of Moore’s ability to play with your emotions and draw you in to the scene with frightening reality.

Seclusion lulls you into a false sense of security before packing a punch towards the end. The insight into one life is portrayed with telescopic accuracy.

Sleeping Under the Stars brings in details of Stargazy Pie, Liqourice laces and kirby grips with a layered story of the difficulties of fractured families. The ‘goosepimpled arms’ give a sense of foreboding, and words such as ‘queezy’ and ‘sickening’ provide a parallel for the emotional distress involved in the story.

Many of the themes centre around family, relationships, loss, and uncertainty. Some of the stories create a sense of claustrophobia as the characters become trapped in situations beyond their control. Each piece has its own unique style but the thread weaving through the collection is an intangible sense of anticipation. It is a delicious read and, having read some of the stories a few times, it is something I will keep going back to. A remarkable debut collection which comes highly recommended.

‘Overnight Stop’ (The Lampeter Review issue 7)
‘Sleeping Under the Stars’ (The Nottingham Short Story Anthology 2012)
‘A Small Window’ (The Warwick Review vol.6 no.4)
‘Jetsam’ (Ambit issue 211)
‘Seclusion’ (Paraxis volume 4)’If There’s Anything Left’ (The Yellow Room)
‘It Has Happened Before’ (Shadows & Tall Trees issue 4)
‘Trees in the Tarmac’ (The New Writer issue 112)
‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’ (The Screaming Book of Horror, 2012)
‘Small Animals’ (Nightjar Press, 2012)
‘The Yacht Man’ (The New Writer issue 111)
‘The Smell of the Slaughterhouse’ (The New Writer issue 111; Best British Short Stories 2013)
‘Glory Hole’ (The Lightship Anthology: 1)
‘The Egg’ (Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds, 2011)
‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ (Nightjar Press, 2010; Best British Short Stories 2011)
‘The Pre-War House’ (The New Writer issue 103)
‘Static’ (Manchester Fiction Prize 2009)
‘Monsoon Puddles’ (Quality Women’s Fiction issue 43)
‘Helicopter Jean’ (The New Writer issue 53)
‘Wink, Wink’ (Creative Writers’ Network magazine)
‘Humming and Pinging’ (Marches Literary Prize anthology 2000)