Sheila Armstrong, commended by Michelle Elvy in our June round, likes the freedom and intensity of flash fiction. Her chilling story October 29th, 1.17am emerged from thoughts about the 'bystander effect'. Currently living in Dublin, she writes a lot about city life and what happens when people are crammed together. Her tip for writing flash is to take note of the things that make you stop and think, small incidents and gestures, or much larger events.
- Can you tell us how your story. October 29th, 1.17 am came into being?
It seems like every year, around Halloween, you hear of horrible incidents with kids, fireworks and animals, but you never hear any details. There's never any specifics – just someone did this, someone did that. I always think of the bystander effect in these situations—somehow, in groups, horrible things just happen, and it's always someone else who does them. So I started writing about a scene like that, with no specifics and no identities.
- What do you enjoy about writing in the very short form?
I love how quickly it comes and goes—you get the spark of an idea, and you get it down on the page, and it's done. For people like me, who have trouble with the discipline of writing, short fiction is great. But there's also a sense of freedom, as you can play with techniques that you wouldn't be able to maintain throughout a longer piece. There's so much intensity with it—all the emotion of a longer piece has to be condensed down into a few hundred words. I always think of it like vomiting, in a way – you suddenly feel like you have something you need to get out of you, you have an intense couple of minutes, but afterwards you feel emptier and better.
- The subject of your commended story is very powerful. And many questions linger. Are there particular themes that you return to in your fiction?
I seem to write about cities and people a lot, and how lonely and terrible things happen when people are crammed together. I grew up in the country, but currently live in Dublin, so it's probably a reflection of that anxiety! I'm still figuring out what my writing is about, and how to improve it, so maybe that will change.
- We'd love to post some links to your other fiction. Do you have a favourite story of yours out there in the world?
- Which short fiction writers do you currently admire?
I like anyone who can write and make me feel an emotion in just a single paragraph. That's what I love about short fiction—anyone can do it, and you can gobble it up in a bite. Someone once told me that even the text on the back of a bus ticket is literature, and I like that idea—just putting words in a row so that they mean something is a wonderful thing.
- Finally, what's your best tip for writing short-short fiction?
I feel like the best short pieces I have written have come from experiences I've had that have made me stop, and hesitate, and think. It happens fairly rarely, I think, so when it does, you need to pay attention. It can be tiny things, like a man's crooked fingernail as he passes you your coffee, or the pattern on a rock in a field, or a song you hear through a bathroom wall. Those moments made you pause for a reason, so write about them.