There’s much to learn about writing flash fiction in this interview with Nicholas Cook who won second prize in the February 2017 round of Bath Flash with his wonderfully titled and moving story, The Peculiar Trajectory of Space Objects. Nicholas tells us more about the structure of this piece, white space and about the title and the use of titles in general in short short fiction. We learn about his journey to flash fiction via screen writing and the parallels between writing and coding. He also mentions Jane, his most beautiful greyhound/part Saluki dog, who I think, from the photograph, would be most writers’ favourite muse. I love his writing tip that you can even write about a ‘toaster pastry’ as long as the emotion is there and the language interesting.
- Can you tell us how your wonderful second prize winning story for the Bath Flash Fiction Award February round came into being and how you arrived at the title?
This story, like most, started with prompt words: trajectory, rocket, vortex, telemetry, and others. Because most of the words were space related, I thought it’d be interesting to write a story structured around satellites, but not have it actually be about space. I primarily chose Voyager 1 and 2 because of their interesting history. Voyager 2 was launched first, but Voyager 1 is farther out in the solar system. I found this worked well for the two siblings. The girl is dead and far away and her brother, her twin, is older by a minute and still alive. All while the narrator is trying to connect with both and, at the same time, understand what happened.
I wrote this story almost a year before I submitted it, so some details are lost on me, but I remember the working title being “My Life in Satellites,” which was a bit weak for this piece. I settled on “The Peculiar Trajectory of Space Objects” because it fit well with the loss and confusion the characters were feeling, everyone traveling on their own peculiar path, the brother especially. I find in flash fiction, you can do interesting things with titles since the story itself is so short, the title really sticks in your mind as you read, and can create meaning. That said, I wouldn’t always say a title needs to be long winded and clever, sometime a single word works best.
- In her comments, Kathy Fish points out that you use white space to tremendous advantage in this piece, and the story consists of four segments that are standalone micros. Is structure and experimentation something that interests you?
I find I write a lot of stories in this form: short micros or fragments that build a larger whole. I’m sure there’s a longer reason why I’m interested in this form that has to do with attention spans or how I write, but I don’t have a great explanation other than it feels right for the story. This story would never have worked as a bunch of paragraphs. The whitespace works with the loss the characters feel and allows me to use all the different satellites without having to worry about how to transition to them. I’m not interested in transitions or lines that serve only to move you from one scene to the next. That’s boring. Flash is about economy and what isn’t said, and I use whitespace to that effect.
Perhaps all this comes down to too many readings of Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison. If I could marry a book, that book would be it.
- What drew you to writing very short fiction in the first place?
As a kid I wrote, like many other kids, terrible sci-fi stories about feeling isolated and alone. I suppose I’m still writing about feeling isolated and alone, but at least it’s not genre. In high school and early college, I wrote screenplays, also terrible. I even shared one with my film professor. How embarrassing. It was atrocious. I used to write screenplays in Microsoft Word if you can imagine. Later on in college, I took a short story class for the hell of it (I was still into screenplays at the time). After that class, I took four or five more and never thought of screenplays again. I didn’t discover flash, or perhaps the word ‘flash’, until around 2009 when I was living in New York. It took me a while to really understand what it was and that I wanted to write it. Early writings were very much fragments focused on writing good sentences. I like to think I’m a late bloomer. I don’t feel like I wrote good stories until I was in my late twenties or early thirties. I’ll probably only like the stories I write when I’m in my forties and on. I’ve gone off track and not really answered the question. What drew me to flash was the brevity and unspoken moments. I love what a story can say without actually saying it. In flash, that resonates stronger than longer fiction.
- Have you any current favourite flash fiction writers?
So many! I’ve been reading Mother Ghost by Casey Hannan lately. I’ve read it two or three times now. I bought a copy for a friend. It’s such a wonderful, moving collection. It really speaks to me. Otherwise I am a big fan of Meg Pokrass’s work. We used to get tea when we lived in San Francisco and watch other people’s dogs at the park near my apartment. She was one of the first flash fiction writers I first discovered through elimae (RIP) and made me think, What on Earth is this wonderful thing? Other writers I love: Kathy Fish, Claudia Smith, Daryl Scroggins (go read Oracle right now), Diane Williams (her stories are so bizarre and lovely), and so many more.
- In your bio, you mention living in an eighty-year-old house with your grey-faced greyhound, Jane. Has Jane inspired any of your fictions?
She has in some recent, unpublished stories. I adopted her in September of 2016 from a rescue organization that I also volunteer at in Dallas. She was a stray so they don’t know how old she is. Most people think she’s old because of the grey in her face, but I say she’s distinguished. She’s part Saluki, which is the dog in Amy Hempel’s Nashville Gone to Ashes. I reread this story recently and had forgotten it was the same kind of dog. Jane even lets me brush her teeth in the same way!
- Can working in technology mix well with writing flash fiction?
My day job is programming. It’s boring to talk about, but writing code is, in some ways, like writing fiction. You start with a blank screen and just write. It’s about pattern and arrangement and revision. It can be elegant. So there are parallels, sure. I only recently discovered that. Programming was always something I know how to do so I do it. I suppose it brings a new level to it, but you’ll never see a story about a programmer from me.
- Can you tell us more about your novella-in-flash? What do you think is the trickiest thing about writing in this form?
It’s still evolving, so I’m at that point where I don’t want to say too much about it. We’re a superstitious bunch. I’ve tried a couple times now, each time the further along I go, I find myself writing traditional length stories. I suppose that’s the tricky part. It’s all in my head.
- Finally, a tip or two for anyone wanting to enter the Bath Flash Fiction Award.
Read, read, read. No better tip than read as much as you can, learn as much as you can from the writers you love. Promise you they’re doing it too. Other tips: experiment with form, use prompts, make it interesting. You can write about a toaster pastry, but as long as the language is interesting and there’s an emotion there, someone will to want to read it. Finally, let it sit for long enough and come back to it. Rediscovering something you wrote will let you know if it’s a successful piece or not.