Charmaine tells us how, on a walk around the ancient wall of Rome she arrived at the inspiration for her wonderful first prize winning novella-in-flash How to Make a Window Snake. When writing at her dining room table, she had to battle interruptions from her family and from others in distant time zones. It is interesting to learn how the structure of this novella emerged and how Charmaine was influenced by many different authors writing stories within stories. The tipping point for her to give the form a go, was reading the novellas-in-flash and essays by Meg Pokrass and others in the guide My Very End of the Universe published by Rose Metal Press. Ending the whole piece was the most difficult part of the writing for Charmaine. But take advice from her if you are embarking on a novella-in-flash – don’t force it. “Let your stories emerge, breathe some life into them, and then see if this is the structure that will allow them to blossom.”
You’ll be able to read How to Make a Window Snake, and the two runner-up novellas-in-flash by Joanna Campbell and Ingrid Jendrzejewski shortly. Our publisher, Ad Hoc Fiction, is in the process of compiling the book, due to be published in June.
What inspired you to write How to Make a Window Snake, your wonderful Novella-in-Flash that won the inaugural 2017 Novella-in-Flash Award judged by Meg Pokrass?
Like much of what I write, this story began with a mundane detail from my own life, then connected to larger themes that were already clattering around inside my head. It was a chilly, leafy day in autumn and I was walking along part of the ancient wall that surrounds the city of Rome. I was thinking that I needed to cut up some old clothes to make a draft blocker for the back door of my apartment, one of those long, stuffed things that often take the form of a toy snake. This idea of making something new from old scraps that have been used and damaged became a metaphor for the family at the centre of the story.
You recently told me that you wrote the novella at your dining table in a “small multi-lingual apartment in the heart of Rome” where you live. What was the most common interruption to your writing?
Luckily, I’m a morning person, so I managed to squeeze in some writing time before the morning coffee-making and fridge-trawling began, but on getting out of bed, I’d invariably get the Why are you up so early? It’s still night-time in Italian. Then there were text and email messages and social media postings from family and friends and colleagues in distant time zones and other languages. So, now, all electronic communications stay off until the beginning of the local business day. I’m probably the last person to have figured out that trick.
I love the way individual flash fictions within How to Make a Window Snake return to the same events and add more information, so that the complete picture gradually emerges. Is this a structure you knew you were going to use before you began writing?
I wrote a series of scenes, at first, just to see where that would take the larger narrative. Each scene was like a different camera angle on the same world and some repetition occurred organically. As my vision of an entire story solidified, I intentionally used repetition of certain images or ideas to keep the reader connected.
What did you find most difficult about writing in this emerging form?
Ending it. I feel the novella-in-flash ends in a workable place, but I’ve since gone on to scribble other little stories about the sisters in that family.
Are there other novellas in flash you’ve read that sparked your interest in writing one yourself?
People have written shorter stories within longer narratives for centuries, so this concept is already embedded somewhere in our literary DNA. But contemporary versions of the story-within-a-story idea, by authors like Meg Pokrass (the guest judge for this competition), Justin Torres, and Aaron Teel, had a more immediate impact on me. In their storytelling, they have managed to disguise the structure, so that you’re just caught up in a narrative and taken along for the ride. And yet you’re aware, on some level, that each flash piece has something to offer on its own. While writing How to Make a Window Snake, I read the novella-in-flash compilation, My Very End of the Universe, in which authors like Pokrass and Teel talk about the differences between a novella-in-flash and other storytelling. That was the tipping point for me. It convinced me that my story might work.
But there are other influences out there in longer stories. In my life as a reader, I have tended to notice the work of writers who have constructed novels, for example, while relying on short, intense sketches, half-told stories or longer tales told from various points of view. People as disparate as Julian Barnes and Italo Calvino and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elizabeth Strout.
It is fascinating to see how individual flash fictions from your novella work well as stand-alone pieces. That is one of the criteria of our Novella in Flash Award. One of your flash fictions, ‘Wind’, recently received an honorary mention in the 43rd New Millenium Writings flash fiction contest. What was your reason for submitting this particular story from the sequence to the competition?
Wind is a kind of allegory for the underlying themes of the entire novella-in-flash. At its heart, How to Make a Window Snake is about how we can experience a sense of betrayal in the safe places in our lives, whether they be our homes, our families, or our countries, and how those safe places can still hold together, thanks to resilience, love, or action. This is not an original idea but it intrigues me, this bit of human magic that allows us to live through grief or disappointment and still grow and love and laugh and play.
Can you give us your top tip for writers who are planning to enter our 2018 novella-in-flash award, which finishes on 29th January, 2018.
Read the novellas-in-flash of other authors and see what resonates with you. But then, don’t force it. Let your stories emerge, breathe some life into them, and then see if this is the structure that will allow them to blossom.