We were fascinated to read that our first prize winner, Rose McDonagh, is a late night writer and has written almost every day since she was fifteen. Her winning piece was drafted in a community writing group she runs, inspired from one of her own exercises. She says, although it’s not always about getting published, a story gets “half its life from its author and half from being read and understood by other people.” Many writers have commented on the meaning of 'Pony' to them on social media. It’s a story with much resonance. David Swann, our October round judge, said “Haunting and elusive, yet simultaneously plain-speaking and precise – a story I won’t ever forget and my clear winner. Tremendous.”
We’ve a picture of some Icelandic ponies here to go with a photograph of Rose reading at The Edinburgh book festival’s Story Shop event this year. Rose says the ponies live in an isolated place and “run up to visitors like friendly dogs.” Although Rose might not write any more stories about ponies and the characters in her winning piece, we look forward very much to reading more of her work and hope to see her short story collection focussed on different animals, in print soon.
- Can you tell us how your wonderful story ‘Pony’ came into being? Did it go through many versions?
To be honest, it started as an exercise. I run a community writing group for a local charity and, as the facilitator, I tend to have a go at all the exercises I set. This one was on writing a dialogue in which one character has a secret from another. The story started there and then became something else. It went through quite a few edits, the dialogue was mainly there all along, and the sense of opening out at the end came later.
- I noticed on Twitter that you jokingly said that you would write a follow-up story to please your mother, where the pony gets to live in a pony sanctuary. Would you like to write more about these characters and their relationship? A novella-in-flash comes to mind…
No matter how dark a story is, my mum tends to hold out hope that all may yet turn out well. We have a bit of running joke where we try to devise a good outcome for characters however unlikely that may seem from the official ending.
I don’t often actually write characters into a new story, I like the freedom of letting a short fiction end where it ends. But I have created a couple of recurring characters more recently, so who knows? It’s good to play with possibilities. I’m often tempted by ideas that initially seem over the top so maybe the main character will get to run a pony sanctuary...
- You told me that you have been writing for nineteen years and David Swann’s remarks in his over-all report, about not giving up, chimed with you. We’d love to hear more about your writing history and what inspired you to write in the first place.
It’s very hard to say what exactly inspired me to start writing, it seems like something that comes out of your whole personality. I’ve loved books as far back as I can remember. When I was fifteen, I started writing for a school course. At that time, I began to feel an absolute certainty that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve written almost every day since.
I’ve had various pieces published over the years but also, plenty of things that either didn’t get published, or didn’t get as far as being sent anywhere because I couldn’t get them to be what I wanted. I liked David’s point because if you’re sending work out to competitions, publishers, magazines, etc., you experience plenty of rejection and you have to see it as part of the process.
Of course it’s not all about getting published, but when you do have a piece accepted or you win a prize, your writing gets a chance to connect with readers. I have sympathy with the idea that a story, when you do get something out there, becomes alive in a new way.
- What writing projects have you got on the go at the moment?
I’m working on a short story collection. Every story contains at least one animal, and something around different kinds of belief. They just seem to fall into that pattern at the moment.
- Who are your favourite writers in the short short form?
I love Chekov, Grace Paley, Annie Proulx, Tessa Hadley, James Kelman, Yoko Ogawa. I’ve read a lot of short stories this year and really enjoyed collections by David Constantine, Jhumpa Lahiri, Romesh Gunesekara, Michèle Roberts, Sarah Hall and Camilla Grudova.
There are so many good stories freely available online too, it’s fun to find something by serendipity. In the last few weeks, I was impressed by ‘Midwestern Girl is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories’ by Gwen E. Kirby in Guernica Magazine and ‘Fascicle 41’ by Anna McGrail in London Magazine.
For flash fiction, there’s a collection from the early nineties called Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, edited by James Thomas, Denise Thomas and Tom Hazuka that I go back to.
- You work for two Scottish charities and sound very busy. Where and when do you write? Special room, special time of the day?
I write any time but late night is best for me, from around midnight to two in the morning. I do my main writing at my laptop in my flat, but I’ll sometimes make notes or re-read stories out and about. Also, a lot of fresh ideas have started from sitting writing with pen and paper within that community group. I suppose I’m setting exercises that interest me on some level.
- Finally, a tip for writers thinking of entering the next round of our Award?
Read as much flash fiction as possible. Buy anthologies and literary magazines if you can. They can’t exist without writers supporting them. There is also a lot fantastic work available for free online.
If you read a flash fiction you really love, re-read your own work straight afterwards and think about whether it feels lacking in comparison. If so, can you get it to do more? If not, can you push it to be a little bit better anyway?