David Gaffney lives in Manchester, UK. He is the author of the novel Never Never (2008) plus the flash fiction and short story collection Sawn-Off Tales (2006), Aromabingo (2007), The Half Life of Songs (2010) and More Sawn-Off Tales (2013). The Guardian said ‘One hundred and fifty words by Gaffney are more worthwhile than novels by a good many others.’ He has written articles for The Guardian, Sunday Times, Financial Times and Prospect Magazine and was judge for the 2015 Bridport Prize. His story ‘The Staring Man’ is featured in the 2016 collection Best British Short Stories, his new novel, All The Places I’ve Ever Lived came out in February 2017 on Urbane and his graphic novel with Dan Berry, The Three Rooms in Valerie’s head is out now with Top Shelf.
- In your excellent article for the Guardian in 2012 about flash fiction, you listed the following tips for writing micro fiction – start in the middle, don’t use too many characters, make sure the ending isn’t at the end, sweat your title, make your last line ring like a bell, write long then go short. Is there anything else you would add six years down the line?
I’m glad you mentioned this because those tips follow me around everywhere, and I have changed my views a little as I’ve encountered other flash fiction styles which don’t always follow my rules and quite often when I read flash they sometimes sound like they have been written following a kind of template – and this can suck the life out of the form. When I suggest tips or rules they are really provocations to think about rather than to follow religiously. Taking them one by one I have changed my thinking about titles completely and now I much prefer simple title, titles that really don’t do anything other than identify the story. I now like a title that doesn’t get in the way doesn’t hint at what the story is about. The title should be just a clear window through which you can view the story. I am even thinking that for my next collection, if I produce one, I might get rid of titles altogether. This is quite liberating and gives the reader a free landscape to romp around in, a world where they can make the story mean whatever they want. In the case of the other rules, I would still always write long and go short because I think that the writing is part of an investigative process, a research activity where you are using the words to excavate the story from under the weight of a lot of other, possibly distracting, story elements. On using too many characters, it’s possible to get away with it, but in general one handers and two handers seem to work best for me, I think. The ending should definitely not be at the end and I still don’t much like a reveal ending or a punch line ending.
- From what you’ve read, how do you think flash fiction has changed since 2012?
I think that studying some of the US writers like Meg Pokrass, Dianne Williams and Lydia Davies unearths some very compressed and elliptical styles that demonstrate how a short piece of text can hold within it a mighty power, and might need several re-reads before it gives up its meaning.
- You have published many styles of narrative – your very short fictions, novels and graphic novels. Your latest graphic novel is about to be launched. Can you tell us more about the graphic novel form and the book?
Working on the graphic novel has been very illuminating for me. There are many questions that my co-producer, illustrator Dan Berry will ask me during the process that I don’t have an answer to – such as what shoes does this character wear and what type of hair do they have. It’s funny but often as a writer you don’t know everything about your characters and if your character is going to be drawn in a book you have to really nail down what they look like.
Dan will also draw reactions to lines of dialogue which I hadn’t thought of and will often draw a scene in a completely different way to the way I had imagined it. For the current graphic novel, The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head, the ending was in fact designed by Dan, and it is an ending I don’t think I would have come up with at all by working with text alone but its an ending that works very well visually. The whole process is very collaborative and Dan contributes to the structure story and dialogue as well as the drawings.
- Your first book, published by Salt, which you refer to in the 2012 Guardian article, was prompted by train journeys you made. You often post comments about what you see on train and bus journeys on social media. Can we expect another book of flash fiction inspired by such journeys?
My flash fiction is still inspired by real things I hear about and see and I have a file of ideas for short stories which are all unfinished and some only a few words long, but mostly they relate to things I’ve seen or heard while travelling about the country on public transport.
- We’re looking forward to you teaching another ‘Sawn-off Tales’ workshop with different story examples, at the next Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol this July. Several of last year’s participants wrote stories prompted in the workshop, and I remember hearing gales of laughter coming from the room where you ran the groups. What do you enjoy about teaching the form?
I like teaching flash because I guess like teaching poetry you can hold the entire piece of work in your hand and study how it works, take it apart. I never use my own stories but instead we go through lots of examples illustrating as wide a range of voices and techniques as I can find. It is fun and most of the laughter generated in a workshop is by the participants rather than me or the stories we are looking at!
- You’ve judged many flash fiction competitions. What, for you, makes a winning flash fiction piece? Is there anything you would like to see more of or less of in competition entries?
To win, a story needs to be unique and unobvious. It needs to resonate and intrigue, and it needs do a lot more than just be a simple set up with a joke at the end. I think of good flash fiction as like a cartoon with the caption taken away, the sort of drawing that makes you fascinated by what the people in the drawing are doing or have been doing or are about to do or are saying to each other, and you really don’t know but you have a deep sense of it somehow. It’s absolutely compelling and pulls you in to its world completely.