In this fascinating and wide-ranging interview with scientist and writer, Conor Haughton, who won second prize in the June round, judged by David Gaffney with his story ‘The Undertakers’ Jolly’ you can learn a couple of words of Esperanto. Inspiration for flash fiction can arrive at any time and for Conor it was at an Esperanto conference, by the sea in Aberystwyth, when he was a little drunk. I suggest, as well as reading his interview, you watch the short and entertaining video, of him at Ignite Bristol telling the more-or-less true story, complete with cartoon illustrations, of the time he was arrested in London. That event in Bristol was where he was inspired to begin writing and only four years ago. We love his idea of a science and literature spoken-word event and if Conor ever does set one up, a Bath Flash contingent would be there. As he lectures close-by in Bristol University, I’d also love to sneak in to one of the lectures and grasp a little more about mathematical principles via his story telling to explain how theorems work. His longer writing project to write a story, not about a computer programmer but about programming itself sounds very interesting. Especially as it needs to contain some computer code and ways of explaining it. Finally, I’ve now discovered that possibly one of the vegetables in the picture Conor supplied to go with his bio, is a horse radish.
- Can you tell us what inspired your moving and beautifully composed flash fiction ‘The Undertakers’ Jolly?’
I have been learning the Esperanto because it’s fun and because it’s amazing, an intricate and sprawling and weird work of art. As part of that I was at the British Esperanto Congress, the Brita Kongreso, in Aberystwyth in April. After the talks and classes there was a concert, a French Esperantist played the violin, first at the venue, then in a pub. It was lovely, ĝi bonegis: ĝi means “it” and bonegis means “was lovely”, bon- is “good”, -eg-, an augmentative, makes it into “lovely” and the -is turns it into a past tense verb; “was lovely”.
Anyway, afterwards, a little drunk, I was walking back to my hotel along the deserted prom and I went down some steps to the shore to pee into the sea. This was before I read Rachel Cusk’s “Kudos” in which there is a powerful and doleful description of a man peeing into the sea; in my case there was no one in the sea, so hopefully that makes it ok. The thing is though, the sea was beautiful. The waves were white lines across the dark water and when they reached my shore they tumbled the rocks. I wanted to write something about that, about the sea at night and its beauty and how its beauty relates to everydayness of everyday things.
- Have you always written fiction, as well as being a scientist?
Apart from grant applications, I didn’t write any fiction at all until four years ago. I amn’t really a writer, more a reader; the writing, such as it is, is like the leaking of an overfilled and poorly constructed barrel. The writing I do do started when I gave a talk at Ignite Bristol, I told a more-or-less true story about being arrested and really enjoyed telling it. After that I thought about starting a science and literature spoken-word event, I used to run one back in Dublin with the Science Gallery there. In the end I never did, but when I was thinking about it I went to A Word in Your Ear’s excellent Story Friday event in Bath to see what there was already around and that inspired me to want to read a story there, it took three goes before I was accepted but I read at Story Friday and it was a very positive experience. I’ve carried on writing, in a small way, since then.
- In your bio picture in which we think you are lecturing to university students, you are carrying two objects that look like vegetables. With these props, we imagine you draw on story-telling powers to explain scientific principles. Is this the case? (and what are those vegetables?)
In the photo I’m taking part in a lecture-demonstration of Samuel Beckett’s play “Quad” staged by Pan-Pan Theatre and the John Scott Dance Company; I get to do it about once every couple of years and it’s a lot of fun: I play the part of “mathematician”, I talk about mathematics in Beckett and about the mathematical structure of the play. I use the vegetables when I’m describing binomials, how many ways can you pick two objects out of four, that kind of thing. There are always four vegetables, because there are four dancers in Quad, the first three vegetables vary but the last one is always a horse radish for no better reason than it looks a bit rude and I can joke about it.
As for lecturing, mathematics is all about story telling; theorems determine what is mathematically true, but some sort of story is needed to understand why the theorems work. I do tell stories when I’m teaching, sometimes the stories are to explain scientific principles, sometimes I tell stories just to give the students a break from scientific principles. It makes me sad to realise I tell fewer stories now than I used to in Dublin, stories always have a moral, they mean something, something to the narrator, something else perhaps to the auditor, and now I’m an immigrant I worry much more about being misunderstood.
- David Gaffney said that the unexpected and elegaic ending of ‘The Undertakers’ Jolly reminded him of the ending of the short story, ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce. Do you think Irish writers have had an influence on your writing?
I love David’s reviews of the stories he’s judged; they are insightful and beautifully written and absurdly nice; elaborately over-complimentary to the point of satire. I would love to read a book of his 300 word unreliable reactions to things he’s read.
I don’t think I write enough to personally have anything so grand as “influences”. There are things that are common among Irish people, maybe an interest in identity and power, often, perhaps, particularly among the Irish abroad, a nostalgia for Ireland, for soft weather, for the countryside, for people telling each other who has died, that sort of thing. I do admire lots of Irish writers, Eimear McBride, for example, is a genius, but I remember reading Anne Enright’s Guardian review of “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” which described her narration as more French than Irish, more like Catherine Millet or Leïla Slimani or even Collette than Edna O’Brien. The great Edna O’Brien in turn was as much a part of the generation that included Shelagh Delaney and Muriel Spark as she was a part of any Irish tradition. It’s hard to know if there are Irish writers distinct from writers from Ireland, Ireland is not an island.
- Have you any writing projects on the go at the moment?
I want to write a longer story about computer programming. There are stories about computer programmers, geek gothic, but I’d like to write a story about programming itself. In some ways computer code, or the realm of logic we deal with when we write code, is like the sea; alien, beautiful and scary. I’d like to write a story about that, but the story would have to include and explain some computer code and I don’t know how to do that and still make the story fun. Helen DeWitt is my hero here with the way she works lexical glosses into “The Last Samurai”, but she’s like Nicola Barker, she can do all these outrageous things with structure and style and have it work in a way no one else could ever imitate. In short, I know what I’d like to write next but I amn’t sure how I’d write it. On the other hand, I bought an early bird entry for the next BFF contest and I want to write something for that too, I just hope an idea comes along in the next few weeks.
- You have been successful in several prestigious short fiction awards including last year, The Bristol Prize, where you were shortlisted and the Bare Fiction flash fiction prize where you also won second place in 2017. And your story ‘Dublin’ is published in our first anthology To Carry Her Home Can you give our readers some tips for entering competitions?
I’m not really successful enough to give tips. I have read lots and lots of tips about writing flash fiction: have a plot, don’t be too clever, don’t write about your first time riding or your last time breathing, don’t set your story in a pub, start at the end, don’t end with a twist and so on. I enjoy reading these lists of tip but there are so many! A good puzzle would be to write a story that followed every tip and so maybe it’s best to ignore all the advice and just write what you enjoy writing.