Jack Remiel Cottrell is one of two runners-up chosen in the 2018 Bath Flash Fiction Novella-in-Flash award judged by Meg Pokrass Here he describes how his novella ‘Latter Day Saints’, published in our trio of winning novellas-in-flash In the Debris Field emerged from one single line which sparked his imagination and how he gets inspired from authors in many different genres and forms, including writers of ‘Twitter’ stories. We very much like his advice not to worry about what you are writing, or get hung up about different genres and making your novella fit under a ‘Literary’ label. Jack often writes in one of the most mesmerising locations we’ve heard about yet — the laundromat. We haven’t a picture of Jack in the laundromat, but we’ve included his note book and beer picture, his comment being “Are you really a writer if you don’t have a large stack of half-filled notebooks on your kitchen table? (Beer added for scale. Also for drinking.” In the second photograph taken by his writing teacher Kathryn Burnett, Jack can be seen “hunched over second from the left at the back, trying not to be distracted by the outside world.”
- Will you give us a brief synopsis of your wonderful novella-in-flash, ‘Latter Day Saints’ for those who haven’t read it yet?
- A young man is attempting to find his patron saint, and in doing so meets a number of patron saints as they live in the 21st century.
- At Bath Flash Fiction, we think ‘Latter Day Saints’ is a very inventive quest story. Can you tell us more about what sparked the idea to write it?
- I was 20 tabs deep in the mire of TVtropes.com when I came across something which prompted me to think of the line “It’s dark at the end of the universe.” If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good line. So I needed to find someone to say that line. I gave it to St Dominic, who is the patron saint of astronomers, who didn’t end up making the cut for the novella. From there, I wanted to explore the idea of patron saints in a modern setting. My narrator was initially supposed to be a reader proxy rather than a character. I wrote about three chapters before my writing group told me the narrator was actually the most interesting character, and they were right.
- Following on from the last question, it’s interesting how you developed the characters of the saints and the questions they posed and answered. Did you spend much time researching the saints you chose? And do you have a favourite character among them?
- I both did and I didn’t. I scoured the internet for saints with interesting patronages, and then didn’t look nearly hard enough at whether Wikipedia was accurate. I now have a list of about 35 different saints with interesting patronages, but I’m way more interested in the pop-culture than the history. That’s why St Oran and St Fiacre are in there, despite not actually being the patrons of what they represent in the novella.Most of the questions they pose come from my passion for a good line. Some kill their darlings, I helicopter-parent them. I really like St Natalia of Nicomedia, mainly because she and St Adrian have such a fascinating set of patronages – soldiers, arms dealers, and butchers. You don’t get a tastier juxtaposition than that. Also St Roch, because he’s so odious – it was nice to realise I could write saints who weren’t actually good people
- We’d love to know how you compiled your novella – how you arrived at the order of ‘flash fiction chapters’ for example. What was the most difficult thing?
- My novella is a bit different, I think, in that I always intended the chapters to be part of the same continuity. Rather than shape the pieces so they could be read as a whole, I had to find a decent character arc for my narrator. What ended up being most difficult was that while I had found the right tone as I wrote, when I tried to write a specific first chapter with Unaired Pilot, it didn’t work because suddenly my narrator knew too much. I was sure I wanted the last chapter to be the last chapter, but I shuffled the rest of the chapters around so much I broke the index and didn’t realise before I submitted. The end result is pretty much the point at which I gave up and went for a beer.
- Are there writers who have particularly influenced you? Either those writing in this form or otherwise?
- I actually haven’t read much of this form, which feels a bit weird to admit. And it’s such a cliche for someone who writes low fantasy, but I’ve been hugely influenced by Neil Gaiman. I even borrowed a bit of St Oran from him (I’ll give it back, I promise!) Otherwise I think I’ve been influenced by loads of different writers in different genres. Children’s writers like Margaret Mahy and Paul Jennings, graphic novelists like Warren Ellis and Holly Black, poets like Andrea Gibson
And Twitter. Microfiction twitter accounts are the best thing out there for telling a great story in a very very limited number of words. Particularly @microsff and @quietpinetrees.I’m such a millennial – I get my fiction through Twitter, my poetry off YouTube, and read anything too long for either of those on my phone (unless it’s a graphic novel). Buy my book?
- What other writing projects do you have on the go at the moment?
- I’m continuing my attempts at flash fiction while regularly missing deadlines for contests. Also I’m writing some stories just for myself and my friends – this is something I stopped doing for years and I’m so glad to have back
- Everyone is always fascinated by this – where and when do you do your writing and do you have music you like to listen to while writing?
- I write in exactly two circumstances – when I have literally nothing else to do, or when I have a million other things I should be doing. Twice a month I pay to sit in a room with white walls for two hours while the wonderful Kathryn Burnett glares at us if we try and do things that aren’t write. I get a lot done, but if there was anything else to do, I would do that instead. Recently I have discovered another excellent place to write – the laundromat. Because I write most of my first drafts longhand, I don’t need a power outlet. And again, there’s nothing else to do. It costs about the same as two coffees in a cafe, and at the end of it I not only have something written, I also have clean underpants. As for music, my fallback for the past couple of years though has been Florence +The Machine, because listening to Florence Welch makes me think I’m a much better writer than I am, which occasionally means I write something much better than I thought I could.
- Advice for others who might want to embark on writing a novella-in-flash for our next Award?
- Don’t worry if you have no idea what you’re doing. Don’t worry if you haven’t followed the advice that’s out there. When I made the long list, I realised there was actual advice about writing a novella-in-flash on this site, and I hadn’t followed any of it. I also realised my index was broken. It was an awkward moment all around. Also, don’t be afraid if your work isn’t litfic. You might have to sneak your genre fiction in through the side door using a fake ID; but don’t scrap the idea of writing a novella because you don’t want to torture yourself or your characters in the name of Literature.
To find out how our other winners from 2018 went about writing their novellas, read the interviews with Luke Whisnant and Victoria Melekian. You can also read interviews with the 2017 winners Charmaine Wilkerson, Joanna Campbell and Ingrid Jendrzejewski Buy both collections ‘How to Make a Window Snake’, the 2017 collection and ‘In the Debris Field’ the 2018 collection from bookshop.adhocfiction.com