- You suggested in a recent blog of yours that your first prize winning story ‘Candy Girls’ has quite a history. Can you tell us more about how you came to write this story?
The initial spark came while I was watching Woody Allen’s film ‘Radio Days’. Mia Farrow plays a cigarette girl who goes from rags to riches, and I wanted to write a piece about the lives of these young women who were probably selling more sex than cigars. There’s also a part in the screenplay where one character says, “They don’t take Jews in the Stork Club,” and another responds with, “No Jews, no colored.” Well, now I had to write the story. That line was so powerful; it grabbed on to me and wouldn’t let go.
‘Candy Girls’ is historical fiction, but it’s also fiction with a history. Before subbing to Bath Flash, this story went out to another market (in its 370-word form). Shortly after acceptance, the editor got back to me asking if I wouldn’t mind changing the POV. I decided not to, and the story is up in its original form, minus quite a few words.
- I remember a gif of yours on Twitter in the last few hours of our February Award showing an exhausted cartoon cat falling in a heap. And in the same blog, I referred to in the previous question, you said you needed to edit ‘Candy Girls’ heavily for our Award. Are you generally a last-minute writer and a ruthless editor?
There’s been a lot of chatter about writing to themes and deadlines, and I always look at those constraints in two ways. They can help us focus, but they can also pile on the pressure (as if writers don’t have a plentiful store of that!). I don’t usually write at the last minute, and I truly loathe editing—in my experience, a story either works pretty well the first time around or it doesn’t. But the Bath Flash Award deadline happened to fall in the middle of a European book tour, the word count needed severe pruning, and I was in yet another hotel room with some store-bought snacks, a bottle of sherry, and about two hours before the submission window slammed shut. I spent an hour cutting out twenty-five percent of the story, and if just might be the hardest writing work I’ve ever done!
- The style in your best selling novel VOX is also very tight and focussed with a gripping plot that had me holding my breath much of the time. And in your bio, you mention Stephen King as a big influence on your writing. Is this something you learned from him, do you think?
First of all, thank you for the kind words about VOX!
If I haven’t learned something from reading Stephen King for thirty-five years, there’s probably quite a bit wrong with me, but I don’t know if I can put a finger on exactly what I’ve learned. I can tell you, however, what I admire and enjoy in his books. First, they’re all stories. By that I mean they aren’t mood pieces or long-winded introspections or pretty prose without a point. With King’s work, it’s plot that rules the roost. He’s also got a gift for language, real language, and by that I mean the man knows how everyday people talk. But if I have to pull out one important lesson, it’s this: writing popular fiction is okay. In other words, we don’t all need to be literary rock stars. Some of us can just strum a simple tune and still get the world to sing along.
- It’s been tremendously exciting hearing about the progress of VOX on social media. Can you give us a few lines summing up the plot? I understand the original idea was in a flash written for Molotov Cocktail Litzine?
Thank you! It’s been exciting and exhausting and surprising every step of the way.
In VOX, I do the same thing to women that Ira Levin did back in the early seventies when he wrote The Stepford Wives. I just made the process of domestication less complicated. I mean, why go through all the trouble of turning your feminist wife into a robot when all you really need to do is limit her speech? That’s a roundabout way of summing up my first novel, but I think it works.
And yes, one of VOX’s roots was a horror story I wrote for The Molotov Cocktail’s Flash Doom contest. The premise was simple: induce an aphasia epidemic and take the faculty of language away from humankind. But this was only one root; the other came in a call for submissions from Upper Rubber Boot. They were putting together an anthology called Broad Knowledge, and the stories in it needed to fit specific parameters: the plot had to center around a female protagonist with a specific skill. I had (what I thought was) the perfect idea of a neurolinguist who couldn’t speak, and all that remained was to come up with a reason to support it. I found that scaffolding in the Victorian-era ‘Culture of Domesticity,’ and then asked, “What if that culture experienced a renaissance?” I ran the short story past my partners-in-crime, er, critique partners Stephanie Hutton, Kayla Pongrac, and Sophie van Llewyn, and the response was unanimous: “Turn this into a novel, girl.” So that’s what I did.
- It’s great to see Vox in the shops in paperback now. What have been the highlights of your year with Vox, since it was published in 2018?
There are so many! One of the unexpected treats has been meeting other authors at literary festivals and events. (The only downside is that I end up buying all their books!) I’ve also had the honor of reading and writing blurbs for several new novels, and I love discovering new stories and voices. On the personal front, I’ve been lucky to spend time with my editors and publicists in various countries, swapping stories about culture, politics, publishing, and life. If there has to be a number-one finest moment, though, it’s probably the indie bookstore event in Jerez, Spain. I teamed up with a new friend, the American writer Charlie Geer, and we two Yanks had a blast talking to a packed house. In Spanish. You just can’t ask for more fun than that.
- We have an ongoing joke about the first prompt word ‘Catkins’ that I introduced in the informal Twitter group I began that you joined in April 2015 to write flash fiction during that month. Was that the first time you wrote flash? I think your ‘Catkins’ story was published somewhere?
There’s one word that changed my life. It’s ‘catkins.’ I was new to writing, new to Twitter, and new to flash fiction, so I probably didn’t know what I was signing up for when I joined Jude Higgins’ story-a-day group. ‘Catkins’ was the first prompt, and I confess I had to look it up. The prompt turned into a money-pit-cum-horror story called ‘House for Sale’ about weeping willows taking over a house, and it was picked up by Pidgeonholes for publication later in 2015. But the first flash I wrote? That one belongs to—you guessed it—The Molotov Cocktail for a contest I entered at the eleventh hour.
- You have a hugely busy schedule travelling around the world to promote Vox. And we hope you can make the Flash Fiction Festival this year if time permits. How do you carve out time to write and do you have a special writing place and have you another novel on the go?
I hope you know how much I want to be at the festival this year! I attended the first, and there are no words to describe the joy of meeting my favorite flash fiction writers in person. It’s true I don’t have as much time to write as I used to, or to research markets and competitions, so I tend to cherry-pick submissions calls more carefully now. And all this travel might sound glamorous, but sometimes I end up on a cargo plane with jump seats!
As for a special writing place, I do most of my work on a small table in the front window of my Virginia home, so it’s really not that special (although I do live within walking distance of a retired battleship!). Most writers, I think, possess an exceptional filter, and I’m one of them. When we find that proverbial hole in the page, the entire world could fall apart around us. The battleship would likely weather the storm. I mean, this boat is enormous.
The next novel is currently in my editor’s hands, and should come out sometime in 2020. We’re still debating the title, but I can tell you that I’ve written another near-future dystopia with a hefty dose of women’s fiction. This time, I’m asking a different question: “What if the American eugenics movement of the early twentieth century experienced a comeback?” I’m also keen to write at least one follow-up to VOX, but that’s for down the road.
- Several of your flash fictions have been listed in our previous awards and you have also won Ad Hoc Fiction three times. What is your top tip for writing a short flash to stand out in a competition?
Aside from the obvious (sparkling writing with a sense of story and character and place), I think originality is a solid bet. I don’t mean that we have to concoct a fiction so far-fetched that we’re writing about other worlds—there’s plenty of fodder in our own world. Sit back, think of the people you know and their unique stories. Much of my flash, and especially the pieces I’ve written for the Bath Flash Fiction Award started with exactly that: a father-in-law who escaped communist Hungary on foot, an army diver doing recovery work in Viet Nam, the abhorrent treatment of Filipina maids I learned about while living in a foreign country. There’s that excellent writing advice that tells us to write what we know, and it’s solid advice. We only need to stretch it a bit and find the stories we know that haven’t yet been told. That makes our fiction as unique as we are.