Interview with Simon Cowdroy, Second Prize winner, February 2020 Award

With two weeks to go before the end of our 15th Award on June 7th, here's another fascinating interview in our winners' series, this time from Simon Cowdroy, second prize winning author in our February award judged by Santino Prinzi, to inspire all Last Minute Club writers. You can read Simon's wonderful story 'The Dissolution of Peter McCaffrey' here and it will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in our end of year anthology along with the other winners, shortlisted and longlisted writers from our 2020 Awards. Simon tells us more about his writing process and his influences which include other writers like Australian Clive James and also the landscape in which he lives, pictured here. We asked him about his striking use of language and think his comment that he strives to use 'imagery derived from finding a powerful and unexpected way to frame the words' is very good advice for others who want to write memorable flash. We also like his other tips at the end of this piece and his suggestion to 'write as if it is your last chance to do so'. It was great to meet Simon at the Flash Fiction Festival last year and hope that when we hold the festival again (fingers crossed for such events), he can come again all the way from Australia, and we can hear him read it.

Interview

  • Can you tell us how your marvellous story 'The Dissolution of Peter McCaffrey' came into being?
    My stories never start on the page. Like many writers I guess they drop into the mind like a movie playing behind the eyes. The first image arrives at the same time as I hear the words of the opening sentence in my head but I’m never sure which of the two is leading the way. The stories seem to be fully formed but I don’t discount that I’m subconsciously following that initial sentence/image where it might lead. One thing I can’t do (or not yet anyway) is sit down and come up with a story idea from scratch, and I’m rubbish with prompts. My ideas turn up at inconvenient moments and I spend a lot of time apologising for missing what people have said or not answering. I must be a nightmare to go out for coffee with.

    With Peter Mac, I had such powerful images that I raced to my notebook to record as much as possible. My first draft is always about trying to retain the raw honesty of that original idea. If I lose or dilute that initial connection to the piece it inevitably shows up in the writing.

    I don’t always work out which mental wire I trip that sends a story down the pipeline, but with Peter Mac, it was easy. Australia is a harsh continent and drought has been a constant companion. The devastation of the recent bushfires, with the tragic loss of flora, wildlife, stock, and human life, was unbearable. Also in the mix was frustration that in one of the most climate challenged countries in the world a succession of Governments had not bene up to that task, or even willing to try.

    All of which is big picture stuff, but I had been thinking a lot about how the impact is felt at a micro-level. The pain and suffering are inflicted person by person and family by family. For our farmers, the added weight of responsibility handed down from past generations who worked the land must be dealt with as well. It all adds up to a sense of fear and hopelessness which I think is at the heart of the story.

  • Your use of imagery creates a very vivid picture. It’s really amazing how much story you manage to condense into this very short piece. Also, in your story ‘Particularly Complicated When The Snakes Show Up,’, commended in our Oct 2018 Award, judge Nuala 0’Connor remarks on your brilliant use of verbs. Do you spend a long time considering the language in your pieces?
    Thank you for the comments!

    Discovering the perfect words and tone for a story and then bashing it around until you manage to shape it into the final piece is as addictive as any drug and my favourite part of writing.

    Every writing session starts for me with a quote from the late Australian writer Clive James.

    “All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light.”

    Having heard the term Flash Fiction for the first time in late 2017, I have since devoured hundreds (maybe thousands!) of beautiful pieces from so many brilliant authors. I am realistic enough about my writing to know that it lacks the elegance to match the sublime level that these stories reach.

    What my feedback suggests I can manage (and hopefully they are not just being nice) is to write stories which create a vivid sense of place and character and generate a strong, sometimes visceral emotional response. The feedback also suggests my writing is best served when it’s pared-back and achieves its impact by the imagery derived from finding a powerful and unexpected way to frame the words. So, in the most roundabout way of answering your question in history, considering the language in each story means everything to me.

  • Are there any other writing projects you are working on at the moment?
    Top of mind is an entry for this round of Bath. I always try and enter to support the amazing work you do for the Flash Community and this interview is a good chance to say thank you. I’m nervous about the story I am working on – it is vastly different from anything I have attempted before.

    My first novel, Cut of a Knife, is heading out to the world looking for a home so fingers crossed on that front. I am currently working on a sequel as well as a stand-alone novel about a Hangman in 1950’s London.
    If anyone would like to read a sample chapter of the first novel, I would love you to visit my web-site.
    The other project I am contemplating is a Flash collection that draws together the themes I often return to. The harsh Australian environment, our connection to the animals that inhabit it, and the emotional toll on the human population.

  • Writers who have most influenced you?

Clive James is top of the tree. In my opinion, the best writer Australia has produced.
A lot of other influences will be familiar to everyone so I will throw in two outliers from my teenage years. Spike Milligan and an obscure British writer in Joyce Porter.

My first novel is crime fiction and I love the work of Reginald Hill. Witty and literate.

On the poetry side, I fell for Shelley early. Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy of more recent times.

Art is a great visual influence for me – Staring at a Caravaggio fires all my senses.

  • Music on or off when writing? Pets as muses or distractions? Special writing place?
    Music on – taste dubious.
    Pepper, our dearly missed Golden Lab, was a muse. Our latest two Max and Denzel are distractions, but they make me laugh whenever I need it.
    Writing Place – I sold my business and retired late last year which was the trigger for my wife and I to convert one bedroom to a purpose-built writing room. I love it.
    • Top tips for last minute entrants to our award?

    - Make a copy of the story and delete four or five sentences that you think are the strongest. Ignoring the missing continuity if what is left feels flat then it needs more work.

    - Always write like it might be your last chance to do so. I find it adds intensity and makes a difference on the page.

    - Feedback is crucial. Peter Mac is a perfect example as it nearly ended up in a bottom drawer. It would still be there if not for a great group of trusted writer friends.

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