Johanna Robinson's wonderful novella-in-flash Homing was a runner-up in the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award judged by Michael Loveday. The novella, which spans four decades, tells the story of a family's involvement with the Resistance Movement in Norway during World War 11 and its aftermath on their lives. It was launched at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol at the end of June this year. Homing is already on its second print run and has been dispatched all over the world.
You can buy a paperback copy from the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop and digital copies will be available from Kindle via Amazon soon. Johanna's novella, although short at 18,000 words, has the scope and depth of a much longer novel, It is currently longlisted for the 2019 'Not-The-Booker Prize'. (although they have made a mistake on the list, saying it is published by Louise Walters Press and not 'Ad Hoc Fiction'. You might like to support her and vote for it. (Voting is openhere until next Monday 5th August) Read the fascinating interview below with Johanna if you are thinking of writing a novella-in-flash, historical or otherwise for our 2020 Award or elsewhere, or if you want to become absorbed in a compelling and beautifully written story on a subject you may know little about.
- I believe you did some of the research for Homing years ago. Can you tell us about this and about the process of transforming it into a novella in flash?
I first picked up snippets about the Norwegian resistance when I was on a year abroad at Oslo University. A few years later, 2002 or so, I began to read the stories of the ‘Shetland Bus’, a scheme whereby fishing boats were used to smuggle men and goods from Norway to Shetland. In fact, I wrote a whole chunk of novel-style creative writing about it, but I never really planned to do anything with it and it has sat on various computers ever since. I couldn’t let go of the stories of that community, though. Then, last year, when doing more research, online this time, I discovered the story of the village of Telavåg, and it was here that I felt the various stories could crystallise. At first – and nothing to do with flash – I wanted to write about the teachers who were taken to concentration camps. This was the first piece I wrote, and it ended up very short, and that felt right. At that point, a door had been opened, a way into writing about that time in history. This coincided with discovering the novella-in-flash format. Actually, this first piece was the only one that changed substantially. Also, two chapters in Homing, ‘Lotion I’ and ‘Lotion II’, began life in that early writing – I was really happy that I managed to weave them into the novella; it seemed the right thing to do.
- The story, spanning several decades, is very compelling and I particularly like how you use the symbol of the paper clip and the suitcase to carry the reader forward. Was this a deliberate strategy on your part?
Yes, and no. The paper clip was something that I couldn’t not have written about, as it was an aspect that I encountered a lot back in the early days of research, albeit often in a minor way. As a result, it featured in a number of the first flash pieces I wrote, and actually drove the story in the early stages. The suitcase, however, was a very late addition, and it emerged in one of the stories I wrote in a Meg Pokrass online workshop in December 2018. It found its way into one piece, and a couple of other workshop participants asked what may have happened to the case next/earlier. Already the suitcase was something that operated beyond the boundaries of that little individual story. When it came to weaving it through, it was a pretty easy job. It was as though my brain had inserted it in that Meg-workshop story, ready to be used elsewhere.
- Did you write individual pieces first, before you put them into a sequence?
I wrote them first, without thinking of an order. The sequence came at the very end, although, because it’s largely chronological,that wasn’t a difficult process. Once I had a timeline of people’s ages and the events that couldn’t be moved because of historical accuracy, the sequence really took care of itself. I think having a specific event and time as a springboard for the whole story, and for all the small, individual stories, helped me not worry too much about a narrative pattern when I was in the process of writing.
- Were there any particular novellas in flash you read beforehand that helped you to compose your own?
Yes, definitely. The first one I came across was Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone, in May 2018, and so this was my first encounter with the novella-in-flash form. I was hooked! I then read How to Make a Window Snake and the two others in the 2017 Bath Novella-in-flash anthology; I reread the title novella of this anthology by Charmaine Wilkerson a few times while I was writing mine. I read the Rose Metal Press Field Guide on my Kindle because I was too impatient to wait for delivery, as well as Meg Pokrass’s Here Where We Live, and the other stories in My Very End of the Universe. Finally, I devoured Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods one weekend in a motor home, in October 2018. I loved that the grand story was interspersed with different forms and strange ideas – as a reader I really didn’t know what I would be getting when I turned over the page, and that in itself kept me turning.
- What did you find the most difficult thing about creating the novella?
Probably the voice in my head that kept saying only some of the pieces were really good enough to be published. Some of the pieces – once I’d found the story – needed to be written to ‘join’ others together, and I just wasn’t sure if they looked like filler pieces, like something dashed off to fulfil a function. Much later on, when the book was nearly published actually, I finally silenced that voice, as I realised not every chapter needs to be the best piece of writing you’ve ever written – and perhaps that’s even more the case the longer the final work is. In Birds with Horse Hearts, the 2019 Bath winning novella by Ellie Walsh, each chapter is filled with beautiful, lyrical writing. It’s gorgeous, and it fits perfectly the length of the book and the setting. With mine, I think another function of the ‘filler’ chapters was to provide a breather from some of the events and fall-out of the war.
- What was the most unexpected thing that happened during the writing of it?
That I created a life for the main character that went way beyond the initial setting of Norway in WWII. Also, how textured it ended up feeling at the end. I liked how, although there is a linear movement, the short flash fiction form allows a texture to build up.
- Top tips for writers who might be embarking on one?
Thinking back, what really helped me was the expectation that no one would ever read it. That allowed me to be experimental with form, to take different perspectives, beyond those of the main characters. Cheat. If you need to get from Chapter 7 to Chapter 9, experiment with Chapter 8 – how can it link 7 and 9 in the brilliant, brief way only flash fiction can? It might work, it might not, but of course, nothing’s ever wasted
The other thing that really helped me – and without it there wouldn’t be a novella – was doing a flash fiction course at the point I’d run out of steam a little. I had come to a standstill – I couldn’t be sure who my main character was, and I definitely didn’t have a narrative arc to the whole thing, or an end in mind. What Meg Pokrass’s prompts course did was, first, make me write seven pieces in two weeks, and second, drag me out of the story, giving me a different perspective. The prompts, of course, had nothing to do with my book’s setting, but they forced me to look at certain aspects of it in a new light, to pull on threads that I hadn’t realised were there and see what came of them.
- Flash fiction is something you have come to only recently. What is it that you particularly like about the form?
In terms of the writing, I love the challenge. At university, I always over-wrote, always had to cut-cut-cut words out of my work, but that’s where and when things get to be good. In terms of reading flash, it has been a revelation to me what people can do in tiny numbers of words – and I feel it especially in historical flash, which can make snapshots into stories. Also, in terms of both reading and writing, I love language and word play, and the little coincidences and thrills that can happen when it really works in a new way. I think flash is just a great crucible for that.
- Have you any new writing projects on the go at the moment?
When I finished the novella, I wasn’t sure I’d do another, because I’d had the history in my head for so many years. Yeah, well, that didn’t last! I’m planning another historical book, but hopefully a lot longer, and hopefully still in flash form. I’ve been doing research for it, and could go on for ever with that, but I’m planning on actually starting to write something soon. It definitely feels different this time – harder to just get on and do it – now that Homing is out in the world.
Read this fascinating interview with Ellie Walsh, the winner of our third novella-in-flash award with her wonderful novella, Birds with Horse Hearts.
This year, the Award was judged by Michael Loveday. In his judge's comments copied here, Michael gives a synopsis of the novella. He writes:
Three women take centre stage in this novella-in-flash, a rich and poetic study of a poor farming family in Nepal, with whom a woman from Iowa is staying, for unnamed reasons, after the death of her husband. Here the impoverished and marginalised are, for once, placed in the foreground, and the story is partly about how we can and must find beauty and love amidst harshness and deprivation. At the centre of it all is the enigmatic, beguiling, and tragic figure of the young prostitute Putali, at once trapped in a difficult life, and yet as free-spirited as a butterfly. This is a novella shadowed by loss and the search for belonging; it is also, in its own quiet, subtle and radical way, a love story. The quality of the sentence-making is stunning, the characterisation vivid and unique, and the narrative compelling and effortlessly handled, layered with skilful exposition, motifs and foreshadowings. I couldn’t fault the decisions that had been taken by the author and, although there were several other very fine manuscripts of clearly publishable quality, in the end this dark jewel of a story haunted me the most out of all the submissions – as soon as I encountered it, the characters, setting, and storyline simply refused to leave my head.
We are very pleased that Ad Hoc Fiction is publishing Ellie's stunning novella-in-flash in a single-author book later this year. It's a must-read. Ellie is also a member of a panel at the Flash Fiction Festival UK in June, discussing the Novella-in-Flash, with Meg Pokrass and Charmaine Wilkerson. Michael Loveday is chairing the discussion and facilitating Q and A. Read in Full
Our 2019 Novella-in-Flash Award judge, Michael Loveday's writes about the process of selecting the short list and this is followed by his comments on the winning novella-in-flash, the two runners-up and three highly commended novellas-in-flash..Michael has judged everything 'blind' and did not know the names of the winners until this announcement. Read more about the 2019 Award on Jude's Award Round-Up post. Read in Full
- Victoria Melekian's novella-in-flash A Slow Boat to Finland was a runner-up in the 2018 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award judged by Meg Pokrass. Meg said of the novella, "We are not sure how a bereaved mother will recover after losing her toddler daughter in a car accident. Especially when the little girl's heart saves another child. The strong and convincing writing will pull you right into this story and make you want to know what happens next." Here Victoria tells us more about how she went about writing the novella, and gives tips to anyone who wants to embark on such a project. You can buy In the Debris Field the collection of three winning novellas-in-flash, which contains Victoria's novella, in several different currencies at the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop
- What sparked off your marvellous novella in flash? Was it built around one or two flashes? Or had you imagined the whole story to begin with?
- Can you tell us how you compiled the novella? Writers seem to have different methods of choosing the order of flash fictions?
- Following on from the last question, what was the most tricky part in writing it for you?
- Meg Pokrass said that A Slow Boat to Finland was one of the best titles that she read and it certainly suggests so much about lonely endurance after a tragedy. What are your own thoughts about the title you chose?
- Were you influenced by any other writers who had written novellas or novels in this form?
- What other writing projects have you got on the go at the moment? Would you write another novella-in-flash?
- What advice would you give to anyone embarking on a novella-in-flash for the next competition?
- When and where do you do your writing?
Thank you for the "marvellous". Pretty much everything I write comes from ideas that have percolated a few years. Sometime ago I’d wondered about the notion of a grieving widow, an older woman, developing an inappropriate romantic attraction to the young man who received her deceased husband’s heart. I played around with it in my notebook and there the idea sat until I began thinking more about organ transplants and relationships between donor and recipient. I came up with the possibility of a mother becoming attached to a recipient child and the story expanded. So yes, I had the story imagined before beginning. At first I thought it could be a novel, but I’m a poet and just can’t go long.
When I began writing the story, I had one narrator, and I was trying to decide between first or third person. Neither sounded right. I went back to the snippets in my notebooks and saw that I’d originally written from all different points of view and used different tenses, and that’s when I realized that could be the way for me to create a novella-in-flash—just let the characters tell their parts of the story. I was afraid it would be a jangled mess, but I also had nothing but time to lose so I went for it. Once I let everyone speak, the arc presented itself organically. I rearranged the sequence several times and amended parts here and there to strengthen the story.
Oh, my goodness, the hardest part was making sure each piece stood on its own. There’s a repetition factor, I think, that can’t be avoided, but that’s also what creates the beautiful musicality I hear in my head when I read novellas-in-flash. I tried to just let it flow where it wanted to go, kind of like throwing water on the floor and watching it spread.
I smiled when I read that comment about the title because honestly, endings and titles are the bane of my existence. Of course, my creation needed a title and, as usual, I had no idea what, so I read through the novella looking for something, anything that remotely could serve and that’s where I found “A Slow Boat to Finland.” It seemed to ring true. I smacked it on top of the manuscript, mentally shrugged, and hoped for the best. Maybe our subconscious knows best.
Influenced, I don’t think so. More so, I was encouraged that this was even possible. I read the wonderful My Very End of the Universe and, of course, the three beautiful novellas in How to Make a Window Snake. Seeing that there was no one way to write a novella-in-flash reassured me that I could approach mine however it wanted to be written.
I don’t have a project right now and I do miss knowing exactly what I’m going to work on each day. When I’m in between, I write poetry and flash fiction. I have a file on my computer desktop called “52 Somethings.” My goal is to make sure I write something I kind of like once a week.
If I had the right idea, yes, I would write another novella-in-flash. It’s an exciting challenge and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.
Know that it’s a daunting endeavour, but quite possible. Trust your instincts and you’ll write something amazing.
There’s no certain when and where I write. Once I have an idea, things start popping into my head. If I have no paper, I make notes on my phone. Eventually it goes into my notebook and from there, into the computer. I write on my bed. On my couch. In my car. At work. Waiting for appointments. Oh, yes, and sometimes at my desk. When I made the decision to write the novella, I put all the notes, vignettes and snippets into my computer and began corralling them into separate flashes. Any day I had a substantial chunk of time to spend, I sat outside and worked at my patio table. If the neighbors and dogs were too loud, I plugged in my earbuds and listened to rain, rivers, ocean waves—whatever water I found on my free app. For some reason, it was easier to concentrate outside. It felt like a dedicated space.
A collection of three flash fiction novellas from the second Bath Flash Fiction Award which demonstrate the range and scope of this exciting and innovative genre.
"In the Debris Field by Luke Whisnant... chronicles the unconventional experiences of a male protagonist from childhood through middle-age. It is a breathtakingly imaginative study of the strangest ways family members will accidentally scar one another. Readers will relax and enjoy the ride, because they’re in the hands of a flash fiction master.
A Slow Boat To Finland by Victoria Melekian... in which we are not sure how a bereaved mother will recover after losing her toddler daughter in a car accident. Especially when the little girl’s heart saves another child. The strong and convincing writing will pull you right into this story and make you want to know what happens next.
Latter Day Saints by Jack Remiel Cottrell... is a highly inventive quest story. A young man tries to find answers about life and whether it is worth living, from his visits to ‘saints’. Flawed characters, the saints include a labourer, a celebrity, a taxi driver, a city business woman, a second-hand dealer, and an old and frail man. They sometimes help him, and often make him question more."
—Meg Pokrass, writer, poet, editor, tutor. Author of Bird Envy, Damn Sure Right, The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down and Here, Where We Live and Alligators at Night.
196mm x 134mm, 112pp
Paperback ISBN 978-1-912095-61-2
£9.99 GBP Buy Now
We’re thrilled to announce that How to Make a Window Snake, the novella-in-flash by Charmaine Wilkerson and published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2017, won the best novella category in the prestigious Saboteur Awards 2018. Charmaine also won first prize with this novella in the inaugural novella-in-flash Award 2017, judged by Meg Pokrass. When Meg heard about the Saboteur results she remarked – “There was no question in my mind about this novella. Finding a gem like this was a gift.”
Read in Full
We’re thrilled that How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson, which won our inaugural novella-in-flash Award in 2017 is short listed in the Saboteur Awards 2018. Thank you to everyone who nominated her. There were nearly 5000 nominations over all the categories and we think it is a great achievement both for Charmaine and for Ad Hoc Fiction, the publisher.
Please support Charmaine further by voting for her novella-in-flash to win before 9th May. Results are announced on 19th May at the end of the Saboteur Awards Festival running from Friday 18th to Saturday 19th May.
In her brilliant novella, Charmaine takes different angles to show the impact of the loss of a child upon a family. Our judge for the 2017 Novella-in-Flash Award, Meg Pokrass, commented “The author creates a brilliant picture window through which we see a loving but deeply wounded family trying to survive more tragedy.” And in a five star review, Raluca A. writes:
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