Michael Loveday is an editor, tutor, fiction writer, poet and book reviewer. His flash fiction novella, Three Men On The Edge was published by V Press in 2018 and recently shortlisted in the 2019 Saboteur Awards
Novella category. His poetry pamphlet He Said / She Said was published by HappenStance Press in 2011. His writing has appeared in The Spectator; Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine; Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief; and the National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies 2017 and 2019.. He is a tutor in Adult and Higher Education, a Director of the National Association of Writers in Education and was judge of the inaugural Tongues and Grooves Prose Poem Prize, 2018. He won the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize in Summer, 2018. He runs a blog for flash fiction, poetry and prose poetry at www.pagechatter.org, and is a presenter and team member for Flash Fiction Festivals, UK. Michael also judged the 2019 Bath Flash Fiction Novella in Flash Award and recently launched a one-to-one online course for the novella-in-flash. The interview we did with him below is updated for the 2020 Award.
- You’ve been fascinated with the novella-in-flash form for several years. Can you tell us what drew you to reading and writing in this genre?
My interest emerged gradually. In 2011, I encountered Days and Nights in W12 by Jack Robinson (actually Charles Boyle). It’s a series of short prose pieces, each only a paragraph long, with a related photograph on each page. Some are clearly fictional stories, some are more like meditations, some are more journalistic – historical writing, urban landscape writing (it’s set in London’s Shepherd’s Bush district). There’s no central character, no plot – it’s a series of written snapshots about a location. I fell in love with the book (it’s still my favourite book of all time). At the same time I also read Dan Rhodes’s classic sequence Anthropology – 101-word stories about relationships. These were my first encounters with individually-authored ‘flash fiction’ collections (although Boyle’s book goes beyond ‘flash fiction’). Then I started asking other writers about books to read that were linked flash fiction sequences. That led me to Sandra Cisneros’s wonderful The House on Mango Street, which was my first encounter with a proper novella-in-flash, and the Rose Metal Press anthology My Very End of the Universe, which features novellas-in-flash by Meg Pokrass, Tiff Holland, Aaron Teel and others.
I realised that there was something very special and remarkable about this fiction form in which the parts matter just as much as the whole. My interest grew from there, as I began collecting such books and reading them more and more.
- Writers often get confused as to what a flash fiction novella is, and how it’s different from a standard novella. How would you describe the form?
A flash fiction novella, or novella-in-flash, may be a similar page-length to a novella and generally includes similar features such as a central character (or group of characters), and a sense of story or ‘narrative arc’. But the crucial difference is that the novella-in-flash is broken up into stand-alone sections, each generally functioning as an individual flash fiction – up to the 750 or 1,000 word length that is the typical ceiling for flash fiction, though sometimes as short as only few lines, depending on the type of story.
Each of the novella-in-flash’s stand-alone sections can be a ‘beginning-afresh’ – a new moment in the story, one that’s not necessarily picking up directly from where the previous chapter left off, not in that ‘continuous’ style one gets in traditional fiction. So the novella-in-flash’s sections may restart each time with a different situation, different narrative moment, a different character, or different physical location, say. Often, at the ending of each individual piece, there’s what I call a ‘resonating space’ – some unspoken invitation to pause, reflect and re-read or re-consider. This is exactly as usually happens at end of a one-off flash fiction or with any short story, in fact; but the difference with the novella-in-flash is that overall the individual scenes and moments (and gaps) accumulate into something bigger, something with a suggestion of a single cohesive picture. You can think of it as a process of tapestry and linkage (for both writer and reader), in enabling the individual flash fictions to add up to a whole, even though they can stand on their own too. [See Meg Pokrass’s essay: talkingwriting.com/craft-flash-novella-writing].
So the difference vs. a traditional novella is mainly a formal distinction, about length of sections / chapters – although that inevitably has a knock-on effect on the ‘feel’ and the qualities of the text.
- Your own novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge was published by V.press in July, 2018 and was recently shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards. Congratulations! Can you tell us what it’s about and your process of writing it?
It started in 2011 with reading Days and Nights in W12 and Anthropology. I wanted to write something informed by a landscape (the town where I lived – Rickmansworth, on the very edge of NW London and Hertfordshire, i.e. where city ends and countryside begins) but that also was a partly comical study of relationships (as Dan Rhodes had done in Anthropology). And, unlike these two books, which were more like miscellaneous sequences, I wanted to focus on recurring central characters, as Sandra Cisneros and others were doing in their traditional novellas-in-flash. I unearthed three men’s voices that were alter-egos – three, because Rickmansworth is in Hertfordshire’s ‘Three Rivers District’. Then I took them further, exaggerating their personalities, making composites with other people I’d observed, and generally making the characters distinctly fictional. I wrote about 20 pieces for my M.A. dissertation, working with the poet Fiona Sampson as my supervisor, and thinking of them as prose poems. Then when I finished the degree I thought I should probably keep going. Which I did, for six and a half years.
The process was very very exploratory – at various stages the manuscript was anything from a 12-page sequence of verse poems with line-breaks, to a 200-page novel about just one character, and everything in between. In the end it settled to 85 pages, and three distinct flash-fiction sequences, one for each central character, thematically but not narratively linked with each other. So in a way it’s three ‘mini-novellas-in-flash’ in one book. Each of the sections shows one of the men going about their daily life, as they struggle for connection with the world around them. And each of the men slips into crisis as they lose connection with the women in their lives. I tried to offer up a portrait of masculinity in crisis. As I finished the manuscript, I was very conscious of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement, and I hope I’ve written a book that shows the value of relationships and companionships through the lives of these three deeply flawed men.
- Have you any new writing projects on the go at the moment?
I’ve got about two-thirds of a book’s worth of miscellaneous flash fictions that I’m gradually adding to, and about half of a slow-growing poetry collection. I have an idea for another novella-in-flash, but I’m delaying starting, because I’d like to finish one of these other two manuscripts first.
- What, for you, would create a stand-out novella-in-flash?
A really good novella-in-flash, when it’s finally finished, has conviction – you know you’re in safe hands as a reader because the individual sentences are so compelling. As with flash fiction itself, needless words should be omitted, and there should be a combination of electricity and complete assurance in the vocabulary and in any imagery. And as with longer fiction, characterisation and the overall story need to be in satisfyingly good shape – the central subject matter needs to have merit and depth. Beyond that, in terms of the technicalities of the form, it would be wonderful to see some invention and creativity in terms of how people approach putting it together. Overall, to paraphrase Ted Hughes (who was describing the novel), there is no correct way to write a novella-in-flash, or rather, there is only one, and that one way is to make it interesting.
You ran and edited a poetry magazine from 2005 to 2012 and would have seen hundreds of submissions. What would you say to writers about final checks and balances before submitting their novellas?
Have one or two (or a few!) people read it and give you comments. And – beyond using spell-check, which is a no-brainer – print it out, and read it out loud over and over until your ear actively hears it sounding absolutely right. The ear is often a better judge than the eye.
- Recommended reading in this genre?
Classic places to start are: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Justin Torres’s We The Animals, and the Rose Metal Press Anthology My Very End of the Universe, from which I’d particularly recommend Meg Pokrass’s ‘Here, Where We Live’ and Aaron Teel’s ‘Shampoo Horns’ (this anthology also includes interesting introductory essays by the writers). Also, Lex Williford’s Superman on the Roof, Joan Didion Play It As It Lays (novel-length), Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, Alex Garland’s The Coma, the list could go on and on… it’s also definitely worth reading How To Make A Window Snake, the first anthology produced in 2017 as a result of this competition. In the Debris Field, the collection of three novellas published in the 2018 winners’ anthology is an excellent read and everybody should also read the stand-out new novellas in Flash from last year’s Award. This may give you a sense of what I look for as a judge. Three of them are now published – the first prize winner, Birds With Horse Hearts by Eleanor Walsh, one of the runners’ up Homing by Johanna Robinson and The Roster, by Debra A Daniel which was highly commended. There are more coming soon. The standard in the 2019 Award was very high and I was very happy that Ad Hoc Fiction decided to publish the three winners and the three commended authors in individual volumes, this year.
- You also write poetry including prose poetry, recently judged the inaugural Prose Poetry competition with Tongues and Grooves and you discussed the difference between prose poetry and flash fiction with the poet and flash-fiction writer, Carrie Etter at the 2018 Flash Fiction Festiva in July 2018. It’s a subject of much controversy in the world of short-short fiction. Would you say there are distinct differences?
Yes. And no. Denise Duhamel: “Prose poetry and flash fiction are kissing cousins. They are kissing on Jerry Springer, knowing they’re cousins, and screaming “So what?” as the audience hisses.” This is a favourite subject of mine (prose poetry vs. flash fiction, not kissing cousins!), and personally I feel there’s some grey area, though for some people (including Carrie Etter!) there are clear distinctions to make. The interviews (and definitions page) at the blog pagechatter.org try to tackle this very subject.
- Can you see a prose poem working as a ‘chapter’ in a novella-in-flash?
Perhaps inevitably, I’d say yes. You could have a ‘prose-poem-style’ piece that serves the overall character arc in a novella-in-flash. Certainly that’s what I’ve tried to do at times in Three Men on the Edge, and some of those pieces were published individually in poetry magazines. Some people feel resistance when things don’t fit neat boxes of categorisation, and that’s fine; but I don’t feel that resistance, and I’d welcome competition entries this year that tread a fine line, just as much as I’d love to see entries where each flash follows a traditional, longer narrative arc towards a crisis or climax.
Most of the flash fictions in Justin Torres’s novella We the Animals are longer – 3 to 8 pages long in his case – with a full sense of narrative arc, building to a crisis or climax. But the first piece in the book is somewhere between a flash fiction and a prose poem – he foregrounds the sentence structures, the repetitions, and the rhythms. And the final one, the one he relies upon to draw the novella to a close, is very short and definitely more of a prose poem. Quite a few of the pieces in Liliane’s Balcony are like prose poems. So it can be done. I’m all for pushing boundaries and testing the form to its limits, just as much as celebrating examples of ‘classic’ form – otherwise the form becomes static.
- You work as a writing tutor, offering workshops and mentoring. Can you tell us more about these services?
My workshops these days are generally in Somerset, UK, for the St. John’s Foundation (creative writing for the over-55s and for carers) . I also supervise extended fiction projects for American undergraduates at a college called Advanced Studies in England where students drawn from American Universities come to Bath for one semester at a time to study. In terms of mentoring I work by post, email and Skype as well as face-to-face in London and Somerset. Mentoring and Editing are often favourite parts of the role of writer-tutor – it’s so rewarding to work closely together and see someone develop through in-depth feedback – and I’m trying to do more and more of this. I’ve also recently launched a one-to-one online course for writing a novella-in-flash or novel-in-flash. I’m very excited to have opened this course for writers now, but it’s not currently open to people who are submitting to the the Bath Flash Fiction, Novella-in-Flash Award because it’s important that submissions remain anonymous. The course will be open to writers wanting to enter the Award in future years when I am not judging. My workshop teaching too is very important to me, as I know how much other tutors’ workshops have helped me move forward as a writer. I want to give back to other writers some of my passion for literature, and help people feel and be more creative. I have recently taught workshops at the 2019 Flash Fiction Festival and am pleased to be teaching again in 2020.
I love that special chemistry of getting people together in a room to talk about writing. In a more corporate former life I used to facilitate market research groups. Facilitating a writing group has some similarities, but we talk less about reasons for buying brands of toilet roll and shampoo.