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Interview with Johanna Robinson about her novella-in-flash, ‘Homing’

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.

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California Continuum by John Brantingham and Grant Hier

CALIFORNIA CONTINUUM, VOLUME 1: MIGRATIONS AND AMALGAMATIONS is "a nonlinear look at little discussed aspects of the history of California. Hier and Brantingham look as far back as California's geologic past, fast forwarding to the age of the mastodons, then to the time when only Native Americans inhabited this land and finally to the present age."

Review by Damhnait Monaghan
Last year at the Flash Fiction Festival, I attended a brilliant workshop on ‘Extraordinary Points of View’ led by American poets and flash fiction writers, John Brantingham and Grant Hier. My notes from their session contain many gems, including this tip for writing flash fiction: ‘cut straight to the character’s humanity.'

Brantingham and Hier have done just that in their recently published collection California Continuum (Pelekinesis, 2019). The characters in this collection are varied: a Japanese boy being sent to an internment camp; the daughter of a concentration camp survivor; gun crazy (and gun shy) boys; indigenous people of the distant past; and Mexican, Vietnamese, and other immigrants to California. Yet with all of them, we are taken right to the core of their thoughts and feelings. Read in Full

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Interview with Emma Neale, Third Prize Winner, October 2018

Emma Neale won third prize in the October 2018 round of Bath Flash Fiction Award with her densely evocative and powerful flash fiction, The Local Pool. Nuala O'Connor the judge for the October 2018 round said this about Emma's story.

I loved the elliptical nature of this flash, the reader is told just enough and the opening paragraph is a perfect blend of language and sense-memory. The story perfectly captures the confusion of adolescents dealing with large issues and does it at a remove that adds to the power of the piece.

In this interview Emma tells us more about the background to the story and shows how one event based in a small community in the past can, in the way it is written, give resonance to many larger concerns, also highly relevant today. So many layers in such a short piece. We very much like her advice to other writers about not rushing to a finished flash but rather leaving it for several weeks to 'marinate' so those deeper layers can emerge and then crucially, reading it aloud. Emma's story is now also available to read in print in Things Left And Found By The Side Of The Road our new anthology of flash fictions from the 2018 Awards and you can also read her story. Courtship which was commended in the Bridport Prize in their new anthology. We also look forward to reading Emma's new poetry collection, To The Occupant, forthcoming in 2019. It's fascinating to see where a writer works; there are so many interesting objects on Emma's wall, desk and door. And also we love the picture of her with the family rabbit which she sometimes pops out to see during a writing stint. Read in Full

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Interview with Zahid Gamieldien, Second Prize Winner, October 2018 Award

Zahid won second prize with his powerful story The Coast.The October Award judge, Nuala 0'Connor, said this about Zahid's flash fiction:

"A harrowing and moving flash that immerses the reader entirely in the body of the main character, a wonderful feat. The menace and atmosphere of this piece carry it along brilliantly. This writer loves language and consistently reaches high for the perfect word and/or phrase.

Zahid is also a scriptwriter and a short story writer and tells us that attention to language is something he thinks about in every form in which he writes. We're looking forward to reading his forthcoming short story in Platypus Press, a UK based publisher. Zahid, who teaches creative writing in Sydney, also offers online editing and critiquing services on all forms. We greatly value the international reach of the Bath Flash Fiction Awards and how writers allude to world-wide issues in the fictions they submit. In the 2018 anthology which is out at the end of November, there are writers from nine or more countries from around the world, and Zahid is one of six authors in the book living in Australia. It's great that flash writers in another country can easily use his editing services and as well as writing feedback, get a different cultural take on their work Read in Full

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Interview with Fiona J. Mackintosh, First Prize winner, October, 2018

A fascinating interview here with Fiona J. Mackintosh, who won first prize in our October 2018 Award,judged by Nuala 0’Connor for her historical flash fiction Siren. Fiona, who began writing young, as you can see in the picture of her with the type-writer, is a self-confessed research junkie, writes (in her head) in the shower and stresses the importance of researching "the hell out of a competition" before entering it. She also tells us the music she likes to play while writing, where she writes and about the projects she’s currently working on. We’re longing to read more of her writing – more flash, or her short story collection and also her five novel saga that begins in the early part of the twentieth century sounds wonderful. It’s exciting that the first volume of this will be ready for submission in spring 2019. Fiona ends this interview with some great revision tips for micro writers. We love this – "Revision is like playing your scales over and over”. And there are many more excellent nuggets of writing advice. Read on...

  • Can you tell us how your wonderful story Siren came into being?
    Thank you so much for the compliment! As often happens with me, the story started with a single phrase that popped into my head, “She has the juice of silver fishes in her veins.” And then immediately after, I saw the image of the girl putting the cherries over her ear, which we all used to do as kids, right? And (ahem) some of us still do! Then I had to find a way to fill in the middle part of the story, but once I hit on the jealous landlubber admirer, I was off to the races. So the plot fell into place pretty easily; it was the language that took longer to hone.

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Teaching Alligators at Night – notes by Frankie McMillan

Frankie McMillan introduces flash fiction to her students at the Hagley Writers' Institute, Christchurch, New Zealand by studying works of great writers of short-short fiction. Here she describes how she recently taught flash fiction using Meg Pokrass's marvellous new collection Alligators at Night, published in July  2018 by Ad Hoc Fiction and available from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop. We thrilled that Frankie is widening the international line up and coming over from New Zealand to teach and read at the next Flash Fiction Festival, taking place at Trinity College, in Bristol, from 28th-30th June 2019. Frankie says: Read in Full

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Interview with Conor Haughton, June 2018 Second Prize Winner

In this fascinating and wide-ranging interview with scientist and writer, Conor Haughton, who won second prize in the June round, judged by David Gaffney with his story 'The Undertakers' Jolly' you can learn a couple of words of Esperanto. Inspiration for flash fiction can arrive at any time and for Conor it was at an Esperanto conference, by the sea in Aberystwyth, when he was a little drunk. I suggest, as well as reading his interview, you watch the short and entertaining video, of him at Ignite Bristol telling the more-or-less true story, complete with cartoon illustrations, of the time he was arrested in London. That event in Bristol was where he was inspired to begin writing and only four years ago. We love his idea of a science and literature spoken-word event and if Conor ever does set one up, a Bath Flash contingent would be there. As he lectures close-by in Bristol University, I'd also love to sneak in to one of the lectures and grasp a little more about mathematical principles via his story telling to explain how theorems work. His longer writing project to write a story, not about a computer programmer but about programming itself sounds very interesting. Especially as it needs to contain some computer code and ways of explaining it. Finally, I've now discovered that possibly one of the vegetables in the picture Conor supplied to go with his bio, is a horse radish. Read in Full

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Interview with Tim Craig, June 2018 Third Prize Winner

Tim Craig, who won third prize in the June Award judged by David Gaffney with his story 'Northern Lights' only recently began writing flash. We love how Tim was prompted to write in this form by his friend, Mandy Wheeler's suggestion that 'Life's too short to write long things'. It's a great incentive to get into writing short short fiction and then perhaps to stitch the pieces up into longer fictions like novellas or novels. After I received Tim's answers to my questions, I asked him for a photograph of his dog, as he mentioned it. We've noticed many of our prize winners for this contest own dogs. He's included a picture of it looking very chilled under a lattice of shade. We hope he gets some quiet time himself soon to do some more writing. He's a very good reader and we'd really like to hear more of his stories. The other picture included here of what he calls 'the hairy babies' he saw in a French cafe, looks like a perfect story prompt. And his tip quoted from Ray Bradbury, to think of rejection as nothing more than a wrong address is a further incentive for anyone to get those words down on paper and not worry about how they will be received.

  • Can you tell us what inspired your powerful and atmospheric flash fiction ‘Northern Lights?
    I did a fair amount of hitch-hiking when I was younger, and came across some interesting people on the way – a bit like my character Pavel the truck driver, so maybe it was that. There’s certainly something magical about entering a stranger’s life and hearing their story in such a confined space and limited amount of time. In that respect, I suppose it’s a bit like flash fiction itself.

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Interview with K M Elkes, June 2018 Flash Fiction First Prize

Read KM Elkes first prize winning story, 'Extremities' selected by David Gaffney in the June round of the Award for an example of great flash fiction. Ken's a writing tutor as well as a writer, and he ran an excellent workshop on 'voice', an aspect of writing he refers in this interview, at the recent Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. He gives further useful writing advice, including "write hot, edit cool..., buy (or at least read) the publications you want to appear in (it creates a virtous circle. Pay close attention to language... don't submit your sense of worth as a writer along with your story." There are several more tips to inspire below. To stimulate his own writing, Ken frequently takes pictures of settings or objects that can evoke a mood and also photographs people and places when he is travelling. There's some very evocative photographs included here that are likely to spark off stories from anyone who sees them. We now expect entries in our next competition about older men, beaches and prayers for success...

  • Can you tell us how your powerful and affecting winning story ‘Extremities’ came into being?

Ever had an earworm - a song that just won’t let go, that you keep playing over and over in your head? Extremities started like that - a single, crisp image of a hand lying on the floor of a forest while around it rain made a sound like applause. I carried that hand around with me a long time, but didn’t really know what to do with it. I put it in a notebook, like you might press a flower hoping to preserve it, but those fingers scratched against the pages until I had to pay attention. Eventually I went into the realm of What If? Along with prompts, What Ifs are the firestarters of fiction. What if the hand was just one of many limbs littering the forest, accidentally cut off in logging accidents. What if it was so common, people didn’t care that much. I found momentum, images coalesced, and with them came themes and tone and the big one (for me at least) voice. Not the voice of the hapless, handless Bobby, but his so-called friend, who has a distinct tone of detachment (see what I did there!). After all that, it took about an hour to write the basic text that formed the story.
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Interview with Jack Remiel Cottrell — Runner-up, Novella-in-Flash Award, 2018

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.

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