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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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