Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?
Thanks for having me, Tommy. I’ve loved reading your mini interviews series. I started writing flash before I knew its name. To my delight, I won first prize in a local competition for a 200-word story, based on a really creepy portrait of a girl in a party dress. It gave me such a boost and encouraged me to write more. Playing with words has always been something of an obsession for me. As a history teacher, I told stories day in, day out. When I began to write creatively, I had to unlearn my teacherly ways: my love of clarity and purpose, my desire to educate. By letting go a little and allowing the reader to conspire with me in the story, my stories began to breathe.
The more I have written and read, the more I have come to understand the special nature of the form. Not quite prose, not quite poem, it occupies the gaps between. Flash is story at its most pure, the literary equivalent of a fine malt whiskey. The finished piece may be short – consumed in a single sitting – but it can deliver a powerful, lingering taste, and there is so much craft behind each tiny piece, so much discarded along the way in the interests of distilling the story to its essence. There’s a special alchemy at work: the ingredients of the story – in this case, the writer, with his or her particular way of looking at the world – combined with a series of editing processes (akin to the malting, the mashing, the fermentation, the distillation), to create a finished piece. The most satisfying flashes leave a physical impression on the reader, the way whiskey stings, then warms, the throat.
What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?
I know it’s cheating but I can’t separate the two. What happens is intrinsically wrapped up in the person or people I write about. Plot comes out of character and character comes out of place. Setting or mood are what I tend to begin with: so, I might start with an idea to write about a specific emotion, then I create a scene and the characters kind of stroll in of their own accord and start doing stuff. I like for there to be an arc of sorts – a satisfying sense of shift – but I try not to force plot in a way that feels contrived. I have Kathy Fish to thank for teaching me the importance of staying true to the emotional core of a story. My memory works like a series of films. I tend to write in that way, like a person orientating themselves in a place – exploring my surroundings using the senses, honing in on the earthy paper smell of a library book, or the crunch of dry grass during a hot summer, or the erratic movement of a beetle across a patio.
Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?
I am so bad at these binary choices! I suppose I start messy, with paper and pen. Being a terribly slow typist, I prefer to explore the beginnings of an idea on paper. As soon as I can no longer bear the crossings out, I move onto my laptop, where I start to shape the piece. I keep my old notebooks and find it interesting to see those early scribblings. Because rhythm is important to me – my best tip for editing is to read your words aloud, paying attention to the awkward bits – I often lift whole sentences in their original form. If the rhythm is working, I don’t like to edit the life out of it.
What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?
What a great question! Going back to my time as a history student and teacher, I suppose I have always been fascinated by the unsaid – the story that goes on in the white space between words. I love to explore those hidden places, teasing out truths that have gone unnoticed and the characters whose stories might have been overlooked. I am also a massive over thinker, forever poring over past conversations, wondering if I read them correctly, worrying I may have got the wrong end of the stick and caused massive offense. I think – I hope – we’re all a bit like this. I find flash in those moments of awkwardness, those sudden, uncomfortable realisations. Obviously, I don’t write exclusively about awkward people doing awkward things – but that’s where my eye tends to fall.
If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?
Trying to narrow this down to just a few is so tough – the list of writers I admire, each for their particular style or tone, is way too long to share. But here are a few stories that have stuck with me and won’t let me go:
Jacqueline Doyle – The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). I read this chapbook recently and I’m still reeling. I was struck by how these stories poke around fearlessly in the darkest of corners. Each flash explores the world of the missing from different perspectives, from victim to onlooker to perpetrator. Nola, originally published in Monkey Bicycle, was a stand-out story for me.
Christopher Allen – The Microbiology of Laiq (Jellyfish Review). I keep going back to this story. It’s so cleverly written, starting with a character whose obsession with microbiology borders on the eccentric, building to a devastating penultimate paragraph and a final line that has me in tatters every time.
K.B.Carle – Tyn (FlashBack Fiction). It’s a bit of a cheat to mention a piece of work published at FlashBack, where I’m a reader – and I’m fiercely proud of every piece we publish – but it was love at first sight with this painfully beautiful story, which appeals to my love of rhythmic prose. The audio is just incredible, like music – it’s a masterclass in what flash can do.
Sharon Telfer – My Father Comforts Me in the Form of Birds (Reflex). I loved this Reflex-winning piece before I even read it. That title is a story in of itself. It’s a wonderful example of fragmented flash fiction, told in tiny, perfect nuggets, revealing something much bigger about the power of nature and the nature of grief: a quiet beauty.
Kevin Barry – The Apparitions (about an apparition of Samuel Beckett appearing on a gable wall in Dublin) published at The Forge and monologue for cabman (told in one, never-ending sentence, this one’s all about voice), published at The Stinging Fly. I’ve chosen two because Kevin Barry is ludicrously good at words. He writes funny, dark, brilliant stories and his dialogue is so alive, it’s as if the character is shouting in your ear. His longer work is worth seeking out, and if you ever get a chance to hear him read – jump at it.
What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?
I feel lucky to have landed my stories with some great publications. I’m still fond of Back When The Sky Was Different, published in The Nottingham Review, because it reflects my preoccupation with the odd. More recently, I was pleased as punch to have The Word Swallower up at Ellipsis; this story was one of those rare ones that come out in one sitting, totally going against my whiskey metaphor. But there you go – flash is ever surprising!
BIO: Emily Devane lives and writes in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Her stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, most recently in Ellipsis and Ripening (the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology). Emily’s Bath Flash Fiction winning story ‘The Hand That Wields The Priest’ was a 2018 Best Small Fictions Finalist. A former Word Factory Apprentice, she also won a Northern Writers’ Award for her short story collection, which is almost ready for sending out into the world. She recently came second in the TSS 400 Competition with ‘Maria Belfiore’s Shoes’. Emily is on the editorial team for historical flash fiction magazine FlashBack Fiction. She tweets @DevaneEmily.