Mini Interview with Fiona J. Mackintosh

Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I have always had a tendency to write long, sometimes too long. So flash was a revelation to me. I’ve had to learn how to convey back story in hints and whispers and to pare my language down to the essence. It’s made me a much more disciplined writer. There’s also the fun of being able to finish something fairly quickly and move on. And I like playing with the different lengths within the form – from tiny stories to up to 1,000 words – as well exploring different POVs and tenses. It’s a constant technical challenge, which I love.    

Right now, I’m messing about with ideas for two different novellas-in-flash, a form that presents a ton of those technical challenges. I’m not sure I can rise to the occasion, but I’m giving it the old college try.   

What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?

Character because character is almost always what drives plot, certainly in realist fiction which is what I usually write. How individuals respond to the events that happen to them creates the story of their lives. In fiction as in life.

Character is certainly at the heart of the mammoth novel I’m currently writing, Albion’s Millennium. In conception, it’s a five-novel saga of Britain throughout the 20th century in the vein of Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga and the narrative sections of John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy. Nothing like biting off more than you can chew, right? The first volume, The Virgins of Salem, will be going out to my generous beta readers within weeks, and I’m fervently hoping the book will be ready to be sent out on submission by early next year.  

Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?

Slow and messy. Slow, slow, slow, and ever slower. One reason for this is I always have a million different projects on the go and tend to flit among them randomly until a specific deadline presents itself, whereupon I become laser focused and can actually be downright speedy. I used to be a journalist, and these days I’m a freelance editor so deadlines are everything in my working life as well.

I still struggle with the messy part. As we writers know, you have to be prepared to allow the crap to hit the page to keep your momentum going. My trick is to highlight the bits I hate – the clichés, the uninspired descriptions – to be come back to later instead of getting snagged on trying to improve them on the spot. But even so, I’m definitely the tortoise, not the hare, and can only hope the fable is correct about that particular race.  

What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?

The stories I heard from my grandmothers about their childhoods. The Virgins of Salem is peppered with incidents from their lives. They were young in the early 20th century when technology was changing the world as fast as it is changing it now in the early 21st century. The advent of the telephone, the car, the airplane, modern plumbing – it was all happening, and they lived through it. Also, women’s roles were changing, especially after World War I, and their working and personal lives reflected this.   

Otherwise, pretty much everything I’ve ever experienced is grist to the mill. Everything. Smells, sights, sounds, my memories, other people’s memories, things I’ve read. My real life these days is very hermit-like, but I have many years of experiences to draw on plus the wonderful window on the world that is the internet so I’m never short of ideas.    

If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?

I’ll be glad to give you half a dozen examples off the top of my head to give you a sense of what I like and what resonates with me. However, I could cover pages and pages with equally tremendous flashes as there are many other writers whom I admire and many stories that have blown me away.    

Eileen Merriman This is How They Drown

Sharon Telfer’s Terra Incognita

Dina L. Relles And Sometimes We Meet

Helen Rye One and Twenty-Three

Ken Elkes Extremities

Meg Pokrass The Bug Man

What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?

Thank you for asking this question. A couple of years ago, I wrote a flash written from the perspective of Ophelia in Hamlet, in an attemptto subvert Shakespeare’s take on women as mad and powerless. While I was writing it, I had in mind Virginia Woolf’s discussion of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in A Room of One’s Own – about what masterpieces could she have written too if she’d been sent to school and hadn’t been told to “mend the stockings and mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”

Woolf also wrote: “When… one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.”  With this torture in mind – the repression of creativity and selfhood – I imagined a different fate for Ophelia.

The resulting flash – The Yet Unknowing World – was published by the wonderful Café Aphra in February 2018. It can be found here if anyone cares to give it a whirl.

BIO: Fiona J. Mackintosh is a Scottish-American writer living near Washington D.C. In 2018, she won the Fish Flash Fiction Prize, the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and the Reflex Fiction Prize. Two of her pieces were selected for Best Microfiction 2019 and the 2018-19 BIFFY 50 and one for Best Small Fictions 2019. Her short stories have been listed for the Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Short Story Prizes, and she is writing a five-novel series about 20th century Britain entitled Albion’s Millennium

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