Why do you write flash? What makes it different for you?
First, I would like to thank you for interviewing me, Tommy. This series is so great. I feel like I just walked into a party I have no business being at. I did bring beer, though!
When I started writing in my early twenties, I dived straight into the novel. Big mistake from me and my short attention span. Once I got to 50,000 words or so, it became clear I was writing a collection of tidbits, not a novel. The only thing tying it all together was the fact that they all featured a man called Gordon. I was bored of Gordon. I wanted to write tidbits about aliens as well, or ghosts, or the secret lovechild of a vending machine and a toaster. I wanted the freedom to explore a new world every time I sat down to write. So I started doing that, without knowing it was called flash fiction. These days, I rarely write anything over 500 words, and I usually have two or three different ideas on the go at any one time.
That’s what makes flash different and special for me. The brevity means you can experiment and take risks at will. If an idea leads to a dead end (as many of mine do) it’s no big deal. But if it does come off, the pay-off is unlike any other form for me. Most of the biggest literary gut-punches I’ve had have come from reading flash fiction pieces.
Last year, I attended the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. On the first night, I was sat there thinking ‘Yep. I’ve found my niche.’
What’s your writerly lifejacket: character or plot?
Narrative movement is important for me. I stop reading if nothing is happening. But I’m going to say character. I’m reminded of a local writers’ group I used to go to. There was a guy who would write these long passages of ‘this happened, then this happened, then this happened…’ without spending any time on his characters’ reactions or emotions. Then he’d lash out when it wasn’t well received. He’d wave his glass of pinot noir around and be like, “My passage had several thousand deaths, a military coup and group sex between seventeen different species of alien!” and we’d all be thinking, ‘Yeah that’s wonderful mate, but somehow we were still bored.’ That was an important lesson for me. You can have all the alien army orgies in the universe, but if the story doesn’t have a beating heart, nobody is going to care.
Writing style: Quick and messy or slow and precise?
The first, followed by the second. Initially, I use the shoveling sand approach. Chuck whatever is in my head into a document or my phone as quickly as possible, then worry about shaping it into something that makes sense after. That’s one of the great things about creative writing – nobody needs to see anything until it’s ready to be seen. After I’ve shoveled the sand, writing is re-writing. That part is slow and precise, or, more accurately, repetitive and precise. I keep going over it until I’m putting commas in, taking them out, then putting them in again. At that point, I deem it good to go.
What element or part of your “real life” do you think most influences your writing?
My mother comes from Guyana and is of Chinese ethnicity, so I looked different to everyone else at my school apart from my sister. Most of the time it was fine, but often enough, something would happen or get said that would make me feel like a complete outsider. Nothing like an unhealthy dose of feeling like an outsider to bring out the writer in someone!
Also, in terms of “real life” on a grander scale, I love space and the cosmos. As humans, we have this capacity for kindness and cruelty. We have empathy. We have a need for community and sometimes solitude. All these things and more. But when we think about it rationally, we are utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe and time. That juxtaposition fascinates me. I was thinking about it when I was out for a real life walk earlier, so I thought I’d mention it here.
If you could recommend a few flash stories or writers, who/what would it be?
I’m opening another beer, because this is some question. One that is going to be such a pleasure to answer.
The Tenth of December by George Saunders is a sublime book. The story ‘Sticks’ is only a page long and was probably my first glimpse into what flash fiction can do. You can read that story online here – http://www.unm.edu/~gmartin/535/Sticks.htm
The shorter pieces in Miranda July’s collection ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ had a similar effect on me.
This Pat Foran story is one of the saddest, most beautiful things I’ve read recently – https://moonparkreview.com/issue-ten-winter-2019-2020/how-cold-the-morning-how-heavy-the-waltz/
As is this by Anita Goveas – https://intothevoidmagazine.com/article/how-to-obey-gravity/
How does Cathy Ulrich produce so many beautiful pieces so consistently? Is there an army of Cathy Ulrichs? Joking. There’s only one Cathy Ulrich. This is a fantastic story by her about haunted carwashes – https://heavyfeatherreview.org/2019/08/29/ulrich/
This is a fun alien stepfather story by Chris Miliam –
Oh, and this is another Chris Miliam belter (I love this guy!) about a monster made of processed food –
Here’s something a bit different. If you don’t mind a bit of profanity, I’d highly recommend watching this video of my fellow Scot, Chris McQueer, reading the hilarious ‘Korma Police’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRFFhsDXDKs
Since I started writing micro fiction, I’ve really looked up to Noa Sivan. What she can do with so few words is truly special. This collection in Monkey Bicycle illustrates this perfectly – http://monkeybicycle.net/microfictions/
You know who else is amazing at micro fiction, who I’ve discovered recently? Katherine Kulpa. Here’s is a collection of apocalyptic ones – http://x-r-a-y.com/in-the-time-of-climate-change/fiction/
I’m going to go and reread all of these myself in a bit, with another beer!
But before I do that, speaking of micro fiction, I must mention the Twitter very short story community. If I started listing all the amazing individuals, we’d be here all day. But I’d definitely recommend checking out the #vss365 (Very Short Story, 365 days a year) hashtag on there. Loads of great tweet-length stories posted every day. I’d urge anyone to take part, too. I’ve been doing it for years now and it’s become my favourite way to get the creative beers flowing. Creative juices, sorry! Meant to say juices.
What story of yours do you wish got more recognition?
I’ll give a plug to one of my micro fictions called ‘Memoir’. It was part of the UK National Flash Fiction Day ‘Flash Flood’, which is exactly what the name suggests – a flood of flash fiction. So people might have missed my contribution, which I’m really fond of – https://flashfloodjournal.blogspot.com/2019/06/memoir-by-neil-clark.html
BIO: Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh. His debut print collection – ‘Time. Wow.’ – is scheduled for release on Back Patio Press in 2020. His work is published or forthcoming in a number of journals such as Wigleaf, Okay Donkey, Spelk, CHEAP POP and The Molotov Cocktail. You can follow him on Twitter @NeilRClark or visit neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com for a full list of publications.