1 Comment · Posted on October 8, 2018
Jonathon Pinnock’s latest, The Truth About Archie Pye, was published last week (huge congrats!) so I thought it’d be a fine thing if he were to come over here to celebrate. And he has, with his top tips for writing a comic novel…
Ten Top Tips for Writing a Comic Novel
Don’t drown in swathes of description. Humour needs to move fast, and dialogue is a splendidly economical way to show character. Think about the different ways in which different people can describe the same thing and what that says about them. Also, it can be a great way to show a relationship in action. Listen to how people discuss and argue – how they talk over each other and ignore the other person altogether.
Listen to the Rhythm
All writing needs to have a sense of rhythm, but for comedy it is everything. It’s the only way you can control the timing of the joke.
Don’t be lazy. Fix your point of reference exactly and the reader will be drawn in. Instead of saying “she sat alone in her bedsit, picking at her meal for one”, say something like “she sat alone in her bedsit, picking at her Findus individual ocean fish pie.” Victoria Wood was the master of this – study her.
Most of plotting in the end comes down to logistics: ensuring that person X arrives at Y at the right time with Z. Comedy arises when any or all of these go wrong. Play with all these possibilities. Give your protagonist a terrible time. Set him/her off on a quest and then strew rocks in his/her way. Read PG Wodehouse’s “The Code of the Woosters” to see how a master handles logistics in comedy.
Don’t linger on anything – especially a favourite gag. Once it’s done, move on to the next one. Pretend you’re writing for the Fast Show. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, it won’t matter because there’ll be another one along in a minute. Running gags are great, but make sure they build and don’t just repeat.
Avoid Clichés Like a Plague of Feral Badgers
If you’re tempted to use a cliché at any point, you have basically two choices. Either (1) take it out altogether or (2) subvert or develop it. Think of Blackadder’s plan that was “as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed professor of cunning at Oxford University.”
Be Fair to Your Characters
Don’t create characters just to be the butt of jokes. Remember they have feelings too. Are they entirely passive? Do they have agency? Are you being fair to them? Are you punching down or up? They can still be really terrible people and have terrible things happen to them, but they must absolutely deserve it.
Avoid Info Dumps
This is a rule of writing in general (although I maintain that a well-executed exposition can cut an awful lot of flab – consider the first five minutes or so of the film “Serenity” for example), but it does apply especially to comedy. If you have a load of information to get across to the reader, make sure it’s done in an amusing way. Have something else going on in the background. Use something like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the only expositional device in literary history to have given its name to an entire book.
Don’t Overdo It
Don’t rely excessively on relentless devices like puns and in-jokes that will eventually wear the reader out. But if you can’t help yourself, make sure you REALLY overdo them. There’s no middle ground.
Ignore All the Above
Humour is MASSIVELY subjective. If you’re confident that what you find funny doesn’t fit the above template, go for it. If you find it funny, chances are someone else will.
Jonathan Pinnock’s THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE was published by Farrago Books last week. A surprising number of people seem to be enjoying it.
2 Comments · Posted on October 5, 2018
I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to say, finally, that Georgie Woodhead, of Hive’s Sheffield Young Writers’ Group has won the Foyle Young Poet of the Year! I’m not at all surprised, having seen her work up-close for a couple of years now. I honestly couldn’t be happier. You can read more about it here on Hive’s website but, in the meantime, here’s the wonderful poem.
he swayed from side to side, half-glugged bottle locked
in his burning fingers, his silhouette framed by the black hole of night,
flecks of scornful planets blinked behind his back. The whole world
stretched out in front of him like the sides of a fallen-down box,
and his eyes had been opened, and stared open as his shoulders
shook. His feet stumbled back and forth towards the edge,
the leather of his shoes creaking in protest against the gutter.
When the bar had closed and we were tossed out, left to stroll
with our hands shoved in our pockets like tree stumps rooted in earth,
we heard his bottle, a free-fall smash into green teeth on paving slabs.
He leaned over his small carnage in the same silence as we did,
our mouths open, eyelids pinned apart, necks turned like twisted cloth.
And him, with his frown slashed thin, disappointed, eyebrows folded
as if he had honestly expected anything different.
And that’s not all. Nope – fellow member, Maya Williams-Hamm was highly commended as well. Needless to say everyone is thrilled by these, thoroughly deserved, accolades. And a huge congratulations to everyone else listed too!
Leave a Comment · Posted on August 31, 2018
Way, way, back I was a member of an online writing group. I’d had a few things published but, as someone who’d never had any formal writing training, had never been to university, had no writing friends, and generally didn’t know too much about the writing world, joining that group was invaluable. This was 2004 or 2005, I think and, over ten years on the lessons I learned there are still with me. As is the constructive (and, on occasion, not so constructive) feedback. And the friends I made there are still with me too (and it’s such a lovely thing seeing so many of them doing so well).
Which brings me onto the brilliant Jacquline Ward, a fellow alumni whose book, Perfect Ten, is launched very, very soon and it’s a real pleasure to have her here to talk about it and her route to its publication and to hear her singing the praises of a group that helped so many of us, some time ago.
Writing groups, difficult decisions and publication
I am not a group person. I write alone and I’m one of those people who like my own company. Which is why I was completely surprised when, in 2007, I joined a writing group. I had just written and submitted my first novel and an agent had asked to see the full manuscript. Seasoned writers will be rolling their eyes at this point, because this rarely happens, and even more rarely comes to fruition.
I am the eternal optimist and, completely naive to the publishing industry, I truly believed that this was the making of my writing career. I searched online for a writing group and found WriteWords. I joined and I was very excited to see that the group was a mixture of established authors such as Emma Darwin and Clodagh Murphy and novices just like me.
I joined the chick-lit group, because that’s what I thought I was writing. The novel, I see much more clearly now, was semi-autobiographic and truly awful, but the group were kindly and constructively critical. Over time I realised that I had inadvertently stumbled across the loveliest group of people, including Nik who has kindly let me borrow his blog today, who have a wide range of writing knowledge.
The agent I sent the full manuscript to never got back to me. This is where Write Words came into its own; everyone was supportive and encouraging and helped me to see that it might take a little longer to get my novel published.
Then I was invited to a book launch by one of the group members. Keris Stainton’s first novel was published and she was having a book launch – in London! I was thrilled and a little bit star struck. I met many members of WriteWords that evening, and forged lasting writing relationships and close friendships. We met up for meals in London and Manchester. Even when I became interested in screenwriting and attended BAFTA sessions, I was never alone. There are always WriteWords people there and always chat and drinks afterwards. I have attended book launches and other valuable networking meetings that would not have been possible without this community.
This all makes writing sound very easy to negotiate, but there have been some difficult decisions. After some success with a speculative fiction novel and many disappointments I decided to try hybrid publishing, and entered Kindle Scout, a US based ebook first programme. My writing colleagues were honest and some questioned this, but still supported me. It was a great success for me and led to a crime series that sold well. But I knew that I still wanted a traditional books deal and this was looking less and less likely.
Fast forward ten years since I joined WriteWords, and I sent out a psychological thriller I had been working on for some time to agents. During that time I had already secured and agent, but this did not work out and I was back a square one; my writing friends, many of them very successful published authors by now, were still cheering me on. It was a difficult decision as I was worried about getting back into the submission/disappointment cycle, but I did it. I checked my emails only hours after sending out to agents to find requests for full manuscripts. The next day, one agent, Judith Murray, tracked me down to my day job and requested and immediate meeting.
We met, she was wonderful and loved my novel, and she sold it in weeks to Atlantic Books. I finally had a book deal! When I announced it congratulations flooded in from those people who know how hard publishing is, how difficult the waiting is, how long hours in front of a screen hurt your eyes, but also the pure joy when something like this happens.
The trade paperback of my novel, Perfect Ten, is released on the 6thSeptember and I have been overwhelmed by the love and support I have received from writing friends over the years. We are all at different stages in the publishing process and many have moved on from WriteWords itself, but there is one quality we all have in common – perseverance. We all stuck at it and learned from each other. Now it’s my turn for a book launch, in Manchester, not London, to bring publishing North, and of course, everyone is welcome!
So thank you, WriteWords, for bringing together this unique group of creative people that I am very proud to belong to – maybe I am a group person after all!
Leave a Comment · Posted on August 23, 2018
Time flies. Nine years ago I invited Shaindel Beers here to talk about her first poetry collection, ‘A Brief History of Time‘ – those of you who’ve been around me for the best part of that decade will know how much I loved the book and how HA has been a favourite poem of mine ever since I first heard it.
And Shaindel’s back. Nine years and two more books later (her latest is Secure Your Own Mask). And I’m delighted to her have her here to talk to us all about what’s changed for her in writing over this past ten years. So, Shaindel, what has changed…?
I think the biggest difference between being a writer with one book out (when you first interviewed me) and three books out (now) is having a different level of confidence. It’s not that I necessarily feel that I’m a better writer (though I certainly hope so!). It’s more that I don’t feel so desperate to get work published anymore. I’ve learned that if a poem is really good, someone will publish it. If a manuscript is worthy, it will turn into a book eventually. It’s an incredibly privileged position to be in, so I’m really hoping your readers aren’t swearing right now or chucking their laptops out a window.
As a young writer, it’s easy to feel that nothing will ever happen. That no one will ever read your writing. That you’ll never have one of your books out in the world. The important thing is to keep writing. Keep trying. Keep sending work out. In a lot of ways, it’s a numbers game. If you throw spaghetti noodles at a wall, some of them are bound to stick. With that being said, be open to improvement. You’re still learning. If an entire workshop group doesn’t understand your poem, or thinks a plot is unbelievable, it probably needs work. The willingness to change is what leads you to grow, what leads to better writing. So, back to that metaphor. The spaghetti noodles need to be boiled first. Make sure they’re boiled. Follow the directions on the box. See what other writers before you have done.
Once you’ve reached a position as an editor or an author with some sort of “prestige,” you have to give back. Read the first-time authors who submit work to you. Look over a poem a young writer emails and give them encouragement and a word of advice. I think that that is the biggest change. Ten years ago, I was a young writer who needed help, and now I’m happy to be of service to new writers. It’s like that adage around social media, “Be the adult you needed when you were a child.” Be the writer you needed when you were a new writer.
Shaindel Beers is author of the poetry collections A Brief History of Time (Salt Publishing, 2009), The Children’s War and Other Poems (Salt, 2013), and Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine Press, 2018). Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is currently an instructor of English at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, in eastern Oregon’s high desert, and serves as poetry editor of Contrary. Learn more at http://shaindelbeers.com
Leave a Comment · Posted on August 14, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor has a new poetry collection out, Cassandra Complex, so I thought it would be a marvellous thing if I were to invite him over here to talk about it. And here’s the man himself, talking poems, prophecy, and time…
On Time Travel, Poetry, Prophecy and Cassandra Complex
I’ve always felt that poetry has a special relationship with time, which is what partly marks it out from other arts. It’s the art-form which, I think, finds it easiest to hold in balance different moments in time: one poem, in a very small space, can move easily between different moments, different histories and memories, between past, present, and future. Poems often superimpose, montage and juxtapose different scenes, creating non-linear, fractal, cyclical models of time. Maybe this is partly because of the way poetry is read: you often have to re-read a poem, or a line, or read it in a particularly intense way, so the experience of it is circular, static or non-linear.
This is not to claim that other art-forms cannot do similar things – just that they do not bend time quite so easily. Music often includes repetition, cyclical forms, refrains, but obviously it is experienced in a linear way – listened beginning to end; novels, which grew up in the wake of Newtonian physics, are naturally causal, linear and chronological in their mode of storytelling, and the ghost of such chronology haunts even the most experimental of longer fiction; short stories can generally encompass only one or two scenes; painting and sculptures are usually frozen moments in time. Of course, all sorts of artists, writers and musicians have complicated and challenged these characteristics of their art-forms; but poetry is the form which, from its earliest days, moves most smoothly, even naturally, between different time-frames. Homer’s Odyssey– to give one early example among many – manages to hold in balance three or four narratives and chronologies. Poetry is – or can be – a kind of temporal palimpsest, or counterpoint.
Perhaps it is this aspect of poetry which has lent it to prophecy and fortune-telling. In Percy Shelley’s famous words, poetry is ‘the trumpet of a prophecy,’ and poets themselves ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ Again, this association goes all the way back to the earliest poetry: from Ancient Babylonia, the tablets Enuma Anu Enlil(When the Gods Anu and Enlil…) represent at once a remarkable work of poetry and of prophecy. In my new poetry collection, Cassandra Complex (Shoestring Press, 2018), I set out to explore the overlaps between poetry and prophecy. I wanted to explore these overlaps in historical, political and also personal ways – so there are poems about moments of (apparent) prophecy in my own life, alongside poems about modern forms of prophecy (in the form, for instance, of economic forecasts, medical prognoses, and job adverts), alongside ancient and historical prophecies. Of these latter, Enuma Anu Enlilis one of my starting-points in the collection:
From Shumma Alu: Everyday Omens
If the outside of the house is decorative
it will be deserted.
If the outside of the house is beautiful
it will not stand long.
If the house keeps changing outside
so will its keepers inside.
If the house is ugly or in shade
all inside will be happy.
If the house’s exterior looks ordinary
its keepers will grow old together.
Perhaps there is something inherently poetic about trying to look into the future – language becomes imagistic, symbolic, poetic when it is stretched and distorted across time. Certainly, omens like those inEnuma Anu Enlil are poetic images, and are stretched across three different moments simultaneously: they are addressed to readers in the present, telling them about the future, implicitly interpreting signs based on past experience. In that way, they are not so different from the predictions of modern science – which are similarly based on extrapolating the future from past patterns, for the benefit of the present.
There are even more complex examples of temporal counterpoint – for instance, where historical predictions are reinterpreted in light of intervening events (sometimes called ‘hindsight bias’); or even where historical pseudo-prophecies were actually written after the events they seem to predict (sometimes called ‘retroactive clairvoyance’). In Cassandra Complex, I wanted to explore all these different kinds of prophecy and pseudo-prophecy. Some of the poems, for example, embody forms of retroactive clairvoyance, whereby past prophecies are revisited to address and defamiliarise what’s happening now:
The refugees from an Apocalypse yet to happen
are flooding through the time-gate in bloodied rags,
marked by the Antichrist, trembling from earthquakes,
scorched by stars and planets crashing to earth,
chewed and spat out by dragons with various heads,
nibbled by locusts.
Tens of thousands have already perished en route
and most who reach their past are denied sanctuary:
after all, it’s their fault they weren’t among the Elect.
The future can hardly be blamed on us, can it?
A select few we save, those who bring with them
knowledge of soon-to-be-discovered technologies,
oh, and the plumbers.
The others – the godless, hairdressers, poets –
are shoved back,
whingeing they can’t win on either side of history.
Afterwards, if you press your ear against the door
and listen carefully, I have heard it said,
you can hear trumpets, distantly, from the other side.
This poem aims to mix the age-old language of prophecy, apocalypse and Revelations with modern political rhetoric about refugees and immigration. Hence, the mingling of different time-frames in a poem can also be a mingling of languages: different voices, registers and discourses from past, present and future can overlap, merge and clash in poetry.
In that sense, poetry can be a kind of linguistic time travel. In fact, I think poetry is – at least up till now – the closest we have to time travel, in its ability to move seamlessly between different time-frames. William Wordsworth claimed something similar, when he said that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.’ In other words, poetry retrospectively revives the past and relives it as if it is now.
In poetry, perhaps everything is now, everything is happening at once – past, present and future. There’s a wonderful poem by X. J. Kennedy, inspired by Einstein, called ‘The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything From Happening at Once,’ which is about this very subject. In a poem, though, time does not and cannot always prevent everything happening at once – and the final poem in my collection collapses time, so that past, present and future seem simultaneous:
Through an open door you’re watching an old self
holding someone else’s hand and you’re trying to say:
Please don’t let go. Please don’t move away.
Please please please don’t leave the room.
But something like the future is stuck in your throat
and the warning only comes out as a raven’s croak
so the old self lets go, moves away, leaves the room,
walks through you as if it’s you who’s the ghost
as if it’s you who’ll be stuck here forever
with the someone else who stays in the chair
whose hand you’re unable to touch
and who says confidently to the old you:
Goodbye, see you soon. See you very soon.
About the Author
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018) is his second poetry collection. His other books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, he now lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Leave a Comment · Posted on July 28, 2018
There’s something incredibly special about Arvon Lumb Bank, where I’ve been tutoring all week. It’s a writing residential centre. It’s in Ted Hughes’ stunning old house. The surroundings are breath-taking and, while you’re there, it’s as though you’re in a beautiful, tranquil, bubble – detached from the world and the internet and phone calls, and where you can just breathe and write.
I was there all week, working with students from a number of schools who are on the First Story programme (I’m writer in residence at two schools for them, so I already know that they’re the brilliant).
And I’ve had the best time. There was little rest – workshops and tutorials and activities filled the days and so, so much magic was created. So many brilliant, heart-breaking, funny, exciting stories and poems were written. And, the best of it, I got to spend a whole week in the company of some of the best bunch of people there are. We laughed, we wrote, we shared and we read and, when it was over, some of us might even have cried*. I saw friendships form and people grow. It’s reminded me, if I ever needed reminding, just how important our words and our stories are, and how important it is that people are brave enough to share them and that, when they do, we listen.
At some point I ended up having a birthday and I’m not sure how anyone knew (I’m not much of a birthday person, but people can be sneaky like that) but… just look at this cake! (Vegan, too.)
And this card…
And someone even learned to play Happy Birthday for me on the piano.
It was all very, very special.
If you ever have chance to go on an Arvon residential, do. It might, possibly, change your life.
There’s even a semi-resident cat,
And, to Jasmine Anne Cooray to work with there: THANK YOU! You are amazing.
*definitely, definitely not me…
2 Comments · Posted on July 18, 2018
It’s been a long time since I’ve had any chance to do much around there – these past three or four months have just slipped by. And I’ve been busy. There has been lots of teaching and workshop running.
We wrote about aliens landing in Sheffield in a bunch of libraries there and it was a wonderful thing. And not only did we produce some genuinely brilliant work, I also got the chance to see a few familiar faces from things I’d done around there a couple of years before. And the best bit – they remembered what they’d learned and they’d been sharing it, teaching their friends and their siblings and relatives all about good writing. It made me very proud because it was one of the few times I actually got to see how doing this sort of work in communities actually changes things. And it really does.
Since Hive’s festival (which was the last thing I mentioned here, I think) ‘halfway smile‘ has launched. It’s a marvellous, brilliant, stunning collection of short fiction and poetry from the talented young of South Yorkshire. Check out what Ian McMillan and Kate Long (who judged the prose competition) had to say about it…
There have been other things, of course – I’m nearing the end of a big old project in Doncaster (more on that soon) and I’m currently compiling and editing an anthology of work from a school Leeds, where I’m writer in residence for the wonderful First Story.
So I have been busy. I have been on trains. A lot. And I’ve been writing as well. A lot. It’s a strange situation to be in – being a writer who’s usually too busy to do things with the work he’s written but there’ll be a gap soon which I’m going to fill with rest and sleep and getting a bit fitter (the train diet isn’t a flattering one) and more of my own writing bits, and I’m looking forward to it.
Apologies to regular readers here for my silence. I never forgot you. More, hopefully, soon.
Leave a Comment · Posted on April 5, 2018
On Saturday 14th April (just over a week to go) THIS is happening in Rotherham. There’ll be workshops with writers across pretty much all the platforms you could think of, one to one sessions, performances, a chance to talk to publishers – you name it, it’ll be there. So, if you’re aged 14-25 and if you’re in the north of England and interested in any sort of writing then GO HERE to book your ticket (there aren’t many left, so I’d hurry if I were you) – and the whole thing, including lunch, is only £7.40 for the whole day.
Check out the line-up below…
2 Comments · Posted on April 3, 2018
It’s a huge pleasure to welcome Christopher Allen to the blog. Not only is he one of the people I’ve known, and liked, the longest in short fiction, he’s also a genuinely terrific writer (and editor – he’s managing editor over at the wonderful Smokelong), AND he has a new book out, Other Household Toxins. So it’s extra brilliant to give the book, and his words, some space here. True to form (or my own at least) we’re doing things a little differently – as I’ve been darting all over the country on trains, time’s been limited so Sophie van Llewyn has taken the reins and it’s her who’s interviewed Christopher, especially for the blog.
Over to them…
Household Toxins, Massive Sorrows and Otter Babies — an Interview with Christopher Allen
Sophie van Llewyn: Your collection, Other Household Toxins, is an eclectic mix of energising, poignant, insightful, gut-wrenching stories. But what stood out for me from the very beginning was the longer narrative, ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow.’ It’s so quirky, and imaginative, and takes the reader in such unexpected places with an incredible amount of confidence. You change between characters and perspectives with such a light touch. How do you define this type of longer narrative, and how did it come together? And could you please tell us more about what sparked it?
Christopher Allen: Thank you, Sophie. I’m so glad you’ve started with the 6000-word elephant in the room, smackdab in the middle of a flash fiction collection. ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’ is a fabulist tale made up of smaller fabulist tales, ultimately comprised of units shorter than 1000 words. I suppose you could call this a novella-in-flash, but a rather tiny one. Maybe a short story in flash? I’ve included it in Other Household Toxins to show how flash technique—tight arcs, tight dialogue, and the urgency of the form—can be used to create longer narratives, and I’m fortunate that my publisher, Randal Brown at Matter Press, went along.
‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’, originally published in Eclectica Magazine and then subsequently in Eclectica’s 20th-anniversary speculative anthology, happened so organically that I only vaguely remember having written it. The voice came immediately, which made writing the story something like channelling rather than writing. Originally there was another character, an online librarian who rarely left her flat and was in love with the guy who delivered Mexican food to her door. Her story was fun but also a tangent—so she had to go. In the end, I decided to focus on the toxic effect ignoring sorrow has on the families living in the building.
The story came to life in Vienna. I was walking through the centre of the city when I saw a very large tree growing on the roof terrace of one of the buildings. I asked myself where the roots would go, and that’s when the voice came and answered, ‘Sorrow knows its way.’ And, yes, this is creepy. I hope it’s also humorous.
SvL: Also in ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’, you use expressions in German, when some of your characters speak (Justice and his grandmother, Angel). Using foreign expressions is a very disputed point in literature, but you sprinkle them so skilfully to add colour to your characters. How do you think they came to seep into your work, and what do you think their function is in the longer narrative?
CA: German is such a part of my life that it sometimes appears in my writing, but I know it’s a risk. In ‘Fred’s Massive Sorrow’ Angel and Justice share a secret language. They also share the language of sorrow and the language of the clicking termites. They share a hunger for understanding their situation—something no one else in the story does.
Words, the misunderstanding of words, and the meaninglessness of words are all central themes in this story. I guess that’s why using German (and of course the clicking language of Justice’s grandmother) felt right.
SvL: If your book was a baby animal, what would it be?
CA: A baby otter of course.
SvL: I’ve noticed the most powerful stories in your collection, Other Household Toxins, draw on family relationships (father-son relationship, as in ‘The Ground Above My Feet’, ‘Wile E.’, ‘A Practiced Silence’), or on family tragedies (the loss of a twin, like in ‘To Carry Her Home’ and ‘What I Need to Tell the People on the Train’). All these stories ring so emotionally true, and the pain in them almost palpable. How did your own personal experience find your way into them, and how did you manage to sublimate painful personal experiences into fiction?
CA: Well, first of all I’m a big sap. Second, thank you. I’m grateful for your encouragement. Third, I may not have the answer you’d expect. The stories you’ve mentioned here are a mixed bag of reality and pure fiction. The three fathers in ‘The Ground Above My Feet’, ‘Wile E.’ and ‘A Practiced Silence’ don’t share much in common (except that maybe they’re all assholes?)—and they’re all very far away from my personal experience (my own father is a good man). In these stories I hope I’ve found the personal, compelling moments between the characters even if they don’t originate from my personal story.
‘To Carry Her Home’ is pure fiction but sparked from a real experience. After a month-long visit from a perfectly healthy relative, I kept finding her long black hair around the house. This quickly became fiction. You’ll be relieved to know that I did not collect the hairs. The part about radishes is real though: I hate radishes. Radishes were never meant to be food: discuss.
‘What I Need to Tell the People on the Train’ comes kind of close to my own experience, but also falls just short of being about my own pain. My brother died 10 years ago suddenly. We were estranged, so there is that overlapping with my personal experience. I feel some of the character’s shame or regret, but in the end he’s not me (I’m not preoccupied with my brother’s death), and the twin brother who’s dead in the story is not my brother.
My own painful experiences have yet to be published. I’m working on a linked short story collection about the sexual abuse/manipulation I suffered as a teenager. Writing about my own pain has proven to be game-changing difficult. I’m much better at making stuff up.
SvL: Many of the flash fictions in your collection have a dream-like quality about them (like ‘My Boy Winston’, ‘Dothead’, the quirky, strange ’When Susan Died the First Time’, the heartrending ‘Out and Away’, the spiralling ‘When Chase Prays Chocolate’, and one of my personal favourites ‘The Raging, Melting Space Between’). They’re hypnotising, and they take us to unexpected places. They’re written in a precise, sharp language. What can you tell us about your approach when it came to writing these pieces, and to what triggered them? How do you reach that state of mind necessary to write them?
CA: Great questions. My answer, again, might be a bit unexpected. It’s quite possible that I am usually in a dream state, that reaching a state of mind where I can write a purely realistic story is the feat for me. I’ve walked in my sleep since I was eight years old. I probably write in my sleep as well.
I’m not sure what to call these stories. A couple are clearly magic realism: ‘When Susan Died the First Time’ and ‘The Raging, Melting Space Between’; the others are actually realistic stories in which the main characters are experiencing a quirky or dreamlike psychological episode. And they all have their own inception stories: one came from another story I was writing about a baby being taken by the waves, one from a Snapple wrapper, one from a death at work, another from my research into the ingredients of chocolate, one from a story my grandmother tells over and over, and another from a prompt.
If I have a unified approach, I’d say that it’s to settle into the story’s voice, to establish who’s telling the story and why—like an actor. I—Christopher Allen—am rarely the storyteller in my stories. And I rarely sit down and force myself to write a story. I’m more like a sponge waiting for water. Stories occur to me when I’m hiking, walking through Munich, mowing the lawn, listening to music, and ironing. Ironing helps a lot.
Ideas knock around in my head a long time before I start writing. This is how I know there’s something there. Ideas come and go, and the ones that go usually lack that memorable quality that makes good fiction.
SvL: Authors are expected to put a lot of effort into promoting their own books nowadays. It’s miles away from the times of Balzac and Jane Austen. Do you feel it’s a burden, or is it something you enjoy?
CA: I love it. Well, to be more precise, I love publishing. It doesn’t have to be my own book. I have no problem promoting my own work, but I love sharing the work of others. I’ve been involved in publishing flash fiction for a decade. First at Metazen, now at SmokeLong Quarterly, and in 2018 as a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions. I’m thrilled that so many of my nominations were chosen to be in BSF 2018 or made it to the semi-finalist and finalist lists.
SvL: Did the ‘style’ of the literary journals you edited/edit change your own style, or approach to fiction? Did you ever have the feeling that you write more ‘towards’ the kind of work you tend to accept for these journals?
CA: Not consciously. But as anyone who has read 5000 submissions a year will tell you, you can’t help being influenced by the reading. You learn what works but much more often what doesn’t. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but it bears mentioning a million times. In flash fiction, there is little time for scene-setting, no time for throwaway dialogue, and zero tolerance for lazy sentences. Few writers—no writers?—achieve this in every story, including me of course.
In terms of style, I think Metazen and SmokeLong Quarterly and I chose each other. Both had published my writing before I started working with them, so they knew I was crazy.
SvL: Do you think that having a book out changed anything for you as a writer?
CA: Having a book out changes the way some people view an author’s writing. It’s a symbol of success for them. I see my successes more at the sentence level. A great ending. Finding that perfect word. A rhythm that feels natural and urgent. I’m thrilled when someone buys my Baby but more thrilled when they write and say something I wrote made them feel something.
SvL: Finally, what advice can you give writers who are putting together their first collection? Do you think there are any ‘shortcuts’ to help them find a publisher?
CA: Send it to everyone who’s a good fit for the collection. Don’t be afraid to simultaneous submit. You can’t wait three months between submissions.
Look at the other collections the publisher has in their catalogue. Do you love these writers?
Similar to a story, sometimes a collection can be improved by leaving something out. Don’t think you have to cram everything you’ve written into the collection. If you don’t love the story, leave it out. I love all the stories I included in Other Household Toxins, so even if a reader hates it I know I do.
In the UK, Other Household Toxins is available through Helen Rye (firstname.lastname@example.org). Christopher Allen will also be leading a workshop, speaking about SmokeLong Quarterly, and reading from Other Household Toxins at the UK Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol (July 20-22 2018). If you live in the US, Other Household Toxins is available on Amazon.
About the author: Christopher Allen, the author of Other Household Toxins, is also the author of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, [PANK], Indiana Review and lots of other journals and anthologies. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018. Originally from Tennessee, he now lives somewhere in Europe.
About the interviewer: Sophie van Llewyn lives in Germany. Her novella-in-flash, Bottled Goods, will be published by Fairlight Books in July 2018.