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Author Interview – Jennifer Harvey

Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared in various publications such as The Guardian, Carve Magazine, Crack The Spine and the 2014 and 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. Her radio dramas have won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service and she has been twice shorlisted for the Bridport Prize. She is a Senior Advisor and Editor for Mash Stories and a Resident Reader for Carve magazine. You can find her online at www.jenharvey.net

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1. What drew you to writing short stories and how has this developed over time?

The first serious piece of fiction I completed was a radio drama I entered for a competition run by the BBC World Service back in 2001. For some reason I seem to ‘hear’ dialogue more easily than other aspects of prose writing (description is still a very difficult thing for me) and so writing a play seemed to come naturally. I ended up winning the prize that year for best European drama and this gave me the confidence to consider writing more. So I set about turning the play into a short story just to see how it would work and I found this experience so challenging and rewarding that I’ve been writing ever since. Writing is very much a continuous learning curve and the most important thing I have learned since I first put pen to paper in 2001 is to read, read, read. Especially short stories. The range of techniques writers play with in the short form is more varied and interesting and experimental, I think, and the more you read and try these things yourself in your own writing, the better you get. It sounds obvious, but it’s hard work.

2. You read submissions for Carve Magazine and are a judge for Mash Stories, tell us what you look for in a submission. Can you define what hooks you into a story?

The submissions for Carve and Mash are so different, so I read them with different criteria in mind. For Carve we accept short story submissions up to 10,000 words whereas Mash specialises in flash fiction up to 500 words. For Carve I tend to have a more ‘literary’ hat on so a story has to work on all levels for me – character, narrative voice, plot, pace, description etc. All the technical aspects need to be working together so that the story flows well and reads easily on the first read. It’s only on subsequent reads that I will try to get a better sense of what draws me emotionally to the story and often this comes down to the characters. If I instinctively feel interested in them then I will pass a story up the line to the editors. For Mash it’s a whole different thing. Flash fiction for me works best when one aspect is leading the story, be that the language, the plot, or the narrative voice/characterisation. In 500 words you don’t often have the space to deliver a complete story. Kathy Fish put it very well in a recent interview when she explained that Flash doesn’t necessarily need a plot, it often works better when it has movement. And I tend to agree with her. A killer, for me, is a flash story that aims for a twist at the end. It very often fails and comes across as gimmicky.

3. Tell us about your columns for Litro Magazine and how you got into more journalistic work?

I have blogged, all be it intermittently, since 2005 because I like to have a little space where I can throw ideas out into the wide world. When Dan Coxon approached me to come on board for Litro I jumped at the opportunity because it allowed me to interview the writers submitting flash fiction to Litro for their weekly Flash Friday series. I loved talking to writers about their stories and every now and then I still do this, but at the momentI have stopped conducting interviews because I am working on a thriller which is taking up all my time and brain capacity. So, for now, journalism will take a back seat.

4.How did you find the Advanced Creative Writing Course with Oxford University and the Curtis Brown Creative courses in terms of what you learnt, and how have they impacted your writing?

The tutor feedback with Oxford was, as you can expect, excellent. They require two written assignments from the students and the detailed tutor feedback is very useful. One of the pieces I wrote for this course as an exercise found its way into the 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthology and I am working on the two assignments I submitted to edit them into pieces I can submit to journals at some point. Curtis Brown are also amazing. Their course is very much geared up to getting you started writing a novel and alongside tutorials they provide useful tips about the publishing industry and the whole submissions process. The course itself relies more on group feedback from the other writers on the course, but I was really pleased with this as the group I was in was very motivated and full of writers who clearly knew their stuff. In terms of the impact on my writing I would say the biggest thing I took away from them was self-confidence. I am a terrible self critic so having other people, tutors and writers, tell you you are on the right track is very motivating and on those days when the self doubt kicks in I now have that experience to fall back on and remind myself that I can do it and I just need to knuckle down and keep writing. I also think courses such as these help you to hone your critical skills. Having to read and think not only about stories written by accomplished writers but those of your fellow students really teaches you what to look for in terms of what makes a good story work and what sort of problems are causing a story to miss the mark. I think every writer should attend such a course at some stage. Learning is something we all need to do and, for me, it’s a lifelong process.

5. You have also written poetry and plays. I really liked your poem for The Guardian Poetry Workshop, It’s Only When he Turns the Pages, Touches the Paper that His Eyes Light Up. Do you think one form of writing feeds into another in any way?

Definitely. Writing flash fiction helps me focus on the language and the voice a lot more – the fact that it forces you to think very clearly about what it is you are trying to say is a very useful exercise. Drama of course really helps you to craft realistic characters – in some ways writing can be a bit like acting in that you need to get under the skin of your characters and think and feel the way they do and, for me, finding their voice, literally hearing how they speak is a really useful way to develop that deeper understanding.

6. What and who are your writing influences?

It changes a lot and often the book I am reading at any particular moment will be the thing which is guiding me in some way. So right now that would be Cees Nooteboom and Richard Brautigan. A lifelong influence on me, from the moment I first encountered him on T.V. is and will always be, David Bowie. He taught me the invaluable lesson of curiosity. To look around at everything and absorb it, then see where it takes you creatively. It sounds simple but it’s actually a very daring approach – to be limitless in terms of influences. This is what made Bowie an artist and not just a musician. I owe him a lot.

7. Give us an interesting fact about yourself.

When I was a kid, I lived in Zimbabwe and went to school where the teachers were all German nuns. Every day started with ‘Guten morgen kinderen!’ And I think this experience opened me up to different cultures and languages.


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Flash Fiction – It’s Dorothy

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There is something about flash fiction that captures a moment perhaps more sharply than a short story, if that is possible. A snapshot of everyday life, of feelings, thoughts, moment. I enjoy reading and writing flash and have been following Flash Fiction Magazine for a while. There are some great stories. Today they published my second story, It’s Dorothy.

The early morning light pierced through the kitchen window, catching the edge of the table. Dents left from an old mincer had been ingrained along the edges, and there were strokes of felt tip pen in an array of colours left by the grandchildren during a recent visit. Signs of life, she thought. Kitchens are the hub of the home, her mother had said, but life as she knew it had come to an abrupt end last night when she had received the call…. continue reading at Flash Fiction Magazine.


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Book Review: The Girl on the Train

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I am currently working my way through a few psychological thrillers and this one did not disappoint. Very much following the theme of amnesia found in Before I Go to Sleep and Elizabeth is Missing, this is the story of Rachel who as an unreliable narrator leaves the reader questioning whether or not to believe her account of events. The chapters cycle through different viewpoints from Rachel, Anna and Megan. The dates go back and forth, eventually colliding at a crescendo point in the narrative. It’s a tense and gripping thriller. Hawkins has clearly had fun with the characters and she ratchets up the tension with each twist in the story. It’s not often that I am blindsided by an ending but i really did not see it coming and was as surprised as most when I discovered the details surrounding the disappearance of Megan, who we initially think is Jess.

There are chilling flashbacks to a girl in a tunnel, blood on Rachel’s head, a red-headed man at the station who she may or may not know. Her memories change, they shift, and sometimes turn out to be complete untruths. The agony of her not quite remembering due to one glass or bottle too many should frustrate the reader, but Hawkins manages to draw you into Rachel’s fear, self-doubt, and you easily pity her, empathise and root for her, despite the fact that she has been stalking complete strangers and her ex-husband, situations that would not usually draw a reader’s sympathy. Cleverly written and well worth reading. I wonder whether the film will stay true to the story. It will be released on 7 October staring Emily Blunt, who I think will do a sterling job as Rachel.


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Book Release: Unthology 8

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Unthology 8 from Unthank Books is released today. My story, Lines in the Sand appears alongside a great range of stories and the official launch is in Norwich next week. Get in touch with me or @UnthankBooks for details.

There have been some lovely reviews so far:

‘The most addictive Unthology yet!’ Our Book Reviews

‘A memorable and hard-hitting anthology of work.’ Sabotage Reviews

‘A diverse and exciting foray into the collection that’s becoming renowned for representing the best of the short story.’ Cultured Vulture

Synopsis:

Live on a grand scale. Make deathless art. Scream paint. Sculpt ice. Let it melt and become a dynasty. Tarry with prophets and dreamers. Find joy in danger zones. Quit the stage of history. Tread the boards instead. Take a safari. Take a boat ride to the south of France. Work in the music biz, a chicken shack or cliff-top cafe. Fall in love, then out of love. Complete the jigsaw puzzle in a tiny room. Find yourself in a prison cell. Become a machine, loveable and servile. Realise that all the time, wherever you have been, whoever you’ve inhabited, you have been in a relationship with everyone there ever was or is yet to come and you can’t do one damn thing about it. Find fellow travellers here. Make friends with UNTHOLOGY 8. Includes new stories by Victoria Briggs, Kit Caless, Armel Dagorn, Judy Darley, Laura Darling, Sarah Dobbs, Clare Fisher , David Frankel, Rodge Glass, Damon King, Dan Malakin, FC Maltby, Amanda Mason, Martin Monaha,n Andre Van Loon and Lara Williams


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Book Release: My Brother Was a Kangaroo and Other Stories

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The time has come to release my debut short story collection, My Brother Was a KangarooThis has been a few years in the making, with many of the stories having been published in literary journals and magazines. Some have won prizes and three are forthcoming in paperback anthologies with Kingston University Press, Unthank Books and Flash Flood Journal. The collection is available in paperback and as an ebook.

Here is a taster….

‘The stories will resonate with you long after finishing’ Avril Joy, Costa Short Story Award winner 

From a boy searching for his parents in a North African souk to the marketplaces of India; from the hospital bed of a writer who has inexplicably lost his memory to a small girl who gives stones to a man on a park bench; and from Freud’s couch in Vienna to the mythical sirens, this collection will stir your senses and take you on a journey around the globe. It explores the intricacies of human nature and the complex ways in which people respond to pressure, change and loss. 

‘F.C. Malby is one of those writers who makes you sit up and pay attention. She’s a natural storyteller, a gifted wordsmith, and fearless in taking her imagination to the dark side when the story requires it.’Dan Coxon, fiction editor, Litro Magazine 

‘Malby’s writing is restrained, understated and elegant. Her shorter fiction pieces are stunning, creating a sense of beauty and poignancy in just a few hundred words.’Maureen Scott, CEO, Ether Books 

‘Deeply moving and attuned to the subtleties of human relationships, F.C. Malby’s stories make us realise we’re only one step away from a completely different world.’ Ashley Stokes, editorial director and short fiction editor, Unthank Books 

I hope you enjoy the stories and I look forward to hearing from you. Do share this with friends and fellow short story lovers.


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Short Story News

After a break from blogging, I’m back with some short story news. After 8 years in Vienna, Austria, I am now back in the UK and a collection of my short stories is due to be released soon as an anthology. I’m really excited about the collection, which includes many stories published in literary magazines, and several anthologies as stand alone stories.

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The other news is that my story, Lines in the Sand, will be published by Unthank Books in Unthology 8 in November. My work will be published alongside some wonderful writers, so I am thrilled to be a part of this publication.

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And one of my stories has gone into this wonderful collection, Hearing Voices, which will soon be published by Kingston University Press. It includes work by Pulitzer Prize winner, Anthony Doerr and is an exciting mix of stories from locations as far flung as Ithaca, Nairobi and the surface of the moon!

Thank you for all of your comments and interest in the blog.


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That Awkward Question: Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Leonid_Pasternak_001Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Yesterday I watched a really interesting set of readings from the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This was a special event (link to the programme will expire in 4 weeks) welcoming all six writers on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist to the Festival: Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Howard Jacobson, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith. The authors discussed and read from their shortlisted novels, then took questions from the audience. The readings gave a good sense of the tone and subject matter of the books. What was particularly interesting, and uncomfortable, though, were the questions after the readings. I don’t think there was a single question posed to the authors that wasn’t either ‘naughty’, in the words of the host, or just difficult to answer. They were asked, if they had to swap their novel with one of the longlisted books, which one they would choose. Needless to say, nobody answered this question. They were also asked how they felt about sitting with two Americans (the Prize was opened up to American authors for the first time this year). Neel Mukherjee said he preferred an inclusive approach over exclusivity. This has been much debated over the years. Joshua Ferris broke the ice with some humour, adding, ‘I think I speak for Karen when I say, we are completely beside ourselves’. The most awkward question, and this was possibly the worst set of questions I’ve heard from any audience to a panel of writers, was whether they had read each other’s books. Ali Smith, thankfully, had read the whole set and thought that they were ‘fantastic’. They were also asked how you know when you have truly finished your novel. The authors agreed that it was much like a painting where you added the last brush stroke. This was one of the better questions, but the question that struck me as particularly familiar came from a young girl in the audience. She asked the eternal, ‘Where do you find your ideas?’, question. And it’s one that makes many writers uncomfortable, primarily because it is difficult to answer.

WHERE DO WRITERS FIND THEIR IDEAS?

The responses from the authors varied. Karen Joy Fowler said that her ideas came from her daughter, and that the question had once been difficult to answer, but was now all sorted. A very tongue-in-cheek, and slightly evasive answer. Howard Jacobson suggested that the word ‘ideas’ may not be the right one to use, and that he sees a scene. He mentioned Milan Kundera in his point that it might be better to try not to have ideas. Joshua Ferris’s answer was closest to what I experience when I write. He said that he has sentences before he has ideas, and that those sentences come from somewhere. From that sentence come other sentences and at some point you find a rhythm. Ali Smith, after a joke about Waitrose (although she failed to mention Peter Andre), says that ideas are absolutely everywhere. Every single thing that we encounter is filled with possibilities and at some point there is a chemical process, a fusion of ideas. She talked about the need to have your senses open. Neel says he gets his from reading other people’s books. But don’t tell anyone! His title came from a a book called Light Years, by James Salter. And finally, Richard Flanagan shared his view that novels are a ‘crack diary’ of your soul.

“NOT TO LOOK FOR THE IDEAS BUT TO HAVE YOUR SENSES OPEN.”  ALI SMITH

I don’t think I have ever managed to answer this question successfully. But, if I look back to the seeds of a novel or a short story, and I have many short story ideas, the ideas come in the waking moments of half sleep, of semi-consciousness. Are they a dream? Not really. They are the thoughts that creep into my mind when it is not preoccupied with the thoughts of the day and the ‘to do’ lists. We wake with so many things to do and places to get to, that our imaginations become squeezed out by the necessary thought processes that we go through on a daily basis. Our imaginations wait on the sidelines for the quiet moments, to come into play when we have a conversation with the lady in the local chemist and talk about travel and family, when a friend tells us about a particular issue that they are facing (although I never use confidential information in my writing). They feed on the everyday encounters that we have, as Ali Smith said, when we have our senses open. Writers tend to notice people, body language, unusual situations, things that are out of the ordinary. They observe. Most will admit to being people watchers. Ideas also come from memory, from fears and from the ‘what if’ scenarios that play out in our minds. Neil Gaiman wrote a good essay on this question, saying that the ideas are not the difficult part, but creating believable characters and making the story interesting. He suggests that the most important questions are, What if, If only, I wonder, If this goes on, Wouldn’t it be interesting if…

I often begin with a scene, as Howard Jacobson mentioned, and if it won’t go away, I commit it to paper, building a story from that scene, asking who the characters are and what they want, what is blocking their desires and what might happen next. I try to feel the atmosphere. With my current work in progress I initially had five key scenes but I knew that they were scattered, and the difficulty lay in linking these once they were written. It became a jigsaw puzzle. I usually write chronologically, but there are no rules. And there in lies the problem: no rules, no solid idea of where the stories begin, but you only need a seed. You allow it to grow and then shape it into something that you hope will inspire and challenge readers. Ideas are as much a mystery to writers as they are to readers. You experiment with different ideas to see what works and, often, ideas will surprise.