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Author Interview with Sarah Hegarty

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Sarah’s short fiction has been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Cinnamon Press, Mslexia, the Momaya Annual Review, Hysteria 2, and on the web. Her work was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Short Story Prize and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She is currently working on her second novel, The Leopard’s Daughter, set in the Congo Free State in 1908. She is writer in residence at the George Abbot School in Guildford.

 

1. You have said that, ‘some stories will feel more precious.’ Which of your stories hold that place for you and why?

It’s a combination of the time and effort involved, and if a story taps into something difficult and personal. (Those are the best ones, obviously). My story ‘Something Hidden’ is dedicated to my sister, who died when she was a baby. Writing it was a way of remembering her and celebrating her life, which I was unable to do at the time. It was a long, slow process to uncover the shape of it, and to understand what I was trying to do. I love Stephen King’s quote – from his brilliant book, ‘On Writing’ – that ‘stories are relics […] the writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible’. Writing is definitely excavating for me. My story ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’, recently published in the MIR #14 anthology, is precious for a different reason: I wanted to show life in Beijing in 1980 – a world that has vanished. I also hope it gives voice to people whose stories have rarely been heard, particularly in the West. It took me years to wrestle onto the page, so I’m pleased it’s found such a good home.

2. How did you end up becoming a reader for The Brighton Prize, and what are you looking for in a good piece of writing?

I submitted a story, which didn’t make it, but was asked the following year to be a reader.

I’m looking for voice, first of all. A character I want to spend time with, who pulls me in, and makes me forget I’m reading: I’m just listening. I want to be in the story. Show me what your characters can see. Let me feel what they feel. I don’t have to like them, but I do have to be curious about them. Keep the pace moving. And then – let’s have a satisfying ending. Not twisty – but an ending that illuminates what’s come before, and makes you feel, yes: that’s how it should be. Beyond that, I love to see that the writer has cared enough about the work to check for spelling errors or typos. Of course, this answer is much easier to produce than a piece of original, engaging writing! That comes from endless reading, and endless practice. So the other thing I’m looking for is evidence that the writer is a reader, who has absorbed the shape of a story through reading other writers’ work.

3. How do you adjust to the changes between the long haul of the novel writing process and short fiction?

Badly! When I’m mired in editing and re-drafting, there’s nothing more tempting than the idea of a 2,000-word story, neat and perfectly formed (at least in my head). Being able to work on the arc of a short story in one go is hugely satisfying. One way I keep going with the novel (apart from searching out deadlines that make me sit on my chair) is to see each chapter as a short piece. I keep endless lists, and charts, and tick things off as I go, to give an illusion of progress… I’m always curious to see what my characters are up to, but I’m very bad at giving myself time to sink into the world of the book. It was a brilliant boost recently to be longlisted for the Mslexia Novel competition. That’s been a great incentive to keep working on the draft.

4. How did you feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Bridport Prize First Novel Award and how has it impacted your work?

It was a great feeling. I entered on the off-chance, and was thrilled to get down to the final five, out of over 1200. It gave me a huge confidence boost, and the impetus to get on and finish the manuscript. I was lucky enough to meet some lovely people at the prize-giving whose feedback also encouraged me to keep at it.

5. You manage to create great tension in your writing. How do you capture the reader’s attention in just a few short paragraphs?

Thank you. By endless re-writing! I have a terrible tendency towards throat-clearing although I’m getting better at cutting to the chase. Before writing fiction I worked as a journalist, and I try to report what’s happening so that the reader can be in the story; in the moment. ‘Keep Moving’ is a useful motto. But it’s all down to re-drafting; trying to be clear about the focus of the story; and giving it time to cook.

6. You run creative writing workshops for students. What do you enjoy teaching and what do you use as inspiration?

I love the whole process of engaging with students and hearing their work. I always enjoy workshops on character, but I’m happy to teach viewpoint, dialogue – whatever might be useful. I love being able to talk about the technical process of writing – the tools at the writer’s disposal, if you like – and then handing the toolkit over to the students and hearing what they come up with. It’s always interesting, and unexpected. I feel privileged when they share it with me.

For inspiration – all sorts of prompts, word games, challenges. I love using physical objects, as well as newspaper and magazine cuttings – anything that catches my eye. My stories have often been prompted by a visual clue, and I hope that works for my students too.

7. Who are your favourite writers or inspiring quotes?

Too many to mention! I love Lucia Berlin’s short stories. Sebastian Barry’s prose is perfect. One of the best books I’ve read this year was ‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain:  a fascinating and poignant imagining of Ernest Hemingway’s life with his first wife, Hadley. It sent me back to his work with new eyes. I’m currently reading VS Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’ about his Indian heritage and his life as a writer. And I’ve just started ‘The Dawn Watch’, Maya Jasanoff’s biography of Joseph Conrad.

The quote I keep on my desk is, ‘You get knocked down, you get up again. I also think writers must have great courage, the courage to trust your own life and your own voice.’ It’s from screenwriter Ashley Pharaoh, who co-wrote ‘Life on Mars’ (as well as many other things). It inspires me.

8. Can you tell us about the Mechanics’ Institute Review ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop?

It was organized by the editorial team at MIR, as part of the preparations for MIR Live, events around the UK where the MIR#14 authors read extracts from our stories. We learned how important it is to relax before reading. One of the ways to ‘loosen up’ was to lie on the floor, humming – a good ice breaker! We looked at the kind of extract that works well, read aloud: short, simple and clear. And we practiced reading – and breathing in the right places. It was a fun evening that gave me lots of useful ideas. I’ve written about it in more detail on my blog: www.sarahhegarty.co.uk  The next MIRLive events are in London (November 17) Birmingham (November 23) and Manchester (January 12). It would be great to see you at one of them!

9. If you had an opportunity to ghost write, whose biography would you choose to write and why?

I hate the idea of ghost writing. Each person’s voice is unique. I would much rather teach someone how to find that voice, and trust it – and then hear what they have to say.

10. Where and how do you write best, are there better times of the day, or helpful locations?

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops with a pen and notebook, and the intention to write, but I find other people too fascinating and distracting.  I can really only write at my desk, surrounded by photos, and cards from friends, inspiring quotes (see above!) and towering piles of books. The other place is Arvon. I’ve been lucky enough to go on an Arvon course, and it’s exhilarating and inspiring to sit at a desk overlooking a peaceful garden, mug of tea to hand – and nothing to do but write until the next meal!

I used to love working late into the night but reality kicked in with family life, and I tend to keep office hours. If I’ve got a deadline I still might creep back to my desk after dark. While the family sleeps I’ll drink endless cups of tea and stare in panic at the screen, and feel like a student again.

You can find Sarah at sarahhegarty.co.uk or @SarahHegarty1

 

 

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Author Interview with Anthony Black

Today I interview author, A. Joseph Black, from Carnlough, Ireland. His short stories and flash fictions have been published online in literary magazines and in print anthologies. His story, Just Thinking, is in Schooldays, a collection of poetry and flash fiction from Paper Swans Press, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Anthology. His long short stories By the Lake and Nora have been published as chapbooks in Australia. He has recently been Shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017.

  1. What drew you to writing short stories and do you have any key inspirations?

I should probably declare straight away that I’m not a person who feels they have to write, that they’ll die if they don’t, that they just don’t make sense when they’re not writing. I would use the analogy of snooker, rather improbably. You like watching snooker on the TV, so you ring a friend and begin to play for an hour every week at the local snooker hall. You enjoy it as an observer at first, then you decide that you might enjoy actually trying it yourself. And that’s the basis on which I started writing. Late in life relatively speaking, at 44, I just thought, “I should have a go at this myself”. There are writers I love, obviously, but I’m quite undiscerning in what I read, as I think many readers are. I just like good stories well told. I mostly buy books in second hand shops, where immediately there’s a “found” aspect to it – you haven’t gone there to buy a specific book – and as the reader I love the different dynamic that creates. The last four books I bought were by Katherine Mansfield, Michael McLaverty, Raymond Chandler and Nick Hornby, all second hand. Does that tell us anything? I’m not sure it does.

2. Do you plan your stories or do they evolve as you begin to write?

After my long short story first piece, I continued by starting to write microfictions and flashes, as low as 100 words. With a piece that short, you can’t have character development or a narrative arc. Most often the “idea” is a single point of light – a noise, a phrase, an image – and you just place that in a sympathetic, complementary environment, like setting a jewel. I could have some of those written, revised, edited and pretty much finished in my head before I ever put a word down on paper. Of course, that only worked with very short pieces.

By the time my stories had reached 4,000 words and beyond, like Nora and By The Lake, I found I was planning as a necessity. I find it much more time-inefficient to not plan, and I have to really fight for my writing time, so for me it’s “well begun is half done.” And now I’ve come to enjoy planning and plotting. And it doesn’t mean, in my case at least, that the story can’t still surprise you, change materially, veer off, as you’re drafting it. They absolutely still do that, and it’s a big part of the fun of writing for me. But I do now find it prudent to provide myself with an outline superstructure when I start.

3. Is there any advice you can share with new writers who might be thinking of sending their work to literary journals or competitions?

Just get the really obvious stuff right: familiarise yourself with the type of material they publish, respect the submission guidelines, and never submit anything until you’re absolutely certain you can’t improve it any further. Impending competition/submission deadlines can make for some poor decisions about the quality of your work, in my experience. Also remember that if you’re not generating copious amounts of material then you need to manage your subbing carefully, noting response turnaround times etc. You don’t want your work tied up for months in a competition or with a lit mag. Even just waiting until right on the deadline before submitting mitigates this. You can simultaneously submit of course but do you really want that plate-spinning exercise to manage along with everything else?

And be realistic, for your sanity’s sake: there’s no reason not to shoot for the stars, just as long as you’re not then plunged into despair when your second ever finished piece is rejected by The New Yorker or doesn’t win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

4. Your writing is very descriptive. Do you picture the scene as you write or draw from your own experiences?

I like to picture it, to feel it, smell it, listen – and I want the reader to do all that as well. Again, it’s a function of the type of books and stories I myself enjoy reading. I love good descriptive writing. And it’s kind of frowned on a little now, I feel. Looked down upon almost. Like it’s telling, not showing. And yet if you read Daphne du Maurier, who I think is fantastic, she describes things endlessly: natural landscapes, physical appearances, even the weather. But the story’s barrelling along and you’re right there as the reader, in among the sights and sounds, and it’s exhilarating. If I can even get close to providing that sort of immersive experience for my reader I’d be delighted.

Some contemporary fiction leaves me a little cold, if I’m entirely honest. Too often it feels like an exercise in demonstrating how clever or erudite the writer is, with little or no consideration for the reader’s experience. Much of is actually too intellectual and abstract for my taste. And the lack of defined endings! I suppose I’m steeped in a very orthodox Irish storytelling tradition, but when I read a 5000 word short story which just stops – doesn’t end, or conclude, it just runs off – I find that so infuriating. Like I’ve been robbed of the time I spent reading it, however well written it was. As a reader I  want a well-defined, narratively satisfying ending, and I suppose that orthodoxy is apparent in my own stories.

5. How much does the writing scene in Northern Ireland influence your work and are you connected with other writers or groups?

Haha, I would never be a part of any scene that would have me as a member! There is some tremendous writing happening in NI presently and a thriving litmag scene with The Tangerine recently launching, and The Incubator, who were first to publish one of my stories, and first to give me the opportunity to read my work in public, which I love doing. Staring your listener in the eye is a blast because most of the time we’re closeted away in our writing space.

So I do know a few of the writers and editors like Michael Nolan, Kelly Creighton, Ruth McKee from readings, and I interact a lot with other NI writers on Twitter. As well as reading them, of course (six months after their book has come out and I can find a copy in a second hand shop). But I don’t think I’m much of a “scene” person. I can’t do the rounds of book launches and what have you – I have a full time job and five children all pulling on my time before I even get to my writing time, much less “scene time!”

There is definitely something in the air with NI writing at the moment though. I don’t know if anyone has ever satisfactorily defined “a scene” but I’d guess that’s what it is.

7. You mentioned beginning to write later in life. How did it all begin and what have you learned along the way?

It really was most unremarkable. Having enjoyed reading all my life, I just wanted to see if I could actually write. About six years ago I searched online for a writing prompt and found one that said “write a story in which the two main characters do something illegal and something immoral, but the reader retains sympathy for them.” And I wrote my first story, “An Encounter” (the title being a nod to Joyce, which is of course mandatory for all Irish writers or they revoke your citizenship). I realise now that was probably the worst/hardest prompt I could have found, but I wrote the story, learnt a lot in the process and – crucially – I enjoyed it. So I decided to write another one.

I do think I approach writing differently now than I would have in my 20s. For example, I don’t really set myself goals – there are things I wanted to achieve and did, such as having a story in translation in a foreign litmag, getting into a print anthology, my own name on the front of a book. But I’m not on a mission. I don’t have that iconoclastic zeal of youth. I don’t feel I need to kick over the statues, unseat the establishment and reinvent the novel. I just want to produce writing that people enjoy, that takes them away from their everyday life for the brief time that they’re reading my story.

8. What are you planning at the moment?

I didn’t write a word for almost 18 months last year and this, then I fell off the wagon in the summer when I wrote a short flash purely for my own pleasure. Immediately upon finishing it I saw that the Bath Flash Fiction Award closed at midnight so I submitted it (I’d never sent them anything before, but then I hadn’t had serendipity on my side before either) and it was shortlisted and will appear in the print anthology later this year. I suppose that reminded me of how fun and interesting and rewarding writing can be.

So with my fast broken, I’ve since finished the first draft of the short story I was working on when I downed pens last year (yes, I actually gave up writing right in the middle of a story, although the specific story wasn’t the problem, it just all felt like it had become a bit of a drag). I’ve now planned out a much longer piece, straying into novel-length territory, set in 1950s New York City. It’s inspired by three Edward Hopper paintings. I always look at the people in Hopper’s paintings and wonder what their story is –  What are they thinking? Are they waiting on someone? Who? And then I thought, “Well, why not take some of them and give them that story?” So that’s what I’ve done: the main figures in Hopper’s paintings Nighthawks, NY Movie and Gas are now Eddie, Marion and Victor, my three central characters. It has kind of a “noir” vibe, and it involves a crime, but beyond that I’m not really sure how it will look or sound if it ever emerges. But that’s the fun of writing.

And for me, writing should be fun. Writers who complain about how hard it is to write are the worst! If it isn’t fun, then you probably need to do it differently, or stop doing it altogether. I mean, it’s not heavy lifting and you’re inside out of the weather almost all of the time.

You can visit him at www.ajosephblack.com or join him on Twitter at @a_joseph_black.


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5 Years of Blogging and a Short Story Publication

According to WordPress I have been blogging for five years. It’s timely to be able to celebrate with the publication of a short story in Ellipsiszine.

An Invisible Force by FC Malby

October 17, 2017 Fiction

The first twin arrived screaming and scrunched, as expected. The doctors, though, were not yet smiling. There was tugging and frozen expressions from the midwife and the surgeon before the second appeared; no sound, no movement. It was whisked away. They had both gone and there hadn’t been time for explanations. Tense murmurings drifted through the air from a side room in the theatre. The air was thick with questions and disinfectant. There had been nothing natural or relaxed about the event. It had been meticulously planned: a home birth with candles and low music, white noise almost. That was until the kicks slowed and she had started to feel feint….

You can read the rest of the story here.


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Speaking at Arlingtons

I was asked to speak last week at Arlingtons Bar in Ipswich for a Young Adult Carers book group, run by the Suffolk Family Carers about my short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo, which they had just read. They were an interesting and engaging bunch who clearly loved books. I was welcomed with some fabulous coffee and cake and we launched into conversation about short stories and favourite authors.

The building itself is beautiful. A Grade ll listed building with a fascinating past, it used to be a museum and later became a dance hall. During it’s first years, the museum had as it’s President Revd Professor John Stevens Henslow, who had been Charles Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge University. The British Association for the advancement of Science met at Ipswich and the building was admired by HRH Prince Albert, who became it’s official Patron.

The writer/researcher in me relishes these details!

We began with an ice breaker which had been organised by the staff who run the book group. The answers to their questions helped to steer the session. Most of them wanted to improve their own writing skills and to understand how a story is formed and written.

The young carers were intrigued by the different writing styles of authors: we discussed writing evolving versus meticulous planning. I am more if the former and I suggested that many crime writers fall into the latter category. They were interested to learn that Tolstoy plotted out each character in War and Peace in a chart.

This little side room was our setting for the evening. The walls were covered in old black and white photos of Paris, which we later used as inspiration for our own stories. I read them the opening story in the collection, Blood Red. I enjoy reading stories aloud and when I read my own to a group, I relive it each time. There is something magical about reading to an audience. The topic is quite gritty so I kept my eyes focused on the words rather than looking up. It was a fun evening and I think I learned a great deal from them about the power of words and the ability to escape into other worlds, especially when their own lives can be very challenging.


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Red Beret – Friday Flash Fiction Magazine

I’ve just had a short piece of flash fiction published in Friday Flash Fiction Magazine:

He had seen her the day before, drinking a late and typing on her laptop in a quiet corner of the cafe. She had worn a red beret and a black, high-necked top over blue jeans. Her legs had been crossed, her head turned away from the crowds. Today she looked sad, her typing, faster. He could see the words of an article, for a paper or a journal? Tomorrow she may be here again, maybe not. He walked over to her, sat down and read his paper next to her. Tomorrow she may not be here.

FC Malby

 

 

 

 

 


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Author Visit in School


I was invited into my children’s primary school this week to talk about my books, and writing novels and short stories, and to teach some creative writing in Year 5 and 6. I will load a few photos when I have them.


It was a great experience and the children were a captive audience. They asked some intelligent questions about whether you begin a story at the beginning or in the middle, and how you weave flashbacks into a story. We discussed some of their favourite authors, Jacqueline Wilson being one of the favourites! Many of them enjoyed historical fiction and some had already written their own stories outside school and wanted to talk about the writing process and ask for advice. As a qualified teacher, going back into the classroom felt very natural, but I would recommend that writers speak to as many different audiences as possible. It gives you an opportunity to exercise your public speaking skills for events, like public readings, and it engages people in discussion about books, and encourages young minds to think outside the box.


As an author, you do get asked to speak at book groups, in schools, and in a few months I will be teaching some young adults with mental health issues about writing. Why? Because people want to know about the process, they want to discuss books and share commonalities.


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Speaking at a Book Group

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This morning I spoke at a book group meeting. The members of the group had read my debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, and they invited me to come and speak. They wanted to discuss the writing process and the background to the book.

It was an interesting experience for me as an author and I learned a great deal about what readers want to know. Their questions mirrored many of the reader emails I receive. One of the most interesting questions was, what, if anything, I would have changed about the story. Many readers have said they felt devastated by the loss of one of the characters, which the book group agreed with and they had also felt the same way. This led to a discussion about what captures the heart of the reader and how we become involved in the lives of the characters. They also wanted to know if finishing a manuscript created a sense of loss for an author. My answer was a resounding, yes. It does, it really does. When you spend a few years inside the lives and minds of your characters, closing a door into their world is a bereavement of sorts, even if only fictional.

We covered many areas of publishing, editing, writing, research and whether people prefer ebooks over paperbacks. We discussed the length of the editing process and what happens at each stage of the publishing process at Random House. From an initial idea to the final product, it takes roughly a year to create a book.

They were keen to know the million dollar question (and it is one that is asked most often at literary festivals and in author interviews)….

“Where do your ideas come from?”

While it is difficult to give a tangible answer, because the answer varies from writer to writer, and from story to story, what I can say is that most writing develops from an idea. That idea is often sparked by your own experiences or feelings, or those of others. Every experience creates an image or a thought, every person reveals character traits that can be woven into a fictional character. And in the case of my short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo, I said that some of the stories are purely fictional, while others find their origins in real life experiences.

We discussed the fact that many ideas evolve from a snippet of information or a scene that appears in your imagination. We discussed the creative process and the difficulty of writer’s block. There were many questions and ideas but what really resonated with me was that fact that everyone gleans different experiences from the same story.