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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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Author Interview – Nick Black

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Nick Black’s stories have been accepted by literary magazines including Open Pen, the Lonely Crowd, Severine, Funhouse, Firefly, Spelk and Litro.  They’ve also won various flash contests and been listed for the 2015 and ’16 Bath Flash Fiction Awards, Land Rover/GQ/Salon House Short Story Competition and the Spread the Word Prize.

1. Your short fiction is intense and atmospheric, what do you think draws a reader into a moment in a story?

I think the right entry point is essential.  I read some advice once to try chopping out your story’s opening when revising, which has often been a wise move for me.   It might take a few lines or paragraphs for the writer to find their feet, feel where they’re going, but the good stuff (for the reader) might not start until that’s done. Start the story there. You don’t always need a lead in. Get in quick with a good hook.

I think a strong premise can be as important as beautiful language, much as I love the latter when used well.  I read a lot of chin-strokingly admiration-worthy zingy lines and images these days but don’t see as many big short stories that I’ll remember… the next day. I read an Arthur C Clarke story one time, when I was 13 or so, that I can still remember to this day.  I could paraphrase the plot now and it would still stand up. Roald Dahl, Somerset Maugham, Saki, Shirley Jackson, Kipling, du Maurier… they could write stories like that, too.  I’d love to be able to do that, come up with plots strong enough to work re-told, even with all the original effort and style and craft taken away.  Which has wandered a little away from your question, sorry.

2. What inspired you to write and do you have any key influences?

I had a hugely encouraging English teacher at secondary school who’d make me read my stories aloud to the class.  Every weekend we were set Creative Writing homework and I’d churn out three, four times as many pages as we were asked to do, my own takes on Stephen King, the ‘Dune’ books, Ray Bradbury, the Bond film ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video… A few years later, I studied English and American Literature at university, mostly the latter.  As far as short stories went, this meant ‘The Complete Stories’ Flannery O’Connor, ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ Sherwood Anderson, Ann Beattie’s first collection ‘Distortions’, Bukowski ‘The Most Beautiful Woman In Town’… Also Hemingway’s short stories and ‘The Stories Of Raymond Carver,’ those two were ruinous for my own writing for years.  I started stripping out everything I possibly could, but it really didn’t suit me, and I ended up barely writing at all.

Then I went the other way after discovering Isaac Bashevis Singer and Saul Bellow, and I started writing long multi-claused sentences with – to me interesting, to everyone else unreadable – syntaxes and rhythms.  My friends would tell me they’d enjoyed what I’d shown them…. but that it was slightly hard work.  I’ve tried wearying people less in recent years.

At the end of the day, I’ll always credit Stephen King and Ray Bradbury for torching my fuse in the first place.  They both talked about the thrill of getting early stories published in magazines, being paid for their crazy fever dreams, and that seemed so exciting, and possibly one-day do-able…

3. Do you have any advice for new writers who are wanting to submit to literary magazines and writing competitions?

Definitely do it. Success, if and when it comes, is the best fuel! For a long time, I was writing a story a year, if that, for friends and family until I was flicking through GQ magazine in a supermarket one day and saw they had a short story competition. I wrote something, sent it in, ended up shortlisted and printed in a little pamphlet they produced.  The following year, I saw another competition advertised I’m not even sure where, wrote a story, etcetera etcetera, and ended up at a launch party for the Spread the Word Prize, now the London Short Story Prize, as one of the shortlistees.  I spoke to a few people who asked about my writing habits before telling me theirs, and I was really embarrassed to confess to my one-story-a-year sloth, so started writing more, and submitting more.  You wouldn’t even be sending me these questions if those two competitions hadn’t woken up my teenage dream.

Advice? Not that I’m in a position to give any, but from my experience…  Accept that you’re going to get a lot of rejections and no-shows. A lot. Don’t take it too much to heart, these judgements are entirely subjective, and that same piece may well succeed elsewhere.  Or at the place you try after that. Or the one after.

Find out what the people you’re subbing to seem to enjoy.  Competitions can be an expensive hobby so, unless you’ve got unlimited funds, target them well. I’m still trying magazines and competitions that are well above my punching weight, so this is a lesson I’m still learning.

Try and identify what your strengths are and work on them, make them work for you. I have a friend called Kate Jones, for example, who writes incredibly fast but her stories always come out well shaped, well proportioned, everything in the right place. CG Menon’s a writer who somehow manages to pick words that almost audibly pop off the page.  I wish I knew how she did that!  I’d rip it off faster than a plaster! Sara Lippmann’s an American author who sneaks readers into her characters’ privatest desires and feelings to an almost uncomfortable degree – I’ll read anything by her. So, see what you can bring to the table that other people aren’t already, and write what you want to read, that other writers are failing to supply.

Finally, be prepared to fall off the horse. Get back on the horse.

4. How did you find it speaking at the London Short Story Festival and how valuable do you feel it is to do readings and speak as an author?

It was in the beautiful art deco foyer of Waterstone’s Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, though, so people were wandering past, looking over. One gentleman stopped and stayed for the whole thing, and spoke to me afterwards…  I really enjoyed the experience, even if ‘I was invited to read at the first London Short Story Festival’ sounds more impressive without the full facts. I did my second reading, for Open Pen, just over a week ago, to a bar full of people half my age, … which ages me…. and it was interesting to see which parts of a story I thought I knew ‘worked’, and which lines maybe weren’t as funny as I’d thought they were. I though that might have been down to my delivery.  I might slap my thighs more next time.

5. You spoke at the festival about your favourite American authors. Can you tell us more about them and what you think is different stylistically?

I was interviewed by a two-person roving camera crew, and on the spot named a lot of American authors… I think there are cultural differences, – or certainly have been, until recent years – where America has a tradition of Creative Writing courses we simply didn’t have in the UK, affecting the sorts of stories being produced.  I went to the University of East Anglia, late ‘80s, which I wanted to go to because they had this country’s first Creative Writing MA programme.  Now I was the first member of my family to study anything beyond secondary school, so I didn’t have a clue what the difference between a BA and an MA was, suffice to say the closest I got to the Creative Writing programme’s Malcolm Bradbury was holding a door in a corridor open for him once.

I did take an undergraduate Creative Writing module for one whole term, and the interesting thing was that 99% of the class’s students were American.  I don’t know if nobody else fancied it, or didn’t take it seriously. Anyway, whether it’s because more American writers have done such courses, analysing writing, having theirs tested and supported and hot-housed in that kind of environment, or if it’s a difference in national psyche, personality, but American short stories often feel far more ambitious, confident, visceral, uninhibited, rude,energised, sexualised, hyper-clever, super-steroided…  Which can be daunting if you want to submit to US magazines or competitions.

6. Is there a short story that you return to and why?

For ruthless efficiency and memorability, ‘The October Game’ by Ray Bradbury.  For its elegance and tenderness and incredible dialogue, Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day For Bananafish’.  Somewhere between the pulpy cheap nasty thrills of the former and the wit, sophistication and emotional depths of the latter you’ll find the story I’m always aspiring to write.

7. Give us an interesting fact about yourself.

Sometimes I’ll think of an old song and it’ll come on the radio within hours or even minutes of my thinking of it. I can’t control it or make any money from it, or impress anyone but myself with this wild, mysterious gift, but I hope I never lose it.