A Flash Of Inspiration: ‘El Raval’ by James Brodows
Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘El Raval’ by James Brodows a sharp, tight unravelling of the narrator’s evening.
A flash fiction piece can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character, an unexpected or unnerving ending. Sometimes though, the pace and control of the author takes you by the hand – a shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.
In the case of ‘El Raval’ I fell for the tight, giddiness of the events described, the anger and sexual uncertainty, the narrator’s feverish isolation in an unknown and open-ended situation. The ending is clever and fitful, sending the reader back to the beginning, over and over. James gave us these answers from somewhere in the stark Russian winter.
Interview With James Brodows
Cat: Who was the reader you had in mind for this story?
James: The reader of this story.
Cat: What were you doing when your best ever idea came to you?
James: I don’t know.
Cat: Are your ideas generated/borrowed/stolen?
Cat: What do you do with an unconvincing piece of work? Rework/recycle/reject?
Cat: Who do you admire in spades?
James: Johnny Miller, on/off course.
Cat: Urban or rural? Domestic or exotic? Language or plot? First, second or third person?
James: Everywhere everybody everything.
Cat: What’s the best or worst rejection you’ve ever received?
James: The New Yorker.
Cat: What are your cardinal rules for writing flash fiction? How often do you bend them yourself?
Flash of Inspiration: The Player by Louis Gallo
Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘The Player’ by Louis Gallo a dark and complex story with many psychological layers.
A short story can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character.
Sometimes though, it is the subject matter itself which gives you a jolt – a little shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.
In the case of ‘The Player’ I fell for the intense wiring of the language, lined up against stunningly naked portraits.
When I first read this piece I immediately felt alert, tense, curious, invited to reread, to guess, to be bounced about like a pinball on a fast glittery ride.
The story is hard-hitting, painful, we are all caught up in this game. It’s a story I don’t think I could tire of rereading. Each time the raw ending opens a nerve. The questions are intentionally playful – it’s hard to approach a writer in a way that might show readers the grit behind a great flash piece, how does one nail it? I was curious about ‘The Player’ so I felt I had to ask.
Interview With Louis Gallo
Cat Who was the reader you had in mind for this story?
Louis I had a general audience in mind, no particular gender, race, creed or whatever.
Cat What were you doing when your best ever idea came to you?
Louis Generally, my ideas come to me in a flash when I least expect them to, often when I am having what I think of as writer’s block. Sometimes a single word or memory image triggers the story or poem. I was remembering playing the old wooden pinball machines and smashing that idea into a tale of woe told to me by a woman.
Cat Are your ideas generated/borrowed/stolen?
Louis Not sure what this means, my ideas are self-generated. T.S. Eliot said great poets steal, they don’t borrow. I am definitely influenced by the work of others, but I hope against hope I haven’t stolen or borrowed.
Cat What do you do with an unconvincing piece of work? Rework/recycle/reject?
Louis I usually try to re-work. If the piece is hopeless, I trash it. I have a giant boxful of trashed pieces . . . so, in the end, I suppose they are not trashed after all. Just waiting.
Cat Who do you admire in spades?
Louis I have no idea what this question means. Is this a rock group, a band, a deck of cards?
Cat Urban or rural? Domestic or exotic? Language or plot? First, second or third person?
Louis I am urban, born and raised in New Orleans. But setting of “The Player” is meant as a smaller, say, college town. I go for language first, plot last. Usually I work in first person but often third as well, sometimes second. I believe all work is autobiographical. Therefore, first person comes naturally.
Cat What’s the best or worst rejection you’ve ever received?
Louis Well, I have had many exceptional rejections. The worst was an editor who snapped, “Poetry is serious business.” That was long ago, but it still burns. I have also received glowing praises for varied works that were rejected for one reason or another.
Cat What are your cardinal rules for writing flash fiction? How often do you bend them yourself?
Louis To finish it at ONE sitting. This is crucial for tone, character, for everything. Then go back and copy-edit after a week or two. Not sure what you mean by “blend.”
A Flash Of Inspiration: ‘Oral Sex’ by Ian Shine
Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘Oral Sex’ by Ian Shine a dark and complex story with many psychological layers.
A short story can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character.
Sometimes though, it is the subject matter itself which gives you a jolt – a little shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.
In the case of ‘Oral Sex’ the very title has the reader paying attention.
When I first read this piece I will admit I wasn’t sure what to think of it. The sexual tension, the unsatisfied desire, the strange fetishes that keep the couple together, I didn’t quite know what to make of them.
And yet … I kept on returning to it. Why?
I think, primarily the answer is, the voice.The straight talking narrative is punchy and masculine and it definitely helps (this) female reader enter the mind-set of the main character.The directness of the tone made me believe I was privy to some confessional or an intimate heart- to-heart down the pub and it was this which drew me in.
There is a nice contrast between the straightforward tone of the narrator and the quirkiness of the couple’s sexual problems – and their solutions to these problems.
As a reader, I expected these problems to provoke their downfall in the end – the unconsummated relationship bringing about their separation. So when the narrative takes a different turn, and it is precisely these problems which seem to bind the two to one another, I was surprised.
But I was also a curious as to the dynamic in the relationship and, in particular, the way in which the violent incident in the bus seems to both stimulate and traumatise the woman.
There is a grey area with regard to her reaction. First she moans and then she screams. The violence is both attracting and repelling – a turn of events that is quite subversive in many ways. The fact that we are not confronted with a black and white portrayal of what is good or bad acceptable or unacceptable, forces us to think about how this makes us feel.
Are we okay with this or does it make us uncomfortable?
But there is a glimmer of something there in the end – the couple holding hands (albeit with gloves on) offering the promise of physical contact at some distant point in time.
A short and thought provoking little story.
Interview With Ian Shine
Jen: I was drawn to the voice in this piece and enjoyed the contrast of this simple telling of things with the complex ideas which are being dealt with. Is this a common theme in your writing?
Ian: I suppose so. The themes are certainly common to my writing: love, sex, and how they both have the capacity to be the most fantastic things and the most terrible; to make life worth living and make you feel like dying. I’m trying to gather enough stories on the themes contained in “Oral Sex” to get a whole book together. I’m slowly getting there.
One of the first stories I had published was about a guy who contracts gonorrhoea from the woman he loses his virginity to, but doesn’t want to cure himself because she dies on her way home that same evening and the disease is all he has left of her. That wasn’t written in such a simple way, as it riffed on the style of an online medical dictionary, but I suppose the majority of my stories go for a more “minimal” voice.
I take a lot of inspiration from the film director Robert Bresson, who said: “One doesn’t create by adding, but by taking away.” His films give you so little, in terms of emotion, yet that somehow makes them more resonant. I think a lot of books lay things on a bit too thick. I’m reading “The God of Small Things” at the moment, and it just feels like it’s trying so hard to impress me with how much history, sensation and imagery it can pack into every page. There’s no room left for me in the book. With Bresson, and film in general, I’m jealous of the ability it has, like a painting, to not guide the viewer, but to just lump something down in front of them and let them bathe in it, make of it whatever they want. I find a lot of writing is like an annoying tour guide, trying to point everything out, whereas film can be just pure destination.
Jen: Where did these characters come from? They’re quite unique.
Ian: I remember writing this story pretty quickly on my lunch hour one day. Someone at work had been discussing a “disappointing” one-night stand, and I starting thinking about how when people talk about sex, there’s never much of a grey area; that it’s purely about whether there’s an orgasm or not. But you know, it’s possible to have good sex without that, and without actually having sex, if, at the risk of sounding corny, there’s that profound connection between the people involved; the kind of connection I think my characters have, and I think this is what they come to realise.
The ending comes from something I experienced while living in Russia with my wife. After spending the five months or so of winter wrapped up in coats and gloves, I remember when spring arrived and we were walking somewhere and held hands, and we were both sort of shocked by being able to feel each other’s skin, rather than their gloves. It’s strange how holding hands is such an intimate act in a way, but is only really done in public places. The same with hugging; it’s not seen as being intimate in the same way as sex, but when it’s with someone who means something to you, who perhaps you haven’t seen for a long time, it can carry a lot of weight.
Jen: Sex and violence are not topics I see broached all that often in the short stories I receive? Why do you think that is and why did you decide to write about them?
Ian: I’d call it love, sex and violence, rather than just sex and violence. I can’t say I initially “decided” to write about these things; when I started writing, I just got down the stuff that came into my head, and after a while I realised the same themes kept ending up on the page, so I then made a more conscious decision to stick with them and work towards a collection.
It doesn’t exactly stem from personal experience, as I’ve been happily married for nearly 10 years, but I guess I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been in, what appear to me at least, to be odd relationships: really unhappy, harmful, traumatic or whatever, full of tension and really unnatural, but these people keep ending up being drawn to each other, because even though they make one another unhappy, they’re also able to make each other happier than anyone else. Having an imperfect and flawed kind of love is better than having no love at all; love is nothing more than finding the one idiot who’s prepared to put up with your imperfections.
About 18 months ago I totally wrecked my back lifting something far too heavy. Immediately after I did it, I was in the most intense pain I can ever remember experiencing, but at the same time I couldn’t stop laughing. While I was lying on my back recovering over the next week or so, I did a bit of Googling and found out that the pain and pleasure sensors, or the brain circuits that react to pain and pleasure, are basically the same, or really close together or something. I’m not razor sharp on the details, but the essence behind it is basically life, and love, in a nutshell. You let someone into your life, they light up your pleasure sensors, but by the same virtue, they’re the only ones with the power to trigger your pain sensors. I think it’s true for everyone that the biggest arguments we’ve ever had have been with the people we love the most. If you’re indifferent to someone, it’s pretty difficult for them to do anything to hurt you. It’s like how most murderers kill family members or close friends. People don’t really get that worked up about anyone else.
As for why these areas aren’t often broached in short stories, I don’t know. It could be because it’s easy to make a bad job of it: you can either make it overdramatic, or into a laughable string of suggestive adjectives and verbs. But then that’s true of everything people write about. Maybe things like the Bad Sex Award and Fifty Shades have given the whole area a stigma, and people want to steer clear. Maybe it’s too close to home, too embarrassing, or not seen as literary enough.
Jen: I have read this story many times trying to figure out the relationship dynamic between the couple – who is frustrating who? Who is in control? Sometimes I think the woman has the upper-hand and other times the man. What do you think is going on between them?
Ian: I don’t think anyone has the upper hand or is frustrating the other. I think they just like each other enough to be prepared to put up with some bad times.
Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we think about ‘Oral Sex’. What is it you like about this story?
Ian: I like the bad title, and hope the story totally overturns the expectations the reader has a result of that title. It sounds so crude when you just dump it there: “Oral sex”. It’s quite cold, because we normally say “blow job” or use some other slang to refer to it; “Oral sex” sounds very textbook, as if we’re going to undertake a technical analysis of it, and I sort of see the story of a mini technical analysis of this relationship.
I also think oral sex can be a lot more intimate than penetrative sex, and I hope the story reflects that a bit. The characters don’t do “normal” sex; they do something better.
Other than that, I just like it when people find something worth holding on to in life, despite all the imperfections around them. Good things are hard to lay your hands on. Keats was the first literary figure I really latched on to. I think he basically nailed it with “Ode on Melancholy”: “And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,/Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”
One day, I’m sure my protagonists will hug, and it will be great; better than any sex. But they’ll have a lot of grief along the way, and afterwards.
A Flash of Inspiration: Could Have, Would Have, Should Have by Ken Elkes
One of the most difficult challenges a writer can face when writing a short story is achieving the right balance between knowing what to reveal to the reader and understanding when it is best to leave things to their imaginations.
‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ is a story which deftly accomplishes this delicate balancing act.
From the beginning we understand we are dealing with a character full of regret. The title alone indicates as much.
And indeed, on one level, the story appears to be a straightforward list of events, narrated in an almost matter-of-fact tone of voice.
Here is a man who can evaluate his life within a series of could haves, would haves and should haves.
Dig deeper however and the story reveals many layers of self-doubt and melancholy.
The what-ifs, creating space for the reader to ponder some alternate scenarios.
‘You could have cried at the birth.’
‘You could have gone to Aqualand’
‘You would have said to your wife that children are maps’
‘You should have remembered how Friday is bad for lovers’
Each one of these statements elicits a sort of call and response. The writer poses a question, and we, the readers are left to fill in the reply.
You could have cried. So why didn’t you?
You could have gone to Aqualand. But Aqualand seems more a dreamed of destination, a fantasy place. You could have gone. Could you? Really? What was it that stopped you?
You would have said children are maps, but the conversation never came to pass, because …?
Because perhaps all these could haves and would haves relate to some longed-for existence which never came to pass?
Providing such space within a story places demands upon the reader. We have to take those doubts and regrets and contemplate them ourselves. Imagine the many reasons why a man could come to think such things.
In this way we are drawn deeper into the story because we have to bring something of our own narrative to the tale.
It’s not an easy demand to place upon the reader, but when it works, it can bring a story to life in ways a more directed type of storytelling cannot.
But there is a twist in this little tale. The final lines bring a revelation that is less ambiguous.
‘You should have remembered Friday is bad for lovers.’
Now we are faced with the consequence of those missed opportunities – those could haves and would haves that never came to pass.
There is never any explicit mention of the narrator’s relationship problems, no flashbacks or memories, no dialogue to confirm or explain things to us.
Just this simple understanding that, for whatever reason, events have brought us to this moment.
He makes no judgement of himself, gives only one side of the story for us to contemplate, then steps aside and allows us to make of him what we will.
And what is it we are to think of him? Should we be sympathetic? Angry? Judgmental?
Or should we sit with him in the car and watch as the storm draws near from the East? Bringing with it something we can only imagine.
A masterful and complex story which reveals more and more with every reading.
Interview with Ken Elkes
Jen: The character in ‘Could Have, Would Have Should Have’ is quite difficult to fathom. He seems to sit somewhere between regret and acceptance? Would you say this is a correct reading of him? What do you think of him?
Ken: Good characters are much like real people – flawed, sometimes contradictory, complex. Even within the limitations of flash fiction, I think a writer should aim to evoke such depth in a story.
As for this character, there is quite a lot we can tease out from the text – he is likely to be early middle age, probably well-educated from the language he uses, married, now having an affair – hence the ‘spare phone’.
And then, from what he says and how he says it, the reader might conclude he is sensitive, has a vivid imagination, feels thwarted because he cannot be a father, is conflicted about the choices he has subsequently made and knows that the difference between his dreams and reality has cast a long shadow over his life.
I think this makes him someone existing in a liminal place – caught somewhere between where his life might have gone and where it actually is. Maybe that’s why he feels difficult to pin down.
Jen: I really enjoy stories such as this, where there is a lot of room for the reader to imagine what has happened to bring a character to this specific point in their life. Did you set out with this in mind when you wrote it?
Ken: My admiration of writers like Hemingway and Carver (among many others), and my own preferences about not being fed every detail, means I’m happy to trust readers to use their own imagination and critical skills.
But it is also a product of how I write flash fiction, which tends to be in one sitting, creating the story from a set of prompts. The process – which I learned while I was part of the online writing school Alex Keegan’s Bootcamp – involves playing with the prompts until you find a voice, a tone for the piece, a sense of character and theme.
Then, at the moment when it feels like it’s coming to the boil, I begin to write, fast, without thinking. Then comes the editing – taking away the fluff without excising the heart. I think the whole process from blank page to finished story took a couple of hours.
So yes, readers perhaps need to do some work, but hopefully that is a good thing, rather than a negative.
Jen: The language is quite spare in this story, but the use of a conditional tense and the idea that there is this ‘unreal past’ lurking within the story makes it very complex. How deliberate was this use of language?
Ken: This is tricky to answer, because the way a flash turns out is partly deliberate, but mostly sub-conscious.
So, on a conscious level I knew that ‘could have, would have, should have’ were collectively called the Modals of Lost Opportunity (kudos to whoever came up with that!) which suggested the melancholy tone of the piece.
I also, consciously, realised I could use them to structure the story. From ‘could have’ (which to me is all about possibility), through to ‘should have’, which has more negative connotations.
As for the rest – the tone of the language, the way the first two thirds of the story is about a past that never actually happened (yet from this the reader can deduce something of what did really happen) and then a final third which deals with the fall-out of that fantasy/reality, well, that all came out of some dark corner of my brain.
As for sparseness of language, that is part of my general writing style (though hopefully I can ‘do lyrical’ in the right circumstances).
Jen:I was surprised by the emotional kick within this story. It was only on the second reading that I found myself imagining this man and grappling with the could haves, would haves and should haves that he ponders. The layers within the story only surface after a few readings, nothing is immediately obvious and as a reader you really have to work to get to the heart of things. Is this your usual style of writing?
Ken: Yes, if I am doing it correctly. I think a decent short story or flash fiction will pull a reader quickly into the world of the story, makes them forget they are reading and give them a sense of something that resonates, even if they can’t quite fathom exactly what it is.
But then if they want to read more critically, they can find depth, subtlety and layering.
It’s a bit like listening to a great song for the first time. Something about it makes your ears prick up, so you decide to listen again, put your headphones on, concentrate more. Then you hear that great bassline, a guitar riff that hooks you, a splash of keyboards or brass in the background that just lift the whole thing…
I guess I’m not a fan of stories which direct the reader and where too much is explained. For me, that style of writing produces wooden characters, an over-constructed feel to the story and themes that tend to be generalized and have less impact.
Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we like about ‘Could Have, Would Have, Should Have’ what do you like about it?
Ken: I think when you write a story, you are so in among the lungs and bowels and heart of, that you know you will never see it the same way as a reader.
So what I like about it is the satisfaction of having created a story that seems to work, is decently crafted and has enough emotional depth and resonance to cause a reaction in readers.
A Flash of Inspiration: 30% Off by Clodagh O’Brien
Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘30% Off’ by Clodagh O’Brien, a beautifully perceptive examination of one woman’s emotional breakdown.
Asking a reader to invest emotionally in a character is a big ask. Get it right and you create an understanding which is rewarding and revealing. Get it wrong and you risk creating a story that feels hollow, and is driven by characters who are difficult to understand or care about.
It’s a crucial connection, the difference between a story which lives and breathes within the reader long after they have read it, and one which is instantly forgotten.
I have read ‘30% Off’ many times now and, each time, my reaction is the same. I want to step into the page and hold the central character in my arms for a while. Tell her everything will be okay.
I need to know it will be okay.
Why should I care about an imagined girl in a corner shop?
The power of quiet
30% Off is a quiet story. But it is also a story which contains a lot of drama and emotional turmoil.
We know from the start that something awful is going to happen. The writer is honest with us from the very first sentence.
‘This morning Donna’s life fell down.’
It could feel like a punch in the gut, an opening like that, and while it is certainly powerful, what follows is almost mundane.
Donna in the corner shop, laden down with a few bits and pieces. No revelatory thoughts in her head, save the banal dilemma of whether or not to get a basket.
And the shop itself is a safe place, a familiar place. She knows the owners by name. And we know it too. The shop where you buy just a few things. Where the eggs are almost out of date and going at a discount.
We’ve all been in a shop like this one.
So when the phone rings it doesn’t feel like a prelude to anything. It’s not a warning, that telephone going off, just another everyday moment in another everyday place.
Only it isn’t.
And it’s not so much the things which are said that during the call which trigger the crisis. In some respects the words go unheeded.
Rather, it is Donna’s response we feel.
‘They said you and we as if talking about a different species, a different type of human.’
At this point we still don’t know what the caller is referring to, why the news is so devastating. But we start to feel it. The way it seems to have hollowed-out Donna, given her a sense of herself as the caller sees her, as others see her – ‘a different type of human’.
I read that line and felt winded by it.
Here is a girl who feels she is not quite a part of the world, not quite one with it.
And when she stands in the shop and sees the ‘bright light and rows of bottles in the fridge’ I also feel slightly dizzy, slightly disoriented.
And when the caller asks “Are you there?”
Donna’s internal reply -“In what way? In what way?” – is one of the quietest depictions of a breakdown I have ever read.
A less accomplished writer may have set off emotional fireworks at this point, allowed Donna to sink into a rage of grief or frustration, to let rip a melodramatic outburst of screaming or wailing.
But Clodagh O’Brien is very careful.
First she allows the world to settle once again.
The phone is put back into Donna’s pocket and the air is still. She gives the reader a moment to pause and catch their breath before the impact is revealed.
Surreal, almost horrific.
‘Hair strayed into her face, damp and faint with coconut. She let it cling, felt the black roots on top of her head slide down like mud. In the glass of the fridge she caught her reflection; saw her skin fall away in fat bloody chunks.’
And Donna falls down. Donna’s life falls down. And we fall down with her.
The eggs a poignant symbol of all she has lost. The wasted, un-nurtured life which she is tender with at first.
She rocks the first egg in her palm, feels its warmth, understands what it is and then, what it represents.
So that when she hurls it at her own reflection we understand why she does it even before. we are told, almost as an aside, of this skeleton Donna, this troubled woman, whosemany worries and fears are known to the shop keepers. And now, also, to us.
You can almost feel that fourth egg in your hand as you squeeze it tight and feel the yolk explode between your fingers.
And you understand too, that if you were Donna, you would do the same.
Interview with Clodagh O’Brien
Jen: I was very moved by Donna as a character – I could empathise with her completely. How clear was she to you as a character when you came to write about her?
Clodagh: When I began ‘30% Off’ Donna was a shadow, a ghost I felt inside that gained shape as the story unfolded. I tend to write stories with a first line in mind. Sometimes they come to me like a bullet from a gun, other times I have an idea and I let it sit, roll around my brain until the words form. By the middle of the story I knew Donna, pictured her in the shop, saw her reflection in the fridge. My job was then to bring her story to a conclusion, show how her life fell down and why.
Jen: Why did you choose a corner shop as the location for the story?
Clodagh: I used to live in London and corner shops were everywhere you went. They always seemed to be family run with the entire family working there, from daughters and sons to cousins and grandparents. I wanted to set Donna, who was losing her own family, against a close knit family situation and a corner shop seemed the perfect place. I also wanted to instil a feeling of claustrophobia. Donna being hemmed in by the intimate environment of a corner shop where she was known, an intense situation compared to the anonymity of a supermarket.
Jen: The symbolism of the eggs – the way they represent life and also fragility – was a beautiful touch I thought. How did this arise? Did you know from the outset you would have this incident with the eggs?
Clodagh: Thanks so much, I’m thrilled that the symbolism worked. At the time of writing ‘30% Off’ I was pregnant and had the prospect of a new life on my mind. I wanted to write about a woman losing her daughter and the fragility of an egg seemed the best way to represent a child lost, a should-be-bird not allowed to develop into a chick. I also wanted to use the yellow of the yolk, a colour usually associated with happiness, to represent the extinguishing of Donna’s hope as she shattered each shell, like a light going out. I must confess the introduction of the egg was a lightning bolt moment, rather than a carefully constructed idea from the outset.
Jen: Is this the type of story you usually write – character driven pieces? Where do you draw inspiration from, for such intriguing characters?
Clodagh: I am very character driven. I love writing interesting people as much as I love exploring the reasons for the way people are, the journey their life has taken. The choices people make fascinate me and I try to make my stories realistic, situations that a reader could imagine happening and relate to. Ultimately I am intrigued by human behaviour.
My inspiration for characters comes from listening and watching people. I have always been an observer and eavesdrop on conversations on public transport, in queues and in cafés. I often read Wikipedia to get a snapshot of people’s lives. Be that a movie star from the 20’s or a politician in an obscure country I know very little about. It’s amazing what you find weaved into people’s life paths, and I often come across revelations that are so bizarre if they were written as fiction would not be believed! I also read a lot of newspapers and magazines along with watching documentaries, which often spawns intriguing characters.
Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we love about ‘30% Off’. What do you like about it?
Clodagh: I enjoyed writing ‘30% Off’ as it was one of those rare stories that on first draft was near finished. I tweaked it over the months that followed, but what you read is pretty much what I wrote in the first sitting. It’s a wonderful thing when that happens.
In terms of the story, I tend to leave conclusions to the reader and like that you are never told how Donna got to this point in her life or indeed very much about her. Instead, you feel her. I hope that ‘30% Off’ invites a reader into a life-changing moment and as they read it they fall, just as Donna does.
What do you think about ‘30% Off’? Why not take a read and let us know.
A Flash of Inspiration: Invasive Species by Marie Gethins
Our Flash of Inspiration this month is “Invasive Species” by Marie Gethins a thrilling tale set in Antarctica that set us thinking about the environment and the delicate balance in nature.
One of the magical things about short stories is their ability to quickly transport the reader to a new place or deep into the mind of a character.
Invasive Species is such a story. It takes us straight to Antarctica – a place that can often seem more imagined than real, a pristine icy wilderness at the outer edge of the world that most of us will never get to experience.
But the wilderness presented to us here is not the one of our imaginations. Something has arrived to disturb the fragile balance of nature.
“It appeared in the clear Antarctic water.”
There is something slightly menacing about this opening line. “It” appeared. Immediately we want to know more about what “it” is even though we can intuit it may not be good.
It turns out to be a moss-like creature which, at first, seems little more than a curiosity, a novelty. Like the research scientists Pedro and Cassandra, we simply want to know more about this white, purring creature, this thing they name “Mossie.” Surely it’s not something to be scared of?
Yet the unease is there, subtly hinted at in the language of the story. The moss appears and sparkles in the fluorescent light of the lab. It purrs, it throbs and hums.
Then, slowly, it drifts, it clings, it fills.
It takes root.
The language shifting through the story slowly, imperceptibly, much like the invasive moss. We aren’t aware of the danger until it is too late.
It’s this careful control of suspense and the slow build-up of the tension which makes “Invasive Species” such a gripping little tale.
But it also leaves us with some intriguing questions about nature and man’s impact upon the environment.
Complex questions which stay in the background but prick our conscience. This is not a preachy story however, it doesn’t attempt to bash the reader over the head with a message. And it’s all the more powerful for it.
I found myself wondering how I would react to the presence of such an invasive species in one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses.
Would I attempt to understand the strange creature the way Cassandra does? To try to communicate with it? To understand it intuitively?
Or would I see it as something to fear? Something to approach “methodically” in a laboratory. Something to control and, ultimately, flee from, the way Pedro does?
In many ways, our reaction depends upon our fundamental idea of what nature is and what it means to us. Something to control and use? Or something to understand and live in harmony with?
Invasive Species does not attempt to answer these questions for us. But it sets us thinking while entertaining us along the way.
Marie Gethins on writing “Invasive Species”
We caught up with Marie Gethins and spoke to her about the inspiration behind “Invasive Species.”
Jen: This story was inspired by a news report on the BBC. Can you tell us a little about the report and how you came to transform a news item on climate change into a short story. Do you usually find inspiration from sources like this?
Marie:The BBC news website had a piece on Fenestrulina rugula invading Antarctica driven by global warming. With thawing icebergs, conditions have been ideal for rampant growth of this white moss, at the expense of other plant life. The lead researcher called it a “weedy little thing,” which struck me as an almost endearing description. It made me think of an episode from the original Star Trek TV series, The Trouble with Tribbles, where these seemingly harmless purring puff balls bred at an alarming rate, causing havoc. So the idea coalesced from there.
I grew up in a very science orientated house and my “day job” is medical writing, so I’m always poking around the science pages or journals. It’s fun to push reality a little left of centre. Of course, fiction often becomes reality over time in science and technology. So while the reader is asked to suspend belief, the fundamental elements are grounded in truth. My idea was to present a “just maybe”.
Jen: One of the things that struck me about this story is the different reactions the two characters have regarding their discovery. After the initial excitement, Pedro becomes noticeably more wary, but Cassandra seems drawn to the moss creature. She names it and listens to it “purring” Did you deliberately set out to have them react differently to one another? I found it chimed well with my own reaction as a reader, having these two viewpoints because I wasn’t sure what to make of “Mossie” should I be intrigued or worried.
Marie: Yes, I see them as very different people. Although both of them are scientists, Cassandra is drawn to Mossie in an emotional way, while Pedro is much more clinical. The excitement of discovery versus caution when faced with the unknown. In this desolate landscape with days growing shorter, Cassandra tries to make sense of this environment in an intuitive way. Pedro focuses on facts and statistical trends, keeping an objective distance. As the story progresses and the creatures continue to respond to her, Pedro rejects her attempt at physical contact. Cassandra’s bond with the creatures increases.
Jen: This story is very dependent on the setting – the invasive moss seems slightly more menacing because it is taking over this seemingly pristine environment. The presence of the tourists also added to the sense that the place is being spoiled somehow – by man, and now, by nature. Was this a message you wanted to put across in the story, that fragility of the earth?
Marie: It’s all about where lines are drawn, isn’t it? Pedro sees the moss invasion as negative; it disrupts his sense of normal. Yet the moss is ancient, existing long before humans. So is the moss’ reappearance what should be normal for this environment? Yet, the thawing icebergs release of the moss is due to human intervention. Obviously I don’t have an answer, but I think it’s a conundrum worth pondering.
On a more basic level, the tourists disrupt the Antarctic environment by treating it like a fun park. They didn’t travel to the area to be respectful observers of natural beauty.
Jen: There’s an undercurrent of menace in the story – not only for the Antarctic, but for the character’s themselves. I got the sense that the moss could be the start of something potentially devastating but that Cassandra, by showing a sympathetic understanding, as opposed to Pedro’s scientific reaction (taking “Mossie” to a lab in Buenos Aires) may be the person who “saves” us. Do you read it this way?
Marie: Indeed, there’s a threat to the existing environment as the moss dominates other plants, but also a potential threat to humans with their seemingly uncontrolled growth. Perhaps the most significant threat is lack of knowledge. How intelligent are the creatures (individually, as a group)? Do they have a motivation beyond instinct? I’ve deliberately left that open-ended. Both characters are seeking this knowledge, but in two distinct ways. As for salvation, I imagine Cassandra and Pedro have very different definitions – as individuals and for the human race.
Jen: You named the woman Cassandra – the figure from Greek mythology who can see the future. Does your Cassandra understand the future? At the end of the story she seems to give herself over to the invasion – she hums along in harmony with the moss creatures. But it’s not sure if she is going to be okay. She knows something, but what?
Marie: Ah, you’ve got me! I’ve always thought that the mythological Cassandra had a pretty raw deal. While Apollo gave her the gift of foresight, he ensured that no one believed her. My other character’s name, Pedro, comes from petra, Latin for stone. In this story I see Cassandra as the visionary and Pedro as the more practical, grounded person. While the moss creatures multiply exponentially, she continues to try to understand them, on some level communicate with them. Pedro opts for self-preservation and strategizing from afar. When the creatures surround the building, Cassandra sees a likely outcome, but is resigned to her fate having developed a stronger bond with the creatures than with Pedro. What exactly is her fate? I leave that to the reader’s imagination.
Jen: Finally, you’ve heard what we like about “Invasive Species” what do you like about it?
Marie: I’ve never been to Antarctica, but desolate landscapes appeal to me. Perhaps because they are never as bleak as your initial impression. The rocky terrain of the Burren here in Ireland or in Iceland and at the other extreme, the Sahara and the Mojave deserts are places where I discovered much more life is happening than I expected. And at the hemisphere extremes auroras add that surreal quality.
I like pondering our relationship with nature as caretaker versus exploiter and science’s role in this equation. So I’m happy I’ve presented these issues, but leave it up to the reader to make their own conclusions.
Poor Cassandra and Pedro! I enjoy spending time with my characters, these two no exception. I appreciate each of their perspectives and approaches to these big questions. On a personal level, it must be hard for Pedro to be stuck on a research station with someone who has romantic feelings he doesn’t reciprocate. It’s sort of like a perpetual bad date. You have to feel for Cassandra too. I mean it’s sad when a collective group of purring moss might seem like the better option.
Why not take a read of “Invasive Species” and let us know what you think?
A Flash of Inspiration: Grass by Christina Sanders
Our Flash of Inspiration for November is “Grass” by Christina Sanders, an accomplished piece of writing that grabbed my attention with the very first word.
“Grass” is a story that pulled me in immediately.
With one word, I understood I was being invited to participate in the story, that it was not only the writer who was imagining, nor the central character; as a reader, I must also jump in.
It’s a powerful declaration but it can only work effectively if the writer makes good on the promise. The “imagining” has to be worth it.
“Grass” is a story that masterfully achieves this.
The importance of point of view
The most striking thing about “Grass” is the second person narrative. Having “you” as the point of view, makes space for the reader within the story, and allows us to imagine the experiences as our own. It’s what lends this piece its emotional resonance.
Try reading it in the first of third person. It’s not nearly as effective.
By opting for this voice, and because of the way this particular point of view internalises the story within the reader, the emotional tension can be developed and accentuated using an almost minimalist language.
Take a look at the line “You no longer make love” for example. It’s a brutal statement in any point of view, but the fact that we are party to the experience lends it an added force and poignancy.
For me, the matter of fact tone in “Grass” allows the emotion to shine more brightly.
Crafting a complete story within a compressed form
It’s not just the voice which makes “Grass” such a well-crafted story, however. Structurally the story is very accomplished.
Flash fiction can sometimes be a whimsical form, the language lyrical, the ideas a little off-beat, the story lost within the compression of the form.
In “Grass” however, we get a very complete impression of the central character’s life, told in a series of -not quite – linear moments.
The opening invites the reader to imagine an idealised world – the beautiful garden, the comfortable home, the pleasant family life – and we are allowed to share an intimate moment by the fireside as the dreamed of life seems to become reality.
Only for the dream to be shattered abruptly with a time shift, as we are taken from the romantic moment of conception, to the dark, sad reality of the son’s psychological breakdown, the strains upon the marriage, and the mother’s sense of disorientation as she tries to make sense of things.
Such a sharp swerve in a story is very daring, and in less accomplished hands it would not work, but in “Grass” the shift from the idealised world to the reality works well because we have been invited in from the start and asked to imagine alongside the protagonist.
Because of this, we can share the woman’s sense of confusion, her shock at the contrast between what she dreamed of and hoped for, and what has actually happened.
In this way a wistfulness pervades the story that is poignant and tender and never slips into cliché or melodrama.
What we do get is a light touch of humour as the story shifts again, closer to the present. We are asked once more to “imagine”, only this time things are not so much idealised as self-deprecating.
The self-improvement “elobix”, the Spanish classes, the Chardonnay soaked despondency, these efforts and moments are described with a slight sense of bemusement, which not only lightens the tone but allows us to get a sense of the protagonist having moved on through life – her idealism is tempered this time by experience.
The ending, when it comes, is all the more powerful because of this.
We have come full circle – back to the beautiful garden. Only it is made real now, and experienced in the light of all that is now known – the life that actually happened and not the one that was dreamed of, the one that was imagined.
The final, poetic lines acknowledging that this is simply life, that time moves forward, and everything, great and small returns to dust, to dirt. It’s a bleak idea, and one that could provoke a deep despondency within the reader, but is, instead, lifted by a sense of acceptance.
We understand why she crawls in the grass and dirties her nails, because we have been on the journey with her. We know exactly how she feels.
Christina on writing “Grass”
Jen: The second person point of view is not one you often encounter as a reader. Why did you opt for this point of view in “Grass”? Is it a point of view you use often?
Christina: I didn’t consciously write in the second person. The story felt to me like opening a door, and standing side by side with someone to point out the view, naming all the hills, lakes and valleys in my role as a dispassionate observer.
The second person is an interesting POV to use as it is strong, immediate, and intimate. The reader becomes complicit from the beginning. This closes the space between the reader and writer, but also allows room for interpretation, so I found it rather liberating.
Jen: I loved the structure of “Grass” the shifts in the time from one moment to the next. It really gave me a sense of a whole lifetime having passed before my eyes within a very short space of time. Did you set out to construct the story this way? I can imagine it would have been quite difficult to compress so much into such a short piece.
Christina: I usually write much longer stories. With Grass I set out to narrate a life in under 1,000 words. I wanted to condense the narrative to as few images /scenes as possible to give a sense of time passing, and allow the characters to be defined by the drama. I was thinking visually when I started writing it, using the Saturday Guardian to create a kind of fictitious collage – the way we are served ideas of how life ‘should’ look on one page, then shown the reality on another. The Talking Head’s song ‘Once in A lifetime,’ was also in the mix.
Jen: The title is very intriguing. Can you tell us a little about that?
Christina: I’d love to say I had all sorts of clever notions about this, (universal, self seeding, grass on the other side is always greener etc….). However, it was originally (and unimaginatively) called ‘Imagine…’ Grass came from the vision of the flame grass, a presence in its right, rustling, a kind of chorus, subtle but insistent on being heard. I wanted this to give expression to the universality of the narrator’s experience.
Jen: The language in “Grass” is beautifully understated, almost minimalist, but it packs an emotional punch. The final paragraph is quite lyrical and stands slightly apart – in terms of its tone – from the rest of the story. I liked this. It made the final scene very powerful for me, as if I was also becoming aware of time passing and the essential essence of things – the dirt, the dust. How conscious of this were you?
Christina: Ah… the difficult last paragraph (as opposed to the first and second one). The ending changed many times as I couldn’t get it to ring true to the rest of the story. However, I knew it would have to end in the garden. At the time I began writing it I was teaching a creative writing class on endings, and thinking about Lorrie Moore’s adage that the ending should shine a light over the whole story, but as I couldn’t get it to work I abandoned it for a while. It was only when I came back to it afresh, that I knew she had to get down and dirty; this in a sense was life and death.
Jen: Finally, we’ve had our say about “Grass”, but what do you like about it?
Christina: That it’s published! Seriously, as I grow older I’ve become increasingly interested in the notion of compromise which I’ve been exploring in my writing. It’s a word that is usually used pejoratively to suggest you can’t get want you want, or have to give something up, both of which are negatives. Yet, I think the concept of compromise if far more nuanced and less bleak than this, so I’m pleased a little of this has been conveyed in Grass.
What do you think of “Grass”? Why not take a read and let us know?
A Flash of Inspiration: ‘Think of Icebergs’ by Tania Hershman
In the first in a new monthly series, “A Flash of Inspiration”, we talk to Tania Hershman about her story “Think Of Icebergs“
What we love about “Think Of Icebergs”
One of the things I like most about “Think Of Icebergs” is the immediacy of the opening. It drops the reader straight into the action and introduces a big theme in a very clever and subtle way. In the space of just eight lines we learn everything about the world the characters inhabit and how they feel about it.
The dialogue is minimalist but also slightly wistful which provides a sense of foreboding, the flippant remark at the end standing in stark contrast to the gesture of the narrator as he places his arm upon his companion’s “bony shoulder.”
The sparseness of that opening is very striking because it explains so much with so little. The fact that those shoulders are “bony” is no accident. It signifies we are in a world where things have gone wrong, where people go hungry. Become “bony.” It’s apocalyptic. But there is no melodrama, no explanation beyond that word. It’s a great example of control and precision and beautifully demonstrates the deceptive simplicity of flash fiction.
Having set the reader up so carefully the second half of the story then provides us with a strange and unsettling contrast.
The cool refuge of the Grand Hotel is clearly populated by people fortunate enough to be able to escape the “hell” of the world beyond its air-conditioned walls and we can feel their other-worldliness through the descriptions of them – the “high hairdos” and the “heavy suits” – they are at once comical and menacing, and clearly set apart from the thin-limbed central characters.
Yet, although the rarefied world of the Grand provides some respite we nevertheless can’t help but be troubled by it. The privileged guests swoop confidently through the lobby and float gracefully into the lifts, but are they even aware of the main characters? Do they even register the oppressive heat outside? Or are they so cocooned physically and psychologically that they are incapable of acknowledging anything beyond their hotel paradise?
Perhaps it is even this psychological blindness that has helped bring about the catastrophe that is unfolding around them? But the “frying pan” heat and the “melting pavements” surely cannot escape their attention for much longer?
All of this happens within eight short paragraphs but all the questions and assumptions all the imagining must come from the reader. But it’s possible because there is space there, within the story, for the reader to insert themselves.
It’s so well done you can almost feel yourself settling into one of the hotel lobby chairs as you sip iced-coffee and observe the world around you and ponder its fate.
“Think Of Icebergs” is a master class in understatement and a great piece of flash fiction.
Tania on writing “Think Of Icebergs”
Jen: Can you tell us a little about the way you crafted “Think Of Icebergs”? There are so many themes and ideas tucked away inside I was curious as to whether you stared with a longer version which you then pared back or whether you distilled the ideas first before sitting down to write it.
Tania: I never start with something longer, I think that 500 words or so is my natural length. As far as I remember, this – as with almost all of the flash stories in my 2nd collection – was written using prompts, a set of phrases chosen by a writing friend. I love this way of writing, you take 5 or 6 such phrases, then try and use them all, in any order, in your story – plugging another one in when you get stuck to keep you writing. It’s best if someone else picks the prompts and you have a very short time to write in.
It works for me, very well. I am also pretty sure I wrote this for a competition on the theme of climate change, so that was in the back of my mind. I can’t quite remember. I didn’t win the competition, but was delighted when Litro chose it for their Climate issue!
So I try not to think about anything while I am writing and generally have no idea what is going to come out, and sometimes I don’t know afterwards what it is I have written about. Which I am fine with, it’s a privilege to have readers or listeners who will tell me what they think the story is about. I love that. It took me years and years of practice to get to this point, but when I write fiction I have no inhibitions at all, no Inner Critic telling me I “can’t” write about certain things, or in a certain way. I suspect that writing very fast helps. I can get a first draft down before my Picky Editor wakes up and starts to say “Wait, hang on, wha…?”
Jen: Why did you choose to open the story with dialogue?
Tania: To follow on from the above, I didn’t consciously choose to do anything, this is how the story came out. For me, fiction starts with voice, with character, and this story started with this voice. The opening line told me a lot – that there were two people, talking to each other. I love using “I” and “You”, I have a lot of stories written in these voices, I learned it from reading Ali Smith’s short stories. To me it feels incredibly intimate, like we, the readers, are standing in that tiny space between two people. So, I started with dialogue because that’s what I heard first and that was my way in to finding out what was going to happen in this story.
Jen: The imagery in this piece is very vivid – those businessmen swooping like birds and the pampered old ladies with their little dogs – I was immediately transported into the world of the Grand Hotel. How do you come up with such imagery? It’s slightly poetic.
Tania: I remembered while thinking about these questions that I had a specific hotel in mind, the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv! I used to live in Israel, and as a technology journalist went to quite a few conferences at the Hilton. Obviously, it being the Middle East, it was often extremely hot outside, but the minute I stepped into the hotel lobby, the world changed, the climate altered. I love sitting in hotel lobbies and watching people pass by.
As to the slightly poetic -thank you! Something I’ve understood now that I am writing things I do actually call poems is that flash fiction, for me, has been the gateway, the “safe passage”, towards poetry. I was frightened by poetry, by line breaks, by the weight attached to the form in general, so flash fiction, these tiny, compressed word-blocks, allowed me to sneak towards poetry, to get a little “poetic” without committing!
Now that I am writing poems, I see how it is a completely different process, for me anyway. These flash stories are flash stories, not poems without line breaks. Each has different needs, and different aims. I am enjoying writing poems because I can get away with less narrative, if I want to, and because I can use the shape of the words on the page to do something more.
Jen: The two central characters are very vulnerable given the world they inhabit, but I found them hopeful. There is a sense that their humanity, the very fact that they care for one another, would help them through their adversity and may even signal that all is not lost. Were you aware of this? This hope within the darkness?
Tania: I am so glad you said this because I do worry that most of my writing is very, very dark, but I like to think of it as tragically hopeful, or hopefully tragic – with a touch of humour. Or, at least, not coming down definitely on one side or the other, but leaving the story open enough. This, for me, is what life is about – trying to find connections to others that help you deal with uncertainty, which is all we can really be sure about: we have very little idea what will happen next.
Jen: Finally, we’ve had our say about “Think Of Icebergs”, but what do you like about it?
Tania: Ooh, there’s an interesting question. I like them, I always feel affection for my characters, even if their stories are very short and I never hang out with them again. I like their relationship, their sense of humour, their embrace of the nonsensical, the way they understand without one saying “What do you mean by…?” I guess in some ways that’s the ideal, a partner who gets you wholly, and who makes sure there’s always iced coffee when you’re hot. I also like that I touched on some kind of climate-related issue without trying too hard, that things are hinted at.
I also like that I wrote myself a story which, four years later, conjures up a specific hotel lobby: I can feel that fierce air con, see those businessmen. I’m so happy to be a writer, for what it does for me, how it helps me shape the way I see the world, get it down on paper. It’s constantly a miracle if it speaks to someone else, anyone else. Thank you for choosing this story, and for asking me about it – the final thing I like about this story is that it got me here, talking to you! What a joy.