With flash fiction gaining popularity around the globe and new books from New Zealand and Norway reviewed, Getintothis’ Cath Holland’s June round up of the book world has an international feel.
This month’s Wrapped Up In Books incorporates fiction both full length and deliciously short.
It’s National Flash Fiction Day coming up this weekend, bringing with it a bigger celebration of short satisfying fiction than ever before. We hear from flash writers and editors and readers about the pleasures of flashing.
New Zealand flash fiction and short story writer Sandra Arnold‘s collection Soul Etchings comes out next month, a masterclass in short fiction with a strong narrative. Norwegian Helga Flatland‘s splendid, unsettling debut A Modern Family is published in the UK this week.
Both are reviewed.
National Flash Fiction Day 15 June
The annual world wide event celebrates all things flash fiction until the end of June. There are anthologies, a flash flood of free stories to read, a festival and lots of activities in tribute to the very best in short fiction.
With that in mind, for this month’s Wrapped Up In Books, award winning and best selling authors and editors share their views on flash fiction – fiction typically up to 500 words in length – and why it is such a vibrant literary form to both write and read.
‘Flash fiction is the art of telling a deep story as deftly as possible. It will teach you about creating real characters in only a few brushstrokes, about taut plotting, and about the joy of writing with economy. Your future editor will thank you for it, as will your readers.‘ – Sarah Hilary, author of the DI Marnie Rome novels, Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year winner.
‘I love flash fiction, because for me, it searches out the central conflict in a story. There’s no throat-clearing or unnecessary exposition; the reader is directed to the heart of a story. My novella-in-flash, ‘Dinosaur,’ attempts to show two lives across thirty years. The reader visits these two characters at particular moments in their lives.
These moments are always important in some way. Much of life is mundane, without event; but like my novella, flash fiction is not interested in the mundane. Flash fiction concerns itself with moments that we recognise as significant: a realisation, an epiphany, a lesson-learned…
Plus, with flash fiction, there’s the feeling it’s still in its infancy as a form, still being explored, which is very exciting for a writer.’ – Adam Lock‘s debut novella-in -flash Dinosaur is published by Ellipsis Zine in late June 2019
‘As a reader, a great piece of flash can take you into a world in an instant, turn you upside down, shake you around and spit you out, reeling. As a writer it’s the perfect size for being experimental, weird, or just perfecting your editing skills.’ – Claire Fuller, author of Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons (shortlisted Encore), Our Endless Numbered Days (Desmond Elliott Prize)
‘Flash fiction is perfectly suited to the pace of the twenty-first century, and I love the way you can dip in and out, returning to certain stories time after time as you would with a poetry collection.
I know some readers say they don’t read shorts because they can’t lose themselves in the story the way they can in a novel, yet a cracking flash will leave you with something to think about for days after you’ve read it. Writing flash is both a challenge and a joy.
It’s an opportunity to try and create something as perfect as it can possibly be. When you only have a few hundred words, your language needs to be specific, concise, sparing, lean. When you impose restrictions it can often result in something surprising. I have read flash fiction that has made me cry in the space of two minutes, and stories that have made me hold my breath until I reached the end.
In flash pieces, what isn’t said is as important as what is, and I have a favourite Hemingway quote that sums it up perfectly: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things … and the reader … will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”’ – Amanda Huggins, Costa Short Story Award 2018-3rd Prize for Red; author of Separated From the Sea-Special Mention, Saboteur Awards 2019. New collection, Scratched Enamel Heart, Spring 2020.
‘A few years ago, I wrote a piece on flash fiction for Wales Arts Review: in a nutshell, a comparison between the art of flash fiction and that of alcoholic distillation. My view can be read here.
There are many labels for all sorts of writing, but certain (and some uncertain) life events have made me question the relevancy of becoming too bogged down in the detail of labelling – in any walk of life. Unconsciously, it seems I have begun to refer to the flash elements of my work as “short fiction”.
As a writer, it takes the pressure off, knowing that whatever the piece morphs into, it is what it is on the page – not a pre-formed construct from some abstruse place in the mind.
Since writing flash fiction, I have observed people, changes and trends – not so much the evolution of the form, but its determined inky spread into the mainstream of the literary world. If it didn’t hold court there before, that is. Who am I to tell the author what it is they are writing, the reader what they are reading.
Labels do not hold much appeal, for me. In consequence, I see “novella-in-flash” as a rather irksome term used in one camp of the publishing world to serve one particular purpose (the promotion of flash fiction), which in another camp of publishing would be described as “experimental” or “brave” or “new” writing in short novel/novella form.
In an age of increasing division and factionalism, I find myself unwilling, as a reader, to buy into anything other than the words on the page. Before you ask – I find poetry and fiction deeply entwined now. Controversial.
Short fiction remains a diverse and exciting area of writing: when there are a plethora of books vying for spine and cover space on the bookshelves, the short fiction anthologies of new and established authors continue to engage readers and showcase an array of talent.
We live in a world where Bob Dylan is the recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature. I have many opinions about this turn of events, albeit the one that subdues all others is this: literature is literature, and literature is a win.
Flash fiction, short fiction, prose poetry, whatever you want to call it – it has become part of the canon of literature that we read daily. Maybe without even realising what it is. But then the most powerful words can transcend any label, and it is the words that count more than the word count.’ – Jane Roberts, writer.
‘For me what the best flash fiction does is tell something essential. And that’s what I try to do in my own flash writing – strip a story back to a strong, vibrant core, around which readers can construct the details of their own picture.’ – Cath Barton, author of The Plankton Collector (New Welsh Review 2018), In the Sweep of the Bay (Louise Walters 2020), The Garden of Earthly Delights, (2021)
‘There’s a real joy to reading, or successfully writing, a well-crafted piece of flash, where the author has managed to coil layers of meaning between the carefully selected words. For me, a piece of flash succeeds when it manages to draw me into a complete space, whether that’s a planet or a kitchen drawer, convinces me to care about the protagonist, and seeds me with emotions that continue to flower afterwards.It’s such a brilliantly economic way of writing, where every word and comma serves a distinct purpose and no breath is wasted.It’s also fantastic for dipping into on public transport, while on hold, waiting in lines, and at any other time when you have a few minutes to spare.Really, flash fiction is the ultimate portable literature, perfect for whenever you need a fiction hit on the go!’ – Judy Darley, writer and editor.
‘Flash Fiction is like a game; it gets you thinking, questioning. To read and write flash fiction, you have to be like a detective, a Miss Marple or Poirot. Actually, it reminds me of Catchphrase. One square of the whole picture is revealed at a time. One piece of the puzzle. Most of the time they’re vital pieces, but with Flash Fiction you won’t get the whole picture. So the most important piece of the puzzle at the end… is you, the reader.’ – FJ Morris, author of This Is Not About David Bowie (2018).
‘Reading well written flash fiction is like watching an amazing magic trick, you can’t see how the writer did it. How did they make you feel such emotion with so few words?
Writing flash fiction seems ridiculously easy because the word counts are so small. I can knock that off in no time, you tell yourself. Days, weeks later you’re still working on it and it’s still not right. Less is always more with flash – cutting 500 words to 50 feels an impossible task but that’s when the magic happens.’ – Tracy Fells, finalist 2018 Richard & Judy Search for a Bestseller, 2017 WINNER Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Canada & Europe
‘When you read a flash fiction you can hold the story inside you all at once, see it there in its entirety on the page in front of you, so that it feels like a very complete, an entirely unified reading experience. Yet at the same time it is just a fragment, an exquisite scrap of experience that is gone in a moment.
Flash fiction seems to me the ideal way to represent the transitory, but intense nature of city life and also the perfect form to read in the city – ten minutes on the bus, half an hour in a café, a couple of minutes resting on a bench in the square, or even a lazy hour lying on the grass in the park.
‘his was the idea behind our flash fiction anthology Story Cities: a city guide for the imagination, which collects together flash fiction about the city from 42 different writers from several different countries. The stories are meant to be read in the city – any city, every city –so that the city itself will inflect them: the buildings around you, the people who pass you in the street becoming part of the story.
Read altogether, they present a compound, multistranded narrative of city life. For me, it is the paradoxical combination of ephemerality and completeness that makes reading flash fiction such a unique and rewarding experience.’ – Rosamund Davies, editor Storycities: a city guide for the imagination (2019)
More info here
Helga Flatland – A Modern Family
The ‘Norwegian Ann Tyler’ is an intimidating tag to live up to, but one assigned to author Helga Flatland anyway.
Her debut A Modern Family from 2017 became a best seller back home, shifting an impressive 100k copies, the popularity of this novel about an ordinary family lies in its normality and familiarity.
In the book, translated into English by Rosie Hedger and published in the uk for the first time this week, three siblings, two sisters with a younger brother go on holiday to Italy to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, only to be calmly told their parents are to amicably divorce – is there really such a thing? – after forty years of marriage.
The break up itself reverberates through the family unit, causing each child to question long held belief systems. Eldest daughter Liv is shattered the most obviously; she examines her relationship with her sister Ellen and wrestles with the idea that everything she’s been sold by her parents is a lie.
Ellen’s own relationship falters.
The youngest child Hakon indulged from birth like a cliché, carries on as normal. Or so he likes the world to think.
A Modern Family has been credited with containing hints of Ingmar Bergman and that’s fair, the divorce a metaphor for death or the end of anything. What happens to us when things, people and situations we are accustomed to, rely and lean on, suddenly change, frightens. It’s a universal experience, one we go through countless times in our lives.
It’s not all heartbreak and gloom in the novel. There are keen observations to raise a chortle. Hakon is like every ideological young man you’ve ever met, headstrong and insistent. His analytical, logical approach to love and sex and relationships is hilariously turned on its head when much to his dismay, he falls in love proper.
And Flatland takes a well aimed pot shot at men who don’t read women authors. ‘It’s about the fact that men almost subconsciously consider literature by women to be literature for women, while books by men constitute literature, full stop’ quips Liv, an observation so on the nose you can picture her rolling her eyes.
Sandra Arnold – Soul Etchings
The cover of Soul Etchings reminds me of a sculpture a friend had in their house. A clutter dolls heads glued together, they kept it in the living room above the fireplace and even though the dolls eyes were dead and blank they still followed you around the room, and all the way home come to that.
Soul Etchings doesn’t quite haunt to that extent, but the more sinister stories linger damply in the mind long after being read.
House rules and A voice called Gavin are worthy of Stephen King, possessive bricks and mortar not willing to take no for an answer and a voice recognition app who just won’t let go. The stories about a baby being taken – A real live one – and taken from – The patchwork quilt – have an unsettling Mary Bell-type mythology, albeit with a more pleasing conclusion, the twisted nature of childhood is explored honestly.
Baby and child loss are examined and reflected on from different angles throughout the book not only very sadly but beautifully – a determination in Derived from the Latin meaning happiness for example that the baby will not be forgotten, the memory cherished instead of stifled.
Grief – there are so many kinds – is explored sensitively and well, from different angles.
This isn’t a collection of horror stories, though; the story Soul etchings from where the book takes its name is a gorgeous tale of a precious snippet of time of pleasure, one woman and her horse capturing perfect moments. Simple, and unforgettable.
There are laughs as well – gender codes attached to biological sex have fun poked at them – Tom Thumb raises a smile at a benign revenge at unthinking bigotry, but it carries a certain sense of sadness too.
Domestic violence and misogyny and effects are not shirked from, themes repeatedly stressed. Somethings cannot be mentioned just the once, the message needs to underscored. Overbearing fathers, the sexual predator next door, all aspects are here.
The stories throughout made all the more relateable due to the author’s use of strong narrative, eventful, colourful stories. There’s a place for more abstract flash, sure; but these small but perfectly formed stories are supreme examples of perfect flash fiction combined with precise, perfect storytelling.
Soul etchings is published on 26 June
Bookworm of the month: Miki Berenyi
Piroshka are the new band from former Lush vocalist/
Miki took time out from preparing for a run of UK dates to chat about her fave books.
What the first book you remember enjoying, and why that book in particular?
‘How The Whale Became by Ted Hughes. It’s a collection of animal stories for children, in the Kipling Just So mould.
And when I say ‘enjoyed’, it’s more that they moved me because I found them so sad and upsetting! The owl story was like a dystopian horror, the whale was like a victimised innocent and the bee – a tiny creature forged from the devil’s tears, condemned forever to gorge itself on sweet nectar or it is overcome with crippling despair. Remembering them makes me feel slightly unhinged.’
What’s your favourite ever book, and why?
‘I have a very long list of favourite evers – but in my head right now I have the last book of John Updike’s quartet –Rabbit at Rest. Harry Angstrom is not a particularly likeable character. He’s just ordinary and flawed, and someone who in real life I would cross a room to avoid.
But the writing is so brilliant that his daily struggles to come to terms with his disappointing existence feel like grand tragedy. I love Updike – he could describe someone looking for their keys on their way out the door and it would move me.’
As a parent, how do you find time to read?
‘Being a parent never stopped me, but running a band – along with the day job – means I now rarely get to do just one thing at a time. I like audiobooks because I can listen while I’m cooking and cleaning, but for some weird reason this only works for me with non-fiction.
So I did Viv Albertine’s To Throw Away Unopened over one weekend where I was cooking for a party of loads and had to sort the house from top to bottom. It was perfect – conversational and intimate – like a friend on a phone call telling you some insane shit that happened to them.’
Are you a library user? Did you love the library as a child or a teenager, what did you gain from it personally?
‘My dad had walls of books at home so I really only used the library when I needed reference books for school. However, they had an intriguing little vinyl section that I used to randomly select from. Gave me my first taste of The Searchers, John Lee Hooker and The Adverts.’
What is the most recent book you read? Why did you pick it up in the first place?
‘Moose reads all the time and is forever depositing must-reads on my side of the bedroom. The most recent of these was The Sister Brothers (“You can’t see the film until you’ve read the book!”) which I sort of rather loved because it had never really occurred to me that friendship and affection could be in such short supply in the Wild West.’
Does a book’s cover entice you, the blurb on the back, or the author’s reputation?
‘Someone posted this on Twitter a while back and I got a surge of nostalgia for when book covers actually had some originality and personality.
I mainly rely on the recommendations of friends and trusted reviewers. The blurb on the back might entice me, but I tend to read half a chapter if I’ve never heard of the writer, just to see if I can get along with their style.’
Do you enjoy poetry? If so, what poets tickle your fancy and why?
‘You’re making me feel bad because I actually really enjoyed poetry when I was made to read and study it as a student… it’s just that I barely ever choose to.
But I can still recite most of Matilda by Hillaire Belloc, and I remember once experiencing a stunned trance-like state listening to Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti being read out on Radio 4. I was heavily pregnant at the time, though, so that may have added to the effect.’
How does the written word in its different forms and literature inform your songwriting? Or maybe it doesn’t?
‘I’ve only rarely written a song directly inspired by literature – Lush’s Covert was about Anais Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love and White Wood was about Blanche DuBois (geddit?!) from A Streetcar Named Desire.
But I would say that books (or writing of any kind) are a constant influence because they articulate things that you sometimes didn’t even know you were thinking or feeling.
So I can read a great piece of writing and think – “Oh, that’s what I was feeling. They’ve described it perfectly”. And that then feeds into everything I think and do.’
If you aren’t enjoying a book do you lash it because life’s too short, or carry on until the bitter end?
‘When I was a teenager and first read Virginia Woolf, I fucking hated every page of it. The whole thing was such a struggle. And then about a quarter of the way through To the Lighthouse, I started to get into the flow and go with it instead of against it, and by the time I got to the end I thought it was the most remarkable book I’d ever read.
So with that in mind, I hate to give up on a book. Unfortunately, that’s probably the one and only time it was worth persevering.’
Piroshka tour/festival dates:
21 June Edinburgh Southern Exposure Festival
22 June LIVERPOOL Phase One
23 June LANCASTER Get It Loud in Libraries @Lancaster Library
27 July TOPCLIFFE Deer Shed Festival
28 July Kendal Calling Tim Peaks