Sometime in January, Spidergirl was born, after what was, for me, an unusually brief gestation. Arachne’s call for submissions about spiders was a challenge I couldn’t decline. What did I know about arachnids? silk, strength, multiple births, delicate webs, agility. I ignored the fragments of fly-corpses on the laundry windowsill, & the cobweb tangle above. With only a few days before the deadline, and minimal arachnoid background, I avoided natural history, and I had no ideas for a straightforward human narrative. How could I interweave spideriness with humanity?
As I considered the purpose of the anthology, I saw that celebrating Arachne implied facing the horror at the core of the foundation myth: jealousy, rivalry, punishment, death. I challenged myself to explore the Arachne myth in the light of cooperation rather than conflict. Myths are about both everyday experience and mystery.
Mysteriously, I found Spidergirl attending my own school. The gym, in which Spidergirl performs feats of grace and power, was for me a torture chamber. My gymnastic efforts were devoted to avoiding the humiliation of failing to vault over box or horse, climb wall bars or swing on rope; I would generously remain at the back of the queue. My only achievement was walking along the narrow strut of an upturned form, using the balancing exercise to practise what would become essential for a writer – imagination: the floor, ten inches below my hesitating feet, became a fiery pit or turbulent torrent into which I must not fall.
The craft room caused equal anxiety. Most of my relations were – or are – highly talented in many arts and crafts. My own hands missed all those genes. But music has come to me through my father and paternal grandfather.
Love of literature and interest in myth was nourished by the tall glass-fronted bookcase in the dark corridor where from early childhood I was free to sit on prickly coconut matting and read whatever I chose. No surprise that my degree is in English Literature. No surprise either that, after forty years writing ‘professional’ texts about communicating with children in the context of social work, health care, and education, I began to explore other forms. In my 60s, with my husband, I’d also taught (adult education), and researched and written about English Literature. Since I became 70, my publications include short stories, poems, flash fiction and plays; Script in Hand has performed three plays (the fourth prevented, for now, by C-19).
Spidergirl, in a few hundred words, encapsulates the nearly 80 years of reading and writing between that girl with matting-prickled thighs and this woman whose legs are vein-webbed.
This year, Arachne has brought me more than publication in an anthology whose quality delights me. In the spring, I offered a guest blog – not a form which comes easily to me, so another challenge. But being stimulated to write anything at all helped to counteract that extraordinary lethargy which has beset so many people. I spent hours writing as well as I could, following that first blog with another, which Cherry posted, and a third which she didn’t. Although I was disappointed, good outcomes included the stimulus of thinking about and writing the piece, which led to further reading. And I’ve been enjoying the blogs & interviews, meeting and learning about and from other writers.
Then came the call for Tymes goe by Turnes, another challenge I couldn’t refuse. I followed leads which led, not to a story, but into fascinating areas of thought, narrative and discussion on our walks around the nearby field. Once again, Arachne called me out of lethargy, and Turner’s World of Twirls whirled me into the world of word play. Once again, I’ve enjoyed the excitement of acceptance, of posting the signed contract, of looking forward to the next publication.
Throughout these months, I’ve come to respect Cherry. I’m grateful for meticulous, patient, and honest editing which assures me that my work has really been read and, in turn, respected. I admire clear editorial principles and quality. I enjoy being a small thread in Arachne’s web.
Your story ‘They said there were Pirates,’ it’s compressed, shifting, allusive atmosphere has stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
I was hooked by the opening lines, it’s spare lyricism. I was hooked in fact by the absolute quality of your writing throughout.
“I’d been part of the water for so long now, it no longer felt like I was moving…. as though it were the planet that swayed to and fro. To and fro.”
By this power of repetition, like an incantation, by the meanings that work in layers, and open up by what you purposefully omit,
“You’re my only treasure’, she said, ‘I have nothing left to lose,” such an understatement of the depth of this woman’s loss.
One of the ways it’s so effective in conveying the quality of dreamlike uncertainty is the way you mix the past, present and future throughout, by your use of verb tenses. Was this a technique you discovered as you wrote your story? Can you tell me more about it?
26th May. 17.27
Thank you for your kind words and astute reflections!
I think my habit of playing with tenses is related to my thoughts on how we perceive and experience time as a dynamic thing. Our experience of the present is always informed by our memories and past experiences and what we expect to happen. I think this is something I’m always trying to represent, often subconsciously.
I wrote this piece (which I see as both flash fiction and prose poetry in a way) as a stream-of-consciousness and when I write in that way tenses often shift around. It’s only through the editing process that I really examine this and figure out how it adapts and reflects meaning and movement in the narrative.
I originally wrote it without the first paragraph, but then I had a discussion with my friend who is the father of a small boy, and we felt the poetic reflections in the piece felt like an adult looking back to their childhood thoughts, rather than a child’s thoughts as they happen.
Exploring the perception of youngsters leads me nicely into your story which neighbours mine in the Dusk anthology. ‘In-between Dog’ has a protagonist Alice, who is herself in between — a preteen just starting secondary school and facing the transition into her teenage years.
The point-of-view here uses the apparently naive worldview of a preteen as a tool to carry us through the narrative, revealing aspects of the setting and characters as we go. The subtlety of this was very effective in helping the reader build a picture of this family’s life through sparse information. It reminded me of something the writer and critic Jenn Ashworth said about how a good short story is like ‘a sliver of light between a pair of half-drawn curtains’. It reveals precisely what it needs to.
In this way, you hint at the magic realist element ‘the in-between’ while still holding something back, the way youngsters always hold something back from adults. The dog Loopy is brought into the family by one of her fathers, but its elemental nature seems to belong to her.
What inspired this otherworldly aspect to the story and the relationship between Alice and the dog?
29th May. 16.55
And thank you, too, for your thoughts and nice question.
What inspired the other worldly aspect to my story is the French expression, quoted by Alice, about dusk being between dog and wolf.
This gift of an expression conveys, with vivid economy, the uncertainty of twilight when things are slipping and changing, and no longer what they appear during daylight hours. Imperceptible alteration, uncertainty, ambiguity – brilliant places for a story to start. And a wolf! Who doesn’t love a wolf as the embodiment of ‘other’, a wilder, exhilarating, dangerous element. (As a side note, ‘wolf’ in French is le loup, and ‘Loops’ became the English version) So I wanted to include this aspect of ‘wolfness’ in the story and also to leave it shadowy and understated in the same way the original expression conveys the meaning of not one thing nor the other.
As you say, Alice is also in that in-between stage of life, neither child nor teen. She’s childlike in her strategy of magical thinking, that is, a belief that if you want something, then all you have to do is think it, for it to take place. And also older than her years in trying to protect her Dad and partner from the bully boys. She came over as socially isolated so it felt like she would naturally develop a strong bond with Loops as her close friend and companion. And it felt right she had that yearning for things being wilder, playing alone in the park with Loops as it grows dark, connecting with something other, raw and alive, that exists just beneath the humdrum surface.
Moving on to your story. Your opening lines, that place the piece, in the first instance, in the here and now before we find ourselves moving back and forth within memory and ambiguities of the dream like state. I want to ask you about the coin. The coin here – intimations of death, of betrayal, of treasure, poignant link with the memory of her brother. The way to pay or buy their journey. So much is conveyed by this simple coin. Can you say more about it, and how the coin came to you as a way to contain these meanings.
All the best
9th June. 17.28
It’s funny, but the River Styx analogy didn’t consciously occur to me until you asked this question! And yet there it is. I think my starting point for the coin was the pirates. I dreamed many years ago that I was on a boat and pirates were coming. It was during a period where real-life Somali pirates were in the news a lot, robbing boats off the coast of Africa. And then more recently I was set a task to write on a political theme during the height of the most recent refugees-in-boats crisis. So I paired these two things together and the coin seemed like the perfect simple object for the child to be carrying (in realistic and symbolic terms). My focus when writing was the timelessness of the refugee flight, how this dance has been played out many times over, and the fragility of life in these circumstances — the bartering with the gods (metaphorical or literal) for a safe passage.
I think what’s really interesting here is how the history of literature and storytelling can seep into what we’re writing without us knowing. So the coin gathers its own meaning and moves beyond the intentions of the author — so meaning in literature isn’t just what we put in but what the reader takes out.
There are certain stories, and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is a great example, which are ingrained into our psyche. Whenever I see someone falling down a hole in a movie, I think of Alice, whether it’s an intentional reference or not. I love these repeated patterns (or leitmotivs) and I think the wolf is another one which has so many layers of meaning attached to it.
I’m curious, what other things do you write? Are you mainly focused on short fiction? What themes from ‘In-between’ connect this story to your other work?
20th June. 17.49
Finally! Finally I get to think about what I most want to think about but which gets shoved to the back of the queue on a daily basis, partly because it needs time and I don’t want to dash off some unthinking quick response.
Also … because I tend to allow what’s really important to me, to be overridden by other apparently more pressing demands. Which is what happens also with my writing. Which is a whole other topic that could be unpacked. ‘The most common problem writers have is not writing ‘(Mohsin Hamid). Anyway, I’m sorry for the delay and hope it doesn’t interrupt our flow too much.
In answer to your question about what other things I write – I also write stage plays. Having written quite a bit of short fiction, I wanted to not exactly ‘move on’ but to develop and extend my writing skills.
When I started script writing it was deeply weird. How is it possible to set up context? What about interiority? How can you tell a whole story with sub text, only through dialogue and physical action? What about past and future how do you covey that? The whole writing process is always a ongoing puzzle for me, but I do think the rudimentary script writing skills I’ve learnt have fed back and improved my short fiction writing as well. Refreshed it and enabled me to write more succinctly. Keeping to the point. Keeping it fresh and alive.
As for themes. Someone (and I’m rubbish about remembering who says these things, I think it was a guy) he said about his own writing that although he’d been writing stories all his life – in essence they were all part of his one big story. I find that liberating. I kind of know what he means. It’s as if we return to the same undercurrents all of the time. To answer the other part of your question about ‘In between’ and how it connects to other writing themes of mine, I’ve not often written from a young person’s point of view. But there was something about the Dusk brief that I found compelling and the fact I could bring in a wolf of course, and maybe the element of the unknown wildness theme is part of a general theme I allude to without being deliberately conscious of doing so.
The other thing about In Between is I wrote it rapidly and relatively easily. Most of the time it doesn’t happen like this. Normally a lot of stalling and not knowing how to make my writing work. Hours, days, in changes, repetitive, obsessive rewrites, and tweaks. It’s never, ever perfect, it could always be better.
I also think I only ever learn how to write the particular story or play I’m on. Each new project is like starting from scratch with no idea how to do it.
Which leads me on to wanting to ask you a three-part question. Firstly, have you too written in other genres and if so what led you into this? Also, what led you into writing in the first place? And lastly, more of an impossible question really, can you tell me more about the process of your writing, what is your process, how do you locate what your story is actually about, how do you bring it to any sort of completion?
All the best
5th July. 17.33
I really identify with what you said about prioritsing our writing and also the type of writing we’re doing. I’m currently finishing a part-time Creative Writing MA. I decided to do the MA in order to prioritise my writing more in my life as, as you say, more ‘pressing matters’ tend to take over—things which have actual deadlines or family crises or a great big fat pandemic, you know, the usual.
This worked in some respects because it gave me deadlines and classmates to bounce ideas off and a set amount of time to really develop my writing. However, it dragged me away from writing my novel. It put other ‘parts’ of my creativity on the backburner by making other writing more pressing. So it did radically change my priorities but didn’t exactly fix the problem. I’ve found having a mentor and writing buddies or groups the best way to help prioritise my writing by creating accountability. In fact, I actually planned out a workshop I would deliver a year or so ago on helping writers to find the space in their life for their writing but it didn’t happen for various reasons.
In terms of form and genre, I now have 3-4 areas of writing I work in depending on how you categorise and delineate. For short work I tend to write either prose poetry or short fiction or some hybrid of the two. Then I write novels – I have self-published one climate-fiction novel about 7-8 years ago, have my first draft of my second full novel and two other half-worked ones waiting in the wings. These are largely speculative fiction of the Margaret-Atwood-type variety, often set in the near future with themes around the environment, identity and society. Lastly, my MA has introduced me to the lyric essay and other hybrid forms which combine elements of poetry, fiction, memoir and essay with various experiments slipped in through the cracks between form and genre. I’ve fallen a bit in love with these and my dissertation (which I’ve just started in the last few weeks) is in that hybrid style.
To the question of what led to what. I have always written stories since I was little. I was one of those precocious children who started their first ‘novel’ at age 8 (about a family of foxes and very much a rip off of Colin Dann). I didn’t find an idea for a novel I could actually stick with to the bitter end until my mid-twenties and wrote a lot of short stories and half novels instead. I also started writing these stream-of-conscious pieces which I really couldn’t categorise until I finally realised they were prose poetry. I was always terrible at traditional poetry so I think I was in denial that that’s what they were but I’ve embraced this now, though I still have imposter syndrome when I speak to ‘real’ poets.
In terms of process, most things I write which are concept-based tend to start with a dream. Much of my dreams are nonsense but now and then my subconscious throws out some brilliant lump of clay for me to shape into a real thing. The less concept-based stuff comes from free-writing and stream-of-consciousness. I just write and see what comes out and sometimes it’s good enough to form into something else. I do write more than one thing at once and jump around a lot and I guess the ones I go back to and actually finish are the ones which still spark my interest over time. My editing process is first me and then other writers. I’ve been in various critiques groups and worked with an editor on my first novel which all helped me develop my craft and ability to self-edit. Now I have two close friends who write in a similar oeuvre and the three of us share work around. I find feedback really essential to my process now.
In terms of planning things out, I’m the ‘gardener’ not the ‘architect’ writer type (if you’ve heard that analogy). I plant things and nurture them and see how they grow in the world rather than planning everything out to the nth degree before writing it. With novels, I don’t write everything in chapter order, so I do have to organise and create a framework as I go so as not to get completely lost.
In terms of ‘finding what the story is really about’ I think putting something aside and coming back to it is key. Sometimes for a week, sometimes longer. The novel I am writing now started as a short story based on a dream many years ago. I lost my way with it and put it aside. About four years ago a life-event suddenly chimed very deeply with the themes in this story and I saw it more clearly and realised it was too complex for a short thing, so I began developing it into a novel. I like what you said/quoted about everything we write being our story in a way. I think I write because it helps me understand the world and the life I’m living and the people I’m living it with, even if I’m writing about a place I’ve never been or a thing I’ve never directly experienced, it all still relates back.
I’m interested in what you say about differences with playwriting and how the differences feed back into your handle on short stories. I’m a writer who really enjoys writing dialogue (I know many who don’t). I feel that’s where my characters change from some half-formed idea into a person that takes on a life of their own. How do you find writing dialogue? What have you learned from plays about the art of subtext which has informed your story writing? Also how do you feel about directors taking a script you’ve written as a basis and doing something different with it? Are you comfortable with giving up some creative control?
14th July, 21.34
It’s interesting to hear you decided to do the MA to help you prioritise your writing in your life, and yet it also takes you away from other areas of your writing work that you feel are equally essential.
Yes, it often feels like this to me – no matter what writing I’m on, there’s always other work languishing in the background that needs attention, and completion, and just getting round to actually SENDING out!
And intriguing to hear about the hybrid genre, that sounds so fresh and creative, in addition to your prose poems and longer form fiction. Sounds like such rich and fertile ways to work.
Other writers who critique your work and whose insights you trust, are true gold.
I think you must finish that story about the family of foxes btw!
Re your climate crisis novel, I’ve found much of my recent work has involved floods, or trees, without intending for the work to go that way.
To your question about dialogue writing and if I find it easy, what’s weird is that in a play script I can find it deceptively easy, but not so much so, in short fiction. I say ‘deceptive’ as it’s very easy to allow irrelevant dialogue to meander along and really snag up the action, when, like in any form actually, every single word has to have its purpose and momentum.
The useful things I’m learning from script writing, that hopefully do feed back into short stories, pretty basic really, is succinctness, creating an ‘atmosphere’ between characters from what they do, rather than what they say, to have characters say one thing but mean something else. I love the immediacy of theatre, its here and now ness.
Did you, by any chance, catch ‘LUNGS’ by Duncan Macmillan that was performed live on stage to an empty auditorium and streamed from the Old Vic just a week ago or so? It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre writing I’ve seen. So beautifully and intelligently crafted. An absolute class act in how much to leave out and allow the audience/reader to understand. One of my lockdown high points. They sold ’seats’ as if it was a live performance to an audience, so it was limited each night to the capacity of the theatre.
To answer your question about what it’s like to hand work over to directors and giving up creative control. I think of my script as the starting point for the performance and the director and actors bring their range of skills to make of it what they will, and that’s fine as long as they’re true to the intentions of the piece and the writing. Writers aren’t massively welcome in the rehearsal room normally, but whenever I’ve been allowed in, I’m fascinated by the process. By the serious playfulness of it, or maybe it’s the playful seriousness.
Apparently instead of ‘dress-down’ Friday, in lockdown people are crawling out of their PJs and smartening up their act (Frocking-Up) on a Friday.
Never one to do things by halves, Arachne author Joan Taylor-Rowan, (Five by FiveStations, London Lies) has been channelling her inner heroine, and pushed out the boat. Here are some more of her creations, a group of Hollywood icons, although Ingrid Bergman is here for the person she is portraying, Joan of Arc.
Laura: You write a mixture of short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Do you set out to write in a particular form, or do you let the piece develop organically?
Joanne: When I start writing I might not always know exactly how the idea or plot is going to play out, or what the ‘ending’ is going to be, but I do know what form it’s going take, because the processes by which I write a poem, or a short story, or a flash fiction are very different. So, yes, for each piece I suppose I do set out to write in a particular form. Or rather the initial idea I have is for a piece of writing in a specific form.
I can only think of one exception to this: Before I had really heard of flash fiction I had an idea for a short story that I could never quite get to work out. It turned out that idea was supposed to be a flash fiction – and once I was introduced to drabbles, that story idea became a 100 word piece called One Hundred Years.
Laura: Your poem ‘Gifted’ has been selected for the upcoming Arachne Press anthology, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, and focuses on the mythological Arachne. Did you draw from your background in History for inspiration?
Joanne: Not especially – I have a history degree, but it didn’t cover the classical world. My degree is in what Oxford, slightly archaically calls ‘Modern History’, by which they mean everything from around 500 AD onwards. Ancient History is a separate department.
However I’ve been fascinated by all kinds of mythology, and especially Greek mythology, since I was quite a young child. I’ve played around with a lot of the myths in my writing before, but I’ve never written about Arachne, and this seemed a good opportunity. I really enjoyed getting under the skin of a version of the character that I imagined.
Laura: In We/She (short stories by women from Liars’ League, Arachne Press, 2018) your story Cages is written from the point of view of a dragon. Do you enjoy the challenge of writing from unusual perspectives?
Joanne: Very much so – although it’s perhaps less of a challenge and more of a desire to give those characters a voice. As a young reader I was usually much more interested in the secondary characters, the sidekicks and the ‘baddies’ in a story, than I was in heroes and heroines, so as a writer I often like to explore where those characters are coming from, and what their own stories are.
It’s also a device which allows me to explore the experience of being othered in various ways: Most of my central characters are marginalised, and many of them are queer.
Laura: As well as Cages you have had several other stories performed at Liars’ League in London and Hong Kong. Do you enjoy listening to your stories being read aloud by others?
Joanne: Usually, yes! It’s certainly an interesting experience. I tend to think of any piece of writing as a living thing, or a conversation, that’s interpreted by its readers, listeners or performers anyway, but that’s made particularly obvious when someone else is reading it to an audience in front of you. Sometimes an actor will bring out elements in something that I hadn’t even fully realized were there – often humorous moments, or poignant ones.
When I first heard Cages read out, by the wonderful Susan Moisan, she drew laughs and responses from the audience in a few places I wasn’t necessarily expecting, which was very gratifying! It was such a pleasing delivery that I have to admit, when I later read out that story myself, I borrowed heavily from her performance in places.
Still, there can be some anxiety in handing over something you care about so much. A bit of me doesn’t like giving up creative control, but that’s something it’s good for me to learn to do. I’ve only ever had one bad experience, with one group, where I wasn’t really happy with the end result – but that was a situation where I wasn’t able to speak directly either to the actor performing my piece, or to the person advising/directing. Liars League are great because they generally give an opportunity for the writer and actor to discuss the reading in advance.
Laura: One area in which you enjoy performing is competitive dance. Do you find that movement unlocks creativity?
Joanne: Dance definitely helps me to unlock my feelings – it’s common for me to go into a dance practice and find myself working through a mood I hadn’t even realised I was in. It’s incredibly helpful in that respect.
I do also find dancing in a style that has a formal structure and technique can drive creativity in the same way that writing in a fixed form can. I love ballroom dancing for the same reason I love metric poetry: Something about the juxtaposition between the intense emotions being expressed and having a tight form to work within has creative power. I have a very long-standing project I’m playing with at the moment, writing poems based on dances where the metre of the poem matches the rhythm of the dance, as I want to explore that similarity.
Laura: Like many writers, you also have a day job, in your case working in theatres in an organisational role. Do you find that a job which requires a completely different skill set allows more, or less, space for creativity in your free time?
Joanne: I’ve always written, and as a child had ambitions of being solely a writer, but I realised whilst I was still in my early twenties that it wasn’t something I could do full-time. I’m an extrovert and like being around and working with people too much – if I spend much time alone it affects both my mood and my productivity very negatively.
Theatre working hours can be long and anti-social, which can make fitting in time for writing, as well as dancing and studying, tricky. But at the same time, it’s absolutely necessary for me to work around people in a job I love for me to then have the emotional energy and ability to write. And even though I don’t write specifically for the stage, getting to see so much creative content as part of my job is beneficial too. Just as reading as much as possible is useful to a writer, so is watching a lot of theatre.
Laura: When you read something that you think is perfection, how does it make you feel? Does it spur you on, or intimidate you?
Joanne: Oh it inspires me, hugely. That’s why I want to write ultimately – the sheer excitement when you read something wonderful. I want to be able to create that sort of magic with words too.
Laura: As writers, we have to deal a lot with rejection. Do you have a ‘tried and tested’ method, or does it depend on the mood you’re in or the piece that you submitted?
Joanne: I don’t really have a method per se. The majority of the time rejections don’t bother me too much – I know what the statistics are like for almost all writers in terms of rejections per accepted piece.
Of course, there’ll sometimes be a ‘no’ that stings more than I was expecting it to – perhaps if I’ve grown especially fond of a piece of work, or conversely, if it was especially difficult to complete but I thought I’d cracked it.
At the end of the day though, I can always move on fairly quickly. In a way I know I’m lucky, because writing is my ‘side-hustle’ so to speak, and my income doesn’t depend on it.
Laura: Do you have particular writing goals for the next year, or years? Do you, for example, want to write a novel or a play? Do you see writing as part of your career, or more of a hobby?
Joanne: I’m aiming to finish the collection of poems based on dances mentioned above, and I’m also looking to write some stories in styles that are new to me. I have the beginnings of some ghost stories brewing for example, and I’d like to write more comedy.
I’ve no immediate plans to write a novel again. I attempted one years ago, completed it, got feedback and put it through several edits. I then never submitted it anywhere because by the time it was finished I no longer believed in it, either artistically or emotionally. I find I enjoy the process of writing short stories and poems much more. As for a play, the problem I have is that the thing I find hardest of all to write is realistic-sounding present-day dialogue! Of course, not all theatre takes the same form, so never say never, but it’s not among my short-term plans.
To answer the last part of the question, even though writing isn’t my primary job, and it doesn’t make me money, I do see it as part of my career, yes. I’ve always been interested in doing lots of different things or jobs; some of them pay me and some of them don’t, but they’re all important and part of my ‘portfolio career’.
Laura: How have you been managing in lockdown? Have you been able to use this time to write more, or are you – like many others – struggling to put pen to paper? If you are managing to write, what are you working on?
Joanne: It’s been similar to before in terms of productivity if I’m honest. There’s lots of extra time, but my ability to write fluctuates – some days I’m inspired and write in a burst, and other days are just not writing days. I’m afraid my writing habits have never been especially consistent, and that hasn’t changed. One thing I am finding useful though, is an online writing group that a friend is running for a few hours each evening – I don’t join every night, but when I do it’s a good motivator.
I’m working on two pieces – one short story and one poem – for two upcoming deadlines at the moment. They’re both inspired by, or are responses to, famous pieces of literature (respectively the novel Little Women, and a Robert Southwell poem for Arachne’s Solstice Shorts call out).
However, that’s about all my two projects have in common – they’re very different in tone as well as form. I’m also busy redrafting some existing stories, including a couple of modern fairytales, and a dramatic monologue from the point of view first Mrs Rochester.
Joanne: You have several flash fictions published, including your collection The Almost Mothers, and a piece in Arachne’s Story Cities. What is it about shorter fiction that you especially enjoy? Do you also write using other forms, or is flash fiction always your preference?
Laura: When I first started writing I had no intention of becoming a short fiction writer. I’ve always read a lot, but novels, and had initially seen that as my only path. However, when I first started writing, I had lots of ideas, but struggled to get past a few cohesive sentences, or paragraphs.
I stumbled across Calum Kerr online and his challenge to write a piece of flash fiction every day for a year. I decided to do the same and started in May 2012. Some of the pieces were fine, some were terrible, some were never finished, but I learned a lot about myself as a writer in that time, the most important being that I had fallen in love with short fiction and the precision needed to tell a story.
I don’t feel ready to take the leap into longer fiction yet, but I’m fairly sure I will one day.
Joanne: When did you start writing fiction? Have you done so since you were young?
Laura: I remember writing a story about a fairground when I was about nine or ten, but that’s the extent of my childhood writing experience. I started writing again when I was in my late twenties, while I was living in Germany. Initially I was writing non-fiction, about my travels and experiences there. Once I’d moved to Hong Kong, I started writing fiction.
Joanne: Do you have a daily or weekly schedule or pattern for writing? How does this fit in with the rest of your life?
Laura: I have two young children (six and two) and have to fit my writing in around them. Before lockdown, I used to write while my eldest was at school and my youngest was napping. Now, I’m lucky that my husband is working from home and I write every morning from 7:30-9:00 before he needs the office, and I need to take over the childcare. I’m a morning person, so this works well for me. Once the children are in bed, I’m usually too tired to write new things, but do other writing-related things for an hour or so like editing or submitting.
Joanne: Where do you write? Do you have a particular place you always sit to work for example, or any associated rituals, or can you write anywhere?
Laura: I can write anywhere, in a supermarket queue or while my son is having a swimming lesson, but my preference is in cafés. I like the cacophony; the snippets of overheard conversations, people watching, the small interactions you have with strangers, the coffee. Obviously at the moment that’s not possible, so I’m either in our office or at the kitchen table.
Joanne: How has your experience of living in different countries and cultures influenced your writing?
Laura: Directly, not a lot. I’ve only written a few stories set in other countries (I’ve lived in the Netherlands, Germany and Hong Kong), but everything you see and experience gets filed away. I hope one day to write about these places that have played a big part in my life.
Joanne: What are your literary influences and who are some of your favourite writers?
Laura: Always a tough question because there are too many to mention. My current favourite authors are Elizabeth Strout, most famous for her novel-in-stories: Olive Kitteridge; Kate Atkinson, I think her companion novels Life After Life and A God in Ruins are perfection; and Maggie O’Farrell whose books I love, but it was also after reading an article by her wherein she stated that if you wanted to write, you should “take yourself seriously”. I think that advice completely changed my attitude towards writing.
Joanne: Do you ever write specifically in response to prompts, or call-outs for work on a particular theme, and do you find this useful? Or does your inspiration mainly come from other sources?
Laura: I often write to prompts or call-outs for particular themes, but not exclusively. If I have an idea about something, I’ll jot it down and maybe it won’t be used for months, or years, but I never throw anything away.
Joanne: Flash fiction is less well known, and perhaps less easy to find, than other fiction forms. Are there any online sources of shorter fiction, or printed collections, that you would recommend?
Laura: There are so many online journals for flash fiction, too many to mention here, but I’ll list a few of my favourites: Adhoc Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Fifty Word Stories, Lunate, Reflex Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, Spelk.
Something relatively new, but gaining popularity fast, is the novella-in-flash: a novella, but each chapter is a piece of standalone flash fiction. I’ve read a few recently and really enjoyed them: An Inheritance by Diane Simmons (Adhoc), Dinosaur by Adam Lock (Ellipsis), Three Sisters of Stone by Stephanie Hutton (Ellipsis), The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan (VPress), Tethered by Ross Jeffery.
Joanne: What is your own favourite piece (or pieces) that you’ve written and why?
Laura: I’ve chosen three pieces that are very special to me.
‘Near and Far’ (Spelk, 2018) holds a few threads of my mother’s childhood, she was born and spent the first few years of her childhood in Indonesia;
‘That Apple’ (Fictive Dream, 2018) was my first ever journal publication. It’s written in 2nd person point of view and I know popular opinion generally doesn’t favour this, but personally I love it and use it whenever I can.
‘The Motherhood Contract’ (Ellipsis, 2018) is about a mother who is struggling and there is a lot of my early motherhood emotions in this piece.
Joanne: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
Laura: As well as individual pieces, I’m also working on a novella-in-flash. It’s been several years in the making, but am hoping that this is the year I finish it. I’ve also found myself writing about the current situation a lot, either my own experiences or fictional ones. If there are enough good pieces, hopefully I’ll be able to bundle them together.
Anne: Hello Laura, it’s been really enjoyable reading some of your beautiful poetry. I would like to ask you a few questions about you and your writing. The first thing that struck me when I read a little about you is how young you are, and how prolific and successful already. I must confess to a feeling of envy, as I didn’t really start writing until my late fifties and even then, it took me a while to think of myself as a poet. Can you remember when you first wrote a poem and when you first thought of yourself as a poet?
Laura: Hello Anne! Thank you for your kind comments.
The exact age when I started writing is unremembered, but I must have been very young. I’ve always written in one way or another. Prose could hold my attention for an afternoon, but poetry always stayed with me. I think it was the music. It was lovely on the tongue. Can I remember the first time I wrote a poem? No, I don’t think so. But I can remember writing limericks for my dad in the evenings. I must have been six or seven then. I would slip them under the door of his shed as he worked. It was my way of welcoming him home.
I’ve tended not to think myself as a poet in recent years. I write poetry, yes; but it isn’t my profession. There’s a slight distinction to my mind. My work is still wild and juvenile, and I have a lot to learn. The title is something I’m still reaching for.
Anne: Are you from a background of literature lovers? Who or what sparked your interest in poetry and writing? Who were your early influences – family, friends, teachers?
Laura: I was lucky enough to be born into an older household where my grandparents had a constant presence. I was their only grandchild, and it was as if they grew young again when I came along. For two octogenarians, they played and danced and threw snowballs in winter, and paper planes in summer, and made dens and spinning worlds out of living room furniture. They gave me endless time. My grandmother taught me to read. She collected dusty books and poetry. I spent many evenings by the fire, lost in the folds of her dressing gown, listening to her read in her great gravelly voice. That was where it came from. Nothing taught or learnt. Just two bright imaginations.
Anne: Your writing is beautiful with a lyrical, musical quality. And some of your poems have the atmosphere of folk ballads. Is music a big part of your life? Do you play, listen, at all?
Laura: Yes. It’s strange, but I’ve always heard music in terms of colour and light. A piano is usually blue; a drum is gold; pipes are silver. I don’t have the words for explaining why. It’s an emotional impulse rather than a rational thought.
I play the ukulele and the piano – both equally badly. My mother is an excellent pianist and my father a fine bagpiper, but I’ve never quite had their talent. I love to listen to the piano in the evenings though. Especially through bathwater. Have you tried that? Our piano sits in the room below the bathroom and its aqueous music is beautiful. It’s like warm running water.
Anne: There is a real feel of flow, fluency in your work, Laura, which made me wonder about your writing method and approach. Where do you get your ideas? Do they just come as moments of inspiration?
Laura: Difficult question! I suppose my poems aren’t born as ideas as such. They’re the responses of emotions I’m living at the time of writing. I’ll be aware, for example, that I want to write about love, or grief, or anger, and my thinking will revolve around adequately translating those emotions to the page. But I’ll never set out to write a sonnet or a haiku or a narrative poem, and it’s rare that I’ll set out to write to a particular theme. Ian Duhig once gave me some valuable advice which has stayed with me. He said that writing is a process of carrying emotion, and that you’ll never know where the poem will go until you get there. The thinking and feeling processes are just as important as the writing process. There’s some freedom in realising that, and in letting time take its course. The poems are better for thinking on.
Anne: And do you do much editing – do you worry over a piece?
Laura: Yes, of course. There are times when I love and loathe my work. It’s a constant fight against language. I tend to edit as I write, which makes the process long and laborious, but I’ve learnt to expect the best results that way. A poem can keep me awake at night – for both the right and the wrong reasons. It often brings pleasure and pain. But I’ve come to see that each mistake paves the way towards progress. It’s taken a long time for me to accept that. There’s a reason I keep writing. The love outweighs anything else.
Anne: I asked at the beginning about your earliest influences and am wondering now about later influences through academic study and independent reading. I also read that you have been involved in a number of writing groups and projects.
Are there any poets or other writers who you feel inspired you to become a writer? Did any of them influence your writing style?
Laura: Yes, many. I’ve always believed that the best writers are the best readers. It’s important to step outside the vacuum of your own thoughts and into the work of others. I’ll often find the tracings of other writers in my poems, especially those I was reading at the time of writing. I see Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings and Liz Berry. In certain lights, I see memorable parts of prose and music. Most of them are only subconscious ghosts, fragments of one moment when their words chimed with mine.
Anne: While beautiful, there is an atmosphere of melancholy and sometimes bleakness in many of your poems that I have read. Are you drawn to these subjects from an aesthetic and sensitive care for human’s viewpoint? How much of you as a person, your story, your personality slips into your words or are you able to keep at a remove?
Laura: I think it’s fairly impossible for writers to place themselves at a remove from their work. Their language, their semantics, their structure – they all betray parts of the person who chose them. If I were trying to be objective, I would say that my poems are always concerned with the landscape of my home. Whether Yorkshire exists in them or not, I see it. And I think they’re fascinated with sadness. It’s something I’m still trying to understand. There’s a longing or a loss in there somewhere. I think there’s one in me too.
Anne: Some of your poems have a timeless feel to them such as First Light which is in the Time and Tide anthology by Arachne Press – see your opening lines, It is somewhere in a sometime
That a long late night
And others feel more contemporary such as Morning on the Water where I love the visceral quality of the line, Poured a hot greasy laugh
Are you seeing your writing develop or change as you go along, or do you have a range of styles you work in?
Laura: Yes, it develops from one poem to the next. The progress of my voice has been gradual, like a slow opening of thought. I’ve never set out to have a style as such, but I suppose I’m a very imagistic writer. I don’t like wasting words. With each poem, I try to hone that craft a little more.
I’m sure many readers will be familiar with the process of applying for grants or awards, and the ridiculously long application forms which go with them. Recently, I started thinking about why I dislike them so much. It isn’t the foundation or the reasoning behind them, and it isn’t the time I have to spend on them. It’s the fact that I love to work with a blank white page and play with a limited space. And I wish I didn’t have to spend five thousand words explaining that.
But since that realisation, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the blank space of the page – to its absences and silences – in my recent work. I’ve come to see that what isn’t said is just as important as what is. That’s the development which has just begun.
Anne: And do you have a poem that is a favourite or has a special story that you would like to pick out?
Laura: Yes. Virginity will always be a special one. It was written after a long period of absence when I had managed to write very little. For a time I thought I would never write again. I took myself away, alone, to a secluded cottage in the Lake District. With time and solitude, I managed to write. More than that – I was pleased with the poem. It was a small triumph at the time. It still is. The experience was necessary. It taught me that the words will come back, even after a long absence. I’ve been writing ever since.
Anne: I have really enjoyed reading some of your work in preparation for this interview and look forward to reading more in the future. Good luck, Laura.
Time and Tide
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