A few months ago, I was lucky enough to host an interview with Flash-Fiction writer Tim Stevenson. Today on Why Words Work, I’m happy to welcome another accomplished Flash-Fiction author onto my blog: Calum Kerr!
Calum Kerr is the founder and director of National Flash-Fiction Day, Professor and Teacher of Creative Writing with the Winchester School of Art, managing editor at Gumbo Press, as well as a freelance writer, academic and editor.
Known in the UK as a leading authority in Flash-Fiction, he has a wide selection of anthologies and publications under his belt, including a writing guide to Flash-Fiction titled The World in a Flash: How to Write Flash-Fiction.
I am so, so excited to interview Calum. So let’s not waste any more time. Time to get these questions going!
Every writer has their humble beginnings: How/When did you first realise that you have an incredible knack for writing?
That’s a question that presupposes quite a lot. I would say that, most of the time, I feel I’m still living those humble beginnings. All new pieces have the same potential to crash and burn as any other, no matter how much experience you have.
That said, I can admit that I have found a facility with writing, and have improved over the years to be somewhere where I can fairly judge the quality of my own writing, and hope to make it readable to others.
In terms of a moment, however, there was actually a single event that spurred me on. I was in my mid-teens and had been writing on and off for a few years. I read an interview with a writer – I think it was probably Stephen King, who writes and speaks so well about the practice of writing – and he said that a key moment for any writer was when they read something that had been published and thought, ‘I could do better than this.’
It’s the moment when you realise that what you produce could actually be good enough to be picked up, published, and maybe find an audience. Not long after reading that interview, I read a novel by, well, let’s be discrete and just say it was one of King’s contemporaries, and thought… ‘Yes, I can do better than this,’ and that was a real key moment for me.
Of course, the first time I got a story published was another, and the first time I had a collection published, and the first time I was asked to do a reading, and…
I think, what I want to say is that there is never really one moment, but many of them, but each is the realisation of a new ambition which only leads to the next.
One of your greatest achievements has been founding and directing the UK’s National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD). What compelled you to create NFFD?
At the end of 2009, at an academic conference, I attended a workshop in which I learned what flash-fiction was, and I wrote my first two flashes and read them out.
Afterwards, people were stopping me to ask if I had really written them in the session. That gave me a boost to write more, and to start sending them out for publication.
As a result of one publication, I became friends with the poet Jo Bell who was, at the time, the Director of National Poetry Day. That made me wonder if there was a National Flash-Fiction Day that I could be involved with.
I asked around among the flash writers I knew, and when I discovered there wasn’t, I suggested that maybe I should start one up. There was such an enthusiastic response, that I did it – not knowing how much work it would be, but also how popular it would be – and the rest is history.
Now that it’s going into its sixth year, do you think you could have forseen NFFD’s popularity when you started gathering support?
Even the first year was enough to surprise me. I came up with the proposition, as outlined above, but was still fairly new to the world of flash-fiction. I had no idea it would be so popular, or that so many people would get involved. Nor that people would be so keen to give up their time and effort to help make it a success.
Now, as you say, it’s having its sixth year and it just goes from strength to strength. And this year I have a co-director, Tino Prinzi – a rising star in the flash scene, and just a great writer. He helped me out in the last two years, but this year is more or less running it with just a little help from me.
The support from people like Tino – and others such as Tim Stevenson, Kevlin Henney and Amy Mackelden – has really helped to make it what it is. It’s a community, rather than a day, and it is such a privilege to be part of it.
A fresh pile of submissions for the NFFD Flash-Fiction Contest has landed on your desk. What do you look forward to the most? And what do you absolutely dread?
I like to read stories that surprise me. Maybe it’s the use of language, maybe the imagery, maybe the way it conjures a much larger story in so few words. Less often, it’s the twist in the tail – something which gets a little hackneyed after a while.
What do I dread? Well, in every batch there seem to be particular themes which come to the fore. A few years ago it was stories set in train stations – no idea why – but when you’re reading your twentieth or thirtieth, it gets a bit tiring.
There are also a couple of perennial themes which tend to make the heart sink. Suicide is, perhaps surprisingly, one of them – writers are a depressive bunch, I guess – and dementia is another. These are important issues – both of which I have had to deal with in my own life – but when story after story deals with them, it is the rare writer who can find something new to say.
Of course, that said, occasionally a writer does manage to take a tired topic and do something new and unexpected with it, and that takes you back to the top of this answer, I suppose: surprise me.
Due to the limited word count of Flash-Fiction, the narrative of the story needs to be carefully crafted. However, when writing your own flash-fiction, how do you know what to keep and what to cut? Is it an instinctual feeling, from years of experience, or do you have a trick that you can share?
Part of it is in the initial writing. It comes with practice, for sure, but part of it is just having been immersed in narrative for most of my life – books, songs, films, TV, video games, etc. – and having an understanding of how story works.
The trick then, is to pick the pivotal moment in a larger story – not necessarily the end, but something from which both the earlier story and the continuation can be inferred – that will make a good tale in and of itself, and to focus on that.
Writing that is about dramatizing the moment or moments you have chosen, and to provide the rest to the reader through suggestion and implication – and through the choice of language.
Editing is then a refining process. You need to remove repetition; an idea only needs expressing once: trust the reader to do the work. You can also then craft the language in terms of word choice, rhythm, sentence length, etc. to get the greatest effect.
So much of flash is about what isn’t on the page, rather than what is, that the editing is about providing the pieces, the signposts, that will allow the reader to construct what isn’t there.
Of course, that relies on an informed and engaged reader, but if you provide just the right moments then the engagement should happen.
On your website, you say that Flash-Fiction sits in the grey area between Short Story and Poetry. Other than length, what exactly prevents Flash-Fiction from falling into either side?
I think it’s exactly what I was saying before. A flash-fiction will often do the same job as a short story – taking characters on a journey – but it does so by borrowing the language tricks of poetry: semantic fields, suggestion, imagery, mirroring, rhythm, etc. to describe the story and present it, almost in kit form, rather than having to provide it already built.
To that extent, flash-fictions can be longer than the stipulated word count – as long as what would be considered short stories – and still be flash because of the use of implication. Conversely, it is possible to write a short story at 500 words which is just that, and not a flash at all.
With that in mind, I think, to go back to one of my earlier answers, that flash fictions that have a twist in the tail are often trying to do too much, and are more like short stories than flashes. Maybe that’s why I take against them.
“Creative Writing courses are a waste of time…I really don’t think it’s worth spending so much money on something that, with a bit of initiative and determination, you could do by yourself.“ As a teacher of Creative Writing, what do you think about this statement?
Well, as a teacher of Creative Writing, I obviously think it’s a load of foetid dingo’s kidneys (thank you Douglas Adams) but you would expect me to say that, otherwise I would be doing myself out of a job.
However, as a writer, I also think it’s short-sighted and patronising.
When I started out, in the town where I lived, the creative writing courses were few and far between. There was no such thing as a BA course in Creative Writing, there was an MA over at UEA, and the PhD courses hadn’t reached out shores yet. I had initiative and determination, and yes, I found out a lot by myself.
But the time I spent in trying to work things out for myself could so much better have been spent actually working on decent writing, rather than making mistakes that others had made before me and which, with some good teaching, I could have been steered away from.
The whole of academia – in whatever field you work, and at whatever level – is about learning from what has already been discovered and then putting yourself in a position to build on that, rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’.
Hell, I remember during my early years of writing, that I finally worked out that you didn’t have to write every moment of a character’s day. You could just stop a scene and then pick up with ‘Next day…’ or even ‘Ten years later…’ if you wished. It was a valuable insight, but I had probably taken a year to get there, where a decent writing tutor would have pointed it out to me straight away.
I would agree that it’s nigh-on impossible to teach imagination, and that one of the most valuable things a writer can do is to read as much as possible, but that does not mean that things like craft and style cannot be taught.
If Creative Writing courses are claiming to make you a published writer, or even if the students are doing the course for that reason alone, I would agree there is a problem. Creative writing is just one of the forms of art that make up a civilised society. But if the course foregrounds the craft and the joy of writing, then helping people to be better at it and not make the mistakes of their predecessors is a worthy thing.
Check out Calum Kerr’s Anthologies Here!
Time for some personal questions! First off: Which two writers have inspired you the most and why?
Only two? Sheesh…
Okay, first I would have to say Douglas Adams. I was given a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the point I was making the transition from children’s books to adult ones (very little in the way of Young Adult fiction back in the early 80s) and it totally captivated me.
His writing then became quite an obsession for me for many years – still is, I suppose – because of the way he used his wit and intelligence to unpick some massive themes (life, death, religion, politics, law and order, capitalism, towels) while never losing sight of the need to write an engaging plot.
Much of my work owes a lot to him in that I have a slightly slanted perspective of the world, and can never resist putting in a joke when one presents itself.
The other writer would be Iain Banks. When I left school, I initially went off to study a Chemistry degree. My intention was still be a writer, but I found the subject interesting and thought I could probably get a job in it. But then The Crow Road came out.
I knew nothing about the book or the author, but the cover caught my eye so I bought it. I devoured it, and then made a similar banquet of his other books – discovering quite quickly that he also wrote science-fiction under the name Iain M. Banks.
His writing is sublime, with turns of phrase that give you shivers, but he also taught me that you didn’t just have to be one kind of writer, but could do whatever you liked, and that genre was a construct rather than a strict delineation.
Reading him led to me other contemporary writers and almost directly to be dropping out of Chemistry and taking English instead (no writing BAs remember). An MA and a PhD later, and here I am, a Creative Writing academic with published books and a love of what I do.
Do you have any new books/anthologies/projects on the way that you can share?
Well, at present the editing is going on for the new NFFD anthology – Tino and Meg Pokrass on editing duties this year – in which I will have a story. It will be launched on Flash-Fiction Day itself, which this year is 24th June, and will be part of the first every Literary Festival for flash, which will be fun. It’s always a great event and I’m really looking forward to it.
Personally, I haven’t got much coming up in the way of publications, but am working on a new novel, while editing my last one in preparation for submission, and you know how time consuming all that can be.
So, nothing major, just plugging away: the unglamorous reality of the writer.
And finally, what piece of advice do you want to give to all the writers out there trying to make their way into this industry?
Well, first, can I question the use of the word industry? If you’re only writing to make money, than I think you are likely to be quite disappointed. Most writers don’t make a living from their work alone. However, if you want to succeed as a writer – by whatever method you wish to measure that success – I would suggest you do five things:
Read as much, and as many different things as you can.
Write as much, and as many different things as you can.
Submit your writing for publication and listen to any advice you get from editors, even in rejections.
Believe in your own work.
Another huge thank you to Calum Kerr for this fantastic interview! Don’t forget to check out his Twitter, Website, and National Flash-Fiction Day! And hey, if you know an author looking for an interview, don’t hesitate to contact me here, or via Twitter @ERHollands.