So You Wrote a Book? Season Two!
Many years ago, before I was a “real writer”, I envisioned a day when I would have a bookshelf filled with only books by my friends. Today, that bookshelf is about to collapse under its own weight! The So You Wrote a Book? series is my way to shine the spotlight on some of the amazing work being written and to applaud our collective mission to create art that moves us and those around us. Read interviews with:
So You Wrote a Book? Cath Barton
Cath Barton’s award-winning novella, The Plankton Collector, is a modern-day parable, a allegory for a defeated world. The Plankton Collector is that archetype from dreams and fairytales: a hero in disguise who arrives just as one family is on the ledge of their grief. This slim book gives you hope for humanity and lets you remember that angels are among us, watching, and, every so often–stepping in.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:
Cath Barton: Mysterious stranger helps grieving family recover
NS: This is your first published book! Has the process been what you thought it would be?
CB: I really had no idea what the process would be! I entered the book for the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella in 2017, with absolutely no expectation of success as the competition was open to writers throughout the UK and in the whole of North America. So I was amazed and delighted to win, and that the prize included publication.
It was a whole year before the book came out and that seemed an awfully long wait. I understand more about timescales in the publishing industry now!
NS: You say in your Acknowledgements that you weren’t planning to write a novella until challenged. Where did the idea for this story come from? Had this idea always been there or did it come after the challenge?
CB: The family in my book started life in a flash fiction piece I had written as an exercise some time before the challenge, about a boy looking out of his window at his mother visiting the grave of his brother. The graveyard is just beyond their garden. The house, the garden and the graveyard became key locations in the novella, which grew around the death of the brother. As for the Plankton Collector who helps the family, where is came from is as mysterious as everything else about him!
NS: Have you ever met the Plankton Collector?
CB: Not yet, as far as I know, though I could of course have been sitting at the next table to him in a cafe without realising it. As could you!
NS: How did your experience writing flash fiction help you write a novella (or not)?
CB: Yes, I think the discipline of working on flash, making every word is essential, is good training for the novella form, where not only is there no room for excursions from the story, but also, I feel, the emotional content is very concentrated. I like that – I’m not by nature a discursive writer, and I appreciate the challenge of making a story as taut as possible.
NS: The Plankton Collector won the 2017 New Welsh Writing award—congratulations! Do you consider yourself a Welsh Writer? If so, what does that mean to you?
CB: Thank you! The answer to that is yes – and no! I wasn’t born in Wales, so I’m not Welsh. I have lived here since 2005, and I do have an affinity with the country, but so I do with England, where I was born, and Scotland, where my parents were from. I identify as a British writer and also, I might add, as a European one.
Of course, as a writer living in Wales I have access to some specific writing opportunities, for which I’m very grateful. I was given mentoring support through Literature Wales last year, which helped me complete a collection of short stories.
NS: You have another book coming out later this year, I believe? What can we expect from that book? How is it similar/different from The Plankton Collector?
CB: I’ve got a second novella coming out in September 2020. It’s called In the Sweep of the Bay, which refers to Morecambe Bay, in north west England, where it’s set. It’s about a family as The Plankton Collector is, but focussing on the joys and sorrows of a long marriage, so the emphasis is different. And there’s no magical realism is this one.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
CB: Concentrate on the writing – tell your story the way you want to. Don’t think about publication until you’ve got the book done.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
CB: Thanks so much for inviting me along, Nancy!
The Plankton Collector is available in the US through Amazon as an e-book and also in paperback.
Also through Barnes and Noble as a paperback or NOOK book.
UK readers can order on-line through Amazon, Gwales or any branch of Waterstones.
Cath Barton’s prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and her short story collection, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Retreat West Books in early 2021. Cath is also active in the on-line flash fiction community and is a regular contributor to the online critical hub Wales Arts Review.https://cathbarton.com/ @CathBarton1
So You Wrote a Book? Charmaine Wilkerson
Charmaine Wilkerson’s prize winning novella-in-flash, How to Make a Window Snake, is a spinning constellation that orbits one family’s grief, circling around and around what cannot be said…or forgotten. Her narrative is crisp, dense and deep–the entire iceberg under the water. Paired with the two runners-up for the Bath Novella-in-Flash award, A Safer Way to Fall by Joanna Campbell, and Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping by Ingrid Jendrzejewski, How to Make a Window Snake is a trifeca of a book and an incredible showcase of the form.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this story in 6 words.
Charmaine Wilkerson: Loving family. Menacing lake. Fake snake.
NS: Talk about the novella in flash form. How do you see it as different than, say a flash novel? Or not?
CW: The magical thing about the novella-in-flash is that each chapter can be read like a stand-alone piece of flash fiction, even though the parts add up to a larger story. By contrast, I tend to think that a flash novel can be more loosely structured, especially if it runs two or three hundred pages, as long as the chapters are short and pack the same sensory or emotional punch that I expect from a piece of flash fiction. Your own Monster Opera does that. And, in my mind, the term flash novel could be applied to books like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
NS: I absolutely agree (and thank you!) Was this story being written already or did it happen as a result of the form? Chicken or Egg? Have you tried to tell this story in other ways?
CW: Chicken, definitely. Actually, this story was more like a bunch of baby chicks, fuzzy little mini stories, dashing back and forth across the same dirt yard, pecking at different themes here and there, until one day, a mother hen waddled over and said, Hey, you chicks, you’re all part of my brood, so get on over here! I didn’t try to tell this story in any other way, though I did write other flashes in this series that were not included in the novella.
NS: My very favorite thing about this story is your use of repetition—each story stands alone but echoes the previous stories—circular rather than linear. But the repetition feels necessary, not superfluous. Talk about that choice.
CW: Thank you. Finally, someone who doesn’t complain when I repeat myself! Seriously, I do tend to come back to certain words or phrases or rhythms when I write, though not always. In this novella, the repetition emerged naturally but I took time to sharpen the pattern during the final editing stages. I saw this as a way to strengthen the connections between the chapters, since the narrative goes back and forth in time and skips from one character’s point of view to the next.
NS: I find it interesting that the family in this story is circling around their own griefs—what do you think the story/form says about grief?
CW: One aspect of the human experience that continues to intrigue me is how, despite the power which grief has to alter us, we may still be able to love and play and have meaningful and satsifying lives. I found that writing about these different characters in short passages made it easier to mix these dimensions and, also, introduce other issues which they were facing.
NS: Are there other books whose form inspired you as you were creating this?
CW: One book I can recall going back to while writing this story was My Very End of the Universe, an anthology put out by Rose Metal Press with stories by five masters of the form. The authors’ accompanying essays held great resonance for me, especially Meg Pokrass’s discussion of creating a narrative from “scraps” and Aaron Teel’s discussion of “mimicking memory” through flash fiction. It felt as though these two essays were speaking to what I was writing that year.
NS: How to Make a Window Snake won the first Bath Novella-in-Flash award and was published in one book with the runners up, A Safer Way to Fall by Joanna Campbell and Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping by Ingrid Jendrzejewski. How do you see these novellas playing off of each other?
CW: I am immensely grateful to the Bath Flash Fiction group and Ad Hoc Fiction for embracing this form of expression. It was very exciting to see such different stories selected by one judge, Meg Pokrass, and published together. The language used from cover to cover ranges from chatty to poetic to surreal. What I think these novellas-in-flash have in common is an intense gaze, heightened by details that leave a trail of emotion in their wake.
NS: I found it extremely unusual that none of your stories were published before the manuscript was submitted. How wonderfully risky! Your thoughts around publishing excerpts vs saving it all?
CW: The decision to share excerpts beforehand should be determined by the individual writer, based on their objectives and how those aims fit with the requirements of the magazines and book publishers on their wish list. In my case, not publishing individual flashes wasn’t really a risky move because they were all such new stories, anyway. I did submit a couple of the flashes to other outlets but soon received word that I had won the Bath competition, so that was that.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
CW: When I write fiction, I don’t think of it as a book. I think of it, first and always, as a story, or just an idea that needs to be captured. And I don’t always write what I’m thinking. I might take a snapshot or record natural sound on my mobile phone. I have a lot of recordings of water—the sea, a lake, a brook. The sound helps me to see things. Someone else might prefer to sit down and plot out everything ahead of time. What’s important is that you allow yourself to do whatever works for you in the drafting stages of a story, whatever helps you slip into that creative stream.
NS: Thank you for playing, Charmaine!
To buy How to Make a Window Snake: https://bookshop.adhocfiction.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=65&products_id=182
Charmaine Wilkerson lives in Rome, Italy. Her stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Best Microfiction 2019, 100 Word Story, The Common, New Flash Fiction Review, FlashBack Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Bending Genres, Reflex Fiction and Spelk. Her novella How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the UK’s Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018.
So You Wrote a Book? Vanessa Gebbie
In Vanessa Gebbie’s new chapbook, Nothing to Worry About, the body really is a wonderland! Gebbie’s brand of surrealism hinges on bizarre manifestations of the physical body—a wife turns to metal; a wife is dropping “pieces” of herself all around the house; a wife’s body becomes a flock of birds with her heart at the center. It’s deceptively light-hearted but hints at deeper metaphors around identity—are we our bodies? Or are they just fleshy appendages with their own agendas? Gebbie manages to get at the heart of this paradox with a wry little smirk on her face.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in 6 words.
Vanessa Gebbie: Fun, off the wall, slightly worrying…
NS: I love your weird sensibility. Did you always write weird or was this an evolution?
VG: Not an evolution but just a way of seeing things. I always see life sideways, I’m lucky like that. However, I’d not let myself collect together the stories that came out sideways, believing that maybe a ‘serious’ writer wasn’t meant to be funny. Now, I’m a bit wiser. Funny is often a stage on the road to understanding sadness.
NS: Humor is touchy. Is British humor different than American humor?
VG: Well, I don’t know… I used to watch Friends with my son and wonder what the hell was funny when he and the audience were falling about. Quite often comic situations either side of the pond are at someone’s expense, aren’t they? Example: The clown trips over her shoes, treads on one end of a plank and gets hit on the nose by the other end. I never understood why that was funny, either. But ordinary life… its twists and turns, misunderstandings and non sequiturs … can be unintentionally hilarious. I think it’s when people try too hard to be funny that it isn’t. Or they aren’t. (eyes to heaven intentional!)
NS: What makes weird work and when does it not work?
VG: I don’t know the answer to that. All I know is, if a weird situation makes sense for that character, within that story, then that’s fine. It’s the joy of flash, or one of them, for this writer. Flash can sustain irreality neatly, whereas a longer story might labour the point too much. Is that it?
NS: Who is your favorite weird writer?
VG: Golly, loads of fantastic writers write marvellously strange worlds, don’t they. Adam Marek comes to mind… but also, I’ve just read a marvellous flash by Tania Hershman on Smokelong. Her portrayal of human interactions, with their marvellous fractured patterns and frequent blind alleys, are a kaleidoscope of images and half-sense meanings. The effect is that the reader gets what’s happening without ever having anything spelled out. Which makes me ask what is ‘weird’ anyway? Isn’t it just ‘normal’ seen through a prism?
NS: “The Door” is one of my favorite pieces in this book, and I read that it was written for and performed at Stand Up Tragedy at the Leicester Square Theater in London. Performed by you or others? How do you see the intersection of writing and performance?
VG: “The Door” was a commission, and just for one performer: me. I’d never thought of myself as a performer, and still don’t – the word conjures up performing sea-lions rewarded with fish. But I guess, when I write anything, , I ‘hear’ a piece in my head, and always always listen to it read out loud when I think it’s finished. It never is. Reading out loud to myself is an integral part of the editing process, so maybe reading it out loud for an audience isn’t that far removed? Is that the intersection? If it sounds OK to me, maybe it will sound OK to others.
NS: Speaking of performance, I’ve seen you read your work before, and you are quite hilarious. I especially remember hearing you read “Selected Advice for Strangers.” Does reading your work to an audience come naturally? Where did you get so funny?
VG: It is nice to make people happy. No idea where being funny came from, unless it’s a necessary balance to being serious? Mind you, I used to read stories to my school friends a long while back, and make them either squirm with my horror stories, or giggle… I prefer the laughter.
NS: This is not your first book—you also have several books of fiction including the collections A Short History of Synchronised Breathing, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures, Words from a Glass Bubble, and the highly praised novel, The Coward’s Tale. How does Nothing to Worry About build on your previous works?
VG: It’s my 9th or 10th depending if you count different editions as two. I’ve just finished the first messy draft of 11 (or 10), another novel. Nothing to Worry About collects together strange, irreal, often funny pieces. It came out at the same time, or nearly, as a collection of longer short stories, all equally weird. Funny but with more than a grain of truth behind the laughs.
NS: Nothing to Worry About is published by Flash: The International Short Story Press. Can you talk about your road to publication?
VG: Sure… my road to publication began back in 2002 when I decided to write. I always had, as a young person at school and college, then stopped. So it was time to kick start creativity again. I wasn’t young.
I concentrated on short form fiction, despite teachers at university telling me that I was better off writing a novel. I didn’t feel I had all that time to waste… and short forms were so much more satisfying, doable, yet challenging.
My first book was a collection of prizewinning short stories. Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt) came out in 2008. It was followed by a text book on the art of the short story , for which I was commissioning and contributing editor. Since then it’s been a book a year. I’m lucky, I write across boundaries- so have three short story collections, two flash collections, two poetry collections, two editions of that text book, and a novel. I’ve just completed a first draft of novel number two, the first work that is not based on shorter fiction forms. It will take a lot of editing, but it’s been fun. A great mix of humour and violence.
NS: In addition to your many books of fiction, you’ve also written several editions of a book on the craft of writing, Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. The first edition of that book came out 10 years ago, in 2009. How has the form changed since you first started writing and teaching it?
VG: Interesting things have been happening… I think boundaries are breaking down, definitions are loosening. Hybrid works, fascinating works of art comprising prose, poem, dramatised scenes, non fiction, anything… exciting times. The rise of performance opportunities too… short forms are perfect for that.
NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?
VG: You want to write a book? First ask yourself why. Be honest. There is a difference between ‘I want to be a writer’ and ‘I want to write’. We’ve all met the ‘want to be a writer’ types. They dress the part, usually in black, always look ill, and talk endlessly about writing, but what else?? Do they actually do it? Probably not. Avoid! The writers I know don’t look like “writers”.
So you really want to write? Good for you. Then read. Read more. And more. And write. Write more. Learn as much as you can, try everything, let yourself make mistakes. Seek the company of, and feedback from others who understand what you’re trying to do. Offer them your honest feedback too.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
VG: Enjoy the ride. Keep reading.
Never think you’ve learned it all. You never will.
And if you want to buy my book, please support publishers or independent bookshops.
So You Wrote a Book? Jayne Martin
Kicking off Season 2 of So You Wrote a Book? is the one and only Jayne Martin and her debut flash fiction collection, Tender Cuts!
From my blurb: “Tender Cuts is about seeing and not seeing, what we are blind to and what’s right in front of us. In this debut flash fiction collection Jayne Martin’s writing is compact, dense, often heartbreaking, always illuminating, and woven with a strange nostalgia; she has a way of reconciling the child with the adult, the pain with the beauty of tragedy, the tragedy still seeded with hope.”
I’m so excited to welcome Jayne Martin!
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:
Jayne Martin: Tiny tales for the time challenged.
NS: This is your first book of flash fiction but not your first book—you also have a book of humor essays, “Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with A Side of Wry.” Talk about how you have changed as a writer from that first book to Tender Cuts.
JM: All that’s changed really is my focus. I still enjoy writing humor, though little of it finds its way into my flash. In the humor essays, I reveal much more of myself, while the stories in “Tender Cuts” are 100% fiction. I’m probably a much better writer, but you do this stuff long enough you can’t help but get better and I’m into my fourth decade now. In “Suitable for Giving,” I could be self-indulgent. Flash has got to be tight. Get in, get out, and keep it moving. I have a keener eye for edits now and much less resistance to “killing my darlings.”
NS: Your stories are accompanied by illustrations by Janice Whitby and Indigo Roth. The style of the illustrations almost seem like doodles, the kind you would find carved into desks or doodled onto notebook paper. What was your vision for including images with your stories?
JM: There are so many collections out there. It’s hard to make yours stand out. I wanted to give the readers another way to experience the story. The drawing for the title story is a heart with a crack and a bandage over it. The heart motif continues throughout to reinforce the theme of cuts or wounds that the characters experience. The “doodle” style was chosen to add a bit of whimsy because many of the stories are quite dark.
NS: Julie Sue is a reoccurring character in this book. She first shows up as a young “pageant princess” and by the end of the book she is a mother with her own daughter. Where did the character of Julie Sue come from?
JM: Julie-Sue originated in your November 2016 Flash Nano from the prompt “winning a prize.” It went on to be published in MoonPark Review’s first issue. When I was assembling the collection, I knew I needed a spine to hold it together, so I wrote the three additional Julie-Sue stories, which have not been seen until now. Once I had those, I had a structure for the book. And I owe it all to you. 😊
NS: Awww, you are too kind, Jayne! I’m thrilled to be part of your process. Now your stories tend to be really short. Always or is short a continuing evolution?
JM: Miniatures appeal to me. Micro has a lot in common with bonsai. Having said that, unless I’m writing for a particular word-count guideline, it’s rarely my intention to write so short. Most of the time the story just ends and I’m as surprised as anyone else. Occasionally, the Cosmos will bless me with a sentence that blows me away. At that point, I say, “Well, it ain’t gonna get better than that.” But mostly, when it’s done it’s done.
NS: You used to write for television (your credits include “Big Spender” for Animal Planet and “A Child Too Many,” “Cradle of Conspiracy” and “Deceived By Trust” for Lifetime.) How has television writing helped you as a flash writer (or not)?
JM: It’s helped enormously. Movies for network television, even more so than big-screen, are regimentally structured to fit a 93-minute time slot. Each has seven acts to accommodate six commercial breaks, and each act has a defined number of scenes. As in flash, the writer must enter the scene late, move the story along and leave before it’s resolved. This is especially true of act breaks where the audience has the power of the remote so you better leave them wanting more.
NS: Love the absurdity in your story “Lobster in a Laundromat”—it’s simple but brings up a deeper truth of how we all want to be desired and “seen”, even by a lobster and even in my blurb I say your book is about the many ways we are seen. Talk about this theme in your writing? Is in intentional or unconscious?
JM: Thank you. “Lobster” came out of a Meg Pokrass workshop on writing the surreal. Most of my stories sway heavily toward realism and I wanted to stretch. As soon as I had the first line, I had the story. It was a fun write. I’d say the theme you mention is more unconscious than intentional, but then I never know what a story is going to be until it’s written. I try not to overthink the process, because my best works have always been happy accidents.
NS: You won the Vera Prize for “When the Bough Breaks,” which appears in Tender Cuts, and you have also won or been nominated for various other prizes. How important do you think contests are for a flash writing career?
JM: Receiving an award or a nomination is a lovely thing. In an industry that most often rejects us, it’s a wonderful validation, a boost of encouragement. As to importance in terms of a career, I don’t really know. It looks nice on my bio, but I don’t think any journal has ever published me just because I won a Vera. Every day is a new blank page. Every day you’re Sisyphus at the bottom of the damn hill and you have to prove yourself all over again. Maybe it matters more when one is looking back over their accomplishments at the end of a career.
NS: Tender Cuts is published by Vine Leaves Press. Can you talk about your pathway to publication?
JM: I’m a big believer in the power of intent and its ability to bring about the means to achieve a goal once that goal is clearly defined and infused with energy. You can’t just say you want something and then sit on your ass and do nothing. The Universe rewards action. With that in mind, my clear intent was to find a publisher and failing to find one was never a consideration. I’m a Taurus. What can I say?
I started by approaching publishers who had published other collections by writers I admire. I also utilized Poets & Writers database, combing through site after site. I’d gotten several of my blurbs already and I included those with my query letters. I think all together I submitted to six publishers. Vine Leaves Press used to publish Vine Leaves Journal, which solicited what they called “vignettes” and I call micro-fiction. I got an offer from them in three weeks and I could not have found a more perfect fit for the book. They’re a dream to work with.
NS: Your best advice to someone writing a book?
JM: I didn’t set out to write a book. The 38 stories in “Tender Cuts” were gleaned from a folder of stories going back to 2010. In 2017, I finally saw a through line in terms of a theme and the collection began to take form. In terms of setting out to write a book, I can only draw on my experience writing screenplays. You need a story compelling enough to drag you along because the time commitment is huge. Something you have to write because you can’t shake the damn thing any other way. I can only imagine it’s that way for a book, as well.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
I often hear the flash community express frustration about the lack of attention from the larger publishing world: “When are they going to notice us?”
We flash writers tend to be an insular bunch. Sometimes it seems like we’re writing more for each other than to entertain an audience. We all submit to and read the same journals and buy each other’s books, but few “civilians,” those non-writing folks who just want to escape into a good story, have heard of any of those journals or any of us.
That brings us back to the aforementioned description of my book in six words: Tiny tales for the time challenged. I’ve heard it said that it’s insulting to the genre to describe it that way. I disagree. Having put the sweat into writing the book, now I’d actually like to sell a few copies, and recognizing that people experience a constant demand for their finite amount of time is part of that effort. So is writing stories that don’t require an MFA to understand.
Getting the attention of the larger publishing world may just be a matter of inviting them into ours.
Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her flash fiction collection, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available now by visiting her website: www.jaynemartin-writer.com.
Preorders are available now from Amazon U.S. & U.K, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s. Links on Jayne’s spiffy new website!
Jayne Martin lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she rides horses and drinks copious amounts of fine wines, though not at the same time. She is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions nominee, and a recipient of Vestal Review’s VERA award. Her flash fiction collection, “Tender Cuts,” from Vine Leaves Press, is available now by visiting her website: