Michael Loveday’s debut novella-in-flash, Three Men on the Edge, is a story in three movements, a triptych of liminal spaces that forces the reader to consider the interior landscapes of others and how rarely we intersect with or even understand the tortured lives of our nearest neighbors, friends, strangers.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Michael Loveday: “For sale. Crazy muse. Never porn.” (that’s Hemingway, right?)
NS: Ahem–of course (wink)! Now your bio says that you are “inspired by his experiences of an in-between place.” Explain. Do you think we are all living in in-between places in some form or another?
ML: The specific inspiration for ‘Three Men on the Edge’ was the weird hinterland between northwest London and the Hertfordshire countryside where I lived for ten years – an urban-rural “edgeland” that became the setting for the book. These kinds of places (neither fully city nor countryside) are quite a common phenomenon in 21st century capitalism, certainly in the West (and of course have been so for a while).
But it’s true I was interested in liminal states in an emotional and abstract sense too. The geographical edgeland is a backdrop for describing those.
I guess in some sense this human experience is always one of “becoming”, as much as we might crave it to be only one of “being”. The more the pace of the world seems to speed up through cultural and technological change, the more we always seem to be hurtling towards some other way of living.
NS: I read this almost like the three movements of a symphony with a fast-slow-fast movement. Talk about your organizational choices?
ML: Yes I guess you’re right. I knew I had three separate but related sequences of short prose pieces, adding up to a kind of triptych, all linked by the shared setting (and certain shared themes about relationships and mental health).
Originally I had the middle sequence (‘The Invisible World’) as the last one. It stood out as different – more meditative, more descriptive, closer to prose poems, and as much about the watery landscape of the canals and lakes of Rickmansworth as it is about a person. I thought, naively, it would be a more substantial way to end the book. But it was just sort of dangling out there as a third limb.
It was my wife who suggested putting this section in the middle. She was so obviously right! With the new order, there was a sense of symmetry, the energy picked up again in the final third, the mood became (slightly!) more comic again, and the pieces more character-driven once again. It also created the pattern that the main protagonists became progressively younger in age through the course of the book.
NS: I find it interesting that all three of the men in here are defined in some way by the women in their lives—loveless marriage, dead wife, fantasy woman. Comment.
ML: Yep, and I’d argue they’re defined by a need for non-sexual female companionship too. Women have been influential, stabilising influences in my own life and the book was intended as an exploration of what can happen to men if they aren’t connected in a healthy way to women, or to the feminine principle in general. I think it’s a big problem in some parts of our culture.
NS: You have super detailed eye to nature, especially in the second movement (Gus). Are you a secret botanist or gardener?
ML: Oh gosh I’m terrible! I never know the names for anything and am always wondering “what the hell type of plant is that?” If I had more time I’d definitely do a course of study in it. The book was a deliberate act of witnessing in terms of the local landscape, but I had to work with terms and concepts that were fairly familiar to my suburban soul. Eco-fiction for the suburbs?
NS: All three of these men are living lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau would say. It makes me wonder (and this has been a topic of conversation in wider circles): do you think we talk enough about men’s darkest emotions and weaknesses?
ML: There’s been improvement but I think there’s so much further we could go as a society. When I had my own struggles with my mental health starting in the mid-90s I had no preparation for it, no vocabulary or language or comfort with the territory. I was very aware of the fact that I was embarking into terrain that would mean I lost connection with some of my “closest” male friends. And I did. Not with all, but with some.
Things have got better in general since then, at least for the broad majority I think, in terms of awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health issues. But we can go further. So many men are carrying profound wounds that are unexplored or unexpressed and just get acted out – in violence, aggression, intimidation, ruthlessness, lust for power, competitiveness, lack of empathy, problematic relationships etc. There are examples at the very top of our social food chain in both the US and the UK!
I’m very interested in the idea, from Jung, that we all need to come to terms with the feminine and masculine impulses within us, anima and animus as Jung put it, reconcile them and learn to express them healthily. I’m still working on this! (And when I’ve figured it out that’ll probably be the death of me as a writer! Haha).
NS: Your stories share locations—Bury Lake, Our Lady Help of Christians, etc. In Part 1, Denholm is even making a town diorama, which seems very telling. How does the shared location—or even just the location itself—facilitate these stories?
ML: My experience of this particular suburban “edgeland” was that I had very ambivalent feelings about living there – I felt like I was neither in London nor in the countryside, neither belonging nor not belonging, geographically on the margins, with something very significant glimpsed further off.
The physical experience of the landscape was the foundation for being between states emotionally too. I had this idea that “edgeland” locations might be sites for ambivalent, transitional, liminal experiences in fiction or poetry. (And it’s true – it’s reflected in films and TV, for example, when so many acts of transgression or secretive (often criminal!) acts take place on run-down industrial estates or in neglected woods or in empty warehouses out on the edge of town).
Rickmansworth is in the Three Rivers District of Hertfordshire, a valley where the Gade, Chess and Colne rivers converge (and feed into the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham). The manuscript began (as my MA dissertation) as something called “Three Rivers, Rickmansworth”, with the idea that each of the three third-person voices was a different “river”. So landscape and geography were feeding into it from the start.
NS: The three men’s stories don’t overtly overlap but they pass by one another, almost “pass the baton” from one to the next. This is one of those clever tricks that the flash novella form allows us to do. Talk about the form and how it informed the way you told these stories?
ML: Oh gosh. I could bore people for days about the novella-in-flash! Working on ‘Three Men on the Edge’ kindled what i think is going to be a lifelong love affair with the form. I’ve since written essays about it for SmokeLong Quarterly [http://www.smokelong.com/strange-feasts-and-where-to-find-them-twelve-more-great-flash-fiction-novels-novellas-part-iii/] and been lucky enough to judge the Bath Flash Fiction Award Novella-in-Flash competition for the past couple of years.
As I developed the book, I did a lot of research, exploring examples and “permission-givers” that might inspire me and influence me. There are so many great examples of novellas-in-flash or “flash novels” out there – your own included. I was conscious of the fact that I wanted ‘Three Men on the Edge’ to add something new to the conversation, so I tried to make it as close to prose poetry as the form could bear and use the structure of three related “mini-novellas” set in the same location.
I knew some readers who were looking for a stronger sense of plot might struggle with the book – there are other novellas-in-flash that have a much more explicit narrative arc, like a traditional novel has. But I hoped that other readers, perhaps ones who separately enjoyed reading poetry, might find it an interesting and unusual way of reading fiction, one where you’re asked to fill in lots of “gaps” – a suggestion of narrative rather than an actual narrative.
NS: This is your first book of prose, and it was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards—congrats! Talk about your path to publication.
ML: Thanks! I spent a long time struggling with the project. It was hard writing three mini-novellas at once, especially when I hadn’t written fiction before. I could really have done with a mentor, but I didn’t think I could afford to pay for one, and I didn’t dare inflict all my drafts on my friends – I drafted well over 200 stories for it from 2011 to 2017, although only 64 made it into the final manuscript.
A writer who read one late draft (not far off the final manuscript – about 25 pages short of the final version) suggested I send it to her publisher. That was around December 2016. I got my hopes up, as a result, and was gutted when it was rejected – the publisher was planning a transition into an “even more experimental” direction, they said.
But ultimately that nudged me to do some more editing and add some more stories to beef up the manuscript – I basically rediscovered a number of stories that I’d written but abandoned over the previous few years of editing, and I couldn’t understand why I’d overlooked them. It was weird encountering them again – like someone else had written them. But the manuscript was better off for including them. I’m now relieved that that earlier version didn’t get published.
In the meantime, I’d read a couple of V. Press flash fiction pamphlets and liked them very much. Because of the hybrid nature of the manuscript, I knew I wanted to send it to a publishing house that dealt with poetry as well as fiction, as V. Press does. So when their submissions window opened again (for pamphlets) in the late summer 2017, I sent a very tentative enquiry about the possibility of them doing a full-length book. Thankfully, they were willing to consider it, although they had only done them for poetry before. I was still writing a few more stories after the manuscript was accepted (and in fact some that I really wanted to include were written too late for the publisher to agree to include them. They very gently suggested it was time to stop writing the book. Haha).
NS: Advice for writers who are writing a novella-in-flash or other book?
ML: Well, maybe don’t try writing three at once! Be patient, read lots of published writing, keep editing, seek feedback. If you can publish parts of it (if perhaps it’s a story collection or poetry collection) as you go along, then do so, it will give you – and a publisher – necessary belief in the book. Lastly, be protective of your baby and don’t rush it into the world. There are so many books already out there.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
ML: If you’re reading this blog and enjoy flash fiction, why not come to the Flash Fiction Festival in the UK – it’s in Bristol in the summer each year – June 19-21st in 2020. It’s an amazing, inspiring event, very welcoming and full of writerly camaraderie. Nancy and I will both be there teaching two workshops on the flash novel / novella-in-flash. And there are dozens of other brilliant workshops to choose from. https://www.flashfictionfestival.com/
NS: I second that! Thanks so much for playing, Michael!
ML: Thank you, Nancy, for inviting me to think about these interesting questions!
Links to buy the book and other promo links:
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor for novellas-in-flash: https://novella-in-flash.com/. Other info about his writing, editing and mentoring can be found at https://michaelloveday.com/ When he’s not found holed up in cafés in Bath, United Kingdom, reading manuscripts or doing his own writing, Michael enjoys the usual distractions of music, cinema, and countryside walks. He has a soft spot for very earnest songs by Bruce Springsteen.