GRANDMASTER FLASH! An interview with Michael Loveday.
This month I’m so pleased to be interviewing Michael Loveday, an expert in flash fiction and, in particular, the novella-in-flash. As a poet, I’ve often wondered if I could transition to prose, and Michael’s journey has given me inspiration and reassurance!
Michael, could you describe the moment when you first thought, “I’m a writer” or “I want to be a writer”? Was it a gradual revelation or a sudden epiphany?
I remember having to write a book review for a journal, about 10 years after I’d begun writing, and I wasn’t especially looking forward to it. I said to myself: I will sit down for one hour in a café with a pen and a blank page and complete the review within that time. I knuckled down to it, wrote the review in what I felt was a creative way, and left the café elated that I’d completed a kind of creative “assignment” under time pressure. I remember having the thought: “Yes, I’m a writer now!” Which is kind of amusing in hindsight. I’m not sure it was the greatest review, but the feeling within me was clear. And yet it arrived 10 years after I’d first started writing. So I guess it was a very slow, gradual onset that led to a belated awakening.
You started off as a poet, establishing the only magazine in the UK dedicated to the sonnet, 14 Magazine, which is still running under a different editor. What attracted you to poetry? Do you still write it? What aspects of poetry helped you to transition to the world of flash fiction and the novella-in-flash?
My first poem (as an adult, as opposed to the dabbling I’d done in English classes at school) was a response to a canal-side walk I’d undertaken with my father, at a time (back in 2001) when he’d just been through a health scare. I was going through my own health difficulties at the time and our walk really imprinted itself in my mind – both the emotions of the conversation and also the physical setting of the canal. I don’t really understand why I chose to write a poem about it, rather than a short story, or a piece of reflective writing – I wasn’t even reading poetry at the time. So that aspect of the impulse remains a mystery. Anyway, the poem happened, and I got hooked. It was a way of distracting and entertaining myself during my recovery, and then I just kept going.
In terms of moving into fiction, in 2011 I’d had my first poetry pamphlet published, but also I was itching for something new after 10 years with the form. I’d written some short-short stories and narrative prose poems during my MA (2009-2011), and gradually the fiction seized more and more of my attention, until the poetry more or less fell aside for the next 10 years. Partly because journals seemed to accept my fiction submissions more readily than they accepted my poems, so I didn’t want to keep pushing a boulder uphill. What aspects of poetry helped me make the transition to flash fiction? Maybe the attention to detail – to vivid word choices, to the music of sentences, to concision – is something common to both forms. I think it did help that I’d spent 10 years bashing out bad poems – a sort of apprenticeship in writing.
I’m sure they weren’t bad poems! I love that idea of an apprenticeship in writing…Your new book, a collection of short short stories, is coming out soon. There are so many definitions for this kind of short fiction: mini-sagas, dribbles, drabbles, micro-fiction, flash fiction, short short stories. What advice would you give to someone who wants to navigate through these forms. Sometimes it’s down to the word count, but are there any key differences?
I love the term mini-sagas! Hadn’t encountered that one before. I would say that some of these terms are definitely distinct from each other – for example, “dribbles” have 50 words, “drabbles” have 100 words, “micro-fiction” has been generally understood to be stories under 250 words.
From the language of it, a “mini-saga” sounds like it really ought to be a “very condensed epic” – i.e. something short in word length, with a beginning, middle and end in which a set of events are narrated, taking place over an extended period of time. In a similar way, “short-short story” I have always felt is more inclined to have a distinct beginning, middle and end, with actions/events occurring in a given time and place.
Whereas, for me at least, “flash fiction” as a category feels broader and can be much harder to pin down – apart from having an absolute upper limit of 1,000 words in length, “flash fiction” could comprise anything from a stream-of-consciousness monologue of someone’s inner thoughts in a very individualised voice, to an exchange of pure dialogue – without action or description – between two characters, to a very action-driven story that vividly specifies physical detail and setting, to a fable that relies on generic, archetypal figures rather than characterised individuals and settings, to something atmospheric and meditative that feels quite similar to a prose poem while still containing narrative movement, to a “narrative situation” implied by a till receipt (i.e. the story is actually written like a till receipt), and all number of weird and wonderful things in between. And even though flash’s ceiling is set at 1,000 words, it’s probably fair to say that most published flashes do tend to sit somewhere between 250 and 750 words in length. So the 1,000 word limit can feel a bit irrelevant – it’s actually relatively rare to encounter published flash fictions that are 900 to 1,000 words long.
I think “dribbles” might be akin to “mini-sagas” as they also have 50 words. It was something The Daily Telegraph newspaper innovated. I think even Salman Rushdie had a go!
Your craft guide, Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash, came out this year. Would you ever tackle a novel or is there something very specific about the novella-in-flash that appeals to you? Is it difficult to market this genre? It’s still unusual in the UK to find novella-in-flash. How do you tackle being “niche”?
I would like to tackle a novel, one day, yes. If I have an idea that feels like it could fit the novel form. There is certainly something about the novella-in-flash that really appeals to me – that fusion of compression and expansion. And the potential for the flash fiction writer to act like a novelist. Personally, I don’t see it as difficult to market this form – there are plenty of novellas-in-flash that have sold well in the broader marketplace for literary fiction (for example, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers are three well-known works of literary fiction that could be described as novellas-in-flash), as well as plenty of novellas-in-flash that have been very popular within the flash fiction community exclusively.
It’s really hard to answer the last question! If you’re part of the flash fiction community, the novella-in-flash doesn’t really feel “niche”, at least not to me. It feels like an extremely popular form, with a lot of buzz surrounding it. I’d say it’s no more “niche” than the story cycle is for novelists and short story writers – it’s “a niche” that happens to be really quite popular and have an enthusiastic following!
That’s really interesting and makes me reflect on the wide variety of writing communities which are around and the rich opportunities they offer to all writers. I love your idea of thinking of these communities as “a niche” rather than “niche” – that sits much better! What advice would you give to writers who have tried flash fiction and might be ready to tackle something longer and more sustained?
Immerse in your characters’ lives and spend more time getting to know these people than you would for a one-off flash fiction. Let yourself fall in love with them more. And then be patient and see what unfolds!
As a creative coach you come across all types of practitioners: writers, musicians, artists. Do you think we all have the same doubts in common? Is there one golden nugget of advice you would give to creatives to help them sustain their vision/practice?
I suppose some doubts arise from experiences common to most forms of creative practice – fear of embarrassment, the pain of rejection or perceived failure, finding the will and making the time to be persistent and to practice regularly, and so on. And a smaller number of doubts are perhaps very industry-specific, maybe arising from technology or equipment or materials, or environmental constraints, or something technical about craft. But I’d say there are certainly core aspects to being a creative practitioner underlying these experiences, and it’s remarkable how many creative people are thinking and feeling similar things, whether on a fleeting or sustained basis, even if they aren’t telling people out loud.
Something I do tend to recommend to people is to find mutual allies who can support your creative practice over the long term. Plus I recommend keeping a journal – exploring your specific creative projects, the practicalities of your creative process and habits, and your longer-term creative journey. It can be a place for supporting yourself and finding out new things about what you really think and feel and yearn for.
That’s such good advice, I really like the idea of this kind of reflective journal. What’s next for you Michael, are there any new forms you would like to try, or even to invent?!
What’s most immediately next is a chapbook of short-short stories (Do What the Boss Says) due out in November from Bamboo Dart Press, which I’m really looking forward to publishing. It’s a miscellaneous set of stories tied together by the common subjects of family, childhood, and the adult-child dynamic, but with plenty of weird or surreal or fable-like elements arising in the midst of it. Aside from that, what’s next is a poetry manuscript I’m working on. I’ll have to have a think about how it might include new forms – thanks for the suggestion! And thanks, Sue, for your questions. I’ve really enjoyed the process.
Michael Loveday is a fiction writer and poet, and has been an editor and tutor of creative writing for more than a decade. His publications are: the craft guide Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022); the hybrid novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018); the poetry chapbook He Said / She Said (HappenStance Press, 2001); and, forthcoming in November, a collection of short-short stories called Do What the Boss Says: Stories of Family and Childhood (Bamboo Dart Press, 2022). Michael lives in Bath, England, and mentors novella-in-flash writers through his online programme at www.novella-in-flash.com.
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Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
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