Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Southampton, and Director of the UK’s National Flash Fiction Day. His work has appeared in a number of places—online and in print—and was featured on BBC Radio 4’s iPM programme. He lives in Southampton with his wife, his stepson, two cats and a dog. You can read more about him on his website here and find his books here.
Interview by Marie Gethins and Rupert Dastur
MG: Calum, you are often referred to as ‘Mr Flash Fiction’. Not only are you an internationally recognised authority on the form as a writer, but through your Director of the UK National Flash Fiction Day (NFFD) role you provide multiple opportunities to other enthusiasts of the form. What is it about flash that you find intriguing?
I think it’s the combination of the form’s versatility combined with its constraints. It can be any kind of story, any genre, any theme, any mood. And it can borrow from so many other forms too: recipes, footnotes, internet search histories, diary entries, product instructions, and on and on. But combined with this, the length means that the story needs to be compressed, hinted at, told with economy, and as with poetry it needs to make the most use out of the words and form that it can to convey the maximum amount of information. This makes it a very concentrated type of writing – you get a lot of bang for your buck – but also means that the reader needs to do a lot of work. I’ve always found the most satisfying things to read are the ones where my abilities as a reader are respected, and a lot is left for me to interpret. Flash-fiction is the ideal form for producing work that has that effect.
MG: Fundamentally, for you what makes a flash piece successful?
Wow, that’s a big question. I think it has to give me a story, more than anything. I have to feel I’ve shared in an experience and been on a journey. I think it has to reveal something new, or a new perspective, via that journey. It has to have at least one character I can engage with – not necessarily like or relate to, but engage with – and a sense of something having happened. It needs to weigh in with the language and do something interesting. And, more than anything, it needs to suggest enough that it stays with me afterwards and makes me carry on thinking about it, filling in the blanks, writing the rest of it in my head.
MG: Flash has been around for many decades, during your extensive time championing flash have you seen any stylistic changes or shifts?
Well, you say an ‘extensive time’ but really I only came across the form a little over six years ago. I have realised since that I was always writing flash-fictions, with one of my first submissions (and rejections) as a teenager being a story of only about 150 words. That said, in just the few years I’ve been involved it has already changed. When I started it was very much about the traditional short story, but written in a more concise form. Since then it has started to expand and morph, and has become one of the primary sites for experimentation with story and language. So, if I had to sum up how it’s changed, I would say it’s gone from being about short, short stories to being a test-lab for narrative writing, where writers can push boundaries to see just what can happen.
RD: Do you have inclination as to how the form may change over the next five or ten years?
Well, I think that evolution will continue. I’ve been experimenting with what can happen when flash-fictions are combined into larger narratives – flash-novellas, I’ve called them – and I don’t seem to be the only one. It’s interesting what can be built when the possibilities of suggestion and multiple-forms that are inherent to the flash-fiction are used in combination. I’d like to see more of that.
MG: In your manual, The World in a Flash: How to write Flash-Fiction, you give a great comparison of flash and prose-poems. Both ask the reader to be an active participant with precise language and etymology playing important roles, but is it fair to say that flash is plot driven, while prose poetry is more about providing a mood?
I think there is a lot of cross-over between the two, and any definitions are going to be open to dispute and debate. In the book (The World in a Flash: How to write Flash-Fiction) I was, I admit, being slightly disingenuous, and maybe even contentious. However, the purpose of that statement was to ensure that anyone following the book – and especially any beginners coming to flash-fiction for the first time – were aware of the need to concentrate on actually telling a story, rather than just expressing an emotion or mood. One of my bugbears about having read a lot of flash-fictions for the various books and journals I’ve edited, is how many simply don’t have a narrative, and that for me is the key idea of the form. So, was I wrong, or at least too black-and-white in my definitions? Possibly, but I like to think it was for the right reasons.
RD: Also in The World in a Flash: How to write Flash-Fiction, you hyphenate what many simply write as ‘flash fiction’ – is this in the same vein as Matthew Brander’s writing of ‘Short-story’ at the start of the twentieth century in order to distinguish between the form and ‘a story that is merely short’?
I think flash-fiction (with the hyphen) is how I first came across it, and so how I started to use it. Then, once National Flash-Fiction Day had been started, and the hyphen was in the title, it seemed only right to keep it and be consistent. However, I do like how it reduces it down to a single term, ie: it is a ‘flash-fiction’ not just fiction which is described as ‘flash’. It gives it a singular identity, rather than a described sub-identity. Maybe I should move it on to ‘flashfiction’?
RD: In the chapter titled ‘What is flash-fiction’ you state that ‘Flash-Fiction is a short story, almost always under 1000 words, and most often under 500 words.’ Could you point to any examples that are above the 1000-word mark and explain how, in your opinion, they retain the label of flash-fiction?
I could point to some examples of my own that go up to about 1600 words, though where they have been published they are always categorised as short stories, rather than flashes. The reason I still label them as flashes is more to do with the way I approach the writing rather than labels placed upon the form by publishers, editors, and even by myself when trying to explain it to others. For me, a flash-fiction is about a piece being written in a single sitting with little or no pre-planning. Often relying on a prompt of some kind to kickstart the process, I then allow myself a moment to think, but then write the piece in a single burst. The result of this is that a five minute piece might be two or three hundred words, but if I’m head-down and on a roll, it might be twenty, thirty minutes straight, and come out longer than a thousand. Yes, some editing will take place, and a lot of my 1000+ pieces end up much shorter, but sometimes when the story has been particularly strong, it will end up over that upper limit. To me, that would still be a flash-fiction, but in submitting them I just simply upscale it and send it for the short story category.
RD: Of all the prose forms, apart from the specific six-word-story, is length the most important feature of flash-fiction, given the greater range afforded short stories, novellas, and novels?
No. I don’t think length is the most important feature. I do think it’s its greatest asset, however.
By restricting the length of the piece it requires concise writing – which pushes vocabulary use, creative grammar, good and useful imagery – and also to choose the ideal part of the story to illustrate which will allow for the maximum of implication. A good flash-fiction should imply much more than it tells or shows, encompassing a story that would be related in a much longer piece – even a novel – and do so in such a way that it gives enough information for the reader to construct the rest. Without the restriction on length, it would just become one of the other forms, and not as perfectly distilled. If story is about mimesis – showing rather than telling – then the length requirement of a flash-fiction really enforces this.
RD: The process of starting with a writing prompt, used by many flash-fiction writers and recommended in your book The World in Flash, seems almost formulaic. Picking up this theme of writing exercises, to what extent do you think creative writing can be learnt and how much store do you set by ‘natural’ ability?
To pick up on your first point, while I agree that using prompts can be formulaic, I don’t think they necessarily have to be. I would say that, out of the 1000+ flash-fictions I have written, more than 90% could be said to have emerged from some kind of prompt. But that’s not to say that they followed directly from the prompt itself, more that it provided a thought to follow which unlocked a story. Many people coming to writing for the first time have the idea that you have to wait for inspiration to strike before writing. However, if you want to be a writer, a good writer, then I think you have to write as often and as regularly as possible. Inspiration doesn’t just strike to order, so using prompts can be a good way of giving it a nudge.
As for creative writing being taught, I think the human mind is set up to be creative, and to deal in narrative. We explain the stories of our own lives as narratives, we dream in story, and it forms a central part to how we understand ourselves and our places in the world. Teaching how to do this in writing is just giving a structure and a set of ‘rules’ to allow someone to communicate this understanding. Basic things like grammar and language use are fairly simple to teach. Story structure can be conveyed too, and using prompts allows a new writer to employ all those skills without having to worry about coming up with an idea as well. As a way in, it’s very useful.
I’m not sure it is possible to take someone who knows nothing about writing, and maybe who doesn’t read, and turn them into a ‘great’ writer. But it is certainly possible to teach someone to understand and appreciate story and learn how to create them.
MG: Last year you expressed frustration with some NFFD submissions. What are the common errors you encounter?
Some of the most frustrating errors were the most basic. Those would be things like people sending a 700 word story when there was a 500 word limit. Or sending four stories when the limit was three. Also, with the anthology we always have a theme, and sending something which has nothing at all to do with the theme is annoying, mostly because you can end up spending a long time trying to work out how it might connect.
Beyond that we get submissions which aren’t stories. And I’m not talking about the distinction with prose poetry which was mentioned earlier, I mean actual poems, laid out as poems, with line-breaks, stanzas and everything.
Those are all errors made by not reading the submission guidelines properly, of course, which is surprisingly common. Others like that include sending it to the wrong address and sending in the wrong format. It’s an impressive range of problems that could be easily sorted by being more careful.
Of course there are submissions which are just riddled with spelling, grammar and typographical errors. Stories have be really, really good to overcome that. After all, it’s only fair to expect a writer to get those basic things right.
And then there are the story problems. Those might be the age-old ‘I woke up and it had all been a dream’ ending, or other deus ex machinas which just fundamentally disappoint. There are retreads of other stories, which don’t do enough for them to be new. And then there are the ubiquitous themes. Falling in love is great, I’ve done it myself and can recommend it, but a story needs to do something more with the idea to make it interesting. And I know that writers are a gloomy bunch, but the number of suicide stories we get is really rather worrying.
MG: In addition to your collections, the NFFD anthology, and online Flash Flood, where can aspiring practitioners source good flash?
There are so many it’s really hard to say. Flash: The International Journal of the Short Short Story, from Chester University, does some very good stuff. But overall I would suggest good use of Google. Maybe people talk about flash-fiction being the ideal form for the internet age, and as a result there is a lot of very good flash which is free to access via the web.
MG: What NFFD dates should flashers add to their 2016 calendars?
National Flash-Fiction Day 2016 will be on the 25th June. As for other dates, we don’t like to give away too much in advance – flash-planning if you like – so people would be best to sign up for the mailing list here for more information.
The Short Story Interview / Marie Gethins & Rupert Dastur / 12th January 2016
Marie Gethins’ first encounter with TSS was via her flash fiction win ‘Blood-ties’. Her work has also featured in Litro, Firewords Quarterly, 2014 and 2015 NFFD Anthologies, Flash, NANO, The Lonely Crowd, Firewords Quarterly and others. She has won or been placed in Tethered by Letters, Flash500, Dromineer, The New Writer, Prick of the Spindle, and 99fiction.net. Marie is a Pushcart and Best of the Short Fictions Nominee. She lives in Cork, Ireland, working on her MSt in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, reviewer, and editor. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story. He is the founder of TSS which he hopes will continue to further discussion, interest, and development of the form. He has supported several short story projects and anthologies, is the Head of Development at Khona Productions, and is currently developing the editing and writing platfrom Chapter Checkers.