Alexa Radcliffe-Hart is a short story writer, whose work featured in the inaugural Liquorice Fish anthology, Lost Voices. Liquorice Fish Books, an imprint of Cinnamon Press, will also be publishing her debut collection Yet to be Determined in October 2016. Alongside writing, she works in marketing and as an editor for literary organisations including The Word Factory, First Story and Dog Horn Publishing. More details about the freelance literary services she provides and her work can be found at www.servicestoliterature.co.uk.
Interview by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn
Thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for The Short Story, Alexa. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work.
Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be on The Short Story.
Congratulations on winning the Liquorice Fish competition with your story, Once, there was a bear. Can you tell us something about the inspiration for that story?
It started with an exercise, during a workshop with Adam Marek at the first masterclass weekend run by the Word Factory. The workshop was made of up various ‘stations’ where we moved from one to another generating ideas, based on James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas where we used original combinations of known things to create new ideas. This station was a game of Word Cricket where Adam plucked words and presented them to us. The first three words were affair, bear, and mountain. Of course the story didn’t fully form until later, but drafting, sketching, redrafting allowed Laura to step from the page and invite me into her story.
As a result of winning that competition, Liquorice Fish, an imprint of Cinnamon Press, are publishing a full collection of your stories, called Yet to be Determined. That’s very exciting news! How did you decide on the title, and is there an overall theme for the stories?
I’m still in the not quite believing it place, although it’s been almost a year that I’ve been working with the collection in mind. The title came via a conversation with Ali Smith at the Baileys Prize Short List readings night last year. As she signed a book, we discussed where my writing was going – we have been in contact since I wrote my dissertation on her novels and she is always so encouraging when I see her at events etc – and she asked me what the title was for this collection. I simply answered “yet to be determined” and she asked if that was it, if that was the title. We quickly agreed it would be a good title and she wrote it down for me to ensure I wouldn’t forget. It immediately fitted. There is a lot about the collection that is yet to be determined; it is full of characters caught at that point of change where the decisions they make will define their futures.
I’ve read that you are ‘obsessed with fairytales, myths, magic realism, their function and imaginations’. It would be interesting to discover where this obsession stems from, and to what extent it inspires you writing.
To read the word obsession somehow concerns me, and then I look to the piles of books next to my bed and on my desk and I realise how much of the stories that have been told again and again for eons are an influence on my writing. I like the way in which there is an opportunity to tell these tales in your own way, as each orator would by a fireside before the means of recording the stories. I love their depth, their truths and their lies. Sometimes my stories have that feel, making use of the playful elements of magic realism but don’t closely connect with a specific tale, like Once, there was a bear. One that I am writing at the moment clicked into place when I read the second branch of The Mabinogion – Welsh folktales that were recorded in the 14th Century but have their roots in the oral traditions of Welsh poetry. I am now weaving in elements of the storytelling traditions whilst telling a very different story from the original. Another is a rewriting of Bluebeard – a much more direct inspiration.
You’ve also written that you ‘wait for stories to fly’. Can you explain what you mean by that, and what process you go through?
The flying analogy came about because of the birds that feature in a story that has been particularly difficult. It preferred pecking at me rather than taking flight. But it’s not the first story to do that, and it won’t be the last. Stories can be dependent on you for so long, and then suddenly they can stand on their own and when they can fly then your job is done. The process is sometimes very quick, often ideas formulate and mull in my mind long before I begin writing them properly or even sketching. Then the real work, the fattening up of your characters and nurturing them until they can survive without you, takes place in trial and error, writing and rewriting. I cannot recommend a writing buddy or a critique group enough – most of the process of writing is solitary but constructive criticism makes you a better writer and provides you with the chance to learn what works and what doesn’t.
What does your job as associate editor at the Word Factory involve?
It’s always been a mixture of things. I was the main web editor and content writer for two years which included the maintenance of the event booking system, liaising with authors on their profiles and videos, amongst other things. I think I’ve only missed a couple of salons in three years, and have been part of the events team flitting from registering guests on the door to pouring wine. At the moment I’ve stepped back slightly because of the time needed for the collection, acting as a consultant rather than volunteering “full-time”. I love being part of a team that are so passionate about the short story, I can’t let them go! So my role is ever changing, just as the Word Factory itself. It’s a delight to be evolving with it, along with my family there.
You have been described by an attendee at the Swanwick Writers Summer School as ‘An excellent, generous-spirited tutor’. What do you think makes a good creative writing tutor? And that old chestnut: Can creative writing be taught?
Passion (for what you’re talking about), patience (I have oodles of it for students and none for myself), and an inclination to teach. Not all writers are tutors, and that’s fine, it’s not something that should be forced. I love hearing what a group of writers can produce from the same source, or finding that student who isn’t sure of their voice but with encouragement can go onto great things. That’s what teaching creative writing is about. I don’t think you can make a good writer – that comes from them, but you can provide the tools, inspiration, and reassurance that opens up talent. And talent doesn’t always come naturally. We are all learning, changing, growing – otherwise our writing would be stagnant and that wouldn’t be worth much at all. I have been extremely fortunate to know and been taught by some wonderful writers – from Alison Macleod and Dave Swann at the University of Chichester where I studied, to the writers I have met through the Word Factory, particularly those who have taught the masterclasses over the past year. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without their influence and I know that I am equally influenced by those I have taught.
You have said you’re ‘passionate about libraries’. Can you tell us where this passion began and why?
I read a lot as a child and would move onto the next book quicker than the last – the library was probably a saving grace for my parents’ bank balances. The library was a place I could explore a thousand lives, get swept away and live a new one or find out more about my own. I still have my first library card, still remember where the read-y-books (audio books) on cassette were kept, the shelves that I grew to reach as I developed from toddler to teen, the fiction section where I found my love of Atwood. I loved that place. I don’t visit them as often as I should now, mostly because I can be found in book shops obliterating my own bank balance but they’re such an important resource for us all. No matter our age or background – everyone can find their place in a library.
Thank you so much for answering my questions, Alexa.
The Short Story Interview / Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn / 15th March 2016
Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn has written three novels. The most recent is ‘The Broken Road’. ‘Unravelling’ was published on 2010, and came second in The Rubery Book Award in 2011 and won the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Award. ‘The Piano Player’s Son’ was published by Cinnamon Press in 2013, after winning their novel writing award. Lindsay also writes short stories and flash fiction, which have been published in various anthologies, including Fish, Cinnamon and Rubery. She has an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and combines writing with her work as a creative writing tutor.