Jennifer Harvey is a Scottish writer now living in Amsterdam. Her stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Litro Online, and various anthologies and she has been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize. She is a contributing editor for Mash Stories and a resident member of the reading committee for Carve Magazine.
Interview by Marie Gethins
Jen you’ve had success in both short story and flash competitions, in addition, you read for Carve Magazine and Mash Stories, and you were previously the flash editor for Litro. How has this editorial role informed your own work?
I think what editing teaches you is how to read carefully and how to be patient with a story.
When I am reading stories in an editorial capacity I need to read with 2 hats on – as a reader reading for pleasure and as an editor reading with a critical eye.
Most stories I read as an editor receive at least 3 read-throughs. The first read is really just a skim and it’s a quick way to get a feel for a piece. Basically I read it with only one question in my mind: ‘Do I want to read on?’
If a story captures my attention on a first skim then I will set it aside and come back to it.
The second and third readings are more critical – this is when you begin to look at the structural aspects. I always start with the language and the voice. Does the writing itself interest me and entertain me? Does it flow well and throw up a few linguistic surprises? For me this is often where the real pleasure comes from, the rhythm. If a story ‘sings’ then I am hooked.
Only then do I start to pay attention to the other structural facets – the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the theme.
I also love it when a story comes in that I cannot quite fathom. Why do I like this? What is it the writer has done to intrigue me? I don’t need to answer these questions – just knowing that something indecipherable is going on with the writing, is enough. I guess some people would call this ‘art’ – that indefinable quality some art possesses. We don’t need to know what it is precisely, it’s enough simply to feel it.
What all this has taught me, as a writer, is that it is possible to read your own work critically when you are drafting a piece. Being an editor helps you look at a story from another vantage point.
It has also shown me that it’s okay sometimes to let the creative muse take over, to not over analyse something and just go with the flow, as long as you then give a story time. Set it away and then go back to it and begin the process of re-writing. I have learned patience since I started editing.
In the past I made the typical inexperienced writer’s mistake. I wrote a draft, checked it for typos then sent it out into the world. Sometimes this worked, but in 99% of the cases it resulted in rejection slips. Now I know why.
That said, having trusted readers who can read through a story before you make a final draft is always useful – there is only so much distance you can place between yourself and your own work. But editing certainly teaches you how to be a little more objective and critical of yourself.
What’s your process and do different genres (novel, short story, flash fiction) inform each other in your work?
Oh, this is a very difficult question to answer.
What I love about flash fiction is the fact that everything is so distilled. It allows you to focus on the language and to think very precisely. In that respect it is as disciplined as poetry. The weight of the words matter.
In short stories I think this level of precision can be too much (for my tastes). It can exhaust the reader if there are 3,000 words and every one of them is as loaded with significance as they can be in flash or poetry.
But what writing flash fiction does is it allows you to develop that degree of precision, to become acutely aware of the heft of specific words, and this can be very effective if you use this very intense focus within a longer piece. You can use the language precisely to emphasise a moment or clearly depict a scene or a character trait and, because of the precision the reader will (hopefully) spot it and pay more attention to those specific things you want to zoom in on. It’s a bit like using a close up in a film I suppose – it’s saying to the reader/the viewer ‘Here, pay attention to this. This is important.’
I’m not entirely sure yet how writing short stories has informed the way I approached my novel.
When I first set out to write a novel I was very chaotic about it. I relied too much on going with the flow and letting my ‘muse’ dictate the direction.
That was good in terms of just getting the words on the paper, but it definitely is not a process which produces quality prose – at least not in my case.
When I came back to the novel though and started to re-draft it I was lucky that I then had some editorial experience under my belt.
I could take this unwieldy tome and break it down into its component parts and really understand what was wrong and what needed to be fixed. What was interesting was that the initial focus during these re-drafts was on the bigger aspects – what is the theme, how am I framing the narrative. Things I would not pay quite as much attention to in a short story in part because a short story can be more easily edited.
You can change the point of view or the tense even sometimes the theme, more readily in a shorter work, or at least be more willing to play around with these things, but if you’re faced with 70,000 words that need directing then it makes life a lot easier if you answer the big questions right at the start. That was a very big lesson I learned and I hope it will make writing the second book a little easier.
Do you prefer to focus more on character or setting? How much does the form dictate your approach?
This is very fluid for me. I think when I first started writing, character was everything. I was so delighted with these voices in my head, with these made up people who seemed to arrive from nowhere and I wanted to be entertained by them, so I let them run the show. Once I had their voice that was often all I needed to get going.
But now I think I am becoming more aware of setting. It’s intriguing the way a sense of place can inform a person’s character. The two things are intertwined and, as a writer, I think one of the biggest challenges is to understand how so many things influence our personalities and our character.
In my novel the setting very clearly defines the characters. The story centres on a young Sami girl who lives in the very far north of Finland. In that culture, nature and the environment are inseparable from who you are and, as a city dweller, it was really fascinating for me to try and inhabit the mind of someone whose experience of the natural world is so very different to my own.
It’s definitely something I will pursue further and I can already see that my short stories are changing since I completed the novel – place and description of the surroundings are coming through a lot more than they did in the past.
How is flash fiction different, in your view, from the short story?
I think the biggest difference is that in flash fiction it is okay to focus on one aspect. Say to have the point of view drive the story or the plot say. It’s permissible to have this one feature take precedence, whereas for a longer piece to feel complete, it can be more satisfying if more elements are there – a great voice telling a great story set in an intriguing place.
But it’s very arbitrary. To be honest I think a story is a story. When it has said what it is aiming to say then the word count doesn’t matter.
Sometimes 5,000 words are needed, sometimes 500 is enough. A good writer will know when the story is done.
What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?
I think the only way I can answer this is to provide an example.
When I was editing Litro I published a story ‘Grass’ by Christina Sanders.
From the very first word – ‘imagine’ – I understood that this story was going to take me by the hand and lead me straight into the protagonist’s world and point of view. It is a mesmerising piece and one which I can still ‘feel’.
I think Christina’s use of the second person (a very unusual thing in itself) was an inspired choice on her part as it allows the short story to infiltrate the reader. It is a very intimate piece and I still go back and read it sometimes.
So all I can say to people is read this story. It’s as good an example as I have come across.
Considering other writers (in flash fictionand any other form), who inspires you and what do you admire about their work?
At the moment I am absolutely blown away by Danielle McLaughlin’s short story collection ‘Dinosaurs On Other Planets’.
Every story is so carefully crafted. To read it is to receive a masterclass in storytelling.
For me I am fascinated by the way she understands the very small details and the way these things can tell you so much about a character. I also think this collection shows very well the ways in which place influences the way people see the world.
In every story, the world the characters inhabit is very ‘present’. If you read a story such as ‘Night of the Silver Fox’ or ‘A Different Country’ you understand that the only way, as a reader, to decipher the characters is to pay close attention to where they are.
It’s utterly fascinating how she achieves this and I’d definitely recommend to anyone serious about improving their craft that they get a hold of a copy.
I am also a big believer in re-reading and one of the writers I keep returning to time and again is Richard Ford and especially the Bascombe novels.
I think it’s astonishing that Ford can create a character and sustain that voice across a whole lifetime. Frank Bascombe develops throughout the books of course, but he also remains familiar and known to the readers, which makes us care about him even when he is not always acting well. And our interest is sustained because this voice is so convincing and so powerful – so even in the banal moments your attention is held, simply because it is Frank who is talking.
I think that’s truly wonderful and it’s what makes Richard Ford a great writer.
Finally, what advice as a writer and editor would you give aspiring writers?
It’s a cliché, but above all else – read. Read everything – all genres, fiction and non-fiction. And take the time to think now and then about what you read. Analyse it. When you find something you enjoy ask yourself why it works. Similarly, when you find something you don’t like ask yourself why.
And be daring when you write. Short stories are an invaluable way to learn craft and to play around with things without investing as much time and effort as a novel requires. So try writing things outside your comfort zone – if you tend to write more literary fiction then have a go at fantasy or thriller as this can often help you obtain a better grasp of setting, say or plot. You don’t need to do anything with these short stories in terms of getting them published – just use them to experiment. Often when you know a story may never be read by anyone else, you can really take the reins off and have some fun.
And don’t be shy. Take the leap and join a writing group. Having readers look closely at your writing is invaluable.
The Short Story Interview / Marie Gethins / 3rd December 2015