Fri 29 Jun 2012
Bill West lives in Shropshire, in the historic town of Shrewsbury, a few miles down the east of Wales. Shires make one think of hobbits, and hobbits of magical times, which are what good stories and poetry ultimately provide. And, Bill West is a writer.
Bill West is a writer who has recently returned to his first love poetry. During his student days at Hull University, where Bill studied English, he was tutored by one time poet laureate Andrew Motion. Philip Larkin was librarian there at the same time. With regard to fiction he mostly writes flash, and has been widely published in print and online, including once garnering 200 publishing credits in a single year. Some of his works are archived at Bill West-Links. He has also worked closely with many talented writers thanks to his close involvement with critique groups and publications. Currently, Bill is a senior editor at The Linnets’s Wings, a magazine he has been associated with since 2009.
The introduction in his website says that Bill began writing in a tool-shed, and was eventually let out. Hmm! I think the generally elusive Bill has some answering to do now! Read on!
Rumjhum Biswas: At what age did you start writing? Can you tell us some more about your (literary) adventures inside a tool shed?
Bill West: I think I was possibly eight or nine when I began to write for my own entertainment. Shed is an exaggeration, it was more of a store-cupboard and I spent far too much quality time there. I had a car seat to sit on and I made furniture from cardboard. When I wasn’t travelling the universe in my shed\space-ship I wrote stories that Iwould send to my uncle who worked in publishing in London. He would provide me with feedback and a little money if he particularly liked a piece. I’m not sure what he did with them but to me it felt that it was my job to keep him supplied, which I was happy to do.
RB: Who were your earliest influences and mentors? Were there any writers you read a lot, and felt inspired by?
BW: Books were and are an important part of my life. Whenever I visited my grandmother she would give me any book I expressed an interest in. Then there was the public library. I started with children’s stories, C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, but when I was 10 years old Alan Garner published TheWeirdstone of Brisingamen which really sparked my interest in the fictionalisation of local history and legends. I also read Algernon Blackwood and Lovecraft horror stories, and British Science Fiction like Bob Shaw.
In my early teens I read anything and everything. I read Ibsen, Aldous Huxley, Zola and many others. Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece convinced me that I should become a painter and starve in a garret, although Germinal did not convince me I should become a miner and starve in a hovel. However, I was fascinated by the visual arts, the Impressionists and the sculpture of Epstein in particular. The visual element is still very important in my work.
One day, in school the headmaster caught me reading in the music room at break. I was reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. Soon after other teachers began lending me books; more Zola, William Blake and most importantly, Dylan Thomas. It was Thomas who inspired me to write my first poems.
I was also interested in acting and performance art. I joined Greenwich Young Peoples Theatre and the organiser liked my poems and put me in touch with local poet JohnPudney. Pudney was a lovely man and very encouraging. He was the first poet I had met. I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with him at a poetry reading at Greenwich Theatre. It wasn’t until years later that I learnt that Pudney helped Dylan Thomas get his first contract with the BBC. But not me.
RB: What drew you to flash fiction? Can you tell us about your first experiences with this form?
BW: In 2004 I joined the on-line writers’ group WriteWords where I discovered and joined a new group called the Flash Fiction group. There were weekly prompts and this discipline helped me establish regular writing patterns. The random nature of the challenges forced me to experiment with a variety of genres that I would have otherwise never considered. I loved the challenges and the limitations imposed by tight word counts. It was an opportunity to “give way” to my anarchic impulses to twist and turn within those limits. Flash fiction was a joy to me, eager to break rules and subvert constraints. How should I approach a mundane prompt? With a flying leap from left-field.
I had some early publication success, but once I had discovered a publication called Quiction and made the acquaintance of Ramon Collins and a host of other flash writers I began to learn my craft in earnest.
RB: Which flash fiction writers do you admire/enjoy reading?
BW: I find that question almost impossible to answer. Who to name and who to leave out, the list is too long. The safe answer would be to say Bruce Holland Rogers. That said, I have been group host for the Flash Fiction group on Writewords for many years and there have been so many talented writers who have passed through who belong on my list of writers I admire that I wouldn’t want to start a list for fear of omitting someone. They know who they are, but to mention just two, I love the deadpan extraordinariness of Frances Gapper and the surrealism of Tania Hershman.
The short-short that had an early and perhaps the biggest effect on me was “The Blue Jar” by Isak Dinesen.
RB: In your involvement with intense critique groups, what did you feel writers gained most from? Were there any negative fall-outs as well?
BW: Writing is a solitary occupation so critique groups of any flavour provide a touchstone of shared experience. Reader feedback received is as good, if not better than putting your writing in a draw for 6 weeks to enable you to reread with fresh eyes. And what could be better than to have the discerning eyes of other experienced writers reflecting back to you what works and what doesn’t, pointing out any changes of tense or slips in pov? You can quickly find out your own weaknesses such as a weak grasp of punctuation or incorrect syntax.
The danger lies in the frailty of the tacit contract that exists between the writer and the reader. I have always believed that the first task of a reader in such a group is to attempt to understand what this writer working in this genre is attempting to do. I know that I constantly have to guard against the temptation to suggest detailed rewrites in “my” style rather than assist the writer develop their own style.
In cases where this tacit contract is ill-defined, nothing is worse than receiving bored platitudes from a reader who would rather be reading something else. Thankfully, a rare outcome in my experience, but not unheard of. We writers sometimes need thick skins.
RB: Please tell us about The Linnet’s Wings and also a bit about your early involvement with the magazine.
BW: The Linnet’s Wings magazine was founded in Edgeworthstown, in Co. Longford, Ireland in 2007. Although hosted in Ireland the magazine is international with editors in the US, UK, Canada, Spain and Ireland. TLW is published four times per year, on-line and in print. In addition to flash, we publish short stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction and we have recently started accepting audio and video submissions. We work collaboratively from an office hosted by Zoetrope.
I knew most of the editors through Zoetrope before I received an invitation to become a contributing editor at TLW in 2009. I was fortunate to have had work published by them in the past and when invited to join them, I had no hesitation in making a time commitment to them. Whilst I had resisted the temptation to get on-board with other publications who would have me, with TLW I didn’t hesitate.
RB: What are the common mistakes writers make when they submit work to The Linnets Wings? What’s your advice for potential submitters?
BW: There are the easy things such as spellcheck your work before sending it. Be consistent with your tense and pov. Workshop your work if you can and don’t send it in too soon and certainly not before you have slept on that new story you just completed. Check your dialogue by reading it out loud and be careful with your punctuation and if in doubt, keep it simple.
Check us out on Duotrope and read some back copies to ensure we are an appropriate vehicle for your work. We publish work that we think our readership will like. Send us your tightest writing, your best work with effective titles, strong hooks in the opener and strong endings. We like well-crafted fiction that employs rich vocabulary that fits the context, with strong characters and a strong and consistent, authorial voice.
RB: Specific to flash fiction what do you look for? Any favourite genre? Any preferred length?
BW: We accept micro fiction up to 500 words, flash fiction up to 1000 words and we favour literary genre and are open to most subjects. We want to showcase writers whose work stimulates and challenges the sensibility and imagination of our readers, and to provide inspiration for other writers. We want stories in which the characters stay with us and who we can visualise in settings that complete the circle of the story.
You might be surprised to see we now include work in translation published in TLW, in Spanish and Russian in the last edition and we are interested in receiving submissions from Spanish flash fiction writers as well as writers whose first language is English.
Surprise us, in a good way.
RB: What are you working on now?
BW: I run my local writers’ group, Shrewsbury Scribblers, and we are working on an anthology called In the Loop. Shrewsbury is a medieval, walled town looped by the River Severn with Shrewsbury Castle plugging the neck of the loop. Our anthology will contain poetry and prose linked to Shrewsbury and the river. I am working on my own flash and poetry for the anthology.
You mentioned Shires and Hobbits in your opening remarks. Well we have a wealth of local legends and our own Camelot, the ancient Roman city of Uriconium. A rich source of material to fuel my writing and in the future I would like to produce work that explores local cultural heritage.
RB: What are the things that inspire your writing? What is your favourite time of the day and place to write?
BW: When my sons were younger, they often provided me with ideas for what turned out to be some of my best work. They would tell me about some incident, chance meeting, or concern, and my engagement with them and the event would prompt a story. Sometimes we would bounce ideas off each other to develop a story.
I also like to carry a notebook, a memory device to write down ideas and happenings. I use it to capture the tail-end of overheard conversations, an image or feeling, reflections on moments of significance or some unexpected happening. Sometimes I write down the briefest sketch of a story idea. My best work comes from images, but these are the most difficult source to work. With images I have to dig deep, like an archaeologist excavating a fragment, scraping away thelayers to discover the significance of what is being uncovered.
Where I live has also inspired both flash fiction and poetry. My next door neighbour who is 86 has told me some wonderful stories which will be lost unless I do something with them.
I have always needed to be physically tired before I can write. That has meant that late night or even early morning sessions are the best times for me. When the world sleeps, my mind can focus.
AlthoughI have a laptop which enables me write anywhere, I’m finding that I work best on an old PC I’ve recently rebuilt. I’ve dumped Microsoft in favour of Linux. My clean pc has no past associations with my time-wasting ways. I only sit at it when I’m ready to work and I’ll work in a pool of lamplight when the bats have gone to bed and the moths bat my windows.
RB: How does your family cope with a writer in their midst? Are they really nice to you and bring you coffee when you write?
BW: My wife, who studied English at the university where we met, is also a writer and journalist, so we share the writing bug. We are always nice to each other when writing, bringing tea and biscuits and so on. But sometimes we disagree about the relative priorities of , say, writing and DIY. As she says, nasty and nice, DIY and then you can reward yourself with some writing. But mostly we agree to differ.
Rumjhum Biswas is a writer based out of Chennai. Her fiction and poetry have been published all over the world. She has won prizes and accolades in India and abroad. She recently won first prize in the Anam Cara Writers’ Retreat Competition.