by Rumjhum Biswas
Avis Hickman-Gibb is a new emerging writer living in rural England with her husband, one son, and two cats. Strangely, for one who gained an Environmental Chemistry degree more years ago than she cares to admit and who worked in the fledgling computer industry, she developed a fascination for the written word. Avis has had over fifty pieces published since she started in 2007. She’s had stories published in Every Day Fiction, Pygmy Giant, Twisted Tongue, Backhand Stories and Shine! Magazine with stories in Bewildering Stories, The Ranfurly Review and Boston Literary Magazine coming soon.
In her own words, Avis is “addicted to writing Flash Fiction–which is a stripped down, bare bones type of story.” Currently she has several projects on the boil: a collection of short stories and a second novel as well as her regular flash creations. Readers can follow these links to a list of her works, her website, and her blog.
Rumjhum Biswas: First of all tell us about your journey with A Plate of Bits.
Avis Hickman Gibb: A Plate of Bits is a collection of short and short-short stories from 2007 until mid 2011. For as long as I can remember, I have been a teller of tales, but only for my own consumption. Then in late 2006, I decided my New Year’s resolution for 2007 would be to do something about my writing – kind of put-up or shut-up, call my own bluff. After all there’s only so long you can tell yourself “I could have been a contender.”
I joined the online writers’ community WriteWords and joined a group there called Flash Fiction I. I was hooked from the first week. I found the concept so immediate, so accessible–take a prompt and write to a set word target–what could be simpler? I added, as I think a lot of Flash writers do, a time limit to produce a piece. I like to belt out the initial draft in about an hour. But the tweaking–ah that can take days! When I find myself deliberating for half an hour at a time, the merits of using that word there, or deleting that word, I realize the piece is “cooked!”
When I first started my writing was not disciplined. The experience I gained from writing flash has taught me a lot about structure, about saying what I want to say in a direct and, I think clear, manner. Of course with flash the reader may be called upon to work a little more than a reader of a novel, or a short story. The more words in a piece, the more color and details of the story can be filled in for the reader. Flash is stripped down fiction, and sometimes the story seems to start in mid action. But a good flash will have the start and perhaps the end implied within it. It will be up to each reader to decode and interpret.
RB: You have a degree in environmental chemistry and have worked for the IT industry. That sounds like a very far place to be from writing or is it? Tell us how you switched lanes.
AHG: I had a shaky start in my education. With hindsight, I think I was mildly dyslexic. So it was only as my brain matured around age 8 that I began to surprise people by showing signs of academic ability. Then in the second year of senior school I discovered my first love –Chemistry. It just all made sense, so I pursued the subject as far as I was able – hence the degree. But after graduating I found women were only offered the boring analytical jobs –checking that a sample of soap taken twenty minutes after the last was a pure as it should be. There were no research jobs on the cards. I guess the firms offering them didn’t want to risk paying out to training me further, and then have me skip off to start a family and retire. They would lose their investment.
So I looked around for an industry with a more equal opportunities approach, and struck upon computers. I joined the industry very early on and they were sucking up graduates from any discipline. I worked with dentists and doctors of divinity, along with civil engineers and geographers. All that was required was a good degree, the manufacturers were happy to train you from there. I stayed in IT (as it developed into) for over 15 years, but I still kept on writing my stories.
Then I retired and concentrated on the stories in between raising my son.
RB: Did you write as a child?
AHG: For as long as I can remember I told stories, which is a much older art and is at the heart of writing. But there’s a subtle difference. There are a lot of people who feel the need to burst into print. You only have to look at the numbers, who are trying to publish their works. The advent of the PC and word processing fed in to online magazines, and now with electronic publishing everyone and his or her dog thinks they can do it. “It” being the simple art of telling an engaging story; but it’s not as easy to capture and keep a reader’s interest as a lot of people think.
RB: Who were your favourite authors as a child and now? Anyone made a deep impact?
AHG: I read vociferously as a child, once the dyslexia shook loose. Three particularly come to mind. I enjoyed the adventures told by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the homey detail of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series. But far and away my favorite as a child was L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. I was completely charmed from the very first page. At a time when my contemporaries were still taking picture books out on the weekly library ticket in English class, I was riveted by Anne and her world. The books were close written words, with no pictures – except the ones painted by Montgomery’s words.
In fact in A Plate of Bits I have included a small tribute to L.M. It’s a short story called “Temptation” and I hope it captured the mischief of Anne Shirley from Green Gables.
RB: There is an underpinning of humor in everything that you communicate, your stories, your blog, even your Facebook posts. Am I right or wrong? How far can humor go in a serious story?
AHG: I like humor, it makes me laugh! No, really I think you can do a lot with humor. Sometimes the humor is just for the sake of it, but sometimes points can be make humorously which would be… too stodgy without the leavening – you know?
And some tales, as in “CornBread and Candy Sauce” included in A Plate of Bits is just plain black humor–but funny (for me) nevertheless. My husband says he gets worried when he reads stuff like “Cornbread.” After all he sleeps next to me!
I think humor can be used to great effect in a serious story. But the placing, type, and amount needs careful rationing. It can be used to break tension, only to build tension back up to an even greater height. But you have to know what you’re doing with it. Maybe I don’t get it right 100% of the time–but I have fun trying!
RB: Give us a glimpse of your writing day.
AHG: My writing day recently has been filled with too much boring, technical stuff. I have just finished (using a new venture a couple of tech-savvy friends and I set up called Hawkmoth Press) converting my word processed file of collected bits into the shiny new eBook A Plate of Bits. I am only just now looking at cleared schedule where I can plan to actually write each day.
So this will be settling down late morning to put in four hours before a late lunch. The earlier morning is taken up with walking. Then later in the day after a couple of hours off doing boring stuff like laundry, I’ll probably have another bash at the keyboard – but probably editing. And that will hold true for five-ish days of the week.
I do have my own spot in our study, but at the moment I am camped out in the dining room as my desk has had to be shifted due to a damp patch making an appearance after a drainpipe overflowed thanks to a leaf blockage. The joys of owning an old house!
RB: Tell us more about Hawkmoth Press.
AHG: Well, basically when I first decided I wanted to dip my toe into the electronic publishing sea. I thought–how hard can it be? I am more than technically competent. After all I worked all those years in, on, beside and with computers for heaven’s sake!
But the more I delved into the “what was involved”, the more befuddled I became. And there I was one day with a friend, pouring my woes out over a cup of tea. Long story short, we set up Hawkmoth Press to assist authors convert their word processed book into an eBook. There is only one conversion process at the moment – to Kindle. But as Amazon is the market leader, and as the Kindle Select Programme is a very good way to dip a toe in for a new author, this is no bad thing.
Now my book is converted I’m back to doing what I love–writing. But I feel relieved that when I have another book to sell, Hawkmoth Press will be available to me for the conversion. We’ll work with an author to produce the best version of a work that’s possible. The author is involved at all stages, and is responsible for all copy editing choices. But the great bonus they offer is a second bite at the conversion cherry. They convert what an author sends and return a fully functioning MOBI compiled eBook for that author to check.
Something I have found during converting A Plate of Bits is the very small screen of an eReader sometimes does funny things to line layouts. And sometimes you want to rearrange the prose so it sits better on the reader’s screen. Hawkmoth’s second bite allows an author to check through this first stage book and change all these little niggles, and a mass of others–like hanging full-stops, premature line wraparounds, and other stuff –and then they will for no extra cost produce the final fully uploaded Kindle book. If you’re good enough, there’s also the possibility of an author page home at Hawkmoth Press, if you have no web-site of your own. I’m there, along with a kernel of other authors. Go check me out! @ Hawkmothpress.wordpress.com
RB: Did you take writing lessons or attend workshops? Any mentors you’d like to mention?
AHG: I am sorry to admit I am completely self-taught! Or am I sorry? Well, except for the help and guidance (which has been A LOT) given by my WriteWords friends and although that’s a good advert for WW, it sound SO conceited! I do mean to get around taking a class or so–it seems very fashionable for a writer at my stage to take a creative writing degree –but there are only so many hours in a day. And I comfort myself with the fact that Jane Austen didn’t do workshops…
RB: You are also writing a novel? How do you relate to this longer form? Do you approach it like a series of flash pieces?
AHG: I have written three novels to date–and there are three half-finished ones in an electronic drawer somewhere! I intend to take these, one by one, and work on them and publish them on Kindle too. The first one should be ready later on this year, and is about a thirty-year-old who decides she wants what her twin has –a family & children. While her twin decides she’s had enough of that and wants a career. It’s been done, I hear you say? Well I’m told there are only seven basic stories anyway. So I guess it’s how you tell them that makes it interesting. You’ll have to tell me how I did when it comes out!
RB: Can you share with us your Kindle experience? What form of fiction or creative writing is best supported by Kindle in your opinion? What do the reading trends reveal?
AHG: I am a complete Kindle convert! I resisted buying one of the readers–I like paper books, I said. I like to hold them in my hands and feel the rustle of the pages, I said. Then I figured if I was going to sell on Kindle I should see what the fuss was about. I now have over 160 books on my Kindle. I carry it around in my handbag, I can read at the drop of a hat and it doesn’t weigh anymore with all those books in it!
Forms of fiction best for Kindle? I can see, as for with any eReader, that if the book had lots of pictures in it that might not… sit well on the small screens of the eReaders. But in my humble opinion just about any form of fiction or creative writing will be just as well represented on an eReader screen as on a dead-wood book! (Dead-wood–paper, get it?)
And the trends? Phew! That’s a trickier one than I think you realize! The access Amazon, and all the eBook seller sites, allows to a reader is tremendous. I think this is the real revolution that is talked about. No longer are the books and stories available to the reading public only those that a literary agent, publishing house editor or retail shop decide are the ones that will be sold this year. The choice of e-Reader reading matter is truly astonishing–trawling through just Amazon’s lists to see the choice will show you that.
Okay, right some, perhaps a lot, of these are rubbish; but those eBooks that are badly written, have too many errors in them, are badly formatted, or just plain boring will fall to the bottom of the heap – thus allowing the good stuff to float. But it’s definitely not a case of publish and leave your little masterpiece to get on to the legendary Amazon lists all by itself. As the author, you have to do stuff to help.
Only look at the Fifty Shades phenomena and you should appreciate the power of the common readership. How, if enough people hear about–and buy–a book, it will be a success. Without the assistance of agents, publishers, editors and all.
RB: What does your family feel about your addiction? Having this writer in their midst, every day?
AHG: My family, bless them, are very supportive, if extremely puzzled by the strange creature in their midst! After all, I am supposed to be the scientist in the family! The addiction has grown into writing all fiction. It’s not just flash now. But my husband and son good-naturedly put up with me tapping away telling them I’ll get dinner soon. After all, that’s what take-aways are for
RB: What’s your poison for added energy at your writing desk. Do you have a writing desk/den/cubby hole? Who cleans it? J
AHG: I prefer a variety of beverages and cycle through them during a day–peppermint tea, Rooibos tea, lemon water or lime and honey water. Even in summer I prefer a hot drink when I’m working.
As I said before, my desk is askew at the moment and I find it too unsettling to work in the middle of the floor, so I am camped out in the dining room. Or I take Pinkie my PC and she’s pink (really!) to bed with me for an early night. I have a bed-tray I rest her on and I tap away into the wee-hours when it’s quiet.
RB: What are you working on now? What are your future projects?
AHG: I am working on my next production; the first novel I feel is ready to see the light of day. I hope this will be ready by late 2012, so I am steeling myself into editing mode. The story is about twins – one’s the “career” twin, the other the “babies” twin–up until now. The interesting story, for me, is in the margins of their lives, how both want the other’s life and at the end of the book, how they each achieve a balance in their own life.
Rumjhum Biswas is a writer currently living in Chennai. She has been published all over the world, and her work has won prizes and commendations in India and abroad, including first prize in the Anam Cara Short Story Competition June 2012.