by Rumjhum Biswas
Claire King is a writer of fiction – very short, short and long. Her work has been published online and in print including The New Scientist, The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Metazen, Writers Forum and 52/250. Her short story “The Gift” won first prize in the Writers’ Forum magazine competition, August/September 2010. She was shortlisted and highly commended by the judge in the 2010 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition and shortlisted in the New Scientist flash fiction competition 2010 with “Biotechnology Paper 1.”
Claire now lives and works in France where “she inhabits a ramshackle old house in the mountains with her husband and their two daughters, happily ever after.” She blogs about France, writing, and assorted other things at www.claire-king.com
. You can follow her on twitter @ckingwriter. Also read some of her flash fiction at Fictionaut.
In Claire’s own words, “she grew up in Mexborough, South Yorkshire and studied economics at Newnham College, Cambridge. She has worked variously as a barmaid, a book-seller, a riding instructor, a fiction editor and in a leper colony. She spent the last twenty years working anywhere in business that allowed her to tell stories. She has finally realized what she wants to be when she grows up.”
Claire’s debut novel, The Night Rainbow, is published 14th February 2013 from Bloomsbury. For more information on The Night Rainbow, including a sample chapter, the book trailer and where to buy, click HERE.
Rumjhum Biswas: In an interview you’ve mentioned your “Goldilocks of fiction, where the characterization is neither too much nor too little. Where the plotting, the conflict and the resolution leave space for the reader to join in the storytelling. Not too hot, not too cold…but just right.” And you gave an example, “Okay So Far” from Ali Smith’s collection Other Stories and Other Stories. Can you give us an example from your own stories that gave you this specific sense of satisfaction, afterwards when you read it/them over?
Claire King: The flash below is 55 words. But it’s one of my favorites because it’s almost like a child’s coloring in. I give you the picture, you color it the way you want.
I was born nowhere and couldn’t wait to leave. Going with the flow on to bigger and better things.
But home won. Tugged at my core until I found myself moving against the current. Back to nowhere, just like all the rest.
Nothing there had changed. I found a mate, made babies, prepared to die.
Your question is interesting, because different story forms have different “Goldilocks” points. At the extremes, flash fiction leaves the reader with a huge amount of story ownership, as above. Novels still ask the reader to work alongside the author, but there is necessarily more information provided. My first reaction to your question was to say that in my novel, The Night Rainbow, I feel I really hit that point, and that was tremendously important because of the nature of the story and the fact that I used a naïve narrator. I’m pleased with how I achieved the balance I sought.
On reflection, I learned a lot from writing short stories. Flash fiction is a good training ground for hitting that sweet spot, because you simply don’t have any slack in the prose. One of my favourite contemporary novelists, Maggie O’Farrell, recently sent me a wonderful endorsement for The Night Rainbow in which she describes it as “elegant and spare”. I am so proud to have that quote! I hadn’t considered my novel writing style to be ‘spare’ before, but when I think about it I do edit right back to the essence as much as possible. Here is a flash piece I wrote, which I think gives just enough information about the character and her story, “Anything Again,” for the reader to infer their story from it.
RB: Does place affect you as a writer? How much do the immediate physical surroundings impact your writing?
CK: Place affects me in two ways: In what I am inspired to write, and in the way I work.
I notice things more when I am in new surroundings or an unfamiliar situation. This awareness, the way my brain is on sensory alert is a rich source of ideas. As children we live this feeling of novelty every day. As young adults too. Remember feeling like no-one could possibly understand the intensity of your first crush or first love?
I try to regularly put myself in a new place or situation, read something new or just to go out into the world and notice how nature is changing the scenery. It makes my brain work, it wakes me up, it helps me write.
On a more mundane level, when I actually sit down to write I need space. It can be a tiny space, but it needs to be mine. Physically it has to be uncluttered, and I do need solitude. In a family environment, or on a train, you can’t always have that luxury, but a set of headphones and the right music can create a lovely bubble effect.
RB: You are a prolific writer and write stories of all lengths from flash to regular short stories to novels. Can you tell us a bit about your working methods? Do you work on all forms simultaneously as and when inspiration hits you?
CK: It really depends on what else is going on in my life. I find I work best when I am writing multiple forms because things nourish each other. A flash can nourish detail in a novel, a deleted darling from a novel can transform into a short story. But when I’m editing a novel I can’t do anything else. Not writing, and not reading. These things are so complex and all consuming. I have to be immersed in the story to the expense of everything else, so I can fight my way out of it, make it like the vision I have in my head.
RB: What is it about flash fiction that excites you? What can flash fiction do, according to you that the longer forms cannot?
CK: I first started reading flash when I was a mum to a new baby, and I didn’t have the time to wash never mind the mental space to engage with a novel. I was delighted.
Flash became the literary equivalent of taking vitamin tablets when you can’t eat a proper diet. In the space of minutes, I could be transported, and a seed of something wonderful would be planted and grow throughout the day.
When I began to write again I tried my hand at flash. It seemed a feasible ambition – not to set straight back off on the mountainous terrain of a novel, but to perfect stories which were bite size but powerful. In addition, as a writer of flash, you can try out different styles to completion – humorous, emotional, dark… it’s liberating. As a reader you can read extensively and broadly, be inspired, and learn from other writers.
RB: Is there any flash fiction writer whose work you particularly admire?
CK: Too many to mention. As I said above, one of the fabulous things about flash fiction is that you can explore so many different authors. I’ve been inspired by Tania Hershman, Alison Wells and Marcus Speh whose stories usually contain a sharp, surprising intelligence. I also love to read people like Ann Bogle, Beate Siggridaughter, Susan Gibb and Martha Williams, who have a wonderful knack of capturing the essence of humanity.
RB: Does dark flash fiction work better than other genres?
CK: It’s strange, I seem to lean towards darker subjects in flash, perhaps because I don’t want to write novels with dark themes. It’s an outlet for things I want to say, but not dwell upon. I prefer to treat darker subjects that way because we all have dark things to say, but I feel we should express them and then move on. At least I should.
I can write funny in flash too. I tried recently to write something more cheerful, a sort of “love flash” (Salt) but it turned into a poem. Perhaps for me there is something about the rhythm and metre of love that turns it to verse, whereas anger, contempt and disgust can be spun into a flash more effectively.
RB: Can you tell us how The View From Here was created? What motivated you? After all there are so many magazines online.
CK: The View From Here was created by Mike French so you need to talk to him about that! I took the Fiction Editor job because I felt it’s a great place for writers to showcase their work and I personally benefited from having somewhere like Metazen who published some of my flash – Peach and Peach (2) when I was seeking representation. It matters that people are reading and appreciating your work.
It’s not a paid job, just as we don’t pay any of our contributors, because it’s a free online zine. But I think that’s fine. I don’t believe all writing should be paid for. Nor do I believe all writing should be free.
RB: Can you give us a glimpse of a day in your writing life? How do you manage with two small children?
CK: When I’m home with the girls because it’s a weekend or a school holiday, then they come first. I’m their mother and that’s that. If my husband is also home then I will claim an hour’s writing time and use it wisely. Otherwise I focus my writing on days when they are at school. The one thing that is certain is that no day is certain. As many writers, I hold down day-jobs as well as parenting and having household obligations. Even now my children are school age, I haven’t found a way to keep a strict rhythm. Kids get sick, roofs leak, a client calls and needs me inToulouse ASAP… Life is messy. In which case I write early morning, or late at night, or on a train or if it’s really bad I don’t write at all. Sometimes you have to cut yourself some slack.
If the planets do align to let me get into a routine I snatch the opportunity. In that case a day looks like this: Once I’ve dropped the girls off at school, I take my dogs on a long run, an hour or so up in the low mountains. Exercise is really important for so many reasons. The fresh air, the environment, the liberty of running, it’s a great way to start the day. Once I’m home and showered I sit down and I write. Every hour or so I take ten minutes, have a drink (just tea!) answer emails, tweet a bit, then carry on. I keep going until it’s time to pick the girls up. On these days I can fit in three hours of writing. That’s a really good day. Now I know there are days like these, it helps with the days when life just gets in the way.
RB: When did you start writing? How did your friends and family react when they realised that you were a writer/wanted to write?
CK: People always answer this question with ‘as long as I can remember’ or ‘since I was a child’ don’t they?
It’s true I’ve always been passionate about reading and writing. Since about 4 years old. Do I win a prize? Perhaps for the longest journey to publication?
OK, Is there a time when I started writing “seriously?” Probably when I had children. At that point I realized that time was only going to shrink from hereon in and that it was up to me – either I buckle down and write every day, or I just give up on the idea of being a writer. So I wrote.
I’d been telling people for a decade or more that I was writing, so it didn’t really come as any surprise to my family and friends.
What surprised people was that I was working on a completely different novel to the last one I’d told them about, or even the one before that. And most people didn’t really understand how short fiction fit in. So people were encouraging without necessarily understanding the what and the why. That’s why having writer friends is so important. Writing sites and Twitter are lifesavers.
As well as the what and the why there is the when. After I got a book deal it seemed tangible to people. They could understand how I would be over the moon at finally having a book coming into book shops. Hurray! But then when I told them it was still two years away. OK, yes, I understand that’s hard to grasp.
RB: What are you working on now?
CK: Right now I’m editing my second novel. Well, it’s the second I hope to get published, the first one is still languishing in a drawer, but it belongs there. At least for now. So that’s the only thing I’m working on, until it’s in the bag and sent to my agent.
I do also have a short story for radio in the works and a handful of unfinished shorts and flashes. Come the end of the year when this novel is done, I will treat myself to some time to finish those and also do a lot of reading. My to-read pile, both physical and virtual, is out of control.
RB: Can you tell us a bit about the early days of your writing career? What advice would you give to a writer just starting out from your own experience?
CK: It’s very boring. I wrote a lot. I stopped. I half wrote novels and gave up on them. I seriously wrote a novel which got some good feedback from agents, but not good enough, and then I lost heart and had babies. And then I found my wind. And I wrote seriously. I felt I could call myself a writer.
Really, the best advice to a writer starting out is to write. Then keep writing. Read widely. Don’t expect it to be easy because it isn’t easy. Find other writers to talk to (you need cheerleaders, a community).
Get peer feedback. Don’t publish broadly online, wherever people will have you, just for the sake of being published. Publish your best work. Publish work you are proud of. And work on the all other stuff until you are proud of it.
Respect the fact that you leave an online trail that is there forever. Don’t be mean to people, be kind. One day you will hope for some kindness yourself.
Don’t believe everything you read about the evils of different publishing models either. Get well informed, and don’t take sides. We’re all writers, remember?
RB: What kind of stories thrill you when you are going through the submissions for The View from Here?
- Something surprising. A theme that is new, or at least a new take on it. Just as I said above that novelty can inspire ideas, so a novel idea, well executed will make me sit up and listen.Thrilling use of language. Writers that form perfect beautiful sentences, and spin them into a perfect beautiful paragraph, they are few and far between.
- An ownership for the story, rather than an outpouring of personal experience.
- Respect for the reader, and respect for our readers – people should at least have read some of the work we publish and believe that what they are sending is a good fit and of the same high standard. A scattergun approach to submission can be spotted a mile off.
- Note that a long list of previous publications will not get your story read any more assiduously than none at all. A blazingly good opening paragraph, on the other hand, will.
Rumjhum Biswas has had poetry and fiction published all over the world in both online and print journals and anthologies. She has won prizes for her work, including winning first prize in the June 2012 Anam Cara Short Story Writing Contest. Her novel Culling Mynahs and Crows and a collection of her short fiction are being published by Lifi Publications, India and will be available in 2013.