By Jim Harrington
As part of the 2014 National Flash Fiction Day-New Zealand, a contest was held for the best flash story of 300 words or fewer. Below I interview the winners–Sarah Dunn, First Place for Islands and Cities; Tricia Hanifin, Second Place for With Our Eyes Closed We Begin to Dance; and Sue Kingham, Third Place for Just My Luck.
Flash Fiction Chronicles: What draws you to flash fiction?
Sarah Dunn: It’s an interesting new shape. I didn’t give the form much thought until it occurred to me that flash fiction could be treated like a hybrid between poetry and traditional short stories, and there’s a lot of fertile space between those two poles.
Trisha Hanifin: A number of things: the challenge of brevity and intensity, and the sense of intimacy such intensity can create; the process of finding what is essential in a story and what is superfluous; and the condensed nature of flash makes it a close relation to poetry.
I’ve always liked Frank O’Connor’s argument that short stories represent a struggle with time, that they’re an attempt to reach some vantage point from which past and future are equally visible. I think this is especially true of flash fiction because what you often see on the page is a mid point—or flash point—between the past and future, both of which are not mentioned but are somehow made visible by the tiny, spotlighted moment of the story.
Sue Kingham: I am a student on the Hagley Writers’ Institute first year course in Christchurch. This year I began entering writing competitions and submitting my stories to the Flash Frontier website. I enjoy writing flash fiction and the length has enabled me to produce a number of stories in a short period of time.
FFC: Once you decided to enter this year’s NFFD NZ competition, what was your process for developing a story to submit? Where did the idea for your story come from?
Sarah Dunn: I might get into trouble for telling you this, but when I’m writing short pieces, I like to email early drafts to my work inbox and then leave the replies open all day so I can fiddle with them whenever I have a spare minute. For me, there’s a bit of a bell curve effect that governs how much effort I can successfully put into editing without sending the story off into wild and hostile territory, so addressing the job in short intervals keeps everything low-key.
The idea for Islands and Cities came from a combination of two pieces of media: Andrea O’Neil’s 2013 news story from the Dominion Post about the Spicer Landfill’s real-life seagull problem; and a majestic clip I saw on a David Attenborough documentary showing thousands of white seabirds plummeting into the sea all at once. Bird (and human) societies are fascinating.
Trisha Hanifin: This particular story developed out of an older, much longer story I’d been working on for a couple of years. I’d tried a number of different versions and lengths and never felt happy with them so this competition was an opportunity to try and find the core of the story again. In a more general way, a lot of my ideas for stories come from an imagined intersection between images, emotions and characters from popular culture and the character’s life in the story. Often I use songs, but in this instance, it was the Peanuts cartoon. I’m fascinated by the way in ordinary life, music, lyrics, images and symbols infiltrate our imaginations, become attached to our emotions and memories and become markers for important phases of our lives. I’ve always loved the qualites of sadness and bewilderment Charlie Brown has, and Snoopy’s joy and imagination, and I wanted to suggest all those possibilities and qualities in the story.
Sue Kingham: I frequently get ideas from reading the newspaper. I spotted the name Rowdy in an article and in the same paper I read a quote from someone who said they thought they were cursed although they didn’t believe in God. Creativity is a blending process, and these ideas were in my mind when I opened a photograph album with the intention of writing a story based on an old holiday. The image which caught my eye was of a South America street performer dressed as Jesus. My story came together from these three prompts.
FFC: Is your approach different depending on the length of story you plan to write? (Do you have an idea in advance how long a story will be?) For example, in the case of this competition the maximum word count was 300. What if the max was 1500?
Sarah Dunn: Whenever I’ve asked my chief reporter how many words she wants on a particular news topic, the answer has been: “Write it for what it’s worth.” It’s very difficult trying to craft story to fit a particular word count, but some ideas are worth more words than others. You get a feeling for which ideas might work with different shapes.
Trisha Hanifin: Mostly when I start writing a story I have no idea how long it will be or what will happen, I’m just exploring a mood or an emotion—sometimes I’ll have particular words or a voice in my head and I just try and follow that. I write very slowly over a long period of time, trying to find the center of the story. Writing flash fiction is often a process of removing everything unnecessary, no padding, no flab, so it’s a great writing teacher, a great discipline to learn. It’s enabled me to go back and look at longer stories and ‘flash’ sections of them—cut and shape them—until they’re clearer, cleaner, tighter. Less is, by definition, more in flash.
Sue Kingham: With flash fiction I enjoy capturing a specific moment in time while hinting at a complex backstory. There is little room for character development or a large cast list. If the maximum word count had been 1500 words, I would have been able to show some of the protagonist’s home life with his mother and Rowdy. However, the joy of flash fiction is that less is always more.
FFC: What other works have you published? What does your crystal ball say about your writing future?
Sarah Dunn: Working in the newsroom sucks up a lot of time and energy, and so far, all of my major writing achievements have been in journalism. I’ve just returned from six weeks reporting in South Korea, thanks to a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation, and I’m looking forward to seeing the material I gathered in Seoul and at the Demilitarized Zone published as long-form articles shortly.
I’d love to eventually see my work in fiction and non-fiction evolving a little more in parallel, but as long as I’ve got interesting things to write about one way or another, I’m content.
Trisha Hanifin: I’m quite new to flash fiction, I’ve only been writing it for a couple of years. This year I’ve had pieces published in Turbine and in Flash Frontier. In the past, I’ve been shortlisted in longer short story competitions in New Zealand and I completed a Masters in Creative Writing in 2010. I’m currently trying to complete a novel that I’ve been working on for a long time but often get sidetracked by writing other things. I love flash fiction because I get to finish something!
Sue Kingham: My other two published works have been flash fiction. My story, Family Outing, was chosen for Flash Frontier’s February 2014 collection, and in May I won the Scottish Literary Trust’s 50 word competition with a piece entitled The Twitcher. I am currently working on a YA science fiction novel and my dream is to make a career as an author. I appreciate this is a long shot – my crystal ball must be second-hand, because it refuses to reveal anything beyond this year.
Sarah Dunn is a journalist who lives in Nelson. She graduated from Wellington’s Victoria University with a B.A. Hons in English Literature and Religious Studies. She is 26.
Trisha Hanifin has worked in adult education and adult literacy for over 25 years teaching a range of subjects including reading and writing at both foundational and academic levels. She has written on the nature and extent of adults’ literacy issues in Facing the Challenge: Foundation Learning for Adults in Aotearoa New Zealand, (Dunmore Press, 2008). In 2010 she gained a Masters of Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology. Trisha writes short stories, flash fiction and is currently working on a novel, Ghost Travellers. Her stories have been shortlisted in a number of New Zealand competitions including the BNZ literary awards. This year her flash fiction has been published in Turbine and Flash Frontiers.
The February 2011 earthquake shook a love of writing back to the surface of Sue Kingham’s life: a case of literary fiction as opposed to liquefaction. She joined Helen Hogan’s WEA creative writing class in Christchurch and went on to become a member of the South Island Writers Association. Sue has attended several short writing courses and is currently a first year student at the Hagley Writer’s Institute. She has written poetry, a play for children, numerous short stories and she particularly enjoys writing flash fiction. She is currently working on a YA science fiction novel. She is married and is a busy mum with two primary aged children. When she’s manages to grab a spare moment, she can usually be found with her nose in a good book.
**Ms. Dunn’s picture taken by Marion van Dijk.