Rumjhum Biswasby Rumjhum Biswas

Fish Publishing is well known across the world as much for the prestigious writing contests it curates as for the writing talents it has encouraged and helped launch. Over the years many well known writers have supported Fish and helped judge the contests. Fish began on the West of Ireland in 1994.

Yet in all these years the two people who first created Fish Publishing have remained low key. They are Clem Cairns and Jula Wharton, who, since Fish began, have continued to work behind the scenes to make Fish Publishing a name writers from countries far and wide aspire to be associated with. In this interview we get up close with Clem Cairns for a bit of history and the dream that led to what is easily one of the most prestigious writing contests today, and a publishing house that has brought out some of the finest writers at the beginning of their careers.

Apart from the annual Fish International Short Story Prize , Fish Publishing runs three other competitions, The Fish Flash Fiction Prize, The Fish Memoir Prize and The Fish Poetry Prize . Winners of all four competitions are published in Fish Anthologies during the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, West Cork, Ireland.

For those who want to have a shot, the Fish Flash Fiction Prize is open until 20th March 2012! Rules and other details are here.  Fish Publishing also runs two online writing courses, one for memoir and the other for flash fiction. Details about their online flash fiction course are here.

Rumjhum Biswas: Fish Publishing and the annual Fish Writing Contests are known all over the world. Now we’d like to know who the people are behind Fish Publishing. Can you tell us about yourself and also Jula Walton?

Clem CairnsClem Cairns: Jula and I have been working together on Fish since it started in 1994. We called it Fish because I was working on a fishing trawler at the time off the south west coast of Ireland, trying to raise the money to begin the publishing venture. We are the most westerly publishing house in Europe. Jula typesets and designs the anthologies that we publish, containing the winning entries from the Fish competitions. She also creates the ads for magazines, websites, and so on, and looks after the web pages on our site, and does the Fish Newsletter. I do most of the administration and oversee the editorial work.


RB: How did the idea of Fish come about? What were the events that led to it? Who were the first people involved. What were those early days like?

CC: The idea came about in 1994 because we realized how difficult it was for new, aspiring writers to get published in a “proper book”, so we ran the first short story prize as a way of attracting the best writers we could. After one year and one anthology we went global. We wanted to reach out from our remote corner if Ireland to the world, and to bring some Irish writing to the world. We have published over 400 writers in the intervening years, from Nepal to Nevada, Dublin to Durban, Cape Town to Copenhagen.

Jula Wharton

There were the two of us, and a Canadian woman called Mary Hawkes, living in West Cork, who could type (neither Jula nor I could back then), and because we had neither typewriter nor computer, Mary used the services in the local Arts Centre in Skibbereen.

Those early days were exciting. We had the sense of being on a mission, on a shoe-string. I was reading and editing between catches on the trawler, and Jula was dealing with all else from the house in West  Cork. It took over a year to get the first anthology out. Roddy Doyle judged the competition and he launched the Anthology at a party in Dublin. He has been a constant support to Fish over the years. We were sailing.

RB: Running Fish, the publishing, contests etc. must be an all consuming thing. Give us a day in your Fish-y life.

CC: Reading, reading, reading. There are about 20 editors who work freelance for Fish. It is mostly all online nowadays so they can be anywhere in the world. Much of the day is spent administering the competitions and organizing the editors. We look forward to the days where we can get out, to talk to writers, the launch the anthology, to take writing groups, and so on.

RB: Fish writing contests have been running since 1994, clearly one of the longest running international writing contests. What did you visualise when you organised the first contest? How has it grown since then?

CC: We visualized a vibrant publishing house that would break the mould. We wanted to be accessible and daring. We wanted to publish exciting new fictin from all over the world, and to give new writers a “start” on the road to becoming a successful writer. I believe that this has been accomplished over and again.

The first Short Story Prize attracted 350 entries. Now we get about 1,900, and the net has grown and continues to grow. Writers from Australia, New  Zealand, the Americas enter in their hundreds, and the surge now is from India and the Middle-East, and Africa. We added, over the years, a prize for Poetry, Flash Fiction, and just this year, Short Memoir. There are two online writing courses, in Flash Fiction and Memoir, run by Mary-Jane Holmes, a Screen Writing Consultancy run by Zimbabwian writer Rory Kilalea, and an Editorial Consultancy with Irish Writer Martin Malone, and we are in the process of adding courses on Short Story and the Novel.

RB: Please tell us about the other people who are involved with Fish.

CC: There are too many. Some editors have been with us from the start, others come and go. Mary-Jane Holmes does a huge amount of great work. Mary Hawkes is still with us. A company called Vivid Logic run by Phoebe Bright built the online entry system on the website and looks after the database and all of that technical stuff. Our editors live in Ireland, Spain, Holland, Canada, the USA. They are dedicated and interested readers who are excited about the prospect of discovering a new talent. We try to get as many as possible together for the launch of the Anthology every year at the West Cork Literary Festival, which was started 14 years ago by Fish and is going from strength to strength.

Roddy Doyle, Colum McCann, Dermot Healy and the late Frank McCourt are honorary patrons of the Fish Prize. They have all been judges in the past for Fish competitions, joining an illustrious band of great writers who have lent us their support.

Sue Booth Forbes runs a writing retreat, Anam Cara, in the west of Ireland. She has been providing a week in residence to some of our winners for over 14 years. The work that gets done their under the guidance of Sue and in the stupendous environment of the retreat and its incredible natural surroundings is gratifying. We recently added another Retreat Prize in Casa Anna, in the mountainous Alpujarra region of Spain. 

RB: When did you introduce the Flash Fiction Contest and why?

CC: We introduced it in 1994, because it is an exciting and relatively new genre. It is not really that new, but it had not gained widespread popularity till about then. Dave Eggers judged the first competition and we normally receive about 1,500 entries.

RB: Is there a specific reason behind the 300 word limit for your flash contest? It could have been any word count up to 1000, so why 300? 

CC: It’s the discipline. The skill it takes to write a story in 300 words is immense. It sounds easy but it is not. To write a complete story with that constriction is a challenge and a half. You have to tell so much while leaving it out! 

RB: Where do you think Flash Fiction can go where longer forms cannot?

CC: It can go more towards prose, towards poetry. It shares the pure distillation process with poetry to some extent. It puts a value on each word, each punctuation, that even a short story does not. It can also take forms akin to the telling of a joke, with the short build-up and the punch line, where a twist in the tale and a surprise are possible.

RB: You also conduct an online flash fiction writing course. Why did you choose to make it online? And why flash fiction and not a short story writing course?

CC: It is online because it is the easiest and most efficient way to run a course while the students are anywhere in the world. The tuition is one-to-one, and while it is designed to take three months it can be done in one’s own time. It was an experiment at first, to see if an online course would work for the students and for Fish. It has been a huge success, and so we added the Memoir and are working on Poetry, Short Story, The Novel and Screenwriting.

RB: Who are the flash fiction writers that you have published and those who have won prizes that you would like to especially mention?

CC: Seamus Scanlon’s winning story from 2011 – The Long Wet Grass” is one of the most stunning pieces of Flash I have ever read. We got more emails and comments about it than possible anything else we published. Zoe Sinclair’s “Darling Mummy from the 2010 Prize is brilliant. It has the gentle build-up and smack between the eyes ending that is typical of the form but hard to master.

RB: What are the common mistakes that flash fiction writers make?

CC: They think it will be easy because its short. Actually its more difficult. Endings are the place where many Flash stories fall down. But then, if the ending is weak it often points to an inherent weakness in the rest of it.

RB: Any tips and words of advice?

CC:Yes. Read the best Flash stories by writers who have perfected the craft. There are many examples in the Fish Anthologies and some on our website. Pay attention to the structure, to what is implied rather than told, to the careful use of language, and to the last line. In such a short form, remember that the title, even, is crucial.

RB: What next?Where do you see Fish going next?

CC: Keep swimming upstream. It’s a sign a fish is alive. If you really want to improve, do the Fish online course.


Rumjhum Biswas lives and writes in Chennai, India. Her writing blog is at Writers & Writerisms. Her fiction and poetry have been published all over the world.