We are delighted that Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney will be joining us for Poets & Proseurs at Not the Oxford Literary Festival on March 28th. Rather unusually for a gobby oik like me, I’m going to hand over entirely to them. They will explain why but if you really want the gen you’d better come and see them in action.
Les Malheureux is a new and unique collaboration between Manchester-based flash fiction writers David Gaffney, author of the critically acclaimed collections Sawn-off Tales, Aromabingo and The Half-life Of Songs plus the novel Never Never, and Sarah-Clare Conlon, editor of smutty anthology Quickies: Short Stories For Adults and New Libertines debutante at the recent Afflecks show in the rainy city. Les Malheureux combines live literature with original music and projections to deliver a completely new take on spoken word, and David and Sarah-Clare will be fighting the fiction corner in the poetry v prose face-off at the Not The Oxford Literary Festival later this month. Here, they interview each other about flash fiction and the live lit scene.
David does the asking…
David Gaffney: Do you write flash fiction because you don’t know many words?
Sarah-Clare Conlon: I don’t know any words. I’m having to get a ghost writer to complete this questionnaire for me while I recline on a chaise longue, sipping pink fizz and doing my nails. I’m sure they’ll come up with something suitably intelligent, like: “actually, words are almost more important for a flash fiction writer because they need to work harder to make an impact given the limited space they occupy.” See?
DG: You’ve written stories of 330 words and 200 words and even 100 words, I think. What’s your favourite length?
SCC: I’m wondering if your choice of phraseology is intentionally provocative, given my penchant for smut. Well, I’m not going to rise to it. Heh. I started out by writing 330-word stories because my friend curates a micro fiction site called 330 Words, which pretty much does what it says on the tin, and he strong-armed me into submitting something. Since then, I’ve turned my hand to longer pieces and shorter pieces, but I’ve got a soft spot for 200 to 300 words. I also have a whole collection of smutty 69 worders bubbling away. That number is totally arbitrary, obviously.
DG: You can ride a bicycle and drive a boat and a car and can also walk quite fast, especially to a pub. Do you think you will ever learn to fly and, if so, will you write some flash fiction about it?
SCC: You are forgetting that I can also drive a motorbike and ride a horse, so I am clearly a woman worth knowing in the event of an apocalypse. I’m not a big fan of flying, but I am a great believer in never say never. Still, who would want to read a story about it? I mean, no one could top a plotline like those of Con Air or Snakes On A Plane, could they?
DG: You can speak French fluently and you often wear striped clothes – have you ever tried to write a flash fiction story in French?
SCC: Non. I did once write a story about a Francophile, though, and I did have an idea for a site-specific prose-bombing project in Paris, which would have involved me translating my work into French. Unfortunately, my proposal was rejected, possibly on the grounds that pretty much all the sites I chose to write in were bars.
DG: You are famous for living in Chorlton and writing blogs – do you think you will ever write a book about a blogger who lives in Chorlton and, if so, which actress would play your mother in the film?
SCC: For the benefit of those not familiar with Chorlton, it is a suburb of Manchester celebrated for its higher-than-average usage of chickpeas, Guardians and ethical footwear. I suppose it has comedy potential… Dame Judi Dench would play my mother and Tilda Swinton would play me, because she is ace and she is taller than Judi, as am I to my mum. They are both a decade older than we are, but you could argue that Hollywood actresses wear a little better than us real-life folk.
DG: You and your FlashTag mob perform live quite often – is live performance important for you?
SCC: Totally. Public adoration is all I seek in life. Really. That, and having a good excuse for a big piss-up. Oh, and getting helpful feedback and meeting lovely and sometimes very useful like-minded souls.
DG: When you are writing a story, do you imagine someone reading it alone or someone listening to you performing it on a stage?
SCC: I don’t honestly think about it that much. I read stuff back from the page in my head and out loud, so I suppose I’m trying to make sure it works both ways.
DG: What would be your top five tips for a writer who hasn’t read live before?
SCC: Practise reading aloud and time yourself doing it. Think up some witty repartee for an intro. Wear a nice frock and your lucky pants. Coerce someone into going with you for moral support. Have a glass or three of wine.
DG: They say people nowadays have very short attention – actually I can’t be bothered with this now, is that enough?
SCC: Ah, the short attention span thing – that’s why we write flash fiction, isn’t it? At least it has some chance of being read…
Sarah-Clare does the asking…
Sarah-Clare Conlon: When did you start writing “seriously” (as in, what I did in the summer holidays doesn’t count), and why did you start writing “seriously”?
David Gaffney: I used to write a comedy column for The Money Advice News. The column was called Ernest World’s World Of Money Advice and it was what you might call a sideways look at the debt counselling industry, of which I was part. But I find that if you look at things sideways they look the same as if you look at them straight on, so it wasn’t really a sideways look, it was surreal ramblings based on an imaginary middle-aged man called Ernest World who lived in West Cumbria, played the piano accordion and whose wife Dorothy ran off with rostrum cameraman Ken Morse. I began writing seriously one day when I was off sick from work. I had a bad case of the flu and was feeling kind of spaced out and I took a pen and an exercise book into the garden and began to write a thriller about a man with debt problems. That became my first novel, Never Never.
SCC: Have you always written flash fiction? Why flash? And do you even like the name?
DG: I began to write flash fiction because I was asked to by someone who ran a website for 150-word stories. At that time we called it micro fiction, which I prefer because it implies precision and that’s what micro fiction is all about, I think. I always thought flash fiction was about people who flashed at you in the park and I wrote a whole collection about that called No, He Was In A Ford Cortina, which was never published. I now write a lot of so called flash fiction.
SCC: Do you have a particular formula you follow when writing a story? Is it something you would recommend or should everyone follow their own path (or: can writing be taught?)?
DG: Writing ultra-short stories is like building tiny motorbikes. Micro stories are miniature machines you can walk all round and see every moving part all of the time, watch how each part works together with the others. There’s no hiding place when you write ultra-short. Here’s some tips. Start in the middle, make sure the ending isn’t at the end and the beginning isn’t at the beginning. Sweat your title, make it work for a living. Say things only once – examine repeated concepts and sentences that layer lots of ideas. Look carefully at lists of things. In descriptions, limit your self to one important aspect. Destroy smoky words like very, quite, just – words that aren’t paying their way. And when you think you’ve finished, write a paragraph about what happens next – that could end up being your story.
SCC: I know you write big and cut back, but how many edits / how long does it take to get to the finished product?
DG: I like to write a lot to find out where the story actually is. The story might live somewhere in the middle, or at the end or at the beginning of your chunk of prose so I chip away at it and keep saving lots of versions. I spend a long time on flash fiction pieces, worrying away at them like an oil painter might keep moving the paint about on a canvas. Stories never dry properly so you can keep at this for years. I even change stories after they’ve been published.
SCC: What or who inspires you?
DG: I am inspired by things like double-nozzle Vimto mouth spray. I think about how the people at Vimto sat around and discussed how they could invent a new way for someone to enjoy Vimto and came up with the idea of a double-nozzle mouth spray. I like that it’s a double nozzle. I like to think about the Vimto product ideas on the flip chart that never got made. The Vimto suppositories, the Vimto nasal inhaler. Things like that have the whole world of experience in them for me and I don’t really need to think about anything else for a while. You can tell a lot about someone by asking if you can spray Vimto on their tongue.
SCC: I don’t have a shed. Where’s the best place to write?
DG: The best place for me to write is on a train or in a café. I am writing these answers in the Cornerhouse bar in Manchester. I don’t like writing at home in a comfortable chair at a nice table with good posture, and all my things around me and music playing. It’s all too distracting.
SCC: What do you make of the live lit scene these days? Has it changed and is it changing?
DG: The problem with live lit is we are always looking for ways to spice up our performances with slides and music and props and costumes. When I read at Not The Oxford Lit Fest I am bringing a naked dancer and a bubble machine. Things like that really improve my set.
SC: You do a lot of projects. Do you think this is important for a writer? I don’t hear about JK Rowling doing sound installations or anything, and she has pots of cash.
DG: If you look at my website you will see I’ve done a few odd things to help me make new stories and get people to hear or read them. My latest project is to ring ten random numbers each night and read them flash fiction story down the phone. The audience numbers I get by doing this are better than some of the readings I do in pubs. It’s all about getting people to engage with your stuff. More people will read a Tweet than the latest short story collection by an unknown author.
SCC: Now you’re in a band, what are you going to put on your rider?
DG: Double-nozzle Vimto spray, Caramac bars, and greased-up piglets.
SCC: Who would win in an arm-wrestling contest – you or me? What about 100m dash? Scrabble?
DG: If you arm wrestle when you are drunk you can break your arm. My friend Clive who is a professional poker player did this and now has a massive scar. Running when drunk is a county-level sport in West Cumbria and playing Scrabble when drunk is how Mark E Smith writes his lyrics.
You can find David
You can find Sarah-Clare