Which writers or poets inspire you and why?
So many writers and poets have inspired me, it hardly seems fair to select out a few, but I’ll try!
Jorge Luis Borges was an important early influence – when I came across Labyrinths on my parents’ bookshelf, I felt like I’d been socked in the face with its originality. Those stories made me aware that so much more could be done with fiction than I had ever considered.
At university, I was exposed to a number of brilliant writers such as Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Vladimir Nabokov, Bessie Head…oh, the list could just go on and on! These writers all expanded my sense of what fiction was, and what the written word could do. I sought out and still seek out writers who can expand my experiences in some way – geographically, culturally, aesthetically, artistically – through the medium of storytelling.
In the past decade, I’ve been reading more short stories, partly because that’s mainly what I’ve been writing, and partly because with work and family, I have less time for those long, indulgent, through-the-night, cover-to-cover novel-reading sessions. Some of my favourite short story and flash fiction authors include Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Kathy Fish, Leesa Cross-Smith, and Tania Hershman. I suppose what I like about all these authors is that they can chisel a short story down to its barest essentials, yet still deliver to their readers deeply nuanced, infinitely surprising worlds.
If you are a writer or poet, how did you get started?
I’ve been writing stories and scripts since I was old enough to write, and then studied creative writing as an undergraduate, before taking a degree in physics. At university, I learned a lot about the craft of writing, as well as the value of good critique groups.
However, I don’t feel that my actual start as a writer came until a few years ago, right after my daughter was born, when I decided to knuckle down and take creative writing seriously. At that point, I committed to writing regularly, and started using every scrap of free time to write. I joined a critique group and set myself writing challenges with deadlines. I schedule in writing time and keep to it, leaving the house if I fear I’ll be distracted by the dishes in the sink or the laundry waiting to be washed. All these things help me to keep plugging away when I’m tired, busy, or feeling less than inspired.
Are there some themes you enjoy more than others?
When serving as editor of a literary journal, I found that a tremendous number of submissions were concerned with a handful of themes, many of which were treated in quite similar ways. I read so many stories about cancer, dementia, the death of a family member, domestic violence and sexual trauma, that whenever a different theme popped up, I’d get very excited indeed. (Years later, it’s stories about milk teeth and cardboard boxes and cross-country shipping that I remember most clearly – stories that came at the big, universal issues, but from unexpected angles.)
With flash fiction in particular, I’ve read lots of pieces that end with a ‘surprise’ murder or a ‘twist’ or ‘trick’ ending. These can be quite fun on a first reading, but it’s the stories that have depth enough to surprise me in multiple subsequent readings that get under my skin and stay with me.
For me, genre doesn’t matter nearly as much as voice, craft, and story-telling. Although I tend to gravitate to so-called literary fiction in my own reading, I could list a number of mysteries, science fiction, fantasy and even a zombie story or two that have really impressed me in this past year. I’m open to good, solid, traditional stories as well as experimental pieces and short-shorts that walk that slippery line between fiction and prose poetry.
What are you reading currently?
I usually have a stack of books on the go at the moment. At the moment, I’m in the middle of Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, at the start of The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, and near the end of Times Square and Other Stories by William Baer. As for non-fiction, I’m re-reading Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air by David MacKay, as well as Attack and Defence by Ishida Akira and James Davies, a book aimed at helping amateur Go players improve their game. I have an audiobook on the go as well; I’m currently listening to Phineas Finn, the second of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, via Librivox.
What advice would you give your younger writing self?
Don’t talk yourself out of writing. There is never a ‘perfect time’ to start a writing project, and you shouldn’t save up those great ideas until you are more experienced, have more time, or whatever the current excuse might be. Writing begets writing; ideas beget ideas. If you only have 10 minutes, write for 10 minutes. You have to write regularly in order to improve. If you need a deadline, make a list of submission deadlines for journals or contests, commit to submitting something, and follow through.
Don’t talk yourself out of reading. Read widely, both in and out of your favourite styles or genres. Get familiar with the journals, magazines, small presses, anthologies, etc. that publish things that resonate with you. Not only will it help your writing, but when you’ll get a good sense of which markets might provide good homes for your own work.
Don’t talk yourself out of submitting. The worst that can happen is that work is declined. When a piece is declined, remember that a rejection has more to do with the balance of pieces in the publication, a reader’s personal preferences, the phase of the moon and all sorts of other things outside your control than it does the quality of your work. Send it somewhere else before it has time to gather dust. Always research a publication before you submit, and only submit to places where you like the work and think your work will be a good fit. A good way to lessen the impact of any one rejection is to have lots of pieces ‘out there’ under consideration.
Don’t put the cart before the horse. Read a lot and write a lot. Get feedback, edit, polish. Shop around for a good critique group. Both giving and receiving critical feedback will improve your writing. Websites, social media, query letters, agents, publishers, self-publishing, all of that good stuff can come later, after the writing, editing, polishing.
Do you have a favourite writing or reading resource to recommend?
Poets and Writers (http://www.pw.org/) is a non-profit organization that provides tons of free information and tools for writers, including listings of calls for submissions, contests, jobs, and so forth. It has a US focus, but I’ve found that many (if not most?) opportunities listed there welcome international writers.
Mslexia (https://mslexia.co.uk) is a UK-based publication for women who write. They also provide lots of free resources on their website, including opportunities for writers, self-guided writing workshops, and articles on many different aspects of writing and publishing.
Aerogramme Writers’ Studio (http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/) is a website and blog that lists current opportunities and resources for writers. It is based in Australia, but is international in focus. It’s great for collecting together opportunities such as library residencies, monthly submission deadlines, mentorship programmes, contests and so forth.