Bath Flash Fiction Award Interviews Marissa about her Win in October 2019
BFFA: Can you tell us what inspired your winning story, Angie?
MH: Early in my career I worked on a project for UNHCR where I spent time with people who were variously labelled but who shared the same predicament, they could no longer stay where they had always called home, they had no choice but to leave. They made huge sacrifices, travelled in danger and arrived unwelcome. The images of Angie Valeria and her father made real people of the word ‘migrant’ and I wanted to do the same using flash fiction.
BFFA: You mentioned on Twitter, that his piece began in a Fast flash online course with Kathy Fish and you worked on it for a long time afterwards. Can you tell us how it progressed from your first draft?
MH: That’s right. Kathy’s Fast Flash course drew out of me a set of instructions for migrants. At the time the image of Syrian Alan Kurdi drowned on the sand was making global headlines and thousands of people were fleeing their homes walking on mass through central America. I came across the sentence, ‘holding hands is a natural response when seeking safety’ and the idea of the paper doll chain fit so perfectly for me.
Over time it became clear though that that piece wasn’t flash fiction because it didn’t get close enough to a character. Readers are empathetic people. Readers want to connect with the emotion or the intention of a character. My story went through a year (yes, a year) of close editing in that structure of instructions before I took a few words of advice and decided I had to extract what I thought was the heart of the story and start again from scratch. Angie and her father lost their life shortly before that decision and it felt right to attempt to keep their memory alive through fiction. On a blank page, I brought the story in tighter, to a shorter space of time, to a single location. I added a father’s motivation and an active relationship, I introduced love.
BFFA: On your blog, you said that your flash fiction ‘The Chalk Line’ which was shortlisted in the Bath Award in 2018, was the first one you submitted anywhere. What got you interested in writing very short fiction?
MH: The Chalk Line was written as an exercise during an online fiction course (not flash) when I didn’t know what flash fiction was. That piece had been sitting on my computer unread for seven years and when I first heard about flash fiction from a friend, I thought, what have I got to lose? I’ll be honest, at that time, I considered it worthy of submitting purely based on the fact that it met the word count requirement. After that story was well received, I became fascinated by flash fiction. Ad Hoc Fiction and Bath Flash Fiction have been instrumental in offering me a space to grow as a writer, as have Reflex Fiction. Flash suits me because I work extremely slowly, and the readership is discerning and prepared to work. I love to research and when I finally get to the writing stage, I simultaneously write and edit in minute detail. I need time to allow writing to rest so that I can look at it again with a critical eye. I am always admiring of those who can thrash a story out in a workshop environment, I’ll be lucky if I get a couplet or a phrase. Possibly, I am an editor before I am a writer if the two things can be separated.
BFFA: Both Angie and The Chalk Line are political in nature. Do you think you write more about the political than the personal?
MH: I am very motivated by injustice. For instance, I tried to understand a father’s fear and helplessness raising daughters in world being destroyed in, ‘Mistakes Multiplied by 3.14159’ (Reflex Fiction). Sometimes that sense of injustice feels personal, like the teenage character under the kind of strain a child should never have to feel, ‘Them Naming Me Trespasser’ (New Flash Fiction Review). Many of my stories feature parenting at their core, I have three children, it’s what I spend the bulk of my time worrying about. Writing ‘political’ marries my interests and my love of writing. It gives me a reason to research and learn.
BFFA: You also work as an editor. Do you offer your services to fiction as well as non-fiction writers?
MH: My editing work comes in fits and bursts and is hugely varied but I also enjoy helping friends edit their fiction, in the way we all help each other as writers. I could imagine doing it more professionally if the project and relationship felt right. I always invest hugely, so I’d need to feel whomever I worked with put their trust in me, and why would they, it would be a leap? I’m conscious that editing fiction requires a different approach to non-fiction. A fiction editor encourages the writer to find their own way, suggesting, nurturing, spiralling a succession of drafts upwards towards something they love.
BFFA: People are often intensely interested in where and how writers write? Do you have a special time of day or place to write? And do you like music on or off?
MH: I certainly can’t work to music that I would want to sing along to. I love singing and that would be a distraction. I wrote a story about raising a child born to be an executioner a generation before the French Revolution, ‘Blood in Paris’ (National Flash Fiction Day Blog) and I found it very helpful to listen to baroque chamber music during that time. Usually though, I prefer complete silence or white noise, like in a busy space. The most important thing for me is time. I need solid blocks of deep concentration. It often means I work in the tiny hours of the night, my kitchen clock ticking time which is entirely mine.
BFFA: Have you any fiction writing projects on the go at the moment?
MH: I am resetting at the moment. I am diving into some wider reading and hitting the textbooks. I’m someone who loves studying the technical elements of writing and close reading. That gives me comfort while the ideas are brewing. I want to write some short stories and I’d like to take on a big project (whispers, a novel), hopefully there will be more flash too. I’d really like to get myself on a course or in a structured programme when funds allow it, or a scholarship opportunity arises.
BFFA: What would your main advice to competition entrants be?
MH: I like to ask myself, why read this? What am I saying? If I can answer that in a single sentence, the chances are I have a beating heart in my story.
Cathy Ulrich at Milk Candy Review Interviews Marissa about her story Bodily Fluids
Cathy Ulrich: I think a lot of us have regrets (all right, I think everyone has regrets), and I love how the narrator in this piece expresses theirs, especially that line at the end! Do you think, if they hadn’t killed the ladybird, they would be happier?
Marissa Hoffmann: I think the death of the ladybird is the catalyst for the character’s reflection and an opportunity for her to face how she feels about the waste of life, the possibility that a life can be easily forgotten by, in this case, just flushing its body away. I want to question whether we are guilty of forgetting, or being made to feel we should forget? Should we, in society, commemorate the dead more openly, more regularly, share our grief? Some cultures and religions do this so well, others less so. Would she have been happier had she not killed the ladybird? No, I think she’s haunted by the possibility that she might have had a child. The possibility of a life and its value is everywhere for her and she can’t forget and doesn’t want to.
CU: The narrator tells us that ladybirds don’t have a heart as we know it. What do they have?
MH: In the story we learn that the ladybird has an open circulatory system and I want to suggest that it might be possible to believe therefore it can’t feel pain, the kind of pain one feels in the heart. As the ‘intelligent’ species, perhaps we are nevertheless guilty of not considering enough that everybody and every living thing hurts. Perhaps we allow ourselves excuses, consciously or otherwise e.g. the ladybird has an open circulatory system therefore it’s not like us, it doesn’t have a heart, it can’t feel pain. That kind of monologue, I want to suggest, may be something that appears more widely; it was ‘just’ an insect, ‘just’ a foetus, ‘just’ a (fill in the blank). I wonder whether, if that is the case, it stems from the notion that for some, sharing pain is shameful, the sound of it in the form of crying, the memory of it, perhaps in the form of a trauma or grief. I have a sense that for some, pain is more social acceptable if it is flushed away, hidden, and from the outside perhaps it could or should look forgotten.
Matt Kendrick Reviews Marissa’s story Mother is a Magpie
Telling a story through a list of items is the ultimate in concise narrative. When the verbs as well as the subject(s) of those verbs are taken away, all that is left behind are the story’s objects. The writer has to choose items that tell the reader more than the sum of their parts and the risk is that entertainment value will be lost. In this piece, though, Marissa Hoffmann strikes just the right balance. She sets up her story with a short burst of narrative in the form of a letter before letting her list unfold. Each item is a like a piece of a puzzle that slowly comes into focus. There are flashes of humour. There are mysteries for the reader to unpick. And these are wrapped in a clear narrative journey:
The London Independent Story Prize Interviews Marissa about being on the recommended list with her story Keeping Company With Orchids
Can you please tell us about you?
Thank you so much for the exciting news. I’m delighted to be on the recommended list and gobsmacked. I’m English but I’ve been living and working around the world for twenty two years. These days I am based in a small town in the Swiss Alps with my family.
When did you start writing?
I’ve played with the idea of writing for so many years and dreamed of a bookish life for as long as I can remember. But I’ve held myself back, always considering writing to be an incredible indulgence of my time, drawing me from my responsibilities. It took a huge recent shake up in my life to push me so in February, I decided to set regular time aside to read and to write. I was guided by a wise writer friend who said, ‘just write.’ It dawned on me, that I wasn’t. I feel more like myself for writing. It has been an uplifting ten months with a win at AdHoc fiction, long listings at TSSPublishing Flash400 and Reflex, and a Short List at Bath Flash Fiction Award which resulted in my story The Chalk Line appearing in the anthology Things Left and Found by the Side of the Road.
How did you feel when you learned that you are on the Highly Recommended List of The London Independent Story Prize? How does it feel to have your work recognised?
It’s completely amazing and I’m blown away. I’m really looking forward to reading the winning stories, there is always so much to learn, and I enjoying the supportive Twitter community that emerges when results are announced. I like to express to writers when I enjoy their work. I’m on Twitter @Hoffmannwriter. Appearing on The LISP Recommended List really is a fantastic end to my first year of writing.
What’s the best thing and the hardest thing about writing a Flash-Fiction?
I enjoy the hybrid nature of flash. It’s with flash that I can play with poetry and facts and complete fiction all in one space. I love words and enjoy arranging them around spaces where there is no room for waffle. I think of it as a chance to step into shoes and walk, or possibly hop. It’s also a socially acceptable way of wearing my heart on my sleeve. The hardest part I’d say is the subjectivity of it all, and with that, the necessity to have thick skin or believe in what you do 100%.
How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And how long have you been working on it?
My stories always begin from what I think of as a little yeast starter in a bakery. I keep a notebook with me for things that pop into my head in daily life or whilst reading, and for things that won’t leave my head. At the risk of over using the bakery analogy, my ideas then ferment, and I knead them and roll them around and around. Some stories need proving for weeks or months. This story allowed me to explore behaviour. I feel there are people I regularly encounter who battle with a sense of loneliness, people who are very rarely alone.
Can you please give us a few tips about writing a 300-word flash-fiction story?
I haven’t been asked to give a tip before. It might not work for everyone, but I’ve realised recently my best results come when I work with a single live draft. If I delete, I take the chance I may regret that decision, but I feel sure that I’d be able to remember anything good and it would find its way back if it needed to. In the past I might have worked with various versions, but working with one active story helps to maintain a voice.
What’s the best thing about writing competitions? Having a deadline, a motivation to finish the story, the chance of winning, getting recognised by a professional organisation, communicating with other writers or a networking opportunity to meet with like-minded people?
So far I’ve used competitions as a filter, as a way of trying to assess if anyone likes what I’m producing. I like having a schedule of competitions to write for. I had been writing in a vacuum and it’s only this year I’ve felt brave enough in the anonymity of submitting to competitions. I’m someone who doesn’t accept compliments easily, so a listing in a competition is something I can accept.
Lastly, do you recommend that writers give it a go with a flash fiction story and LISP?
Absolutely because if nothing else, if you love writing, you’ll be doing it.