The International Flash Fiction Day Competition

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Meet the Judges — Nuala Ní Chonchúir

20120201nichonchuirNuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012; The Irish Times said of it: ‘Ní Chonchúir’s precisely made but deliciously sensual stories mark her as a carrier of Edna O’Brien’s flame.’ Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner and ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times. Her third full poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011. Nuala’s second novel will be published in 2014.


This interview is in two parts. We begin with an informal chat and end with a more in-depth look at the author’s craft.

Allen: Nuala, thank you again for judging Flash Mob 2013, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me. You’ve been publishing short fiction–and longer fiction as well–for more than a decade. I remember reading in an interview once that you started writing short stories when the novel you’d been working on wasn’t coming together. How do you know when an idea is better suited for the short form?

Ní Chonchúir: I get asked this question a lot – it is hard to pin down why one thing becomes a story another a poem or novel. It has to do with thinking in shapes, I think. I see/feel the spark of the thing as a long or short shape; it’s a gut thing, hard to put in words. But the story is deep and sharp and it requires a small space and the material (spark/idea/inspiration) dictates that.

Allen: This description–which I love–reminds me of my own musical training. Is this merely my interpretation here, or do you feel prose musically?

Ní Chonchúir: Very much so. I love musicality in prose and I read everything aloud for sound as I write. If it doesn’t sound right, it gets changed. I like to sing, maybe it comes from that?

Allen: Ah! That makes me feel confirmed (read not crazy). Do you by chance write while listening to music?

Ní Chonchúir: No. I used to study and listen to galloping Irish music at the same time, but I find the older I get, the more quiet I need for working.

Allen: I can’t write to music with someone singing lyrics. Eventually I start writing the lyrics into the story, which almost never turns out well. I have experimented with classical music and instrumental stuff. What is your opinion about experimentation in writing?

Ní Chonchúir: It’s good to experiment, it keeps you fresh. It is fun to play with form and language and try for something new. Who wants to write the same story, in the same way, over and over?

Allen: Agreed. Since we are ankle-deep in a flash fiction blog carnival-slash-competition, what is the briefest story you’ve ever published? And would you consider it flash fiction?

Ní Chonchúir: Oooh, I’d have to think. 100 words or so. Prose poems are so close to flash as to be indistinguishable, and I have published them and shorts of all lengths. Poets will call these short prose pieces prose poems, fiction writers call them flash or short-shorts. I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘flash’ anyway. I prefer ‘short-short story’.The lines get blurrier for me as time goes on. I think we should call our pieces whatever we are comfortable with. Neither the great Lydia Davis nor Pulitzer prize winner Robert Olen Butler likes themother-america-original-cover term ‘flash’ either and, ostensibly, they both write it.

Allen: A lot of writers are moving away from the term “flash”, and I understand this. With so little page space, flash fiction–or sudden fiction, micro fiction, quick fiction or however else one chooses to classify it–often runs the risk of being taken less than seriously. Which writers of the short form do you take seriously, and what are they doing right in your eyes?

Ní Chonchúir: I think ‘flash’ is gaining a reputation. There will always be those who wrongly equate short with ‘unfinished’ or ‘less than’.

Of the well-known people writing short, I love Tania Hershman and Robert Olen-Butler. Lately I read a story in Camera Obscura about a deer and motherhood and anorexia that blew me away.

What these writers have in common is a joy in language mixed with an excitement about what it is possible to write about. They are original thinkers who like to deliver thoughtful prose in exuberant language. I love that.

Allen: I just had to run and get the issue of Camera Obscura I got at AWP to see if the story was in it. I don’t think so. Do you remember the name of the story?

Ní Chonchúir: Apologies, I have been searching in my brain for the author’s name all day. Her name is Thisbe Nissen and the story is called ‘Deer at Rest’. Phew – so glad I remembered that. It’s online.

Allen: Excellent. I’ll get my hands on that story. Let’s talk about your work now. What are you working on right now, and what excites you these days in terms of your characters and themes?

Ní Chonchúir: I am working on a novel set in the 19th century in America and that’s all I’m saying about that. Otherwise, because the novel takes up so much headspace and time (research & writing), I am writing the odd short-short. Recent themes include bullying, egg folklore and magpies.

Allen: Egg folklore? Tell us more!

Ní Chonchúir: The egglore was a result of novel research (there is a lot of cooking in the novel) and I just loved all the extra, weird stuff I found out about eggs e.g that witches make boats from eggshells and sail out to sea in them and brew up storms. Anyway, I wrote a short-short using egglore I had unearthed. It’s called ‘Treedaughter’ and will be in the National Flash Fiction Day anthology in the UK.

Allen: When does that come out?

Ní Chonchúir: As far as I am aware in June (before NFFD which is, of course, the 22nd June).

Allen: It has been such a pleasure chatting to you, Nuala. Thank you again for taking the time.

Ní Chonchúir: Thank you, Christopher, I hope we meet in the real world anon 🙂

Allen: Same here, Nuala!


We turn now to a more detailed look at Ní Chonchúir’s craft. In this interview with Flash Mob Organizer Michelle Elvy, Ní Chonchúir and Elvy discuss particular stories in-depth at Flash Frontier, a flash fiction journal out of New Zealand.

On language and form

FF: You were first published as a poet but you’ve diversified into short story and novel writing, and in all these forms, your writing stands out for its intensity, strength and passion which is handled with a delicate appreciation of language. Do you think this balance comes from being a poet first? Does poetry influence the way you go about writing short stories or even novels?

NNC: Certainly as someone who writes poetry I value concision in language and beauty. I was also brought up bilingual – English at home, Irish (Gaelic) at school – so I have always been steeped in language and asking questions of it. Language is hugely important to me as a writer and as a reader – I love those who take risks with language, I love stylists like John Banville and Annie Proulx. Kevin Barry is doing great things with Hiberno-English.

For my own writing, I like to use interesting language because, I feel, it adds richness. Having said that, plain language – like Hemingway’s – can be equally rich. I guess I value writers who take great care with words.




Meet the Judges — Marcus Speh

Marcus_speh_pic_zweiMarcus Speh is a German writer. He began to write prose in English seriously in 2008. Since 2009, his work has been published widely both online and in print. He’s been nominated for various prizes, shortlisted and longlisted for others, including The Paris Literary Prize. His debut collection of short fiction, Thank You for Your Sperm, has been published by MadHat Press. A mosaic novel is forthcoming from Folded Word Press in 2014.


Allen: Marcus, first of all, thank you for being a judge for Flash Mob 2013. Over the last three years you’ve written hundreds of shorts, many of which are in your collection–which has just been published– Thank You for Your Sperm (MadHat Press). What drew you to the short form?

Speh: Thank you for having me—I’m looking forward to it: if only to get a creative break from the ego trip of bringing out my first book! When I look at my collection, I’m reminded of my original reasons for writing flash: it’s fast, fiercely flexible and a wonderful medium for eccentric experimentation with style, with characters, with genre. As an art form, it promises a paradox: it’s both hard to do anything wrong with it — who cannot string a few hundred words together? — and at the same time it’s difficult to really get right — how can you put an entire world on such a small canvas?

Allen: Does a story come to mind off the top of your head by someone who gets it right in your opinion?

Speh: Many of the pieces in Charles Simic’s 1989 Pulitzer-prize winning collection The World Doesn’t End strike me so. Here’s one of my favorites from that book: «The hundred-year-old china doll’s head the sea washes up on its green beach. One would like to know the story. One would like to make it up, make up many stories. It’s been so long in the sea, the eyes and nose have been erased, its faint smile is even fainter. With the night coming, one would like to see oneself walking the empty beach and bending down to it.» — One might call this a prose poem rather than flash fiction. In their brevity and condensed beauty, Simic’s pieces resemble tiny, untitled abstract paintings.

Allen: I’m glad you said that. I wanted to ask if this incredibly compact form requires the writer to think more like a poet or a painter. I think I’ve made similar comments about your work, but I think it was a comment that related your prose to sculpture.

Speh: I’ve got an inferiority complex (or perhaps it’s just a mental limp) when it comes to poetry. You must ask a poet! I think you’re absolutely right though — and it’s one of my few remaining discomforts with flash. I feel that getting it right takes a higher toll when writing micro than when writing longer pieces. The lyrical “flash mode” as it were can be hard to stay with for many pages. I experience that with more lyrical writers (Faulkner comes to mind). I didn’t say this very well. I told you I get paralysed around poetry.

Allen: I understand perfectly what you mean about Faulkner. . So intense. What is your opinion about experimentation in prose? In a recent blog post at marcusspeh.com, you said you write to surprise yourself. I like that, and I hope I’m getting that close to what you wrote.

Speh: Regretfully, I continually surprise myself by disagreeing with my own views…regarding prose, I’m hugely fond of experimenting with meaning and with pushing the boundaries of what can be said while maintaining a rather conservative grip on form. I don’t think certain values of writing ought to be sacrificed, such as clarity of expression, narrative arc, and humanity of meaning. Within that, very much is possible, take such different authors as Lydia Davis, Charles Baudelaire or Robert Walser as examples (to name but three of my flash fiction heroes).

tyfys2flat copyAllen: Could you tell us a bit more about what you mean by ‘humanity of meaning’? Maybe use one of your own stories from Thank You For Your Sperm to show us?

Speh: I tried to express it in the 170-word story “The Sodomized Dictator” (first published in PANK) which was prompted by the killing of dictator Ghaddafi (widely, and graphically publicized)—to paint grief and brutality without preaching, as I said in the accompanying interview.

Allen: The image/metaphor of the volcano opening under the characters’ feet is quite strong. It characterizes so well the feeling of the sea change in that region.

Speh: Image is everything don’t you think? Especially in flash, a scene is often no longer than a single image. Which brings us back to “getting it right”. A wrong, or a blurred image can fully destroy a flash piece.

Allen: Very true. What are you reading these days? Are you enjoying it? What kind of prose excites you?

Speh: This is my year of Henry James. I’m reading all of his great novels in the New York edition, which means that I live in a very different universe from most people some of the time. I’m enjoying it on many levels, not the least one being his craft. There’s nobody quite like James to observe the art of scene building, of point-of-view changes, and how a change of consciousness transforms everything. He’s making me very, very jealous! Taking lessons from a master is exciting! I seem to be stuck in the early 20th century—for non-fiction, I re-read Freud and Friedell to calm my own discontents with contemporary culture.

Allen: Ah, yes. I actually knew you were going through James right now. Definitely the opposite of flash fiction if there ever was an opposite. When I was going through my own year of James, I was awestruck by his ability to weave in and out of his characters’ consciousnesses. The levels of discourse in his late phase became a major theme in my Master’s thesis.

Speh: I’d like to read that thesis! I don’t think I would ever have finished a thesis on James—I’d have got lost in the bushes looking for bunnies. You’re right about opposites there. It’s a necessity, I think. Broadening your skill horizon and all that.

Allen: I often stayed up all night looking for bunnies. I see James’s prose as an opportunity to read the language at its most intricate, at its technical peak? Like when a painter studies the technique of the masters…but eventually ends up a cubist.

Speh: I like the simile! — James wasn’t a stranger to experimentation with the short form either: you once told me the short story “The Figure in the Carpet” was one of your favorites. I wonder if he’d be dabbling (or excelling) in flash if he lived today.

Allen: It’s interesting that James’s “short” stories would be considered quite long today. “The Figure in the Carpet” is itself around 4o pages. I think James would probably pooh-pooh flash as the work of frustrated poets. Flash fiction has been on a journey away from the gimmicky plot-twist-oriented ending that characterized it years ago. And this is a great thing. Your own prose often defies classification. Where do you think “flash” fiction is headed? Some of your work is a sort of flash non-fiction, or would you resist this label?

Speh: I don’t think I care too much about labels — I’m aware that most of my fiction is fed by the lives I’ve lived. in which the Internet, or the Web rather, has played an enormous role.

Since plot is not my strength I wouldn’t dare twisting it…The recent success of Lydia Davis at the International Booker could cause pressure to turn it into something fixed according to the public’s idea of flash. But what if flash fiction is more like the fruit fly and undergoes evolutionary changes more quickly than any other literary form? In that case there’s no way to say where it’s going. I’d like that because, as you know, I like to be surprised! If it develops, as it seems to have developed for the past decade or so, alongside the Internet, it might become one of the fastest developing and changing forms of writing we’ve ever seen—and few people would try to predict where the Internet is going.

Allen: What influence do you think the internet has had on the condensing of literature in general? What do you think of Twitter fiction, for example?

Speh: I participated in a Twitter fiction experiment a couple of years ago—a Tweetathon of Joyces Ulysses. It was fun and yet a tad tiring. I hear that social media, Twitter and Facebook at the helm, are slowly winding down. I don’t think anything as short-lived as software can really change the course of literature, which gets its strength from the darkest depths and the brightest light that’s available to man. The Internet is but an infrastructure, a road to connect, while literature is a cause to connect, more like love and less like lino. I believe with John Gardner that art moves and shapes society, not the other way around: perhaps the global need for short fiction created the Internet just like the 19th-century novel helped create the Victorian age.

Allen: I’m jotting down “The internet is but an infrastructure, a road to connect, while literature is a cause to connect, more like love and less like lino.” so that I can co-opt it later. Thank you so much for this interview, Marcus! And in real time at that. It’s always great talking to you.

Speh: Thank you — your amazing questions always set me up for deep unconscious journeys. It’s been fun! I’m looking forward to this Flash Mob: our conversation seems to suggest that there’s a lot more to flash than meets the eye, and a lot more to discover.


JOIN THE MOB — Deadline for submissions June 10.