Andrea, thank you for agreeing to write a flash fiction for Double Espresso. It’s a pleasure to have you on board. Just to explain our connection: we both belong to a Peak District critiquing group (a subgroup of Writers in the Peak), all of us ‘obsessive’ writers I think it’s fair to say! When did that love affair with writing begin for you? How did it come about?
Thank you, Helen for inviting me to be a guest writer.
I’ve always been an avid reader and writer, even as a small child. In fact, one of my family’s favourite anecdotes is of me aged about 5 or 6, waking up from a nightmare, shouting, “Mummy, Mummy! I can’t write!” I was forever writing stories that featured my dolls and toys and I always used to tell family friends that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. However, careers advice in the 1970s tended to focus on more down-to-earth choices so I never got to follow my dream. Instead, I became a teacher but over the years I often found myself writing for my students, particularly if I couldn’t find an appropriate text to illustrate a particular teaching point. Then in 2007, with my career at a crossroads, I had the opportunity to give up teaching and try something different, so I returned to my love of writing.
I know I have learned a lot from you in the critiquing group as all of us grapple with the novels we are working on. I feel you really understand the craft of writing. How much of that is instinctive and how much of it is learned would you say?
Hanif Kureishi caused a stir last year by saying that creative writing courses are a waste of time. As someone that’s done both a Post Graduate Diploma and an MFA in Creative Writing, I have to disagree… to some extent. I started the Diploma course with no formal background in writing at all. I’d only studied English Literature to A Level so I soon learned how much I didn’t know! Things I’d never really considered as a reader suddenly became hugely important as a writer. It was through these courses that I learned about the craft of writing; about the importance of aspects such as structure and pace and characterisation. However, there is a certain amount to writing that is a matter of instinct. You need an ear for language, for its rhythms and nuances. You need to be able to tune into the inner voice that tells you when something isn’t working. Also, there’s little point in knowing everything there is to know about point of view or the narrative arc if you have nothing to say, no story to tell. As writers we need to be out in the world, listening, observing, having opinions but I’m not sure this can be taught either.
You said to me that you don’t find the genre of flash fiction easy; yet I feel in ‘Rattle’ you’ve pulled it off magnificently. Your story unfolds within a short time frame – from shop to home, yet within those three hundred and fifty words, we have a window into a life. You’ve packed a lot into this short piece. How hard was it to whittle your version of ‘Rattle’ down to 350 words? Did you find the experience frustrating or liberating?
My first attempts at flash fiction some years ago were dismal failures. I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult. It was also very sobering to realise that this was exactly the sort of thing I’d expected students to do; what’s more, they’d only have an hour to do it in! However, despite feelings of trepidation at the start, I really enjoyed this task. Yes, I had to do an awful lot of whittling to get ‘Rattle’ down to three hundred and fifty words but I did find it strangely liberating. I’m not sure how long the first draft was but the piece opened with almost a page just about the differences Mei Fen had observed between China and England! Then that inner voice I mentioned earlier kept badgering away at me, making me return to the title and focus in on sounds. Once I’d realised that it was a sound picture I was creating, it was relatively easy to let go of everything else.
In your version of Rattle, you capture that sense of longing and home-sickness beautifully. I’m intrigued that you chose to write a story from the point of view of a Chinese woman living in England, rather than, say, an English woman living in Hong Kong – as you did for many years. Why did you choose to flip the situation and put yourself in Mei’s shoes?
That’s an interesting question. It’s only recently that I’ve given myself permission to write about Asia, despite having lived there for twenty-three years. I didn’t feel as though I had the right to write about a culture that I could only interact with at a very superficial level, as, I’m ashamed to say, I never mastered the language. However, one thing I learned from my MFA course is that if we’re to write authentically from the heart, then our sense of place, just like our sense of identity, will play an important role. We are all affected by where we live and this theme of home features strongly in my writing.
Interestingly, I never even considered writing the story from the point of view of a Westerner in Asia. Maybe that’s because I’ve just completed a novel that’s very much about the expat view of Hong Kong. It’s quite refreshing to try and empathise with a completely different perspective.
Talk us through the process of writing the flash – from your chosen prompt to the premise of your story. How did you arrive at the little Asian shop and the fortune sticks?
‘Rattle’ instantly made me think of fortune sticks which in turn led me to the other sounds I mention. It was easy to see how senses could be used to develop a location. Once I’d made that connection, I didn’t bother thinking about the other options.
Then I thought about the character. What’s going to be important to her? What are her goals? What will stop her from achieving them? This developed into the longing for home idea. I also needed her to be changed in some way so it seemed obvious that her ‘fortune’ as told by the stick should somehow be the agent for this. And of course, it had to end on a hopeful note otherwise the whole piece would have tipped over into melodrama.
Your work is always tightly structured and beautifully crafted, Andrea, without feeling laboured in any way. How important is structure to you? Indeed if you were to list the three most important elements of writing for you, what would they be?
You’re right, Helen, structure is, for me, one of the most important elements of writing. It creates order; it holds everything together, whether it’s a simple three-act structure or something more complicated. Structure helps the reader make sense of the plot and keeps our writing from becoming a stream of consciousness.
Secondly, I think fiction needs to generate an emotional connection for readers. They need to empathise with the character and their problems; they need to have someone to care about. I enjoy reading literary fiction because I love the lyricism of the language. However, I sometimes get to the end and wonder what I’m supposed to have taken from it. I can’t find the ‘point’ of the story. Maybe that’s a fault on my part but I think it also comes back to what I said earlier about writers having something to say, and being able to say it in a way that makes that connection for the reader.
And then there’s point of view. Which point of view to chose is one of the first decisions writers make when beginning a piece as this helps us decide whose story we are telling. But whichever POV a writer chooses, maintaining consistency, for me, is vital. Switching POV mid paragraph is disorientating for readers and makes it hard for them to work out which character they’re meant to identify with.
I love how Mei’s longing is enfolded in the smells, and in particular the sounds of her homeland: the tap-tapping in the temple; the clack and rustle of mah jong tiles and the roar of propane under the wok; the sigh of the wind in the paddy fields and the voices of home – a lovely evocation. Your story prompt was a ‘sound’ verb and you develop Mei’s longing as a soundscape, if you like. Was this a conscious or unconscious structuring for your story?
I certainly chose the title because of its sensory aspect, but in the first draft I’d included taste and touch as well. Mei Fan missed the sour and peppery tastes of her grandmother’s cooking; she stroked the smooth silk of cheong sam dresses for sale in ‘Asian Dreams’. It wasn’t until the editing stages that I realised exactly what I had written – that the piece was built upon sounds Mei Fan remembered from home.
You’ve found a lot of inspiration from the years you spent in Hong Kong. Now that you’re based in the Peak District, are you finding inspiration in the heart of England for your writing?
At the moment, I’m still mining my Hong Kong years for stories and inspiration. However, although I’ve only been back in the Peak District for eighteen months, it’s amazing how quickly you forget things. I think I may have to make a return visit soon to keep my senses sharp.
I know you’ve just finished a novel. What’s next in your writing life?
Currently, I’m seeking representation for my first novel, ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, as well as collating ideas and notes for a sequel. I’m also working on a short story collection with an east meets west theme.
Andrea, thanks again for your contribution to Double Espresso. It’s a pleasure to have your beautifully crafted piece in the collection. As someone – like yourself – who has lived abroad, Mei’s story really resonates.
Thanks so much, Helen, for inviting me to be a guest writer. I’ve really enjoyed participating.