Mike thank you very much for agreeing to write a flash story for Double Espresso. Where do I start? Your talents seem endless: musician, pianist and composer; actor, director and playwright; novelist, writer, theologian, active Christian and family man. What comes top of your list?
It sounds more impressive than it probably is, Helen. But thanks for the great introduction! I don’t know that I’d put any item on top of the list. It tends to be a juggling process, with each aspect having to fit itself alongside the rest as required. Sometimes one thing takes priority for a period, then another bumps it off the pedestal. That’s in terms of the ‘doing’ things. My Christian faith is something that’s there all the time, and makes its presence felt in any space that’s not otherwise occupied.
Most people concentrate on one area of creativity – not you, Mike. Do you find the different art forms overlap and influence each other? And do the musical, theatrical and spiritual aspects of the person that you are add something to the process of your writing, would you say?
I’m sure they do. I’ve been involved as an accompanist of singers most of my life, and many of them have also worked in the theatre, in musicals. I’ve also worked as a répétiteur (a vocal coach-cum-rehearsal pianist), so I’ve had a lot of contact with theatre people. When I’m writing songs, in particular, I have a sense of the character behind the lines, and how that can be portrayed. And in writing the children’s novels, I have a sense that when the characters are talking, they would only say something in a particular way.
The non-fiction book I wrote is the only one of the three that has specific Christian content, but I know it permeates the two children’s books as well, even though they’re in no way didactic, and Christianity as such is never mentioned.
You have written a couple of children’s books, ‘Grimhilda’ and ‘The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret’. How do you set about writing something that’s going to appeal to a young audience? How do you get inside a child’s head, so to speak?
I’ve read a lot of children’s books over the years, and in thinking about how other writers convey the way children think and act, I suspect that they do it in a similar way to me. There’s an intuitive element, of course, but in the end children in books are never quite the same as children in real life. Their speech is more concentrated and focused, and of course their actions often go beyond the range of most children’s actions, and not just in terms of bravery in the face of crises. The appeal for young audiences lies in the fact that the children in stories do things that the readers would love to do, but have neither the opportunity nor courage to do.
You have self-published. Did you attempt the more conventional route of publishing, or did you plunge straight in? Would you recommend self-publishing – and can you offer any tips to anyone who may be thinking of ‘going it alone’?
No, I didn’t attempt the conventional route (though I’ve published articles and other material over the years conventionally). I thought I’d focus on e-publishing. In terms of getting the book out into the public arena it’s relatively easy. In terms of marketing, it’s at least as difficult as normal publishing, if not more difficult. Instead of having a publisher doing all that work for you, you have to do it on your own, and quickly find that it’s as tough a job as writing. And you have to keep on doing it while you’re writing the next book.
Writing a flash fiction is very different from writing a novel. You’ve had numerous shorts published online. What’s the appeal?
Well, it’s quick! To be honest I’ve been surprised at getting items ‘published’ regularly. It’s not a format I’d attempted until I saw Flash Frontier advertising for stories and wrote my first one. When that was published, and then others followed, I realised that I must be doing something right…
But when I say it’s quick, of course it still requires as much work on those 250 words as it does for any 250 words in any piece of writing. It’s great for keeping your editing skills sharp because you have to be ruthless in cutting out words and ideas that take you over the limit.
For me, I love the humanity of your pieces. They are very people focused. In particular, I can think of a couple of stories you’ve published on Flash Frontier that demonstrate a great empathy with children – an understanding of their frustrations and their need to find their way – or be recognised in the world. ‘Shells’ springs to mind, as does ‘Running and waiting,’ both very human stories. Is that something that drives your writing?
All the flash stories start with the theme. I try to look at it from a different angle, if possible, but the stories themselves come out of nowhere, often just from a sentence that I write down. I don’t feel driven by anything in particular, though no doubt, as with most writers, emotional stuff from your life plays a big part in what appears in your writing.
I also like the slightly skewed view of the world in your flash stories, and the quirky humour that’s often part of it. It seems to me you find a narrative in small details too – in fragments of conversation or objects. How do you go about finding inspiration for your flash fiction pieces?
Just looking back over the stories, I can remember how some of them came into existence. The first, Running and Waiting, arose out of a walk down a very steep dip in the footpath I regularly take with the dog, just near my home. There’s a rhododendron hanging somewhat precariously on the side of the bank. That was enough to get me going. Another one, Shoes, originated in a conversation my aunt had with a friend about not being able to find shoes that fitted comfortably…the rest is history!
The quirky humour is part and parcel of a lot of what I write: the blogs are full of it, and all three of the books I’ve published have elements of it. It runs in our family, I think. Must be something to do with our Irish heritage.
I gave you a number of titles from the Peak District OS maps. You chose ‘Oven Stones’ after deliberating for a while. What made you stick with ‘Oven Stones’?
There was something about the combination of the two words; not anything I can put my finger on, but they just struck a chord. And then I was reminded of the fact that two pizza stones had fallen off the bench along with the plate, and nothing had broken. The narrator and her husband are people I’ve only met in the story, however…
This is a piece that you worked on, as you told me, until you were happy with it. As you craft your piece, at what point do you know it’s ‘ready’?
Well, I wrote it as a draft, fiddled with it, and then decided I could do better. But neither of the other two ideas wanted to work properly, and so I came back to it. Originally there was a ‘listener’ in it as well who could barely get a word in, as though the narrator was telling someone the story over the back fence. Then the listener went and the husband turned up, and he gave it a sense of completion. After that it was a matter of cutting and changing. I’m never completely satisfied with a story, though I learned a valuable lesson from a man I flatted with in London many years ago. He was an artist, and could paint well, and had good ideas using found objects. But he would get to a point in his painting where it seemed to be finished, and then he would tinker, and tinker, and finally the work would be ruined. It’s a matter of avoiding too much tinkering, I think.
I love the last line of your piece – the humour of human interaction and established relationships. I’ve mentioned some of the elements I enjoy in your flash fiction pieces. What makes a good short for you?
I like to be able to read between the lines, but I’m not so fond of stories that lack some sense of roundness, completeness. They don’t have to have a ‘proper’ ending, but I don’t like to see a story just dribble away. However, plainly that isn’t necessarily the case for other writers and readers! I like a touch of humour, even when the mood is quite dark. New Zealand writers have a great tendency to write very gloomy novels and stories. The rare book – or story – with humour is a joy to find.
Thanks again, Mike, for contributing to Double Espresso. I’m delighted to have one of your pieces on the site.
Mike blogs on ‘Random Notes’, found here: http://mikecrowlsscribblepad.blogspot.co.uk/