“Just come home. We can talk.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come home, or I’m going to hang up.”
“You said that.”
“I don’t know.”
(from ‘Home’, in You’re Not Supposed to Cry, Vagabond Voices, 2017, p.132)
Gary Duncan is a freelance writer and editor based in Northumberland, England. His flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices. His stories have appeared in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 100 Word Story, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. He is the founding editor of Spelk Fiction.
ML: Your marvellous flash fiction collection You’re Not Supposed to Cry (Vagabond Voices, 2017), is your debut book. What would you say about the process of becoming a debut author?
GD: I still have to pinch myself sometimes. Debut author! It’s been an amazing experience — everything I hoped it would be and more. A couple of years ago I’d have said my chances of actually being published were slim to none. Not because I’m overly pessimistic — I’m not, I’m just realistic and probably more than a little bit insecure like a lot of writers. The odds aren’t great — you hear about the slush piles, about publishers cutting back and not taking a chance on new writers. You find a good one but they don’t accept short stories or flash fiction, or you need an agent before they’ll even consider reading your stuff.
So it was a bit surreal when I finally got a “yes”. I must have read the email a dozen times, just to be sure.
Initially I sent a few sample stories to seven or eight publishers. I did a fair bit of research even before I’d finished the collection, to get a feel for the market. Enough to know that writing the thing was going to be a lot easier than finding a home for it. I targeted smaller publishers, most of them local (in the northeast of England and Scotland). I thought that would improve my odds, that a smaller company might be more likely to “get” flash.
Vagabond Voices in Glasgow got back to me after a few months and said they loved the sample stories and wanted to read more. I’m not prone to outward displays of emotion, but I think I might have punched the air once or twice when I got the email! I had about 16,000 words at the time, but they wanted more, so I wrote another 20 stories, I think, to get it up to around 26,000 words (150 pages). That was a challenge in itself. I thought I’d taken it as far as I could at the time, that I’d used up all my ideas! I hoped a) that Vagabond would like the new stories and b) that they were a good fit with the earlier stories. I was lucky in that the collection was only loosely linked and it wasn’t too difficult to slot the newer stories in. A more structured collection or a novella-in-flash would have been harder to rework.
There was still a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and a fair amount of rewriting to make sure all the stories worked together though. When I was done I printed them off and laid them all out on the living room floor. You see the stories in a different light that way and spot things you’d never noticed before, even if you’ve read them dozens of times on the laptop or printout.
Everything went through another round of edits with Vagabond. It’s always a bit terrifying when you send your stories out into the world, and I know I can be very protective of them. But Dana Keller at Vagabond was great to work with. She made some really good calls — typos, repetitions, sentences that just didn’t work. We tweaked the layout again and moved a few stories around, and she suggested we change the title from the original Snap and Other Stories to You’re Not Supposed to Cry. That’s a line from one of the stories but it sums up a lot of the ideas and themes that run through the collection. It seems so obvious to me now that I wish I’d thought of it in the first place!
ML: What would you say has helped you to establish yourself in this way?
GD: I’m very stubborn! That helps. The stories need to be good enough, of course, but a lot of it comes down to luck and perseverance. I was lucky that Dana at Vagabond liked the stories enough to pass them up the chain of command for further consideration.
I’m not the most confident person in the world. I’ll write something that I think is great, then reread it and think it’s rubbish, then on reflection settle for it being just okay. And round and round. I’ll send something out and think no-one’s going to like this, why would anyone want to publish this crap? But at the same time there’s part of me thinking this is fabulous, they should be thanking me for allowing them to publish it!
I work hard at it, though, and treat it like a job. I write most days, even if it’s just twenty minutes. If nothing comes, I’ll still try to scribble something down, an idea, some dialogue, a character name or story title. I like the routine of it. I also know what I’m like — that I’d never write a word if I waited till I was in the mood. We can be too precious about that, about waiting for the “muse”. Plumbers or teachers or taxi drivers don’t need to be “up for it” to do a shift. Writing’s seen to be different, but I’m not sure why that is.
ML: What advice would you have for the many flash fiction writers who are keen to see themselves with a collection in print one day?
GD: Keep writing. You’re going to need a fair few stories to fill out a flash-fiction collection — 50 or 60 for a decent-sized collection with a traditional publisher. Mine came in at 60 stories and around 26,000 words. A lot of publishers won’t publish anything shorter than that, unless you’re a big name — it’s not worth it once you factor in production and print costs and the like.
Keep submitting. Check out Tania Hershman’s ShortStops and DL Shirey’s The Short List and get your stories into as many flash magazines as possible to raise your profile. Publishers are going to be more willing to take a chance on you if you’re already known in the flash community. A lot of the smaller publishers are still quite new to flash fiction, so let them know what you can do to promote the book. You probably won’t have a huge budget behind you, so you’ll have to do your own legwork — interviews, readings, anything to publicise it.
ML: What formative influences led you towards becoming a writer?
GD: I wrote my first stories when I was sixteen or seventeen, on an old typewriter with a couple of missing letters. I thought they were amazing at the time, of course. Looking back at them (I still have them) they’re awful. Really awful — embarrassing pastiches of James Herbert, Stephen King and Robert Ludlum.
Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe were probably my main influences — A Kind of Loving, The Glad Eye and Other Stories, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and I remember thinking if I’m going to write, this is the kind of thing I should be writing. So I started churning out gritty tales of salt-of-the-earth northerners. Again, they were pretty awful, but I had the bug by then and I didn’t care. I don’t know what happened to them — probably still gathering dust in a drawer somewhere in Kowloon Bay.
I also started reading Hemingway and Henry Miller round about then. I loved that whole American in Paris thing, and still do. I didn’t quite make it to Paris but I did move to Brussels after Hong Kong and still had these grand ideas about being a novelist and hanging out with all these arty types. I was editing a monthly electronics magazine at the time — a huge thing the size of a telephone directory — but already knew I didn’t want to do that forever. I was also going to a lot of readings, people like Will Self, Irvine Welsh and Martin Amis (this was the early ’90s). I saw Charles Palliser in Brussels — The Sensationist is one of my favourite books — and that made me sit up and think that’s how you do it! It’s not flash fiction, but I love the clarity of his writing and the ruthlessly pared down sentences. I often go back to him for inspiration.
I’ve been an editor since I left university, mostly with trade magazines and market research companies, and the creative writing went hand in hand with that. I’ve written for The Times and The Guardian, but cut my teeth on trade mags, including the mighty Coal Week International. Yes, coal. (Two long years, that — endless conversations with coal traders about who’s buying what kind of coal, where they’re buying it and how much they’re paying for it.) I hated every second of it, but it wasn’t a complete waste of time — as a market reporter you have to write tight, concentrate on the important details and write to deadlines, and that’s not a bad thing when you’re writing flash.
ML: It’s really interesting to discover these beginnings to your life as a writer, especially that you so disliked your writing life in that particular role. Are there any elements of your writing life nowadays that you dislike or could do without? Or is it all pure joy?!
GD: I wouldn’t say pure, unalloyed joy, but I have a much better balance now. I edit market research reports, everything from one-page news stories to 60-page industry forecasts. They’re mostly technology based (IT, business, ecommerce) and can be pretty dry at times, but I do enjoy it — the challenge of taking something like that and making it less cluttered and more readable. Sometimes it will only need a quick read through, checking grammar and applying house style, but we often have to strip it all down and do a full rewrite, keeping it simple and concise. That’s obviously helped my own writing because there are some clear parallels there with writing flash.
It would be a dream to be able to write fiction all day (and get paid for it). But I think I’d lose something, I don’t know what, if that’s all I did. I tend to write a lot of flash when I’m busy at work, when my mind’s buzzing. I write in short bursts — half an hour is usually enough — and can fit that into my lunch break or in the wee hours when the kids are in bed. Maybe that gives it some kind of urgency that sits well with flash — something that might be lost if I had the whole day ahead of me.
ML: It’s notable that You’re Not Supposed to Cry often describes behaviour that is somehow transgressive — sadomasochism, bed-wetting, voyeurism, punch-ups, even murder. What would you say it is about this kind of material that you’re drawn to as a writer, and why?
GD: Hmm. I’m not sure. A friend who read the book said I was a dirty old perv, so maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s a bit of shock value in it, though. I am drawn to that kind of thing when I’m reading — I used to read a lot of crime fiction, so maybe that’s filtered through. Same with Miller and Bukowski and people like that. I still wince when I read Quiet Days in Clichy. I loved American Psycho, too, so I’m not sure what that says about me. Thinking, that’s disgusting, that’s really crossed a line, but I’d better keep on reading …
I think it only works within context though — I’d like to think my stories are more black humour than trying to shock just for the sake of it, for cheap thrills. I try to downplay it too. The stories are still mainly about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but that darker side does tend to creep in.
Just for the record, though, I haven’t murdered anyone. Yet.
ML: I’d better hope the rest of this interview goes ok! I was struck by an interesting way of dealing with time in the book. Sometimes a story would begin and then step back into the pluperfect tense, something that had already taken place before the very opening of the story. Elsewhere, certain narratives explicitly presented characters confronting something from their past, something that was now / still facing them in the present day. How conscious were you of this interest in “going back”? What is it about characters with “backstories” / a “past” that interests you — particularly in the context of flash fiction?
GD: It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I like playing with time and tense, and prefer that to the more linear stories where A happens, then B, then C. I like to loop back and forwards, and give the reader some work to do, rather than just saying this happened, then this, then this.
It’s a balancing act — you don’t want too much backstory if you’ve only got 500 words to play with. I like stories that make elliptical references to the backstory — a suggestion that something has happened without really saying what it is. It’s okay to leave gaps — to leave things unsaid. In one of the stories, The Streets, something terrible has happened, but I think it’s more interesting to see how the protagonists respond, rather than going back and explaining everything.
It’s “less is more”. The same friend who thinks I’m a perv said she liked the stories because they don’t get bogged down in detail. “You don’t need to describe what a tree looks like. I know what a tree looks like.” Sounds sensible enough to me.
ML: Another thing that struck me was the frequent, early presence in your stories of what some writers call “active questions”. There were times when the narrative situation would be somewhat obscured at the start, e.g. using references to unidentified people (“they”), or unidentified items (“it”), hooking us in and making us wonder — What’s happening here? Who are these people? What are they doing? And then, embedded before the end of the story, is a key that unlocks the narrative, resolving the enigma, so that the reader has a small but satisfying “Ah hah!” moment. It’s then illuminating to go back to the start and re-read the story, appreciating overlooked clues. An example of such a story would be ‘The Woods’, where some men are searching through woods for unknown reasons, and only gradually do we find out why. The story deliberately obscures the various identities / roles of the men at first, and like Pavlov’s dogs we salivate at little narrative bells until the real food arrives. Can you tell us more about your use of this technique? Is this something that will happen instinctively when you start writing a story, or do you write a story and go back to remove some of the explanation / exposition in your later drafts, deliberating setting up these kinds of “active questions”?
GD: I don’t consciously set out to do it that way, but that’s how it often comes out. I like the idea of revealing the story bit by bit — unwrapping it and leaving things unsaid till the last moment. You can add layers to a story, even if it’s a very short flash, and that goes back to what you said about rereading them — the best ones, I think, are those that demand another reading.
I usually have a rough idea of what I’m trying to do when I start a story, about where it’s going or what I want to say. If I already know that, then it’s easier to know what to reveal up front and what to hold back for later.
I tend to edit a lot as I write, rather than hammering out a quick 800 words and then going back to cut it into shape. I plod along, sentence by sentence, and like to get a sentence nearly there before I move on to the next one. I’ve tried throwing everything at the page and then cutting it down, but I usually end up looking back at that first draft and thinking it’s beyond help or I’ve veered too far from what I had in mind.
I like reading stories where you’re not quite sure what’s going on at first, like you’ve just stumbled into it, without all the facts. Like you’re on a bus and happen to catch sight of something out on the street — you get a glimpse of it, enough to make you take note, but you’ve moved on before you can have a proper look. It’s up to you to fill in the blanks.
ML: Who are your influences as a writer? What is it you admire about them?
GD: Off the top of my head: Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe, Martin Amis, Jay McInerney, Alan Bennett, Don Winslow, James Ellroy, Donald Ray Pollock. I’m reading a lot of Annie Proulx at the moment. The sense of place, the oddball characters — the stories read like real life, not just words on a page. I like that she doesn’t rely on plot to drive the stories. The Shipping News has virtually no plot but it doesn’t matter because you’re so invested in the characters. She’s also endlessly inventive when it comes to descriptions. Quoyle, the main character, could have been just “big and fat”. Instead, we get this: “A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.” I could read that over and over and still get something different out of it each time.
For short stories, I always go back to Raymond Carver, Helen Simpson, AL Kennedy, Hemingway, Elmore Leonard. I love Leonard’s dialogue — he lets the characters speak in their own voice, not his (“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”).
I listen to a lot of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen when I’m writing. Writing flash, you can learn a lot from songs like The Last Great American Whale and Youngstown — “big” songs with sweeping themes and a lot of ideas, but lean and sparse at the same time.
ML: That Proulx quote is magnificent. I don’t know Lou Reed’s work so much but I can see what you mean about Springsteen’s songs. And so many of them are narrative-based — blue-collar experiences of disappointment, nostalgia or regret. Talking of other forms, do you explore any forms other than flash fiction in your writing these days, whether longer fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or anything else? Or might you be tempted to do so in the future?
GD: It’s mostly flash. It keeps pulling me in, even when I want to try something else. I usually hit a ceiling at around 1,000 words, but I am working on a novella. I’m aiming for around 25,000 words, but I’m still not sure if it’s going to be a straight narrative or a novella-in-flash. I have a lot of it worked out already — in my head mostly, but some of it has made it to the page. I just need to sit down and write the bloody thing now.
ML: You worked for quite a while as editor of the excellent online flash fiction magazine Spelk. What did that experience teach you about writing (and reading)? Are you still involved at all?
GD: I’m still helping out at Spelk — reading submissions, doing some editing, sharing the stories on social media. Whatever I can do to help Cal (Marcius). He has final say on what goes into the magazine though, and he puts out the submission calls, replies to emails, talks to contributors, etc., etc. I started Spelk in September 2014 and did around three years before Cal took over. I think that’s a good run, considering how much work goes into it behind the scenes.
I was still fairly new to flash when I set up Spelk, so it’s been invaluable in terms of my own writing. That was one of the reasons I set it up — to make contacts, to see how it worked, to see what other people were writing. I’m still amazed at the quality of writing out there — most of the stories that come into Spelk are really good, especially now that people know the magazine and some of the best flashers are sending us stuff. That can only be good for your own writing — you get to know what works, what doesn’t, what kinds of things people are trying, how they’re pushing the boundaries. It’s still impossible to say what makes a great piece of flash — but that’s part of the fun, not quite knowing what “it” is.
ML: One final question. The government is eradicating literature by burning all books. You can save one from the fire and run away to the woods to preserve it, where you will share it with fellow rebels and future generations. Which do you save and why?
GD: Great question! I have a little corner of my bookshelf in my office where I keep all my favourite books — the crème de la crème: The Passage (Justin Cronin), Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill), Snake (Kate Jennings), A Whole Life (Robert Seethaler), The Power of the Dog (Don Winslow), The Iliad (Homer), The Sensationist (Charles Palliser), Marcovaldo (Italo Calvino), Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck). I’d quite happily decamp to the woods with any one of those and watch the world burn. But my favourite book is Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, so I’ll go for that. Why? Because it’s raw and brutal and brilliant — loosely linked stories about losers and low-lives. One review said it’s like “a drunken punch-up between a redneck Hemingway and an amphetamine-fuelled Raymond Carver.” That can’t be a bad thing, can it?