Where would today’s emerging writers be without Twitter? It’s a wonderful forum for promoting your work, not to mention connecting with like-minded people on an international level. One of the writers I’ve come to know virtually is UK-based Laura Besley, whose debut collection has been published in the past week amid very challenging times for publishers and booksellers.
The Almost Mothers is a collection of flash fiction that looks at what it is to be a mother. Stories include a first-time mum struggling with her new baby, an alien studying earth mothers and a child finally sleeping through the night.
I spoke to her about the joys and difficulties of flash fiction, and about her new arrival.
Laura, congratulations on the publication of The Almost Mothers. Where did the inspiration come from for a collection themed around motherhood?
Since becoming a mum, the gap between expectation and reality has puzzled, frustrated and angered me. It feels like ‘motherhood’ is part of a massive conspiracy theory!
Chicken and egg question – did you write flashes specifically to fit this theme or did you notice a pattern to the stories you’d been drawn to write?
Definitely the second. I had a few pieces already, but then I was taking part in FlashNano (write a piece of flash fiction every day for the month of November) in 2018 and noticed very quickly that a lot of the pieces were about motherhood. In December, I polished up some of the new pieces and added the already existing ones to create the collection.
Can you explain the meaning of the title or would that be a spoiler?
The Almost Mothers is the title of one of the pieces, but more than that, my meaning of an ‘almost mother’ is: a mother who doesn’t feel like she’s getting it right, or feels like she’s supposed to.
How did you find your publisher?
Farhana Shaikh from Dahlia Books put a call for submissions up on Twitter which I responded to, and she asked to see the entire collection. That was in April 2019. By the end of the summer, I had started to think that she didn’t like it. But when I checked the website it said she didn’t read anything over the summer, so I held on a little longer and she sent me an email in September (on my birthday, actually), saying she’d like to meet. I still didn’t dare hope at that point, but luckily at the meeting she confirmed she was interested in publishing The Almost Mothers.
I know you through Twitter as an accomplished flash fiction writer. Why does the microform appeal to you?
Thank you! Writing flash fiction, for me, is a bit like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle: you have an unlimited amount of pieces and in any order, they could make any picture, but the particular challenge is to use as few pieces as possible to make the best picture possible. Sometimes a 100-word story can take me longer than a 1,000-word story, because the careful selection of words can take a long time.
Do you also write longer stories or do your life demands necessitate short bursts of writing?
I do write longer stories, I’ve even written the first draft to a novel that’s sitting in a drawer somewhere. However, having written a lot of flash fiction, I sometimes find it hard writing a longer piece; because the writing in flash fiction is so tight, I find it hard to let longer pieces breathe. It’s something I’m working on.
I find the flash fiction I write (that works) arrives on the page in one go, and I’m just tweaking it after that. Do you have the same experience or do you do lots of redrafts?
It honestly depends. Some does, like yours, arrive more or less ‘complete’ on the page; others that I write take a lot of editing, which is a slow process for me that I’m trying to learn to love more.
And which journals would you recommend people submit flash to?
I feel very lucky to have had some success with journals as it’s a great way to get a confidence boost and a writing lift. I’m going to recommend the following journals because I’ve worked with the editors and know that other writers will be in safe, and kind, hands: Ellipsis, Fictive Dream, Lunate, Spelk and The Sunlight Press.
What writers would you recommend to anyone new to reading or writing flash fiction?
A good introduction to flash fiction would be reading the stories published in the above journals.
Where and when do you write?
When my youngest son was about three months old, a morning routine fell into place: I would drop the eldest off at pre-school, then walk to the local supermarket and by the time we got there, the youngest would be asleep in the pram. I would buy a coffee in the café and write for an hour or so until it was time to go and pick my eldest up again.
I still do the bulk of my writing during the day in cafés when my toddler naps. Now that both kids are sleeping better at night (touch wood), I also try to do a couple of evenings a week as well, but I find it harder to write at that time. I usually edit, or do writer admin: submissions, etc.
I torture everyone with this cruel question – top five books, please.
That is a cruel question, but I’ll do my best.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – I was living in Germany when I read this book and I’ve always wondered whether that added an intangible layer to my experience of it. The foreshadowing was new to me, but despite it, or maybe because of it, the story was still take-your-breath-away shocking, both good and bad.
- Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – this book is billed as a novel-in-short-stories, fairly uncommon and certainly the first of its kind that I had read. Strout’s prose and rhythm takes a little getting used to, but I find that once I’m immersed, it’s that rare combination of literary and accessible.
- A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – on a par with Strout, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins is the companion novel to Life After Life, both centred around the same family, though focusing on different members. Atkinson’s historical knowledge of this era is phenomenal and she weaves it in so well with the story.
- Looking Out of Broken Windows by Dan Powell – I’ve only just finished this collection of short stories, but it has immediately jumped to the top of my favourites. Short story collections are hard, because the stories need to stand alone, yet still feel part of a whole (I think) and this has been achieved, and then some. Also, I love the variation in length of these pieces: some are flash fiction pieces, some are lengthy stories.
- Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl – as I child I read a lot, but this was my favourite Dahl book and I read it over and over again. I read recently that David Nicholls is writing a screenplay for it and hope it comes to fruition as I love David Nicholls’ work as well.
Are you working on a new project at the moment?
Among all the standalone flash fiction pieces, and the occasional short story, I’m also writing a novella-in-flash. I started writing this in 2016, then left it for a while, but have recently picked it up again. One day it will be finished. One day…
Laura Besley writes short fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online (check out some of her work here in Fictive Dream, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine) as well as in print (Flash: The International Short Story Magazine) and in various anthologies (Adverbally Challenged, Another Hong Kong, Story Cities).
Her debut flash fiction collection, The Almost Mothers, is available on paperback (£7) from Dahlia Books, and can be ordered here.