Primal Flash Fiction: Interview with competition judge Catherine McNamara
It’s very hard to write about happiness and much easier to write about loss (though I realise not everyone would agree). My collection ‘Love Stories for Hectic People’ started with the story ‘As Simple as Water’, which was probably the first true flash piece I ever wrote. I was facing a long difficult winter, so I decided that it would be the first note of a collection about all types of love – flawed, impulsive, enduring, jagged. The stories just tumbled out and I took inspiration from everywhere.
For me, place is almost like a character, and can serve to bring the reader within the story, to give a sense of escape or enquiry. I’ve moved around a lot so location seeps into my work, but I’m very aware that use of place has to serve the story, not just be a colourful backdrop. It’s very hard to write anything original set in Venice, for example, so the story has to have legs; and though I lived for years in West Africa I am not from there, so place has to be used with awareness and respect – it has to be an authentic story and not just a telling. Displacement and movement are central to my work and have given me the slight remove that can help a writer observe and spin ideas.
For me, the excitement truly lies in the creation of characters I try to become, to enter their mindset and express their thoughts. I am forever listening to people and their stories, so watch out!
The thirty-three flash fictions of Love Stories for Hectic People explore the alignment of beings that is love. There is love that is vulgar, love that knows no reason; there is love that cradles the act of living, love that springs through the cracks; love that is slaughtered.
These tales take place from Italy to Ghana to Greece and London and Tokyo, in grainy cities and muted hotel rooms; there is a Mafia murder, an ambulance rescue worker and a woman whose husband falls off a mountain. There is unchaste attraction and slippery, nuanced love; police violence and porn, and fishing too.
Winner of the Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection 2021
I live in a hard-won and stimulating environment in the countryside in north-eastern Italy. The house was a neglected unheated farmer’s house when we bought it. The area is damp and foggy in winter, with almost tropical humidity in the summer, so my writing zone shifts around the house according to the temperature. I used to have an art galley in Ghana so the house is full of inspiring sculptures and fabrics and photography.
Flash fiction has trained me in getting to the point. The beauty of flash is that it’s a constant training session because of the exactitude and compression of the form, so you learn to edit your ideas as cleanly as your words. I knew my collection would be a raw book about the body, about our need for love and about its shape in various lives. I wrote the stories one after the other so was conscious of each piece bouncing off the last and something larger taking shape.
It’s a challenge to write about sex because it is part of our intimate lives. But it’s always been prominent in my work as I feel it is so central to storytelling. I always have my eyes and ears open and therefore have a great reservoir of story material. I wanted it to be about adult lives, and how sex is folded through.
A great piece of flash fiction has to get under my skin and jar me slightly. I know from the first note if I am going to be intrigued – first sentences need to be primal. That doesn’t mean they have to be noisy or showy, but they have to strike a human chord within me. There are so many inspiring flash writers out there. I’m a great lover of language and restraint, so when someone gets this balance right, I’m a goner.
Good luck to everyone who has entered the competition and I can’t wait to read your stories!
Catherine McNamara is a short story and flash fiction writer, novelist, writing mentor and teacher, and UK Flash Fiction editor at Litro Magazine. Her flash/short fiction collection Love Stories for Hectic People won Best Short Story Collection the Saboteur Awards 2021 (UK). Her short story collection The Cartography of Others was praised by Hilary Mantel, finalist in the People’s Book Prize (UK), and won the Eyelands International Fiction Prize (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write and ended up in West Africa co-running a bar, working in Mogadishu and Milan along the way. Catherine hikes, grows cherries and runs writing retreats at her farmhouse in north-eastern Italy.