I love short stories. Although I don't always get time to read them at the time they're sent Electric Literature's Recommended Reading is a great way to get weekly short stories to your email. There's something delicious about being completely absorbed into another world, another life, a tiny gap of space and time. Especially when it's well done.
So I was utterly delighted to read Mark Newman's short story and flash fiction collection My Fence is Electric. I don't think I've read a collection so varied before. From young children to the elderly, we see the world through an enormous range of perspectives. Each one is handled delicately, with nuance and detail.
The stories vary in length, with many of them flash fiction. It was great to dip in and out of the collection, having a brief, emotional connection with a story and a character in the spaces of my day.
I talked to Mark about his hugely varied stories, how he finds writing different length fiction, and how he got his collection published. Read on to find out more.
The story about a young boy in 'Before This Was Houses, it was All Fields; really stood out for me
I was really struck by the diversity of situations, voices and places in your collection. We hear from young children, teenagers and elderly people, and the locations come from all over the world. Why do you think the stories you write are so varied and how do you go about being inspired to write from all these different points of view?
I really don't know the answer to this. I guess I've always read fairly widely so it helps present a range of situations and age groups to the imagination. My grandparents always said they still felt 17 inside, so I feel that gives you the courage to write from a different age group and feel you may be getting it right. Writing from a child's viewpoint is always interesting because you can hint at things that are happening that your narrator is too young to understand but the reader will.
There are so many people on the planet today living vastly different experiences to ours, so that provides so much scope and possibility for stories, and that's without even looking to the past or future. There's a setting for every story. Mostly I have an idea and the place and the viewpoint are there along with the idea.
Another element I thoroughly enjoyed was the style. Sometimes your pieces are lyrical and poetic, others are more stark. Does the style of the story present itself with the idea or is this something you consciously craft while developing them?
His stories contain tiny moments, beauitfully rendered
I've always been drawn to writers who have a sparse style of writing – Susan Hill and Alison Moore spring first to mind. When I first read Hill's I'm the King of the Castle at the age of 17 it opened my eyes to what language could be and I've been striving for that kind of poetic quality ever since. I do like a sentence to earn its keep. I think I probably default to this style now, which is great. It took me a while to get there.
Some of your stories are flash fiction, while others are much longer. How do you find the process or experience of writing flash as opposed to short stories?
I started out writing stories to enter competitions and had more success with flash fiction to start with. They can capture a moment, a feeling and often don't need any more explaining than that. They're hard to do and there's loads that hit the cutting room floor. They need to resonate with a reader to be worthwhile.
Short stories take so much longer to build and often there's a fleshing out of disjointed paragraphs you've written trying to get them to connect. Sometimes the joins seem visible because you're so close to it, but if you come back to it weeks later all the sentences seem to have seeped into each other and it's not as bad as you think. I always finish a short story and wonder if it says anything worth saying. I'm still not sure I know how to answer that.
All of your pieces in the collection have been listed or won competitions with various platforms. How regularly do you submit pieces and is this something that helps you with the motivation and ideas to create?
I tried writing novels for years but never finished any. I entered short story and flash fiction competitions as a way of finding out if anyone liked my writing and I did have some success. I've still not written a novel though!
Newman's stories take us down many unusual paths
It can be addictive and you can get bogged down with spreadsheets of upcoming entry dates. It's best to write the story first and then find a competition that's the best fit. A lot of short story competitions have 1,000-2,000 word limits and sometimes that can be too restrictive. I would recommend it for any writer to get a feel for the type of story and writing that wins competitions and to see how their own writing stacks up. There's a lot of disappointment there, but if you can win a competition judged by a favourite writer (I won one judged by Alison Moore) then that is a huge boost to the confidence.
How did you go about getting your collection published and what advice would you give to other writers?
It went out a few times in various formats. The first competition I entered generated agent interest, but only for a novel. A really well-known publisher did an open submission period and I put it in for that. They called in the whole manuscript and I was so excited but they never got back to me. It would have been nice just to have a no. I politely followed it up after six months but still nothing. Then it went to an independent publisher with whom I'd won a lot of competitions but they turned it down. Then I tried Odyssey in Australia because another local writer was published with them and had nice things to say about them and they picked it up.
It was exhilarating to get that acceptance email and feel that someone believed in the stories. I guess the advice is don't give up. We all read some books that we don't end up liking. It's all subjective. It can take time to find the right fit for your work. If you've had points of success with your writing then keep at it. If you haven't but enjoy writing keep at it. If you're not enjoying it try another style of writing, another genre, read more widely and then keep at it. Basically, just keep at it.
Mark Newman has been shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award, highly commended in the New Writer Prose & Poetry Awards and Bristol Prize longlisted. His work has won competitions judged by Alison Moore, Tania Hershman and David Gaffney. He has been published in Firewords Quarterly, Fiction Desk and Paper Swans. He has eight stories in the Retreat West competition anthology Inside These Tangles, Beauty Lies. My Fence is Electric and Other Stories is his debut short story collection and is published by Odyssey Books.
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