Interview with Fiona J. Mackintosh

Steven John, Fiction & Features Editor, interviews Fiona J. Mackintosh about her two Flash Fictions in Best Microfiction 2019, edited by Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke. Final selections by Dan Chaon. Published by Pelekinesis

SJ:        Please tell us about your writing method for short fiction. Can you splurge out the first draft out in a matter of minutes or are you a word by careful word writer?

FJM:     Oh, there’s definitely no splurging – I wish! Often a good phrase will come to me out of the blue when I’m busy with something else, and I’ll scribble it down or tap it into my phone, and then a story will slowly begin to coalesce around it. Other than that, writing flash tends to be a pretty slow process for me, though word limits and deadlines help to focus my mind. I was a journalist a very long time ago, and I think the last-minute instinct was instilled in me then – or maybe I’ve always been that way. So yes, word by careful word, then putting it aside and coming back fresh to kill some darlings.

SJ:        Your story ‘Siren’ in Best Microfiction has an historical backdrop with resonant regional dialect such as ‘slap of the haar’, ‘muckled arms ’ and ‘lads home from the draves’. Can you tell us anything about the history of the piece, the geography, and what research you did before writing?

FJM:     The setting for Siren is Anstruther, the town where I grew up on the east coast of Scotland. Fishing was its main industry for centuries and was still going strong when I lived there in the 1970s. Now the town’s become a tourist area with the opening of the Fife Coastal Path and is looking great, but I still can’t get used to seeing pleasure craft in the harbour instead of trawlers. It’s a place steeped in tradition and myth, very tethered to the moods of the sea. So I didn’t need to do any research for the story, though it would have been no hardship because I absolutely adore research, especially the historical kind. The story sprang from a line that popped into my head “the juice of silver fishes runs through her veins” that it immediately made me think of the herring girls who were the backbone of the onshore part of the fishing industry, working in all weathers with their fingers wrapped in rags against the salt and brine. The Fife dialect can be very poetic, but I didn’t want to overdo the vernacular so I tried to use only words that could be understood by the context.   

SJ         In contrast your other story in the anthology ‘The Chemistry of Living Things’ is very much set in the present with the main character’s reliance on pills to get her through the night. Where do your ideas for flash fiction come from?

FJM:     Actually, I intended Chemistry to be set in the 1950s – “the men with bristled hair, the women …with cat’s-eye glasses.” Mother’s little helper and all that. But you’re right that the same situation could still happen today. As with Siren, the first line came to me out of nowhere, “the blue ones make me dream of thistles, make me loop-de-loopy…” and then I started to piece together the woman behind that voice, her alienation. So random phrases often come first. I’m also a big fan of ekphrasis – being inspired by visual works of art. I came 2nd in Retreat West’s annual flash contest in February of this year with a piece based on what I reckoned was going on in Velasquez’s painting Old Woman Cooking Eggs, which is in the National Gallery of Scotland. And several years ago, I also had an Ad Hoc winner based on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

SJ:        There’s poetic rhythm and language in ‘The Chemistry of Living Things’. ‘loop-de-loopy’, ‘they fizz and dazzle, splintering into gaudy reds and greens’, ‘You and you and you’. Do you work on this ‘music’ in your prose writing?

FJM:     Thank you. Yes, I do work on it, though more for flash than for short stories or my novel. Having said that, I’m also a big advocate for the simple declarative sentence. Not only is there poetry in simplicity, but sometimes the reader just needs to know what’s what with no obfuscation. The writers I admire most can change it up, knowing when to dial the “music” back and when to let it rip. I’m still working on that myself. 

SJ:        Are you ever lacking inspiration? Have you got any tips for us on how to get the creative juices flowing?

FJM:     I hate to admit it, but I rarely lack inspiration these days. In fact, I have the opposite problem – too many ideas and not enough time. Finding the right words is another matter. I hate it when the only words you can dredge up are clichés, but all you can do is power on through and not be afraid to keeping writing derivative dross until the good stuff slowly starts to emerge. That’s my tip, I guess. And silence that inner critic. And whenever possible, take classes with inspiring teachers like Kathy Fish and Meg Pokrass and the Smoke Long crew.

SJ:        Rejection emails are part of the writing life. What’s the best way we can turn a negative into a positive?

FJM:     By not taking it personally. Easier said than done of course, but here’s the thing. I’ve had flashes rejected that went on to do well in competitions without a single syllable being changed so I’m very clear that there a ton of subjectivity in the mix. And that’s completely fine. Because of the subjectivity, it’s really important to read a lot of what each outlet publishes to make sure your piece is a good fit. I bang on about this a lot.  It’s not enough just to look for markets that take pieces of the right word length, for example. Doing the legwork increases the chances of the story finding an appreciative home.

Having said that, sometimes after several rejections, I have to acknowledge that a piece just isn’t good enough yet. It might need more room to breathe, say 500 instead of 300 words, or maybe it’ll work better as a short story. There have been times when rejections have done me a big favour because the piece turned out to be much better in its new form.

Psychologically, I always try to trick myself into win-win situations. Years ago, when I put in an offer on a flat in London that I really wanted, I told myself if I didn’t get it, I’d just carry on renting and buy myself a convertible instead. I got the flat and have never yet owned a convertible! The submission equivalent might be, “Well, if magazine A says no to my piece, that means it’ll be available to send to magazine B.” I try to stay one step ahead of rejection by having a plan for what’s next.  

SJ:        Do you listen to music whilst you write or is silence required? What music brings out the best in you?

FJM:     I do listen to music, but when the writing’s going well, I don’t even hear it – it just fills up that distractible bit at the back of my mind. In fact, I often choose music that will soothe but won’t intrude. Other times I use music very deliberately to set the mood – Vaughan Williams for my novel, jazzy blues for my silent film era flashes, and Joni Mitchell for my American stories.

SJ:        You can invite any one writer to dinner (from the past or present). Who’s it going to be and what’s in the oven?

FJM:     Virginia Woolf. I’d be terrified of what she’d make of me – she was notoriously judgmental and inclined to make up alternative pasts for people when she thought their real ones were too boring. But her diaries sustained me throughout my youth – her courage in the face of her mental illness, her absolute commitment to her craft and her vision, and her passion for gossip of all kinds! And of course her novels were and are revolutionary. 

Whatever’s for dinner, someone else will have to cook it. From a very young age, I rejected the domestic arts as a sexist imposition and vowed never to waste my time on them. I was a very precocious feminist and was having none of it. To this day, though I adore good food, I don’t cook anything much beyond an omelette or a bit of pasta, though I do make lots of salads. The downside of this early rebellion against traditional female roles is that I refused point blank to take typing classes at my secondary school, but ironically these days most men touch type impeccably while I’m still stabbing away with just two fingers.

Back to writers, if Virginia wasn’t available, I’d invite Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, or Laurence Durrell. And I’d spring for a caterer!   

SJ:        Finally, what’s in the pipeline from the Fiona J. Mackintosh writing den?

FJM:     Oh lord, it’s such a long and crowded pipeline. I’m working piecemeal on a flash fiction sequence set during Hollywood’s silent era tentatively titled We Moderns as well as a collection of US-based short stories called Niagara’s Island. But what’s taking priority right now is the rewrite of my novel, The Virgins of Salem, the first in what I hope will be a five-novel sequence called Albion’s Millennium. Yeah, five of them – I must be nuts. It’s taken me literally years to get this first book into anything close to a shape and style that I’m happy with, but I now have a bushel of characters whose arcs I have planned out from 1911 to the millennium. It’s a novel about a century of political and social change in Britain seen through the lens of shame – shame about the body and about who to love and who and what to believe in. 

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Fiona J. Mackintosh is a Scottish-American writer living near Washington D.C. In 2018, she won the Fish Flash Fiction Prize, the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and the Reflex Fiction Prize. Two of her pieces were selected for Best Microfiction 2019 and one for Best Small Fictions 2019. Her short stories have been listed for the Bristol, Galley Beggar, and Exeter Short Story Prizes, and she is writing a five-novel series about 20th century Britain entitled Albion’s Millennium

Features & Fiction Editor – Steven john