Steven John, Senior Fiction & Features Editor, interviews Anita Goveas 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: ‘Frau Roentgen’s Left Hand’ is a powerful example of historical flash fiction. Could you give us some background as to how you came to write this story and the amount of research necessary.
AG: I wrote ‘Frau Roentgen’ after reading a lot about scientists for a presentation for a college course. I came across Wilhelm Roentgen but I’d seen the image of the X-Ray before and had never thought about it. I’d read about the ways some women scientists had struggled for recognition, like Rosalind Franklin and Lise Meitner and I was struck by the way that image involved two people and I’d not considered that before. So I tried to read more about Anna Roentgen and came across only one anecdote, that when she saw the image of her hand she said ‘I have seen my death’. If that’s not a story prompt, I don’t know what is!
SJ: For those of us who’ve never attempted an historical flash piece, are there are rules of thumb for how much should be fact, and how much fiction.
AG: For me, if the research and facts are important to you, that probably lends itself better to creative non-fiction. I think historical fiction can focus on characters, settings and voices that might not have been heard. The power of story is to think about what might have been. But I’m generally not one for writing rules, if a piece takes you in a certain direction and you’re happy with where it goes, that’s also great. I think defining a piece is more about what places might publish it, not something to guide you when you’re writing.
SJ: The way you’ve woven the story of Frau Roentgen around her five fingers suits the short form so perfectly – a way into the various aspects and story of her life. Can you give us some tips on the pitfalls of writing historical flash and how to avoid them.
AG: I think historical flash is very difficult, trying to capture a place and time in under 1000 words. Getting a historical voice right can be tricky, how much do you want to mimic older grammatical styles or use slang from older time periods? (My favourite that I’ve never figured out how to use is ‘bang up to the elephant’ which is Victorian slang for perfect.) And I regularly fall down research rabbit-holes (look up killer medieval rabbits if you have a few hours you want to lose), and then want to hold tightly on to all the wonderful facts I’ve discovered at the expense of plot or character. I think the best stories come from character and that should hold true whatever genre I’m writing, so if I can get that right, hopefully the rest will work out.
SJ: ‘Let’s Sing Every Swear Word We Know’ is a wonderfully titled memoir piece that paints a perfect portrait of the girl in just a few brushstrokes. Every sentence starts with ‘you’re’, ‘your’ or ‘you’ which gives it the feel of a song lyric. Do you consciously strive for rhythm in your writing?
AG: I love the blurry edges of poetry/prose poetry/flash. I went to a talk by Maura Dooley who teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, and I learnt a lot from how she spoke of the tools that poets use that could inform prose- rhythm, metaphor, repetition, strong imagery and which work really well in micros/flash. Writing for me usually starts with an image, a piece of dialogue or a word I can’t shake, then I obsess over creating the perfect sentence for those images. That they turn into a story is often a bonus.
SJ: I can imagine that ‘Let’s Sing Every Swear Word We Know’ was an emotional piece to write? These are often the most difficult. How should we approach them?
AG: It’s really interesting you’ve said that, because this a Kathy Fish Fast Flash workshop special. It’s the quickest I’ve ever written anything, in ten minutes when I was stuck on a bus in a traffic jam. The breathless paragraph structure was completely new to me, and that freedom to experiment and that I was writing to a prompt and had to upload it in one day meant I’d didn’t have time to second guess myself and something wonderful emerged! It’s also heavily influenced by Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’. I think this was a story that I’d been carrying around for a while, the idea of not fitting in with your family but not really fitting in anywhere else, which is something I think about a lot being British-Indian. And I think emotional writing can bring catharsis. Lean in to that emotion, see where it takes you. You don’t have to publish that piece, maybe it doesn’t even end up being a story, but perhaps it unlocks something or leads to some answers that add layers to your stories.
SJ: Can you tell us a little about your revision process. When do we know a piece is submission ready?
AG: I generally celebrate whenever I finish a story, so I leave them alone for a little while which helps me come back to them with fresh eyes, and I read them out loud which really helps me work out sentence structure and rhythm. I know some fantastic people who critique my stories, and that usually helps me identify when I haven’t managed to get across on paper the brilliant point I made in my head. To be honest, I’m never completely sure a piece is ready, I can always see things I would tweak, it’s more about letting them go. I learnt a lot by reading for Flashback Fiction, but sending them out in to the world always feels a little risky. I’ve just got used to the uncertainty.
SJ: What advice would you give to a writer starting out on their career on how to find their own, original voice?
AG: Read as much as you can, as many different styles/genres as you can and write as much as you can. Trust your own instincts, write about what resonates with you and your voice will emerge.
SJ: What are your obsessions as a writer? To what subject, theme, or story do you keep coming back?
AG: Family dynamics, food as a way of showing love, the complexities of cultural identity, the hidden lives of women, the things we pass down subconsciously, tiny moments that lead to change.
But I enjoy experimenting with structure and imagery, and finding different ways of expressing those themes.
SJ: Which writers have been most influential in your own work, and which of their works in particular?
This is a difficult question, I read a lot and have probably been influenced a little bit by everything I’ve read. I guess the writers who’ve made impact on the way I write are a combination of writers who write well about people, and the joy of recognising myself in a story. Today I’m remembering Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘That thing around your neck’, Oliver Sacks’s ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’, Amy Hempel’s ‘The dog of the marriage’, Lorrie Moore’s ‘Self-help’, Susmita Bhattacharya’s ‘Table Manners’, and Yiyun Li’s ‘A Sheltered Woman’.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, and her debut flash fiction collection ‘Families and other natural disasters’ is forthcoming from Reflex Press in Spring 2020. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer Links to her stories at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com