Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife – the writer, Kath Kerr – their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Cinder House: http://cinderhouse.com/product/lost-property-by-calum-kerr/ I’ve known Calum (electronically!) for a few years now and enjoyed working with him on the two National Flash Fiction Day UK anthologies Jawbreakers (2012) and Scraps (2013). I’m talking to him today about his new release and once again that fab phenomenon flash fiction and how it has contributed to his writing.
About Lost Property
Cinder House, on behalf of Dead Ink Books, is proud to present Lost Property by Calum Kerr. This collection brings together four brand new pamphlets of flash fiction produced by Kerr. The pamphlets featured are Singsong, Soaring, Burning and Citadel. This paperback collection contains 83 stories that move from the hilarious to the sinister and demonstrate the unique nature of ultra-short fiction.
How did this particular pamphlet project come about and tell us about the how the four pamphlets fit together & emphasis of each (if there is one!)
Well, between 1st May 2011 and 30th April 2012 I did a project to write a flash-fiction every day for the whole year, posting the stories to my blog before midnight every day. Doing it so publicly was a good way to make sure it happened, as if it was nearing midnight I would start to get messages and emails from readers wondering where that day’s story was. I’m proud to say I never missed one – pre-scheduling stories if I wasn’t going to be around – and at the end I had written about 160,000 words of flash fictions, enough for at least four collections!
I let the dust settle when I had finished, and after a couple of months removed the blog from public access so that I could think about publishing them as collections of some sort. I put together a spreadsheet which listed all the stories and I assigned a variety of genre tags to them so I could look for trends etc. I also assessed which ones I thought were close to publishable, which needed more work, and which were probably beyond saving.
Then, at the beginning of this year, with an eye to National Flash-Fiction Day in June as a possible publication date, I approached Dead Ink in Leeds, a publisher I was already aware of and friendly with, to see if they wanted to publish a pamphlet. They came back and suggested four pamphlets as Kindle e-books and a single collection, gathering them together, as a paperback. Well, obviously, I was more than happy with that
So, I set about sorting them into pamphlets of about 20 flash-fictions in each. At first I started gathering them together by genre, but I soon realized that each pamphlet was going to be a bit ‘samey’, so I abandoned that idea. Instead, I looked through for four stand-out stories which contained themes which would make them a good centre piece for a pamphlet, and also provide a good title for the whole thing. These were ‘Lost Property’, ‘Sinaglong’, ‘Soaring’ and ‘Citadel’. I then went through the other 361 stories, plus other stories written before, during and after the flash365 project, and for each collection found pieces which would either compliment or work against the central story. That’s how they were gathered together in the first instance.
During the editing process, we decided to make Lost Property the title of the collection as a whole, as it seemed to say something about all of the pieces, and about the nature of flash-fictions in general, and we didn’t want to have confusion between the title of the book and of the pamphlet. So, that pamphlet was renamed after ‘Burning’, another story whose title seemed to encapsulate the other pieces in that particular pamphlet.
As to the ordering of the pamphlets in the book, my editor thought ‘Spellbound’ would be a great story to open the collection with. I wanted to finish the whole thing with ‘Revelation’ and its final invocation to ‘come and see…’, so the pamphlets Singalong and Citadel were placed first and last to achieve that. And I also wanted the pamphlet with the title story, ‘Lost Property’, to appear in the third quarter of the book, and that’s how the two middle collections were then ordered.
It’s been a fascinating process to see how you can go from over 400 individual stories to a collection which does have a series of coherent themes and structures via a series of seemingly independent decisions – some to do with theme, some with reader engagement, and some purely aesthetic.
Does flash fiction allow you to go places you wouldn’t normally with your writing?
Over the course of flash365 it really freed me up. I decided, very early on, that I would attempt to delve into as many different genres, styles, perspectives, voices, etc. as I possibly could, and so I ended up going to a lot of new places and discovering things about both the genres and my own writing. When I looked back across the spreadsheet I mentioned above, however, I was surprised to see how often I considered a story to be humorous, and how often they were tagged as ‘dark’. Very often these were the same story! It certainly taught me the areas I most enjoy writing in and so, after finishing the project and embarking on a novel, I was able to make the decision to have both humour and darkness in the work and know that I would be playing to my strengths.
I think also, because it is so short, flash allows you to try something new without having to commit a huge amount of time or energy to it. If it doesn’t work, never mind, you can discard it and try again. If it does, then you have discovered something new. It’s very powerful in that respect.
These stories ‘move from the hilarious to the sinister’ Which is your own favourite in the collection and at which end of the spectrum does it fall?
Many writers, when you hear them speak or get interviewed, say that they have a particular question which they get asked a lot and which they can’t really answer. The usual one is ‘where do you get your ideas?’ For me, it’s ‘which is your favourite story?’
It’s a really difficult question to answer, because they have all been included because I like them. They were written on different days and when I was in different moods, and so depending on the mood I’m in when I get asked the question, the answer will be different. One of my favourites is ‘The Saxophone’ the story which I partly analysed on Jonathan Pinnock’s blog yesterday (http://www.jonathanpinnock.com/). I think it is one of the better written pieces and, whenever I read it live, it still moves me and gives me a crack in my voice by the end. That’s a sad one, and a realistic one. But another of my favourites is ‘Animate’ which features all the fixtures, fittings and furniture in a man’s flat coming to life. It’s silly and funny and I had an absolute ball writing that one.
I think, though, that more than a particular story, there is a particular type of story which appeals to me. These are the ones which seem to occur in a perfectly ordinary world, but somehow it has become reflected in a funhouse mirror. Stories like ‘Idle Hands’ where a woman is able to split a tea-atom in her kitchen, or ‘The Carpet Man’ where the house-sitting son gets a visitor that is not who he expected at all. They edge towards magical realism, or sci-fi, or horror, but never quite take their back foot out of the realist camp. I do quite a lot like that, and I do enjoy them.
You’ve spent a couple of years under the discipline of writing a flash fiction a day, can you look back and see how this has developed you as a writer in terms of skills, persistence, motivation etc.
It has certainly honed my skills. Recently I have started doing flash-fiction writing as a performance art, displaying the word processor on a big screen, taking prompts from the audience, and writing a story in just 5 mins while they watch. They are never quite as good as stories crafted with a little more time and privacy, but they always work and they always have a certain something about them. I have learned that I can always write, as long as the pressure is there, and that I can write well in as many genres as you care to mention. That sounds immodest, but it’s really important for a writer to be able to actually know that they can produce good work. Because there are days when you feel you are nothing more than a hack, producing words with no meaning, so it’s good to know that you can actually do this thing!
Why ‘Lost property?’
Well, I mentioned above that it’s the title of a story. It’s not the kind of story that you would think, either. It uses the term as a metaphor, and that’s also how I use it in the title of the collection. Flash-Fiction exists, very often, as fragments of a story. Elsewhere I have talked about them as being the perfectly shaped jigsaw piece which allows the reader to extrapolate the whole of the finished puzzle. But as such, they are a piece on their own. The rest of the puzzle, and the box, are elsewhere, and this single piece has been found down the back of the sofa, or dropped down the back of a bookcase. It is all that remains, but it is enough to know what the whole thing once looked like. In that sense, I think all flash-fictions are, in some sense, lost and cut off from the whole. I think it’s a good title.
Lost Property, is now available from Cinder House.