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SmokeLong Quarterly

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“Some kind of honest, unsentimental feeling”: An Interview with Guest Reader Helen Rye

Interview by Shasta Grant June 4, 2018

You’ve won first prize in the Reflex Fiction contest, first prize in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and you were shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Flash Fiction contest. What’s your secret to winning so many contests?

I wish there was a secret (or one that I knew about, anyway). Those stories were all so different. The Bridport one was actually the first flash I ever wrote – I was working on a novel when I read Kit de Waal’s Bridport winner. I loved it so much I thought, ‘I have to try that’. I wrote about a poet and an engineer splitting up over flatpack furniture; it contained a lot of made-up science.

The Bath winner was another very early story, about the ongoing Mediterranean refugee crisis. I was heart and soul ripped apart by it. Whether that came across or not I don’t know, but as a reader something I look for in a story above almost anything else is an underlying core of some kind of honest, unsentimental feeling.

By co-incidence I was at a workshop run by the judge of the Reflex contest just before those results were made public. She didn’t know I was sitting right there as she talked about the winning story. I’d been asked not to tell anyone, and was surrounded by fellow writers, so had to stare at the floor and try not to burst while I listened to her telling how much she’d loved it. It was both incredibly awkward and wonderful. She mentioned its ‘unusual’ structure had caught her eye – if a story’s jostling for position among a crowd of brilliant flash, something that will make it stand out and stick in the judge’s mind has to help, I think: unusual subject matter, a killer title, striking structure, a beautiful and unusual core metaphor.

I didn’t write any of those stories for contests, though. I think the most important thing is to write what you want to write, because you see or feel something you want the reader to see or feel, too. That will come across to the reader, whether they’re a judge or not. I don’t think it’s something that can be manufactured.

You were mentored by Tania Hershman through the WoMentoring Project. Can you tell us about that experience?

Tania is such a kind and incredibly positive human. She also really, really knows about stories. Her encouragement and enthusiasm for my work gave me so much more confidence – just knowing she believed in me meant a lot. She did make brilliant, in-depth suggestions at times, but she was more focussed on empowering me to make good editorial decisions myself. Once, I asked her advice on the ending of a story and she said, ‘I think you have the skills to make that call yourself – making choices like these is part of the joy of writing.’ She was right, too. That story was accepted, and I gained more confidence in my own judgment. What a gift. Mentoring at its best.

What themes do you find yourself frequently writing about?

Grief seeps into stories a lot. Outsiders and people on the margins are pretty much my tribe, and they feature frequently. Science reflecting life, post-apocalyptic landscapes, stars. How f***ed up and broken the world is, and the quiet people who suffer in it. I’ve probably written about as many stories with bird metaphors in them as is acceptable for one person.

What kind of story would you love to see in the queue this week?

Something unsentimental and understated with heart that quietly wrecks me (“Stone, Well, Girl“). Layered narrative in beautiful language with rhythm that carries me with it (“Sharp Sticks“). Or something so unusual and brilliant (“Shit Cassandra Saw…”) that it moves into my head and lives there forever.

About the Interviewer

Shasta Grant  is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. She has received residencies from Hedgebrook and The Kerouac Project and was selected as a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow. Her work has appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Hobart, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and divides her time between Singapore and Indianapolis.

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