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Firewords 9 – Contributor Q&A

Vivian wAGNER

Author of 'Funny-ish'

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What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I like to doodle and draw and paint. I find that doing visual art helps to inspire my writing.

What are your ambitions (general or writing based)?

I'm doing training to become a yoga instructor now, and I'd like to explore the intersections between yoga, meditation, and writing.

Do you try to be original or deliver what the reader wants? Why?

I like to be original. I like to see the new things that I create, and I hope that a reader comes along who wants to read them, as well.

l.p. lee

Author of 'Eurasian Makes Okonomiyaki'

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Other than Firewords, what other literary magazines do you like and why?

I like Popshot Magazine, it’s artfully done and lovely to hold in your hands. Editor Jacob Denno has done a great job with it. Graham Lawrence, the editor of Eastlit, has also left an impression on me for being so gracious and supportive of his contributors.

From where did you get your inspiration?

There’s a Chinese supermarket down the road from me in London, where I go to stock up on lao gan ma (amazing!), kimchi and sacks of rice. With this shop so close to me, I went through an Asian pancake-making phase: Korean kimchijeon, Beijing street stall pancakes, and Japanese okonomiyaki. Although I didn’t quite go so far as to put parsnips and brussel sprouts in a pancake, it was while tussling away on the hob that the idea for ‘Eurasian Makes Okonomiyaki’ popped into my head.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

London has such a brilliant collection of galleries - I love going around an exhibition with a friend and then chatting about it over a cup of tea. It can get a bit pricey so I tend to get membership to one place for a year, and go to everything that’s on there, then switch to another one the next year.

Monica Dickson

Author of 'The Minister's Cat'

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What are your ambitions (general or writing based)?

I’m in the very early stages of my writing career and so my ambition is to be as creative and prolific as possible! I’m experimenting with style but I naturally gravitate towards shorter stories. So I’m currently focusing on developing my ideas and finishing as many stories as I can, with a view to then pulling together - and hopefully publishing - a short story collection in the future.

Do you try to be original or deliver what the reader wants? Why?

Trying to second guess the reader can really interfere with my thought process. Originality is more important to me, I think. I try to explore a moment or character or theme beyond my initial instincts, to make a piece stand out more.

What’s your writing process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

Ideally I write in the morning, at home and preferably without interruption. I aim for 500 words a day but it can be less - or more, if it’s going well. I’m not big on planning, tending to ‘write my way in’ to a story from a strong opening line or image. Even a fairly arbitrary opening can be helpful; the priority is starting – and finishing – a first draft to reshape and edit later. The time it takes to complete a piece varies depending on its length, how happy I am with it and the proximity of a deadline!

William Thompson

Author of 'Water People'

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What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

Winter in Edmonton is long, bleak, and cold. One January afternoon, I was feeling depressed and utterly uninspired. My children were entertaining themselves while I made ham and scalloped potatoes for dinner. Dinner in the oven, I returned to my desk. I began writing—a story about a single father who was making ham and scalloped potatoes for dinner. I became unstuck, and that month I finished The Paper Man, which became the anchor story for my first collection of short stories. I’m only as uninspired as I allow myself to be.

How much are your characters taken from real life?

My characters are often grounded in real life. I wrote a story once about a narrator whose life is a mess because of an act of boyhood stupidity resulting in his sister’s death. Within an hour of me posting a link to the story on my website, my sister called me—“Is the girl in that story supposed to be me!” I had to do some fast explaining. Real people provide the best fodder for fiction, but always take care: readers see themselves in what you write, especially those readers who know you best.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

One way I get myself out of my head as a writer is by doing pottery. Working clay on the wheel is extraordinarily physical. It takes as much concentrated focus as writing, but clay is less forgiving than writing. You can be throwing a bowl that’s taking a beautiful shape, then gravity intervenes, and all your work simply slumps back onto the wheel. Holding something I’ve made with my own hands carries a particular satisfaction, but even better is putting that thing I’ve made to practical use and filling it with chocolates or coffee.

Carole Johnston

Author of 'Picture Perfect'

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How much are your characters taken from real life?

There are elements of people that I know or that I have met or observed in a cafe/restaurant/bar. I use their physical appearance - hair, skin, clothes, voice, body language and their general mannerisms when writing about my characters. I keep a book with jottings in about people who inspire a character for me - like the lady who crossed the road towards me in London - Mary Poppins in clothing, right down to the straw boater

What does literary success mean to you?

It means that my writing is liked enough to be published and read by a wider audience than my husband, mum and close friends! It is also the first rung on the ladder to further successes.

What’s your writing process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

A short piece like Picture Perfect, once the idea comes into my head I start writing until I've completed the piece. This takes a day to two days. I then read it and start editing, changing words that don't seem to fit and reducing sentences, even deleting or replacing whole paragraphs. All this takes about a week. This includes a read through by my band of trusted readers for additional comments and changes.

Suzanne Samples

Author of 'The Story of Veronica

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From where did you get your inspiration?

Fair warning: if you date me, you will find the entrails of your life spread throughout my stories! All kidding aside (was I kidding?), I love listening to people talk. The rhythm of their voices, the stories they tell, and the quirks in their delivery all inspire me. Humans are so complicated, and everyone has stories embedded within them. As a writer, I see it as my job to interpret and recast those stories until the people are unrecognizable but the metaphor remains.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

When I'm not writing, I'm playing roller derby! I love the sport and everything that skating represents. The derby community is inclusive, empowering, and inspiring. Roller has derby taught me that I am capable of creating a collaborative narrative with my teammates that represents an athletic, intellectual spirit that I have not found elsewhere.

What’s your writing process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

Before I write a piece, I often experience an unsettling physical sensation that lets me know a story is ready to form. This happens in quiet moments while on walks, in the shower, or quite frequently, when I'm in the car. I let my body absorb that visceral feeling, and then I begin arranging images in my brain that I want to replicate on the page. I try to avoid forcing anything; my best stories come straight from my gut and do not apologize for their intrusions.

Alex reece abbott

Author of 'Auē!'

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What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

Can you repeat the question?

I agree with Picasso - inspiration does exist, but it does have to find you working.

I always have several projects on the go, different forms at different stages, so I have variety and can move from piece to piece. No excuses to avoid or delay! I tend to write in the mornings and revise/input in the afternoons. I never wait for an ideal "big block of time" to work.

I love reading and learning and so other people's writing, judging competitions, attending courses and conferences can be a real shot in the arm.

I am essentially a curious person (see my comments on sources of inspiration), and that keeps me inspired too.

I'm a longtime fan of Margaret Atwood, and her words are above my desk:
"Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."

From where did you get your inspiration?

I like not being able to predict what will spark or how, that organic sense of discovery.

Sometimes I write from what I know (or, believe I know), sometimes, it’s needing to know more; “what ifs” – ideas/feelings that are not totally resolved.

I welcome triggers from anywhere, drawing on history, news, science. Watching and hearing the precise navigation of bats. A theme (as with Auē! in Firewords Quarterly #9). Maybe a news item. A short story. A line from a poem. An image or a piece of artwork. I am also a rampant eavesdropper.

What kind of characters do you prefer to write about?

My preoccupations? Liminality and imperfection in memory – (hidden) history, science, landscape, language and humanity – especially outsiders, people on the margins. Ethical dilemmas, discomfort, collateral damage and lives fractured by change – loss, absence, separation, exile and oppression attract me.

My work is mainly contemporary, occasionally historical, but allied to no particular style, structure or form – character and voice inform this.

samuel best

Author of 'The Burning'


What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I tend to go for a walk if I'm having an off day. I live near a grand Victorian necropolis so I'll go haunt that for a while. Many of the tombs have inspiring messages.
Alternatively, if it's raining, I'll read something very old to remind myself that laptops and spellcheck are a luxury and I don't have it that bad at all.

Other than Firewords, what other literary magazines do you like and why?

I'm a big fan of [Untitled] because they've helped build such a vibrant scene of performance, art, and writing. Their monthly spoken word gig in Falkirk is vital and inspiring.
THEGRIND were a great bunch too, and they're very sorely missed. They ran some fantastic events and the magazine was a beauty.
The Ogilvie, who are based in Edinburgh, are putting out some fantastic poetry, prose, and personal essays. I enjoy finding new writing through them.

From where did you get your inspiration?

I'The Burning' was inspired by a long spell in hospital I suffered through a few years ago. I would watch the world pass by my window and feel so thoroughly disconnected from everything. In the end, I was lucky enough to get back out but for so many people that isn't an option. I wondered about how someone might feel to stay stuck behind that glass.

Jane Akweley Odartey

Author of 'A Calling'

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What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I make the uninspired feeling a focus of significant interest.

What are your ambitions (general or writing based)?

At present my sole ambition is to gather all of my ambitions and make a wild and cheerful bonfire out of them.

Do you try to be original or deliver what the reader wants? Why?

I don't aim to be original because I don’t know what original is. And I can't deliver what the reader wants because as a reader, I never really know what I want until I come across it. So I just write and let the piece find its own way.

Toby Buckley

Author of 'Nostos' and 'Bee Emoji'

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Other than Firewords, what other literary magazines do you like and why?

My main reading interest right now is the zine scene they have down in Dublin, with which I was previously unacquainted. My buddy Fionn O’Shea has produced a few different zines in the past year (Unpredictapple, Bee Safe Bee Zine, etc), and was kind enough to introduce me to a lot of really cool people.

In terms of more established literary magazines, I really love The Tangerine and The Stinging Fly. I think they’re two of the best publications our country has to offer, and I’m incredibly proud to have been published in them.

What kind of research do you do? Are you a planner?

I’m a big fan of research and planning, though it doesn’t always get me that far! I find that the best poems I write are ones that just pop into my head.

All the same, the pieces I enjoy the most are the ones that have lots of grounding in fact. I’ve written a lot about the history of beekeeping, clowns and the Internet. Did you know that frogs use their eyes to swallow, or that people used to think burnt bees could cure baldness?

Researching may not have made me a world famous poet (yet) but it’s definitely given me a lot of trivia.

From where did you get your inspiration?

I get most of my inspiration just from looking at or reading about things that I find amazing. I find trains amazing. I find bees amazing. I’m a poet, I don’t get out much, writing poems about things I’m enthusiastic about is like my equivalent of cornering some poor soul at a party and just telling them about something. I’m a white man. We love explaining things. I’m not so much inspired as I am desperate to show people how many neat things I know.

Linda Tyler

Author of 'Mrs Menzies' Budgie'

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What kind of research do you do? Are you a planner?

For short stories, I generally don't do any research. Once I have a story idea, I let in grow in my head until it feels ready to write down. Much longer pieces of work are different. I'm currently writing a novel set on the high seas in the late 1600s. This does require research! I use the internet and reference books, doing basic research before I start work. When I'm writing and I come across something I'm not sure about, I type QUERY and find the answer when I've finished that chapter.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

I sing in a local choir. We sing purely for pleasure, in three parts, songs in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, Hebrew, various African dialects; wonderful songs from around the world, which lift any concerns we may have and focus each of us in that moment of song.

What’s your writing process and how long does it normally take you to complete a piece?

I write the first draft. Then I edit it. Once this is done, my writing buddy Shirley provides a critique. I then do another edit or two. The time taken on each of these stages varies considerably, and there's always at least a few days between each edit while I let the story ferment. With the novel-in-progress, my writing buddy Mary-Celeste provides an additional crit. The importance of writing buddies, and friends who are interested in your progress, can't be over-emphasised.

Craig Cormick

Author of 'Napoleon Misses An Opportunity at Waterloo

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What are your ambitions (general or writing based)?

To write the a story that has the perfect combination of words, that when it is read the reader just falls into the telling, losing all sense of the words themselves, and finds the story has opened a pathway into some deeper understanding for them. That, or to impress my wife with a story. (She's a real tough critic!)

How much are your characters taken from real life?

Often. I like to play with historical characters, putting them in contemporary settings, or mixing different people from history together in a different time again. (And any character that bears any similarities to my wife, is purely co-incidental, and was actually based on a rather obscure historical identity!)

What does literary success mean to you?

It used to be finding one of my books in a New York book shop, or winning a significant writing award, or being an invited guest at a big literary festival -
but having done most of those, it is now dropping my kids off at school and hearing one of the other kids saying to his mum or dad, in an awed whisper, 'That guy is a writer!'

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever written?

A story about my wife's stroke. I wrote it as fiction, but it drew deep from what i was feeling at the time. (Sorry, I mean a story about a woman from history, who had a stroke, who just happened to bear some similarity to my wife!!)

From where did you get your inspiration?

Everywhere. I always have a giant list of ideas to turn into books, and novellas and stories. I took my family to Europe in July and August and my goal was to write a new flash fiction piece every two days, ending up with about 20 good pieces. There was so much inspiration around that I ended up with about 24 good pieces and another 6 or so that were just so-so.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

One of my main hobbies is answering at least five questions when I'm asked to answer only three.

louise mangos 

Author of 'Half Way to Guayaquil on the Roof of a Steam Train I Fell in Love

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What do you do if you’re feeling uninspired?

I'm lucky enough to live in one of the world's most spectacular environments - the Swiss Alps. But gazing at the landscape through the window when inspiration at the writing table is lacking isn't enough. I have to get out and move. The creative brain requires as much exercise as the body, and the simple act of movement, away from my writing environment, often brings a flood of words. And it's usually when I don't have a pencil or a phone to write them all down.

What does literary success mean to you?

Every writer at some stage in their career dreams of becoming a bestselling author. I've written stories of all lengths from flash fiction to novel-length works, many of which have appeared in online zines or anthologies, or are scheduled to be published. But I've also had my fair share of rejection, and learning about 'subjectivity' has humbled me. Success to me is when my literary creations are enjoyed and appreciated by as few or as many readers as have access to my stories. Bringing pleasure to a reader is the prime goal.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

I've always enjoyed outdoor activities. I used to run marathons and participate in triathlons until my knees gave out a few years ago. I now cycle, swim and kayak during the summer months. My current favourite activity is cross-country 'skate' skiing on the 'loipe' near my home in winter. Fitness is of course a major goal, but there is something alluringly satisfying about the regular pendulum movement on the ski track, and whole stories can spring from the imagination during an hour's workout.

Erich Gerner

Author of 'Birds in Drawers'

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Do you try to be original or deliver what the reader wants? Why?

I try to write something that I would enjoy reading if I happened upon it. If you don't tap into what you think is cool, why do it? The hope is that what you think is cool and enjoyable is what others will too - but there's no guarantee.

From where did you get your inspiration?

Many sources, but science and nature are big ones for me. I think the old stereotype that "the arts" and "the natural sciences like bio, chem and physics" are two solitudes that can't speak to one another is limiting and wrong, and must be gotten past. I really enjoy poetic science writing and scientifically informed poetry (or storytelling). As a case in point, I have on my bookshelf both Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials and a book by science writers John and Mary Gribbin called The Science of His Dark Materials. After finishing both of them, I was inspired to write perhaps my favourite of my own poems.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

Well, for one thing I love fall. We're deep in it now here in Ontario. Out my window and down my street are yellows, oranges, crimsons, purples, browns. Leftover pumpkins in doorways. So I like to get my 3 year old daughter out to rake leaves with me, or do a short autumn hike, or jump in leaf piles. I take fall photographs sometimes. It's just another cherishable aspect of the world that we have a chance to appreciate (hopefully) in the time we get.

A M Howcroft

Author of 'Time Travel for 11-year olds'

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How much are your characters taken from real life?

More often than not, all of my characters are from real life. Sometimes it may be a person I observed in a cafe, or on a flight, but often it is someone I know well (or used to). This way, I can imagine how they would respond to a situation, and it really helps give dialogue a true flavour. Later, I edit the story to ensure their true identity is well hidden - although on rare occasions, especially if it shows them in a positive light, I leave them for everyone to find.

What kind of research do you do? Are you a planner?

In life generally, I'm a planner. That's not necessarily true with my writing. I certainly start a story with an idea and direction, but I definitely don't know (in 95% of cases) the ending. I need to explore the idea and let the characters react in their own way. I think that's more fun for the reader, and certainly more fun for the writer.

Tell us about one hobby/interest outside of writing and why you do it.

I like to run, although I hated that when I was at school. I've done a couple of half-marathons, and I run about 25 to 30 miles a week. It's a great time to think, good for work, fitness, and for playing around with different ideas in any writing you may be doing.