Interview by Sudha Balagopal
The witch in your story is a powerful, albeit unseen, character. How did the idea of a witch that haunts the sea come to you? Did she arrive fully-formed or did she develop and grow as you wrote the story? Was she the figure from whom your story began or did the story begin with the dysfunction in the family?
Gaynor: The idea for the story came almost entirely from a workshop I attended in May 2020, Using Folklore in Short Fiction with CG Menon as part of the Northern Short Story Festival. In the class, Catherine gave us a series of prompts to choose from, mine were: Fish hook / Losing / Beach / A Witch / Transformation. I even have the very first draft which I wrote in seconds and says ‘If your Dad loses a fishing hook on the beach a witch will come and turn all your siblings into crabs. A mean older sister clacks crab claws and threatens to cut holes in father’s pockets.’ So, I went from having no story at all, to a fully formed idea within minutes! This is why I’m so addicted to attending classes and workshops – you just never know what gem you might unearth with someone else’s help.
In your story the POV is that of a young girl, through whom you paint a vivid picture of the witch and the entire family. Why did you choose her to tell the story in the second person?
I am always drawn to girls and young women in my own fiction and in the media I consume. I love coming of age stories in books and I still watch terrible teen movies even though I’m 40. I think partly it’s because I had such a great time as a teenager, but muddled up with a lot of complex issues too which still impact me even now. Also, before writing I worked with young people, including 4 ½ years in an all-girls school, which I absolutely loved. It’s such an important and evocative time.
As for second person, quite a lot of people hate it, don’t they?! I’d never written anything in second person, and in fact I didn’t even know what it meant, until I attended the Comma Press short story course a few years ago. Now, I think I write half my stories in second person! I saw someone online make a sniffy comment about how it immediately shows that the person is a creative writing student, but really who cares? I like it and I use it, and it’s won me another competition, so ha!
I love the details, that contribute to the density of the story. Details about the witch, about the crabs. How much do details contribute to the intensity of a story? At what point do they take away from the narration and plot, or lose the reader?
For me, I think this is a very detailed story, and that’s because in edits I wanted to ensure that it made sense for the competition theme, so every time I went through it, I added a bit more dark sea detail! I think it works in this story because it’s quite claustrophobic, and all of the details sort of clutter it up a bit more, but I don’t tend to write in this way normally. I read a novel recently (which I won’t name) that had so many details it was boring to read. I mean, every single paragraph was telling you the colour and the brand and the texture and the sound and I was thinking – ‘where is the story?!’ I had to give up on it after 70-odd pages, although it was a huge hit so other people obviously didn’t mind. I think a sprinkling of really specific and relevant detail is key, but it is hard to achieve the balance.
You have won several contests. What in your opinion, makes for a winning flash entry? What advice would you give to a flash writer interested in entering a contest? How do you hone a story until it’s entry-ready?
Oh gosh, I get in trouble when I say a lot of it is luck, but I do think luck has a huge part to play with competitions. Luck and the determination to keep trying and keep improving your own work, without having competitions in mind as an end-goal. For me, I think that my stories have emotional impact. I’m not the fanciest writer, though this story feels quite fancy to me, but I tend to make people laugh or feel horrified or feel empathy. I always want to feel something when I’m reading so that’s the goal in mind. As for honing, with flash fiction I didn’t used to edit much. The Thing Between Your Legs was written in thirty minutes and I only tweaked a few words. The Witch Who Walked the Shore started out as a 300-word piece which I built on each time I went through it, I spent maybe a month working on it. I’ve just spent a year editing my short story collection reaaaaallllly thoroughly and it is all the better for it, so I’m more sold on editing now than I used to be. It’s been a slog, but if it’s making the work better then it’s worth it. But I’m not personally a fan of the advice to put a piece in a draw for a week and then come back, I think once you get into the habit of writing frequently then you can tell when a piece has potential or not. So I guess my editing advice is to know yourself and trust yourself.
What are you working on currently? Any publications coming up in the near future we can look forward to?
Do you know, this is the only thing I have scheduled for publication this year! I don’t write much flash fiction anymore, though I am fond of micros which I tend to try at Paragraph Planet. I am very lucky to have just signed with an agent on the basis of my short story collection, but she wants me to write another two stories to flesh out one of the running narrative threads in the collection, which I agree with. So I’m trying to nail them, and I do have my eye on another, bigger project which I’m staying quiet about in case I mess it up. I’ve lost a lot of confidence over lockdown so I’m concentrating on building that back up again. I’d like to get out to an open mic night soon. Hopefully it won’t be too long, but I don’t think you’ll be seeing anything in print from me this year. Though I am working non-stop behind the scenes, I won’t have anything to show for it for a good while yet. I hope people don’t forget me in the meantime! Oops, I just remembered I do have one more flash story due out this year! It’s in the National Flash Fiction day anthology.