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The Splonk Five: David Gaffney

David Gaffney by Sabine Dundure

Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with flash? Why it appeals and what frustrates you?

The first thing I will say is that I don’t really like the term flash fiction. I prefer just to think of it as short pieces of text. However, I will use the term flash throughout as we don’t really have anything better at the moment. For me flash was like a bedraggled bad-tempered dog that turns up at your house and you don’t really like it or want it, but you take it in and at first you don’t see the point of this animal at all – it’s taking up space and time and eating food, but then you get to love it because its so different and so much its own thing.

I was writing a novel and had been for years when someone asked to take in the dog named Flash – would I like to write some 150 stories for a website? I couldn’t really see the point, but when I did, I really liked the process and the sense of achievement every time I finished something.

I like a few things about flash. In comparison to a novel, you can change everything about your flash over a few hours – the point of the view, the setting, the characters. You can even move the action to take place before the story you first wrote, or after it. You can walk around your story, like it’s a little machine, and see exactly how it works. All of this is very difficult in a novel or a traditional long short story. After every section of a novel, you feel as if you’ve nailed something down permanently and you can’t change anything without it turning out to have been load-bearing and now you’ve ruined the whole thing.

Flash is plastic and permeable, and that’s why I like it. Writing flash fiction sometimes feels more like laying the track in front of you as you whizz along on your train, whereas in a novel you feel you have to survey the ground and consult with local stakeholders before you can even draw out the route that track might take. I also like that it suits a systematic approach or an Oulipo type approach – such as using specific word counts or avoiding certain letters. It leans more into poetry than prose, I think. I’m not sure though that the average reader likes flash fiction as much as the average writer of flash does, and that is a big issue which we can’t ignore.

In terms of construction/technique, how is flash fiction different, in your view, from other genres – in particular poetry (including prose poems) and the short story?

I judge a lot of flash fiction competitions and I must admit that at the moment I am more drawn to the prose poetry type of flash fiction that the straightforward story telling style. The straight, simple story can almost be too simple and can lack resonance, leaving you with nothing to think about. I do feel that a story needs to be open rather than closed. This got me thinking about the difference between prose poems and flash fiction and I do think there are a couple of things; poetry and prose poetry don’t usually have fixed point of view as such – or if they do, it’s often the poet’s point of view. Whereas flash will have a character and a central point of view usually. Prose poetry seems to be a more circular form, orbiting ideas and exploring them from many angles, whereas flash fiction will often tend to be more linear and take the idea for a walk from A to B. I believe that readers expect some kind of a change to occur in a piece of flash fiction, whereas maybe it’s enough for a piece of prose poetry to capture an intense moment, like a still photograph, rather than a narrative film.

Fundamentally, for you what makes a flash piece successful?

Success is to be noticed. To leave an impression. A good flash fiction won’t slip in and out of the mind without leaving a mark. In many ways the words in a piece of flash fiction are more important than they are with a longer piece. In novels you are accumulating details and accruing emotion over a longer period. In flash it all has to be there in one cramped tiny space. The job of flash fiction is to intrigue and engage right away. A good example of this is titles. I think titles are very important in small pieces of text like these.  Sometimes titles of flash can be over complex, or willfully obscure, and or over-explaining like a whacky sub-editors punning headlines. At best I feel a good title can be a simple key to unlock the meaning of the story or even just a clear window to see the story through. Often when I’m judging flash fiction competitions the title makes a big difference. Even if the story is quite good, it’s not likely to win if the title isn’t right. I like to think of titles as if they were a list of songs on album. Probably an album by The Fall, in my case.

I’m increasingly drawn to writing about the very ordinary. In the past my notebooks (the random bits of cardboard and used envelopes I stuff into my pockets) have been full of unusual things or notable things I have seen and heard, and I have turned these odd quirky things or people places into short stories, and this has worked for me, I think. However, I worry that I may have been doing this at the risk of ignoring the compelling ordinariness of things around us, and I have begun instead to note down the familiar and humdrum things that happen about me; sometimes the way someone lifts up his coat sleeve to read his watch can be as interesting as the man who crosses the road to kick over a sign outside a jeweler’s shop.

I am increasingly starting a piece of writing with images rather than words. I think I was inspired by watching the TV series Chernobyl and the way the episodes seemed to work as a set of powerful images linked together – the row of lead coffins poured over with concrete, the naked miners wiping coal dust on the government official’s white suit – and these powerful images can be what links a story together – images are the things that draw you in and, ultimately, what you are left with. You can’t usually recite part of a short story you loved but you can usually describe an image from it that moved you.

What flashers do you admire and why? Are there any specific pieces that you found compelling?

At the moment I am a big fan of Lydia Davies and Diane Williams and would recommend Diane Williams’ book Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine. (I wonder if she is a fan of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs?) I also enjoy the prose poetry of Tom Jenks, a poet in the avant style who I highly recommend you check out. I also love the tone and feel of work by Meg Pokrass.

What flash piece of your own are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

As for my own flash fiction I like a story called ‘You Know, Quiet’ about a man who has seven wardrobes in his bedsit, and I also have a favorite for reading aloud which is called ‘Uncle Leonard’. Available in Sawn Off Tales and More Sawn Off Tales, published by Salt.

David Gaffney lives in Manchester, UK. He is the author of the novels Never Never (2008) and All The Places I’ve Ever Lived ( 2017) plus the flash fiction and short story collections Sawn-Off Tales (2006), Aromabingo (2007), The Half-Life of Songs (2010) and More Sawn-Off Tales (2013). The Guardian said: ‘One hundred and fifty words by Gaffney are more worthwhile than novels by a good many others.’ He has written articles for The Guardian, Sunday Times, Financial Times and Prospect magazine, and was a judge for the Bridport Prize. His story ‘The Staring Man’ was featured in Best British Short Stories. His graphic novel with Dan Berry, The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head, was published in 2018 on Top Shelf, and David and Dan’s next graphic novel Rivers was published in May 2021. His next novel, Out Of The Dark, is out in the Autumn of 2021 See for more.