It is said there is no better way to spark the creative genius than to pack up and travel. Ernest Hemingway had a bolt-hole in the Florida Keys, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved to escape to the French Riviera and Virginia Woolf spent seaside summers in Cornwall.
Closer to home one of Scotland’s up and coming authors is spending her summer on a writing retreat in Portugal. Helen McClory is a name you may recognize. She won the Saltire First Book Award for her short fiction in 2015 and her second collection came out earlier this year. Mayhem & Death is published by Scottish independent publishing house 404 Ink who champion alternative writing. Helen took time out from her break to tell us more.
Firstly thank you for interrupting your summer travels to talk to us – you are midway through your time in Portugal. What has taken you there?
It is no problem at all. I am here volunteering on a small farm. I get room and board, and time to write. It’s basically a self-arranged residency for me. It’s wildflower season right now and everything’s gorgeous.
What kind of writer are you – do you use trips like this to inspire and put pen to paper or are you a disciplined sit down at a desk kind of writer?
I use trips all the time to inspire me, and to try to get an understanding of a new culture and landscape. I think you can only write about somewhere if you’ve really immersed yourself. But then, I also try to write little and often. Desks are a no – I write lying down on my bed. It’s surprisingly comfy.
Your new book Mayhem & Death was published earlier this year, can you give our readers a flavour of what to expect?
It’s short stories, flash fictions, and a novella – they are all connected (in ways I won’t spoil here – the reader can guess!) and they are all about loneliness, loss, moments of connection and strangeness in the everyday.
You have won awards for your flash fiction. What is it about this style of writing that appeals?
I love writing flash – it’s a disciplined thing. Sit down with an idea, a line, or even a title. Write until it’s done, until the story unpacks itself into its tiny space. Set it to rest, and edit, then understand what you have. I hope the reader sees the concentration of the language – a flash fiction isn’t just a paragraph of text but almost like making something physical. It usually has to be read a few times to let it sink in. I love reading flash too. When it’s good, it lives up to the name – bottled lightning.
Can you explain the differences between Flash fiction, short stories and novellas? Are there specific word limits you need to adhere to?
Flash fiction is broadly anything under 1000 words, short stories anything above, right up until it becomes a novella – which is anything over 18,000 (more or less). I just write with the idea that everything I’m going to make will be short, but if it needs to be longer, I let it breathe. The form chooses itself, based on the ideas as they come.
One reviewer describes Mayhem & Death as being a ‘delicious anecdote to the up-lit’ that is around. Are you looking for readers to challenge fears rather than provide escapism?
I love the idea of my writing being an anecdote to something – though it doesn’t have to be against anything else. I wrote this book for the lonely – to build something that would speak to them, acknowledge them. It’s a steely kindness, I hope. No point in shying away from how difficult life is, even as we’re saying, we’re here, together, now, in it.
In reviews of the book The Romantic Comedy, Automaton Town and Take Care I Love You are all singled out for particular praise, do you have a favourite tale? Can you single one story out and give us a flavour?
I really enjoy Take Care, I Love You, because I got to experiment with that one a little. I used a little of the contents page from the Wikipedia page for the Fermi Paradox, which is about why, given how many planets there are in the universe, we haven’t been contacted by aliens yet, and put this together with a kind of narrative about a very lonely person. It’s a poem more than a story, but it could be either. That’s how I hope my work is, hard to classify, but still with heart.
The book finishes with a novella (Powdered Milk) revisiting characters from the opening story – do you have plans to revisit any other characters or stories at a later date in perhaps longer form?
I have no plans as yet. But I won’t rule it out. It might be in a shorter form, too, if it happens.
You describe yourself as a writer with a ‘moor and a cold sea in your heart’ what do you mean by this?
It refers to where I grew up – the landscape of Skye is still there, still coming through my work, I think.
Although you spent your early years in Skye, you are now settled in Edinburgh – via Glasgow where you studied literature – where feels most like home?
I love Glasgow, and would love to live there again. However, home is a moveable feast. My student days were a hard-working period. All I did was work and hang out with writers. I would like to live in Glasgow when I’m not up to my eyes in essay deadlines!
I thoroughly enjoy your observations on twitter (@HelenMcClory) you really seem to engage with your followers. How important is it for you to have a social media presence?
I think Twitter has helped me connect with so many cool people, and find opportunities all over the place – I love it, even though it can be stressful (and a distraction). I think it keeps my finger on the pulse and also inspires me. Once I wrote a day of flash fiction to prompts people gave me there, and it was intense but really rewarding. I can’t say how important it is, but it’s a big part of my life.
You are appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 24 August, what can you tell us about your event?
I’ll be appearing with the excellent Canadian writer Camilla Grudova, who also happens to love the weird and dark in fiction, and is a new friend of mine, so the craic’s going to be good. During festival time the city pulls on all its fancy clothes, dances about with people. Don’t listen to the moaners – it’s never better than in August.
Who are you looking forward to seeing?
I don’t have the catalogue yet! But I will be happy to see Camilla!
We are looking forward to seeing you at the Festival; can you sum up why our readers should buy your book?
I think they should buy it for two reasons – one, it’s been put out by two amazing Scottish women who are running their own publishing house out of a spare room (and wouldn’t you want to support that?) and two, because the stories in the book are written for you. They’re just waiting right there, for you to get stuck in.
Check out the full programme of events and book tickets for the Edinburgh International Book festival at edbookfest.co.uk