The Interrogation Room – An Interview With Gary Duncan

As the editor of top-notch UK flash site Spelk, Gary Duncan has probably read more short fiction in the last few years than most people encounter in a lifetime. He steps away from the editorial hot-seat to bring us a new collection of his own flash fiction, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, which blends the surreal, the macabre and the everyday to great effect. Cheeky, playful and thoroughly British, this well-judged collection is crammed with small but perfectly formed delights. Tom Leins caught up with Gary to discuss his new book.

Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new story collection You’re Not Supposed To Cry. What draws you to flash fiction as a medium?

Thank you! Why flash? The short answer, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that I like brevity. I like short sentences and short books, so flash was always going to be a good fit for me. I’ve always been into short stories, so flash was probably a natural progression — how short can you go and still tell a story?

Time is another main reason, of course. I’m pretty busy with my day job (I edit market research reports, rewrite press releases, etc., etc.), but I still like to write something every day. I usually do it in short bursts — 20 minutes, half an hour — and that lends itself to flash. I like to get a first draft down in an hour or so, maybe 500 words, and then go back to it over the next few days, chopping it and rewriting it till I’m happy with it and ready to send it out. I like the editing side of things — more so than the actual writing in fact — so that’s another plus for flash for me. Because they’re so short, I can go through the same story over and over.

I also think you need to write to your strengths. I’m not the best plotter — I’ve done a few longer pieces but tend to get stuck after a few thousand words. All that plotting and all those narrative arcs and such … I usually end up going back to flash, my tail between my legs.

I also happen to spend a lot of time just thinking about stories and scenes and snatches of dialogue. I do come up with a lot of ideas and flash, for me, is the easiest and quickest way to get them out of my head and down on paper while they’re still fresh and before the next idea pops into my head and demands to be written. Maybe I just don’t have the patience or the stamina — I’m not sure I’d want to stick with the same story for months or years or however long it would take me to write a novel.

Where does the title come from? What kind of things are likely to make you cry? What kind of stories are likely to make you cry?

The title was suggested by Dana Keller at Vagabond Voices, my publisher. It’s from a line in one of the stories in the collection, about a bereaved dad struggling to come to terms with the loss of his child and his frustration that his counsellor is breaking down right in front of him: “The counsellor’s eyes are wet, and he thinks this is all well and good, sharing the pain and everything, but then he thinks, hang on a fucking minute, I’m the one who’s supposed to be crying, not you. Me. Not you.”

The original title was Snap. Dana came up with a few other ideas but I knew it had to be You’re Not Supposed to Cry as soon as I saw it.

What makes me cry? Nothing! I’m a no-nonsense northerner and we don’t cry. Never. Having said that, I do have a soft spot for John Steinbeck and that scene at the end of Of Mice and Men … well, that always gets me. But that’s just between the two of us …

As a writer — and indeed a reader — what makes you tick flash-wise?

That’s a tough one. With flash it’s the challenge of writing something in as few words as possible that still speaks of a bigger story. You’re trying to catch a moment, or something glimpsed — you don’t need to know the whole story, but you still need to show enough to engage the reader at some basic level. The best ones are those that need to be read again and again, the ones you find yourself thinking about the next day when you’re in the car or standing in line to pay for your shopping.

A good flash should be just the right number of words — if it’s 400 words, then 400 is what it is and it can’t be improved by adding another hundred words. It should be self-contained and complete, but always hinting at something more.

The content in your collection ranges from the mundane to the macabre. Within which genres do your own reading tastes lie?

I’ll read anything, and I’m a mess of contradictions. I’m reading Alan Bennett’s diaries at the moment, and Justin Cronin’s The Passage (all 800 pages — so much for brevity). I also like to have a short story collection on the go, and right now that’s Tom Franklin’s Poachers (which is brilliant). It’ll probably be something crimey next — I’m a huge fan of Don Winslow and James Ellroy, and I read a lot of Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Harlan Coben and David Morrell.

I also have a stable of writers I keep going back to for inspiration — Martin Amis, Raymond Carver, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis.

Your stories are all undercut with a very British sensibility. Who are your favourite British writers? And who are your favourite short story writers?

Funny you should say that because I tend to read more Americans than Brits nowadays. Most of my early influences were British though — I remember reading the likes of Stan Barstow and Alan Sillitoe, a lot of “northern” working-class writers like that, and just “getting it” — thinking I can really relate to this, the whole “write what you know” thing. That’s probably why I’m drawn to the mundane, the everyday things. Magnus Mills does it very well, and David Gaffney too.

My favourite short story writer is Donald Ray Pollock — Knockemstiff is my favourite book (short stories or otherwise). But there are so many others — Raymond Carver, Michel Faber, Annie Proulx, Helen Simpson, Jonathan Ames, A.L. Kennedy, Charles Bukowski.

Turning our attentions towards Spelk, the flash site you have edited since 2014. What prompted you to set up Spelk, and how has having an editorial role improved your own writing?

I’d had a few (mostly crime) stories published at places like Near to the Knuckle, Shotgun Honey and Out of the Gutter, and I wanted to set up something similar at first. You look at those sites though, how good they are, and you think it’s going to be pretty hard to compete head-on, considering I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. Round about then (2013, 2014) I was also beginning to write more “quirky” stories, some of which would eventually go into You’re Not Supposed to Cry.

So when it came to the site, I thought it would be cool to create a platform for crime and the “other stuff” — just throw it all together and see what happened. And that’s more or less how it has panned out — I built the site in WordPress, sent out an email begging for submissions and that was about it. I was more than a little surprised when people actually started sending me stuff. Some really good writers too, people I’d been reading on these other sites — Gareth Spark, Ryan Sayles, Aidan Thorn, Paul Brazill, Bill Baber and Darren Sant.

I even managed to get something from RJ Ellory, one of my favourite writers. I’d just read A Quiet Belief in Angels and City of Lies and I don’t know what I was thinking, but I just tweeted him and asked if he’d like to submit something for this new site I’d set up. I thought I’d get a snotty reply from his agent or publicist, or no reply at all. But within hours he got back to me and said, “Yes, of course.”

Working with people like that can only be a good thing in terms of your own writing. By having your own site, you get to see what everyone else is up to, and what works and what doesn’t. I see how others “package” their stories — how they lay them out, how they approach submissions, how they handle rejections etc. You get a sense of the bigger picture too — the themes, the ideas, the different approaches.

I have discovered some great writers through Spelk. Has it been heartening to see former contributors develop over the years? Which Spelk writers do you think are stretching the boundaries of what flash fiction can offer?

Yes, it is heartening. We’ve had quite a few first-timers on Spelk and it’s great to see their names popping up on other sites later. It’s a win-win if they then help spread the word about Spelk — flash is still a fairly small community and I think we should all be doing more to promote it.

It’s hard to define the boundaries because there are so many people doing so many different things with flash.

Style-wise, I think Sophie van Llewyn is doing something really exciting — she’s very lyrical and her stories are always beautifully written. We recently published A Conversation between the Spice Trader’s Daughter and her Lover, a Fortnight after She Burned at the Stake and it’s already one of my favourites on Spelk. And that title — how could you not like that? (I love a good title, and we’ve had some cracking ones — Love in the Time of Expectoration, The Woman Who Waltzed With Ulysses S. Grant, Enea Wants the Venice Water, Role Playing for the Early Patricidist, You Must Eat Your Boots First. I’d never accept a story just for the title, of course, but something along these lines, that sets the story up and makes you want to dive straight in, certainly doesn’t do any harm.)

Paul Beckman is always worth reading because he manages to come up with something different every time, whether it’s the point of view, the theme or the basic mechanics of the story (all-dialogue, bullet form, etc.). I love Howie Good’s elliptical stories — they’re at the shorter end of the flash range, but they’re dense with detail and great imagery.

Finally, what is next on your agenda? Do you have any upcoming publishing plans you can share?

I’m working on another batch of flash stories at the moment. They’re darker, these ones — miserable, but in a good way! I’ve sent a few out but I’m holding on to the rest for now — I’m still not sure if they’re going to be standalone or part of a bigger, themed story. I like the idea of doing a novella in flash, so they might evolve into something like that. I also write as Jack Larkham, nasty little crime stories, so I have a few ideas for him too. Time permitting, of course.

You can order You’re Not Supposed To Cry here.

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