K.M. Elkes is a popular Bristol writer and creative writing teacher. He has had short stories published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies, and won and been shortlisted for a number of writing competitions.
Ahead of his appearance at Talking Tales on August 20, the author and journalist talks about his recently published flash fiction collection, how to engage readers, and teaching creative writing.
Do you take different approaches to writing journalism and fiction?
Both these forms of writing are intimately related by the human desire for narrative. Both are acts of making sense, of investigation and understanding. They are both bound up with the response and input of the reader.
As a result, one form has influenced the other. Early in my journalism career, I covered many dramatic stories – terrorist bombings, natural disasters, riots. I learned about distilling information into a few words and how to write ‘in the moment’ in many cases directly from the scene itself. These skills helped with my process when I came to write fiction.
Later in my journalism career, I’ve tended to write longer form feature articles which have been influenced, conversely, by fiction writing, through literary techniques such as story arcs, diction and syntax, pacing, and understanding how to convey a wider story through one memorable detail.
What’s fascinating (and at times alarming) is how social media in the so-called post-truth era means everyone now is a fiction writer and journalist, melding and reinterpreting these forms to create their own personal narratives.
What influence has teaching creative writing, particularly short stories, had on your own writing?
My pedagogical approach is collaborative and practical. I share ideas (not rules!) about writing short fiction and facilitate writers to shed their self-restrictions and become bolder. Which, in turn, reminds me to do the same.
I’m a tutor for Comma Press and I’m pulling together ideas for their second Bristol Short Story Course, starting in October. I’m also planning some flash fiction workshops for later in the year. This research and planning phase helps refresh my own approach to the process and craft of writing – even if I sometimes get my head stuck down an online rabbit hole about ideas like defamiliarisation or thematic patterning.
There are, I think, more oblique benefits to teaching. Writing is a solitary activity, but teaching is communal – it gives me an excuse to get away from my desk and geek out about literature with other writers.
How did you select stories for the collection?
In a sense, they selected themselves. I wasn’t looking to publish a flash fiction collection and had never written towards that aim. Then I was approached by the publisher to ask if I was interested in putting a collection together. It was only at this stage, of being made to reassess my stories, that I found the thread running through a good number of them.
My flash fiction output encompasses a seemingly random spectrum, from stories that are heavy on social realism through to pieces about sex robots, or melancholic talking orangutans, or a man shipwrecked on an island of plastic rubbish, after floating there in a contraband tumble drier.
What, I discovered, holds these disparate stories together is a concentration on the complexity and fragility of human relationships, that bone-deep need to connect and belong, and how that need brings both joy and pain.
How important do you think it is that a short story collection has an overriding theme?
The writer part of my brain doesn’t believe a single author collection has to have a theme. It flounces around saying things like ‘I write what I write’ or ‘It’s all about the energy of the language’.
The more commercial part of my brain presses the emergency alarm at this. It suggests that publishers and readers would quite like a theme, rather than just a big bag of lucky dip. The truth probably rests somewhere in the middle. A collection, in most cases, needs ‘something’ to give the book an identity, a common thread.
I often compare this to music compilations. A collection can be a kind of mix tape, a rattle bag of disparate songs that you love and that you want to share. There is opportunity to startle and change pace and tone every story. But a collection can also be a song playlist, where the connection could be thematic, or perhaps a stylistic or tonal bond, or the sense of an idea being explored.
Great short fiction writers, like David Means, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor (to name a few) can achieve a kind of holy trinity – they can create collections where each story feels distinct, yet are subtly linked by the strength of the authorial voice and the underlying themes that are present across all of their work.
You have had stories published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. What do you think engages readers the most in a work of fiction?
As readers are individuals, not a homogenous mass with the same emotional or critical responses, it would be tricky to pin it down to one thing. But if the aim is not just to engage but also stick with a reader (and who doesn’t want to write something that stays with a reader long term) then I’d suggest a few things are required.
Voice is crucial. I don’t just mean the authorial voice but the tone and style of a piece. Voice is the thing that gives flavour and distinctiveness.
Drama is equally important. All good fiction works on conflict and desire of some kind. It doesn’t have to be external, big-bang stuff, drama can be an inner uncertainty.
I also think, increasingly, that great works of fiction carry a kind of confidence. This is a difficult concept to describe, but it’s that feeling you get when you read the opening of a story or a book that you immediately feel in good hands. Think William Trevor or Anne Enright or particularly Alice Munro. They can start a story so very quietly, without fuss, but there is something compelling imbued in the text that says to the reader ‘I have a good story to tell you here, so you better pay attention’.
K.M. Elkes’ flash fiction collection, All That Is Between Us, is out now. He will be reading from the collection at Talking Tales on August 20. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/625538161208543/