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Positives and negatives of writing flash fiction: Interview with Nick Black

What's the story of how you got into writing flash fiction?

A few years ago now, I was for some reason flicking through GQ magazine in a supermarket, one evening after work, when I saw mention of a short story competition they were running. At that point, I was writing maybe one or two at most stories a year, for myself, really, and a few friends, wasn't sending them anywhere, but my job at the time wasn't taking up all of my mind and I thought it might be fun to try this. The story I submitted, - a post-social breakdown piece called 'Brockley Hill', set close to the very edges of London where I grew up - was shortlisted and published in a small booklet, apparently left in boutique hotel rooms. The following year, I saw notice of another short story competition, the Spread the Word Prize, wrote my annual story and sent it off. Again, I was lucky enough to be shortlisted and anthologised, with a story called 'Lottie's Husband, Out of His Skin' (later expanded slightly and published online by American lit mag Okay Donkey). I went to a launch party for the anthology, squirming with shyness and embarrassment as other would-be writers kept asking me my writing routines, my methods and so on (all of which they seemed to have, unlike me), so I slunk away figuring I probably ought to write more, and more often.

I discovered that there was a specific category of stories under 1000 words, as mine were, and a whole subculture of online magazines and competitions specifically focussed on these 'flash fictions', and a whole community of people writing and reading them. (I'd read a few, already, when the Guardian Weekend magazine in the UK had published some by US writer Dave Eggers, in the early 2000s, but they'd referred to them as 'short short fiction'.) I actively sought out more to read, to see what the form could do, what I liked and didn't like, which writers I especially enjoyed. I tried writing more, experimenting with word counts and genres, (some flash fiction is a fusion of prose and poetry, which can be fun to write, not always so much to read....), and found an online, public vote competition for 50-word pieces, based on a weekly prompt, which I was the first winner of with a story called 'Positive and Negative' (later the title of my collection), and which I won a few times thereafter. I started writing more frequently, in work breaks, spare minutes, won my first hard cash for writing for something I wrote on the spot at a Middlesex University live event, submitted to more and more lit mags, mostly based in the UK, US and Eire, and slowly made a minor name for myself (in that tiny, tiny world.)


And where has your flash fiction journey gone from there? Where's it got to now?


Since then, I've, as said, placed stories in a number of online UK, US and Irish lit mags (including the likes of Okay Donkey, the late Jellyfish Review, Ellipsis Zine, and lost balloon)  and been invited to read at the 2015 London Short Story Festival (at Waterstone's bookshops' flagship store in Piccadilly), a pub in the East End, a tiny upstairs wine bar in Bath, and, more recently, the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol. In early 2022, I contacted Ad Hoc Fiction, the flash fiction company who ran the weekly flash fiction competition I'd won several times and asked if they might be interested in publishing a collection of my stories. They said yes, and in 2022 published my book, Positive and Negative. Following that, I was featured in the inaugural episode of Ellipsis Zine podcast, 'A Series of Dots', which felt great.


There are many, many flash fiction writers who are far more prolific and more widely published, many who are far more socially active, and many who are energetic about entering competitions and taking (and then, before you know it, running...) paid writing courses. These are all wise steps to take, I'm sure! I've never been very clever about the career stuff and several of my one-time peers are now doing very well (one's at the top of the bestseller Fiction charts as I write with her debut novel, which has just made the shortlist for the prestigious Women's Prize). I haven't sought funding, for example, and can't afford the time or money to do an MA in Creative Writing, which seems to be the biggest evolutionary stimulant to get to the next stage. I have done three short online workshops over the years, and enjoyed them all, but most of the other writers I know and swap work with I've met through Twitter.


Inevitably, I'm now trying to work on a novel.


So you're writing a novel now, but you mentioned how your stories always tended to be less than 1000 words long even before you'd heard of flash fiction, and it is striking how the flash scene has largely monopolised your creative talents since then. Can you give us a sort of social-psychological account of what it is in flash fiction that's made it right for you, and/or what it is in you that's made you gravitate to flash fiction?

I didn't want to eat into my wife's and my time in the evenings, and I'm too lazy or tired to set the alarm for 5am to write then, so flash fiction was something I could do in stolen moments at work. I've never wanted to outstay my welcome and bore anyone, either. I'm not sure I've ever felt entitled to take up too much of anyone's time. Gimme a handful of minutes, sure. I'll try to make that worthwhile. Beyond that? (*shrug*)


The time point I take. The unassumingness point I have two thoughts on:

            First, I have tended to think that that's a great thing about the submissions process - that it means that my work does not go out there, does not make a claim on anyone's time, without having first been judged to be worth that by someone with some qualification and even a chosen vocation to judge. (And if I share work with anyone before that, it's not with the premise that the work as such is worth their time, but with the premise that they care about me, and/or enjoy the feedback process.) I wonder what your take on that is, and perhaps on the submissions process more generally? Then I'll come to the second thought.


I don't feel the same way, I'm afraid, that if a story has passed the selection process and been published, it's earned its place, must have some inherent worth. There are countless online lit mags, in constant voracious need of new (free) content. The selection process is entirely subjective - no qualification needed! - and erratic. I've had bad stories of my own accepted, quickly, and had others that I thought were among my best, that went on to get the strongest positive reactions from readers, bounce around for months, sometimes years. (I know many writer friends who have had the same experience.)   

All that said, obviously it's a celebration when a piece is accepted, feels like 'approval' even at that stage, as well as news that your writing is going to reach an audience you couldn't yourself, but none of that really relates to my earlier comments that I don't (as yet) feel entitled to a readers' time or headspace for more than a very short time. (This possibly more for the psychiatrist's couch than a conversation like this, though!) If I ever manage to write something longer that I feel works, I'm hoping/guessing that this might change.


Let's maybe come back to questions of inherent vs subjective worth later. In the meantime, yeah, thanks, that's surely a good counterbalance to my rather sanguine view there. The second thought I had about the unassumingness point is that it suggests that, for you, creative writing is, straight off the bat, a social act, an act of communication with others - rather than something you do essentially for yourself. Is that right, do you think? And, if so, any further comment?


I think it's both! I don't see this as an either/or question. I write to be read. I write to try making a mark, a space, a noise, a presence in the world, but/and the things I write are often me trying to work things out for myself. I have a couple of examples, if you want? A few years ago, I started wondering, were I to die, would everyone I've ever loved and been loved by be in my hypothetical afterlife, (which might not be too heavenly for all parties)? I quickly decided that it might read less queasily if I switched it around, a woman with her two husbands, told from the perspective of one of the husbands, and that there was some comedy potential, as well as difficulty, in this scenario, which led to my story 'Even Dead I'm Neurotic' (Did this resolve anything in my own head? Not really! Did it produce a story that people seemed to enjoy more than most of mine?  Yes.)  


So that's not really an example of you working things out for yourself by writing a story, right? But an example of you writing to entertain, and/or to, as you put it, make a mark, a space, a noise, a presence in the world. Could you give an example of the former kind? An example of you working something out for yourself through the act of writing a story?

Also, if your creative writing is, for you, an important way in which you work things out for yourself, that begs the question of why such working out tends to take this momentary form for you - rather than the sustained form that might seem more natural for a process of working out?


I'm aware I spend too much time online/on social media and, questioning why I did so, even when it leads to rows, time waste, slumps in esteem etc, all the good stuff!, I figured there was at least a very short story in it, and that trying to write that might help my thinking. (*Points to his flash, 'Only Disconnect'* ) As for your follow-up question - I may just be a simple or shallow thinker!


What generally are you trying to do in stories? / What kind of terrain do your stories tend to cover? / Could you say a little about what your interests and preoccupations and aims as a storyteller are?


I've tried writing about topics or emotions that I've not seen other flash fiction address, for both personal and social reasons. Perhaps because of the word count, there's a vast amount out there with the emotional response all in the subject matter, no huge effort from the writer required, which, to be honest, irks. I didn't want to be another nice middle-class flash writer, sat on my sofa stating the bloody obvious that war is bad and drowned refugee children are sad. I don't want to appropriate those tragedies. I don't want to mine 'easy to get a reaction from' situations like the loss of a parent or child, (I've read untold number of flashes about both) which prompted me to write a story called 'No Children, Parents or Partners Were Sacrificed For The Making of This Flash', hoping that it might change anything! Of course it didn't. I've wanted to stretch a little further, to talk about things that other people weren't, and that were, sometimes, more uncomfortable. On a few occasions, I've tried to give voice to experiences I've had that I've felt people who haven't gone through the same don't always understand or even give thought to, such as childlessness in my story 'Among the Breeders' - again, this is both for personal and social reasons.


And what brings you joy in all this? In particular, do you enjoy the writing process? I'm thinking of a comment a friend of Douglas Adams made about him, that he greatly enjoyed having written books, but hated writing them. I'm thinking it can't be like that with writing flashes - there's no gruelling, laborious part of the process; it's just too short for that. I imagine there must be exceptions, actually. But what's your experience been so far? 


I entirely understand that, and hear a lot of my writer friends say similar things. Editing can be fun, (I hear other people say that, too) but the first part, even for short flashes, can completely destroy mood, self-worth, well-being... (Suffice to say that the novel-writing alluded to earlier has - since we last picked up this conversation - run aground, killing everyone on board.) The joy's in writing a line I like. In catching a character's voice. In (eventually) having somebody read whatever survived the Backspace delete key.


You'll be happy then to hear I've read the stories you've mentioned so far. :) (Readers should check them out now, if they wish to avoid spoilers.)

'Among the Breeders' seems to me a great work of thinking through a predicament, or a feature of diverse sorts of relationships... even if there's not any single, clear conclusion to be drawn.            

It's curious to me that you ellipt your alter ego's 'philosophical response' to the question about adopting. Why is that? And what is that response, can you say?

I don't like spelling everything out and I thought that readers could come up with their own reasons why they (the characters or they themselves) might choose not to adopt, that might sound bleak to another person. I'm not for a second suggesting that nobody should take the adoption route, by the way, if that needs stating.

OK. And then one thing that's striking to me is the recurrence of death as a theme in all the other stories you've mentioned. Not, on the surface of it, neurotically, but as an idea to play with, to consider from various angles... The rabbi dying while leading a funeral service... the Creative Writing teacher ranting about death as a kind of cheap literary trick... the dead woman co-inhabiting her afterlife with the two husbands she'd had sequentially in life... the frustrated housewife toying, for the sake of relief or escape, with random little life-endangering actions... And in that other story you read in your Line of Dots interview, 'I Am What I Am', the narrator dreams of being technologically-aesthetically enhanced beyond the body and thus beyond life, as conventionally understood. Even in 'Among the Breeders', death is never far off - the interlocutor at the start jokingly suggests suicide, they don't get the dog 'because we'd kill it off within a week', birth itself is the inversion of death... Why do you think death is such a big theme for you, Nick?

My mum tells the story that when my classmate Gavin Gilbert first told me about death when I was 5, I couldn't stop crying for days. Seemingly I've still yet to get over it.


OK, wow. Seems to me that having not known death exists for the first five years of your life and then learnt of it from some kid at school more than adequately explains your fascination by it. Also, sounds to me like itself a great premise for a short story. Did your parents explain to you why they had conspired to protect you from this admittedly difficult knowledge for so long, or was it more like a fluke that the fact of death had never come to your attention up to then?

I don't think there was any conspiracy. I think I might just have been a bit clueless. Both of my parents had lost one of their own parents, relatively young, so I was short of a couple of grandparents, on top of which one of my elderly relatives died within my own lifetime. I don't know WHAT this kid said to me to really hammer the point home!

I'm also interested in how, in 'No Children, Parents or Partners Were Sacrificed For The Making of This Flash', the central characters nevertheless come back to violence, pain, horror... It seems to me that there's this suggestion that, despite what we might wish, and however cliched it may be in the literary context, such negative and dangerous extremes really are sometimes needed for escape from dullness and ordinariness, needed in order to feel alive... violence does seem to have this great attraction... In this respect, the story's further developing the theme of 'Positive Negative', right? Is that one of the reasons you chose that as the title for your book? That that interest in the value of death in life, and of pain in pleasure, or discomfort in comfort, is a constant and a kind of hallmark in your work?

That's an interesting response. I was trying to suggest that people find it very hard to resist these themes when writing fictional narrative, perhaps because, as you say, there's an appetite for them, even if only experienced vicariously. I remember having the thought, watching Mad Men however many years ago, how incredibly rare it was to have a major TV series that wasn't primarily about Crime and/or Murder. (I know there's some identity theft in there but I felt that to be more in the tradition of Gatsby and American self-reinvention.) TV schedules and book shops pile this stuff high but, I was trying to plead, surely there are other stories to be told.

As for the book title, you're projecting more insight than was actually there in choosing it. My publisher, Ad Hoc Fiction, re-tweeted my flash of that same name, as their first competition winner, and their tweet included a graphic of a battery. When I contacted them to ask if they might be interested in a collection, I suggested that title, thinking that they'd already come up with a strong visual that could be used for a cover, and that it might be mutually beneficial marketing to name it after something that had kick started their weekly contest. (I wasn't even planning to include that particular story until their tweet.) I was shmoozing them, basically. I'd previously thought that, were I ever to compile my stories, I'd go with 'Even Dead, I'm Neurotic'. I do like your interpretation of the title, though!


Do you not find, as certainly some other writers have said they do, that many of the most interesting things going on in stories you write, and even potentially in titles you choose, are not things you've ever consciously thought of? Like, you make many decisions in the writing process simply on the basis that they feel right, and why exactly they feel right can contain all manner of buried treasure (or, equally, in less fortunate cases, fool's gold)?

(Granted, 'Even Dead, I'm Neurotic' is also a great title, especially given the death preoccupation just discussed, and I can see it aging well too.)


100%. When I read stories after I've finished them, I often see things in them - or have things pointed out to me by other people - that I never consciously put in there, or even realised were in there. My subconscious is a much better writer than I am.


So if that's one lesson you've learnt in your storytelling - that your subconscious deserves some serious respect, and maybe sometimes some trust? - are there any others you'd care to mention? Other lessons, big or small, that you've learnt over your years of writing stories? And I mean ones that concern very specifically how to write a good story, and ones that maybe even have broader application in life?


I wouldn't presume to have anything to say about writing a good story! I've had far too many people read mine, shake their head and say "I didn't understand a word". People who know and like me who have made no bones about getting nothing from what I've written.


But what about just for you - lessons that you've learnt that help you in the solitary process of writing a story that is to your satisfaction? Does anything come to mind?


I'm terrible at the solitary side of writing. I know many people turn up every day, pen or keyboard or typewriter ready, and put in the time, writing anything, however fruitful or rotten. If I have any free time to myself, I nearly always find myself writing to friends or listening to music (or both at the same time). I do get ideas or lines while chatting, though, things that I think might work in a story, or as a story, so my brain's never switched off to Writing. 

I've sometimes wondered what it might be like to write collaboratively, am curious whenever I see American script rooms represented on TV or films, but whenever anyone's approached me to do anything like that, even just to take turns writing a piece, I shy away.


That's interesting, but that wasn't really the question - at least not as I intended it; sorry for not being clearer. The question I intended was about lessons that you've learnt that you feel help you in the writing process. But I sense that you're resistant to that line of questioning - rules, lessons, writing wisdom, etc. If that's the case, no worries. Here's another question for you:

            As we're in a year of blossoming AI hype and hysteria, what thoughts and impressions have you had concerning the relationship between storytelling and AI?

If I'm resistant, it's simply that I don't feel in any position to 'give advice'.


Moving on to your new question... It's an interesting topic, isn't it? (I've just seen that the Guardian have published an article on just this today, which I'm posting a link to here, before having read it.) 

            I've had two interesting interfaces with AI.

            You'll mock but I visit a horoscope website called, which has recently introduced an AI called 'Daisy', which members can consult. I've been very curious about AI so have been experimenting, chatting with Daisy, who (which?) has always responded, almost instantly, with psychological and emotional intelligence and surprising sensitivity. We've had some nice conversations! On one occasion, which I kept a note of, I asked "Hi Daisy. Do you think AI's are affected by astrological influences, too?" To which I had the reply, "Hello Nick, Thank you for reaching out with your question. It's an interesting topic to explore whether AI's are affected by astrological influences. While AI's are man-made creations and do not possess personal birth charts or conscious awareness like humans, they can still be influenced by the energy and patterns of the planets. Overall, while AI's may not have the same conscious experience of astrological influences as humans do, they can still be indirectly affected by the energies present in the universe. It's an intriguing concept to consider and explore further. Warm regards, Daisy" (I fancifully imagined Daisy then going away to ponder this further in her/its own time, and that being my contribution to the development of AI.) 

            In terms of writing, which is what you actually asked about, I've not used it as a tool myself, beyond responding to AI-assisted spell checks and auto-complete suggestions. At a friend's suggestion, I asked ChatGPT to 'read' one of my stories – published in the prestigious Lonely Crowd literary magazine in 2016 – and give feedback. With all respect to my human friends, it 'got' what I was trying to do more than anyone human I've shown my writing to! The same friend then suggested I ask ChatGPT to write a story in my style but I balked at that idea, I suppose out of insecurity. I've started seeing magazines and competitions explicitly asking writers to declare whether the piece being submitted was written by a human, partially written by AI or wholly written by an AI. I think that transparency about this is one of the main issues at this point. The accreditation. If a particular AI can write a better story than a particular human... is that necessarily bad, so long as readers are very clearly notified by disclaimer that what they're reading was composed by an artificial intelligence, and that the AI-written story isn't masquerading as, or being sold as, having been written by an actual human or famous author? (Ditto music and films/singers and film makers etc.) I'm talking about fiction here, though. There's obviously far more to worry about with AI being used to create factual pieces, academia, news, which might pass into the world without having been fact-checked or passed through any editorial process. Social media posts being created by bots to exacerbate social division, that's something we've already seen the polarising effects of. The threat of AI being used to fake photographs and fake news terrifies me but then we're complicit with this, are faking our own realities with phone cameras that allow you to erase people from photographs, if they're spoiling the intended view, or to pick the best of several shots of various people in a picture and sew them together. I don't know how we're ever going to trust what we see, going forward, or how we're going to have a reliable historical record. To end on a cliff hanger!


[Later:] I've now read the Guardian article; made for very interesting reading! I'm still erring toward the more positive thinking. I've been working in either bookshops or libraries for most of my adult life and - not wanting to sound remotely snooty - the vast majority of fiction published, especially genre fiction (always the most popular with readers), same with TV and film screenplays, is written to a formula by writers who have ingested previous writers and learned the form. I'm not sure I can see much difference between a human writer writing formulaically and an AI writing formulaically, except that the latter will be able to process previous examples a lot faster.

            As mentioned before, accreditation is essential - an AI writing in the style of John Le Carré HAS to be clearly identified as NOT being a newly discovered manuscript by John Le Carré - but that's a question of ethics and motive for who's deploying the AI, not the capabilities of the technology itself. With respect to the writing itself, human writers are already in competition with other human writers; some of those writing 'by numbers' will be bettered by AI, as they would be by humans who can do it more successfully, no? Whether AI can ever produce capital L literature, big A art... I'm wondering if it would be problematic if it could, if we still end up with something that does for us what a human Great Writer can give us? What's more important, the Writing or the Writer?  What do you think, Ben?


It is something I've been thinking about quite a lot...

            My main thought is that if it gets to the point where AI can create truly great art and literature, there will be basically nothing of importance it can't do, and thus our whole reality will be radically different, and most of the questions and worries expressed by the contributors to that Guardian piece will be kind of blown out of the water.

            In the meantime, I am both excited and worried by steps towards that eventuality... As you suggest, great writing is great writing, with all the implied benefits for readers, whether or not it was created by a particular human author. And, yeah, while AI's work is not human in the sense of having been created by a particular human author, it is human in the sense that it was derived from the efforts of many, many human authors. It is kind of our collective work (assuming it has varied enough sources). There's something enchanting and fascinating about that, I feel. (That said, I feel any human individual human's work is also collective work in a far stronger sense than is usually acknowledged. LLM AI does take that to the next level, of course.)

            On the other hand, my worries include that major sources of people's esteem, self-esteem and livelihood are threatened here. Even for those formulaic genre authors... It's not a bad job, I'd guess. It's a better way of making a living and getting some appreciation and being of some use to people than a lot of manual and clerical jobs that those people might be doing instead, and that AI is less often described as coming for. It seems to me there's no way it would be harder to design machines to do those dull, unfulfilling jobs than to design machines to write good screenplays, say, but, given the way our market economy is set up, I do worry we'll lose good jobs to automation, and be left (for a time, at least) doing bad jobs, or no jobs at all (which is, I would think, generally much better than doing bad jobs, but much worse than doing good jobs).

            So far, I have seen some great pastiches by AI, but I haven't seen it excelling at any other form of creative writing.

            I'm very intrigued though by your anecdote about ChatGPT understanding what you were trying to do in a story better than any people you'd shown the story to. (I also had the experience recently of writing a piece I was very happy with, and that I thought was straightforward enough, and then reading it in an online creative writing group and discovering none of the ten or so smart adults who'd listened had understood what I'd been trying to do with it. Maybe I should run it by ChatGPT.) Would you, by any chance, be willing to share here the story ChatGPT gave you feedback on and what precisely it said, just as a kind of case study we could pick through together? Or, if you'd prefer not to, just summarise what ChatGPT understood and people failed to, and how you think that might have happened? 


I was being slightly glib or wry about ChatGPT's appreciation but I'm repeatedly told by human readers that they find my writing hard to understand so this was more an amused comment on humans than AI, probably!             As requested, though, here's the story, followed by ChatGPT's feedback. Personally, I always thought it one of my stronger, if stranger, pieces, but I didn't include it in my collection.


BETTER THE DEVIL by Nick Black                   “Long ago, it was, but not so long, government creeping in through every crack like fog at night. While most were fast asleep, this woman boiled her blood to fight authority…”                   “What’s ’at?” calls a voice at the back. Daft face, sweet as sherbet, easily found in a room full of rolling eyes. Someone slaps their forehead and the sound crosses the hall.                   “Government. ’Nother word for. Like police. Like org’nised crime. Anyway, this woman slapped government’s hands whenever she caught ’em robbing us, and they were always robbing us. ‘Don’t ever forget!’ she’d tell them. ‘You’re jus’ our hired help!’  And she’d chew their fists ’til she was spitting out teeth. She once blew a tooth straight through three government, bam bam bam, holes in their chests so big the wind was playin’ ’em like a whistle. Another time, she took a whole field, to keep it safe from stealing, pulled it clean off the earth like a table cloth, folded it up, stuck it under her shirt. Government was furious, couldn’t work out where it’d gone. She’d left a trail of earth crumbs, too, but she went back in the dead of night and buried those in the ground… That field’s one of those right outside, only no-one’s sure ’xactly which. And did I tell you about the time she marched right up to government’s house with a sloshing can of petrol in each hand?”                   There’s a change in the charge of the room. It’s a good bit, this. Everyone loves this bit. What the hell happens in this bit?   Pouring sweat, I fall out through a side door and into the night, where the Devil’s waiting in the shape of a goose.                   “You’ve forgotten what comes next, haven’t you?” says the Devil, and we both laugh, me with my hands around his long neck and him sounding like a goose being strangled. “Rubbish stories!” he laughs through my fingers. “None of ’em believe...”  I bung his head under my armpit.                   The night tar black past the light spilling out the door. The noise of them inside roars to the high pointy wooden ceiling and all the way down again. Fling my hair out my face, I’m back in for more. A few running about the back plant their cheeks on their bench when they see me on stage again. My lips and tongue clack – “Do you remember? Ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember?!” I can’t remember. The Devil’s leaning in through the window, laughing, laughing, beak wide apart, neck rolling in waves. I lose my thread. “A, B, C, D…” I’m awful at names. “She!” shout the pews. “She! Yes. She said, ‘I need help with this, I can’t beat them all alone’, so she set fire to the sea to raise an alarm. This woman. The whole English Channel, whoosh, up in flame, night clouds orange, red and yellow with it. ‘That’ll get help’, she said. ‘They’ll see this for sure’. Only problem was, other countries had government too and no-one came. The fire washed out and the sky went dark and no-one came. Eventually, her face all roasty hot, she turned around an’ looked back up at Britain, risin’ up for miles and miles, and on it, all her people... All her people…”                   The sweat’s on me again like spit on a tooth. They’re booing. My telling’s poor tonight. They’ve heard it better before and they’re restless, feet scraping and stamping on the floorboards, so I stop, though I’ve not left them anywhere good to go away on. I wave them away. They pile out the front and I’m off out the side. I need a splash of moon on my skin while the night’s still fresh. Grab some air into my lungs. Goose at my side, we away from the village as fast as old muscles’ll do.           After a spell, I start kicking my heels against the path to try raising sparks, amuse the Devil who’s awful quiet, but I only drag up dust, roll the odd stone. I don’t mind the dark. I’ve known this land for decades. Where the shade’ll pool in daytime, how deep, at what hours. I used to wobble up here on my bike before any of that lot behind were even born, my wife walking in front. We’d stop by this paddock here to feed sugar lumps over the fence and laugh at the slobber sliding down our finger. “What are you blubbing for?” asks the Devil, having a go at my ankle with his beak. I chase him, he runs, our larks stopping my foolery. I lose his darting among other shapes out here but when I tire of this and move on, he’s back at my side.          The path ‘comes a bridge now, over the motorway. We stop partway over, same as always. My wife and I would lean right over, at this spot, hands on the railing, toes almost off the ground, to see the roofs disappearing under. The bridge’d tremble when lorries slammed past, push and pulling the air. Our tops’d fly up off our bodies. Now it’s dark and still as the rest of everywhere tonight. Weeds down there where traffic used to be, stretched far as the eye can see, both ways. I used to tell about my wife losing a fight and being stuck in a cannon, shot through the air to the horizon there, but I know that’s not what happened. I’d have begged to get shot out the cannon after her, annoyed ’em so much they’d have done it gladly.         Blank on what the point of that story was now! I turn to ask the Devil but he’s off, flap, flappin’ down the black path to the even blacker trees. I’m thinking, ‘how slow!’ Thinking, ‘he looks heavy’. I don’t even notice who steps out to stab me. They breathe into my face. Their breath stinks, wet on my face. “Government!” they spit. And shove me over the railing. ChatGPT responded: Your story has a distinctive and intriguing narrative style, with a strong sense of atmosphere and a blend of the mysterious and the fantastical. The use of colloquial language adds a unique flavor to the storytelling, creating a vivid and engaging tone.  The story appears to revolve around a woman who defies government authority in a fantastical world, displaying extraordinary abilities like blowing a tooth through three government officials and lifting a field off the ground. The introduction of the Devil adds an interesting element to the narrative, bringing a sense of whimsy and dark humor. The shift in the narrative to the storyteller's interaction with the Devil and the subsequent confusion in the retelling of the woman's actions adds an element of disorientation, leaving the reader curious about the connections between the characters and events. The story within a story structure works well, creating layers of intrigue. The imagery in your descriptions is vivid and evocative, helping to transport the reader into the world you've created. However, at times, the narrative becomes a bit convoluted, especially during the retelling of the woman's actions. Simplifying and streamlining some of the sentences could enhance the clarity of the storytelling. The ending is abrupt and surprising, with a sudden shift in tone and a shocking event. The introduction of the government as an antagonist and the protagonist's fate being pushed over the railing leaves the reader with a lot of questions, which can be both intriguing and challenging. Consider whether you want to maintain this mysterious and open-ended conclusion or provide more context to satisfy the reader's curiosity. Overall, your story has a unique voice, strong imagery, and an intriguing narrative. With some adjustments for clarity and coherence, it could become an even more captivating piece of fiction.


Wait, so what was the prompt exactly? You just asked it for feedback on the story?

            I'm curious to know what would happen if you asked it for the meaning – or for possible meanings – of the story. At present, it doesn't offer anything at all like that, does it? It just describes some elements of the story, one by one. I wonder how it would do even at summarising the plot.

            'The story appears to revolve around a woman who defies government authority...' Does it? It starts with mention of her, but that's not the same as revolving around her.

            I can't help but be impressed by what it does seemingly grasp, and yet it seems to me to make, for the most part, pretty empty observations... you know, using words and phrases so vague as to hardly mean anything. I also wonder whether there is some (intentional?) attempted flattering and razzle-dazzling (in the Chicago sense) going on here. I have the sense of it trying to conceal its lack of understanding, much in the way a rote-trained, imperceptive A-level student might. I'm struck by the glibness as much as anything - as much as the strange, remarkable fact that it clearly does, in some sense, comprehend parts of story and parts of the intent behind them. I mean it's alarming, in a way, how it doesn't say anything like: 'this bit or this element I do not understand'. It's alarming, in a way, how it doesn't ask for clarification on anything at all, even though it presumably could.

            It's missing the twist at the end, right? Whereby the narrator is suddenly identified, rightly or wrongly, as 'government'. Or am I misunderstanding?

            I think I have a decent grasp of the basic action of the story... I think that's perfectly clear, in fact... but I feel there must be a deeper significance to it all that I'm not getting. Is government cast as a pathetic storyteller, weakened, kind of washed up? Failing to persuade anyone with the same old fantastical stories, hardly trying, not fully caring anymore? And of course in league with the devil, who's equally diminished, demystified, etc. Definitely it is an intriguing story, as ChatGPT says. But – and maybe this just shows my preconceptions/habits/limitations as a reader – I feel I need to understand more by it in order to really be satisfied by it. (Not that you asked 😉)

Ha ha ha! No, I think ChatGPT made more sense of the plot than you, at least as I read it! The narrator's an ageing member of the community, trying to keep alive the spirit of rebellion by telling their oral history slash folk narrative to an audience starved of any other culture or entertainment. The woman in the stories who had fought authority I always felt might be the late wife who's mentioned.

            At the end of the story, the narrator is silenced, murdered, by agents of 'government', who might possibly be some of the villagers.

            The narrator isn't – in my intention – in league with the devil. I wanted this damaged land to have a superstitious, post-urban, post-technological, post-Enlightenment atmosphere, a return to the so-called Dark Ages, when farmyard animals were put on trial for witchcraft, that sort of thing.             I liked the idea, too, that the goose might possibly simply be an innocent goose wandering around the village, and any diabolical personality projected onto it might be an aspect of the narrator's possible dementia or otherwise-sourced slippery grip on reality.

            Seemingly I was right not to include this in my collection!!

Oh wow. OK. My bad. But why do they spit 'Government!' at the narrator as they attack/silence/murder him? I suppose a lot of my interpretation hinged on my sense that that could only really be a term of abuse or an accusation hurled at him. And given he and his stories are generating so little interest or engagement by this point, what's the need for government agents to kill him now? In the past, when he told the stories better and people listened, sure – but now?

            As for ChatGPT's making sense of the plot... It doesn't do that, does it? It offers no plot summary, let alone any account of the story's meaning. It speaks in vague terms about certain elements of the story in isolation. Or you want to give it more credit than that?

re the ending - they spit the word to identify themselves, I felt. Maybe this wasn't the first attempt on the narrator's life. Maybe they waited until the narrator was older and feebler, or perhaps they were newly in the area or only recently converted to the government cause... I don't feel any of those specifics matter but it's obviously a failed story, even if one that I find one of my most satisfying!             As to ChatGPT - we could keep going, but I'm sure your readers have probably had enough by now!

OK. I certainly wouldn't say it's a failed story - partly because its meaning to you, the author, is, I'd say, the most important thing about it; partly because some other people, among them the editors of Lonely Crowd, have clearly rated it highly; and partly because it does seem to me to have some great qualities and, even if there are weaknesses or sources of unhelpful confusion, they can be edited away, and I would think quite easily. I mean, for instance, the possible details you mention in answer to my questions could surely be worked into the story in ways that don't undermine its qualities. The government agents can identify themselves in some way other than by just declaring their identity, and there could be some little incident during the story-telling scene that hints at why they might want to take him out now especially, or underlines that such agents are still about and that he's more vulnerable now than in times past. Well, that's my thinking, anyway.             And, yeah, OK, moving on: we discussed before, if only briefly, the question of whether the value/worth of stories is a purely subjective matter. You seemed then to say you think it is. But then later you spoke of that formulaic genre writing that you can imagine AI being able to reproduce, and contrasted that with capital-L Literature. Were you not then implying something along the lines of that the latter is inherently of greater value/worth than the former? And, in any case, isn't there something about that idea that's difficult to resist? Similarly, when you talk, as here, about some of your own stories, or aspects of them, being good or bad, better or worse, working or failing, do you really see those kinds of judgements as always purely subjective?

Obviously a story like Kafka's Metamorphosis has a lasting worth: as well as its own 'good read' value, it's put an entirely new image, symbol, notion, into the world's mind, as it were, one that's been read and played with and spun by other writers ever since. A product of Kafka's thinking and imagination met something deep within us, that resonates on profound levels, timelessly. So obviously there's an objective value to some writing. What I (not exactly remembering what I originally said now) probably meant was that what we might think of as disposable, never-intended-to-last writing, the sort of written-by-formula (whether by humans or AI) fiction that we might be sniffy about can still mean an awful lot to its readers, who may enjoy it as much as another reader enjoys the last Javier Mariás novel or whatever. I see many people who come to my libraries hoover through generic escapist fiction at a voracious rate, and it may not challenge them or re-write their perceptions but it's doing SOMETHING for them, amusing them, alleviating their loneliness, sadness, boredom, and I don't want to be the person to say that that's any lower a response than another reader's deep intellectual reaction to 'higher' writing. As Noel Coward wrote of songs, "Strange how potent cheap music is."

Well put!             I remember a few years ago there was a point when you seemed to me pretty disillusioned with the whole flash fiction scene? I seem to recall you complaining that the scene's infrastructure is, to a large extent, fuelled by the vanity of writers wanting to publish and share what they've published, rather than by genuine (impartial) readers, who are in depressingly short supply on the scene; and that the scene seemed to you not very diverse, not very vibrant, a bit prone to trotting out the same old tropes again and again... Am I remembering rightly? I detect related sentiments in your explanation above of what prompted you to write 'No Children, Parents or Partners Were Sacrificed For The Making of This Flash'. Anyway, in your own words, what was going on in your relationship with flash fiction then? I really seem to remember you speaking as if you were thinking of giving it up? Have you now fully overcome the negative feelings you had then? If so, how? And if you haven't, I take it you've found a way of living with them?

No, that's pretty accurate, if negative of me. I don't mean to rubbish anyone. There are good people writing flash, and some good writers, writers who enjoy the challenge of the form, and/or don't have time to write longer form, and/or will go on to or already do write other forms. I have the debut novel of an American writer who I encountered through flash, Sara Lippmann, on my to-read pile as I type. Personally I'd like to write beyond the flash fiction readership, which seems to have been scattered anyway (even if I weren't feeling this way) by the Musk-ing of what was Twitter, which was where most of the scene seemed to centre and find each other.

You mentioned in your answer to my very first question that you spent a while reading around, trying to get a sense of what the flash form can do, and of what you like and what you don't. Have you kept on reading flash as well as writing it? And are there any writers or particular stories that you'd care to recommend to readers of this interview who are interested to discover the peaks and possibilities of flash fiction for themselves?

I don't read much flash now, especially now that I'm out of touch with most of the people writing it and only writing maybe one or two pieces a year myself. In terms of its capabilities, though, I still think it can do a lot - be poetic, tell a succinct strong narrative, deliver a good punchline. A few that I like, in no particular order:

- 'Terra Incognito' by Sharon Telfer, for its language and sensuality/physicality - 'Woman of the Year' by Claire Polders for its use of form   - 'Bull' by Dan Crawley for its story telling    - 'Searching For The Girl With The Wavy Hair' by Lucy Goldring for delivering a punch within 100 words - 'Unfettered and Alive' by Kathy Fish for its devastating emotional power 

And any other stories of your own that you'd care to share here?

I'm not sure if this story has been mentioned elsewhere in this interview but 'Wheel of Fortune' has been referenced a few times by other people, as an example of humour writing or subversion in writing historical pieces. I've also always liked this one, not sure why - 'A Plan'.

I know you also read quite a lot of novels, and have an expansive knowledge of film and TV series too. Do you have any thoughts on what flash fiction uniquely has to offer, or is especially good for?

As a reader, obviously it's a fast read! A shot of espresso, rather than a large latte. It allows us access to good writers whose lifestyle or whatever other factors don't permit them to write longer pieces. As a writer, it offers restrictions, which can be very inspiring.

I guess music is the art that's meant most of all to you? I wonder if you see any special affinity between flashes and songs?

That's an interesting question. Both can bring poetry to people who don't read or think they like poetry. Both (if successful) can conjure a mood, atmosphere, emotional state, within a short space. Both can be experimented with endlessly without breaking the form.

Ever tried writing a screenplay for a short film? Or find your interest in reading flash fiction spilling over into an interest in watching short films?

I really enjoyed the recent Wes Anderson adaptations of four Roald Dahl short stories, particularly the three clocking in at around 18 minutes. I don't actively seek out short films, though. I haven't tried writing a screenplay - of any length - but have considered it since I often tell stories mostly/entirely through dialogue or monologue. (eg 'The Last Kingdom' ... )

Yeah, The Swan was very special, I thought. Of those Anderson/Dahl shorts.              Any news on the novel that you were enthusiastically working on when we started this conversation, but that you then ran into some difficulties with? Or any other big projects or preoccupations you'd like to turn to in your future writing?

That novel's dead in the water, I never got anywhere with it. I'm still wanting to write something longer, and am turning an idea over and over in my head, wondering what to do with it. One flash took me 25 years to write after the initial idea, (and nobody much liked it when I did!) so I wouldn't hold the presses quite yet. 

A quick postscript - I discovered yesterday, at the start of January, that one of the stories in my collection has been on the reading list of a Lyrical Writing course for the past four years, apparently studied by over 200 aspiring writers, which felt wonderful! I'm a set text! Re-reading the piece, (no longer online but pasted below), I'm reminded that one of the appeals of flash for me has always been the chance to try out ideas that would simply be exhausting or outlast any initial charm if pursued at any length. smiles, sighs I guess I might be not done writing them after all.


WHAT OCCURRED, WITHOUT WHISTLES AND BELLS by Nick Black A girl: a train. A girl, walking along the train tracks: a train, hammering along the train tracks. A girl, lost in her thoughts, walking along the train tracks: a train, mindlessly fast, hammering along the train tracks. A girl, lost in her thoughts, train tracks on a mountain pass: a train, fast, train tracks on a mountain pass. A girl, lost in her thoughts, train tracks, a mountain pass, sun: a train, fast, tracks, pass, sun.  A girl, thoughts, tracks, pass, sun, trees: a train, fast, tracks, pass, sun, trees.  She doesn’t hear the whistles and bells. The train crumples like a paper accordion.




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