Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Niamh Mac Cabe’s fiction piece, Crown, Whisper, Prophecy, Farewell, Repeat
Sommer: It feels as if there are about 100 pages packed into this marvelous flash. You have created so many elements to this story that hover like vapors between line end and white space, applying just enough pressure and influence on the story: a cat, a magpie, an expected phone text or call, a certain someone who must be behind that text or call, an anxious though admirably courageous and persistent narrator, a deep and palpable mood that hovers between depression and optimism, a very real sense of past, present, and future. This seems to allow the discerning reader to, in a sense, co-create the story with you, which is exhilarating and powerful. When crafting a flash story like this one, how do you manage all the narrative “vapors” of the story so that they don’t become too assertive in the story?
Niamh: ‘Hover like vapors between line end and white space’, what lovely phrasing! The simplest answer is they manage themselves, because they don’t have much to do except be there. The idea for the story centered around the persistent reconstruction of an apparently doomed house of cards; how that act can be perceived as being driven simultaneously by both blind faith and delusion, resilience and stubbornness, courage and cowardice. The static components (the magpie, the cat, the silent phone) suggested themselves after I wrote the card-house-building scene; the recursive storyline needed grounding elements that challenged the narrator’s focus. I considered Magpie, Cat, and Phone as simple, autonomous elements the reader could relate to more directly than the obsessional (optimistic?) narrator with all her complexities. They remain quietly grounded on the periphery of the story, closer to the reader than the character.
Pulling the focus of this story from where it should be to where it is seems to give the story an almost endless plot: is the narrator trying to mend a broken/distant relationship? trying to secure that job or fellowship or publication? hoping to come to terms with some aspect of self-realization? All of the above? Not knowing precisely gives the story a certain immortality—a sense that it lives on and on forever, “etcetera.” How do you go about crafting plot when writing a story of this length? Are you ever tempted to write too much into explanation or narration, and if so, how do you avoid that?
In Flash Fiction, there is no space for luxuriating in cosy explication, specificity, or diversion. This is a story of 352 words; every one of them needs to work towards the founding idea, they can’t afford to be specific. This allows for an openness in Flash not usually present in longer forms. When I’m crafting Flash, plot is the last thing on my mind! It starts with a static concept, and a miniature, autonomous world forms around that. If I find that the original idea wants to move through some kind of transition, that it’s not self-contained enough to stand on its own two Flash Feet, the piece gets extended into a short story. I start every piece of writing as a potential Flash, representing the idea as concisely as possible. Sometimes that’s enough to house the original concept, sometimes it’s not. It’s the hardest thing to get right!
The older I get, the more I see the influence of luck in people’s success. Right timing, right cards, etc. But, of course, persistence too. This story reminds me of our work as writers: constantly starting from scratch, trying again after each and every rejection. What keeps you going in this business? And where are you today: is it mainly luck or persistence?
I began writing in 2015 and from the start I expected rejection. It’s a normal part of life. I originally trained as a visual artist and am accustomed to working in a vacuum of sorts. Rejection is part of the process, almost a badge of honour! It means you’re working, persisting, trying to fail better. And when recognition occasionally comes, I see it as a lucky breakthrough. To survive, you need to ask yourself: do I believe in this work? And if you struggle to answer, then ask yourself: does my belief in this work necessitate the approval of others? Work made solely for approval is performative. I think to survive as any kind of artist you have to be driven by a certain wild self-belief that flies in the face of all logic. Plus, luck.
Who and/or what has been most influential on your writing? Do you ever lose inspiration, and if so, do you have any writers or routines or places that you tap into to reinspire?
There are so many brilliant writers, alive and dead (and the odd one neither)! I read new work online regularly, and am often deeply moved by writers I’ve never heard of, or writers who are published for the very first time. But I try to put distance between what I read and what I’m writing. I don’t want to replicate other writers (an impossible task), yet I’m always changed in some way after reading good work. I like to let what I’ve read sink down below the epidermis, let it percolate slow there, don’t bother it with questions. When I’m writing, I’m 100% focused, but I know that the ideas I’ve come across are somehow manifesting in ghostly ways on the page, or at least my interpretation of them are. I have no routine, every day is different. Some days I don’t write at all, other days I do nothing but.
Thank you so much for doing this with me, and congratulations!
I’m delighted to be here, thank you for having me.