Find out in this interview with Marissa Hoffmann, how her prize winning story ‘The Pencil Drawn Girl’ came into being, learn what she likes about writing short fiction and who her favourite short story writers are and get some great advice for writing a short story for a competition. Her winning story is the first one in our 2020 anthology, available from adhocfiction and Amazon in both paperback and digital versions.
Marissa Hoffmann’s fiction won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2019 and her stories have been variously podium-placed or listed in international competitions such as Mslexia, FlashBack Fiction, Fish, Flash Frontier’s Micro Madness and Reflex. Her flash stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, BIFFY 50 and Best Micro Fiction and one of her stories appears on the US Wigleaf Top 50 2020 long list. Read more about Marissa on www.marissahoffmann.com. She is currently working on her first novel. You can follow Marissa @Hoffmannwriter.
Interview with Marissa by BSSA team member, Alison Woodhouse.
- Firstly, congratulations again on winning first prize with your wonderful story ‘The Pencil Drawn Girl’. I was particularly struck by the evocative, physical details that really ground us in the location (this was something our judge was particularly impressed by too). Is this where a story starts for you? Or are you more character driven? I’d be interested to know more about how the story came into being.
Thank you again, Alison. It was a huge surprise and honour to win, and a bright spark in an otherwise dark year. The story began from a brilliant prompt on a list set by @TomVowler during his wonderful short story course back in 2018. I think the prompt was along the lines of “two women cooking in low light.” I immediately had questions; why are they cooking in low light? Who are they? Where are they? How do they feel about food? What do they want? These questions led me to feel the characters were a mother and daughter in a culture where preparing good food is a way of showing love. Many years ago, I wrote a dissertation about food and motherhood in literature, and it’s always been something I’ve remained interested in. There are emotions mixed up in feeding and being fed. And that element of low light directed me towards shame and blame, and I instantly felt a sense of tension building. Then I went google-traveling for locations, and an annual food festival seemed the perfect locale. Very often a particular word or phrase clinches the deal for me, and when I found the word ‘milkfish’, I had my story. The details of the setting are pulled from a combination of watching travel and cooking videos, reading newspaper articles and sensual elements drawn from the two years I spent living in Vietnam (though this story is set in the Philippines).
- What do you most enjoy about writing short stories? Do you have any favourite short stories and/or short story writers?
I love the escapism of writing, the exploration. It quiets my mind. I can be myself on the page and communicate my thoughts at the speed I need in order to help me ‘say’ better. I’m new to writing short stories, this was the first I’ve published, I’ve been writing flash fiction until now. I can’t choose a single favourite story, but timeless stories like ‘The Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver, or ‘The Geranium’ by Flannery O’Conner, and ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson have buried something to hunt for in me — oh and everything written by George Saunders. I’d also have to say writers such as William Trevor, Lydia Davis, Miranda July, Carys Davies, Hiromi Kawakami and James Baldwin, make me gasp. I love ‘Dance’ by Sherrie Flick, and recently found ‘Stand Your Skin’ by Colin Barrett, and all of Kevin Barry’s stories are great. Sorry, I’m terrible with menus too, I can never decide on just one dish
- What advice do you have for anyone thinking of entering the competition?
Write something that gives you goose bumps when you read it. Let it rest sufficiently, give it time away from you—months preferably—so that you can see it more critically, from a craft point of view. Distance allows me to see new things, and I’d say don’t be afraid to experiment. This story took two years of editing, it has been shorter and longer, entirely in the past tense and now mostly in the present, it had two competing main characters then one clear voice, it was in third person and now in first, it struggled with how much back story it required and how that interrupted forward momentum. For much of the editing time, I was too focused at the word and sentence level—but it was the structural changes that made the difference, and it was the investigation of all its possibilities that helped me see that.
- Finally, I hope we will all have the pleasure of reading more of your work! What are your writing hopes/ambitions?
- I have so many hopes and ambitions for the short and medium term, all of which boil down to continuing to develop a deeper understanding of other writers’ work and allowing myself to write initially messy and then give myself the time I need for a story to find me. I’d absolutely love to find a mentor to chat through ideas about the noisy novel characters banging at the left side of my head with. In between, I’m generating a trickle of short stories and flash to perhap form a collection at some point. Oh, and while, I’m manifesting, I’m also giving myself permission to play with writing a bit of poetry this year