“Wary of backstory”: Claire Hennessy in conversation with Laura Perrem

Photo copyright Marianna Santikou

Photo copyright Marianna Santikou

I sometimes feel all writers should take a turn going through a submissions pile. It makes you so conscious of how to grab a reader’s attention and how to avoid clichéd openings or endings.

The Long Story, Short Journal is proud to present a new interview series which is the initiative of the journal’s Publicity Manager, Laura Perrem. First up is a conversation with Claire Hennessy, the author of October 2015’s story ‘Small Rebellions’.

Laura Perrem: What are you working on at the moment?

Claire Hennessy: I’m working on two ‘big’ projects right now: revisions on a young adult novel and putting together a collection of short stories. I’m also trying to write a couple of personal essays – short things that are finishable within a shorter time frame, basically.

LP: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

CH: There’s honestly no such thing as a typical writing day. Part of me would love to be one of those people who could get up and go for a lovely walk and then sit at the desk for several hours, perhaps stopping to light candles or meditate or whatever. But I think I’d probably end up putting a lot of things in alphabetical order and not actually getting much work done. I write in between other work commitments (I co-run a creative writing school, teach workshops there and elsewhere, and also do some editorial work), and sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a couple of mornings a week to slot in writing (or revising). There’s usually quite a lot of tea, too.

LP: What would you identify as your influences?

CH: I find it really tricky to identify influences – I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so there wasn’t one book or author or ‘literary movement’ that made me decide I was going to Be A Writer. I suppose I’m definitely conscious of Irish women’s writing of the last 15 years especially – both ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ (my three big favourites are Marian Keyes, Emma Donoghue and Anne Enright) – and American YA fiction.

LP: The first issue of Banshee has just been released, how do you feel that being an active writer affects your input as an editor?

CH: I think it makes you both more critical and more sympathetic, depending on the day. More critical because you know what early-draft stories look like, where a writer hasn’t quite pushed themselves to the next stage (as opposed to a ‘ah sure you’re great for finishing something!’ mentality), and more sympathetic because you know how much work people put into their writing and that sinking feeling you get when an email pings into your inbox with a ‘no thank you’ response.

It impacts more the other way around, though – I sometimes feel all writers should take a turn going through a submissions pile. It makes you so conscious of how to grab a reader’s attention and how to avoid clichéd openings or endings.

LP: You write both short stories and flash fiction. Could you speak a little about your feelings on the specific merits of these individual practices for you as a writer?

CH: Flash fiction is intense and precise. It’s like poetry. It’s easier to try out new things – either content wise or stylistically – in flash. It’s a quick punch and it’s done. Short stories are really hard. They’re miniature worlds and everything matters and you need an awful lot in there, but not too much. It’s such a tricky balancing act. But it’s very satisfying to whip one into shape. You’ve made a thing. That’s a pleasing accomplishment.

LP: When you sit down to write a story, do you sit with a clear map of where your characters are going to go, or do you start at a point and see where it takes you?

CH: It really depends. With ‘Small Rebellions I knew exactly where the end-point was – I think endings are important and I usually have a clear sense of what they need to be at an early stage. You’re always working towards an ending.

LP: Being an Irish person reading ‘Small Rebellions’, I found a familiarity in the use of language that really hit home, especially in the dialogue. Do you consider the ‘Irishness’ of your language as you’re writing or in the editing stages?

CH: I don’t ‘consider’ it but it definitely creeps in there. I’m probably more confident about the Irishness of my work than I used to be – it can feel a bit parochial to capture a particular dialect but on the other hand, all of our characters can’t be earnest Brooklyn hipsters.

LP: ‘In Small Rebellions’, the information that we receive about the characters, especially Lucy, is very much contained to what is happening within the time-frame of the story. Is this a conscious effort re backstory that you made when writing? 

CH: Being wary of backstory is probably one of those things that comes from having an editor-eye on other people’s work. I think it’s a really common thing to see too much backstory, especially on the first page or two of a story, and it always raises the question of, well, if all this interesting stuff happened to the character before this story begins, why are we starting it here? The question of ‘when to start’ is an important one. And then the background information needs to be relevant to what’s happening ‘now’ – so, for ‘Small Rebellions’, it felt like we definitely needed a sense of Conor in his element, to help contextualise their relationship. I think most other things can be implied.

A note from Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Matthews: Thank you to Claire and Laura for what will be the first in a fantastic series of interviews. Writers who are interested in contributing work to Long Story, Short Journal should note that the submissions period ends 31 October 2015. Guidelines here.


Claire Hennessy is a writer, creative writing facilitator, and editor based in Dublin. She is the author of several novels for young adults and children, and is currently working on a collection of short fiction for adults, supported by an Arts Council bursary. She can be found online at www.clairehennessy.com or on Twitter (@clairehennessy).

laura perrem photo

Laura Perrem is a Fine Art graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. She practices in both visual and written media. Her written practice includes poetry, short stories and art criticism. She has had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages and is working towards her first collection of poetry.

The featured photo from the October 2015 issue of Long Story, Short Journal is by Marianna Santikou. Marianna Santikou is a 19-year old photographer, living in the suburbs of Athens, Greece. Her interest in photography began in 2009, when she started taking simple photographs mostly of still life and nature. She quickly discovered her passion for portraiture, which she has been practicing ever since, focusing on self-portraits. She has been featured in many magazines and blogs, and her work has been accepted in PhotoVogue Italia. Greatly inspired by the works of Steven Meisel, Tim Walker and Alex Stoddard. View more of her work at http://mariannasantikou.wix.com/msphotography

2 thoughts on ““Wary of backstory”: Claire Hennessy in conversation with Laura Perrem

  1. Pingback: Recent bits ‘n’ pieces | Claire Hennessy

  2. Pingback: November Fortnightly Round-Up I | ShortStops

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