Keely O’Shaughnessy’s beautiful debut collection, Baby is a Thing Best Whispered, is interested most of all in the complexities of certain familial relationships, with many of the short pieces here dealing with parenthood, both from the perspective of the children and of the parents—especially mothers and daughters. For more information, or to pre-order the book, visit Keely’s website.
Ross: When did you first start writing stories? What drew you to writing initially?
O’Shaughnessy: It’s in some sort of writer’s code of conduct somewhere that I’m obliged to answer this question by saying I’ve been writing as long as I can remember, since I learned to hold a pencil or something. Scribbly stories about princesses and pirates stuck to the fridge in my childhood home.
And I suppose that’s kind of true. I’ve always gravitated towards writing. Having cerebral palsy, I wasn’t out riding my bike or playing tag, or sports. I’m not saying children with disabilities can’t do these things, of course, just that from very early on I found my adventure in books. As a child, I remember narrating everything in my head, adding in smells and sounds, and colors. It’s something I still do now when drafting or thinking about ideas. I see an event in images and then find myself automatically translating those moments into words. Maybe this is something all writers do, maybe it’s what being a writer is, I don’t know, but as a kid I knew that most other children didn’t think this way. Yet, I didn’t stop. I kept thinking in word-pictures, and writing them down, and slowly these became stories.
Personally, I find that writing is a compulsion. A way of decluttering my busy mind. But what I really love about writing is the vicarious, almost voyeuristic, element. In stories, I can play about with scenarios I’d never be brave enough to live in real life. I can create characters who I’d long be and have them say wonderful, outrageous, and sometimes honest things.
There’s a theme in several stories of parenthood, both from the perspective of the children and of the parents. Can you talk a bit more about this? Were you aware of this theme before putting the stories together in a collection, or was it a more intentional process as you were drafting the stories themselves?
I think the theme was the reason for the collection. That is to say that some of the stories existed before the collection and some were born as a result. Looking at all my stories, up until creating the collection, writing about the mother/daughter relationship was something I habitually circled around. As an only child, raised by a single mother I suppose this is one of the relationships in life I understand best. Although, my own childhood wasn’t nearly half as gritty and dark as those in my stories! I’m also fascinated with the notion of motherhood, what it means to be, or equally, choose not to be a mother.
There are several longer titles throughout. Can you describe your titling process? Do you have the title before writing, or discover the title after a draft is written?
I always say I’m terrible at titles. I used to think picking a title before writing a piece was the best thing ever. And sometimes a super cool title can spark the story, a story can grow from a unique title, but most of the time my own most effective or favorite titles come afterwards. Only when I’ve finished a story and have a solid sense what the story is saying, do I then start to generate ideas. I ask, what do I want the reader to take from the title? I was recently given the advice to think about titles as casting a shadow, and for me this image works because a title should set the tone of a story. A title should stretch into the story. It should help frame a story while revealing just enough to entice the reader in.
As for my longer titles I wish I could say they were chosen for some profound and clever reason, but honestly, I like a long title. They’re fun and it’s fun to see how far you can push it – how many words can you sneak in before the whole thing falls flat.
Can you describe your drafting process? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or just one? Do you quickly write a rough draft and revise, or revise before moving on?
I’m plodder and a perfectionist so drafting is as slow as everything else writing wise for me. I tend to write notes as my first draft. Sometimes that’s a bullet pointed plot (this is a rare and beautiful occurrence) and sometimes it’s sentences or images that I build a story around.
My joy comes in the editing stage. I’ve always found getting words down on the page the tortuous part. My internal critic is very brutal, so letting any words actually grace the page is tough. Once they’re there though that’s when the fun begins. I’m a huge fan of the paragraph shuffle when revising.
I often start off with the best intentions of focusing on one story or project at a time, but I’m flighty, somewhat impatient, and my brain isn’t always my friend. I’m one of those people who end up spinning at least ten plates at the same time. A prime example being that micro-chapbook, The Swell of Seafoam, and Baby is a Thing Best Whispered come out within a month of each other!
You often write flash or shorter stories—is that intentional? Do you write longer stories that become flash later as you realize the story’s form, or do they originate as flash and remain that way? On a craft level, what is the difference for you between writing flash and writing something longer?
I am a believer that stories dictate their length to you. However, at this point, I pretty much solely write flash. This isn’t to say I have anything against longer fiction. I’m into all types of short form fiction, I just have an affinity with flash.
A few of the stories in Baby is a Thing Best Whispered started off life as longer stories that got cut down in the editing or piecing together of the collection. I think when you’re writing a story you can tell if it feels loose. If it’s echoey—something small rattling around in a too large space. That’s when you need to downsize for a better fit. I love cutting away at a piece to zero in on the essence of the story. So much so that even when I find myself writing a longer narrative, I will usually end up trimming away at it.
Flash often gets painted as the easy option—stories for readers with short attention spans, and I hate that. Flash is its own form. It’s a full and complete narrative distilled into fewer words, which means the writer can’t afford to hang around. Flash is immediate and precise, and this limited space gives it a different energy to anything else. Flash is constant momentum, it calls for speed as well as clarity, and it certainly doesn’t lack power or resonance.
Could you describe the process of selecting work(s) for a collection? Were there stories you ultimately decided to not include? Were the previously published pieces revised for this book, and how did you decide on the final order of stories?
Like all good periods of organization there was chaos and Post-it notes, lots of Post-it notes.
Originally, the collection consisted of five parts: mother, daughter, sister, father, and lover. But I decided to keep a lot of stories out of the final configuration for the collection because when I was blending the different stories together, I started to see the coming-of-age narrative arc that binds the collection together as it is now. Once I had this thread in mind it was easy to see which pieces didn’t fit. Though it’s never easy scarifying stories that you love, even when the sensible part of you knows they need to be cut from the running order.
What are you working on now? What are you reading, and who are the writers you turn to most frequently for inspiration?
I’m trying to take a break and stop myself from jumping into any new projects and the moment. But I always like to keep my writing brain ticking over, so I’ll keep writing stories and see if any patterns crop up.
My TBR pile is an ever-growing beast that has seemingly split into two piles—one beside my bed and a second downstairs next to my sofa. I’m currently reading the achingly beautiful novella, Small Things by Hannah Sutherland (Ad Hoc Fiction) and Sam Richard’s To Wallow in Ash & Other Sorrows (WeirdPunk Books), which is a collection that is dark and discomfiting in the best way.
There are so many amazing writers out there who I admire. The world of flash fiction is so rich and vibrant with talent right now! But if I had to answer, and let’s face it that’s what I’m here for, then three of my go to authors are Kathy Fish, Francine Witte and Jules Archer. All of their writing—stories, poems, novellas, and collections—are must-reads!
Interviewed by Austin Ross
Keely O’Shaughnessy is a fiction writer with cerebral palsy, who lives in Gloucestershire, U.K. with her husband and two cats. She has been shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award and won Retreat West’s Monthly Micro contest. Her micro-chapbook, The Swell of Seafoam, was published as part of Ghost City Press’s Summer Series 2022. Her writing has been published by Ellipsis Zine, Complete Sentence, Reflex Fiction, Emerge Literary Journal, and (mac)ro(mic), and more. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as Best Small Fictions. She is Managing Editor at Flash Fiction Magazine. Find her at keelyoshaughnessy.com or on Twitter @KeelyO_writer.