The Almost Mothers by Laura Besley made me cry. Several times. In pitch-perfect vignettes she explores everything from early motherhood to self-doubt to infertility. Her light touch and poignant stories meant I have already read it twice and would quite happily sit down and read it again. Intrigued by how you fit such powerful emotion into very short stories, I talked to Laura about her writing process and how she arrived at this beautiful collection.
It’s quite astonishing how broad the range of mothers and emotions that are encompassed in your collection. For you, which is the most meaningful and why?
Thank you, Sarah. That’s very kind of you to say.
What a tough question! There’s a little bit of me in every story, whether it’s a feeling, something I’ve heard or witnessed, or a fear I have, and find it therefore impossible to say which is the most meaningful.
For a reader this could be completely different, of course, depending on which stories appeal the most.
The style of your stories varies hugely, from vignettes to complete story arcs. When the ideas arrive, do you already know what form the story takes or does that only come when you start to write it down?
I never know before I start writing which form, or length, the story will take. Sometimes I set out to write a 100-word story, or a 500-word story, especially if I’m aiming to submit a piece to a competition or a journal with a specific word count. However, if I start writing and it becomes clear that the story isn’t right for that length, then I adapt it. There’s no point trying to squeeze a bigger story into 100 words, or eke something out to a longer word count than is necessary.
The collection covers so many styles, topics and emotions but each one is expertly done. I very much recommend that you buy this book!
I never outline – although you could argue that with pieces this short you don’t really need to – but sometimes I have a rough idea of the ending when I start writing. These, for me, are often slightly easier pieces to write because I find endings particularly hard, so if I know which direction the story is going in, that’s a great help.
I really enjoyed the dystopian and alien takes on motherhood. Is this something you explore in a lot of your fiction? Why do you think it suited this topic in particular?
Actually, it was my first foray into dystopian and quirky fiction, but I found that I really enjoyed it and two of the dystopian pieces (‘The Unmothers’ and ‘Not All Linings Are Silver’) are among my favourites in the collection (they’re all my favourites, but you know what I mean).
I think, possibly, the reason dystopian fiction or an alien take on motherhood suits the topic is because it allows us to take a step back and look at, or at least try to look at, motherhood more objectively. In the alien story, ‘Down to Earth’, an alien is sent to Earth to collect information about why Earth’s population is so large. Some of the items on the list are merely facts, whereas others are more controversial.
The dystopian story, ‘The Unmothers’, is about women who can’t get pregnant and how they are forced to participate in an annual parade wherein they are looked upon by pregnant women and mothers by the roadside. I feel, I hope, that within this collection I’ve addressed some of the more difficult topics surrounding motherhood and one of them is this one: infertility. For some women, motherhood is elusive which makes it a difficult and heart-breaking topic to discuss. And because of this, I think many people shy away from it, but that only adds to those women’s loneliness.
Where the magic happens. Good to know that such beautiful writing can come from such simple beginnings.
What drew you to writing short fiction, particularly flash fiction, in the first place?
I’ve always been blessed with lots of ideas, but for someone who isn’t good with endings, that means I quickly abandoned pieces after the first few sentences or paragraphs.
In 2012 I discovered Calum Kerr, who was the Director of National Flash Fiction Day at the time, and he’d done a challenge to write a piece a day for a year. He published every piece on a blog and at the end of the month bundled them together in an e-book. I had caught the writing bug by this time and really wanted to improve. In order to do this, I needed to learn how to finish the pieces I was starting and decided to try Kerr’s challenge, albeit slightly adapted. I wrote a piece a day (up to 500 words) for a year and chose a ‘best of the week’ which I published on my blog: Living, Loving and Writing.
There were days when the story was easy to write and there were days when it was hard. There were also days when I only managed a few sentences and couldn’t actually call what I’d written a story. However, I learned so much in that year, not least that I loved writing flash fiction and the challenge of creating a world and a story in relatively few words.
In terms of the mothers who read your book, what were you hoping that they would take away from your collection?
I’d love to think that any woman who reads The Almost Mothers would feel a little less alone.
Being a mother can be very isolating, physically in terms of being at home with a baby instead of at work with colleagues or in a place of her choice with people of her choice, but also mentally and emotionally. Nothing can prepare you for motherhood and I think, ironically, considering how much information is available these days, women are struggling more with the transition into motherhood.
Not being a mother can also be very isolating, whether it’s through choice or not, especially when all of your friends are having children. Children, and the subject of children, dominate everything, particularly in the early years, which can make what was a comfortable friendship, difficult due to a sudden lack of common ground.
What are you working on at the moment and any insights into your writing process?
I’m working on a collection of micro fiction called 100neHundred which is due to be published with Arachne Press in May 2021 (pre-order here). This isn’t a themed collection like The Almost Mothers, but is a collection of 100 stories that are each 100 words.
My love of micro fiction began after my love of flash fiction when I started writing 100-word stories for Morgen Bailey’s monthly themed competition. I’ve entered nearly every month and because you can enter up to three each month, I’ve amassed quite a few over the years. That said, there are quite a few pieces that I’ve written as recently as last month.
Just a sample of Laura’s enormous notebook collection. Glad to know it isn’t just me that has piles of these everywhere!
I always write first drafts by hand and have a notebook in nearly every room of the house and one in my handbag for when I’m out. The one that gets used the most is the one in the kitchen as I jot down ideas, opening sentences, etc., throughout the day in between looking after my young children and doing household jobs. For longer pieces (and by that I still mean under 1,000 words), I try to write a first draft in one sitting. I used to write during my son’s naptime, but he doesn’t nap anymore, so now I get up at 5am and write for 90 mins before my children wake up.
I have a monthly planner in which all the competitions or journals are listed that I would like to submit to. I can’t submit to all of them – there are too many and it would get too costly, but I do submit a lot. That means I get rejected a lot too. I used to find it really hard, but I’ve found that’s something that gets easier with time. Having said that, there are still some that sting more than others. I remember being in tears at some point not that long ago because a piece that I absolutely loved didn’t get listed, but six months later it was listed in a different competition. That’s a good reminder that all art forms are subjective and often it just depends on who reads your piece. Well, that’s what I tell myself anyway.
For other writers starting out, what advice would you give them?
Practise, practise, practise. I started writing about 10 years ago and have filled notebook after notebook. I think you need to write a lot, whether it be on paper or on the computer, to find yourself, to find your voice, to find what you want to write about, what you need to write about.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms, genres, lengths, points of view, the list is endless. I think short fiction is perfect for this and recently wrote an article about it which you can read here.
And, naturally, you need to read. One train of thought is to read everything: the good, the bad, every genre, every form, but I don’t agree with this, at least not all of it. For example, I don’t read horror novels. I don’t enjoy that genre and would derive no pleasure from reading a horror novel. They’re just not to my taste and personally I think it’s fine to develop a taste for the kind of fiction or non-fiction that you want to read. Most writers start out as readers and reading, in my opinion, should remain a pleasure, something which will then hopefully transfer into your writing.
Laura Besley writes short (and very short) fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online (Fictive Dream, Spelk, EllipsisZine) as well as in print (Flash: The International Short Story Magazine) and in various anthologies (Adverbally Challenged, Another Hong Kong, Story Cities).
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