Interview with Johanna Robinson

Vestal Review. Your novella-in-flash, Homing (Ad Hoc Fiction), was a runner-up in the Bath Flash Fiction Award Novella-in-flash competition 2019. Congratulations. Can you tell us a little about Homing?

Johanna Robinson. Yes, absolutely. I’d been wanting to write about the World War II Norwegian Resistance for nearly twenty years and had gathered quite a bit of research over that time, especially once more material became available online. I didn’t have a novella-in-flash in mind, nor had I intended to write these stories as flash pieces: they just arrived in that form. It was during summer 2018 that I found Twitter’s writing community, specifically the Twitter flash fiction community, and discovered the novella-in-flash genre. From there I read lots of novellas, and began to write more chapters, but it was very gradual, here and there in the evenings, with a quick seven-chapter burst via a Meg Pokrass online course, and finally working on ‘filler’ chapters. All chapters were written out of order. Putting them in order and cross-checking the timeline was almost the last thing I did.

VR. Homing follows a Norwegian family through World War II. Individual flashes take place at various points between 1933 to 1970. Did the fractured structure help you create a sense of disorientation (as a war would)?

JR. As I was such a novice to the form when I began, I looked at what other people were doing, both with standalone flashes and with linked ones, and I just played with the form, certainly not with the expectation that it would have a readership. Often, I didn’t know what form a chapter would take until I began writing, but I hoped if the form was non-standard, it would be because that was the best way to present and weave in the content.

I think the fragmentation can be disorientating, but like you say, it benefits the theme of war, and specifically a family split by war. I also think that such fragmentation is a useful way to present characters, because our experience of the world is necessarily fragmented, given that we only ever see things from our own perspective, while interacting with the views of other people.

VR. What draws you to historical fiction?

JR. I love the research side, although the rabbit-hole nature of it and the internet is both blessing and curse. I lived in Norway for a year when I was twenty-one, and became fascinated with the resistance movement then and over subsequent years. However, because I didn’t write back then, all my reading was for my own interest, not as research. When I delved further into the movement in recent years, with a view to a possible writing project, that research enabled me to create the thread of a story that I needed. I’d had outlines of characters in my head for all that time, and the research gave them body.

VR. What’s the reaction to Homing been?

JR. The reaction has been astonishing! It’s been so well received, and by people who would never have read flash fiction before. For such readers, I included a postcard explaining the genre, and this undoubtedly helped in terms of a ‘way in’. Homing is now starting to be read in book groups, because both the form and the content allow for lots of discussion.

VR. I loved your flash fiction piece ‘Marks’, published by SmokeLong Quarterly. As with your novella, it shows the passage of time in a short amount of page-space. What do you like playing with more, structure or time?

JR. Thank you! I would say structure comes first. In both ‘Marks’ and Homing, I found that each section did what it needed to do, and after that, I could move on. For me, the jumps in time were necessary, because if I’d done my job well, the writing would have told the reader almost everything they needed to know (and in flash fiction, the ‘almost’ is important), albeit in a short, intensive way. Also, I hope that the space between sections and chapters gives the reader a chance to take a breath – even add themselves into the space. After all, our lives and memories are made up of remembered events, with lots of blank space in between. This is what flash fiction can reflect, I think.

VR. You’ve had flashes and a novella published, and now you’re working on a novel. Which form are you most comfortable with?

JR. Well, the novel I am working on is actually being written in a form that varies from short chapters to flash fiction, so I haven’t completely escaped that genre. As with Homing, I am writing non-chronologically, but ultimately it will be structured chronologically. I have recently read about at least three writers (including the brilliant Elizabeth Strout) who write out of order and in scenes. Of course, a longer form has all sorts of challenges the others don’t, which I’m beginning to wrangle with.

VR. And what does the future hold for your writing?

JR. My current project is also historical, but outside living memory, so that brings with it different challenges, and lots of research, which is both local and global. I will be working on and wrangling with my longer work during 2020, enabled by an Arts Council England grant, although I hope I will find time for some short stories in there too. And I’ll be at the UK’s Flash Fiction Festival in June.