BackStory: Five Questions with Amy Slack
Author of The Bathtub
What inspired you to write this piece?
“The Bathtub” was inspired by a visit to the Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland late last year. I’d wanted to learn more about the mining industry and its connection to North East England, where I grew up.
Two paintings stuck with me. The first was a portrait of a pitman standing in a tub, bathing himself after a day at work, his skin stained by the coal dust. The second was a 19th Century painting of a mass funeral, thousands of people crowding around scores of coffins. It was painted to commemorate the New Hartley Colliery disaster of 1862, when over 200 miners were trapped alive and could not be reached in time to be rescued.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
When I first drafted the story, the opening line was “They buried my Tommy before they killed him.” I wanted my narrator to express the same outrage I had felt when learning about mining disasters like New Hartley. Coal was the lifeblood of Victorian progress — it powered the railways, it powered industry — but it came at the expense of the thousands of men who had to risk their lives every day to mine it.
Once I developed the piece, that outrage I felt became overshadowed by my narrator’s grief and exhaustion. Her focus is on seeing her husband again, having him home one last time. In those final hours she spends with his body, there is no space for anger.
What is your favourite piece of historical flash? What do you like about it?
There is one piece of flash fiction by Carys Davies has stayed with me ever since I read her début short story collection, Some New Ambush. In just a few hundred words, “Homecoming, 1909” immerses you in a specific moment in time before delivering a tragi-comic punchline that utterly subverts your expectations. It’s a marvellous example of what can be done with flash fiction, and is well worth a read.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
I love when an idea for a story keeps bothering me, demanding attention and bouncing around in my head. The sort of idea that will keep me company when I walk home on an evening, or keep me awake after I go to bed. I’ll construct whole scenes and characters in those moments between wakefulness and sleep. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll remember most of it by the time I wake up the next day, ready to write it all down.
That’s my least favourite moment: staring at a blank page or screen and translating all those initial thoughts into actual words. That brilliant, demanding idea suddenly looks a lot less substantial when it’s put down on paper. It’s a disheartening feeling, but it also drives me to develop the little that I do have, fill in the gaps, and turn an idea into a story in its own right.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
I can get fixated on the detail when writing stories set in the past. When I write, I need to believe I’m being accurate to the time and place I’m describing. It’s not enough to say “she puts on her shoes”. What sort of shoes would my character have worn? How long would they take to put on? When I start asking questions like that, it’s not long before I’m falling down a Google research rabbit-hole for an hour or three, looking for answers.
That being said, I’m not averse to a little anachronism if I ultimately decide that it benefits the story I’m telling. If something isn’t historically accurate, it should be because I choose to include that inaccuracy, not because I couldn’t be bothered to do the research.
Amy Slack is an editor and aspiring short story writer from the North-East of England, currently based in London. Her work has been featured by The Cabinet of Heed, Visual Verse, and Palm-Sized Press. You can find her on Twitter @amyizzylou, or follow her blog, Amy’s Ever-Growing Bookshelf, at amyizzylou.wordpress.com.
Image from L’Illustration, Journal Universel, February 1862, p 100. Engraving of bodies being handed over to relatives of victims during the 1862 Hartley Colliery disaster.