BackStory: Four Questions with Sarah Peploe
Author of Footsized
What inspired you to write ‘Footsized’?
I read this article a few years ago: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/21/scan-mummified-body-swedish-bishop-reveals-baby
This happened in Sweden, but the comments suggested people were aware of similar practices going on in the UK and elsewhere, well into the 20th century. And this suggested to me that, even in a time and place when most people would have been very conventionally observant Christians, that there was this ungodly perception of God. That God might be like an earthly authority figure – someone whose will could be subverted, when the need arose. Or perhaps more that it was middle management who were the problem, and if you could circumvent all of their petty rules and get straight to God, He would be, well, above all that. Either way, the system could be gamed. I’m an atheist but I found this heartening, that people have always tried to do the best they could for their children, even in the saddest and most hopeless circumstances. Have tried to quietly elbow out a space for the people they loved, within the belief system they were operating in.
There’s a comforting myth that people who live with high rates of infant mortality just sort of sensibly, objectively decide to not give a shit about their children, until they’re of a statistically “safe” age. Not true, of course. If you read contemporary diaries, letters, sermons, newspaper articles, gravestones, you can see that the prevalence of child and infant mortality throughout history did not make it any less heart-breaking. I wanted to attempt to write something that conveyed that.
And it’s so hidden, this side of history. We only know about it in this case because the Bishop was a well-known figure. And I find the hidden, the silent and silenced, endlessly fascinating.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers (flash or otherwise) and why?
I like the hidden histories and pissed-off women of Bernardine Evaristo and Rosie Garland. I like anyone who writes sex worker characters in a nuanced and intelligent way – in any era, but it seems more important in historical fiction where there’s so much stuff that just goes full Jack the Ripper Tour. Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn was good for that, I thought. Sarah Waters, as the ultimate antidote to The Well of Loneliness. I love Jake Arnott’s work for the way he conveys the spirit of an age, from big cultural shifts to acutely observed moments like people watching Teletubbies the morning after a rave, a football hooligan dressed as a droog, a woman applying that cake-based mascara you had to spit on and work up into a sludge. Of course Arnott writes long form but those kinds of potent little details lend themselves well to the flash format so I find him particularly inspiring. I want to say Terry Deary too, for old times’ sake.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
My favourite is the first spark of idea, when you’re just compelled to get it out – I always try to have a notebook and pen on me but sometimes you have to scratch it on a bus ticket, or write it in memos on your phone and it’ll be all misspelt and frantic. It might be plot or premise or someone’s voice, it might be just a sentence or might keep rolling and rolling. And I love the stage soon after that, when the whole thing is properly brewing and you’re just splashing around in the story. But stories often come through non-linear, don’t they. You get the hair and makeup before you get the skeleton. So you can be lovingly crafting that ankle or bicep for hours or weeks but you’re still missing some major connective tissue, and having to actually knuckle down and make it all fit together can be a slog, and make you hate it.
If it’s something I’m going to submit for publication, then I also hate that last once-over before I send it off, when I’m just sick of looking at the thing and can’t tell if it’s any good or not.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I like the immediacy. The way the format compels you to do a lot with a little. Every word has to have the exact right weight in such a short piece. It’s good practice for all types of writing, to always be striving for clarity and conciseness. But constraints also allow you to be murky, to just barely suggest or evoke things, to trust the reader to make the leaps, and I like doing that. And of course I just like flash fiction for its own sake. Not all stories need to be long; word count is not directly proportional to quality!
Sarah Peploe’s short stories have appeared in various anthologies including Snowbooks’ Sharkpunk and Game Over, Hic Dragones’ Hauntings, and Martian Migraine Press’s CHTHONIC. She also produces comics as part of Mindstain Comics co-operative. She lives in York and tweets @peplovna.
Image of interior of Lund Cathedral courtesy of Wikimedia.