BackStory: Five Questions with Paul Phillips
Author of Kom-bat
What inspired you to write ‘Kom-bat’?
A pistol, with its own memories. I’d had the idea of writing a collection of stories — some flash, some much longer — linked by a particular artefact that could plausibly have passed from hand to hand and participated in dramatic moments throughout the 20th Century and beyond. A pistol seemed a good choice. But the one I chose to research began to take over and tell stories of its own.
Kom-bat tries to capture one such moment — immortalised in a famous image of the same name by the Soviet photographer Max Alpert — as well as the experience of recreating and re-inhabiting it.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
The first that comes to mind is definitely Pat Barker for what she achieved in Regeneration: the complete immersion in the period, with a further layering of intertextuality and symbolism. I’m also drawn to more overtly revisionist work, such as the secret history style of some Robert Harris, or Jed Mercurio’s Ascent. Which leads me onto something like Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra and the whole idea of there being something terribly wrong with history.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
That feeling when you just know you’ve got everything down right and created something perfect. That other feeling when you re-read it a few days later and realise you were completely wrong.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
This is cheating, because I was there first time around, but I’d love to go back to 1976 in southern England, to help me breathe more life into the next draft of the coming-of-age story I’m writing. In fact I don’t just want to, I need to, and I’m trying to — that’s partly what the novella is about. One day, perhaps, at the end of another parched day by the dwindling river, I’ll be back there, picking the molten tarmac off the tyres of my Bonanza. (Not a Chopper? No, and thereby hangs a tale…)
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
I’m no expert by any means and this is probably self-evident to everyone, but where long-form historical fiction can get away with wearing its research on its sleeve, historical flash can’t. You have to get across a sense of period — or perhaps that sheer vertigo of looking down through time — with real economy. And while I think it’s fine to get the reader asking ‘What’s going on? Where am I? When am I?’ — like with Hemingway’s prototypical in our time vignettes — for historical flash pieces to stand alone as proper stories I suppose you also have to provide some kind of answer.
If that’s the challenge, maybe the reward is gradually learning not to overburden fiction of any length with too much information. If only I could practise what I preach!
Paul Phillips lives in Derbyshire. He has been writing for many years but has only recently sent his efforts out into the world. Current projects include a full-length proto-Cold War spy thriller, a novella set in the Summer of ’76, and a genre-crossing collection of linked yet standalone short stories.