BackStory: Five Questions with Rachael Dunlop
Author of Nonna No Name
What inspired you to write this ‘Nonna No Name’?
This piece is based on a true story that forms part of the family history of a friend of mine. We were talking about family trees and she said she had a female ancestor that no one knew the name of, which was very unusual as it was their tradition that family names were passed down the female line. And then she told me how that ancestor’s name had come to be lost. The story has been passed down through the generations of her family but never written down before. The story haunted me and for several years I toyed with various ways of reinterpreting it (with my friend’s permission) but could never find a way that felt right or appropriate. It was only when the voices of the storyteller and her grandchild started telling the story in my head that I knew how it needed to be told.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
The only specific bit of historical research I did was around the history of the Cossacks and their involvement in the persecution of Jews. While none of that research was explicitly used in the story, it felt important that I understand that context. Most of the ‘research’ involved talking to my friend about the story, drawing out the details and getting her guidance on what was important that I keep historically accurate. The piece feels like a very special collaboration between us. I wanted to focus on the elements of the story that have become almost mythological in the process of telling and retelling, to understand where the weight of significance falls for those whose history this is.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
My favourite part of the writing process is editing. I love the process of refining, making everything taut and shiny, getting just the right word where it really matters. First draft writing is painful for me, it often feels like pulling teeth. I find I really have to work at finding ideas and inspiration – I am envious of writers who say they have too many ideas vying for their attention. I always feel, once I have finished a piece, whether it’s a flash, short story or a longer form work, that I’ll never have another original idea again.
What do you like most about writing flash?
Writing flash fiction is a precision craft. I compare it to being a watchmaker, placing each tiny piece in exactly the right place, the precise number of pieces, the exact sizes and shapes needed. No more, no less. When you are finished (as much as a work of art is ever finished), all the pieces work together seamlessly, effortlessly, and the satisfaction is immense. When everything comes together in a piece of flash, I can’t imagine changing a single word. The other thing I love about writing flash is what is often referred to as ‘compression’ but I think of more as expansive layering. Most of the story occurs behind the words, between the lines, and I like to think of a flash as being full of space you can’t see but you can feel.
What do you think is the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of writing historical flash?
When writing contemporary flash fiction, you can use the assumed common knowledge between yourself and your reader as short hand. With historical flash fiction, you have to assume the reader doesn’t know anything about the period and subject you are writing about, which is an immediate challenge to the word count. You have to be doubly clever in the detail you choose, and find ways to get the necessary facts in without them getting in the way of the story. If you are using a real person as the inspiration for your story, questions of historical accuracy take on extra significance. All of these things make writing historical flash more challenging, but of course that’s also what makes it rewarding, when you manage to pull it off despite the odds being against it!
Rachael Dunlop is an award-winning writer of short fiction. Her flash fiction has been widely published online and in several print anthologies, including Bath Flash Fiction Award, Synaesthesia Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Ellipsis Two (2018), the National Flash Fiction Day anthologies, (2017, 2018, 2019) and NFFD’s annual online Flash Flood.