Back Story: Five Questions with Dreena Collins
Author of The (almost entirely true) Story of Jessie and the Mountain
What inspired you to write this story?
I came across this extraordinary story via social media, when a friend of mine, David Moore, posted a newspaper article. The piece — ‘Mountain Threat to Families’ — was from The Daily Telegraph in 1986, and told the tale of how a small group of determined (and ostensibly unlikely) protesters were refusing to give up their homes to the council, in spite of a compulsory purchase order over fears that a nearby mountain could subside.
What instantly drew me to the story was the striking image of Jessie — pinny on, hair grey and coiffed, and with eight or nine cats sprawled around her feet in the middle of the street. Jessie, 75, appeared to be one of the leading figures amongst the small group who were fighting to save the houses. They believed that the argument over safety was a sham, to enable the area to be redeveloped.
It seems she was right, as Jessie’s home still stands. They won their fight in 1988 — after 15 years of battle.
David is an archivist and historian, and he accompanied the post with an animated message filling in more details about Jessie — his Great Aunt. He described how she had 23 cats, and that Michael Foot (former leader of the Labour Party) had actively supported the fight. He told how Aneurin Bevan had often visited her home when she was a child — the politician famously instrumental in launching the NHS, who was from the same region. She sounded formidable and fascinating.
I messaged him and asked him if I could tell her story, and he was keen for me to do so.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
Yes! A few weeks after his initial post, David shared that he had been down to Troedrhiwgwair from his current home in mid-Wales, to the site of the street where the picture was taken. David had seen how large and spacious the house now was, as surrounding properties had been demolished and Jessie’s home extended over time into the void.
He bumped into her niece, on the street outside, who still lives nearby. From the conversation he found that this woman had cared for some of the cats when Jessie was still alive. There had been even more of them than he initially thought: 29. That was what inspired me to include the image of an ever-increasing cat population within the tale, partly to show the passing of time, and partly to imply that her strength, and idiosyncrasy, was growing throughout.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I’m drawn to female historical figures and representations of women and have previously written flash fiction depicting witches, and a range of mythological figures such as sirens, banshees, etc., giving them a voice and showing connections to contemporary experiences. A long time ago, I studied the representation of witchcraft in Renaissance drama, so I feel reasonably confident in my knowledge of this.
I hadn’t written a truly historical story before, like this one, as I am now shockingly lazy about research! But luckily for me, this was a ready-made tale, crying out to be redrafted. Now that I have done it, and enjoyed the experience, I will certainly attempt something like this again in the near future.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite?
I love to play with language and often have a list of phrases, metaphors and words that I want to include before I start. I would never shoehorn these in if they don’t neatly fit, but this helps me define the tone and voice of the piece. I am extraordinarily irreverent in the way I use words — ‘verbing’ nouns, or using adjectives in off-centre ways, quite intentionally, as I believe some of the power of words comes innately, from their very sounds, and some also comes by association, which may be indirect or sensory rather than literal. So, I don’t think we should be too precious about how we use words. We should take advantage of their rich variety.
With Jessie’s story, I was keen to include some Welsh. I have an extremely rudimentary knowledge of the language and had to ask David to check the story after, for accuracy — simple as my usage was! In including her language, I felt I was giving her some power over many of us (the non-Welsh speaking folk, at least) and this added to her depiction as strong.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I started writing flash as an intentional attempt to refine my work. When I first came back to writing, a couple of years ago, I was producing short stories that could top four or five thousand words. I realised that I needed to work on crafting and editing, and started challenging myself to fit as much power as possible into a smaller wordcount.
I also find both short stories, and flash, achievable to do within a busy schedule. Now, I have to ban myself from looking at prompts and competitions as I am finishing up my first novel. I am allowing myself no more than one flash fiction piece a week, or I would never get anything else done… It is unusually addictive.
Dreena Collins is a writer who also works in education, and lives on the island of Jersey. Dreena has been listed in numerous writing competitions, published in anthologies and online, and in her own short fiction collections. She is currently working on her first novel — progress aided greatly by her inability to sleep beyond 3.30 am.
Scan of photograph of Jessie Moore by David Mansell.