BackStory: Five Questions with Matt Kendrick
Author of Life at the Colliery, 1832-1845
What inspired you to write ‘Life at the Colliery’?
This piece germinated from a single word – ‘darkness.’ Being afraid of the dark is such a universal fear, especially in childhood, and I started to think about different situations where darkness is unavoidable. This led me to coal mines and child miners. The story developed from there.
Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?
I really wanted to include a pit pony. As chilling as it is to imagine children as young as five being forced to work twelve hour shifts underground, there’s something equally horrid and cruel in making a pony live out its days pulling coal wagons through the deep pits. A lot of my research into mining conditions really got to me but it was the children and the ponies that got to me the most. Maybe in the future, I’ll write a companion flash about a pit pony.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I wanted to make sure this piece portrayed coal mine conditions as accurately as possible so a lot of my research focussed on first hand testimony. During the early 1840s, a government commission visited the Welsh coalfields as part of a wider review of child labour. They interviewed many child miners and what struck me was how most of the children seemed completely resigned to their lot. One boy described having his face burnt in an explosion. Another talked about having his head crushed in a cave-in. Some of the details, I wove into the piece. The rats stealing the bread and cheese in the first paragraph comes from a girl called Mary Davis who was just six years old. The commission did some good in that an act was passed that made it illegal to employ children under the age of ten years old.
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
I have very little in common with the main character and that’s what made this such an interesting piece to write. As a grown man, I would hate to spend my days down a coal mine. I can’t imagine sitting in the dark for hours on end and how physically uncomfortable it must have been to push the corfs through the tunnels. And it was challenging not to project my own emotions onto my narrator. What is so depressing is that this was seen as normal. There were hundreds of mines and thousands of child miners. It seems such an ingrained part of our society here in the UK that everyone deserves a childhood free from work and adult obligations. It’s nice to think how much progress has been made since the 1840s but there are, unfortunately, still a lot of children around the world who are deprived of a proper childhood.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I think flash fiction forces you to cut a story back to the bare essentials. When it’s done well, it can have a rawness to it that is perhaps difficult to maintain in longer works. I definitely find it a challenge as I’m not particularly concise by nature. I think of it like the 100 metres of the literary world whereas I’m probably more of a marathon runner. It’s an enjoyable challenge, though. I like how you can encapsulate a whole life in such a short space of time as I have attempted here. And I love it when there are layers beneath the surface. Because of its brevity, the reader is left to imagine what happened before the beginning or after the end, and I hope the ending of my piece is ambiguous enough for some readers to find hope even as others see despair.
Matt Kendrick is a writer based in the East Midlands, UK. His stories have been published by Fictive Dream, Lucent Dreaming, Reflex Fiction, Spelk, Storgy and The Cabinet of Heed. Further information about his work can be found on his website: www.mattkendrick.co.uk. He is on Twitter @MkenWrites.
Photograph of a trapper boy at Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, West Virginia, witnessed by E. N. Clopper. This photo was taken more than a mile inside the mine. Library of Congress nclc.01070.