BackStory: Five Questions with Marie Gethins

Nathaniel Grogan, Whipping the Herring out of Town – A Scene of Cork, c.1800, oil on panel, 25.5 x 29 cm. Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

BackStory: Five Questions with Marie Gethins
Author of Beating the Herring

What inspired you to write ‘Beating the Herring’?

I often pop into the Crawford Art Gallery when in town and spend a half hour of quiet bliss wandering through — visiting my favourites, seeing what is in rotation and checking out the special exhibitions. Nathaniel Grogan’s ‘Whipping the Herring Out of Town’ was on display one Lent and it fascinated me. What an extraordinary tradition.

What are your favourite pieces of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about it them?

Recently, I’ve really enjoyed Nuala O’Connor’s collection of historical flash ‘Birdie’. FlashBack recently published ‘Ébauche, Esquisse, Étude, Tableau’ that appears in it. O’Connor demonstrates what a diverse range of topics can inspire historical flash: from art to events to myth. Another historical flash piece that sticks with me is the quietly tragic ‘Wolf Moon’ by Jude Higgins. She combines a wrenching human experience with a bit of magic and menace.

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers (flash or otherwise) and why?

I’ll go long form here. Joseph O’Connor tops my list. He has an enviable ability to immerse the reader in a period with great subtlety, whether it is steerage, the American Civil War, Victorian London, or 1980s Nicaragua. Consummate skill. Andrew Miller’s Pure is a novel that I find myself going back to quite a lot. Also, I am very fond of Sarah Waters’ work. Her historical details never over burden the plot. Carys Davies, Jessie Burton, Kate Morton, Michel Faber and so many others!

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I located an old map of Cork from around 1800, then plotted the journey the crowd took during the event. A number of landmarks are gone now, including Cork’s North Gate which prominently features in the painting. I also did a bit of research on the whipping the herring tradition. I could only find one other reference to it taking place in Dundalk, some 300 kilometres away. Unfortunately, I am not sure how prevalent it was across Ireland in the late 18th/early 19th century, which would be nice to know.

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing historical flash?

One of the joys is discovering something new and fascinating, but it is so easy, at least for me, to plunge down a rabbit hole of research tangents, emerging hours later with a lot of trivia and little actual writing. It can be challenging to get the balance right in historical writing in general, especially in deciding what is enough detail to set the period and place for the reader. I think the writer must know an awful lot more than what is revealed on the page in order to provide those tiny clues with a deft hand.

Marie Geth­ins’ flash fiction has fea­tured in NFFD Anthologies, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Litro, NANO, Wales Arts Review, Banshee, Synaesthesia, The Incubator, The Nottingham Review, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Words with JAM, Paper Swans, 101 Words, and others. She won or placed in Dorset Fiction Award, TSS, Tethered by Letters, Flash500, Drom­i­neer, The New Writer, Prick of the Spindle. Other pieces listed in Bridport Flash, Bristol Short Story Prize, Brighton Prize, Fish Short Flash, Inktears, Molotav Cocktail, Reflex Fiction, Retreat West, and WOW! Award competitions. Marie is a Pushcart and Best of the Short Fictions nominee and an editor of the Irish ezine Splonk.

Nathaniel Grogan, Whipping the Herring out of Town – A Scene of Cork, c.1800, oil on panel, 25.5 x 29 cm. Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.