Getting into writing – an interview with Phil Olsen

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I’m a short story writer from Liverpool. I recently completed a Creative Writing MA at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing and I’ve managed to win a few flash fiction competitions: Book Week Scotland 2014, Writing on the Wall’s WoWFest2016 and the Northern Short Story Festival 2017 Flash Fiction Slam. I was also shortlisted for a Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2017.

What got you interested in writing?

There was a speech program built into the Amiga 500 that my school friend Ian and I used to type horror stories into. We’d take it in turns and then listen to the robotic voice read them back to us. There was a tight character limit which kind of meant I learnt to write flash fiction before I knew what it was. Stories would often end abruptly and always to the “mich mich mich” sound of someone being eaten.

Tell us a little about your chosen genre.

I love reading and writing surreal stories. Not out-and-out bonkers stuff but slightly absurd situations dropped into mundane settings, or everyday gripes unfolding in surreal settings. George Saunders, Miranda July and Adam Marek are all great at this. I also enjoy spooky tales and time-loops. In my own writing I often go for Kafka-esque protagonists who feel in some way trapped or kept in the dark.

What are your happiest memories in your writing career?

I remember the email telling me I’d won Book Week Scotland 2014 came through on my birthday, so that was a nice present.

Last year I got to participate in a multi-character reading from George Saunders’ novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ at Waterstones Deansgate. George played the part of Abraham Lincoln and I was a historical narrator. As I and the four other volunteer readers headed out to the front to read, George fist-bumped us in turn. George Saunders, my absolute favourite short story writer, fist-bumped me.

How do you handle success and failure?

Successes are definitely good for making your writing feel validated. But I think the trick is to realise it’s worth doing even without a competition shortlisting or a magazine acceptance. I try not to dwell on failure. If a piece of writing is rejected it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it’s more likely that the story isn’t quite there. Or maybe someone else just wrote something better and raised the bar.

What makes you write when you’re exhausted and your fingers ache?

I commute daily between Liverpool and Manchester so I try to fit in bits of writing on the train. Deadlines are a real help for keeping going until something’s finished. I don’t love writing under pressure but sometimes it’s what I need. Course deadlines, competitions and narrow submission windows all keep me at the computer.

What is your advice to young and new writers?

I’d say try to resist excitedly sending first drafts out – the second draft will be better. Let it breathe and start something new. When you go back to it you’ll be less precious about it and more willing to cut stuff. Form a small workshop group with fellow writers so you can read and critique each others’ work. I’ve been meeting a few writer friends in a pub, once a month for the past five years now. Read it out loud – this’ll test out the authenticity of your dialogue and also highlight any overly-long or clunky sentences (like this one). Go to book launches and public readings – support other writers and get to know who is out there. There’s a big writing community on Twitter too – follow writers, agents, editors, publishers and small presses on there. Retweet and join in with conversations. Make time to do the actual writing too though.

Are you a traditionalist or a digital? (paper or eBook)

Physical books will always have more appeal to me – the sleeve design, the smell of the print, the ease of flicking back to a page to find the clue that foreshadowed that great revelation. And you get some really beautiful editions too. I’m a big fan of fancy soft covers with French flaps (like applying a hardback jacket, with the folded-inside author profile, to a paperback). That said, I do also have an eReader and I’ll quite often read short stories on my phone. Bit tricky to get authors to sign your Kindle though, eh?

Do you blog?

I’ve written guest blogs about writing courses and literature events. In 2016 I wrote a series of blog posts about a Comma Press Short Story course run by the brilliant Sarah Schofield at Liverpool’s Bluecoat. And I’ve reviewed Manchester Literature Festival events in 2016 and 2017 for MLF’s Chapter & Verse blog. I covered Jonathan Safran-Foer in conversation with Jeanette Winterson, Anne Enright, and Dorthe Nors. I don’t write a blog of my own at the moment though – any ‘thoughts of the day’ that I think are noteworthy, I’ll usually jot down in a pad or on my phone and save them to give to a character in a story.

Do you self-publish?

I don’t. I know a few writers working on novels who self-publish short stories to get them out there and to give a flavour of their work while they look for an agent for their manuscript, but short stories are my main course so I’m busy building them up and gathering them together at the moment.

If you have a publication or promotion – tell us.

I’ve had a couple of flash fiction pieces published in anthologies – ‘Flash Fiction Festival One’ and ‘The Lobsters Run Free: Bath Flash Fiction Anthology Two’. And my dystopian short story ‘Ketova’ is due to be published in the Comma Press collection ‘The Mirror in the Mirror: New Perspectives in Short Fiction’ which I’m very excited about.

You can read a few of my previously published flash fiction pieces on my website: www.polsen.co.uk

You can also follow me on Twitter @Liverpolsen

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