Interview with Laila Miller: Summer 2019 Flash Fiction Runner Up

Tuesday, February 04, 2020
Laila Miller was born and raised in rural Alberta, Canada, with five older siblings. She has been an environmental scientist for 25 years. In her spare time, she writes short fiction about bougainvilleas and sea urchins and turnips, and sometimes about people who don’t get along. Her proudest writing moment was in 2018 when she helped her 90-year-old mother compile and publish her life story. She lives in Perth, Western Australia, where she marvels at the beauty of the Indian Ocean and the extraordinary flora and fauna, and where she usually places third in unfair writing challenges with her husband and son.

Before you read her interview, make sure you read her story Out of Place then come on back!

---- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: First of all, congratulations on winning runner-up in the flash fiction contest! I loved how this story started out with the main character seeing their differences as endearing but then that very difference ended the relationship. What was the inspiration behind this story?

Laila: I belong to a wonderful on-line writer’s group which holds a fortnightly event, the ‘One Hour Challenge’. The previous winner posts a prompt, we think about it for five minutes, write for one hour, then post our stories anonymously for critique over the next 24 hours and vote for our favourite. This story was written to the prompt ‘Out of Place’ – just like the title. I immediately thought of ordinary ways a person could become uncomfortable in a place that once felt like their own. It’s a universal experience, I think, to have a loved one - intentionally or otherwise - try to make you into something you’re not. The other part of the story, of course, is how do you stand up for yourself, keep hold of your ideals, be true to yourself. Getting back to the One Hour Challenge – it’s a terrific way to exercise your writing muscles – no procrastinating, no waffling on topics, just go! It’s one of the most effective exercises I’ve used to strengthen my writing.

WOW: What a fantastic writing exercise! I'm definitely trying that myself. So, I really enjoyed reading in your bio that you write short fiction about "people who don't get along." What draws you to write about those types of stories?

Laila: Every story has to have conflict, and it’s one aspect of writing I find difficult. In real life, I like people to get along. To make an interesting story, a writer has to show what the characters are made of and the best way to do that is to put them in difficult situations, such as not getting along.

WOW: That's a great approach to adding in conflict! You also mentioned in your bio that you recently helped your mom compile and publish her life story. That's incredible! What was that experience like?

Laila: It was the best writing experience of my life! A few months before Mom’s 90th birthday, I decided to write down some things about her. She lives in Canada and I’m in Australia, so I was peppering her with questions over the phone.

One day she said, “You know, I’ve written this all down already.” She emailed me a chronology she’d written five years before, about 20,000 words that covered her childhood, World War II in Holland, emigration to Canada, marriage and the birth of her two oldest children (she had eight). I saw immediately that it was so much better than what I was writing. “What did you plan to do with this?” I asked. “I thought one of you kids would find it on my computer when I die,” she said. As if!

She was enthusiastic about continuing, so over the next several weeks she emailed me a story every day and I asked questions and researched events she spoke about and filled in gaps etc. - I was her editor. She has macular degeneration, so she needs font 16 or 18 to be able to read, and her emails were full of typos, but they made sense and I just fixed them up.

Eventually, we had her full life story and it’s gorgeous – it resonates with the honest, confident tone of someone who has long ago parted with judgment and angst about events or people. It’s quite different from memoirs younger people write, which tend to focus on difficult medical or social problems they are dealing with. My lovely and talented writing friends Myna Chang (whom WOW! will recognise), and Louise Guy (author and publisher of over 70,000 books) helped proofread and publish it. On Mom’s 90th birthday we had copies at the door for guests plus her community, library, book club and the local university’s history project. And because of Mom’s eyesight, she hasn’t even read it herself!

It is wonderful to have it for her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and beyond. They will know about her and be able to hear her voice in the way she told about some very tough times and kept her sense of humour. Many people have told me they want to write their parents’ life story or their own. Do it! It’s such a great gift for future generations.

WOW: That's so amazing you did that! I also completely agree - write those stories! I had to smile when you said you place third in unfair writing challenges. What type of challenges do you do with your husband and son?

Laila: Yes. We have a prompt jar in our kitchen and sometimes on weekends, we each get onto our respective laptops, pull a prompt out of the jar and write until we agree it’s time to stop. Then we read our stories out loud to the others and vote. Since my stories don’t tend to be action/adventure-fantasy mashups with dragons that talk to spiders amid a lot of explosions, I usually come in third place with a comment like, “That really wasn’t very good, Mom.” My husband and I are keen to keep our son (now 11) involved in writing, so he can see what is possible with creativity. Many of the best lines and characters in my stories are ones my son dreamed up – it’s great to be able to tap into his imagination. He’s a terrific writer in his own right and we hope he develops a lifelong habit of it.

WOW: I love how you are encouraging your son while making writing a family activity! So, what inspired you to enter this flash fiction contest?

Laila: I like the WOW! quarterly contests because not only is it an open and friendly writing community, but there’s an opportunity for feedback. I’m not keen on sending stories in and having no conversation about them. Sometimes we writers hear nothing back on our stories, sometimes we get enigmatic rejections and occasionally we get helpful critiques and even acceptances. I chose this story for the contest because I knew it had been well received by my writing group and I wanted to know how it would stack up in the ‘real world’ – the critique was interesting and helpful, and I’m pleased by how well it did.

WOW: We're so happy to hear how you like our contests! Congratulations again and we can't wait to see more of our work!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Nicole--Thanks for doing this interview and for giving us a link to Laila's story.

Laila--Congratulations. I enjoyed your story, especially the "surprise" at the end. I am definitely the type of person who crams things in closets and tosses things down in a helteer-skelter fashion. To live with someone who was obsessed with aligning things would drive me crazy. (But living with me would probably drive THEM crazy. ;)

I love that you made sure your mom's story got told. It's too late for me to do that with my mom, but my best friend's mom is ill. Perhaps I can help tell part of her story.

Congratulations again, and good luck with your future writing.

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