Interview with Deborah Tomkins: Fall 2020 Flash Fiction Runner Up

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Deborah Tomkins lives in the historic city of Bristol, UK, with her family. She gained an Honours degree in French & Linguistics, then became a dictionary writer, before educating her children at home for 15 years. She’s passionate about the natural world, and now works for a UK environmental charity. 

As a child Deborah loved reading, and secretly harboured the idea of writing fiction, but didn’t begin until her late forties. She writes novels, novellas and short stories, in inconsistent bursts of activity. Now We Are Seven is the first story in a science fiction novella-in-flash set in an alternate universe. A contemporary climate fiction novel has reached long and short lists in competitions, but has yet to find a publisher. 

In 2017 Deborah founded the Bristol-based writing network, Bristol Climate Writers. She is also an author at ClimateCultures.

If you haven't read "Now We Are Seven" click through and then return to learn more about her work and climate writing. 

--Interview by Sue Bradford Edwards

WOW:  What was the inspiration behind “Now We Are Seven”? 

Deborah: In my longer fiction I like to explore someone’s life over several decades. This little story is the first in a novella-in-flash, “First, Do No Harm,” which takes my protagonist Magnus through 50 years of his life. I decided to begin on his seventh birthday, and try to weave in as much of his world as possible while still keeping the story a story. I thought I might make a flash about each of his birthdays, but abandoned that after a while as that form didn’t suit what I wanted the novella to do. 

We meet Magnus in this tremendously difficult position, stuck at the top of a tree as night falls, and there are hints of both the physical and emotional worlds he has to learn to negotiate as he grows up, which become more apparent as the novella progresses. The tricky thing is making the flash a complete story, while at the same time allowing it to be part of a bigger whole. I’m still learning how to do that. 

WOW: Rewriting is such a big part of the writing process. How did this story evolve through revision? 

Deborah: It changed completely several times! The basic elements were always there but in different orders. It started off almost as long as it is now, then I cut it massively (to about half the length), but that felt too bare and spare. Other times there were more details that never made the final cut as they weren’t as relevant. I think often in early drafts you are writing for yourself, rather than a reader. 

I also learned over the past couple of years to get closer to my characters, avoiding phrases such as “he wishes”, “he thinks”, so that also altered the style. I have to confess I have revised it since this contest too! 

WOW: What advice do you have for writers who are new to writing flash? 

Deborah: Just give it a go! I still feel I’m very much a beginner at writing flash. It’s a different skill set from what we normally think of when writing. In flash we need to learn about compressing the story, using fewer words (but the right words), leaving things out and maybe just hinting at them, working out what needs to be said and what doesn’t. This can apply at word, phrase, and sentence level, and even at paragraph level. 

And stories do need a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order… 

I will add that my longer writing has improved hugely since beginning to write flash, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s like a workout! 

WOW:  I'm very much a chronological writer and am still learning to experiment. Tell us about the novella that “Now We Are Seven” begins. 

Deborah: In a class at the Flash Fiction Festival about 3 years ago – this is a wonderful weekend in the UK which I attended because I knew nothing about flash and wanted to learn – we had to write the beginning of a story. I can’t remember the exercise, but I do remember the image which popped into my head, an astronaut who still keeps things in his pockets as he did as a child. 

I felt I had to do something with this slightly surreal image, and it seemed there might be more to discover. Over a few months it became clearer. The novella is set in an alternate universe, with Earth heading towards an ice age. Life is a hard scrabble for survival, despite many idyllic aspects of the planet, and Magnus wants something different. He trains as an astronaut and travels to Earth’s twin, Aerth, the other side of the Sun, the opposite in so many ways of his home planet. Here he becomes trapped. 

I found myself formulating and exploring a different kind of society. In the story, Earth has a dark and destructive history, which the reader – and Magnus – only discovers bit by bit. Earth’s response has been to create a pacifist society with five principles for living, which successfully wards off recreating the mistakes and excesses of the past. But visiting Aerth is a shock and Magnus has to adapt fast. 

The novella reached the longlist of the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2019, which was very exciting, but I knew it needed more work to fill in some plot holes and suggest more about the two worlds. So I crafted more stories and slipped them in. It was only after revising it this past winter I realised how much I’ve been unconsciously influenced by the great writer Ursula le Guin, as well as consciously influenced by my faith. 

WOW:  Congratulations on making the longlist.  That's quite an achievement. How do your passions, such as nature and the natural world, fuel your writing? 

Deborah: I think my passion for the natural world is always there as a kind of foundation. Most children are fascinated by nature, and many adults love experiencing nature too, whether through gardening, travel, or hobbies such as photography or art. It’s been scientifically proven that time spent in the natural world not only measurably lowers human stress hormones, such as cortisol, but helps in creating feelings of wellbeing as well as reducing heartrate and anxiety. Yet our fast-moving technological society both separates us from nature and damages it. 

Sometimes we’re in danger of forgetting how much we depend on nature’s gifts of food, fresh air and clean water, as well as forests and oceans. 

So I tend to weave this love in as much as possible in my writing. In my novella everyone on Earth loves nature, but Magnus only appreciates what he’s lost when he’s trapped on the other planet. It’s a big metaphor, really, about not taking what we have for granted. 

I’ve also written extensively about climate grief and eco-anxiety, both in fiction and non-fiction. My contemporary novel is about a woman who discovers the appalling destruction being done to the natural world, and that much of this destruction cannot be undone. The novel explores her emotional journey from shock and denial through to acceptance and a measure of peace as she builds a new kind of life. She’s an everywoman, with many flaws as well as gifts, and makes some brave choices about changing her lifestyle, with a lot of opposition from her family. 

I was keen to meet other writers exploring nature and climate, which is why I founded the network Bristol Climate Writers in 2017. Most of us also write about other things, but it’s great to have that dedicated space to explore these really important issues together.

WOW:  Your passion definitely comes through in your writing.  I hope some of our readers use the links above to check out more of your work.  Thank you for taking time to chat with us!


Jeanine DeHoney said...

Congratulations Deborah. Wow, how fascinating that must have been to be a dictionary writer. I enjoyed reading your story, "Now We Are Seven." Good luck with all of your writing endeavors.

Deborah Tomkins said...

Jeanine, thank you so much, you’re very kind. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. All the best to you too.

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