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Interview with Fatima Elkalay, Highly Recommended Writer, 1st Quarter 2018

- Can you please tell us about you? Where do you live and how is your daily life?

I live with my husband and family in a quiet suburb in Cairo, Egypt. Quiet or not, however, Cairo always keeps you on your toes! Egypt is a very people-oriented society, so you end up getting into other people's business whether or not you want to. You are constantly checking on others, running errands, helping out. It’s something that becomes part of the ebb and flow of life here, and you become very good at it after a while.

- When did you start writing? How often do you write? We want to learn all about your writing life!

I always say there are things in life that choose us, not the other way around, like certain vocations, and places. My cats are one of them; writing is another—it found me when I was just seven. I was this shy, lonely foreign kid, growing up in Scotland, and trying to fit in. My class was asked to write a poem about rain, and for me that was it. Something just shifted. I'm not sure what exactly, but I felt a deep connection, the kind you feel when you’ve finally found home. I studied English literature as an undergraduate and creative writing for my graduate studies, so I’d always be in the company of words. Poetry offered me a place to feel safe and understood, and when I sat down to write, it was like being both listened to and heard by the words that emerged.

In time I came to write short stories, but poetry will always be my first love.

As far as my writing routine goes, I do try to carve out a fixed time to sit and write every day, but some days I just have to be satisfied with punching in a few hurried lines on my phone.

Being a self-taught artist has really enriched me as a writer, too. It’s a blessing to be able to creatively express myself in more than one art form, because the process and experience of one artistic medium often flows into the other. Visual arts have shown me how the use of texture and colour can invigorate language. They have also reminded me how illusion can be created through art, and that well chosen words, like subtle brushstrokes, create lasting images in the mind.

Lately I’ve been giving writing workshops in both poetry and short story writing, and this has been exciting and refreshing. There’s so much a writer can learn from teaching others, and it’s truly satisfying to immerse in a piece of work in progress, from its rough-edged beginnings to the polished gem of a final draft

I have been published in Passionfruit (USA), Rowayat (Egypt), and Anomalous Press (USA). In 2018 I was shortlisted for the Arablit Story Prize, for literature in translation, and of course, short listed in LISP.

- How did you feel when you learned that you were short listed for The London Independent Story Prize? How does it feel to have your work recognised?

I was very honoured. Lots of great work is submitted to the prize, so being chosen kind of feels like being handpicked, a lucky pebble or shell on a vast beach of creativity (lucky for me, at least!). Being recognized is heartwarming. Writers have things to say, and when what we say somehow resonates or strikes a cord, it feels as if we haven't wasted our time

- What's the best thing and the hardest thing about writing a Flash-Fiction?

I think it's wonderful to capture a huge landscape of a story on a very small canvas. You have to choose carefully and economically without skimping on powerfully telling a story and creating a convincing and compelling world. That is the trickiest part. You want to engage your reader with a few short lines, drawing them into your narrative with no less force than a full length novel. So what is left out is just as important, the pauses that reveal much and do the work for you.

- How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And how long have you been working on it?

Exploitation of the vulnerable deeply disturbs me. That includes animals, displaced people, senior citizens, and of course children. Back in 2013, which was the Chinese year of the Black Water Snake, I came up with the idea of writing a story about a cold blooded trafficker who takes advantage of vulnerable little girls. That’s how it all started.

- Can you please give us a few tips about writing a 300-word flash-fiction story?

I mentioned earlier that writing flash is like capturing a huge landscape in a small canvas. Always remember you are creating a whole story but in miniature. Imagine yourself drawing the map of the world on shrinky plastic and baking it until it’s tiny. Obviously you can't cram a whole lot of intricate detail on a tiny piece of plastic, because nothing will show up clearly. So you have to be artistically selective. That often means that what is conveyed comes across from what is left out, not what is put in. The pauses, the negative spaces, the white noise, followed by loaded words, can be unpacked in the reader's mind with as much effect as a tumbling epic. Chronology doesn't always work when word count is tight; by the time you get to the end of your timeline, the story can seem squashed, flat and boring. Start in the middle of rising drama and imply a compelling backstory. Your reader is intelligent enough to pick up on hints and symbols, so afford them the opportunity to make their own conclusions about the story. One great piece of advice I read was utilizing the title to your best advantage. A title can do a chunk of the work for you, introducing some theme, or cutting right into the plot, so you have less to worry about conveying in the actual story.

- What's the best thing about writing competitions? Having a deadline, a motivation to finish the story, the chance of winning, getting recognised by a professional organisation, communicating with other writers or a networking opportunity to meet with like-minded people?

A little bit of everything! But honestly, the recognition is wonderful. I think reading other great work is really important for your growth as a writer, so carefully reading winning entries shows you how you can do better next time

-Lastly, do you recommend the writers to give it a go on flash fiction story and LISP?

Flash is a beautiful compact form of fiction, and I really think that submitting to competitions is a great way to build your confidence as a writer, especially when your work is recognized. And the LISP team are so gracious and generous (trust me on this one: they let me submit this interview a year later...)

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