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Friday, 9 October 2020

Seventy Percent Water by Jeanette Sheppard

We have a very special guest for you on the Blog. LitPig welcomes the multi-talented, writer and artist, Jeanette Sheppard to talk about her creative life and debut flash fiction collection SEVENTY PERCENT WATER (published by Ellipsis). Her journey to publication for this collection is truly inspiring and confirms that no matter what life throws at you don’t give up on your writing. 

You can read my review of SEVENTY PERCENT WATER at the end of this post …


Jeanette Sheppard
is a writer and artist living in the UK. Seventy Percent Water is her debut collection and was published in July. Her manuscript won the 2020 Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. Jeanette's short fiction has been published in the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, The Lonely Crowd, Reflex Fiction, Mslexia and in four National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. One of her flash fictions pops out of a vending machine in Canada. Her novella-in-flash, Mother Jellyfish, was Highly Commended in the 2019 Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Collection Competition. She is currently redrafting this ready for submission to publishers. 

As an artist Jeanette began by sketching in live situations. More recently, people are asking her to create images for their book covers. She is artist-in-residence for National Flash Fiction Day — her images appear on the 2019 and 2020 anthologies, and she provides images as prompts for the annual Write-In. Her work also appears on the front cover of Diane Simmons' flash fiction collection, Finding a Way (Ad Hoc Fiction) and she has recently completed the front cover image for Alison Woodhouse's novella-in-flash, The House on the Corner (Ad Hoc Fiction).

Seventy Percent Water - Someone or something is missing from their lives.

The collection is made up of a range of small forms, including hermit crab flash, one breathless paragraph, prose poem, micro-fiction told in a handful of sentences, and fragmented flash — some spanning a lifetime. Familial, social and romantic relationships are explored through a sense of who or what is absent. Several of the stories evoke the theme through magical realism — the title story about a woman who tracks down her ex-lover in a hospital corridor takes a fantastical turn of events impossible
to see coming (Han Clark, Lunate Fiction); a woman who accidentally buys trumpet arms on the internet seeks to understand what has gone from her relationship when her human arms are replaced; a young girl struggles with her brother’s lack of love until a buzz begins in her ear; in the opening story, collective fear takes over an ancient village when a missing woodcutter returns physically transformed into a giant creature. Other stories are firmly anchored in the every day — a daughter challenges a medic’s lack of compassion as she conveys powerful images of her mother before she fell ill; a woman with Alzheimer’s asserts her sense of self; a child longs for her jelly-making Dad; a mother, whose adult children have left home, confronts the absence of self-belief when she decides to take up drawing; after the death of her father, a photo on Twitter causes a daughter to reflect on the gender bias in her childhood.

Q-  Can you tell us how this collection came to be written and then published?

Hi Tracy, thank you for inviting me to do a Q&A. It’s great to be here. Some of the flash in the collection was published over several years, but the thread that runs through wasn’t something I planned in a conscious way. I guess that needs some explaining.

Last summer I was working on a novella-in-flash, but I knew Ellipsis would be running their annual flash fiction collection competition in early 2020, so I gathered together my published flash with the intention of creating more at the end of the year. My schedule flew into the air in October when my mother fell and broke her hip. Her dementia meant I needed to be involved at the hospital, rehab, and I had to find her a new nursing home. In February life settled, but I had other creative commitments which would take me through to the end of March — the day Ellipsis closed their submissions window. I made the decision to enter the competition the following year instead. 

Then Covid-19 landed.  

On the day of the closing date, aware of the spin that people were in due to the Coronavirus and lockdown, Ellipsis posted on social media that there would be a week’s extension. Straightaway, I looked at the list on my phone of all the published pieces I had gathered together. At the same time, like so many people, my head was full of thoughts about who and what I would be missing in the months to come. The wires fused together and I came up with the tagline — ‘Someone or something is missing’. I could see that the theme of ‘missing’ wove through my published flashes. I didn't have enough flash for the word count though, and the rules stated half of the collection must be unpublished. Many writers at that time didn’t feel able to write — I was one of them, but redrafting, editing and polishing existing pieces felt possible. I trawled through rough drafts, partially finished drafts and unpublished pieces I’d sent out once or twice, to see if any might fit. I knuckled down to editing and pulling things together. Then, the night before the submissions window closed, the nursing home rang to say that the virus was in the home and that my mum needed to be tested. I was in shock. I belong to a group of flash writers on Facebook where we cheer each other on and I drafted a note on my phone in the evening explaining that I wouldn’t be entering the competition. In the end I told myself finishing what I had started might be the best way to distract myself from the impending test result. There’s no escaping the fact that fear ran through me too — the threat Coronavirus posed in a wider sense. If any of my family or friends contracted the virus how long would it be before I felt able to work on a collection? I wasn’t immune either. There was a real sense of my own mortality—if I don’t do this now, I may never have the chance. I sent in my collection to Ellipsis around fifteen minutes before they closed the doors. A few days later, to my huge relief, my mum’s test result came back negative. 

To my utter shock, I ended up winning the Ellipsis competition. The prize was publication. I worked through lockdown to meet the publication date of early July. I wouldn’t want to suggest for one minute that it takes a pandemic to put a collection together, but I can’t deny the impact of the circumstances. In this case things came together when I least expected it. I hope people take heart from that. There isn’t a single route to publication. Most writers I know are chipping away whenever they can, busy with so many things in their life. 

Q- Seventy Percent Water is a flash fiction collection. Is this a favourite genre of yours to write, and what keeps you coming back to flash fiction?

Yes, I adore flash fiction. In hindsight, I was writing it before I knew what it was called. When National Flash Fiction Day came along nine years ago it was a ping moment, I felt I’d found a home. Since discovering my love of flash it’s never gone away. It’s been great to see it grow in popularity over the years and to watch how it can expand into other forms like a novella-in-flash. 

I’m an experimenter, I guess, and flash is the perfect form in that sense. I can create something surreal like a story about someone with trumpets for arms and then I can write a realistic story about a father buying watermelons.  People have commented that one of the strengths of my collection is the variety, which is thrilling to hear. I keep a notebook of quotes about flash and one I keep coming back to is from Randall Brown, in Rose Metal Press’s excellent ‘Field Guide to Flash Fiction’ — ‘No one way of flash exists’. Variety is important in my life and that feeds into my writing. I can’t mention variety without mentioning Kathy Fish though, it was in her workshops that I learnt about forms like segmented flash, hermit crab flash and one breathless paragraph. There have been many ‘ping’ moments in Kathy’s workshops. I’m a fan of a central image and this can work well in flash. I also love small details, and subtext, which are key to flash. The fall of my gaze in life tends to be close up rather than wide angled. Having said that, there are some flash in my collection that span many years. Randall Brown’s quote is in my head again. 

I think of flash as miniature paintings — something contained within a small space, but there is much more going on beyond the borders. We hear a lot about white space in short fiction, that’s something I’m drawn to. I studied for a degree in theatre studies and then I worked in TV Production — I was looking at scripts full of white space every day. Maybe that’s where the attraction comes from. Not only does flash appeal on a creative level, it has enabled me to continue to write during the years that I looked after my parents. I didn’t have emotional space to write longer fiction and it was difficult to carve out guaranteed time to write — my life was constantly interrupted through necessity, sometimes for months on end. I could snatch moments while sitting in a hospital corridor or in a doctors’ waiting room to put a sentence, a description, or a thought onto my phone. 

Q- A number of stories in the collection felt (to me) very personal, possibly rooted in your own experiences. Is this intentional in your writing? How do you shape and control a story which evolves from something deeply personal to make it ready to publish?

Yes, some of my flash are based on personal experience — Rattle and Spin and Kindling are the closest to memoir, but they still contain elements that I’ve made up. Ha! I think my previous answer about disruption shows intention doesn’t come into a first draft! Having said that, I’ve always thrown down words on the page in the first instance. The less thinking time the better. 

Leaving things aside is especially important with flash rooted in personal experience. It’s impossible to achieve distance in the thick of things. There’s a wonderful flash fiction community out there and sometimes I ask friends for feedback on later drafts, but never on a rough draft because I enjoy rootling around in the mess of words. If it’s something I’ve created in a workshop, writers will sometimes pull out aspects I hadn’t spotted in the flurry of putting down words, and I’ll make notes, but I’ll leave it some time before I come back to the rough draft. I need to feel what I’ve written doesn’t belong to me and think of myself purely as an editor. Putting first words on the page is about heat, passion — a sense of I need to get this down! With a cool editing eye on something inspired by personal circumstances I’m able to see better what serves the story, which usually means making things up. The editing eye usually comes in more than once, of course. In the last few years it’s been necessary to let drafts of my work rest longer than I would have liked, but my life has changed now because my mum died in July, so I’ve yet to establish any kind of pattern for how long I might leave a piece of work before coming back to it.

Q- I love the cover of this collection, which is one of your paintings. As a talented writer and artist, how do you balance the two in your life? Do they both clamour for your time and how do you decide if an idea is best represented by a story or a painting?

Thank you for ‘saying’ that Tracy and I’m thrilled that you love the cover. People have said some lovely things about it. 

Writing has always been my focus and priority, but a few years ago, when I felt unable to form words into any kind of shape, around the time of my mother was first diagnosed with dementia, I began on-location sketching as a way of switching off. On-location sketching is about capturing whatever is in front of me, I’ve never had to fight for time with that — if I’m in a train station, or wherever, I whip out my small square sketchbook, along with my ink pen, waterbrush, and field box, to capture what’s in front of me, or at least I did before Covid-19. I’m delighted to say now though that commissions for book covers are coming in, so I carve out time for that artwork. Diane Simmons saw my sketches and asked if I had anything for the cover of her collection, Finding A Way. That cover has led to other covers. Any commissioned artwork is a delicious bonus, it was never something I intended. 

At first, I wasn’t sure about creating the cover for my collection. I’ve never linked my artwork to my writing, and I find it impossible to create visual images, other than on-location sketches, at a time when I’m writing or editing. That’s partly due to wanting to keep focus, but it’s also about pragmatics. I’m lucky enough to have the back room in our house for all things creative, but it’s a small space, and I have to clear the decks to make room for painting. I’m a messy painter. As with words, in the early stages it’s about getting something down. Ellipsis offered me the chance to create my own cover image, but with publication at the end of July, the schedule was tight.  Steve and I isolated a week when I could focus on the visual side of things. Now that I no longer have caring commitments, there is likely to be time to create more personal art alongside on-location sketching and commissioned work. There is a novella-in-flash to complete first though! 

Q- Can you tell us about your next writing project, what do you have in the pipeline?

Thank you for asking, Tracy. I seem to be answering questions before you’ve asked them! Just in case anyone is reading this question before any others — yes, I’m redrafting a novella-in-flash which I aim to complete before the end of the year. I also have a second flash fiction collection in the corner of my eye. As ever, I don’t know what the collection is about, but that’s fine — I think it’s clear by now that a sense of discovery appeals to me.

Q - Where can we buy a copy of Seventy Percent Water?

My collection is available in paperback, on Kindle and in digital format from Ellipsis. If anyone would like a signed copy they can buy that from me, at the same price. Thank you again for having me on your blog. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to think about how things have evolved for me. 

You can find out more about Jeanette from her website.



My review of SEVENTY PERCENT WATER:

Seventy Percent Water is the debut flash fiction collection from Jeannette Sheppard (Ellipsis). These stories have pathos, heart and humour. I particularly loved the mix of pathos and comedy, along with the splashes of surreal imagery which really make this collection stand above others. 

Some of these stories will wrench your heart as their characters wrestle the emotional challenges of seeing a beloved parent deteriorate. Whatever the topic, Sheppard writes with sensitivity and conviction, at times the emotion is overwhelming. Her language literally dances as she suddenly surprises with a burst of comedy reminding us there is always something to smile about, like sunshine glinting through gathering clouds.


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