One of the untrammelled joys of the authoring lark is that, from time to time, you get to meet fellow authors who turn out to be talented and interesting people. I met John Holland when we were both involved in last year’s Evesham Festival of Words in Gloucestershire, John as judge of the festival’s short story competition me giving a talk on writing stories to win competitions. John is a short story writer who reads his work at lots of events. He also runs a popular event here in Gloucestershire called Stroud Short Stories – I thought it would be great to get to know him a little better.
Tell me a little bit about yourself as a person?
I’m a Yorkshire man who has been living in Stroud in Gloucestershire for 25 years. A librarian by profession and a library campaigner (I was on News at Ten!), I also wrote topical satirical gags freelance in the 1980s and early 1990s until the BBC gave me a contract. My gags appeared regularly in Punch magazine (Sideswipes), on Weekending on Radio 4 and The News Huddlines on Radio 2. I also wrote for a few short-lived TV comedy shows, the names of which happily I have forgotten.
As well as short stories and comedy, I’m an avid fan of modern jazz and rock music, Wolverhampton Wanderers, nature, modern art and studio pottery.
I am getting married (to Christiane) on Saturday 7 October 2017.
Tell me about your journey as a writer – how you started and how you have developed?
The year after I retired – in 2011- I went on two courses – cookery and creative writing. I loved the cookery course, but as my first short story was published by the course tutor, and the family got food poisoning, I stuck with the writing. My only previous experience was writing the topical gags, and also hundreds of committee reports for Gloucestershire County Council.
I never intended to have any stories published or to enter any competitions, but once I tried it my competitive side kicked in. I’ve had about 60 stories or flash fiction published in the last 4-5 years and won or been short listed (mainly the latter!) etc in about 30 comps. My story ‘Da’ won the £1,000 First Prize InkTears Short Story Contest earlier this year. There’s a photo of me flat out on the living room floor having received the news.
I also read my stories to audiences these days (Bath, Bristol, London, Cheltenham, Worcester and, of course, Hawkesbury Upton) although never at Stroud Short Stories, as this is where I showcase other writers’ work. My next gigs are at the Stroud Theatre Festival on 29th and 30th September for tickets click here Again, public reading is something I never dreamed I would do, but usually, despite the pre-event anxiety, I enjoy it. Hearing an audience laugh at something I have written really is a major high!
How would you describe your work – its themes and the important things about it?
I’m never satisfied with my own writing – and for good reason.
I have written in a bewildering range of styles. These days I am happiest writing stories that are dark or funny. More so if they are darkly funny. I like irony too but it has to be handled carefully, something I am incapable of. Ironically.
In terms of themes, my stories often contain love, sex and/or death. Sometimes simultaneously.
What makes a good short story is a highly subjective matter, and what makes a short story funny, or at least amusing, even more so. I know authors who laugh out loud whilst writing their stories. Those people need help.
What are the strengths of the short story as a form in your opinion and why do you chose to write them rather than novels?
I love both the precision and the ambiguity of short stories. Editing, editing, re-editing stories until there is no word unexamined is something I really enjoy, although it can takes months. When reading I like to admire that precision in another author’s work too.
Novels can be flabby and self-indulgent. I rarely read them, and if I do I’m constantly flicking forward. Having said that, I doubt if I have the intellect or the energy to write a novel.
As a reader, I’m prepared to do a little more work for a short story. I enjoy the fact that we have to use our imagination more, and that many of the best stories have an ambiguous ending, or at least an ending the reader has to make up their own mind about. Perhaps, as David Gaffney probably didn’t say, a story should have an ending that resounds like a bell. An ending that gives one pause for thought or reflection, even if only for few seconds.
Tell me about Stroud Short Stories?
Stroud Short Stories is a twice yearly event, held at the SVA in Stroud. Its aim is to showcase and promote Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire authors and their work. It was started in 2011 by author and artist Bill Jones. I took over in 2014. Twice a year local writers send me their stories, and I, with a fellow judge, choose ten which they read at the event. The last eight events have sold out, so the authors read to about seventy people each time. There is no prize money and no winner. In my view it’s really important for authors to read their work. It’s a rite of passage. The audience is always hugely friendly, supportive and enthusiastic. As an experience – for writers and audience members – it works.
The quality of submission is very high, and we attract professional authors from Gloucestershire as well as amateurs. Because we often receive around a hundred submissions, I am very conscious of the fact that the majority of those who submit are disappointed even though they may write very well. So I often drop an email to those who narrowly miss out, to say how much we enjoyed their work.
Stroud Short Stories celebrated its fifth birthday last year – at Cheltenham Literature Festival. The LitFest programme generously described SSS as ‘possibly the best short story event in the South West’. That event sold out too – 140 seats!
It’s free to submit, and for me it’s a labour of love. I don’t make a penny out of it. I am the organiser, and my partner, Christiane, is the administrator. Many other people help us, giving their time for free. For the next event my fellow judge is short story author, novelist, self-publishing guru and Hawkesbury Upton Festival organiser Debbie Young. Last time it was short story author Ali Bacon. My son, James, a top London graphic designer, creates the poster designs; my other son, Ed, records the music we play; author David Penny sometimes videos the event and we find a photographer each time to take snaps without charge. I am really grateful to these people.
Tell me about the event you have coming up? Where can we find out more about you and about Stroud Short Stories?
Submissions for the next Stroud Short Stories event close at 23.59 on Saturday 23 September. The theme, to go along with our wedding, is ‘All you need is love. Or is it?’
The event itself – our 15th – is on Sunday 5th November at the SVA in John Street, Stroud. Doors are at 7.30 and the event starts at 8.00. This time it’s also part of the Stroud Book Festival. Tickets are £7 from the SVA website click here only available by this means in advance. Tickets are not on sale yet.
All the information about SSS is on our website – click here
SSS is on Twitter – @StroudStories