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“Interviews with Sam Szanto, Colin Gee, and Bonnie Meekums” by Nolcha Fox




Sam Szanto lives in Durham, UK. Her debut short story collection “If No One Speaks” was published by Alien Buddha Press in 2022.


Over 50 of her stories and poems have been published/ listed in competitions.


In April 2022, she won the Shooter Flash Fiction Contest, placed second in the 2022 Writer’s Mastermind Short Story Contest, third in the 2021 Erewash Open Competition, second in the 2019 Doris Gooderson Competition, and was also a winner in the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Competition. Her short story collection was a finalist in the 2021 St Lawrence Book Awards.


As a poet, she won the 2020 Charroux Prize for Poetry and the First Writers International Poetry Prize, and her poetry has appeared in a number of international literary journals, including “The North.”


Sam can be found at:

Twitter: @sam_szanto

Facebook: sam-szanto

Instagram: samszantowriter


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NF: What drew you into writing? What was your journey to a published writer?


SS: I’ve always written. It’s in my blood as my dad is a published author too, and my parents and school teachers always encouraged me to write. I had my first book published in infant school – I wrote about the elves and fairies I imagined living in my garden and my headteacher printed and bound it! I then had a poem published when I was about 16, and carried on writing, but didn’t really get much published until I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University – that really honed my technique and I got feedback from writers for the first time, which was so helpful.


NF: What, if anything, do you do to get feedback from other writers before you publish?


SS: I don't get much feedback on short stories these days; I wish I had a writer's circle locally, but I've not been here long enough to find one. I do have one writer friend I will occasionally email a story to, and she'll give me her thoughts, but rarely these days. I get feedback on my poetry because I'm doing a course in that now - that's always really useful, especially as it comes from a range of poets who all see the same poem very differently. Rejections are also feedback!


NF: What do you like about writing short stories/flash?


SS: I’ve got a fairly low boredom threshold, so I like the fact that I can write a short story or a poem and then move on to another – harder work with a novel! I also like the way that you don’t have to say everything in a short story; I like to follow Ernest Hemingway’s suggestion of omitting the true ending of a piece to leave the reader wanting more. People often tell me what they think the ‘real’ ending of my story should be; often it’s one I hadn’t considered!


NF: What do you like about writing poetry?


SS: I love creating images, and writing metaphorically. I do this in my short stories, but it has to be sparing or it distracts from the characters and plot. Poems don’t have to have a plot, they can be a succession of images, a stream of loveliness, like looking at a row of stained-glass windows.


NF: What makes you decide whether to write short stories or poetry? When is one medium better than the other?


SS: I’m doing a Masters in Writing Poetry with the Poetry School London / Newcastle University at the moment, so I have to write a certain number of poems for that. If I do too many, though, I miss short stories. I like to play with genres, so I often write a short story and turn it into a poem, and vice versa. Sometimes an idea will fall flat as a story but work well as a prose poem. Sometimes a poem won’t have any life but will work as a story.


NF: Did you always want to put together a collection of short stories, or was it an idea that grew over time?


SS: No, it wasn’t something I thought of. I always felt I had to write novels, that that was the only way to get published and be a ‘real’ writer. I had also never thought there was much of a market for short story collections, which is true in traditional publishing (although I hope that changes). It was only recently that I considered becoming an independent author, and I’m glad I did!


NF: I used to write short stories. When I had enough to put together a short story anthology, I approached some publishers. They all told me I had to write at least one novel before they would consider publishing an anthology. Have you ever run into that attitude? If so, what did you do?


SS: That’s pretty much what I meant in my previous answer. I think traditional booksellers have this belief that people won’t buy short story collections – but how can they, if the big bookstores don’t sell them? Also, short story collections are rarely focused on in schools’ or universities’ curricula. There needs to be a perceptual change. I also don’t think it’s true that the novel has to come first. Tessa Hadley, one of the best-known UK literary fiction writers at the moment, who taught me short-story writing on the Bath Spa MA, published collections of short stories before publishing her novels.


NF: When you put together “If No One Speaks,” did you have a theme in mind to tie the stories together? How did you choose the stories you included in this book?


SS: Yes, the themes of voicelessness and displacement were uppermost in my mind, although with some of the stories, that’s more apparent than in others. I wanted the stories to have a dialogue with each other, for them to speak to each other in terms of tone or content – so, for example, a story about a woman who has to literally and figuratively let go of her daughter in a towerblock fire (“Letting Go”) is followed by another about a woman who is letting go of her father’s ashes on a mountain (“The Thought of Death Sits Easy on the Man”).


NF: Many people write stories based on their own experiences. However, your stories appear to come from somewhere else beyond you. Your imagination? Things you heard? Things you read? Do you imbue any of your characters with your personality, such as in “Quiet Love?” Where do your stories, and their sometimes-exotic settings, come from? Were locations based on places you visited, or did you choose them another way?


SS: I don’t often write about things I’ve experienced personally, but when I’ve finished the stories, I often realize that what I was writing about is a recurring preoccupation. For example, with “Letting Go,” I only thought I was creating a story based on the real-life Grenfell Tower fire, which was a major disaster in London while I lived there, but not one that I was actually involved with. But retrospectively, I realized that what I was writing about was the fear of losing a child: very much present in my life as I have young children, who were very little at the time of creating the story.


I also write a lot of stories in the ephemeral tradition, from a news story I’ve read. What I try to do is ask myself “What if?” – so what if the actual ending was very different, what if other characters were involved, what if it took place in another country etc. This is where “125,” a story that was a winner in the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Competition and is also in the collection, came from. I read a news story about women living in Bangladeshi brothels and imagined one particular woman living there, and thought “What if?” a client was kind enough to her that she fell in love with him? Bangladesh is not a country that I’ve visited, nor have I visited a brothel, but thanks to the internet I was able to find enough material to bring the location to life. Other locations in the collection are places that I really have visited – Thailand, America, the Lake District, etc.


NF: What is the ephemeral tradition?


SS: Perhaps it's not actually a tradition, more a term - used by the poet W.H (Bill) Herbert in a Craft Poetry class I took with him to describe a means of creating poetry from the scraps of writing that accrue around you. He has boxes of news articles that he uses as source material for poetry. I find The Guardian newspaper a rich source of inspiration - many of the stories I've written have been inspired by their Experiences column, which is about ordinary people's very strange and unusual experiences. One of the most recent ones: “I was attacked by a wild boar while surfing.”


NF: Some of your stories seem to revolve around confinement, self-imposed, or imposed from the outside, sometimes to the point of having no control over one’s circumstances (“If No One Speaks,” “Quiet Love,” “I25,” “Making Memories”). If this has been an issue in your life, please describe how, if you don’t mind.


SS: I spent three of my teenage years at an English boarding school in the 1990s, when there was little pastoral care. I didn’t fit in very well and I felt very confined; there was almost nothing to do except lessons and we had almost no freedom, at an age when people need to start becoming more independent. Stephen Fry, who has been to prison, said that if you’ve been to boarding school you can survive in jail! I think that was one of the experiences that made me interested in the idea of confinement. Mental confinement is a big preoccupation for me as well. I have often felt unable to say how I feel, that I will be punished in some way for doing it. Literally, when I was younger, I had a bad stammer – so I really often couldn’t say how I felt. Writing about these things is a kind of therapy, because the women in the stories usually do manage to speak out in some way, even if it is just to other people who can’t change the situation they’re in (as in the title story of the collection, “If No One Speaks,” when the protagonist who is in prison writes letters and talks to her cellmates about what’s happened).


NF: Some of your stories involve chance meetings with death (“Letting Go,” “John,” “My Sister the Murderer,” “Palimpsest”). Have you ever had a near-death experience, and if so, can you describe it? What attracts you to this theme?


SS: I think it’s something most people are interested in, hence the obsession with thrillers and crime dramas. We’re all frail and mortal, aren’t we? I suppose for me that’s another thing that’s come with having children, the sense of needing to stay around for them. Also, having elderly parents in my 40s, when my friends are losing theirs, death seems more real than it did 10 or 20 years ago, when I didn’t know many people who had experienced loss.


I guess I am fascinated by what death represents, which is not knowing; it’s a different story for everyone and not one that we can ever second-guess. I met a man on a train a couple of months ago, a very, very ordinary-looking man, who told me after about ten minutes of conversation that he’d recently been in a coma and had visited the gates of heaven and hell – that he’d been turned away from both as it wasn’t his time, and when he came out of his coma the nurse said “I can tell from your face you’ve been to the gates, it often happens to those who nearly pass.” Wow – I got off the train, ran home, and wrote a poem about that as soon as I could!


NF: Some of your stories are graphic and brutal (“If No One Speaks,” “A Good Boy”). What was the genesis of these stories?


SS: “A Good Boy” (about someone who has a lobotomy) is a true story – the character isn’t real, but everything that happens to him is. I’m interested in mental illness, my mum used to be a psychiatric nurse so has told me some things, and about what used to happen to patients – treatments were often barbaric. “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath was an influence on me in that respect too.


“If No One Speaks” is also based on truth; the Russian prison system is incredibly brutal – as are many prison systems. Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina have spoken up about what happens in Russia, and people are starting to listen, but I’m not sure much has changed.


NF: What are you writing now? Do you have any new projects in mind, and if so, what are they?


SS: I’m writing more poetry, and hope to have a chapbook (which we call a pamphlet in the UK) out in the next year. I’m also writing a novel about a mother and a daughter – no title yet!


Here are links to some of my recent poetry:


“Night-light” won first prize in the First Writer International Poetry Competition:


“On Screen” was only published last month, in Impostor Lit:


NF: Do you have any plans or dreams to live somewhere else? To do something totally different? If so, please share.


SS: In April 2021, I uprooted my family from London to Durham, which involved my kids having to leave their schools, so I want to stay here for the rest of their childhoods at least. I would like to travel more widely – I’d love to see more of America, and visit Canada. I do a lot of traveling in my mind at the moment!


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Colin Gee (@ColinMGee, he/him) is the founder and editor of The Gorko Gazette (@GorkoThe), a humor daily that publishes headlines, cartoons, reviews, and poetry. Fiction in Misery Tourism, Expat Press, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Bear Creek Gazette, Exacting Clam, and elsewhere.


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NF: When you accepted my first submission, you told me I could claim my first pizza as a reward. I asked if you could send virtual pizza, since I live in Wyoming, and you live in Mexico. A sourdough starter and fresh ingredients sound just yummy. When am I going to get my pizza?


CG: Whenever you get your lazy ass down to Mexico. Of course, I have since moved and threw my starter out (tragedy and comedy often collide), so I would need probably a few days’ notice. Naw, like 2 hours’ notice, we could improv. I hear the tacos are excellent in Mexico, too.


NF: How did you end up in Mexico? Did you ever live in Peoria and do you have an Uncle Toby?

How did you fall into teaching? Please tell me about your life journey.


CG: I have lived outside the US since I graduated college, with a brief stint back for grad school. I like the simplicity of life outside of the first world, as they call it, and the relative independence from big gov. Poor but free. And the weather helps seasonal affective issues that I remember all too well.


Uncles I think are great targets for humor, and they generally know it. My paternal grandmother was from Peoria, they say, also the phrase “But will it play in Peoria.” Running joke, feeble.


I am currently the director of a very good English as a Second Language program in Oaxaca, Mexico, in which we are trying to get students to B1-B2 level fluency in productive skills, despite these students coming in often with no English, or even with Spanish as their second language.


NF: What made you decide to start The Gorko Gazette? When did you start it? Was it always electronic, or was it ever a paper gazette? Was it daily when you first started it? Have you always had contributors, or are contributors a more recent phenomenon? And where do you get your ideas for some of the off-the-wall daily posts? If you have a secret repository for the weird and insane, I want in.


CG: I guess I do call it a daily even though that just means we publish new stuff daily, not a new edition. The Gorko is just me, so I cannot put together a whole zine every day, though I could if that was all I did. My parents encouraged me to pursue creative writing when I was a kid, and then helped me start putting out zines for friends and extremely embarrassed relatives when I was like 10 or 11. The first name of The Gorko Gazette, I think, was The Pencil’s End or something. The earliest contributors were my friends Kyle, Jake, and I think even Josh, even though poor Josh had never even read a book, but he gave it a try. I still remember the look on his face when he handed me his submission at the bowling alley, it was like a first kiss. They all have grown-up jobs now.


Not sure what you mean by off-the-wall, how dare you. Everything in The Gorko is completely serious.


NF: Where did the name Raddy come from?


CG: I used to run my neologisms by Jake, who went to MIT on full scholarship at the age of 16, to whom I proved once and forever that Macs ARE superior to IBMs in an arm-wrestling match, and he would always shoot them down. That word already exists! he would say, doing code with one hand. Raddy is an embarrassing thing that happened, but I like to stuff my face in my own stupidity and egotism sometimes because I think our memories shouldn’t hurt us as much as they do.


NF: We’ve talked about food a bit. You mention you have a dairy sensitivity. How did you finally figure out what was wrong? And how do you deal with that in a country where everything is coated in cheese (even the cheese)?


CG: I was sick for about 2 years in high school and finally my mom suggested isolating food items, and it was the dairy. My dairy issues included cheese, milk, cream, and almost all commercial snacks and desserts (whey and other dairy lurking in there). I still don't eat snacks. In Mexico, I buy fresh vegetables and meat at reasonable prices and then cook them to make delicious food. Cheese or cheese products rarely enter the equation.


NF: You mention in your bio that you write fiction. However, I’ve seen at least one of your published poems, and I suspect you’re Captain B, although I can’t prove it. Is poetry a closet thing for you? What do you like about writing poetry, and what do you like about writing fiction?


CG: Yeah, people think that I am Captain B! I am not. Captain B is my greatest and oldest friend Nacho Puro, a teacher and imbiber of words who in fact is sitting on an iceberg tip of archived poetry and fiction that would sink Kate Winslet. He used to publish musings daily on his own blog but took them down per agreement when he published his novels, but I asked him to join The Gorko with new offerings to give it some flavor. Thanks to Captain B, we are now publishing good, edgy poetry and art from the likes of Colin James, Oliver Baer, Adam Van Winkle, Mark Blickley, Adora Williams, Laszlo Aranyi, Nolcha Fox, and others! It is great fun.


I dislike most contemporary poetry. It is mostly embarrassingly bad. I was reading classical Latin, Greek, and English poetry when I was a teenager, so sorry, but I know what is good. To get into modernist poetry, I forced myself to research the Dadaists and Cubists of the early 20th century and write “Misanthropology,” a satirical commentary on the collected works of the fictional Gulliver S. Gulliver, modernist poet and chump. (A running feature on The Gorko uses the same satirical concept. See, for example, https://thegorkogazette.com/2022/02/20/gazelle-of-unfended-laatsi-by-guy-duvet/.) I am glad I did because there is a lot of amazing modernist and contemporary poetry out there. Yes, I was wrong, it is only mostly bad, while some of it is great. For contemporary indie lit poetry, I recommend anything that comes out of Outcast Press Poetry, helmed by H.L.R. and Amy-Jean Muller. Cajun Mutt Press puts out good stuff, too, and of course the three big dogs I mention below…


NF: What are your future literary plans (books, podcasts, whatever)? Do you ever see yourself giving up The Gorko Gazette, or do you think it will always follow you around like a bad cold?


CG: Yeah, it has been great to get into the lit underground scene and publish some short things with people who publish things I like, Misery Tourism and Expat Lit and A Thin Slice of Anxiety especially. I actually read with William and Rudy on Misery Loves Company a few weeks back, my first reading which I guess I botched, but William just eats up words, he is the best. Viva Misery Tourism. Hopefully, someday people will enjoy reading my “Battlerof Beowulf,” the only honest WTF reading of the Old English poem, sorry Seamus Heaney, and yes, I read/translated the Old English syllable by syllable, but I guess non-historical, tongue-in-cheek battle fiction may have to wait until The Gorko Press exists.


NF: Do you have any plans or dreams to live somewhere else? To do something totally different?


CG: Nope, this is fine. Ha ha.


NF: How can people submit to The Gorko Gazette?



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Bonnie is a British writer who mainly writes flash fiction, with the occasional short story or poem. She also has book-length publications in non-fiction, fiction, and memoir. Her flash fiction has appeared or is in publication with several literary magazines and anthologies, including those by Reflex Press, Ad Hoc Fiction, Briefly Zine, and Dribble Drabble, and she has been listed for competitions by King Lear and Reflex Press. She lives in Greater Manchester, where she shares a house with an unpredictable number of family members.

Twitter: @bonniemeekums


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NF: What influenced you to start writing creatively? Have you always written?


BM: Hmmm. Well, as a child I remember writing a poem at school. I must have been about ten years old, I guess. I was writing about ‘The dinosaur’, and for some reason, I decided to make that the end line of each stanza. I think the other lines were probably dedum, dedum, dedum, dedum, and there were three lines to each stanza. I had my very own book of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson called “A child’s garden of verse.” I treasured that book and knew many of the poems by heart. I think that’s where I got my love of rhythmic structure. Then, in high school, I started writing short stories and my English teacher kinda liked them. But I didn’t keep it up, despite a diploma in dance, theatre, and writing in my twenties that taught me zilch about writing.


Fast forward to my late fifties. It’s 2011, and I’m a lecturer in counseling and psychotherapy at a major UK university. The wonderful staff center offers a writing course with a local writer called Ian Clayton, and that is when I rekindle my love of writing.


After retiring, I also did an online course with Open University. In 2019, my creative memoir The Story Hunter was published by Dear Damsels. Then, my debut novel, “A Kind of Family,” was published in 2020 by Between the Lines publishing. Around the same time, I got into flash fiction, which is where I put a lot of my energies these days. I’ve also self-published my second novel “My Upside Down World,” set in WW2, and co-authored a working-class memoir, “Remnants of War,” with my sister, Jackie Hales.


NF: You mentioned that you had polio when you were younger. How did that impact you and your writing?


BM: I was three. I wasn’t writing much at the time. But I have written about that traumatic experience, as part of an autoethnography published in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, which included some of my poems. I suspect being paralyzed and having to learn to walk again might have influenced my career focus on embodiment (I am a Dance Movement Therapist), and that, in turn, has influenced my creative writing.

NF: What kind of writing do you like to do best?


BM: Definitely flash fiction (though poetry is growing on me again). I love the succinctness - I’m a bit of a nerd, and I love getting down to the essence of something. Plus, I like to find out what my story is about and go back after the first draft, to find a core metaphor. That means it can get a bit surreal as I mine that metaphor, telling the story by staying as close to it as possible.


NF: You mentioned that you also write longer, book-length fiction and memoir. Tell me about them.


BM: My first novel, “A Kind of Family,” follows a psychotherapist and academic called Rachel who feels alone in the world, despite having some good friends. She falls in love with community artist Fran, and shortly after this, an older woman called Aggie, who looks like she is straight out of the sixties, pays Rachel a visit. Aggie seems very interested in Rachel and Fran, and she keeps turning up. But it soon becomes apparent to Rachel that only she can see and hear Aggie. Rachel and Fran marry, and eventually, Fran gives birth to a baby boy using Rachel’s eggs and sperm donated by Richard, one of Rachel’s colleagues from the university. But disaster strikes. In the process of piecing herself together afterward, Rachel realizes who her family really is.


For anyone wanting to read “A Kind of Family,” you can follow me on Twitter or Facebook and DM me for a signed copy, or it is also available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kind-Family-Bonnie-Meekums/dp/1950502074/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1HA5UEWZDZR3M&keywords=A+kind+of+family+meekums&qid=1661796477&s=books&sprefix=a+kind+of+family+meekums%2Cstripbooks%2C74&sr=1-1


My second novel, “My Upside Down World,” which I self-published, is written as Lily’s diary during World War Two. Lily is a working-class Londoner who was not born in London, but she has never told anyone the true story of her origins. What’s more, she tells no one that she regularly travels in time and space, to visit her birth mother. Lily’s biggest fear is being left, which is what she has to face when her husband, Stan, is called up. Shortly after meeting Hilda, a Quaker who makes Lily question the wisdom of war and the ideas she has been fed about some people being better than others, she makes the difficult decision to be evacuated with her children, to Stan’s family in the North of England. Once there, and with Stan killed after being convicted of murder, she has to find a way to contribute financially. And what’s more, she has to find a way to clear Stan’s name. On her return to London after the Blitz, she faces an even bigger challenge when she encounters racism.



And lastly, “Remnants of War” is a collaboration with my writer-sister, Jackie Hales. It follows our development in the 1950s from the era of make-do-and-mend to the time when working-class people in Britain were told we had ‘never had it so good.’ It also traces the importance of education both formal and informal, in helping us both to break out of the traditional roles delineated for girls.



NF: Our first flash/poetry collaboration will be published by Moss Puppy Magazine in November. Why did you decide to invite people to collaborate?


BM: That’s a really interesting question. I was inspired by Meg Pokrass, an amazing flash fiction writer who does collaborative as well as individual writing. I wanted also to explore hybrid forms. I had read a novella-in-flash, “Gaps in the Light,” by Iona Winter, in which she uses both poetry and flash fiction, often within the same short chapter. I thought it would be fun to work with a poet on creating a collaborative, hybrid piece. I had already collaborated with my sister on our book-length memoir, so I went for it.


NF: While I hope to continue writing, even when I’m on my deathbed, as I age, I worry about the horrors that might end my writing career (a colorful illness, the zombie apocalypse, or an attack of space aliens). Has this ever crossed your mind, and what might you see happening that would move your life in a different direction?


BM: Well, that’s interesting. I started writing in part because I love all the arts, but I’m primarily a dancer. I figured writing could go on longer, but I was probably wrong in that regard because sitting for any length of time (like typing this) hurts my arthritic hip. I have to move, to avoid getting too stiff and in pain. So that might be the thing that stops me. But if it does, I’ll find another way to engage with the arts. There is so much left to explore. And one day, the lights will go out, but I know I will have left a trace, should anyone wish to follow it.


***





Nolcha has written all her life, starting with poop and crayons on the walls. Her poems have been published in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Alien Buddha Zine, Medusa’s Kitchen, and others. Her chapbooks, “My Father’s Ghost Hates Cats” and “The Big Unda” are available on Amazon. Nominee for 2023 Best of The Net. Editor for Kiss My Poetry.

Twitter: @NolchaF

“My Father’s Ghost Hates Cats” https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09QP1XY3X

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