Flash Contest 2nd Prize: Conor Houghton

Flash Contest 2nd Prize: Conor Houghton

Conor is the 2nd prize winner in our 2018 Flash Fiction Contest. His story, ‘A Famous Scandal At Work’ can be read in our SHORT SHORTS issue, and was chosen by judge Lara Williams for being ‘vivid, strange, bittersweet – and very affecting, with such rich imagery.’ Here, we find out what inspired Conor’s story, and he contemplates characters & plot in flash fiction.

Congratulations, Conor – you’re our 2nd prize winner of the Flash Fiction Contest 2018. Can you tell us what inspired your winning piece, ‘A Famous Scandal At Work’?

I read two great books in quick succession; Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya's short story collection There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself; they are both beautiful and sad and funny and share a wry tone I loved and wanted to try and imitate.

I didn't come anywhere close of course, but that attempt is what lead to ‘A Famous Scandal at Work’. Also, as you might guess, I worked one summer in a small fast food restaurant. There was no sex but I do have fond memories of cutting the milk willy and less fond memories of polishing stainless steel with baby oil.

A Famous Scandal At Work’ seems to talk not just about romance and passion, but about growing up and growing out of a place. In that way, how do you think the piece engages with nostalgia?

As a very inexperienced writer I try to stick to well established themes and nostalgia is certainly that – it is so nice to write about it because it is the most innocent form of regret: we are never guilty of causing time to pass. In the story, I wanted to write about the weird telescope of nostalgic memory: we never know when which end of the telescope we are holding to our eye.

In what ways does your work – this piece and others – engage with the idea of synaesthesia?

It would be wonderful to mimic the uncanny specificity to synaesthesia, not just one sense tumbling helter-skelter into another, but a new language of fused sensations, one thing evoking a specific other, a colour for a letter, a feeling for a sound. As a metaphor for writing it is an inspiring but impossible goal.

What appeals to you about flash as a genre?

Rachel Cusk has famously described plots as ‘fake and embarrassing’ and said that ‘the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.’

I think this concern with the distinction between plot and storytelling is important, fun and exciting. It isn't new of course – the great Jean Rhys, for example, found a way around plot, she rarely makes her main character do anything, instead she finds her in her room telling the stories she needs to tell to carry on – but it seems the embarrassment of plot is now a more urgent preoccupation.

Rachel Cusk and Ali Smith and Nicola Barker have all founds way to avoid or play with the falseness of plot and to turn plot into narrative. I feel flash, with its brevity, helps me, in my own very limited way, to attempt the same.

Conor is a computational neuroscientist who grew up in Galway in the west of Ireland but who now lives in the south-west of England. His fiction has appeared in Bare Fiction Magazine, the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology and the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology. Twitter: @conorjh