Fiction and non-fiction writer and also winner of 2018 Leicester Writes Prize, Selma Carvalho, discusses short story writing and the fundamental elements that make one remarkable.
Hi Selma, we are glad to have you on Mehara Lit. Could you kindly introduce yourself to our readers? Who is Selma Carvalho?
Thank you Mehara Lit for your interest in my work. I am a British-Asian writer and author of three books documenting the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. I am also a fiction writer who has had mild success being acknowledged by competitions and journals in the UK and India. I am originally from Goa, an ex-Portuguese colony on the west coast of India, but I grew up in Dubai, part of the Arabian Gulf, then lived for many years in America before moving to London in 2008.
It is indeed amazing, how many short stories you have written and quite a good number of them were either longlisted or shortlisted for one award or the other and you continued, until you won the Leicester Writes Prize in 2018. Great! So, along the way, did you finally discover the missing pieces or things you needed to do to finally standout?
I doubt anyone has a formula for the perfect short story. I have had stories rejected by journals which then went on to be shortlisted by major competitions. It depends largely on individual tastes. But with practice, one’s language improves, one’s ability to control pace improves; the mise-en-scene improves with patience.
I doubt anyone has a formula for the perfect short story… but with practice, one’s language improves, one’s ability to control pace improves; the mise-en-scene improves with patience.
What do you find unique about writing short stories?
I think it is a universal truth that every fiction writer starts out writing short stories. It is a form, which is amenable to, and forgiving of aspiring writers. It is short, it can be written in one complete burst of creative energy, and given the resurgence of journals and competitions that now support the short story form, it also validates the writer fairly quickly.
Are there key or basic elements that make an interesting short story?
I always think of a short story as a scene on stage which the audience has caught midway. Something has happened, something is about to happen. The short story is that passageway between all that has come before, and all that will come after. The writer doesn’t have to tell the reader what has come before, they can merely hint at it. Nor does the writer have to specify what will happen in the future. That is for the reader to decide.
Some of the greatest short stories come for the genre of crime and the supernatural. I think the form lends itself well to these genres. So, for me, the three most fundamental elements of a short story are language, pacing and the ability to either entertain or make the reader think deeply about something.
So, for me, the three most fundamental elements of a short story are language, pacing and the ability to either entertain or make the reader think deeply about something.
If you were to compare between short fiction, poetry and non- fiction, all genres you have explored, which do you find more challenging and why?
I wrote non-fiction for ten years before I ventured into fiction. Non-fiction is a very disciplined form of writing. You go to the library or the archives, you research your subject matter, you come home and type up your notes. You can do that every day of your life, without suffering writers block.
Fiction or poetry are an entirely different matter. You really do have to wait for the Muse to visit you; for a thought to come into your head, for those lines to form in your mind and then leap on to paper or the screen. I can go for days without writing, and feeling miserable because I have not written. Luckily, I also run a literary journal, the Joao Roque Literary Journal, and I always have a lot of editing work, when Im not writing. So, for me personally, fiction is far more difficult than non-fiction.
Are there any particular POVs and Themes you feel have given you an edge in the past?
I think I tend to do better in competitions where the judges are predominantly women. This leads me to think that my writing appeals to women. I do tend to write about issues that affect women and their bodies. I dont want to say I am a feminist because I dont think I have done anything substantive enough to earn that label, but the lives of women interest me, and in my writing, I tend to explore how women are still being exploited, and how the power share between genders is far from equal.
We would like to know, which of your short stories is your favorite, like you find yourself always going back to it?
Oh Gosh, this is a difficult question. Since they are all my babies, I find it difficult to have favorites, but I do tend to like the latest one the best, only because I hope I am always improving. I do, I suppose, have one that comes to mind. It has received a nod from two competitions, and I guess I like it because of the language. I think, at heart, I am a lover of the English language, and I am always trying to improve my sentence structure with meter and assonance.
I do tend to write about issues that affect women and their bodies. I dont want to say I am a feminist because I dont think I have done anything substantive enough to earn that label, but the lives of women interest me, and in my writing, I tend to explore how women are still being exploited, and how the power share between genders is far from equal.
As a writer who has done quite some significant amount of non-fiction material on Goans as a subject, headed the Oral Histories of British-Goans project and even curated the first ever exhibition of East African Goans in London, what motivates this particular venture and should your readers expect a full-length historical novel on the same, someday in future?
My first book, Into the Diaspora Wilderness was published in 2010 by an indie press, Goa, 1556. I had no greater ambition for it, than to be catalogued in some library but much to my amazement, it caught the Goan community’s attention and was very well received. It has been cited by other writers in scholarly and literary works.
The grant from the heritage sector in the UK to continue recording and documenting the lives of Goans, deepened my knowledge and two more books followed suit. I dont think a historical book will ever emerge from my pen, but I dont want to say never. I am currently working on two novels, both deal with the sexual lives of women.
What advice would you give to that upcoming writer with a preference for short stories who may feel like it is taking too long for them to get that writing breakthrough?
The only advice I have for fellow writers is write; write every day of your life and read every day of your life. Keep submitting and just keep on writing. Even if you dont get published, it doesn’t mean you are a failure.
Sylvia Plath was not widely published during her lifetime, but she is a literary goddess to us women, today. The Portuguese poet, Pessoa was virtually unknown during his life. He is Portugal’s most celebrated writer now. Most of the great Goan writers of the 20th century were self-published or published only in journals, and we, Goans, are grateful for that, because it was the only way some trace of that literary heritage could be preserved.
If they had waited for large publishing houses to take note of their writing, we would be left with nothing. Celebrate the indie press, because, if not for them, small histories and regional literature would be dead.
Keep submitting and just keep on writing. Even if you dont get published, it doesn’t mean you are a failure.
To keep up with Selma Carvalho’s literary pursuits and news, follow her on twitter @CarvalhoSel