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For this installment of A Flash of Inspiration, we’re featuring James Roderick Burns, whose story “The Mist” originally appeared in Litro on February 8, 2021.
Why did you write “The Mist,” and how did the story form in your mind?
This story arose from a set of circumstances particular to Edinburgh, where the story is set, or perhaps cities more widely: a sudden rash of vivid graffiti, signed by one particular artist, which flourished for a while then just as suddenly fell away. All of the details of the art/markings/drawings (opinions seem to vary on how to define such things) are taken verbatim from the graffiti themselves, as is the mysterious tag The Mist. The story is an attempt to memorialise, and explore, an attitude of fierce protest which only existed for a moment.
Combining experience of The Mist’s work with two civil servants’ ruminations on society also seemed to be a natural fit. All of the civil service details are, of course, fictitious – real Scottish civil servants are models of rectitude.
I was delighted by some of your sentences in “The Mist” (“Colour appeared on his cheeks like carnations in an undertaker’s window,” for example, or “I imagined The Mist, whoever he was, strolling back and forth in front of the advert a few times like a curator with a new acquisition, sizing up the right pitch and moment for his attack, perhaps humming ‘The Circle of Life’ between rapid breaths, then ambling away and returning like an avenging plague at midnight, Sharpie in hand.”) How important is language in a short story compared to other elements such as theme or plot?
To me, everything emerges from a combination of language and place, or perhaps more accurately, feeling of place. The old stone walls and miserable, scratched-up bus shelters of nighttime Edinburgh contrast nicely with the tony interior of the Whisky Society. Similarly, the middle-class parlance of public servants (however well-intentioned) stands in stark contrast to the violence and directness of the The Mist’s attacks on hypocrisy. I think between these two anchors plot emerges, as needed, but it’s not really in the forefront of my mind while I’m writing.
What do you respond to most when reading a short story? Are you conscious of it when writing?
Atmosphere. MR James’s peerless ghost stories are a good example. I don’t think anyone has ever conjured the brooding, fog-bound beaches of the east coast of England so well, or for that matter the hidebound class systems of an Oxbridge college, the dank beauty of continental cathedrals or the haunts of travelling salesmen and fusty antiquarians. Within his genre, he was unsurpassed. I am always striving to create that sort of rich atmosphere.
When the friends meet for a drink in “The Mist,” it’s dark and dreary outside. How much does weather contribute to mood in your stories? Do you think that is typical of UK-based writers?
I think it is part and parcel of writing everywhere. Though I studied for five years on Long Island, I never made it out to California but have read hundreds of novels set there – Chandler, Hammett, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais – and I fear actually visiting, as the California I have in my head seems so interesting. Weather is integral to that. In the same way, the dreich Scottish climate shapes people’s perceptions, and fascinations. I would imagine The Mist is most enraged at sexist advertising when it takes place (“beach-body ready” as a notorious ad proclaimed) against a backdrop of palm trees and blue seas wholly untypical of Edinburgh!
How do you know your story is finished and if it is successful?
I tend to write slowly, perhaps 100–200 words at a time, constantly rereading, tweaking and polishing as I go, so by the end of a story I know it is finished as I’m crossing the line. If it isn’t working at that point, it’s usually abandoned.
Was “The Mist” written as a stand-alone story or could it be part of a collection?
Each of my stories is stand-alone but also part of a collection by theme and preoccupation. This one fits into an ongoing novella and story collection (Flaws and Ornaments), which focuses broadly on issues of perception. The novella, Flaws, concerns a woman called Felicity Laws who, following minor surgery to reduce excess fluid in her eyeballs (a treatment I’ve experienced), comes to perceive people’s sins visibly manifesting before her eyes. How she understands this spiritual gift, and what she does with it, forms the meat of the novella. “The Mist,” I suppose, sits on a similar spectrum: how might a buttoned-up “stuffed-shirt” civil servant react to graphic social criticisms he himself is restrained from making?
Which writers particularly inspire you today? Is there someone you want to tell Litro readers about?
There are some established writers whose work remains inspiring – Paul Auster, Rose Tremain, Percival Everett to name a few – and it was astonishing to read Richard Wright’s The Man Who Lived Under Ground, released after almost eighty years because its stark depiction of police brutality was considered unpublishable until 2021. But I also enjoy reading flash fiction and wider magazine fiction for the variety of voices, approaches, and styles. Anita Goveas’ Families and Other Natural Disasters was the last flash collection I read. In my view there aren’t enough of these compared to full-length short fiction collections, and not enough of those compared to novels!
What are you working on now?
Another of the nine stories in Flaws and Ornaments – “Not Like a River, But a Tree.” It follows a middle-aged man whose car breaks down outside an Anglican cathedral and who wanders into an evensong service. Who is preaching, and how the man emerges from the cathedral after the service, are at the heart of the story. On the business side of things, I’m also in the process of finding an agent for my first novel and keeping up with submissions.
Pamela Hensley is Litro USA’s #StorySunday Editor. She’s a writer, engineer, and frequent traveller (when pandemics aren’t raging). Her fiction has been published internationally in literary journals and anthologies including the The Dalhousie Review, the Fieldstone Review, EVENT magazine, The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, and the Antigonish Review. Pamela is a graduate of Western University (London, Canada) and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, USA). She currently lives in Colorado and can be followed on Twitter @pl_hensley and Instagram @pl_hensley.