Interview with Joel Willans

As promised in our July editorial, due to an administrative glitch last month, we now have two interviews in a row for you–today we feature the author of the most-read story from the month of May, to be followed by June’s most-read author tomorrow.

May’s most-read story was “One Bright Moment” by Joel Willans.   Since its publication, it has seen a staggeringly rapid  rise up our top story lists (unfortunately currently disabled due to server issues), and is clearly one of EDF’s all-time most popular stories by any calculation.

Interview with Joel Willans

EDF:  What should people expect when they see a story with your byline under it?

JW: I always try to write stories that take the reader to different places, enable them to meet unusual characters and ideally look at the world differently. I’d love to have my stories linger in people’s minds when they’ve finished reading. For that to happen, I really believe in the importance of a likeable protagonist striving for a worthwhile goal.

Ever since I was kid, I’ve enjoyed listening to people tell stories, and always read mine out to an audience, usually my wife, before sending them off. When you think that storytelling was originally an oral tradition, it’s obvious why good stories often have a certain rhyme and rhythm. I always try and ensure mine can be performed as well as read.

EDF:  Not only has “One Bright Moment” attracted lots of reads, it’s also May’s highest-rated and most-commented-on story, and clearly touched many of our readers. What can you tell us about your inspiration for this piece and how it came to be?

JW: To be honest I don’t write much flash, but when I do, it’s usually done as timed exercise from a list of random prompts, single words, sentences, bits of poems. I’ve been a member of two online writing groups, Bootcamp and Fiction Workhouse, which use this technique, and it really helps free the mind. “One Bright Moment” was no different. I wrote the first draft in an hour.

I am from the countryside and I did lay on the grass looking at stars with old girlfriends when I was a kid, but other than that, this is just came from somewhere deep in the subconscious. A place in which, I’m sure, all the best stories lurk!

EDF: Is romance a usual genre for you, or a departure from what you usually write?   Do you have a usual genre, or anything in particular that you like to focus on in your writing?

JW: I try to write literary fiction rather than romance or any other genre for that matter. So, when I first saw this question, I shook my head and said no, imagining myself as some sort of pink bouffanted male Barbara Cartland. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that many of my stories, certainly the majority that have been published, do deal with relationships between men and women. I’m not really sure why. It’s not a conscious thing, but these emotions are such a fertile subject, and I suppose it goes back to a likeable character trying to achieve a worthwhile goal. If searching for love isn’t worthwhile, what is?

EDF: Your website states that in the past year, you have been placed, highly commended and shortlisted in more than a dozen competitions and are currently on the shortlist for the Bristol Prize.  One can assume, based on that, that you make a point of entering competitions on a regular basis.  What do you see as the positives and negatives of entering competitions?

JW: Yeah, I must admit, I’m a bit of a competition junkie! I’ve been writing fiction seriously for a couple of years, but this enthusiasm for comps has only really taken hold in the last twelve months or so. For me one of the main positives is that competitions force me to write to a deadline. I work as an ad agency copywriter and always write to deadlines there. Often I seem to produce my best stuff when I’m under pressure. Then of course there is the excitement of awaiting the result, and if you get on the longlist, the excitement of seeing if you get on the shortlist, and so on.

Depending upon the competition, successes also show that your work is of a certain standard. The Bristol Prize, (which unfortunately, I didn’t win) had over 1200 entries. The 20 shortlisted stories have now been published in an anthology, ( and my story about a floating girl who, surprise surprise, wants to be loved, is in there. My work reaches a bigger audience and I receive a small percentage in royalties. On top of these sort of benefits, you can also win some pretty big cash prizes.

As for the negatives, there are competitions, which seem to be organised just to take your money.   I’m always suspicious of comps with anonymous judges. When I enter I want to make sure that my work is being judged by someone I can respect for their achievements and who is willing to justify their decision. Thankfully, these unscrupulous competitions are rare, and certainly in the UK there seems to be an ever increasing number of great short story competitions to choose from.

EDF: What has been your best moment as a writer so far? Your worst?

JW: Difficult to say. First story accepted for publication, first story accepted for an anthology and first prize winning story were all moments to relish. As for worst moment, probably every time I got rejected before that very first acceptance letter arrived.

EDF: Where and when do you write? What music or other background noise do you prefer, or silence? And does the physical / background environment influence or affect your writing?

JW: If I’m at home, I write in bed. I only edit at my desk. It feels too much like work otherwise. Living in Finland, I’m also lucky to have access to a cottage in a forest by a lake, which is so tranquil and chilled out that it’s really just a pleasure to write in. Some of my best stories I’ve written when I’ve been travelling. Fourteen hours on a bus or plane is wonderful for focusing the mind.

If I’m writing something sad, I think it definitely helps me to play sad music. Damien Rice is one of the saddest, most poignant singers I know. When I wrote One Bright Moment, I was listening to him and Tom Baxter, an English singer from Suffolk, the same county in the UK as me. Both singers have written wonderful ballads and they definitely influenced the story. You could argue that songs are really stories put to music, so I suppose it’s inevitable that singers influence writers and vice versa.

EDF: What is next for you as a writer?

JW: Good question. I’d like to say fame, fortune and a couple of Booker prizes, but in the near future I just want to try and get much more serious about my fiction. I have very specific goals in mind over the next couple of years. I really love the short story form and once I’m ready I aim to start pitching a collection to publishers. If that’s successful, I’ll get to grips with the five chapters of my novel that have been sitting on my hard drive, and from there who knows? The great thing about writing is that there is always room for improvement, especially when you start off so far down the ladder!

EDF: Thank you for your time.

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