Hackney writer Dan Bennett: Great fiction "starts flicking switches and pulling levers deep down"
PUBLISHED: 11:15 16 December 2019 | UPDATED: 11:37 17 December 2019
Dan Bennett didn't expect much when he entered this year's Bridport Prize for creative writing. In fact, he only did so as an "I-Told-You-So gesture" to the friend who pressured him in to it, so confident he was that he'd hear nothing back. His submission, Ligature, was subsequently one of three highly commended entries in the flash fiction category.
It's difficult to write a story in 250 words or less. To create something that introduces a character, invites an emotional response and departs with a lasting impression in just a couple of paragraphs takes a great deal of skill. Hackney-based writer Dan Bennett is well practiced in this style of flash fiction.
"About 15 years ago, a friend and I started emailing each other micro-stories," he says. "We made 350 words our limit. We'd give each other a title, which I found very useful.
"I've subsequently continued doing the same thing with a couple of other people I know. It became a sort of exercise that returned to me over the years. There's a real discipline in it, there's so much stuff you want to say and words you can use, and you can fall in love with a turn of phrase, but you have to be brutal and lose it if it's in the way."
One of his ultra short-stories - Ligature - has been highly commended in this year's Bridport Prize; a creative writing contest that attracted over 10,000 entries across its poetry, short story, flash fiction and novel categories this year.
Ligature is about Bennett and his father working up a scaffold on a damp and cold morning. Its melancholic tone is about ruing what might have been, something which had a powerful impact on this year's judge, Kirsty Logan.
"I couldn't stop thinking about it after I read it," she writes in her judges' report. "While the details may initially seem mundane, it's precisely the everyday nature of them that gives the story its power, right to the double-meaning of the heartrending last line."
Bennett divides his time between staying with his partner in rural Portugal and helping his sister to care for their elderly parents in east London. The 50-year-old is also a very talented artist - painting under the name Daniel Roch - and has lived in Ireland, New York and Brighton, working as everything from a script-writer to a theatre-set designer and a gallery technician at the Barbican. He only entered the Bridport Prize after a friend encouraged him to do so.
"Learning that my story had been selected for inclusion in the Bridport Anthology was a huge surprise," he adds, "especially after I realised what a big deal it actually was.
"Ironically I only really entered the prize as a sort of I-Told-You-So gesture to the friend who pressured me into it, as I fully expected it would be rejected. But she got the last laugh on that one I guess.
"It really was very last minute. I didn't have the time to write anything new, it was already written. I managed to cut that down to fit the word limit.
"I am my own worst critic with both my painting and my writing. I tend to disregard it, and something like this is nice, it gives you a sense that your own opinion of your work is fairly immaterial."
Bennett, who grew up in Highbury, says a great piece of fiction "starts flicking switches and pulling levers deeper down that you're not really aware are there."
He chose Ligature partly for pragmatic reasons - it was the easiest piece for him to cut down - but also because it's one of the most autobiographical short-stories that he has authored.
"It was the personal and emotional nature of it that made it stand out most. As someone 'on the spectrum' I don't usually 'do' emotions, in more than the most oblique sense."
Bennett cites Flannery O'Connor and Phillip K. Dick as inspirations - two writers "whose stories both have a way of unpacking themselves in the mind, not on the page" - and says his unexpected success with the Bridport Prize has given him more belief in his ability as a writer.
"Obviously it has been a big boost to my confidence and impetus to write more developed work, but most importantly it has replaced my fear of exposure with a tingling sense of magic, the magic of communication, and I am very grateful for that.
"I hope this helps inspire any fellow 'hobbyist' writers out there to do the same. Just get it out there, stop hoarding it and censoring yourself out of existence. There really is no time to lose."