Cassandra Parkin – Head Judge Q&A

Award-winning author Cassandra Parkin is the head judge for the New Writers 1000-Word Short Story Competition 2024. We asked her a few questions about her writing, her love of fairy tales and whether she had any tips for writing competition entrants, read on to find out her answers.

Your award-winning short story collection New World Fairy Tales draws on six well-loved tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and reimagines them for a modern audience. Fairy tales (and/or themes they include) reappear in many of your later works. To what extent did reading (or listening to) fairy tales as a child inspire you to become a writer (or inspire you in general)?

Like a lot of kids of my generation, I grew up reading Well-Loved Tales from Ladybird. Oh, I loved those books so much… if I could draw, which I can’t, I could recreate their illustrations entirely from memory. Cinderella’s frilly pink frock for the second night of the Prince’s insane marriage quest, which I always thought should have been the one she wore on the last night, and Sleeping Beauty sprawled out asleep in her yellow dress.

Then when I was a bit older, I inherited an unexpurgated copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales which had the much darker versions of all the stories – red-hot iron shoes and people dancing until they died, and little girls being taken out into the woods to be murdered by a huntsman, only the huntsman relents and leaves her to starve instead(!) and he kills a deer instead and cuts out its heart to take back(!!) and the wicked stepmother eats what she believes is her stepdaughter’s heart for dinner(!!!). That combination of beauty and darkness has stayed with me.

At their heart, I think fairy tales are about what it means to be human. They’re not just about how to be a good human – they’re about how to be a successful human, which is not always the same thing. So yes, sometimes being virtuous and good pays off. But sometimes you’ll need to be clever, and ruthless, and resourceful, and willing to break the rules. Sometimes people will offer you help and they’ll genuinely be on your side, and sometimes they notably won’t. Being cold or hungry or lonely or frightened is inevitable sometimes. Nature is a force in Her own right, and if you’re wise you’ll respect that. Life will not be entirely fair, and you might as well get used to it. Most importantly, there will always be multiple versions of every story, and the very best stories are always worth re-telling.

Is there a particular fairy tale (or other story) that had a profound effect on you as a child?

Alongside Grimm’s fairy tales, I think about Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There every single day. They’re absolutely embedded into my creative practice – in fact, probably my entire worldview – and Alice’s ghost creeps into everything I write.

The other book that was formative for me was Watership Down, which I read when I was five after seeing the film. (Other kids got taken to see Pete’s Dragon and The Rescuers: I got rabbit mythology and a terrifying sequence about a warren being gassed. I still feel like my parents made the right decision.) Now I think about this, there’s a definite rabbit theme going on, isn’t there?

All eight of your novels contain tragedy or trauma on some level, often the death or disappearance of a loved one (for example, a son going missing in The Winter’s Child, a twin dying in The Slaughter Man, and a fatal car crash in The Leftovers). Do you find having a dark catalyst ignites the creative fires?

Oh no – they do as well! I promise I’m very happy in real life. And I do try sometimes to write stories that are more uplifting (The Beach Hut was aiming to be a cheery book about facing your own mortality… not entirely sure how I thought that was going to work). But you can only write the book that you write, and it’s often not the book you thought you were going to write.

I’m definitely drawn to stories that explore how we, as humans, behave under pressure. We can all be good people with a warm bed, a full belly and a roof over our head. But what we do when times get tough makes for interesting stories. Sometimes we’ll be better than we thought we might be, and sometimes worse. But there will always be something surprising in how we respond.

As well as dark, usually life-altering or earth-shattering catalysts, many of your novels include mystical, mysterious or magical elements. Is this a conscious choice or do these elements appear as you write?   

The Winter's Child by Cassandra Parkin

I think this probably comes from my fascination with fairy tales, which were born in a time when magic, and unexplained phenomena in general, were a known and accepted part of life. Met a man in the woods who was somehow also a wolf, and who also semi-convincingly cosplayed as your grandmother? That’s what you get for straying off the path. Some talking bear or other wandered into your house and you made friends with him and then he eventually turned out to be a man? That’s actually how I met your grandfather. Had a curse put on you by a witch? Of course you did. 

Rationally, I know the magical elements of my writing aren’t based on truth. But to me, they feel true. My family has a strong tendency towards sleep disturbance (which makes us all simply awesome to share a bed with), so my whole life I’ve been waking up and seeing figures standing beside me, conveying important messages. Like most people, I’ve also experienced my share of low-key unexplained phenomena, like telepathic messages from my cats (‘I AM STUCK IN THE BEDROOM, COME HOME AT ONCE AND LET ME OUT’) or knowing when loved ones are about to fall ill. I saw a panther once in broad daylight, just hanging out with its cubs in a field by the M5.

My head knows these events are a combination of coincidence, unconscious observation and misfiring neurons in my brain. But my heart tells me they’re proof that the universe is even bigger and weirder than we can currently understand. I never start out with the plan ‘I will now include an element of magical realism at this point of the story’. The moments just… happen when they happen.

You once did a TEDx Talk about Alice (of Wonderland fame) in which you posed the question, “Do we create or are we actually just discoverers of something that’s always been waiting?” How would you answer that question today?

I absolutely believe that all creative people are discoverers, and I know many far more famous creators have felt the same. Stephen King talks about fishing in the pond; Terry Pratchett described ideas raining down from the universe. Even the ancient Greeks would beg the Muse to possess them and speak through them. Most writers have some sort of metaphor for the act of writing – we talk about sculpting, or fishing, or mining, or glimpses seen through a curtain. However, I’ve never met a writer, or a creator, who says, ‘Yeah, I just make it all up using the pink squishy stuff between my ears’. It’s a big world, so I’m sure there will be plenty out there who describe it in exactly this way. But my impression is that they’re in the minority.

My personal favourite image is (of course) from Alice, where the White King is trying to make a note in his book, and Alice (invisible, because reasons) takes hold of the end of the pen and starts writing her words instead. And he’s completely freaked out! Because it’s his pen – it’s his hand – it’s his notebook. But it’s not his voice. And that’s the essence of writing for me.

The New Writers 1000-Word Short Story Competition has a relatively tight word limit. Do you have any advice for entrants about how to produce a coherent, entertaining story with so few words to play with?

Okay, the first thing to say is that when it comes to writing, there are no rules – there are only tools. Whatever works for you, is the right way to work. That said, here are some tools that work for me:

Write your first draft without worrying about the word count. Just tell the story the way you want to tell it, and hack it down to size in editing.

  • Your first draft will almost certainly suck. That’s okay. The only job of your first draft is to exist. You haven’t failed: you just haven’t finished.
  • Editing is brutal and ruthless. When every word you take out causes you actual physical pain, you’re probably about halfway there.
  • If you’re not sure whether you’re going to like a particular change, save your old version under a different name. You can always go back to your old version if you decide you like it better. You almost certainly won’t, but knowing you have that safety net can set you free to be bolder.
  • Never, ever compare your first draft to someone else’s perfectly polished final piece. That short story so perfect it makes you weep? I absolutely promise it didn’t start out that way.
  • Respect the word limit. Do not go over the word limit. Pieces that go over the word limit get sifted out immediately, because those are the rules and competitions absolutely have to be fair to all participants. Seriously – do not go over the word limit.

Is there anything specific you’ll be looking for when picking the winners of the competition and are there any genres or themes that particularly excite you (or put you off)?

First off – I want to see all of it! Send me your literary fiction for sure, but also send me your romances, your sci-fi, your horror, your high fantasy, your urban fantasy, your historical stories, your bizarro. As long as it’s well-written, I want to see it.  My experience of writing contests is that we never get enough Funny, so writers who make me laugh will always be extra-welcome.

I wouldn’t ever say ‘I don’t want to see a piece on this subject’ because I might be missing out on something really special. That said, I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the editing team for FlashFloodJournal from National Flash Fiction Day, and there are a few concepts that are always wildly over-represented. Downtrodden wives killing unacceptable husbands is a big one, as are stories where the twist in the tale is that one of the characters is living with dementia.

We often get rather alarming torture-themed pieces that make me worry about how the person who wrote them is doing, and if they might like to talk to someone IRL; I have personally never accepted a piece like this for publication. Stories featuring children who are deceased come up a lot, and I have a personal prejudice against endings where the child being deceased is the big reveal. Also, never ever kill the cat. Sorry. 

Finally, please don’t send me erotica because, just, no. 

Many reviews of your books specifically mention the authentic, complex and interesting characters you create. Do you follow a specific process to ensure your characters are believable?

This will make me sound insane, but it’s the truth: for me, it’s about listening. I don’t plan or invent these people. They just turn up and start talking to me. Some of them take a long time to warm up to me, and some of them I instantly connect with. But after a while, I can just… hear their voices.

Are there any new writers or debut novels or story collections that have particularly impressed or moved you in recent years?

I absolutely loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, for the sheer fury and power of its narrative and the perfectly captured voices. I also adore My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Her writing is sharp and immaculate, and the ending brings me such complicated joy. This last one isn’t a debut, but it’s a fairy-tale collection so I’m going to include it – Jen Campbell’s The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers, which is gloriously dark and disturbing.

Which of your novels was the most fun to write and which was the most challenging?

The Beach Hut by Cassandra Parkin

The most fun to write was The Beach Hut, because so much of it is inspired by my brother, who is one of my favourite people in the whole world. I loved every minute of writing that book.

The most challenging was, hands down, Underwater Breathing. The idea came to me quite quickly, but it was so strange and challenging that I thought, yeah, no, can’t write that, it’s unpublishable. So I tried to take the characters and make them do what I wanted them to do, rather than listening to them and writing what they told me really happened.

I got forty thousand words into that draft, and it was the most miserable experience of my creative life. I felt as if I was rearranging dead bodies in the basement. Just looking at the folder on my laptop made me want to run away. So at forty thousand words in, and with a horrible deadline looming, I admitted defeat and deleted the entire lot and started again. I told my best friend about this and she said the thought of deleting forty thousand words made her feel quite ill, but I have honestly never felt such joy.

So, yeah; always listen to your characters. They know what’s true. Our job is to pay attention when they tell us.

Finally, can you tell us anything about the writing project(s) you’re currently working on?

I’ve recently been appointed as the East Riding of Yorkshire’s first Poet Laureate, so a lot of my focus is on poetry at the moment. I’m part of a poetry collective called Women of Words, and we’re hopefully about to take our show The Strange Case of Mary Toft to a couple of new venues around the region. (Mary Toft was a seventeenth-century agricultural worker, who was reported to have given birth to rabbits.)

My lovely agent Matthew Smith from Exprimez has my novel The Other Place out on submission, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some good news there. And finally, I’m working on a collection of fifty-two short stories, all set in the same slightly skewed near-future universe, and all exactly three hundred words long. I have no idea why I’m doing the last project, because it’s almost certainly unpublishable. But sometimes you just have to follow your heart.

You can find out more about Cassandra Parkin’s published books HERE.

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About our Head Judge – Cassandra Parkin

Cassandra Parkin Author and Head Judge of the 1000-Word Short Story Competition 2024

Cassandra Parkin is an award-winning writer based in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Her debut short story collection, New World Fairy Tales, won the 2011 Scott Prize for short stories. She’s since published eight novels including The Slaughter Man, Soldier Boy and The Leftovers, and has recently been appointed as the East Riding of Yorkshire’s first Poet Laureate.

She’s also a member of Hull’s Women of Words collective, a monthly spoken-word event that invites women from Hull and the surrounding area to create and share their work in a safe, supportive environment.

She is married with two children and two cats. Her childhood ambitions were to be a writer, and to become the Godfather and run the Mafia. She feels quite happy with progress on the first, but for obvious reasons is unable to discuss the second.