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Getting to know our Fifth Winner 

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Gareth Hewitt

Gareth Hewitt
The Winner of Fifth Mash Competition

While the 6th competition just came to an end and announced its winner, we’re still celebrating the winner of the 5th competition: Gareth Hewitt. His exquisite story Motherland amazed not only the Mash jury but also Mash readers. We spoke to Gareth about researching a story, storytelling, and about how he left his day job to become a full-time writer.

Olga Husch: Let’s dive into your story: your description of a land settlement over two different generations in Russia strikes the audience at first reading. Both the landscape and the historical portrayal as well as the language you use (e.g. the motherland, and a great patriotic war) suggest a lively interest in Russian history and culture. What is your relationship to Russia?

Gareth Hewitt: There’s no direct relationship, but Russia’s history is captivating: Rasputin, the Revolution, Hitler’s repetition of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign. It’s a wonderfully complex story, the many narratives intertwining like they’ve been plotted and scripted. If it isn’t something people are familiar with, it’s definitely worth exploring!

“One of the best things about writing is the research. You can just drop yourself into another time, another place. And I love detail.”

Culture, people, places, language—they’re all defined by their quirks and subtleties. If you can get those little things right, it can add a real authenticity to fiction. The internet is a phenomenal resource for finding that detail. Beyond the obvious sources, there’s a wealth of informal knowledge to be found. From exploring Google Street View to scouring forum discussions, you can be taken by the hand and guided through somewhere you’ve never visited. Researching “Motherland”, I was reading Uraltzy dumpling recipes and e-visiting tank monuments in Magnitogorsk and Nizhny Tagil.

One of the keywords was a good example of this. I’d decided early on that a tank would provide me with my “cockpit” and was looking to justify it being so far east, when I stumbled upon the migration of the munitions industries in the Second World War. If you do enough research, stories start to find their own way; it’s a powerful tool, enabling you to write beyond your own experiences.

Olga: Your lyrical prose creates circles of nature, seasons, and history, and it mirrors two men in their fates. This silent contemplation of time seems so mystically and masterfully elaborated. How did you come up with the idea, how did the writing process of this story go, and how long were you working on/researching it?

Gareth: I was toying with an idea for a novel, and “Motherland” arose from the subsequent research. From the early colonization to contemporary accounts of abandoned settlements, there was something stirring about the evolution of the region’s history. The circle was already drawn; I just used it as a template. Interestingly, I also encountered a few references to the growing trend of reclaiming the village dwellings and converting them into holiday homes, or dachas, so the cycle continues! In “Motherland”, the daughter’s return was only hinted at through her name, which can mean sunrise, but it’s another example of a storytelling itself.    

The piece was written over the period of a week, though the concept and setting were lifted from the aforementioned project.

“The story came first and I worked the keywords in as it was written. I find doing it this way gives the story an unexpected dimension without dictating the theme.”

The first draft was much bigger and I spent a lot of time getting it within the word limit. I nearly scrapped it the night before the deadline because I couldn’t get it to 500 words. Glad I didn’t!

Olga: Deus ex machina, your first submission for Mash Stories, was shortlisted, but it was Motherland that won the 5th contest. What intrigued you to submit a story for Mash in the first place and why the second story, which is so different in tone, content and vision from the first?

Gareth: “Deus” was my first piece of flash, so I suppose I was finding my feet. I hadn’t really considered stepping into the competition arena, but Mash was causing a bit of a stir in my writing group. Members of the group were sharing their feedback and the idea of being critiqued was irresistible. The feedback received (I cannot explain how much the comment about “lazy adverbs” has tightened up my writing) and a subsequent analysis of the score changed the direction of my next submission.

I’m still developing my identity as a writer. I love descriptive writing, but I think reading too many blogs about the dreaded purple prose had made me a little guarded, tentative. “Deus” received an average score for language use and it felt like a challenge. And I like a challenge. It removed the hesitancy and allowed me to be bolder with my style. Subsequently, “Motherland” is much closer to where I want to be; it feels comfortable, like it belongs to me.

Olga: Can you describe your writing process? Would you consider advice from outside? And what’s your story as a writer?

Gareth: I spend a lot of time thinking through an idea before I write anything. I’m definitely at my most creative when away from people and computer screens. I need to have a vivid image of what I’m writing about before I can get it written, so the time spent developing plot and structure and dialogue in my head is critical. When I’m ready to start writing (which is usually inspired by an impending deadline), I have a pretty detailed plan to follow. If I’ve not visualized the scenes, I struggle to write, which can make it a stubborn process at times. I’m envious of writers who can just sit down and type!

“Seeking advice is essential. You need objective feedback.”

Even if you discard an opinion, it allows you to view your writing from a different perspective. I joined a writing group a year ago (hello, WU!) and it’s been a fundamental part of my progression. From being critiqued to critiquing, sharing work and opinion has transformed my writing. Many of the research techniques I use were suggested by group members and Motherland wouldn’t have been written without them. I think accessing the different experiences and skills to be found within any writing community is essential. Writing in isolation leads to stagnation and should be avoided at all costs!

My story as a writer is just beginning. For years, I was one of those people that talked a lot about writing, but never put pen to paper. Lots of ideas, but no product. Then I had a moment of madness/genius (delete as applicable) and abandoned a good profession in healthcare to write full-time. Eighteen months on and the experience has been amazing. It’s generally agreed that leaving the day job to write is a very bad idea, but I think that advice needs to be refined. Doing it as a lifestyle change, and not expecting to earn, has really worked for me. I was fortunate with circumstance (and an incredibly supportive wife!), but the opportunity to be a writer was too good to miss, regardless of any financial sacrifice. I’m happy, I spend more time with my family and, most importantly, I get to write every day. My only regret is not doing this years ago.

Olga: Currently you are writing a book. Can you tell us a bit about the subject?

Gareth: It’s a tale about three men, following the collapse of society. The world is frozen and empty, but it’s being written with an emphasis on the protagonists’ personal journeys, as opposed to the apocalypse itself. I’ve tried to avoid desperate survival, marauding hordes and fire falling from the skies, in a bid to concentrate on the humanity of the characters (although that means no zombies, unfortunately!). The aim is to render a world that is still beautiful, not desolate and ruined, and explore rebirth through the perceived finality of catastrophic change. The full-circle motif used in “Motherland” will be prominent in both story and prose, with a little added twist!

Olga: Thank you, Gareth, for this detailed interview. Keep on circling!

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Olga is a multilingual bookworm. Her fascination with combinatorics in narrations and multilingual wordplays led her to study Russian, French, German and English literature. She has an MA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance tutor. She lives in Berlin, and currently focuses on forms of emergent narration in digital literature.

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