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Interview with Jo Skinner, Winter 2021 Flash Fiction Runner Up


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Today I am excited to talk with Jo Skinner, one of the runner-ups to the Winter 2021 Flash Fiction contest. Make sure you read her story Endings then come on back and read our interview.

Jo's bio:

Jo is a Brisbane-based general practitioner who has worked in urban, regional, and rural Australia as well as Ireland. She is married with three teenagers, a dog, and a cat.

She did her first writing course in 2017 and her stories have been long-listed, shortlisted, and won competitions. She is currently working on the manuscript of a novel with coercive domestic violence as its central theme and also continues to write flash fiction and short stories. Last year, she coedited an anthology about people’s experiences of COVID which was published by the Queensland Writer’s Centre.

When Jo is not working or writing she is running. She has completed forty-five marathons and counting.

Visit her website at www.johannaskinner.com.

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: First, congrats on winning runner-up! Your title hints at two different sorts of endings happening to the character - one publicly celebrated, and one privately known. I thought you captured both pains well. Did you initially write this knowing both types of endings?

Jo: The piece changed quite a bit from the first draft. Through my work as a general practitioner, I was seeing a fellow who was shocked when his wife left him after nearly forty years. I tried to imagine it both from his and from her point of view. It is not uncommon, particularly for men, to be unaware that their relationship has been unraveling for a long time. 

I then saw a story competition that required the setting to be in a hotel. I sketched out a tale about a retirement party and then it became obvious that these two ideas were part of the same story about change, loss, and self-reflection. 

I love how our brains play with ideas in the background until we have a moment of inspiration and suddenly a story comes together better than we originally imagined.

WOW: I can completely relate! We never know we have something until the brain connects it. As a general practitioner, I wonder how COVID impacted you personally and professionally, and how that influenced your writing?

Jo: Although we have been fortunate overall in Australia, my work has been transformed in many ways. Once a week I volunteer to do our fever clinic in the carpark. In rain, hail or shine, I don full PPE and examine and swab patients with any coughs, fevers or respiratory symptoms. The surgery also runs a vaccination clinic where we each do shifts regularly. Patients have been hostile and rude for the first time and we have had to put signs up that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

The biggest impact has been on mental health and domestic violence which have both exploded. On one memorable weekend I was in regular contact with a teenager who was suicidal. Despite numerous phone calls, mental health facilities were at capacity. It was a relief on Monday when she had survived, and a mental health bed became available. 

There was such an outpouring of experiences by patients that I decided to co-edit an anthology with a friend and editor. We invited patients and the public to send us their stories and poems about the lockdown experience. We were overwhelmed with submissions by specialists, priests, teachers, retirees, school children etc and could not publish all of them. The anthology, “Stories from the Heart, Penning the Pandemic,’ was published by the Queensland Writer’s Centre as an e book. They were incredibly supportive of the project. It was very cathartic for me. I realised that we are all in this together and that everyone has been impacted in some way by this pandemic.

WOW: I love that you captured all those stories. Also, I'm so impressed with how many marathons you've completed! Does running help you creatively at all? 

Jo: Distance running is a very efficient way to get hours to yourself without interruption. If I am stuck on a scene or have an idea smouldering about an essay or story, a run is an incredible way to give my nebulous thoughts shape. I let my feet do their thing while my mind free ranges. 

Running also provided the mental scaffolding I needed to work as a doctor during the 2020 pandemic. It was an acceptable way to ‘run away,’ escape and employ the well-recognised fight and flight response while still turning up to work each day to do what I have been trained to do; provide an essential service to the community in solidarity with my colleagues.

I calculated that between March and October, I ran just under 1,500 km. I have no doubt this is what enabled me to keep working and writing.

WOW: How motivating! What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

Jo: I am very methodical with my writing. I get up really early two mornings each week and write for two hours before going to work. I have one day a week where I don’t go to the surgery and after I drop my kids off, I put my head down and write in blocks until it is time to pick them up. On the weekends, my family know that I will spend at least some of the time tapping away.

I find having writing goals is a great way to progress and have committed to writing a flash fiction piece every month and keep an eye out for story competitions I can submit to. Since starting to write after doing my first course in 2017, I have learnt that just sitting down and getting words on the page is a great way to improve and learn. A great deal of what I write is scrapped in the editing process, but you can’t do an edit unless you have words down on the page to start with!

WOW: Writing goals are absolutely essential. What are you working on next?

Jo: I am currently editing a novel that has coercive domestic violence as its central theme. It is something I have had to deal with a lot as a general practitioner. For two years, I worked in a regional town and was on call to do the forensic examinations of women who had been sexually assaulted and was surprised how few of them pressed charges. I wanted to bring some of this experience into my writing.

Two weeks after I completed the first draft, a family died two streets away from where I work. The estranged father set the family car alight with all of them inside. The incident had a huge impact in Australia and suddenly domestic violence became a significant political issue. 

I have written an essay and a few shorter pieces on this theme but am hopeful that writing about fictional characters in a novel will improve awareness of the wide-ranging direct and indirect impacts that domestic violence has on every one of us. 

WOW: I can't wait to see what you come out with next! Congrats again and I look forward to seeing your next work.


 


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