Johanna Robinson’s flash novella, Homing, is a revelation not only in its form—flash chapters pinpointing specific moments in time in fewer than 800 words—but also because it highlights a World War II event that is less explored than the Invasion of Poland, the Blitz in England, or the capitulation of France. Robinson focuses on the takeover of Norway by the Nazis, the effects the occupation had on ordinary citizens living through the Occupation, and on one family in particular.
Johanna Robinson is a proofreader and short-fiction writer from near Liverpool, England. She has been writing since 2016 and her work has since appeared in a number of magazines including SmokeLong, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Press, and Mslexia. Her novella-in-flash, Homing, was runner-up in the Bath Flash Fiction competition, and was published in June 2019 by Ad Hoc Fiction. She is currently working on a novel, and more of her work, including excerpts from Homing, can be found at johanna-robinson.com.
Gay Degani: I’m curious about your subject matter. What was the genesis of Homing? There’s very little available in the US about what happened to Norway during the war. I see in your biography you have “little roots in Norway.” Is this what sparked your interest in this historical event?
Johanna Robinson: Thank you for agreeing to interview me about Homing, Gay. I’m honoured you’ve taken the time to read the book and chat about it.
I was lucky enough to spend a year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Oslo, and it was during that year, in visiting several resistance museums, that I learned about the movement, in particular the ‘Shetland Bus’. This was the nickname for the fishing boats that would leave the west coast of Norway for Shetland, at night, carrying people who needed to escape and goods that needed to be smuggled out. I did a lot of research back in the early 2000s but I only came back to the events in the last couple of years.
GD: The concept of writing novellas and novels in tiny “flash” chapters is relatively new. Had you written flash pieces on the topic of the Nazi Occupation before the idea of the novella or did you decide first on the subject matter and then select the form? Can you talk about that process?
JR: This is an interesting question. In fact, I began writing a novel on the subject around 2002, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Eventually, it went no further (I had kids …) but when I began writing seriously in 2016, the ideas wouldn’t go away. I was writing traditional-length short stories, but whenever I tried to write anything to do with Norway and the Occupation, the pieces turned out very short, and from alternating perspectives. I’d tried a couple of not-very-good flash fiction pieces before, so I was aware of the form, and as this seemed to be what I was writing, I went off to read all the novellas-in-flash I could, and immerse myself in the great short-short stories that were being written. I believe the story I wanted to tell was just waiting for the right time and form.
GD: You show great faith in the reader. There are gaps in time between the chapters and so much information is left out, yet you created a cohesive flow. How did you decide what to include and what you could leave out?
JR: To an extent, I was restricted by the word count limit in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, which was 18,000 words. I was very grateful for this, though, because it made me very strict with what could go and what could stay, and I mean this in terms of scenes rather than individual words and sentences. I felt that this story needed to manifest either a compact form like the short-short chapters I used, or an epic three-volume tale, because there is so much to say.
Each character has their own story to tell that spirals out from the main plot—if you can call it a plot—so I had to rein all the potential stories in. It was hard to reduce events that lasted three years in real life to one or two tiny chapters, but I had no choice. Those years could have been books in themselves. It does feel experimental in hindsight, but I’ve been very cheered that the faith I have in readers hasn’t been misplaced, based on the feedback I’ve received.
GD: You have a lovely way with the written word. In the chapter, “Countdown,” I loved the image of Caroline and her grandmother sending kisses good-night across the air and the girl searching for them the next day in the snow. Another chapter feels as if it is from the storm’s point-of-view and it is Nature choosing who wins. This seems a good choice. Can you talk about POV and word choice? A little about your process?
JR: Thank you. I’m glad that you chose to pick out the chapter from the storm’s POV, as it’s so short it’s easy to overlook. I have talked about this chapter with a few people, because I think it really embodies how this form of book differs from a standard novel. A whole book could be (and many have been) written about the journey from Norway to Scotland, but this was only part of my story. By giving the storm a chapter to itself, I was able to create a bridge to the subsequent events while exploring how our choices, especially in extreme circumstances, are always subject to greater forces, sometimes natural, sometimes political.
In terms of the rest of the chapters, each scene came with a POV attached to it. I don’t think any of them changed after a first draft, other than a third-to-first change or vice versa. I see these shifts as almost cinematic, a focusing-in on the members of the family and those they encounter, and then out again. Actually, Caroline only appeared as the main protagonist fairly late on. All the chapters were written out of order, and it was only when I took Meg Pokrass’s online flash fiction course that Caroline emerged as the main character, with her story and journey being linked by events and items – or ‘touchstones’ as Nancy Stohlman calls them.
Word choice also remained fairly stable from start to finish – most chapters are very close to their first drafts, and I think this is because I could picture each scene and simply wanted to reflect what I saw in my head as closely as possible. I think in this kind of form, precision is important – small events, small personal and family traditions – if you can evoke these, the reader is drawn more easily into the bigger world of the story.
GD: You do history well. How much research did you do? Is history as subject matter something you will continue to pursue? What are you working on now?
JR: I read a number of books way back about this aspect of history, but they tended to concentrate more on the actual journeys of the boats and the Shetland perspective – naturally, because they were written in English. However, when I came to research more recently, there is so much more available on the internet (I didn’t even have internet connection at home back in 2002), and this is when I discovered the entire story of the village of Telavåg. I knew that this was where my fictional family would be found, and there are many accounts and photographs of the events that took place there. It is not a well-known event, even in parts of Norway, but the sacrifice of those who lived there was enormous. I waited until the book was nearly published to visit the village, and I’m glad for that, actually.
I’m currently working on a novel set in the middle of the nineteenth century in the north of England. I’m hoping to use similar short-chapters and multiple perspectives, and will see whether the form can tolerate a longer, more in-depth story. Like Homing, the idea for this new book was sparked by the discovery of a real but little-known place not far from where I live.
GD: I enjoyed your novella very much and am glad I had the opportunity to discuss it with you. Thank you.
Homing can be purchased from Ad Hoc Fiction
Gay Degani has received nominations and honors for her work including Pushcart consideration and Best Small Fictions. She’s published a collection of eight stories about mothers, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place, gaydegani.com.