Ghosts In The Toolbox & Other Stories - Dini Armstrong
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
I love it when I get to promote brilliant writing and when that writing is by a friend it fills me with joy. Dini and I got the same memo from The Open University creative writing tutors about the importance of social media and blogging. However, whereas I tentatively ventured into the arena small step by small step, Dini immediately threw herself in at the deep end and committed to writing 52 pieces of 52 word flash fiction. I have since learnt, through our work together on Makarelle, that Dini never does anything half-heartedly and so, not content with just writing the pieces, she asked her daughter - a VERY talented artist - to join the project and together they produced some stunning work. This book comes from that blog collaboration and represents the very best of it.
It's always an unusual, but interesting experience interviewing your friends and this was no exception!
Ruth: Where did the idea for the blog and then the book, come from?
Dini: When my oldest daughter moved to Canada for a year, I wanted to find a way to stay connected with her. She is a talented illustrator, and so I asked her if she was up for challenge, which requires us to collaborate for 52 consecutive weeks. I was as surprised as any parent that she said yes!
We had great input from the Facebook community, especially the Jollyboat Crew, and when we were finished, we were asked if we would publish the flashes as a book. We did, and it is now available on Amazon under the title “Ghosts in the Toolbox”.
Ruth: My son has recently started to ask me to edit his writing and it can sometimes be difficult to strike the balance between being a supportive parent and being an honest editor to get the best out of his work. What was it like working with your daughter?
Dini: My daughter is a very straightforward and honest person. I know, because when I asked her to give me a critique of the Twilight Saga, she nailed it with the eternal words: “Bunch of goths fannying about”. If I had written something that she found difficult to relate to, she would have told me. On occasion I did resort to using a stock photo, but this was usually caused by her being busy (those flash pieces were not selected for the book). I guess we did not know at the time that we were going to turn this into a book, so we were both comfortable just letting the creative juices flow freely and without fear of censorship.
When it came to selecting the best pieces for the book, I expected more dissension, but we quite easily agreed on every one of them.
Ruth: Some of the pieces in the book start out light and then take a very dark twist. Was this a deliberate choice about a theme you wanted to run through the different pieces or is this a common feature of much of your writing?
Dini: I have a warped sense of humour and often see the comical where others don’t. I have made it my highest goal to create literature that makes readers laugh and cry at the same time. Ideally there will be moments when they are not sure which one would be appropriate.
I noticed that this kind of thinking is reflected in recent TikTok trends, in which people burst out laughing at someone else’s dark post and then declare that they will definitely go to hell. I want that kind of reaction to my writing.
Ruth: All writers know that every word has to count – it has to earn its place on the page – but 52 words is tiny for a complete story. What challenges did you face when creating so many pieces of this length?
Dini: Some writers find it hard to condense their writing. I am quite the opposite and had to retrain myself to flesh out descriptive scenes. I was the youngest in a fast-talking and extrovert group of sisters. Conversations felt a little like that scene in Mission Impossible, where the protagonist has to wait for just the right second to slip through the rotating fans of a giant cooling system. I had to wait for someone to draw breath and then blurt out my contribution before the window of opportunity closed again. As a result, I learned to condense my thoughts. As a teenager I used the medium of poetry to cram as many hormones into as few lines as possible. I read some recently and have to say I was impressed with the depth of emotion I was able to express at that early age. I was clearly deeply in love. If only I had also taught myself to remember who it was that I was writing the poems for!
In my twenties I graduated to journalism. Back then, everything was done in print first, and line space was a valuable as toilet paper in a pandemic. Once again, I learned to keep it brief.
Ruth: You’ve also written a novel. What are the different challenges in each form and which do you prefer?
Dini: Big emotional reactions are often triggered by seemingly small issues. In flash fiction, I focus on capturing the essence of a situation, albeit something mundane, like our reluctance to throw out the single socks we find. I might have adopted this approach from my work as a therapist, but I can’t help but dig around until I find out what a particular situation is really about. Why does the mother call her son to kill a spider at 3 am? Is she trying to be selfish or annoying? No, she realised that she can no longer ask her husband, who died not long before, and the realisation has hit her so hard she had to reach out. Why are we upset about the lonely socks we find in our washing? Is it about the waste of money or do we maybe project our own feelings onto an inanimate object and this is really about a sense of abandonment? All writing starts with intense observation. For me, flash fiction is named after the flash of insight that it produces, like the beam of a flashlight might briefly illuminate something in a dark room.
Hemingway famously wrote a six-word story that carries with it an enormous weight and sadness. He wrote “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
This triggers a response, and it might make the reader research the sad issue of child bereavement or infertility more deeply.
A novel offers a fuller, more organic insight into a particular issue. In order to hold a reader’s attention span for the duration of a novel, it is necessary to establish fully rounded and complex characters, whose goals are in opposition to each other – conflict drives the narrative. Often, it is more about what a character withholds, and it takes time to seed this into a storyline. Moods are achieved with subtle use of weather, quirks and foreshadowing by scene setting, all of which take time.
Ruth: Apart from the obvious bestseller and world domination, what are your plans for your writing future? Do you foresee any more collaborations?
Dini: I have an entire bag full of ideas – whether I will ever have the time to get all of these projects written is another question. I am planning to write two creative nonfiction books – one on life advice for queenagers (women my age) and one rewrite of my autobiography. Since finishing the flash project, my daughter and I have written a children’s book, for which we are currently trying to find a publisher. I am also writing a fictional novel based on the real-life treatment of women in psychiatry, one part set in the 1800s, one in 1970 and one in the future. And then, of course, I am still trying to find an agent for my first novel ‘Why Daisy set the Hermit on Fire’. I will never be as prolific as you, Ruth, but I strive to follow Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Write something, finish it, send it away.”
Just to give you a little flavour of the book, here are two pieces and the accompanying illustration. If you like what you see, Ghosts in the Toolbox is available from Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle Unlimited. The second piece also gives an insight into the creative process, when writers and artists move from real life events to the realm of fiction.
The birth/death image goes with the flash fiction based on my mother's death. We four sisters stood around her bed, she was in agony and her belly was swollen with ascites. We couldn't help but notice how similar the process was to helping a woman give birth, saying things to her like "Hang in there, you can do it, not long now."
My mum's ashes were buried in the root system of a tree in a forest. Someone took a photo of us four sisters from behind when we were standing in front of the tree. Sarah managed to incorporate it very subtly into the illustration.
If you would like to follow Dini on social media and be kept up to date with what she's doing, you can find her in the following places: