'Empathy is, I believe, a critical part of writing.' An Interview with #WriterPrompt winner Jeremy Gilmer.

The Call

The first morning they arrived, almost no one noticed. It took a few hours before the panic started to sweep its wide broom across the open gasp of the planet. The dim shadow of the ring became clearer in view as it got closer, sparkles of light flashing across its beam, the slow turning and then the low hum that followed, they had our attention.

The television was abuzz with questions, they had spoken over high frequency channels, leaders scrambled to answer, they had asked for a person, someone to speak for all of us. We argued and fought, he should be American, Russian, Chinese, he should be a she! While they fought, the Ring repositioned, began to flatten out and spin faster, we could now see lightning flash within the circle, amazing blue and greens, the sound shook the earth.

I watched Xolani leave his small house, his family following behind. He was no higher than my elbow, school bag on his back. His mother was crying into her hands, but the boy had the look of a sea captain. Little Xolani who spoke every language I had ever heard, the clicks of his Xhosa perfect before he could walk, writing formulas on walls in crayon. He kissed his mother and walked into the road, eyes already gazing up at the ring that was now right over us. The gasps were drowned out by the terrible hum, as Xolani lifted into the sky.

#WriterPrompt is a flash fiction event run on our Facebook page. Writers post stories in response to a picture, then workshop them with other participants and members of the SSDA team. Jeremy Gilmer speaks to us about his writing life and Wole Talabi, the guest writer for this #WriterPrompt shares why he chose Jeremy as the winner.


"The #WriterPrompt was based on an image of something I have a particular fondness for – a Ringworld which is based on Larry Niven’s SF classic novel “Ringworld” and its sequels. The Ringworld in the novels is a cosmic superstructure, an artificial world with a surface area three million times larger than Earth's, built in the shape of a giant ring orbiting its sun, a million miles across and with a diameter of 186 million miles generating gravity via centrifugal force. This idea of a gigantic artificial world constructed around a star has been copied in many other media since, including the popular ‘Halo’ games. I find the image, and the idea of the Ringworld in general, to be incredibly inspirational, a visual reminder of the potential of mankind to alter the universe (hopefully) for his own betterment. Seeing the way this image was interpreted by the writers in this prompt, has been very interesting. 

I picked Jeremy Gilmer’s “The Call” – a nice story of alien arrival and the selection of a young boy name Xolani, to represent humanity at first contact. The classic structure is there and clear. The writing is strong and confident. Xolani is an interesting character, even if Jeremy only gives us a small sketch of him. There are clever uses of wording, like “panic started to sweep its wide broom across the open gasp of the planet”. The writing consistently evokes the right mood as it progresses. I also feel it has just the right combination of ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ to get the story across. 

As with all art, the selection of ‘best’ or ‘winner’ is highly subjective. I chose this story because the craft fundamentals are strong and because it links to the spirit of the prompt by ending open to the huge possibility and potential that comes with first contact. Perhaps the aliens, through Xolani will teach humanity to build a ringworld or something grander. These make “The Call” a nice little story." - Wole Talabi


What does writing mean to you?

JEREMY: For me, writing is a way to try and understand the world around me, and to try and understand myself. I am someone who has lived in various places and cultures, and where I fit in those times and places is always different and often changing. I am very surprised when I am in the process of writing something, the truths that come to light during the writing itself. I may believe that I think or feel a certain way about a story or an event, but as I write, things come to the surface that I had not considered, and the illumination that provides is a very large part of the process of creating and learning. For me, the process of writing is as much about learning as creating.

Who inspires your writing world?

JEREMY: The list of who inspires my writing world is too long for this format, but I will try to condense it. I was born in Canada but spent my first years in Nigeria. My mother made great efforts to incorporate local legends and folktales into the Western fairy tales that would put me to bed at night. Our house was always full of books, indeed as we travelled as a family, books seemed to outweigh our furniture. Both my parents were active artists. They both had a profound influence. As for writers, Chinua Achebe is obviously, for me, a giant whose shadow touches many creatives, not just writers, around the world. Ben Okri holds a very special place in my mind and heart, The Famished Road is a work I return to every few years. Helen Oyeyemi is amazing, but I believe there is not a young writer working today who has not been influenced by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Both her novels and work as a public intellectual has and is going to have an impact on so many artists for many years to come.

Leaning more to the West, I must say that Cormac McCarthy is a pillar of my reading and writing. Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell. None of these names are in any way surprising, I think. I will say that the surge in short story reading and writing has been very inspiring. In that light, I would be remiss not to mention James Joyce and Chekov. Araby (from Dubliners) is my favorite short story, no work has grabbed me by the heart as that has.

Also, I am surrounded by artists, and not just writers, but painters, sculptors, potters, actors, engineers, graphic novelists, musicians. I think this wide frame of reference helps enormously in keeping the creative blood flowing, keeping the pilot light lit. 

And then, to come across a group like SSDA, and see not only the wonderful work, but the support and community that holds the whole thing together, that is hugely inspiring. Being able to share that with others, to see their delight in discovering a source of new writing and writers, it is magic.


What do you think it takes to be a good writer?

JEREMY: To be a good writer. That question is both very simple and very complex. Powers of observation, seeing and feeling the things, people and places around you. Due to my work I have travelled quite widely, and have had to learn to filter out the noise when I am overwhelmed by a place (The DRC comes to mind) and I need to focus on a few special details, or I will retain nothing. Listening to the music of the speech of a place, of a people. The thump of the ground, the rhythm of a city, you must retain these things and be able to sing them back in a way that is somehow coherent to the reader.

Empathy is, I believe, a critical part of not only writing, but being a human being living among others. You must be able to reach out and touch the experiences of the people around you, and those of yourself. A writer must explore how he thinks and feels about any given moment, any experience, and be open to the idea that those responses can and will change over time.

Above all, a writer must write. Write, write, read, write and write some more. Write on scraps of paper. Write notes to yourself, poems, essays, stories, just write. You will only sharpen the tool set by using it. I think course and classes can be invaluable in certain ways, especially in the community they provide, but I do believe that one hundred hours spent writing is more valuable than one hundred hours spent listening to lectures about writing.



Jeremy Thomas Gilmer was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and spent his childhood in Canada, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. He has worked in a number of different occupations, from climbing instructor to construction, soil mechanics and engineering. He has spent the last twenty years working on international mining projects in South America, Africa and the Arctic. He did not attend University. He has recently relocated to Fredericton, New Brunswick. His short story ‘Congo River, County Antrim’ was long listed for the CBC Canada Writes short story prize in 2015.