Tessa Smith McGovern: Biography

Tessa was born in Surrey, England, shipped off to a convent boarding school at 11, and left home for good at 16. She worked as a sales assistant in a jewelry shop, a secretary in a second hand car dealership, and sang in a band. At 22, she lived in Spain for a year, working as a waitress, followed by a year in Austria as a nanny, then a tour guide. She moved to the United States at age 30.

Her first short story was published in 1996. Many of her early stories were short shorts, sometimes referred to as flash or micro fiction. They were very short, between 100 and 750 words. Tessa says, “I love short shorts. They’re like poems, every word matters. I love the way they capture those moments when the ‘cotton wool of daily life’ (Virginia Woolf’s phrase) parts to reveal something unexpected.”

After some years of publishing short shorts in literary magazines, Tessa noticed a tendency towards what she calls catastrophic thinking. “One day, I was walking my dogs on the beach and saw a helicopter appear on the horizon. I imagined it firing at me, shots landing close by, fountains of sand gushing like tiny oil wells into the air. My heart started pounding and my face and chest got hot, and I realized my imagination wasn’t doing me any favors. I saw that, in my desire to write compelling fiction, I’d been training myself to focus on what could go wrong in any situation. Worse than that, I wasn’t in control of my imagination.”

So she began to write longer stories (about 2,000 words) and found that a more complex narrative required some plotting. The rapid-fire, spontaneous eruptions of imagination became diluted by more leisurely periods of consciously-directed thought. “The flood of characters and situations slowed down, and the writing process turned into a delightful balance of plot and inspiration.”

Then she discovered humor. “One day, I read about a group of senior citizens in England who were stealing all the free biscuits at their local cinema every Wednesday morning. The cinema handed out a letter, reprimanding them for being biscuit-thieves, and they were deeply offended. It was so funny I put it into a story called ‘Hissing Sid’ and was amazed to find that, every morning, I couldn’t wait to work on it. Now I try to pinpoint those moments when reality and happiness meet. Life can be painful, but there are times when things turn out well. And there’s usually something funny lurking nearby, if I can relax enough to see it.”

Tessa’s currently at work on a novel that she pitched (successfully!) at the New York Pitch Conference in Sept 2015.