Interview by Rupert Dastur
In a number of interviews, you explain that given the severe constraints on your time, the short story was the only form that offered you a chance to put pen to paper… to finish a piece.
You describe those early years of writing as snatching moments – Raymond Carver-esq – between jobs and parenting. Do you think the pressures of time and the humdrum of daily life are why short stories appeal to most writers when they start out on the literary ladder?
Aside from the very limited time element I wrote short stories because I loved reading them; beginning with Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence, then Edna O’Brien and Angela Carter, Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ian McEwan.
Just before I left London I went to a writers’ clinic that was offered by the publisher Secker and Warburg as part of a big London exposition organised by Time Out magazine. I took along a pretty bad scrap of a novel called The Rage and met with the editor and poet Robin Robertson for less than an hour. The one bit of advice I took from that was the idea of building a writer’s CV by publishing in magazines, entering competitions and so on. The downside of that was with so little time I delayed working on a novel again for many years. The other difficulty was that it is incredibly hard to get a collection of short stories published. I think it was Jonathan Franzen who pointed out that most countries only allow one short story writer at a time, so Canada has Alice Munro and in the UK it’s Helen Simpson.
I have often felt angry about the fact that short stories aren’t appreciated in their own right, that they are seen as a learning exercise for the real thing, which is the novel. Now that I’ve published a novel I feel more confused about this – because I felt my novel got a more enthusiastic reception than my stories. It’s true that readers prefer novels but I also think that because really good short stories no longer regularly appear in general interest magazines in the UK people just don’t understand them or know how to read them. This is less evident in the US as is clear from the New Yorker and other magazines who publish at least one short story per issue. What book publishers say is that short story collections do not sell and therefore it’s a strictly commercial decision not to publish them.
On the subject of ladders and careers, do you think that part of the reason for the enduring belief that the short story is a teething form and therefore less important than the novel, lies in the differences of duration and length?
Many seem to leap to the conclusion that because short stories are short, they are quick to write, and because they are quick to write, they are easier. How would you respond to someone who held this assertion?
When you mention ladders I am afraid I immediately think of snakes. You work, you climb, you struggle, gain a little ground, then whoops, down the snake you go. To get anywhere in this game of snakes and ladders you have to climb an awful of very small ladders if what you are writing is short stories, unless you are incredibly lucky and win a big prize in an important competition very early on.
I read something many years ago which was about short and long terms goals and class; it was argued that middle and upper class people had a greater tendency to work towards long term goals and delay the instant gratification a working class person might opt for. This is probably a completely specious idea that takes no account of the financial pressure, the poor education and other factors effecting the latter. I raise this because I am very much aware of the pleasure I feel on finishing a short story – it serves my sense of achievement very well, but it’s only a brief flicker of gratification, a signal that I am still at it, still breathing.
I wrote a one thousand word short story the other day for a competition; it took an afternoon then the morning of the following day to type it up, expand and polish it. My novel took me four years during which time I had to stop myself from writing any short stories which was very hard. So is one easier than the other? I’m not sure. Obviously there is a huge difference between those two time scales, but that is beside the point for the reader.
I think people find novels easier to read in the sense that they can enter into the story and follow it and put it down and pick it and be absorbed into its world. Short story collections by single authors used to be clearly defined by the fact that many had ‘and other stories’ appended to the title, but now for some reason this is no longer the case, so for example, looking at the cover of Alice Munro’s collection Runaway I see no indication that this is a collection of short stories. You have to turn to the back to find that out and then the word ‘stories’ appears only once in a quote from Ali Smith. The cover of A.L. Kennedy’s What Becomes performs the same trick, ditto Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs. I often wonder what happens when someone, in a hurry at the library or the airport bookstore grabs one of these books, opens it, skips over the contents list – those are chapter titles aren’t they? Then begins reading with the absolute confidence that this is a novel in their hand. Munro’s collection begins with a character called Carla – the reader wants to know what will happen to Carla… next ‘chapter’ there is a Juliet, and there she is in the following one too. But this ‘novel’ is disorientating, what is going on? Finally the penny drops, oh it’s not a novel, it’s stories – well, I don’t like stories, and I sure didn’t like those stories, I didn’t know what was going on from one moment to the next… So I don’t know if trying to fool the reader, if that is what is going on, will have a positive result for the short story as a form in the long run.
In your acclaimed novel Significance you experiment with the form of the ‘murder mystery’ – to what extent was this experimentation a result of working with the short story, a form that many critics and writers have considered the most open to the testing of new ideas and styles. Can a similar influence be seen in the multiple perspectives you touch upon in the novel?
So doggedly and determinedly was I a short story writer in my head that I secretly worried that the novel was really a serious of cunningly disguised short stories. It isn’t, but I did merrily break every rule and convention of the novel along the way, in particular the many characters in it.
The novel was less influenced by any short stories I had written than my life and experience and politics as a woman. I was interested primarily in why certain events like sexually motivated murder can only be addressed in genres like murder mysteries or thrillers and why they dominate in serious TV dramas and why these are consumed and enjoyed so much. I wanted to write a book that reflected the enormous impact of such crimes in the real world and I did not want to give the reader any easy and comforting denouement. I wanted to explore the difficulty the police face when dealing with crimes like these and how ‘significance’ is read into the most innocent of situations by those characters in the novel who are trying to understand the crime and also the reader. I didn’t want to glorify the killer, or treat his victims as mere ciphers. I wanted to show that the impact of being a bystander or just living in the same town affects a far broader spectrum and number of people for a much greater length of time than is assumed in much genre fiction.
The multiple perspectives and characters were crucial to the plot and meaning of the novel, maybe the short stories were an influence in that, but I couldn’t say for sure.
I was having a chat with another short story writer the other day who questioned the claim that short stories are an experimental form. In the writer’s opinion, while we like to think of the form as innovative, in reality it is relatively consistent and traditional compared with a form like poetry. What do you think about this?
I no longer have overarching ideas about what a short story is or whether it is innovative. What does innovative mean in this context? And does this mean innovative now as opposed to then? Or always? We could compare a William Trevor story to one by Niall Griffiths for example – Trevor might seem traditional, elegiac, ordered, predictable even, while Griffiths would represent the opposite. Aside from a different style in terms of the conventions of writing and grammar – particularly with dialogue, the types of characters, the situations they find themselves in, the plot development and places inhabited seem to be worlds apart. Does this indicate that Griffiths is innovative and Trevor isn’t.?American writers like Jennifer Egan and Miranda July might be argued to be innovative but they are responding directly or indirectly to the experiments of Donald Barthelme and William Burroughs amongst many others. Annie Proulx, aside from very innovative passages of description and metaphor seems traditional in style but unusual in terms of place and character. Examples of innovation might go back to the modernists like Woolf and Mansfield or even earlier to Laurence Sterne. Just as the novel has been experimented with and broken down and re-stitched by B S Johnson, James Joyce and Kathy Acker so it is with all forms. As a writer you might experiment with diegesis, with chronology – tell the story backwards, or set rules for yourself like Georges Perec who wrote a novel that did not use the letter ‘e’. You might chose to write about unconventional characters or situations, outsiders and misfits. But if no other person can understand how this story or book has value then you are screwed and you only have to look at the case of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, now a cult classic but unpublished in his lifetime, to see that value is not always recognised. What if your great innovation is just mistaken for poor writing?
In terms of innovation what about a short story called ‘Silence’ that like John Cage’s 4’33” has no words whatsoever, just the title and blank pages? What about reversing the entire word order of a story? Story a of order word entire the reversing about what?
Arguably there is useful innovation and non useful innovation. The question always has to be, what purpose does it serve for the writer and the reader?
Connected, perhaps, with the blending of genres in Significance, in an interview with the Wales Arts Review you mention that you find pure genre writing ‘deeply troubling’. Could you explore this sentiment a little further?
What I was referring to was the idea of suffering and death as entertainment – I mean that it’s deeply troubling that as humans we enjoy this – and I am very much including myself amongst those who enjoy watching Fargo or Psycho or The Killing. Interestingly I watched another Danish TV series, Arvingerne (The Legacy) which was excellent and no one was murdered! It reminded me that the majority of quality TV drama used to be like that – you only have to think of Look Back in Anger or The Caretaker.
I adore every one of Donna Tartt’s three novels and each of them involves murder. I read Silence of the Lambs before it was a film and it was gripping though not deep. Stephen Dobyn’s Church of the Dead Girls which was beautifully written also had those serious aspects that lifted it out of mere genre. So I guess the thing I find troubling is this human need to experience danger and death vicariously. People argue that it’s cathartic, and that we are so shielded these days from both human and animal death, we need to experience it in other forms.
Flannery O’Connor said that, ‘With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.’ That statement explains succinctly exactly what I was trying to do with Significance which I meant to be ‘a novel of ideas’. However it unfortunately languishes in the ‘Thriller’ section in libraries and bookshops, no doubt disappointing the readers who wanted a straightforward plot and a definite resolution, and failing to reach the audience I had wanted for it.
You’ve won and been nominated for a number of major literary wards. Naturally, this must have been extremely encouraging, as well as helpfully shining more light on your work. Does the good news affect your craft in any way? Do you find there is more pressure and expectation on what you now produce?
Recognition of this sort does confirm that I must be doing something right, but it also causes pressure, expectation and frustration as you suggest.
Anybody embarking on writing as a career needs to be either very lucky or incredibly determined and driven. As Thomas Edison said, referring to genius, though it applies to writing too, it’s ‘one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’. Edison also said ‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up’ so to sum up, I’m still trying.
In The Wales Arts Review interview, you make another interesting statement: ‘Sometimes I think that serious drama without a murder or two must be a bit like what a book without pictures was for Alice – pointless.’ Do you still hold this view? If so, could you explain what the importance of murder or death has for you?
This was a comment that reflected upon the changed nature of drama in TV, film and books. Perhaps the UK I grew up was conformist, ‘safe’ and anodyne, but much of its drama sprang from moral and ethical dilemmas, there were the books of Agatha Christie and Hitchcock films showing that murder as a genre and theme did exist, but television films and dramas like Cathy Come Home, Up the Junction and Abigail’s Party were about issues to do with class, poverty, sex and social change. They made people think. Once murder or terrorism enters the frame it immediately ups the ante and draws all attention to that one issue. Society has changed and art with it. In that statement you mention I was asking if drama now need this extreme medicine in order to make it tick and hold an audience’s attention.
My stories, especially the early ones, were about the small hurts done on a micro level by one person to another. I have toyed with darker, more extreme scenarios in this recent collection of stories, but still not murder. I am far more interested in the little dark acts of individuals and their moral choices. That one person kills another is somehow both more brutal and less interesting and while not beyond the realm of the short story, hard to contain and do justice to within a framework of so few words though some writers have achieved this.
In a number of places, you mention some damaging things happened to you – as far as and beyond the age of eighteen when you left Art College. I was struck by a phrase you use in one interview, saying you ‘try to paper over the cracks’ in your life. Do you find writing therapeutic?
Curiously, I was thinking about this lately as I was reading a book called Emergency in Slow Motion; The Inner Life of Diane Arbus by William Todd Schultz. It’s a psychobiography of the photographer and to some extent regards her art and its subjects as symptoms of a damaged psyche – an idea that I find slightly alarming. The book also talks about the effects of constantly revisiting the sources of trauma, re-enacting them via the art and asking whether this is helpful or not. I am starting to think that art, whether writing or any other form is really therapeutic – or not in the sense that it can cure anyone. This also suggests that a cure would mean that the art no longer had any function. Shultz writes ‘What about artists whose work is the demonic – and inner chaotic wound – who dedicate themselves to its description? Is there a sense in which art kills?’ suggesting that some art is the opposite of therapy.
I suppose this ignores the issue of how effective or successful any art produced is – if it is only self-pitying, only describes painful experiences without anything transforming about it then it fails as both art and therapy. I write primarily to communicate and to understand why people do the things they do. Writing fiction allows, indeed demands that the author enter the consciousness of other people – a sort of method acting of the soul perhaps. Fiction that does not involve the characters undergoing any challenges whether emotional, physical, financial, dangerous or exciting would be very dull. Imagine for example if Tess of the D’Urbervilles had just stayed in her village, had a sober father, never met Angel Clare or Alec. This might have been a far happier outcome for her, but we would have been robbed of one of the most affecting, most tragic of heroines in English literature. We read to enter the lives and experiences of others; we watch plays and films and soap operas for the same reason.
I make the presumption that every human being undergoes the same process of struggle with the meaning of life and that, depending on a variety of circumstances, their answer to this mystery might be a Pandora’s Box of shoes or religion or war or babies or mountain climbing or a life of fame or of abstinence.
In learning about your early experiences, I was reminded of a statement made by E. M. Forster which was something along the lines of ‘the one ingredient a writer needs is an unhappy childhood.’ To what extent would you agree? I wonder if there is something in misfortune and hardship that lends a person distance, and therefore greater perspective through which to view the world?
It isn’t distance, it’s experience that feeds both the desire or need to write and adds empathy and authenticity to a writer’s work. Would Dickens have written better, worse or not at all if he hadn’t worked in the blacking factory? It would seem that happy people aren’t as drawn to self-reflection as much as unhappy ones. Writing, by necessity, demands that the poet or novelist work alone for long hours with no definite reward in sight so maybe it’s the cause of all the depression and alcoholism and loneliness writers seem to suffer from.
I often think if W hadn’t happened to me, then X wouldn’t have either, then I never would have gone to Y or met Z… And most importantly would I be the same person? Would I write? Perhaps I would because I started writing stories and poems in junior school before the truly bad things began to happen – which they did, one after another, after another, getting beaten up, falling into the clutches of the neighbourhood paedophile, getting in trouble with the police, seeing and knowing things I could barely contemplate, being inches away from death and danger, personally knowing people who would become murderers and others who were victims, others who were treated with suspicion because they knew the victim . I’ve published non-fiction accounts of some of these things, but not all. I prefer to use experience as the filter through which I write fiction, or fiction as a filter for experience. As a rule my fiction isn’t autobiographical, but grounded in experience which is a very different thing.
Your art college education and work as a photographer is well known. How has this influenced your writing?
A big aspect of an art education used to be about developing ‘ways of seeing’ to quote the title of John Berger’s seminal 1972 book, but it was also about learning to draw in a representational way, so life drawing was an important part of the syllabus. The combination of these two meant the student was trained in both seeing and thinking. When you draw an object you have to look at it long and hard, though perhaps the same practice of intense observation is equally a skill used by poets or scientists or engineers and others.Documentary photography has had a huge impact on me; from photographs by Weegee and Walker Evans to the images of the Vietnam War by Don McCullin in The Sunday Times, to work by David Hurn (whom I interviewed last year) and Nan Goldin (who I interviewed back in the late 80s).Every writer is unique in terms of their experience, they might be a country boys who hunt and fish like Ted Hughes, or medical doctors like Chekhov and Ethan Canin, or an administrator like PD James, a second generation immigrant like Amy Tan, they might be gay or straight, black or white, working class or upper class, a recovering drug addict or a lawyer, male or female, young or old. It is the individual’s experience and perspective that enriches literature, so it isn’t much help for me suggest any art form to other writers. By this I do not mean ‘write what you know’ as I think that is a terrible and much misunderstood piece of advice that is sometimes thoughtlessly doled out.
Photographs are also useful for providing concrete details which can flesh out a story, so that a particular fall of light or the way someone stands give meaning or direction to a piece of writing. Of course it’s better to then separate the two things, because the story should work without the picture and the image created in the reader’s mind will not be the same as the one in the writer’s mind. A photograph was a key element in my story ‘Too Perfect’ and one reader told me he knew the image I described, he’d seen it. He hadn’t because the photograph I described was an invention, a bit of a patchwork of some French photographers like Robert Doisneau and the Pre Raphaelite painter, William Holman Hunt‘s Lady of Shalott among other things.
These photographs represented both truth and enigma, a moment in time fixed forever. Often the context of the image is known but the living, breathing, moving seconds before and seconds later are not and I think for me this creates a space, a sort of lacuna where my imagination takes off.But observation alone does not create good fiction it has to be linked to diegesis, to ideas, to character, to the arc of a story.
The original photograph that was going to be used for your first collection of stories was taken by you. However, for various reasons, the photograph was pulled – although it was later used for an anthology published by Honno called Power.
This photograph showed an arrangement of objects intending to suggest the portmanteau nature of the story collection. In your new collection Ritual, 69, there is also a tapestry of linking themes and places – perhaps a result of the stories being written over many years.
How exactly do you juggle these competing features of a collection (quality, style, length, themes, etc.)?
I have always written stories in isolation from each other, allowing ideas to flow as organically as possible and aiming for each to make sense as a free standing story, working on and by its own terms. Is that wrong? Is it confusing for the reader? I worry about these things. Well, I worry about a lot of things to do with writing, repeating myself for example, but as Jonathan Franzen says in his introduction to Alice Munro’s Runaway some writers don’t care about repeating themselves, ‘All fiction writers suffer from the condition of having nothing new to say, but story writers are the ones abjectly prone to this condition. There is again, no hiding. The craftiest old dogs, like Munro and William Trevor, don’t even try.’
During the period the stories in Ritual, 1969 were written I was questioning many things to do with how I wrote, I was afraid I would never write a novel, or if I did it wouldn’t find a publisher, worrying I would fall by the wayside, noticing certain things about new collections of stories by many different writers and seeing how their themes were clearer and less disparate than mine. I thought that one way forward might be to write linked short stories but maybe that was a cop out and served neither my approach to short stories, nor did it address the need to write a novel. But some of these stories I liked well enough to submit to magazines and for anthologies, some I entered in competitions, a few of these scattered seeds fell on fertile ground and won prizes or were published or shortlisted. In putting together Ritual, 1969 how the stories were organised, which stories would be included and in what order, wasn’t straightforward. The question of order seemed less important, as I knew that as a reader I have never read the stories in a single authored collection in the order they are arranged – that would be like eating your way through a box of chocolates in a strict pattern of left to right, row by row regardless of which one you fancied.
The photograph that was eventually used for the cover of Diving Girls – a black and white image of two girls on a jetty – was your publisher’s decision. It’s often a surprise for new writers to discover how little control they have over the material once it’s been accepted. Would you be happy to give us a brief synopsis of the process to the bookshelf, after being picked up by a publisher?
As a rule the contract a writer signs will state that they will be consulted about the cover but not that they will have control. I’m unusual in that I studied graphic design and photography and have a large collection of photographs I’ve taken over the last thirty-odd years. My first publisher had been aware of my photographic work before he decided to publish my book. I think he either remembered seeing the photograph before or he possibly asked to see my portfolio to see if there was anything suitable for the cover. Unless a writer choses to self-publish they are very unlikely to be allowed carte blanche in terms of the choice of image, design, typography or any element. Sometimes I feel like I am two people – a writer and a photographer; the photographer is always delighted when one of her images is used, but sometimes the writer isn’t so certain.
Once you have managed to find a publisher for your book you are entering into a relationship of both commerce and trust. You want your book to do as well as it possibly can and so do they.
As a result of this photograph being chosen for the cover of Diving Girls, you decided to write a story based on the image, in order to lend more cohesion between image and text. What was this like? Is there a difference between forcibly writing to a prompt, a task, or a commission, compared with penning a piece from pure inspiration?
I don’t think ‘pure inspiration’ really exists because that would suggest it comes out of a void. A variety of prompts and commissioned themes might be used either as teaching tools or to pull an anthology by different writers together. When I was a child I always used to respond to those composition questions which suggested narrative rather than description or polemic, so I would ignore ‘My holiday’ or ‘Why school uniforms are good’ and go straight for ‘Lost in the Woods’ or ‘The Escape’. These were all prompts; they just weren’t called that then. Prompts, tasks and commissions are all external and have their uses, but I think the more one writes the more one is drawing on many sources to activate ideas, sometimes this happens subconsciously, so that it is hard to really describe what the thought process is behind any work.
Eudora Welty wrote a story called ‘Where is the voice coming from?’ in response to the news in 1963 that Medgar Evers, a black civil rights leader had been murdered. She wrote in the first person (which was unusual for her) telling the story as if she were the killer. There is a slight disconnect in the story between the text and the title, as if she, the writer, was asking both how she could imagine and ventriloquise this racist killer’s thoughts and actions, and where the source of hatred came from.
I raise this to show that sometimes those things called ‘prompts’ are out there in the world and the writer just needs to be attentive. Really it’s a matter of being perceptive, seeing, hearing, thinking, remembering. Proust’s madeleine cake dipped in tea is a fine example of this. Everything that is experienced directly or indirectly via other people, TV, books, music, pictures, radio, folklore and history might be thought of as prompts. Though in this instance the term ‘prompts’ is probably a bit inadequate and begins to sound like the subjects given to a comedian for him to improvise with.
In almost every interview, you point to the influence of Flannery O’Connor. What is it about this writer’s work that so affects you? Which book or story would you direct uninitiated readers to?
I wasn’t much of a reader until I left art college prematurely aged nineteen and got a low paid job that required very little of me, apart from sitting in a tiny little office and answering the phone which rang no more than twice or three times a day. It was there that I began to read for hours at a time. Some of the things I read I’d chanced upon in a newsagent’s shop a couple of doors up from the office. They had a spinning rack of paperbacks for sale and among them I found books by Edna O’Brien, Erica Jong and Flannery O’Connor. The O’Connor was Everything That Rises Must Converge, its cover showed the porch of a wooden shack, a rocking chair, a broom. I liked the title although I didn’t have a clue what it meant. I thought the author’s first name was odd, Flannery, what is a Flannery? But besides all this and the fact it was short stories set in the American South I knew nothing. I bought the book and began to read the first story, the one which had given the collection its title.
The first paragraph began with a man called Julian who had to take his mother to ‘reducing class’ because the buses ‘had been integrated’ in other words segregation was at last coming to an end. There was nothing sympathetic or appealing about this mother and son, neither were characters a reader might identify with, there was no sense of joy or beauty, nothing exciting or truly dramatic about the place or the unravelling plot. Getting ready to set off the mother puts on a new hat: ‘It was a hideous hat. A purple velvet flap came down on one side of it and stood up on the other; the rest of it was green and looked like a cushion with the stuffing out. He decided it was less comical than jaunty and pathetic. Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him.’
The son is resentful and impatient with his mother and she is fussy and manipulative as well being a self-righteous racist. They go for the bus and their bickering argument reveals her to be stuck in the antebellum past when Julian’s ‘great-grandfather had a plantation and two hundred slaves.’ Julian is critical of her views, knowing times have changed, but his position on this is not quite as pure or noble as it should be, or the very least there is a discomforting uncertainty about his motivation.
A well dressed black man carrying a briefcase (the term used in the story is the derogatory ‘n’ word an accurate reflection of the language of the time and place) gets on the bus and Julian ‘would have liked to get in conversation … and talk with him about art and politics’ but the man is engrossed in his newspaper and ‘there was no way for Julian to convey his sympathy.’
The story unfolds slowly and it is excruciating, awkward. You feel awkward reading it, uncomfortable, it makes you cringe. This is achieved because O’Connor doesn’t tell her story in easy contrasts of black and white – although black and white is what it is all about – instead the morality, the reader’s identification with any of the characters resides in a grey zone and the result is unsettling. I won’t go into the plot any further as it’s a story that must be read to be appreciated.
I found all of her stories to be astonishing, they were banal and yet disturbing; the American South in the mid-twentieth century a strange dusty backwater of poverty, religion and cruelty. O’Connor died aged just 39 in 1964 of lupus. I found her to be a radical, brave and searingly honest writer, unafraid to expose the most negative human traits and while she often wrote about religion it was negatively, highlighting people’s hypocrisy, or seemed so to me. What I had missed was that O’Connor wrote from a fervently Catholic perspective and very often it was ‘grace’ or the lack of true grace that she described.
I was not alone in my misunderstanding of how faith infused and informed O’Conner’s work, she herself said, ‘I have also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock in either grace or the devil.’ This is disconcerting, but I think if different words are used, goodness and evil instead of grace and the devil, it’s easy to see how any reader can respond to her work at its deepest level.
In her collection of essays Mystery and Manners she outlines what a short story should be; ‘A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.’
I could go on and on about Flannery O’Connor, quote her at length, ‘A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way.’ But instead I’ll just say read Everything That Rises Must Converge, read A Good Man is Hard to Find and let them expand in your mind, they are every bit as relevant today as they were when she wrote them.
You’ve mentioned Sylvia Plath a number of times and she also surfaces in a number of your short stories. Why does she hold a place in your heart and when you use her name in your short fiction, does this illustrate a bond between you and the characters within the narrative?
The first time I mentioned her by name was in a story called ‘Too Perfect’ it was at the point where a pair of illicit lovers are seeing each other through new, rather jaded eyes. Both are thinking their affair was a mistake and they want to finish it as soon as possible. When he notices she has ‘a rather unhealthy number of books by and about the American poet Sylvia Plath’ he is reading her through the lens of Plath’s madness, Plath’s anger and jealousy and finally her suicide – and he sighs. This is often the view of Plath, she is seen as dangerous, her suicide contagious. In this story therefore Plath functions as herself, because I wanted to put this kind of male judgement of her and the women who read her under scrutiny, but she also figures as a sign of the rapid breakdown of their fairly nascent relationship, the sense that the two barely know each other at all.
I think Plath also gets a mention in my novel, but more in passing. In the group of 1969 stories it is one of her poems that figures most prominently, but there are other poets the English teacher thinks about including Larkin, Ted Hughes and Walter de la Mare to name a few. Plath stands out from the landscape of poetry in the first half of the twentieth century because she was a woman, and there were so few women poets, and her work was so strong, so dangerous and at times full of rage. It was not polite, not well mannered, it mentioned taboo subjects. Plath says things women are not meant to say, things the teacher is unable to say, but in the story’s circumstances Plath’s poem is rendered silent.
The first time I really discovered Plath was at art college when in a liberal studies lecture, a PhD student came from the university armed with recordings of Plath reading three of her poems, including ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’. Hearing these had a huge impact on me and so did the classroom debate that followed where I found myself defending her. Then perhaps a year later, when my world had fallen apart, I read The Bell Jar and shortly after that her collection of short stories Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. I wasn’t as keen on the short stories perhaps because I came to them with preconceived notions of what they would be like. She had apparently written them with a view to the commercial market so perhaps that was what made them feel stilted to me. I should perhaps try reading them again to see if my first impression was right.
You’ve written about the way in which your early reading was completely free and that you would skim across authors and genres alike. Do you think this had a positive effect on you as a writer? Do you think school and universities are now too restricting in their canon-centric approach?
It definitely had a positive effect for me, although as I later, at the age of thirty-six, did a degree and then a Masters in literature with all the proscribed reading and essays and literary theories such study entailed, I am perhaps not the same creature I was before. However my stories and non-fiction were published in magazines long before my degree. I am aware too that I trusted my own opinions very strongly and found the books I eventually came to love via some sort of personal magic radar. Despite working in several libraries in the late 70s I always wanted to possess the books, to have them at hand. I think I came to love the books I loved in a quite self-absorbed way – they were emotionally as well as physically mine and so were the writers.
Before I went to college I never had to read Moby Dick at speed in just a few days because I had an essay deadline, I never had to read Jane Austen from a post-colonial perspective, or beat up Charles Dickens with a Marxist perspective, or poke Frankenstein with Queer Theory. But I did have huge gaps in my knowledge; Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton for example. I probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and more crucially had no proof, no certificate to advance my life. On the other hand in terms of writing I had absolutely nothing to lose, no reputation to risk.
It’s really hard to say if universities are too restricted because the practicalities of teaching and the canon itself demand that they are limited.
On the other hand it seems that rules about what can and cannot be done in fiction are becoming a feature of some creative writing courses. I’ve been reading a very wise book by Francine Prose, ‘Reading Like a Writer’ where she gives many examples of the rules given to students and the many important writers who break them, for example Chekhov, when he switches viewpoints many times within a matter of pages and kills the main character halfway through. She also considers how Kafka would have survived the creative writing workshop ‘in which his classmates inform him that, frankly, they just don’t believe the part about the guy waking up one morning to find he’s a giant bug.’
You now read a diverse range of non-fiction books. Why the turn away from fiction? What does reading a myriad selection of more factual texts provide that novels and the like don’t?
I don’t know why I am struggling to read fiction at the moment, it’s like a switch has turned in my head. Maybe it’s partly the pressure to produce another novel while I am still mourning the last novel and trying to promote the new book. When a book is finally published it is like a death – especially when as in the case with my novel it’s taken seven years from beginning to seeing it in print.
At the moment I’m reading a lot of history books which is research for the novel I am working on – so I’m seeped in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and also the 1970s. Of course the danger with research is that you can get carried away and drown in it.
The other reason for avoiding fiction is that every hour spent happily absorbed in someone else’s book is an hour when I should have been writing. So close at hand right now is a copy of Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment that I bought yesterday but stopped myself from reading earlier this morning in order to write. So I guess it’s just to do with discipline and time, with doing whatever supports the work in hand.
Turning back to your own short story collections more specifically, it’s notable that many of the stories within each collection were written over a great many years. Does this affect the collection in any way and should a reader be aware if this fact?
A little time before I left London in 1991 I put together a manuscript for a first short story collection and paid for it to be ring bound – which I think was a pathetic stab at some sort of permanence. The nine stories in it must have been written between 1987 and 1990. Three of the stories ended up in either my first or second published collections, five are probably really bad, but I think the ninth is going to be published by The Lonely Crowd later this year. One of the stories was accepted to appear in a Virago Christmas themed short story collection but then after about six months or longer the decision was made to bump off some of the less well known writers and add some famous ones, so out went my story. I sent manuscripts to various publishers but always got the standard ‘we-don’t-publish-collections-of-short-stories’ proforma rejection letter. A few years after returning to Wales, in 1996 I approached the women only publishing collective, Honno and they were really keen to take the book, the trouble was they relied on a publishing grant from The Welsh Arts Council. The manuscript was sent to the Arts Council who sent it to two readers, one of whom loved it, while the other only liked half the stories. Because of this the book was sent to a third reader who only liked the stories the second person hadn’t liked, and disliked the others – the result? Rejection of the grant; end of all hope. Twelve of the stories in that book were eventually published six years later alongside some newer work in Diving Girls which was shortlisted for Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. So this shows that elements of bad luck can slow down and negatively alter a career just because your book doesn’t match someone’s particular taste, but it doesn’t mean it had no intrinsic worth to begin with.
I keep little notebooks of all the places I’ve sent stories to and whether they were rejected or accepted or were shortlisted for a prize. Some of the stories I have always been fond of have been rejected over and over – it’s very easy to give up on a story and dismiss it as a dud but then weirdly you send it out for a ninth time and it’s accepted. Another interesting thing my notebooks tell me is that a certain regional publication I’ve been sending work to over and over again since 1992 has never accepted anything of mine. Since it’s now possible to submit work very cheaply and quickly via email, a year or so ago I made a concerted effort with this one publication and no sooner had they rejected one story than I sent them another straight away. It was like short story table tennis with work flying back and forth at top speed – I kept stubbornly at it for sometime but then I thought, sod this and gave up for good.
In terms of letting the reader know that the stories were written over a long period I’m not really sure that they would be interested; I hope they’d just approach each story as a separate entity. When I first read collections of stories I noticed early on that there was usually a list outlining where each story had first appeared often alongside the date. So looking at the 1996 edition of E. Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs the reader will discover that the earliest story was first published in a journal in 1979.
Although, increasingly, new writers are going through Creative Writing courses where their end product is ‘a collection of stories’ meaning that perhaps such books are more cohesive, if not directly linked by the same themes and focus. I come from the possibly misguided notion that what links a collection of stories is the writer’s particular style and world view and that any themes arise organically from that.
Similarly, a long time (over ten years) has passed between your first collection Diving Girls and your newest collection released this year, Ritual, 69. Has your writing changed much over these years? If you were to go back and start all over again, what would you do differently?
It’s fifteen years to be precise – three or four years of which went into writing the novel, then in the time it took to find a publisher, I started a new novel, and began working on short stories again.
It would be far easier to answer this question if there was any sense of planning involved – or rather if things had gone more to plan. After my first book was shortlisted for Commonwealth Best First Book the response was ‘write a novel’ ‘where’s your novel’ ‘you’ve got to write a novel’. I found this as weird as if I’d had a folk song in the music charts and was being asked to write a traditional opera. All I wanted to do at that stage was write more and better stories – though this was also because I still didn’t have the long stretch of clear time I felt I needed to produce a decent novel. Under duress I produced a novel that wasn’t fully realised, just wasn’t any good at all to be honest – so I guess one thing I might change is I wouldn’t succumb to external pressure to rush things or do anything just because someone else tells me to – but this is stated with the benefit of hindsight and should not be taken as general advice.
I would do so many things differently if I could. At the point I returned to Wales to do a degree and then a Masters, creative writing wasn’t offered at the University I attended. It would certainly have been far easier for me to have done an MA in creative writing because then I wouldn’t have been a pursuing an academic direction and writing essays on Celtic literature, while squeezing my own writing into the little time that remained. On the other hand I might not have liked being guided in what I wrote and how I wrote.
Your new collection, Ritual, 1969 is in many ways a dark, gothic experience with elements of the supernatural. You’ve previously mentioned that an early influence was the fairytales collected by Brothers Grimm. Does this presence reassert itself to some extent in these short stories?
I think the first things that really move us stay with us forever; they become enmeshed in the DNA. As a child I tried reading Enid Blyton but she bored me to death and I hated some of her smug moralising. However I felt childish to be so in love with the dark fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and thought I should be reading proper novels for children like The Twins at Saint Clare’s but these books made me reel with weariness.
So a certain sort of dark tale has always attracted me, but the darkness is often very banal rather than supernatural. I wrote a couple of these stories in response to calls for work for anthologies of Gothic or uncanny tales but I think it always sits slightly uneasily with me. I like work where there is a degree of uncertainty or openness as to what is really going on.
At the point my editor and I were deciding which stories to include I was uncertain whether the realist stories would sit comfortably alongside the ones that dabble with the supernatural but I hope that can all be read as examples of the real strangeness of the world and the distorting psychological effects it can have on the mind. Some bad, mad, sad and tragic things happen in those stories but at least a few can be read as accidents.
The short story ‘Prayer, 1969’ which appears in your newest collection Ritual. 1969 is set in a school and is told from the perspective of a sad, disillusioned female English teacher who is about to introduce her class to a Sylvia Plath poem. Or resign from her job. There is an intriguing tension between her current status and the life she might have had, ‘one with marriage and children and a modest home’. Does this reflect upon your feminism in any way?
I suppose it does because women’s lives were so restricted in the 50s, 60s and well into the 70s. This was reflected in what girls were taught and how they were treated. Girls had to do needlework and cookery, boys did metalwork and carpentry – this was a completely rigid rule. Girls played netball and rounders, boys had soccer, rugby and cricket. The teacher in the story is trapped and unhappy to the point of raging, but in part this is due to the fact that she has bought into certain illusions about the world and her place in it.
In 1969 the messages women and girls were receiving were contradictory to the point of almost being schizophrenic; find a man, be free, be sexy, stay pure, live in sin, take the pill, don’t be a slut, learn to type, have children, be a housewife, dress in a mini skirt, but if you are unlucky enough to be raped everyone will say you were asking for it, go to college even though your education is a waste because you’ll get married and have children or so some of your teachers might tell you. Be an old maid, be a spinster, be aware that the law does not recognise rape within marriage, be aware that the man sitting next to you in the office doing exactly the same job is getting paid more than you, be aware that you probably can’t get a mortgage as you a single woman. Be aware than most men still consider women to be inferior and ruled by their hormones. Be aware that if your husband kills you the judge may look sympathetically on him because you nagged.
Feminism at the time was looked at as mad and wacky and dangerous – its serious political ideology was mocked, undermined and cheapened by derogatory terminology; ‘Women’s Libbers’, ‘bra-burning’, ‘man hating’. But laws and attitudes were slowly changed and absorbed into society. Many young women don’t seem to know how different the world of their mothers and grandmothers was – fiction is perhaps a good way to show that.
As I’ve said before elsewhere, people don’t understand how Jimmy Savile got away with his crimes, but it was due to the climate of the period. Young girls were practically groomed by society to fall into the clutches of men like him – I have a copy of a girls’ Christmas annual which has a photo strip story called ‘A Dream Comes True’. This illustrates by pictures and captions a thirteen-year-old girl’s day out with a famous pop star who is probably in his late thirties – I won’t name him here as this was probably all just part of his promotion work and was quite innocent. The location where they meet is described as ‘romantic’, they pose very closely in many of the pictures, he has his arm around her as he teaches her to play guitar, he gives her flowers and a farewell kiss on the top of her head. What on earth were the girls reading and seeing this meant to think?
The theme of alternative possibilities or missed opportunities, also appears a few short stories earlier in ‘The Murder Stone’. Does the sentiment things could have been different resonate with you?
I think that this is getting back to the idea of fate or chance or the way a whole series of events can be set in play by a very insignificant choice or idea. I realised somewhat late in the day that something which is evident in many of the stories in this collection is the idea of receiving the wrong information or receiving it when it’s too late, or being taught something that’s completely wrong, or having the full picture of something withheld. So half the information on the murder stone itself is hidden by weeds. The female protagonist in that story has completely misread the situation and, to make things worse she doesn’t understand the man’s reference to Angel Clare.
There is a point in that story where during their walk she sees ‘a couple standing where they’d stood by the information board and yet another man and woman … heading away from the lake’ these other couples represent different paths taken, but I think they also signify how we perceive others and imagine their lives are happier, more perfect. This was an important part of my story ‘Too Perfect’ where a romantic moment is captured in a photograph and seems to represent some sort of ideal while the reality couldn’t be more different.
The short story ‘Mechanics’ has a curiously ominous last line: ‘He turned at the sound but there was nothing he could see, only the quickening of his heart, which pulsed and fluttered like a trapped and dying bird’. While the tone was fitting for an uncanny story about Siamese Welsh girls, I found the shift of focus from the twins to the boy unsettling and unexpected. What can you tell us about this last line and, more generally, last lines in shorts stories… are they all-important, as so many writers make out?
The quickening of his heart is due to the excitement he feels when he thinks about the two sisters – it’s a kind of exotic romance mingled with lust. It happens after he turns away from Edna’s apparent helplessness, seemingly rejecting her. His sudden feelings are dangerous – or could be – he might become ensnared, deceived, found out. The two women’s bodies that he fantasizes closing in on him could crush him symbolically or in reality. Nothing can be taken at face value and there are a number of deceptions going on here; as much by Edna who pretends to be more injured than she really is in order to get his attention as by the twins who have been born into the circus life but they are not really Siamese or conjoined twins at all – it is only their clothes which are stitched together just as they stitch their voices together to give the impression that is natural for them to speak and say the same thing at the same time. Their old fashioned dresses and ribbons and curls are all symbols of a more genteel age suggesting Victorian rigidity and values, but this is only part of their costume. So they are not Siamese twins, nor are they Welsh. The story is set in Wales but the Circus has travelled there from somewhere else.
As you know some of these stories are directly linked – the obvious ones are those with titles ending with the year 1969. The less obvious ones are Mechanics, Mrs Dundridge and The Moon and the Broomstick – these were all part of a larger sequence of stories set in the years between the two World Wars that I was writing before I set it aside to work on Significance. It was really difficult to know how much of a risk it was to separate all these stories from each other and surround them by stories which were not connected in anyway. In a sense this was an act that furthered the overall theme of withheld knowledge. There are also quite a few references in the book to birds; birds that fly away and birds that are dead and stuffed, or turned to stone. The birds thus represent many things; beauty, freedom, entrapment, transformation and the illusion of life, but it is only in retrospect I came to see that, it wasn’t planned.
I think last lines are important and quite tricky but should emerge somehow – naturally almost – from the workings and the logic of the story.
Are beginnings more or less difficult than endings?
I think beginnings can seem easier but maybe that’s because they are the first step on a new journey and the road still seems bright and smooth up ahead, whereas endings are a letting go, a tying up, a leave taking. I used to have ideas for first and last sentences in isolation from any definite plot. I would write them down then sometimes use them, sometimes not. These strange enigmatic sentences might be in notebooks or on bus tickets or the backs of envelopes or even in the blank pages of whatever book I happened to be reading.
Each beginning is a sort of exposition, a setting up of intent along with an enticing crumb. Maybe a story is like that; crumbs set along a path to draw the reader on, bigger crumbs and perhaps the odd cherry along the way.
Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer succinctly describes how endings often work: ‘Both passages from the Joyce and Cheever stories employ rhythm and cadence to signal to the reader that the story is ending.’ I use to feel this sensation very vividly when I was writing, I think my breathing might have changed, or the gears shifted, it’s hard to describe. Then a reviewer made a very negative criticism of this element of my writing and this affected me badly, I became self-conscious and self-hating and I no longer quite trusted my instincts. So I think I struggle with endings now more than before.
In ‘Caretakers’, a fantastically unnerving ghost story, the description is often strikingly specific… the coat-stand, for example, ‘with its carved menagerie of real and mythical creatures, a stag, a unicorn, frogs and lizards with inlaid eyes of ebony, amber and jet.’ Do you conjure up such images from imagination, memory, or research?
That particular coat-stand comes from a variety of sources but what I had in mind were Black Forest Carvings. These were wood carvings produced in the 19th century from linden wood, they were very elaborate, very Victorian. I also had in mind the ceramic work known as Palissy ware – plates and dishes with snakes and insects crawling on them. I think there are probably bits of gothic church carving and Japanese netsuke in there too. It had to be a strange object, the fully furnished house had to be imbued with something threatening, something to suggest that evil had somehow seeped into every object, every brick, every mattress and even the plumbing. But I didn’t want to spell that out, besides which I think the perception of evil or the supernatural is dangerous in itself because of the way it works on the mind of the characters. If you think of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca it is in some ways the tale of a haunting and yet there is no ghost, only the memory of a dead woman whose presence is inescapable and thus damaging to the living.
‘Caretakers’ is a story about not fitting in, about being an outcast. There is an echo in it, now I come to think of it, of ‘Beauty and the Beast’; the young man might be the beast in that he is slightly overweight, but he regains his healthy physique. The house is like the beast’s castle in that it seems too large for its sole occupant, following that logic it would seem that it is she who is the beast and the tears which free the beast at the end of the fairy tale are here represented by the watery footprints she sees. Or thinks she sees. There again the footprints may be intimately connected to her like manifestations of the ego and id, tiny and impulsive and potentially dangerous.
‘Caretakers’ touches upon a theme that pops up with regularity: money. Another theme which appears frequently is clothing; both seem connected to the knottiness of identity. These preoccupations felt particularly overt in the short story ‘Snakeskin Becomes Her’.
When I was growing up in the 70s clothes had become important signifiers of identity particularly for youth subcultures. It sounds almost archaic now but there were skinheads, greasers, hippies and a few teddy boys, as well as followers of fashion who wore whatever the style of the season was. The older generation tended to dress as they had done in the 40s and 50s. Prior to this there had been mods and rockers and beatniks. What you wore defined you as a member of a tribe or at least gave that illusion. Clothes were also far more expensive compared to wages so each item of clothing had far more importance. I had a Saturday job working for Top Shop before I left school so I suppose this heightened my interest in clothes and women’s relationship to them. Then at 18 I went to art college and began to dress in clothes culled from jumble sales; crepe tea dresses from the 1930s, tailored jackets with nipped in waists, Victorian nightgowns, men’s dinner jackets and strange old lady hats.
With reference to ‘Snakeskin Becomes Her’ the character is planning a seduction and at the same time she is judging and disregarding the man’s long term partner so that donning a fake snakeskin dress is key to the story. Animal prints were in all the shops and on many bodies at the time I wrote it and in a sense it was an inquiry into the relationship between animals and people, sex and the marketplace. It also suggests something about the multilayered nature of identity and the mirror as the site of self.
Another equally important theme that rears its hydra-head is the relationship, the transition, between innocence and experience. In the margins of my copy of Diving Girls, I’ve left the verdict ‘Blakean’ on one of the pages. It was interesting to discover, a few weeks later, one of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience as an epigraph to Ritual, 1969. What draws you to this theme?
I was sitting on the tube in London during the time when AIDs was becoming a major threat in the 80s and I read Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ which was one of the ‘Poems on the Underground’ series and the two things seemed to really connect and resonate. I suppose Blake’s work often suggests that you might be a good person but bad things will happen regardless. In a writer like Dickens, goodness usually shines through and is rewarded – Oliver Twist is a prime example of this – while with Thomas Hardy there is a usually a darker more tragic result. Blake, besides being a bit of a mystic was also very much a realist in terms of the human condition under capitalism. When you consider the meaning of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ with its last line of ‘So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’ it’s clear it might be understood as a call to belief in god and a heavenly reward, but it’s usually seen as an ironic condemnation of a supposedly Christian society that hypocritically allows poor children to be ill used and ultimately disposable.
Innocence and experience are directly linked to the idea of knowledge and how that is manipulated by individuals, the media and institutions.
Returning to Diving Girls, the short story ‘Settling’ ends with the arrival of snow. It seems that any short story concluding in such a way cannot escape the invocation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ – was this your intention?
I wasn’t familiar with Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ when I wrote that story and if I had made that connection I would probably have tried to sever any echoes of it. I suppose a phenomenon like snow brings its own set of connections and associations and writers will respond to and use those in similar ways. If there was an influence I think it was far more banal – it was snowing when I wrote it. I think at the same time I’d recently read ‘Gorky Park’ by Martin Cruz Smith where cold pervades and snow hides secrets. There was the Prince song too, ‘Sometimes it snows in April’ that I listened to a lot. It’s a simple and yet mysterious song of mourning: All good things, they say, never last, And love, it isn’t love until it’s past. I find those lyrics curiously reminiscent of Blake or they seem so on reflection.
How do writers work with, escape, surpass even, those defining short stories (and literature in general) which everyone knows so well?
How writers deal with what is called ‘the anxiety of influence’, which was a theory proposed by Harold Bloom, then parodied by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, must vary enormously. I try not to think about it too much when I am writing as it would be too disabling. Some stories pop into my mind almost fully formed and when that happens there is always the worry the idea has another source. I would be horrified if I discovered I had unconsciously plagiarised another writer. As you know there have been a few cases of line by line and almost word for word plagiarism recently discovered in the poetry world and I have to say I just don’t understand why anyone would do that – any glory or sense of pride in the work is rendered utterly meaningless so what is the point?
Another short story in this collection had me laughing – ‘Tongue’ – which explores the relationship between an artist/sculptor and his girlfriend. There’s one moment when she’s walking around his back yard where he collects strange things to use for material and, referring to his art, she asks, ‘Don’t you ever think it’s just silly sometimes?’ Have you asked these same questions yourself? The kind of questions that make you consider the importance of art, of writing… if so, what are your general conclusions?
I’m glad that made you laugh; I guess she is just unwittingly puncturing his balloon by saying what she thinks, what a lot of people think. The artist can be so consumed by the art that they forget that others are outside that way of thinking. Art, whether it’s sculpture or writing is extremely serious and important but can also collapse into silliness if the spell is broken. Visual art tends to fall victim to this kind of criticism more easily than writing, you only have to think of Carl Andres’ Equivalent VIII which is the stack of firebricks in the Tate or Tracey Emin’s My Bed or Duchamp’s Fountain to see that junk can become art because the artist puts it in a gallery, but that it can just as easily become junk again if removed. The transformation of the material in those instances is less important than that the transformation in the mind of the viewer. A lot of people got furious because Emin took her literal bed and sheets etc and put them in a gallery. If she had instead reconstructed her bed out of matchsticks or marble or hand-spun silk the art work would have been better received because of the labour and skill involved. People might have said, in awe and wonder, why it looks just like the real thing! But the interesting part of this is that they would be looking at the same object – the difference lies in the information they are given. I tend to vacillate between the two responses; sometimes appreciating the wit of contemporary art, sometimes thinking it’s self-indulgent and meaningless. When I was an eighteen-year-old art student I went to an exhibition of conceptual art in London and I found it so dull and sterile I made my own piece of protest art; I took a broken pencil from my bag and stuck it to the wall with a sticking plaster and left it there for someone else to figure out. I later tried to write a poem about this; happily finding that the brand name Elastoplast rhymed with iconoclast.
There is a common, but striking image I’ve noticed you allude to both in your short stories (it appears in the story just mentioned) and in previous interviews. It is the process of discovery, the chipping away at a block of stone in order to reveal the figure beneath.
Some writers have no more idea of where a story is going to go. Other writers are detailed planners. Why do you think these two different approaches have emerged and do you think they result in different kinds of literature?
It’s very hard to answer this as while I’ve read a number of books about the work and lives of writers and artists I really don’t know if there are fixed differences between approaches to writing and the results. In some ways it can feel as if there is an unknowable force at work, this might be the subconscious, it might be the zeitgeist, perhaps it’s magic. Even writers who plan carefully must be to open to new and developing ideas that flow from the work in hand. Sometimes stories just come, other times they have to be nudged along. This is why it is hard to explain to new writers how they might proceed, it is not a science, there are no rules.
I recently read The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing, which was both sad and funny and terrible in parts. Laing looks at six writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver paying particular attention to the role of alcohol in their lives. Drink produced trauma and mayhem and physical damage yet each wrote differently; maybe Fitzgerald’s characters imbibed their booze at glittering cocktail parties while Carver’s sat at shabby kitchen tables, reflecting what the two men knew and were interested in, but how each got to the results they did is still something of a mystery – or even a miracle.
A block of stone is as much a blank as a sheet of white paper, there is often the sensation that something must be made almost out of thin air, so it always easier to start with sketches, with notes, with the vague sensation that there is potential.
To return to other writers, I found Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays How to be Alone to be both honest and consoling. The consolation comes from the realisation that other writers feel all the self-doubt, all the loneliness, all the negative emotions no matter how successful they seem. Writing about Paula Fox’s novel, Desperate Characters Franzen asked, ‘Did the distress I was feeling derive from some internal sickness of the soul or was it imposed on me by the sickness of society? That someone besides me had suffered from these ambiguities and had seen light on their far side … felt akin to an instance of religious grace.’
In an interview with Seren Books, you say that ‘Art and what should be sacrificed for it emerges in story after story, whether it is poetry or circus performance or film or photography or novels. If the endings to my stories are enigmatic then perhaps it’s because I can’t and won’t answer that question.’ It’s a curious statement.
As part of my recent year’s role as Fellow with The Royal Literary Fund I was working with a student whose dissertation focused on two dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Unit. I had read all of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels but I was unfamiliar with The Unit. Intrigued by what the student said about this book I decided to read it. Both of these books were concerned with fertility and writing, but most acutely in The Unit as the main character has chosen to be a writer rather than a mother. At the point the novel opens her apparently democratic country (which is Sweden at some undefined period in the future) changes its laws and suddenly women over fifty who are ‘dispensable’ are sent to the unit of the title where they are used for medical experiments and their organs are harvested for the benefit of ‘needed’ people. The author Ninni Holmqvist makes clear in several places how her character had sacrificed many things in order to write, financial security, children, relationships and also awareness of the changes going on around her in society and politics.
I think this was partly on my mind at the time I gave that interview, but it had been on my mind for years and years. I never became a writer because I wanted to earn a load of money from it, nor did I have any romantic notions about starving in a garret. If I had not had the very modest critical success and positive responses to my work I’ve had, then I think it would have been pragmatic to stop writing and attempt to find a career that gave me enough money and job satisfaction to survive. Yet it seems too late to change now.
Besides which I want to write, despite the fact it feels at times like absolute madness to continue.
In many of the stories in Ritual, 1969 what is sacrificed for art is normal life (Mechanics), poetry (Prayer, 1969), existence itself (A Bird Becomes a Stone/Storm Dogs), nature (Velvet/ The Flower Maker) and so on, meaning in this sense that the stories are almost self-reflexive.
Throughout this interview, I’ve been struck by the depth, intimacy, and lyricism of your responses. This is true for many of your interviews. Do you consciously construct such fulsome answers?
That’s a very hard question to answer and one that produces an uncomfortable level of self-consciousness. If I say yes, it gives the impression I spend hours writing and rewriting to create a sort of good but artificial effect, if I say no, this stuff just comes to me as I go along then that also somehow seems a lie of some sort. Perhaps the reason for what you call my ‘fulsome answers’ is due to the fact that I wrote for a long time before my first book came out and it was even longer before I was asked to do a serious interview for print – possibly not until my novel came out two years ago – so perhaps I have been thinking about the influences and reasons behind my writing for a long time, almost thirty years, but no one was asking. Another reason might be that I began writing and reading seriously outside of an academic background, I didn’t even have a GCSE in English Literature, let alone a university degree when I published my first short stories and nonfiction. I had some qualifications in art but aside from that I was self-taught. It was the art; or rather graphic design that allowed me to begin working for magazines and that in turn led me to writing interviews and articles, but more importantly meeting and taking photographs of some well known figures in the arts like Nan Goldin, Tilda Swinton and Margaret Atwood.
I always felt I didn’t belong in that world, that I was passing for someone I wasn’t. This possibly created a tension that made me work all the harder to prove myself, to undo the failures of my earlier life, but of course these things can’t really be undone and I now feel I am running out of time. So I find that when I am asked serious questions about my work I am answering as much to understand myself for myself as for the questioner or any audience.
You’re interested in biographical writing and even considered a collection of memoir-style pieces… could this have something to do with it?
I find that working on autobiographical material is a useful way of exercising my writing practice when fiction fails me. My first published short story was purely based on personal experience but the experience was so strange it might have failed the ‘suspension of disbelief’ test required of fiction. The story was published under a pseudonym in the late eighties and hasn’t been republished since. The story describes how I was attacked by two other girls while on a school trip to Italy. We were all around fifteen or sixteen years old. They had been out drinking. They came back to the hotel determined to attack me for reasons that have never been clear. I had spent the evening in a quiet, innocent way probably just walking around the streets with friends and having imbibed nothing more potent than ice cream. I was actually in bed and half asleep when I was attacked and dragged about the room by my hair and punched and kicked and kneed in the face. This was not a fight. There had been no provocation whatsoever – though these girls had been bullying me for years just because they took a dislike to me and made false assumptions about me because of where I lived. The following day my face was black and blue and purple and yellow, my eyes reduced to puffy slits. My head felt as if something had cracked inside, but I wasn’t taken to a doctor, the police weren’t involved, nor was such a thing as therapy even thought of. I was just left to absorb the event by myself and I wasn’t aware of any punishment that might have been given to the girls involved nor were my parents informed.
I did consider re-examining the same material for a documentary/art film and got partially started on the process of applying for funding but then other things got in the way so the idea has been left dangling. It seems kind of late to start using a new medium but back in the eighties I was really interested in making films – I collaborated with a few people who were making short films and videos by both writing and acting in them. A lot of this stuff just fell by the wayside when I left London after thirteen years, and when I came back to Wales it seemed I had to start everything from scratch again. Added to which I was barely surviving financially, a fact that severely limited my photographic work which in turn forced me to pursue writing as pens and paper were far cheaper than film and developing costs.
So writing about various things in my life is a way of trying to find some sort of clarity about where I am now and how I got here.
A penultimate question: what are you working on now that your newest collection of short stories has been released?
I am working on a second novel, though I have to confess there are also three or four other novels in different stages of composition and I really want to finish all of them, but time is still proving to be tricky. When I wrote Significance I had somehow fallen outside of having any presence on the literary stage, no one asked me to submit stories to them, no one wanted to interview me, and I was beginning to think that rumours of my death had been greatly exaggerated. I felt invisible. I felt I had failed. But there is a certain advantage to that; it provides both peace and a massive surge of determination. The hardest thing was to resist the temptation to just give up, go down the garden and eat worms. I found that the negative voices in my head were the worst thing to deal with, so I came up with the idea of pretending I wasn’t me when I wrote. I think part of that also meant I had to kill the short story writer I had been, kill the poet, kill the dreamer, escape. That these themes all emerged in the novel I eventually wrote is perhaps no surprise.
I am still writing short stories and submitting them to different places, but I don’t think there will be a fourth collection – or at least it’s not something I am counting on. I still get a little surge of pleasure with each completed story, and another when a story is published, but I am aware that some of this is ultimately illusory and very much temporary.
And finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers across the world, doing their best to set down words wherever and whenever they have time?
Do it with love and for love, nothing else is guaranteed.
Mazelis was born and educated in Swansea and she returned there after several years in London working as a graphic designer, photographer, and illustrator. Her short story collections include Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002) which was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and ‘Wales Best Book of the Year’, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005), longlisted for the ‘Wales Book of the Year’, and the just released Ritual, 1969 (Seren, 2016). Her stories as well as her poetry have also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her first novel, Significance (Seren, 2014) won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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