Interview by Katy Wimhurst
Your first book of short stories, The Museum of Shadows and Reflections, published in 2016, was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize. What is it about the short story form that appeals to you?
There’s something about how deceptive the limited length is that really appeals to me. A short story looks to be a reassuringly manageable size for both writer and reader to get hold of, but it’s like one of those tiny face cloths that expands in water. Reading a short story expands the text, and with the best short story writers the story keeps growing for the reader long after they’ve put the text down. In terms of writing, it works the opposite way round. You’re packing everything into this small, unassuming space. It’s the perfect form for condensed wonder.
Your website says you are passionate about fairy tales, folk tales and myths – and this is clear in the stories in the book, too. Can you tell me something about this passion, where it comes from and why it is important for your work?
When I was 21 and killing time in Euston Station I picked up a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales and started to read it. I was stunned by how much bleaker and more violent than the tales were than those I remembered from childhood. That chance encounter led to a sort of obsessive hobby over the next few years, where I found out everything I could about fairy tales. I’d just finished drama school knowing I didn’t want to be an actor and I was working in various jobs (perfume sprayer, waitress, off license assistant, bookseller…). I wanted to write but I didn’t really know how to go about it. I read everything I could about fairy tales and read stories from all over the world and theorists like Marina Warner (all of whose books I can’t recommend highly enough). It was sort of an attempt to become fluent in fairy tale and it was a way of hiding – I subsumed myself in the world of these stories. As the years have gone on I haven’t kept up that intense level of study of the form, but I have a store of knowledge that I can rummage through when I’m writing.
For me, the power of fairy tales, folklore and myth isn’t easily articulated, it’s felt instead, in both gut and heart simultaneously. It was in Warner’s writing that I first learned about the term wonder tale, which comes from the German for fairy tale – wundermarchen – and I like that better because it speaks of the capacity of stories to make us wonder and to carry and share a sense of wonder with others.
A few of your stories, such as ‘The Silent Kingdom’, are fairy tales, but more often, as in ‘Feather Girls’ or ‘The Museum of Shadows and Reflections’, they are what might be called magical realism, where magical elements appear in an otherwise realist story, set in our recognisable world. Do you make this distinction in narrative form and, if so, what distinct qualities do these forms offer you as a writer?
I don’t tend to make any distinction when writing them. I seem to slip into either a ‘once upon a time’ mode or contemporary mode from very early on in the writing of a story, but I often think of both in the same terms. I’m always trying to create the clear and vivid reality of that story. With both forms, I stick to the same the fairy tale rule that the fantastical can and will happen, but that when it does it mustn’t be explained. That’s where the wonder comes in.
‘The Silent Kingdom’ is a fairy tale with feminist consciousness, in which the King’s Wise Men do a spell to try and curtail a young princess’s curiosity and voice. The spell goes wrong, though, leaving her physically cracking if she hears a sound. She does reclaim her voice eventually, but at dramatic cost. The fairy tale could be seen as an extended metaphor, exploring the implications of trying to silence young girls’ thoughts, speech and self. Do you think fairy tales lend themselves to these kinds of feminist iterations, given that fairy tales often come originally from deeply patriarchal cultures?
Whenever I’m writing I try to make sure I’m not unconsciously replicating the patriarchal narratives that permeate many versions of older stories. Thankfully, there’s also an incredible tradition of feminist reimaginings of fairy tales to draw on, with writers like Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Alison Lurie and Nalo Hopkinson and more recent work by Kirsty Logan and Zoe Gilbert all coming to mind. Both Alison Lurie and Angela Carter did a lot of work on resurfacing stories that had been forgotten or obscured by pre-dominantly male editors and collectors. I’ve always liked the idea that there must have been pre-patriarchal versions of a lot of the stories that are still told to children today. Given the oral nature of these stories prior to them being recorded by patriarchal cultures it’s difficult to prove, but Charlene Spretnak’s book The Lost Goddesses of Early Greece makes a brilliant case for it with pre-Hellenic myths. With fairy tales, it can be fascinating to explore all the different versions that have survived. I was thrilled when I first came across the version of Little Red Riding Hood where she escapes the wolf by telling him she needs to go to the loo outside. No rescue by a woodcutter required. You always have to ask who has told a story before you and why, and the answers become another material to work with when you’re reimagining a tale.
The lovely title story, ‘The Museum of Shadows and Reflections’, is about a woman who cleans a building where the shadows and reflections of celebrities are exhibited to the public. When she is overlooked for promotion, she takes her revenge in an original and moving manner. The magical elements in the story – the shadows and reflections – could be interpreted as metaphors for aspects of celebrity (modern) culture, while the themes of seen/unseen and surface/depth struck me as important in his story – eg something that is often unseen (the shadow) or superficial (the reflection) is exhibited; the protagonist herself is unseen, ignored by the younger staff and overlooked for the promotion, but she tries to research (to ‘see’) the forgotten life-stories of those reflections and shadows abandoned in the stock room. Can you talk a bit about the underlying ideas of this story and how the magical elements allow you to express them so elegantly? Do you think magical ideas offer good metaphors for ‘real’ phenomena?
It’s really interesting to hear such a thoughtful interpretation of the story, thank you. This story came from two key inspirations: I heard a radio documentary on British Silent Film and was equally fascinated and horrified by the fact that so many films have been lost because they were melted down to make paint. The other inspiration was wandering round Blackpool out-of-season. I love Blackpool in the winter. It might be freezing and grey and a bit bleak, but it’s just in hibernation. The summer is just there beneath the surface, but it can’t be reached.
In terms of the metaphor, I’ve found I try to avoid thinking about it, which makes it quite difficult to answer this part of the question. I think it’s my job to make the world of the story as real as possible for the reader. If I catch sight of a possible metaphor out of the corner of my eye that could be read into what I’m doing, I try to ignore it. It feels like if I focus on the metaphor I’ll lose the magic and not be able to make the barely imaginable seem real. To make it real I have to believe it myself, so it can’t be a metaphor for me. Those shadows and reflections became completely real to me in writing the story. I can still feel their different textures now as I’m writing this. The shadows are dense and slightly furred with dust. The reflections feel like cellophane and make a slight crackling noise when you run your fingers over them.
Several of your stories include the idea of miniature cities or towns – in ‘Stone Sea’ the elderly Rivelyn has a promenade of small stone buildings like dolls houses in her unused front room; in ‘Glass, Bricks, Dust’ the boy builds a new miniature town out of glass on the large mound of rubble where ‘he is king’; and in ‘Growing Cities’, the young protagonist’s granddad grows cities in plant pots from seed. Why do you return to this intriguing idea or image? In each story, the associations of the miniature place seems distinct – in ‘Stone Sea’, for instance, it seems a metaphor for Rivelyn’s diminishing mind and health, while in ‘Glass, Bricks, Dust’, it is connected to the boy being ‘king’ as well as to his strange encounter with the shadowy man-lamppost.
I grew up in a Lancashire mill town called Darwen. When I was little we lived at the bottom of a path up on to the moors. It was on a walk up there when my sons were tiny that I suddenly realised that was where all the miniature towns in my writing were coming from. If you stand high up on the moors and look down, you can see all these rows of terraced houses and old chimneys and it feels like you could reach out and pick them up. I think that image must have crystallised in my imagination in childhood and I’ve kept returning to it without knowing why, but you’re right that in each story its different. Each time it’s about a characters’ relationship to that miniature town. Maybe it’s about trying to hold on to things that can be too easily lost.
Many of your stories don’t name the main protagonist, although they do name subsidiary characters. I assume that is a deliberate choice and wonder what your reasons are?
It’s partly a fairy tale inspiration – in older stories the protagonist is often ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ or ‘princess’. It’s also because I’m often trying to write from a very close third person point of view, so we see the world from the protagonist’s perspective and people don’t usually think of themselves using their own name. Sometimes the lack of a name can get confusing, though. I’m always trying to figure out if I can make it work or not.
You are a PhD student in design and computing, based in the HighWire CDT at Lancaster University. Your research explores ways we can make environmental stories using different methods and materials, including digital technologies. Can you tell me a bit about this research?
I’ve been very fortunate to undertake research in a transdisciplinary centre. It’s meant I’ve been able to follow my curiosity and carry out research that skips across conventional disciplinary boundaries. My research responds to the fact that there have been a lot of calls from conservationists and theorists for new stories to address environmental challenges, but very little conversation about what forms these stories take or how we can go about making or sharing them. Technologies shape stories and they tend to shape our writing processes too, without us even being aware of it. It was exploring the differences between oral and literary fairy tales that first gave me a strong awareness of this. If I know I’m going to write a short story for the print technology of the book, that foreknowledge often shapes the content in terms of length, style and subject. Writers so rarely get any input into the stages of making and sharing a story beyond writing the content. I wanted to expand the role of the writer and explore what happens if we make stories inspired by a subject without having a pre-determined end product in mind.
During the PhD, I’ve worked outside a lot, rather than from behind a screen, and explored environmental subjects using all kinds of different materials, methods and technologies. I’ve developed skills in drawing, bookbinding, coding and electronics and moved back and forth between making the physical shape for a story and its text. This has meant that the content and medium are completely interrelated. I think of the works I’ve made as ‘whole’ stories. They invite the reader to explore and interact with them in unconventional ways. These are tactile digital stories that respond to a reader or the environment. For example, I’ve made a version of the Persephone myth about climate breakdown that only continues if, like Persephone, you find a way to climb higher through the city streets; there are stories about lichen that respond to air quality and light; and a story about flooding that’s only illuminated at full and new moons when the tides are highest.
Towards the end of my research I ran workshops with other writers and artists. It was a fantastic opportunity to see how other people responded to experimenting with writing practice in these ways. There was a shared feeling that working outside and with different materials could prompt ideas and bring a sense of connection with wider nature.
Do you think telling stories can play an important role in the environmental crisis we face? How does one write stories about the ecological crisis without, say, becoming didactic?
Absolutely, I think stories are essential for addressing the challenges we face. There’s evidence that sharing stories about environmental challenges is more engaging for people than sharing facts and figures. For writers, though, I think it can feel overwhelming to broach these subjects. I’ve found myself despairing and thinking, what difference can any particular story I’m working on possibly make? I realised towards the end of my PhD that perhaps it’s best to think of each story we write as being part of the antidote – so for every piece of fake news or hateful twitter trolling, for every advert enticing us to consume more, we add stories we actually need to the world.
As far as how not to make them didactic goes, I think that’s tricky, but traditional stories are the place to look to for guidance on this. They have been used to share knowledge and communicate values for thousands of years, and we can still be gripped or moved or enchanted by them.
You run workshops and activities, give talks and create projects that ‘explore wonder and seek out the hidden extraordinary in the places we live’. Can you tell me about this aspect of your work and how it might connect with your written stories, which also seem to explore wonder and the ‘hidden extraordinary’?
Running workshops has been a core part of my writing practice for many years. I think you learn so much about writing the minute you attempt to share your approach with others. In the wider writing community, I sometimes think there’s too much market-driven focus on end product rather than on writing as a process – as an engaging activity that can help you pay attention, think and feel more awake to the world. If the focus is always on getting something finished and published, then people can become easily discouraged. I especially like creating activities that catch people by chance and engage them in storymaking when they might never sit down to write a story. I’d like to create more opportunities for this kind of playful discovery, where people can enjoy the making and sharing of something, even if it’s just the seed of an idea.
In terms of the hidden extraordinary, it’s just the best way I’ve found of thinking about life in general day-to-day. When the world feels grim or too much, there’s always a tiny plant growing in a crack to notice, or something unexpected to encounter. Donna Haraway calls this state of being open to the world ‘a curious practice’. Perhaps the ultimate pleasure of being a writer is the way you see things – or maybe it’s the seeing things that makes you a writer, I’m not sure. My stories are often set in various northern post-industrial towns where I’ve lived, places badly hit by the recession and austerity. I don’t want to deny that reality or hide from it, but the hidden extraordinary is always still there to be found.
I appreciate that you are busy with your PhD at the moment, but are you writing any stories? Or are there any other projects in the pipeline that you’d like to tell our readers about?
I’m working on a second collection of short stories at the moment and I have a couple of new stories coming out in anthologies next year. I’m also writer-in-residence on an environmental science and digital technologies project at Lancaster University. This year the project’s theme is biodiversity and I’m developing a digital wonder tale and storymaking activities inspired by Morecambe Bay. I’ve just submitted my PhD and started lecturing full time at Edge Hill University. Things are hectic, but I feel incredibly privileged to be doing a wide range of work I love – especially as each element of my work can inspire and feed into the others. Here’s a link to some information in the stories I’ve been making and I wrote an article for The Bookseller that talks about it too.
Thank you, Claire, for your time.
Claire Dean’s short stories have been widely published and are included in The Best British Short Stories (Salt, 2017, 2014 & 2011). Bremen, The Unwish, Marionettes and Into the Penny Arcade are published as limited-edition chapbooks by Nightjar Press. Her first collection, The Museum of Shadows and Reflections, was published by Unsettling Wonder. More at her website here.
Katy Wimhurst studied anthropology before doing a PhD in Mexican Surrealism. She also worked in publishing, but now has a chronic illness. She writes non-fiction and short fiction and has been published in various magazines and anthologies. She has a particular interest in magical realism and surrealism.
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