Ben Okri at the London Short Story Festival, 2015
Ben Okri at the London Short Story Festival, 2015

The London Short Story Festival 2015, Day One

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Review by Rupert Dastur

I’ve just got back from the opening launch of the London Short Story Festival (LSSF) and I’m still buzzing; the diversity of events and writers means that this isn’t just a festival for short story lovers, it’s a literary extravaganza for readers, writers, and critics of any form. Today was an impressive start.

Hosted at the large Waterstones in Piccadilly, you’re immediately surrounded by an atmosphere of intellect, imagination, and creativity. It’s the perfect setting for a festival that celebrates the dynamism and complexity of the short story.

Eager to hear the likes of Ben Okri and Helen Simpson I arrived in plenty of time for the complimentary glass of wine (or two). It wasn’t long before I got chatting to another festival goer, Deborah Martens, who is from Canada but has lived in the UK for the last five years. I learn that she’s a writer and also the editor of Canadian Writers Abroad. I ask her what drew her to the LSSF.

‘I’m interested in finding out about the various changes that have taken place with the short story in the last ten years,’ she says. ‘I think short story writers are more interested in the language they’re using, it’s more self-conscious.’

We continue to chat about short story writers (she recommends Jon McGregor), short stories, and also that strange tendency for writers in (self)exile. ‘It lends perspective’ says Deborah, ‘and also provides the kind of real solitude that many writers need.’

The room is filled with fifty plus people, all gathered to hear about the endlessly fluid short story form. A little before the first event begins, I have a brief conversation with Mike Clarke, one of the directors of Spread the Word, a charitable organisation that is instrumental in the organisation of the event and helping developing writers. Mike is a lively figure who displays great enthusiasm for the short story. ‘It’s fantastic,’ he says, ‘to be giving short stories dues credit; to be giving it the recognition too little seen in the publishing industry.’

Mike tells me that his background is as a librarian (a pretty damn important one, I later discover: in charge of multiple libraries, over one million books, and several million visitors) and his passion for words is conveyed in ample measure. When I ask him what he thinks is special about short stories, he smiles, ‘It’s their ability to capture and distil things very quickly,’ he says. ‘Words are very, very important and short story writers are aware of that; they have to be economical with the language.

‘What they do,’ he continues, ‘is distil things right down. Short stories are concerned with essences. Their ability to do this, to concentrate so much into so little, makes it an extremely powerful form.’

And who are his favourite short story writers? ‘In the nineteenth century, it would have to be SAKI, in the twentieth I would go for Muriel Sparks, and nowadays it would be someone like Ian Sinclair, though there are so many to choose from.’

On the half hour we’re called to our seats and soon enough we’re given an introduction by Paul McVeigh (Guest Director of LSSF – you can read our interview with him here) who offers due thanks to those who have helped the festival into its second year.

Paul McVeigh at the London Short Story FestivalPaul McVeigh about to introduce the Festival and the speakers.

The audience is then launched straight into the first event chaired by novelist and short story writer Nikesh Shukla, whose accolades are numerous. Shukla is modest and amusing, opening with the simple statement that ‘I know some things about some short stories, by some writers.’

He goes on to introduce Alison Moore, who reads from her short story ‘Eastmouth’ which begins with lines that so quickly conjure the scene and central protagonist:

Sonia stands on the slabs of the promenade, looking out across the pebbly beach. It is like so many of the seaside resorts from her childhood. She remembers one whose tarred pebbles left their sticky blackness on her bare feet and legs and the seat of her swimsuit.

The short story continues to weave its way around Sonia and her relationship with Peter and his parents. At the end of the reading, the delighted woman sitting to my left leans over and says of Peter’s mother, ‘I think the mother in law from hell, don’t you?’ This is a testament to Moore’s punchy writing that left a dark, yet dry humorous mark on the listener.

There followed two more readings. One from Helen Simpson with her beautiful, measure voice which rendered the words so visible. We listened to her story ‘Strong Man’ and in the process learnt a little about fixing fridges, Russian tradesmen, Putin, and false textbooks. It was a steady reading that garnered several wry chuckles, demonstrating Simpson’s literary prowess.

The last act was given by K. J. Orr who performed her piece with enviable skill, complete with American accent. Again, we were provided with a glimpse of a short story writer delving into the very heart of the characters so that her cloud-gazing female protagonist soon had the audience raising eyebrows as she seduces a young man who is caught in web of calculated compliments.

Two of the readings are featured in Salt’s Best British Short Stories and after the readings, Shukla asks Jen Hamilton-Emery (from Salt Press) on what criteria the editor of the anthology, Nicholas Royle, selects the short stories.’

‘Naturally it’s a subjective matter, but it will be the case that I can’t stop reading until the very end. That’s something all the selected short stories have in common.’

‘And is there something that makes theses short stories particularly British?’ asks Shukla, ‘Perhaps a particular style?’

‘I’m not sure. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘British’ short story in that sense. Maybe the British short story can be celebrated for its diversity, the fact there isn’t a particular style.’

The two questions are then opened up to the three writers.

‘I think what the best short stories tend to provide,’ begins Moore, ‘is a moment or realization when all the elements come together – when you realize what’s been going on all along. Not tricked in some way, but a revelation that’s been an undercurrent throughout the short story.’

‘And this idea of the British short story?’

‘I think it might have something to do with being an island – the smallness of our island – being contained; I think that might lend some kind of shaping to some British short stories.’

Helen Simpson enters the conversation with an apt simile, ‘You can revisit a good short story – it’s like a painting; a decade or so later and you’ll come back and find many different things you hadn’t previously been aware of. Novels are too long to do this, but shorts stories you can… and different ages give different readings.

‘As for this ideas of Britishness… I know that in America it’s often said you can distinguish a short story from New York or California or wherever, or this school or that; maybe we’re getting there with the growth of creative writing here. But you can’t really tell, there’s great diversity. We do have a great tradition for eccentricity, so maybe that’s something.’

‘I love that I can do so many different things with the short story,’ say K. J. Orr. ‘Perhaps what I love most about short stories is that they put the reader off balance. There’s also space for the imagination, more so than in the novel because of all that compression. The best writing leaves an impact that you never forget

‘This sense of balance also relates to Britishness in some ways; the short story is very good at foregrounding moments of change – there’s a strange paradox there, an active / passive thing going on; the short story captures the moment, while maintaining a disturbing sense of change. And picking up on Alison’s point about place… I grew up in a tiny village in the midlands and so the shock of travel, the shock of newness was something that has definitely affected my writing and my short stories.’

Far too soon the discussion comes to an end and soon everyone is buys buying books and getting them signed. Tamar Hodes whose work features in Best British Short Stories is also at the book-signing. I’m the last in the queue and manage to have a few words with her.

‘It’s hard, you know,’ she says, ‘people don’t always appreciate that, but to write something really good, it requires a lot of effort.’

I ask whether she has a process to her writing.

‘I let things come,’ she says, ‘I’m not one of these people who can just sit down knowing everything. I like to discover what’s going to happen – that’s part of the fun.’

The London Short Story Festival

One of the event volunteers wanders over and asks us to take our seats for the next event. Ben Okri has arrived.

Okri is clad in his idiosyncratic white shirt and beret. To his right is Irenosen Okojie, an emerging writer who has been carefully chosen by Okri and Paul McVeigh to feature at this event. The two of them are introduced by Spread the Word’s Paul Sherreard.

‘Let’s talk about reading first,’ says Sherreard, leaning forward, ‘in one of you essays, Ben, you talk about the responsibilities of readers to bring the best of themselves to the material. How we do that?’

‘Reading is a very difficult activity,’ replies Okri, ‘reading is an act of intelligence, concentration, and imagination. Intelligence you cannot do so much about, but imagination… There ought to be a school for reading; I am quite shocked by the way we read – we do not read deeply enough. Twenty years ago I didn’t and I became aware of this and as a result I have changed the nature of my reading – I want to hear the secret music of the words, the sound, the structure…everything.’

‘You used to read quickly, then? Why was that?’

‘Twenty years ago, as I said. It was a hunger for the next thing. There is also something exhilarating in reading quickly. But half the time you miss eighty per cent of what’s going on.’

‘I couldn’t read Famished Road quickly,’ says Sherreard.

‘Books yield to the effort you give them. It’s not to do with difficulty – the simple can be profound. I’ll give you an example – The Little Prince – this says things about race and many other things which are tucked away and yet are magnified by the text.’

Okri is now ready to give us a taste of his new book The Edge of Magic. He reads slowly and clearly, his hands accentuating each moment like punctuation. He weaves his world of magical realism, a narrative filled with the peculiar, a style with the hint of Marquez. There is a large round of applause when he finishes.

‘You read about a legendary world, about escaping into our own fictions – do we all have this?’ asks Sherreard.

‘Reading allows you to slip or dance into your own world. Walking does that too. I’m a long walker – wherever the path leads.’ The audience chuckles. ‘There is a wonderful relationship between walking and writing – I would love to have a table with me.’

‘With wheels perhaps,’ smiles Sherreard, turning his attention to Okojie, ‘And do you think there’s an escapism in writing, as in reading?’

‘Both.’ says Okojie. ‘There’s a different kind of power in writing though, you’re creating, playing God… For me the process of writing is a very powerful one.’

‘You mentioned earlier that you started writing because no one told you that you couldn’t…’

‘I couldn’t take ownership of the writing when I started, and so I was doing it secretly. I wrote quietly and there was all this power coming to the page. It was great to go through this process,’ she says.

‘And now that you’ve published Butterfly Fish, you’re writing…noisily?’

‘Yes. No… Joyfully!’

‘Most people,’ says Okri, returning to the conversation, ‘most people are secret writers. The desire to write runs through many people. Most of us are visited by ideas and inspirations that have nowhere else to go other than the page. Writing crystallises things. I think we discover what we’re thinking when we write; if you talk to journalists they will often say they only know what they think once they’ve written the article. It’s an active thing to do. That’s an important point… if you want to write, don’t talk about it, just do it. Or at least talk about it and write.’ He pauses gathering his thoughts and then continues, ‘Though in the early stages it is easier – your desire is bigger than the act itself. Later an inertia can set in, were you’re waiting for the inspiration, the desire to do it; but that’s why you have to write, why it’s an active effort.’

We’re then given a reading by Okojie – an extract from her debut novel Butterfly Fish. The reading is confident and you can tell there is genuine pleasure in the act, in the event, in receiving the kind of recognition that hundreds and hundreds of hours spent writing deserves. The writing is sharp, the narrative curious, synthesising histories and cultures and genres. The stylistic link between her work and Okri’s is evident.

‘And this book began as a short story, didn’t it?’ asks Sherreard. ‘Is there a difference in tone between the novel and the short story?’

‘I love short stories for their craft, the risk, the imagination,’ says Okojie, still smiling.

‘The short story is a very special thing.’ Okri says, titling his head pensively, ‘The short story is the most difficult literary form other than the sonnet. You have to show an entire world in a grain of sand. But primarily it is about tone. You have to touch things and make them come awake. Tone, suggestion, catching the story at the right place… Too often young short story writers start at the beginning. Knowing where to start is half the battle; I’m always interested to see where the short story writer chooses to begin his story, because it tells me everything.

‘Sometimes a short story grows into a novel – if it wants to do that, then good luck keeping it short – but the nature of the short story itself has the capacity for so much… many of my favourite novels began as short stories; if it wants to become a novel, it’s going to happen.’

‘I find the short story very liberating,’ says Okojie, ‘it lends itself to the frenetic nature of the lifestyle we all live. It’s also excellent for honing writing skills.’

‘The short story can really train you for the novel from,’ agrees Okri.

With that, we are given a final reading – ‘One of my favourite short stories’ – from Okri. He proceeds to read ‘Incidents of the Shrine’, a captivating tale that follows Anderson, a man who loses his job and returns home. Like so much of Okri’s work, the story seems to grapple with memory and identity and being. It’s the sort of short story you would want to read several times to try and understand and yet even when the meaning is not wholly clear, the lyricism and imagination that Okri brings to his work make it a delight to listen to.

Ben Okri at the London Short Story FestivalBen Oki and Irenosen Okojie signing books

It’s past nine o’clock and Sherreard brings the night to an end. There is the opportunity for book-signing and then the many short story lovers head on back home. It’s been an afternoon of superb readings and engaging discussion.

Day one at the London Short Story Festival has started triumphantly and I look forward to the next few days with immense anticipation.