Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Catherine, thank you for doing an interview with us, we’re delighted to be able to speak about the short story with you.
Could you tell us What draws you, as a writer, to the short story?
I like that a short story is complete in itself; it’s a very neat form of writing. I think the form lends itself to looking very closely at one or two scenes or images; there aren’t quite so many short stories that have great sweeping arcs in either time or character growth. To me that sense of examining a moment is wonderful. It’s like peeling an onion; you can always go further down to find just one more layer to write about.
Having a read a number of your short stories, I was stuck by the diversity and range of characters… Could you tell us where you get your inspiration from… what’s your muse?
A lot of my short stories come from family history, because those are the very first stories I ever remember hearing. Usually it’s only a single nugget that’s stuck in my mind, and eventually that springs up into a completely different story. I’ll usually have a short story in my head for ages before I write it down, and the character always comes first. Often the situation in which I imagine them never makes it into the final draft, but the character usually survives unchanged.
As for inspiration – well, from anywhere, really! Sometimes just a throwaway line will spark something for me. I think the trick is that you have to be ready to listen to those first ideas.
In addition to the range of characters, your short stories lightly carry learning – do you do much research before writing?
To be honest, I try not to do too much. I might look up a minor detail – such as the distance between two places or the particular year something happened – but for more fundamental aspects my general rule is that if I don’t know it already, I don’t write it. This is particularly true for the setting; I simply can’t write about places where I’ve never been or which I don’t know very well.
In addition, I think it’s often very obvious when an author’s used Wikipedia, for example, to look up major details in a story. I think to write a good short story you need to be at home with all aspects of it, from the setting to the time period to the underlying themes. Of course, you can achieve that via research – look at historical novels, for example – but only if you’re willing to really immerse yourself in it.
Your short stories contain flavours of myth and fantasy… is this intentional and speaking generally, do you think the short story is particularly suited to the fantastical?
To a certain extent it’s intentional. I never set out to re-tell a fairy tale, or to re-imagine a myth – although there are certainly writers who do, and who manage this very successfully. For me, though, it’s that the themes that underlie a myth are often also hugely important to our everyday lives. Of course they are; that’s why the myths get passed down in the first place. So the wicked queens and fairy godmothers turn up in a different guise, but they’re there all the same.
I think that short stories are also particularly good at bringing this out. Out of necessity, the plot in a short story is often quite constrained – there’s only so much that can happen in 3000 words – and so theme becomes more important. It’s also a way of bringing in a wider story without having to explicitly present it within your story itself.
How many drafts do you usually go through before submitting your short stories to competitions?
Probably far too many! I’m definitely not a “first draft” author, although I do envy those who are. My first draft is usually written out in an old exercise book, and then left for anything from a week to a month. I’ll then come back and edit it from start to finish, and then transcribe it – editing along the way – onto my computer. After that it’ll get polished, taken to my writers group, and then have a final edit again after that.
There have been one or two short stories which didn’t see much success until I left what I’d thought was the final version in a drawer for several months. When this happens, I pull them out again and I usually overhauled them completely; often the only thing that’s left will be a single image, or a line of dialogue. In my head, though, they’re still the same short story. The title’s always the last thing I come up with – I hate thinking of titles!
What advice would you give aspiring short story writers?
Firstly, I’d say: read! I’m absolutely of the opinion that if you don’t read, you can’t write. Sometimes I hear writers saying they don’t have time to read because they’re too busy finishing off their own work; I think that’s entirely the wrong angle to go about the thing. Reading gives you the bedrock for writing new stories, and without it you’ll be reinventing the wheel.
Secondly, I’d say try not to get too hooked on the idea that there’s a single perfect set of circumstances under which to write. Find what works for you – do you like to write 500 words a day? Do you prefer to wait till inspiration strikes? Do you do your best writing in a coffee-shop? – and try to keep to that. Pick one of your stories that won a competition, or was shortlisted, or even that you just like, and try to remember how you went about it.
Finally, develop a critical eye for your own work. Even if you’re not intending on submitting a short story to the wider world, it’s a lovely feeling to know that a finished piece represents your very best work. Finishing a short story is an achievement; be proud of it!
Where and how did you learn the craft of short story writing?
I was lucky enough to have a succession of very good English teachers at school, who really encouraged me to write. One of them gave me a copy of the collected works of Katherine Mansfield, which I think is a brilliant way to inspire anyone.
I’ve been on one writing course, and while I enjoyed it, I don’t think I have sufficient experience to comment on how effective these might be. I think they’re very good in that they force you to write *something*, no excuses. I also think having a creative writing tutor or mentor is an amazing opportunity; they can really guide you from experience.
Reading other people’s work in general is also a good way to learn how to write; if you can spot mistakes in other people’s work then it helps you avoid them in your own. I also find editing my own past stories is useful – although a bit harder to face!
I was impressed by the poetic, lyrical quality of your writing. Does this come naturally, or do you grapple with every sentence?
For me it comes naturally, so while I very much admire writers with a stark prose style – such as Hemingway – I can’t emulate it very easily. One of the things which I do try and do is strip back the prose as much as possible. I think it’s possible to write more poetry with ten words than with a hundred; the tricky bit is working out which ten.
Where do you write?
In my living room, which has a huge floor-to-ceiling window. I sit at my desk and watch the pigeons crashing in and out of the trees. It’s a good metaphor for writing, actually – I have all of these graceful, flying thoughts in my head, and the process of writing is watching them crash-land onto the page!
Sometimes I commute between Cambridge and London on the train, and I find that a surprisingly effective place to write. You can’t go anywhere, there’s nothing else to do, and a train journey has a built-in time limit so you know you’ve got to focus.
You’ve mentioned the importance of finding time and a place to write. When you’re sitting at your desk, do you listen to music when you write, or do you require silence?
I find it harder to write when there’s noise, but living in a city I think it’s something you have to get used to. I’ll sometimes put orchestral music on; lyrics have the tendency to distract me too much.
Some people say that particular characters or short stories they write have their own songs, and that they can use that to find inspiration. It doesn’t work for me, but I think it’s probably worth a try if you’re getting really stuck at any point.
You mentioned that you belong to a writers’ group, could you tell us more about this?
Yes, I’m a member of a writing group based in North London. I find this immensely helpful, and I’d be quite reluctant to submit a short story anywhere that hadn’t been shared with the group or with some other readers beforehand. I think one of the crucial things about a writers’ group is learning to interpret feedback. Often people will have different ideas about why a piece doesn’t work, and your job as the writer is to unfold those and work out what you can do about it.
Learning to give feedback is also very important. Each writing group tends to have a particular culture around feedback and it’s important to make sure that your comments reflect that. Some groups focus more on encouragement, while others expect quite a robust exchange of opinions. I always feel very honoured that people have chosen to share their work with me and the group; it’s a real privilege to be one of the first in the world to read a brand-new story.
During the many years you’ve been writing, have there been many significant changes in the way you write or what you write about?
Almost certainly the biggest change was switching from writing science fiction to literary fiction. As a teenager I used to like reading fairly “classic” science fiction, hardly any of which was written after about 1970. So, of course, when I started writing back then, I tried to emulate that. Nowadays I’m afraid I don’t read much science fiction at all, and I think writing in a genre that you don’t read enough of is certainly a recipe for disaster.
I also find that over the last couple of years I’ve been more interested in stories in which the events that happen are quiet, or muted in some way. I like short stories about the people who *aren’t* protagonists: the listeners, the watchers, the faces in the crowd. I think that probably comes through quite strongly in my later short stories, and would certainly have surprised me ten years ago.
What makes for a successful short story?
For me, there needs to be a sense of change; something has to be different at the end to how it was at the beginning. That could be a plot change, or it could be something as subtle as me, the reader, feeling differently about one of the characters. I want to feel as though when I look up from the page, the world is just very slightly changed.
Other than that, I struggle to appreciate short stories that are very sentimental. While I think that a short story can certainly evoke very strong emotions, it needs to do this in a pared-down way. Stories that fall short for me are often those that tug too clearly on the heartstrings, or try to hammer home a particular message.
In addition – I want a short story to surprise me with its language. This doesn’t mean flowery prose or contrived metaphors, but I want to read something new; a combination of words that hits just the right note. A successful short story might deal with a very clichéd plot, but if it expresses it in a new way, then that’s enough to make me happy.
C. G. Menon has won the Winchester Writers Festival short story competition and the Asian Writer competition. Her recent shortlistings also include the Rubery Book Award short story competition, the Tower Hamlets WriteIdea prize and the Willesden Herald competition. She tweets at @cg_menon and blogs at cgmenon.wordpress.com
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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