Interview by Katy Wimhurst
When did you start writing and why do you think people are drawn to telling stories?
I was trying to write novels throughout my twenties. It was endless and unfocussed. Then when I’d had a baby or two, I signed up for an MA in Creative Writing. I found it really valuable because it meant that I was taking my writing seriously, and meeting other writers and deadlines. Which helped a lot.
When I took part in my first creative writing workshop, the only thing I could bear to show was something I’d just written, ‘Evening Shift’, and the work-shoppers called it a story. From then I really started trying to do something small well, rather than writing at length.
I don’t know about other people, but I think my enjoyment of stories comes initially from reading, and now I love writing and telling them. From wedging together the initial ideas, getting it down, trawling the story, rattling its bones, skimming the fat and fiddling with words, to finally reading aloud – it feels great when it works.
You’ve had two books of short stories published, Gold Adornments and Fat Maggie and other stories. What is it about the short story form that appeals?
I’d read short stories as an adult before, but at the time I started writing them, I began to read stories differently, thinking about what they meant. How they worked. What the writer was doing. For example, stories like Chekov’s ‘The Sneeze’ (a sneeze changing everything) and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Singing Lesson’ (a teacher had some bad news before the lesson, which is going terribly until she is called from the room to receive some good news. The lesson and everyone involved are lifted by her change in mood). These early modernist stories showed me the short story could be a shift of emotion, an epiphany or a simple act, but needed so much more to show how that happens or its meaning for the characters.
Many of my own stories begin with something I’m grappling with, or don’t understand. I almost always have what Paul McVeigh recently called ‘an intention’ – something that has meaning to me e.g. fluctuations in confidence, small dishonesties, unseen injustices – that I want the story to be about. Afterwards it’s finding interesting, funny, practical ways to show that intention –the creative bit.
Many of your stories are based on recognisable characters in everyday scenarios – an elderly lady in a dentist chair having a filling, a woman working with stock in a clothes store, a woman who overhears an argument at a neighbouring table while on holiday. What interests you as a writer about these kinds of characters and scenarios?
This writing is my honing down to the specific, the everyday (well, in my world). It’s about the realisation that small things matter. Or it’s just what I see and want to think about. But once I’ve honed down, on a personal level, I have to come back out again. To recognise, if necessary, that these small things aren’t just happening in my world, they’re part of a much bigger political and economic situation. Talking to other people who are having similar experiences and realising it’s not personal, but political, is important. I guess sharing stories is another way of doing that.
In the ‘Evening Shift’ stories, the characters inhabit the micro-world of the clothes shop. It’s personal, there are power struggles, people change when they move into management roles. I think people often don’t have a choice about where they work and what they say at work, because they desperately need the income to pay the bills, and it’s about how they survive that situation mentally. The stories are about that kind of survival, which is also influenced by the political situation outside that environment.
Your writing is subtle, teasing out the hidden meanings and feelings of the often brief, ordinary events you describe. In ‘Goodbye to Mary and all that’, Bob tells himself he is coping fine with his wife’s death, but an incident in his job as the lollipop man, reveals the unresolved grief that lies buried. In ‘Last of the Day’, Ida’s tooth getting filled leads to a series of reflections, including about her own mortality. Why are you drawn to writing about how hidden depths can be found beneath the surface of the ostensibly mundane?
I’m drawn to the hidden depths of the mundane, because I feel like there are hidden depths to the mundane. I wish I didn’t think about it all the time but I do!
It was the extremes of difference between characters in an everyday situation that drew me to writing ‘Last of the Day’. It came from a moment when I was thinking about aging, after a small operation. Ida’s story about having her tooth filled was about the contrast between the dentist’s lack of thought and small dishonesties, and how this affects her state of mind. How he has little knowledge of her anxieties or desire to know about her thoughts, because of his age maybe, but also because she’s the last patient of the day and he’s going out that night. If I think about that on a political level, the dentist is powerful because of his role, he looks at this old lady and thinks she will be easily deceived. It’s those injustices that I like to put under the microscope…
I think my challenge is not only to write something small well. It’s also to write the least glamourous, least extreme places, to write where I am. It’s all good practice. There are stories everywhere, on many levels, if you’re looking for them.
In Fat Maggie and other stories, there are a series of short stories based on the same characters, focussed particularly on Jess and her work at the store. What was your thought process around deciding to write several short stories about Jess rather than one longer one? Do you think having connected stories here changes the way each individual one might be read?
I didn’t decide to write the ‘Evening Shift’ series, I wrote one and then thought of another and so on. I was still working on completing a small story for each. I tried to make them read effectively either alone or as a whole. They were my first stories, along with ‘Living with Grandma’. I guess it must change how they are read, knowing that something is coming next. It made me think that I might be able to write a longer piece of work in that way. What I’m grappling with at the moment is how to write a longer piece – is planning needed or is it a constraint on creative energy? Or does a plan allow creativity to flourish?
As in a number of your stories, the series involving Jess brushes up against broader social, cultural and economic concerns – in this case, women in low-pay jobs, trying to balance care responsibilities (children and elderly mother) with work; Jess also is made uncomfortable by the homophobic comments of her co-workers. Do you think writing has an ethical dimension by, for instance, turning its gaze on contemporary issues and themes?
When I’m writing at the moment, I’m often grappling with injustices. Another example is the animal tales in Fat Maggie, which are a bit about prejudice, about mental health and how people can be labelled, or can self-label, and how others can take advantage of that labelling. In ‘The Short Story’ the main character is thinking about the covert nature of prejudice. She can’t quite put her finger on it anymore, but it’s certainly there in that middle-class environment, as much as it is overtly in the shop stories. I’ve just realised that quite a number of the Gold Adornments stories are about insincerity!
I find comfort through reading about new situations, worlds, but also recognising or learning something of humanity in stories. If showing everyday situations adds to that shared conversation, that knowledge that this isn’t just happening to me, the recognition of the wider political forces at work (they haven’t just cut my hours at work because they don’t like me, for example), then yes, I guess some writing does have an ethical dimension.
Your book Fat Maggie and other stories includes some entertaining animal tales, which are distinct from your realist fiction. At the end of each tale, you suggest a moral for it, but then, interestingly, you invite readers to suggest their own moral and post it to your website. Why did you choose to write animal morality tales and how does the interactive element alter the reader’s experience?
The Fat Maggie tales came from looking at traditional tales during a course Marina Warner was running. It was out of my comfort zone. But then I started looking at more modern tales like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I wrote ‘The Hide’ to include an experimental metamorphosis. I quite enjoyed letting go of my previous block on the surreal, fantastical and supernatural. Where I’d been working from an intention, and finding a surface ‘everyday’ story to show that, I realised that with a tale there’s another layer, another world, but I could still use the intention – for example, the shift of emotion or perspective.
I wrote using inanimate objects (again mundane!) in ‘The Little Green Lamp’ (about inertia and exhaustion of a relationship breakdown) and I wrote the Fat Maggie stories, which I enjoyed doing but I don’t really think were expected on that course!! I had been looking back at tales with morals, and used the animals to express my intentions. I’m not very good at ‘getting’ the morals in traditional tales, unless it’s really obvious, so I wanted to say that several could be chosen from a tale depending on reader, moment in time, etc. I guess the interactive element was wondering what other people thought those stories are about.
Where do your ideas for stories come from? Do you ever do research (eg on low-pay shop work) and, if so, how?
The ideas often come from my life or things I hear… I had a lot of jobs in that post baby period! Plus, I have no imagination. No, that’s not true. There’s often an idea from real life and I run with it into the imaginary. Or, for example, if it comes from a newspaper story, I need to ground it some way in my reality so that I can write it. If I hear a number of people talking about experiencing the same thing, I’m not just writing about one person, lots of people have that experience, so I feel it’s okay to write about it. I usually do some research afterwards to check facts or details.
I’m researching now by interviewing people and visiting places, and walking the area where my next book is set. But the short stories usually come through something I feel strongly and must write about.
You are doing (or have recently done?) a PhD in Creative Writing at Essex University. What does that entail?
I’m doing my PhD now. I’m working on a short story cycle, ‘My Own Private Ida Show’, but I’ve been trying to write it as a work of length first and then will be playing with structure. As part of my reflective commentary, I’m writing about how I write, what I take from reading or films or other sources, and how the writing and structure develops. I’m looking at how performance enhances and changes stories, and would like to develop into writing plays and short films. I want to use the university as a big research playground and get carried away with thoughts of all the departments I can visit and use!
What collections of short stories would you recommend to our readers and why?
I can’t speak highly enough of Elizabeth Strout at the moment. I love the way she structures her stories. Olive Kitteridge (a novel written in the form of 13 interrelated short stories) reveals a character over time through others’ perspectives. In My Name is Lucy Barton, we think Lucy’s character is exposed through her dialogue with her mother, with whom she’s recently become re-acquainted during a hospital stay. But we don’t really know what she’s been through, and how it’s affected her, and why she acts as she does, until the end of the following book – Anything is Possible. These are the stories of the neighbours/friends/acquaintances that mother and daughter previously discussed in hospital as a crutch by which to start communicating.
What are you up to now? Any projects in the pipeline you’d like to tell our readers about?
I run a monthly writing group in Colchester, WriteNight, which I’m hoping you’ll come along to again soon! We usually focus on story writing, but always take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. A L Kennedy kindly offered to come and give us some planning tips beforehand. I’ve got a new job teaching Creative Writing at Adult Community Learning in Essex, which is also very exciting. Other than that it’s my short story cycle/novel in progress – Ida will be revealing a bit more about herself. I’ve just got to stop being tempted to write new short stories.
E K Pey is a UK based short fiction writer, currently working on her PhD at the University of Essex. She is the organiser and host of Colchester WriteNight. She studied for her MA in Creative Writing at Essex too, and was previously awarded a BSc in Politics with Economics from the University of Bath. Her second collection of short fiction, Gold Adornments, was published by Patrician Press in March 2017, on International Women’s Day. She is also a Creative Writing Tutor for Adult Community Learning, runs short fiction writing workshops, and is an early literacy teacher and consultant.
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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