What was your first encounter with short fiction and how has this relationship developed over the years?
The first encounter with short fiction I remember came when I was at school. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘A Doll’s House’; a Patricia Grace story about two street children in Auckland which used to make my English teacher cry when she read it aloud to us; a mysterious story called ‘The Rose Affliction’ by Owen Marshall which has haunted me for the last thirty years; Janet Frame’s ‘The Bath’ set in my hometown of Dunedin. (I think we may have also studied older ‘twist in the tale’ short fiction, like Guy de Maupaussant’s ‘The Necklace’, which interested me less than the modernist and contemporary stories). I found short fiction odd, varied and intriguing; one book of stories contained so many different glimpses of characters and lives. I’ve always read a lot and fairly indiscriminately, short fiction alongside novels and novellas.
What can you tell us about your last short story collection The Lost of Syros (Cultured Llama Press, 2015).
The Lost of Syros is a collection of sixteen short stories written over a period of eight years or so. In 2011, I met Vanessa Gebbie, who had judged that year’s Society of Women Writers and Journalists short story competition. Vanessa encouraged me to work towards a first collection, so I brought together the short stories I had and started to form them into a sequence connected by their common theme of loss. This was much harder than I’d anticipated because the stories had to work together, to ‘talk to one another’. I imagine it’s rather like trying to curate an exhibition of art work: there needs to be some thread, theme, resonance between all the pieces to hold them together. Ordering the stories was also tricky, and they went through many permutations before reaching a final form. A writer friend helped with valuable feedback and advice. Often people read short stories from a collection at random – I do it myself – but I still think it’s worth thinking carefully about the story order.
I also found it really helpful to draw the work of years together in this way and reflect on it; almost to draw a line under it and feel free to move on to new stories.
One reviewer, the poet Sue Wootton notes that Katherine Mansfield is ‘a strong presence in the collection’ – could you expand on this for our readers?
As I was putting the stories together, I noticed that the ghost of Katherine Mansfield flitted through four of the stories, linking them like a dark thread. There is no doubt that Mansfield’s stories have had a great effect on me; her writing is so interesting. But I also feel as though the stories about her arose almost by accident or coincidence because I happened to move to Cornwall. Somehow I heard that Katherine had spent time near my home in Falmouth, and had visited a beach I love, below the lighthouse on St Antony’s Head. All her letters are available to read on-line, via Victoria University in Wellington, so I did some more research and wrote a fictional account of a picnic Katherine had there with her partner John Middleton Murry and Fred Goodyear, a poet who was in love with her. I also found another link; a portrait of her had been painted in Looe in 1918. I used to see that same painting in Dunedin Public Art Gallery when I was growing up– so coincidence, again.
In another story, Katherine’s presence, on the wings of an albatross, flits past two teenage girls in a small hamlet in the far south of New Zealand, a reference to my favourite Mansfield story, ‘At the Bay’. I first read ‘At the Bay’ as a teenager and then later in life, after moving to England, to try and combat my homesickness. This shows, I think, the lasting resonance of something so small and apparently simple as a story.
The last of the Mansfield stories in the collection, ‘Learning to Be’, was inspired by reading Kathleen Jones’s recent biography, Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller. It touches on Katherine’s troubled relationship with John Middleton Murry and the two warring side of herself she struggled, throughout her life, to reconcile. I’m very interested in character, and especially the conflicts within character, the flaws that make us act against our own best interests. I think that’s why her incredible, luminous work has interested me for so long.
Which other short story writers have influenced you?
I just had a quick count of my short story collections – there are roughly eighty or ninety volumes on my shelves, including anthologies. Some favourites are Claire Keegan, David Constantine, Mansfield, Hemingway, James Baldwin, Mavis Gallant, Kirsty Gunn, Helen Oyeyemi, Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout, Jane Gardam, Jacob Ross, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Patricia Grace, Owen Marshall, Jean Rhys, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julie Orringer, Alice Munro, Antony Doerr, Carys Davies, Helen Dunmore. Sometimes individual stories stand out for me; sometimes whole collections. I could go on, but there are too many to name…
The settings for much of your short fiction – New Zealand and Cornwall in particular – are locations you know intimately. Does this reflect a wider belief in the adage ‘write what you know’?
I suppose it does, in a way, if you allow that these are fictional versions of those real places. I feel very influenced by landscape and the visual. My childhood landscape of coastal and central Otago is particularly important to me. I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think that I’ve written a story set in a place I’ve never been – which is not to say it should not be done. I’m a great believer in the saying ‘fiction is freedom’. Stories can be set anywhere. My stories tend to arise from a memory or image, something fleeting, but always alongside an emotion, a feeling that’s hard to pin down or put your finger on. The setting usually appears at the same time as the idea for the story.
Stories are often leading you to find out or get close to the things you don’t know. Even if you start from a known place, they’re often about crossing borders or boundaries into the unknown. So, although you may start from your own experience, they’ll always lead you to a place you didn’t entirely plan to go, or even knew existed. Short fiction is never the exact truth – it’s never what really happened. It’s a glimpse, a slice, a change of light.
Which short story in the collection do you like best and why?
Good question! My favourite story is the title story, The Lost of Syros, which ended up as the final work in the collection. It’s a story which was never published individually, in a magazine or journal, as many of the other stories where, but I have always been very fond of it. It’s an odd story, uncomfortable for some readers, perhaps, but I think it captures something, that sense of time past and not really having a handle on what you’re doing. Of odd encounters when travelling, some-one who read it said – being lost to yourself; drifting around anchorless; of no decision you make being the good or the right one. It gets close to life as I’ve often experienced it – messy and confusing and impossible to pin down. It’s what I always look for in the fiction I read, a sense of recognition, the strange way in which fiction can embrace complexity and difficulty. It’s the heart of the book, an example of ‘staying on the surface’ of the writing and letting unseen currents tug you this way and that.
What makes for a successful short story?
The great thing about short stories is that although they are made from the same general elements – character, setting, internal and external conflict, and resolution (or lack of it) – there are countless ways of approaching writing them. You can categorise and analyse them but, in the end, like all art, there is something a bit odd and magical about how a story works, some inner tension that holds a few thousand words together, a little universe that you can’t add anything more to, or take anything away from, without it collapsing.
There is no sure formula, but do find out what you can about short story structure – even if you chose to ignore it or play around with it, it helps to know what it is.
Your next collection, Three Roads, is due out in 2018 with Red Squirrel Press. Evidently you’ve persevered and had success in a market which is, we are constantly told, a difficult one. Have you felt pressure to write The Novel? What’s the secret to your triumphs with the form?
I find it strange, too! The chance to publish a short story collection with Cultured Llama Press came through an open submission process. I’d been submitting The Lost of Syros for 15 months without success, often without receiving any response at all, which is rather frustrating and disheartening. Cultured Llama Press is run by Maria McCarthy and Bob Carling. Maria is a great short story writer, and a lover and appreciator of the form (@TelltalesCwll@culturedllama).
I came to Red Squirrel Press though entering their Sara Park Memorial Short Story Competition in 2013. In 2015, Red Squirrel published a pamphlet of five of my short stories, as a prize for winning the competition. These stories were written later than those in The Lost of Syros and have now built up into a second collection, Three Roads, which I’m still working on. Sheila Wakefield, who runs Red Squirrel, kindly agreed to publish these in 2018. Again, Red Squirrel publishes short story pamphlets and collections and appreciates the form. I feel very lucky to have found such supportive and encouraging publishers for my short stories. In general, I found, most publishers I approached were looking for writers who have published their work in magazines and journals, and perhaps been placed in competitions. Some are interested in an online presence and involvement in literary events. There are usually guidelines on their website.
I am also writing a novel which I started over four years ago. I’ve always written the longer form, too, though as my writing time is limited a novel is a much longer term process for me. I hope, eventually, to have a novel published. But I’m learning not to worry too much, to focus on the work, whether it’s a novel or a story, and make it the best it can be – everything else seems to follow from that.
I love the fact that with short stories that I can work on them and finish them myself, send them out, and maybe, if I’m lucky, see them published in a journal or magazine within a year. There are more and more outlets for short stories; it’s very exciting to see.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
The best ones were along the lines of never give up and perseverance is the key to success. So true. I’d add, write because you want to and do your best to enjoy it.
Another thing I’d add is–be yourself. I admire many writers and I learn from reading their work but I don’t write like them. For example, I enjoy reading stories that use artifice, like Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and Angela Readman’s ‘Don’t Try This At Home,’ but I very rarely use that approach myself (except obliquely in a story like ‘The Rememberer’) which is not to say I never will…Embrace your unique way of seeing and experiencing the world – that’s what will make you stand out and editors and readers will find interesting.
Lastly, how would you describe the short story?
What fascinates me about short stories is how they gather every aspect of living into themselves. There’s something mysterious about the creation of a story that I find captivating; the gift it offers is a rare kind of freedom.
Emma Timpany was born and grew up in the far south of New Zealand, but currently lives in Cornwall. Her publications are Over the Dam (here), a pamphlet of five short stories, (Red Squirrel Press, 2015) and The Lost of Syros (published by Cultured Llama Press, 2015 – here), a collection of sixteen short stories. A second short story collection, Three Roads, is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press in 2018. Her short stories have won the Sara Park Memorial Short Story Competition 2013, the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2011 and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists’ Theodora Roscoe/Vera Brittain Award 2011. They have been placed and commended in competitions, most recently The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Prolitzer Prize for Prose Writing, and have been published in literary journals in England, New Zealand and Australia. You can read more about Emma on her website here.
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.