What can you tell us about your new collection of short stories?
It is called In The Future Everyone Will Be World Famous For Fifteen Minutes. As you can probably tell, from it’s snappy Warhol based title, it is a collection of stories about fame, though not necessarily about the famous. Some of the stories have famous people in them but only as bit players in the much more interesting lives of ordinary people. We get the story of a tramp in New York on the day of John Lennon’s death, a teenager watching Bowie on TV in the 1970s, a dementia doctor remembering an Ali fight, a man with a Scarlett Johansson obsession. Some of the stories are about the need for fame and the disappointment when it is achieved, some of them feature made up celebrities. Support Erinna’s collection here.
Where did the inspiration for the short story collection come from?
I am the director of a spoken word group called Rattle Tales and we host interactive events in which writers read and the audience asks them questions. I have read many times at our events, after reading one story someone asked me why all my writing featured celebrities. I didn’t even know I was doing it. It was an inadvertent theme. I suppose it’s because we are constantly bombarded with fame and the famous, TV, social media, talent contests, it’s become a part of our lives. I found that really interesting, especially as it doesn’t appear to make anyone particularly happy. There’s also a lot of pretence involved in the whole business, so much lies below the surface, and that’s a gift for a writer.
What have you most enjoyed about writing the collection?
Realising that the files of disparate stories were actually shaping up into a themed collection. I love working on a new idea, taking something that has inspired me and shaping it into a story, but actually having enough stories for a book has been the best bit. After years of working on small individual stories I found I had somehow collected 70,000 words of one big thing and it was a great feeling.
Also reacting to the news by creating a story inspired by real events. The last story I wrote for the book was the one about David Bowie. I couldn’t let his death pass without including something about the impact he had on other people’s lives. I’m not doing one about Prince though, or whoever is next, I’d never finish the book.
You’re currently using Unbound – what wisdom would you pass on to others looking to go down this route?
Crowdfunding is really, really hard work! It’s three months of constant marketing, sometimes face to face. Don’t do it if you’re not confident in approaching people. Expect to have to explain what crowdfunding is over and over. Expect to be disappointed by some of your close friends and delighted by people you hardly know. I would also say prepare everything before submitting to Unbound, including the promotional video, or you’ll feel stressed and rushed when they accept your submission. That’s the other thing about crowd-funding – it works at a super fast pace.
It’s a great publisher for those books that are outside the mainstream. Their promo states that ‘Authors get to write the books they want to write and you get to read real books that, in a crowded, celebrity obsessed market place might never see the light of day.’
That really appealed to me. I am a short story writer and 99.9% of UK publishers hate short stories, they say they don’t sell. But I think you have to give people the opportunity to buy, you have to put the idea into their head. People didn’t used to buy crime novels. I didn’t even try to place this collection with a traditional publisher because I knew it would be a waste of energy, far better to use that energy to establish a direct relationship with my readers. Each and every person who has pledged money to this project has helped to create it. Without them it wouldn’t exist.
What, for you, makes for a great short story?
To be great it has to make you think. It keeps you awake at night and it’s still with you the next day, and the day after that and it will keep coming back to you forever. I like stories with authentic human interaction and stories that are a bit ambiguous, that make you question what the author meant.
Which short story writers have most influenced you?
I love Paul Auster, Raymond Carver and William Trevor. I absolutely admire Carver’s economy and technical brilliance. I think his story ‘A Small, Good Thing’ is possibly the greatest short story ever written. ‘Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story’ by Paul Auster is another – economic, cinematic and deeply moving, you get caught up in the art of the storytelling, rapt to every word it’s only later that you realise just how clever it is. William Trevor was my first short story obsession, everything about his stories is perfect. I like these three writers in particular because they write poetically about co-incidences and misunderstandings and loss and those are all great things to have in a short story.
Do you have a particular process when writing short stories?
An idea will suddenly come to me, something I’ve seen or read, and I’ll jot down a few notes and then do a bit of research. After that initial gathering of information, I will sit down and type it from start to finish. I might go back and add things, write tangential ideas down in my notebook as I’m going along and try to work them in. The end usually becomes clear about half way through, so I’ll stop and note down where I think it’s going, then I’ll carry on typing the story until I get there. When I’ve finished I’ll do at least three drafts before printing it out and reading it aloud with a red pen at the ready, then there are usually two more drafts with the print out/read aloud method repeated. If I get the chance I’ll workshop it. I’m in two writing groups at the moment, sometimes I’ll take it to both. I’ll go back to it with the suggestions I get at the workshops and decide which ones to take on and which ones to ignore. My short stories are never really finished – I just decide to stop working on them. I’ve just changed a line in a story I wrote five years ago on the strength of comment from the audience at a public reading.
What’s the hardest challenge a short story writer faces?
Rejection. When I started out I had a fair bit of success in terms of publications and competitions early on, then there were four years of rejections. You have to learn to shrug it off but you have to go through hell first to get to that point, there will be tears and frustration and self doubt but if you want it badly enough it will happen.
You’ve done a lot of performance work – do you have this in mind when you write and how does it affect your craft?
I do write with it in mind. I also worked in a film library for a good few years and I think the two things have been a big influence. When you write for performance it has to be easy to follow, it has to have two or three clearly defined scenes, only a handful of characters and it has to be easily pictured by the audience. Simplicity is key but this doesn’t mean that the language can’t be rich and poetic, or that the themes can’t be deep. I tend to write cinematically. I imagine how everything looks and then tell the reader exactly. I draw a lot of maps to fix the points of characters in the scene. The way writing differs from film is that you can express the other senses and you can explore the internal thoughts of your characters. When you read your work aloud you find out about all the bits that don’t flow, that’s why it’s a big part of my editorial process. The best way for a writer to hear their own work is by listening to an actor read it. If you get the opportunity to do that jump at it.
Lastly, what advice would you give writers starting out with short stories?
It’s not a rehearsal for writing a novel. If you want to write a novel write one, don’t faff around trying to write short stories, they are a completely different beast. With a short story every word counts, everything matters. Most people think they can write them without doing much editing, that you can just knock one out in an afternoon. This is very wrong. You have to edit and re-edit and do it again and again. The other thing is that the ending matters more than anything else. As a director of The Brighton Prize and Rattle Tales I have read so many short stories that just fizzle out, that are great right up until the last paragraph and then stop. If you want to crack the art of the short story pay a lot of attention to the endings.
Thank you, Erinna.
Erinna Mettler’s first novel, Starlings, was published in 2011 by Revenge Ink. Erinna is a founder and co-director of the spoken word collective Rattle Tales and the newly established Brighton Prize, the city’s only short story competition. Her stories have been shortlisted for The Bristol Prize and The Writers & Artists Yearbook Arvon Award. Erinna has an MA (dist) in Creative Writing from The University of Sussex. Her stories and poems have been published internationally.
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.