Interview by Rupert Dastur and Samantha James
Thank you very much for speaking to us. I wonder if you would be happy to begin by telling us about your journey as a writer – from the first time you encountered short fiction to the publication of your debut collection Light Box?
I fell in love with short stories as a student, but it took me a long time to get to the point where I made a decision to write them in a more dedicated way. When I did, I really chose the form over others – for a long time before that I had been working away at all kinds of things from plays to prose poems and short short stories. I think I was especially drawn to the short story form because of my interest in exploring moments of change in people’s lives – perhaps pivotal moments of change, or perhaps longer periods of transition and transformation, when they exist in something of a liminal state … the short story, it seems to me, is so well suited to this kind of exploration, and certainly this really had me hooked. And I steadily sent out work when it was done, and had some good success along the way with journals and competitions, until I felt ready to publish the book of stories.
Your short stories span a range of places – from the U.S. to Japan to Siberia – and in other interviews you’ve mentioned the importance of travel to your life. Which places have most influenced you as a writer and why?
I grew up with wide open spaces – the countryside, Scotland, the sea. I got to roam a good deal as a child, and when travelling or working further afield was possible when I was older I really wanted to do that – felt a need to do that. There are some landscapes that shock you awake simply by the look of them – I’m thinking of some of the open spaces in the United States, like Arizona, but also Siberia. That can be very liberating as a writer, in that the pen just hits the page and you can barely keep up because you just want to get it down, to find a way to describe this moment, this place. But there are also the cultural and historical aspects of another country – your awareness of these hopefully becomes heightened, whether you are there briefly, or for longer periods. There can be a sense of dislocation, too, associated with travel, and I find this intriguing. Particularly now, when it is so much easier to travel, yet without this necessarily ensuring any particularly deep connection or understanding. People – and characters – travel with their own baggage. There can be an interesting dissonance between inner and outer worlds.
Light Box displays cohesion largely through tone – your hand visible behind the short stories, without intruding on the narrative. Were you aware you had a distinctive author’s ‘voice’ and how does this affect your writing?
I was very relieved to find that I did – in fact another writer pointed this out to me, and before I had really come to the realization myself. I think my response was relaxation. I was able to feel … It’s okay, stick with it, something is happening here. But I was also very conscious from an early stage in my writing life that I never wanted to feel restricted or trapped within a tonal range. I try to kick against that as I work. I didn’t want to write the same story over and over.
At what point do you know a short story is finished?
I am not sure that it necessarily is – you just decide that it’s time to stop (which is not to say I’m very good at this: I could keep revisiting for years). Most stories could be reworked over in different ways. But there are times when I have gone back into a story I had previously set aside, thinking I will overhaul it, and add more layers, or take it in a new direction, and I have learnt that this is not going to be productive – that the story should remain as it is. Although I’m a firm believer in editing, sometimes the initial instinct you had is to be trusted and respected.
What was the hardest part of bringing this collection together and would you have done anything differently if you could go back and start all over again?
Perhaps the hardest part relates to your last question – which is knowing when you are done, and when it is time to let it go. In terms of going back … the collection is something I spent a good number of years working on, and there are so many things I must have learnt along the way – but there’s satisfaction in that. Certainly, I find it important to carry the awareness with me that it is okay to relax with not knowing too much when starting something new. So not feeling too much pressure to decide what any story will be/ be about. Not every writer is like me, and of course every story is different, but I’m a believer in following your interest and finding your way as you go. If you feel you have a complete handle on a story – well, for me, this is not necessarily a good sign.
Your short story Disappearances won the 2016 BBC Short Story Award. How has winning impacted your life, if at all? (Whether that be in a professional or personal capacity.)
I was in the early days of developing my collection when I was shortlisted for the award in 2011, and then I won it in 2016 shortly after my book had come out, so it felt pretty wonderful in terms of timing – a real vote of confidence in my work as it made the journey out into the world and into readers’ hands. I felt very lucky in this respect. Knowing that readers are responding to your work is very meaningful – writing is a solitary business. With the prize one of the aspects I really enjoyed was getting to talk short stories with other writers and readers who love the form as much as I do.
“Changes in rhythm are central to K J Orr’s highly accomplished debut collection, Light Box…the English author’s stories have a vividness and directness that leave the reader reeling.”
– Review by Sarah Gilmartin, The Irish Times
How aware were you of the centrality of rhythm to the collection as you were writing? Was it your intention to be direct in your stories and, if so, how did you (knowingly) accomplish this?
Rhythm is something I am very aware of as I write – in fact, sometimes it is almost all I have to go on as I start a new story. I allow it to guide me as I look to find a way into a new story world. Rhythm can have to do with voice – especially if you are writing in the first person, say – but it also has to do with pace and momentum … which in turn relate to the degree of compression I am looking at in any story. As I was building the collection I was very aware of an interest in rhythm, repetition, routine, and what happens when these things are disrupted. I wonder whether this is where being direct comes in? Perhaps, in part. I am drawn to those moments when there’s a good degree of uncertainty for my characters … which can mean they might be quite exposed.
Has the publication of your debut collection and your BBC win changed the way you view or (will) approach the short story genre?
I think my view of the short story form is (and has for a long while been) pretty consistent – I love it, and it gives me so much. As a form it feels very connective and meaningful, but challenging too. There can be an incredibly intense and frank dialogue involved in working through a story, as a reader or writer – one that I never cease to feel grateful for. I believe this is a form that has so much to offer. Publishing a book and prize recognition have given me more opportunities to keep saying that – which makes me happy.
K J Orr is the author of the short story collection Light Box, and was the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award 2016. Her work has appeared in publications including the Guardian, the Irish Times, the Dublin Review, the White Review and Best British Short Stories, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Light Box is shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. The collection was reviewed by TSS here. You can read more about the author here: kjorr.com
Read our review of Light Box here.
Samantha James is an Australian journalist, creative writer, avid reader and sometimes-artist. She graduated from Curtin University with Honours in Media, Culture and Creative Writing. As a student she volunteered at creative literary journal dotdotdash. After working as a journalist for a few years, she moved to South Korea to teach English, opening up whole worlds of possibilities. In 2016 she is planning to leave behind her life of structure to focus on creative writing, hoping new travel experiences, impulses and cultures will inspire her words on the page.
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.
Photograph of K J Orr by Lottie Davies.
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