Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Katy and Liam, thanks for speaking to TSS! It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk about short fiction with one of the form’s biggest advocates in London and beyond. To start off, perhaps you could give our readers a little intro – what exactly is the Liars’ League, where and when did the idea begin, and how have things changed since the idea first took root?
Katy: It all began when I went to a short fiction night with my friend Tim Aldrich (LL co-founder and occasional host). As usual, the authors were reading their own stories, and frankly they weren’t making the best job of it. One mumbled, one read very fast, one was very quiet and they were all obviously nervous. We’d both been involved in drama quite a bit at University, and knew a few actors. We thought, hmm, why don’t authors ever get actors to read their work for them?In fact, why don’t WE do that? And LL was born. We found a small room above a pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, put out a call for stories, auditioned a bunch of actors and put on our first event, Boys & Girls, in April 2007. About 25 people turned up and given the size of the room, we considered that a great success. To be honest, LL hasn’t changed much since the idea took root (apart from moving to a much bigger venue, The Phoenix, and spreading all over the world, to Hong Kong, New York, Portland and elsewhere) but the live lit scene has really taken off. We were one of very few live fiction events in 2007 – now there are tons. We blazed a trail for others to follow … J
Liam: I found out about Liars’ League after it’d been going a few months, looking for a place to submit short stories to / write for during my first career break. Other than the location, and the word count length, and the fact I slowly became part of it, (as a Liar, then as co-host) the basic premise is still the same. Its longevity is, I think, testament to what it does and does well. Other literary events from the same era seem to have vanished, to be replaced, sure, but 10 years is an incredible length of time for something of this nature to last.
You’ve both read a tremendous a number of short stories and seen them performed. What, in your eyes, are the major differences between silent reading and reading aloud? What does an actor bring that an author might not?
Katy: Oh wow. The main practical difference is that reading on the page is at least twice as fast as out loud, which is why our word limit is capped at 2000 words (it’s the same for Radio 4 stories, which have a 2200 word max). Also, multiway conversations work better on the page than on the stage, especially with only one actor! Sometimes because we’re a spoken-word event we get stories which have so much dialogue they should really be short plays, and we have to reject them because they’re nigh-on unreadable live. In terms of what an actor brings, the main thing is years of training and experience at performing live, which most writers don’t have. The other thing is that we can “cast” the actor to suit the story, especially if it’s told first person. That way, though the author might be a young English woman, she can write in the voice of an older American man (for example) and we can find the right actor to read the part.
Liam: I think an actor brings by default what an author who is very good at reading their work can do. But they are in a minority. Also, the use of actors means we’re not geographically bound, as well as allowing people to write in other voices than their own.
Do the performances ever lead to interpretations you hadn’t previously considered?
Katy: Yes – especially for the authors (who are always invited along to rehearsal). Sometimes actors will make choices about the character or the voice that the author (or directors – me and Liam) hadn’t thought of. If they work, well great! And if not, we try something else. A recent example is Claire Lacey’s brilliant reading of The Ugly Duchess by Fiona Salter, which was a winner in our summer competition with the National Gallery. It was entirely Claire’s idea to read the piece with a hint of a German accent, and it worked superbly. (Well, I think it did …)
Liam: All the time. Sometimes it’s just a nuance, and sometimes you only see it when it’s live (it’s not even there in rehearsals). But I’d say that every reader, and obviously that includes actors, brings something new to a piece. With actors, though, you get to share that interpretation. During rehearsals, especially if the author is present, you can effectively have 4 views of a piece, from which we’ll pick the best. Fortunately this doesn’t lead to too many debates!
You’re both writers and I wonder if hearing so many short stories read aloud has affected your own work in any way? Do you think you pay more attention to the sounds and rhythms of a piece than you used to?
Katy: Definitely. And if I’m writing to be read aloud, guess what – I try to read the whole thing aloud before I send it off. I don’t always manage but it’s a real eye-opener when I do. I’m a real sucker for writing unspeakably long sentences so this keeps me in check. It’s also made me more conscious of the difference between lyrical and descriptive writing – which is usually more elegant, musical and rhythmic – versus writing in a colloquial voice, where the tone is much more conversational and the rhythms and language should echo natural speech, slang and hesitations included.
Liam: I also like to read my piece aloud, as the last step in editing, whether for Liars’ League or elsewhere. Amazing what that catches that silent reading doesn’t – clunky repetitions, or just plain mistakes. Hearing so many stories is a reminder that there are more than one way to do anything, and never underestimate the importance of the ending!
Are there any styles or features which you think work particularly well in short fiction for performance? For example, I wonder if first person or second person narrative translates onto a stage more readily than a short story written in the third person?
Katy: First person is a very natural perspective when it’s being written for a single live reader: some of the stories we perform could easily work as dramatic monologues (or a stand-up set, in some cases). But I think third person works just as well: when we’re read to as kids, the story is very often third person, so we’re very accustomed to hearing our fiction this way. The only style which doesn’t work so well is the mainly-dialogue story, as mentioned above. Oh, and highly verbally complex, descriptive prose-poem pieces: those usually work better on the page, where the reader can read them at their own pace. Too much can be lost in translation otherwise.
Liam: While not an absolute rule, bolder often works in performed readings. You have longer with a story, but you only have one shot at it – you can’t drift off and then reread the sentence. Humour works well – we perform to a pub audience, effectively, and even though we mix it up we certainly like to close on a piece that sends people away happy.
When did your love for short fiction begin to bud and what things have you learnt over the years to do with the form?
Katy: I used to love anthologies of ghost and horror stories when I was a kid – Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and that sort of thing. I also read tons of Golden Age sci-fi as a teenager, and I think those were the main two ways I got into short story reading as opposed to kids’ books or novels. The literary stuff came later! Over the years, thanks to LL, I have learned the art of writing a complete narrative in 2000 words – I used to write on average between 3000 and 5000, and would have thought 2000 impossibly short! Now I know better. I’ve also learned to adopt as many different voices and styles as I have stories to tell: you can’t limit yourself, you have to play around. That’s the joy of short fiction, I reckon.
Liam: I’ve always tended to this form, it’s a better vehicle for my ideas-generated writing where it isn’t necessary to fully get to know a character. I’ve learnt over the years (I am the most rejected author in Liars’ history…) that a beautiful piece of writing, or a brilliant idea, is not enough. A short piece of fiction still needs to be a story, still needs to convey some form of ending, of resolution, even if it’s up to the reader (or listener!) to decide what that ending means.
What can a short story offer a reader that other forms of writing might not and do these change at all in a performance?
Katy: “Small like a bullet” is how A. L. Kennedy described the short story (there’s actually a festival called that now) and I think it’s a great description: though a story is short, it can also be immensely powerful. Try reading Carver, Carter, Hemingway, Mansfield or any modern masters of the form if you don’t believe me. So it offers a fast, intense hit of whatever you can get out of fiction: excitement, emotion, challenging ideas, strange worlds, extraordinary characters. Kind of like a literary espresso.
Liam: I think (I hope!) the short story can be more playful. It suits flights of fancy that wouldn’t sustain a novel. (Certainly many of my stories are like that!) And then there are those stories that hint at depths not even a novel can plumb, of which I stand in awe.
Katy, in an interview with The State of the Arts, you mention the different ‘taste’ in style of the different Leagues (“NYC has a slightly more literary/MFA tone to many of the pieces they choose, and we I’d say tend more towards the stage side of the page/stage balance”). Submissions come in from all over the world and I wonder if you’ve noticed differences in the writing too, between regions and counties?
Katy: Yes, actually! Though I think it’s less to do with regional influence than what the different Leagues are looking for: Hong Kong only take flash fiction up to 1200 words, and their actors often learn their pieces, so its chosen stories are inevitably more performance-led, whereas New York and Portland take up to 3000 words so their stories are able to unfold a little more slowly and develop over a longer time.
Lastly, what would be your advice to those looking to get their short story performed at one of your evenings?
Katy: First of all, come along and listen to the stories we’ve chosen – or if you can’t, our entire fiction archive is available on the website www.liarsleague.com as text, video or podcast, or on our YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/liarsleague. You’ll soon see what succeeds read aloud, and what doesn’t – and if you have a particular favourite story, think about what makes it work so well: is it the voice, the language, the humour, the pace? Then see whether you can write a story which does the same kind of thing, perhaps using the same techniques (e.g. you could write in dialect like author David Hartley in our recent winner A Place to Dump Guinea Pigs http://www.liarsleague.com/liars_league/2016/09/a-place-to-dump-guinea-pigs-by-david-hartley.html ). Never be afraid to steal a few tricks from the best … every writer does it.
Liam: Don’t give up on your first rejection! It was my seventh Liars’ League story before I was accepted, though I’d had some encouraging feedback before that. Like everything else, practice makes perfect. In addition to being the most rejected, I’m also, now, the most accepted, with 28 Liars’ League London stories to my name. But that’s because I’ve sent in 100 submissions.
Plus, write the story to be read aloud. As Katy mentions earlier, some pieces are great on the page but can’t work on the stage – not with a single reader, anyway.
Katy Darby’s stories have been read on BBC Radio 4, and appeared in magazines including Stand, Mslexia, Slice, and the Arvon and Fish anthologies. She has a BA in English from Oxford University and an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, where she won the David Higham Award. She teaches writing at City University, edited Litro short fiction magazine from 2010-2012 and runs award-winning short story night Liars’ League, which has been named by The Guardian as one of the UK’s top ten storytelling events (www.liarsleague.com). Her novel The Unpierced Heart (previously The Whores’ Asylum) is published by Penguin. She lives in London, tweets @katydarbywriter and is online at www.katydarby.com.
Liam Hogan is a London based writer and co-host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars’ League. Winner of Quantum Shorts 2015 and Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2016, he’s been published at DailyScienceFiction, NoSleep Podcast, and in over a dozen anthologies. Find out more.
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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