Interview by Katy Wimhurst and Rupert Dastur
When did you start writing and why do you think people turn to telling stories?
I’ve written stories since I was a child, and I wrote plenty of angsty poetry through my adolescence. But it wasn’t until I early 20s that I started to take my career seriously – to think that I could actually make up stories for a living. Now I think I will have to always be a writer, because everything I’ve ever done has been about books. I’m qualified for literally nothing else.
I can’t speak for others, but I tell stories because it’s what I do. It’s how I have always made sense of the world. If I lived alone in a hole in the ground I’d still be making up stories.
What was it like the first time you saw your name in print, and what advice would you give aspiring writers who are attempting to climb the literary ladder?
The most important thing is to write well. You can do all the networking in the world, you can read all the books on writing, you can listen to all the podcasts. But ultimately, the only way is to find an interesting story, and tell it well.
To become a better writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. You also need talent, but that’s not something you can help. Some people have built careers with very little talent and a lot of hard work – but no one has ever built a career with lots of talent and no work. At some point, we all need to just sit down and write.
Also, when I say talent, I mean a certain way of looking at the world: of understanding things through stories, of filtering everything through language, of knowing how to express emotions and the things you see in fresh, unusual phrases. I think many people who grew up absorbed in books have this skill. So my advice is simple: read, write, think, and experience the world.
When you’ve got that part down, it’s time for the career part. The most useful resource for writers is other writers. Many anthologies and magazines commission content rather than advertising for submissions, so it’s important to be in the know. Build up a network, either online or in your local area, and you can let each other know about suitable opportunities. It works both ways – if you hear about a market that’s not suitable for your work, pass it on to a writer friend and they’ll do the same for you. Social media should be social – don’t just use it to promote yourself. Take a genuine interest in other people, their lives and careers, and they will do the same for you.
Your first book, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, is a collection of previously published tales. What attracts you to the fairytale?
I’ve always loved mythology, folktales, fairytales, and odd old beliefs. I’ve studied it formally, as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on retold fairytales, but most of my reading has just been for my own pleasure and personal education. Almost everything I write is inspired by myth in some way – it’s the well I keep returning to. A fairytale is a story that resonates through time and place. The stories deal with tropes, so the mother of a fairy tale is every mother; a broken heart is every broken heart; a lost child is every lost child. A fairy tale about a girl going on a quest to find her dead father is relevant to me, a 32 year-old woman living in modern Glasgow, because the father in that story is my own father. The girl in the story is me, and you, and everyone. The truths of a fairy tale are relevant to us all, no matter our specific circumstances.
As well as fairytales, I’m also inspired by children’s ghost stories. I find that a lot of adult horror goes for shock or gore, and I just don’t find those things scary. When I read horror I want a quick, strange story: a perfect little gem of creepiness. For some reason, I find children’s scary stories much more satisfying than those for adults. Fairytales also satisfy my need for a perfect little gem of story, though with fairytales it’s more a desire for strangeness, wonder and a sense of a satisfactory ending. Hopefully that’s what I convey with my stories too.
How would you define the form ’fairytale’ and how do fairytales differ from short stories?
Most short stories are not fairytales. Many fairytales, while short, are not effective as short stories: many are more like anecdotes, or jokes, or moral tales. The ones we generally remember, discuss, and retell are the ones that more closely fit the story form we’re familiar with these days: a beginning, middle and end; character development, plot movement. Aside from length, fairytales don’t have much in common with most modern short stories.
Fairytales are, traditionally, short texts. When we spoke at The London Short Story Festival last year, you suggested this was due to the relative simplicity of fairytales which would be difficult to sustain over a longer form. Given the definition you’ve provided, would you still maintain this and can you think of any exceptions?
I maintain this. There may be examples of writers who have managed to stick to the simplicity of fairytales over a longer narrative, but if there are then I haven’t read them yet.
You’ve published a novel, The Gracekeepers; what are the main differences and difficulties in transitioning from writing short fiction to novel-length plots?
I’ve always loved to write both short stories and longer pieces, just as I love to read both. They provide such different experiences for the reader and the writer. But to be honest, I’m not a natural novelist. The short story length and format is much better suited to my ideas and style. Sometimes an idea comes along that is a novel, and there’s no point trying to cram it into a story shape when it won’t ever fit, so I write it as a novel. Similarly, I have various ideas floating around my brain that are best suited to a film script, a TV drama, a visual art project, a series of songs, and a photography series. I don’t yet have the skills to make them, but there’s no point trying to make them be something that they’re not just because it’s more convenient for me. It’s a waste of an idea.
To me, a novel is like a dollhouse: you open the front and all the tiny rooms are displayed, each populated with different characters doing different things, each totally engrossed in their worlds. I’ve always loved miniature scenes in museums, of battles or farms or villages. A short story is different: it’s a short, sharp shock. I think of a short story as a keyhole: a glimpse into a single room, rather than a view of the whole dollhouse. A novel shows a world, whereas a short story should hint at a larger picture and allow the reader to imagine a world for themselves.
A Portable Shelter, your second collection of short fiction, uses the framing device of two women, Ruth and Liska, telling stories in secret to their unborn child. Why did you choose this device and do you think it alters the ways the individual stories might be read?
As a child, I read a lot of collections of short horror stories, and many of them had a frame story. The kids were sitting round a campfire or having a sleepover, sharing stories. After each creepy tale there would be a return to the frame narrative, a kind of reassurance or pause before the next story.
When you describe it like that, the frame device of A Portable Shelter sounds very sweet, and I suppose it is sweet. I knew the stories would get very dark – there’s child murder, sexual assault, lots of grief and sadness. So that’s why I wanted that sweetness of the frame story: to allow me to venture into the darkness in the stories, knowing that after each story I could bring the reader back into a place with a bit more love in it. That’s what I wanted to say with the whole book, really: that the world can be cold and dark and more awful than we can imagine. But there is still love, always.
When I read the stories aloud at events I never include the frame. So now that I think about it, that doesn’t allow for the sweetness, the love, to counteract the darkness. But hopefully there’s enough love in the rest of the event to allow for that.
Your short stories like ‘Witch’, ‘Tiger’s Palace’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Keep’ seem to fit within the contrary spirit of the feminist fairytale, where traditional fairytales are reworked with female experience put at their heart. Do you see yourself within this feminist tradition? How important for you is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), the first feminist retellings of fairytales?
I’d be hugely honoured to be anywhere on a list containing Angela Carter. Reading The Bloody Chamber when I was 20 was a transformative experience. It showed me what fairytales could do – what stories could do. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on retold fairytales, and fell madly in love with Emma Donoghue’s story collection Kissing the Witch. To my mind, Donoghue’s was the only book I considered that actually subverted fairytales at their base level, rather than just changing a few details or flipping characters around. When I began to explore fairytales creatively, I wanted to do that too: properly look at the root of the tale, think about what it’s really saying, rather than just update a few flimsy details like the setting or characters. Carter was one of the writers who showed me that was possible.
Many of your stories deal with matters of sex and sexuality. They also refuse to shy away from explicit vulgarities. Is this conscious subversion and what are you hoping your readers will learn or perhaps take away from your fiction that deals with these themes?
Sex is a part of life. It’s not the most important part, or even a particularly big part. But it’s there, and so I write about it. Quite a few reviews of my books have mentioned that the stories normalise queer relationships, with all sexual and gender identities presented without comment as just part of the story. I’m glad that people are picking up on that, though it’s not something I did consciously. I just write the world the way I see it. I’ve always seen different sexualities as equal, and certainly not the most important part of someone’s identity. We can be queer while also being a lot of other, more important things too. As a queer teenager I got very bored of reading coming out stories, because I didn’t have a particularly dramatic coming out.
My first book in particular has a lot of sex in it, probably because I wrote it in my 20s. It presents a whole spectrum of different sexualities, from healthy to unhealthy, from hetero to homo, with plenty in between. It’s just how I see the world: I don’t think it’s as simple as one or the other. It’s false to portray every relationship as happy, but then it’s false to portray every relationship as unhappy as well. Love is complex, and I want to explore those complexities.
I think it’s particularly important to include so-called ‘vulgarities’ when retelling fairytales. So much of fairytales’ content is still relevant and timely, but some elements should be updated, depending on the tale. Social and cultural mores change (usually for the better). Some tales are ableist, sexist, or dismissive of particular races or backgrounds. This can be good for a writer, as these issues can be explored in a retelling and considered in an intelligent way. But I don’t feel that outdated prejudices should ever just be regurgitated without comment.
The racism in the books of, say, Agatha Christie or HP Lovecraft (or dozens of other writers) would absolutely not be acceptable in a modern-written novel. But those books are of their time; we read them for their plots or world-building or prose, and modern readers can struggle with the prejudices of the time – I know that I sometimes struggle to see past those things. I’m sure it will be the same a hundred years in the future. If anyone is still reading my work then, I’m sure it will seem very dated in its treatment of sexuality and gender, for example. The things we find vulgar or daring now will seem very tame in the future. But I find that reassuring, to think how the world changes so fast and continues to change.
In an interview with The List, you mention that after the success of The Rental Heart (winner of The Scott Prize) the realization that a great number of people were now reading your work felt like ‘a whole room of strangers [were] reading your diary.’ To what extent are the fairytales and your other writings based on personal experience?
Everything I write comes from my life in some way. Of course I write fantasy, and horror, and weirdness, and these things haven’t literally happened to me in terms of the details. But the emotions are all real.
Has the significant widening of your readership in recent years affected the degree to which you feel comfortable drawing on your own life?
I only write about issues and conflicts I’ve already spoken about with the people involved. No one who knows me will stumble on nasty new truths in my fiction. I’m aware that I’m very open about myself in my writing, but I’m very open about myself in my real life too. I have secrets just like anyone, but generally I am exactly who I appear to be.
Besides, I wouldn’t know how else to be. I draw on my own life even when I don’t mean to. In the story ‘Feeding’ from my first book, there’s a scene where the protagonist accidentally runs over a rabbit: “The rabbit lies a few yards behind the car. Its head is perfect: brown and fluffy, with long ears and limpid eyes. The rest of its body is a flat red oval, leaking onto the tarmac.” When my mum read the story, she said that exact thing had happened to her many years ago. She’d told me about it, and I’d forgotten, but it had lodged in my brain so firmly that I later wrote about it without remembering where I’d heard it.
- Much of your writing is what might be called ‘magical realist’ – there are fabulous elements (teenagers with antlers, coin-operated boys, metal hearts that can be rented, dragons, selkies) but these are rooted in reality, including emotional reality. What does magical realism offer you as a writer that straight realism doesn’t? And do you identify as a magical realist?
I’m happy to be called a magical realist, though I don’t call myself that. I don’t call myself anything, and I never consider genre when I write. Although they read as fantastical, everything I write is perfectly logical to me. Many of the stories in my first book developed as a literal exploration of a feeling or thought. For example, I had my heart broken and thought, rather melodramatically, as you do when you’ve been dumped, “This hurts so much that I wish I could take out my heart and get a new one”. And so ‘The Rental Heart’ came to be. I had a boyfriend in the merchant navy, and when he was away I would be very lonely, and would develop these pseudo-relationships with other people, as sort of filler until my boyfriend got back – there was ‘Origami’. My dad was an alcoholic, and we never seemed to speak about it, and when we did speak about it the words never came out right – there was ‘Bibliophagy’. When he died, my family scattered his ashes in the sea, and I like to think that he’s still there, in the sea – so there was ‘The Sealfather’. After his death the world seemed so dark and cold to me – there was ‘The Light Eater’. As a teenager I often felt like an outsider, so strange and awkward in my skin, as if I had antlers or a tail – and there’s ‘Una & Coll Are Not Friends’. I know the stories read as fantastical, surreal at times; but to me they follow a logical thought pattern.
All the genre labels – that stuff comes after. It’s all about how publishers and booksellers can sell the book. I never think about it while I’m writing.
What’s your favourite fairytale and what’s the best modern retelling of a fairytale you’ve encountered?
If I had to pick just one it would be ‘Kate Crackernuts’, a Scottish fairytale about a girl who isn’t pretty or demure, but who gets her happy ending by being clever and resourceful. It also features a fairy ball, which has a contradiction I love in that it’s beautiful and glamorous and happy, but it’s also destructive and can ultimately kill you. That’s what I love so much about fairytales: beauty mixed with darkness.
I’m madly in love with Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch. Her ‘Tale of the Shoe’ (a retelling of Cinderella) floors me every time I read it.
Lastly, what can you tell us about what you’re up to at the moment? I gather you’re writing a new novel. Any other upcoming projects that you’d like to share with our readers?
My next novel The Gloaming is out in 2018. It’s got mermaids and queer love and islands that turn people to stone. I’m also working on a new story collection, The Night Tender.
Kirsty Logan is the author of short story collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (Salt, 2014), which was awarded the Polari First Book Prize and the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection, and debut novel The Gracekeepers (Harvill Secker, 2015), which won a Lambda Literary Award. Her most recent book, A Portable Shelter (ASLS, 2015), is a collection of linked short stories inspired by Scottish folktales and was published in a limited edition with custom woodblock illustrations. Kirsty also works as a book reviewer, writing teacher and editor. You can find more about Kirsty 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.
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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