Interview by Katy Wimhurst
When did you start writing stories and what drew you to telling them?
I’ve written stories for as long as I can remember. As a child I amused myself by making my own “books” out of A4 sheets of paper. Since this method allowed only two interior pages, the stories I wrote into these books often suffered from severe pacing-related issues, but I put a lot of work into drawing cover art, and scribbling a barcode on the back. Hopefully that made up for the lack of a coherent plot. I remember that most of them were about killer robots, but that was likely because I quite enjoyed drawing killer robots and wanted a reason to do so.
You won the Manchester short fiction prize in 2011 and the Bare Fiction prize in 2015; you have also had a pocket book of short stories published by Stonewood Press, When You Lived Inside The Walls. What is it about the short story form that appeals?
I enjoy the intensity of short stories. Usually they are brief enough to be read in a single sitting, which means that one tends to have a different relationship with a short story than one might with a novel. That you can read several in a day, one after the other, makes them feel like a kind of emotional pick n’ mix. I really like pick n’ mix.
Because of their brevity, too, there is often a huge element of craft to short stories. Novels are, of course, crafted too, but it’s a different kind of workmanship than that required to fit all the happenings of a story into a very small space without it seeming rushed or cramped. I am impressed by short stories in the same way I am whenever I open up a laptop and see how everything has been slotted into place with almost no empty space.
You founded and edit Neon literary magazine, which publishes short stories, poetry and artwork; it is on its 44th edition. Why did you set it up and what kinds of short stories do you publish – I’ve read that you prefer dark, emotionally cold fiction, and the stories in the volume I read were mainly speculative, literary ones.
I started Neon a long time ago, and it has evolved hugely over the years that I’ve been working on it. It has, however, always reflected my own personal tastes to some degree. Apart from anything else I enjoy having a collection of things that I really love reading, curated in a way that works for me – hopefully that aligns with what other people enjoy as well.
I started the magazine after discovering online literary magazines in my teens. I was an avid reader, but had never encountered anything quite like the literature I found online. It was energetic and weird and different. I think up until that stage I had only really encountered short stories from centuries ago, and while I’d enjoyed them, they never spoke to me in the same way that the stuff I found online did. I wanted to make that kind of writing part of my life, to be involved with it. And I wanted to create something that might bring those stories to other people.
As for what stories I like – there’s a wide range. Often I am sent stories that I love but which aren’t quite right for the magazine. The general atmosphere of Neon suits things which are strange and dark and have an element of the speculative or the surreal to them. One of my favourites from a recent issue is Leo Hunt’s “But Always Meeting Ourselves”. It’s about time travel, but it’s not really about time travel. It’s bleak and literary and bizarre all at once.
Compared with twenty years ago, there are many BAs and MAs in Creative Writing in the UK. As an editor and publisher, do you think this has affected the nature, quantity and quality of short fiction being written here?
University Creative Writing courses are often accused of homogenising fiction – coaching students to produce something that is technically well-written but otherwise lifeless; stories that say nothing, but say it very well. I don’t really buy that. The courses are as varied as the people who attend them, and so to it’s probably not possible to draw any firm conclusions about the affect they might be having on short fiction as a form. I receive just as many pretty but lifeless stories (and just as many rough but brilliant ones) from writers who have been on courses as from those who haven’t.
I’m generally in favour of Creative Writing courses, but I think it would be a responsible step for universities to be honest with students, and to refrain from implying that a Creative Writing degree will definitely help with finding employment after graduation, or that it’s easy to make a living from writing.
Animals or animal elements, with close ties to humans, feature in a number of your stories. The teenage protagonist in ‘The Sea in Me’ is part fish or mermaid; the child Millie in ‘When You Lived Inside The Walls’ is closer to the rats than to her father; the lonely blue whale in ‘Blue Whale Hits Town’ floats bar to bar and gets attention from people. Why do animals or animal elements appeal to you as a literary story-teller?
Animals fascinate me. Sometimes, when I find myself in the vicinity of large mammals, I can’t help but reflect that they would be as strange as aliens, if only they weren’t so familiar. And the fact that they are conscious, but in a different way from us, is fascinating to me.
Aside from the fact that I find them interesting, I also make use of animals in my fiction because they can represent so much. They’re rich with meaning and the potential for meaning, which makes them pretty useful as narrative objects.
Many of your stories have fabulous or speculative elements – the teenager with gills, webbed feet and green hair in ‘The Sea in Me’, Patrick’s dead zombie girlfriend living in a freezer in ‘Days Necrotic’ – yet address our recognisable physical and emotional world. What does this kind of fiction offer you as a writer that ‘straight realism’ doesn’t?
Most often it’s just that the stories I want to tell don’t fit into a world which is strictly realistic. When I started writing “The Sea In Me” I was interested in writing about the issues involved in changing into a mermaid. Reading the story now I can see that it has a lot to do with puberty and growing up, but that meaning came about as a by-product of the story I was intending to tell, not intentionally.
I find magical realism and strangeness and fantasy and slipstream interesting when it comes to my personal reading too. I like that there are fewer restrictions on what can happen, and more directions in which the narrative can move.
‘When You Lived Inside The Walls’ and ‘The Sea in Me’ meditate on estrangement in human relationships as well as on growing up. Are these themes that you return to often and, if so, why?
Being different or one-step removed from the rest of the world is certainly a thing that I relate to. I was quite an odd child, and I often feel now as though I don’t really fit in anywhere – so that likely creeps into my writing. Growing up is perhaps not so central a theme, but inevitably ties in at least a little.
One thing I admire about your stories is the precise, fresh details: the first-person protagonist in ‘The Sea in Me’ with her green hair which ‘floats around my head like a coral reef plant and turns with me, follows me slender and obedient like a tail’; or in ‘Holdings’, Mr Crowley’s ‘fuzz of greasy beard’ and wiggling ‘yellow-nailed fingers’, and his house where ‘piles of dirty dishes wobbled head-high’ in the kitchen and the floor was ‘a carpet of photographs and fridge magnets and bills and beads.’ How important do you think ‘detail’ is in short stories and how do you come up with ideas here – do you keep a notebook for daily observations?
Detail is, I think, very important to a short story – the detail is what makes it more than just a litany of events. But there’s not much room for detail in a short text, so the details that are featured have to be the best, the most precise, the most telling.
I have a terrible memory, and so I keep obsessive notes about almost everything: notable turns or phrase or ideas for stories, or details that I intend to work into a specific piece. It’s a difficult process organising them though, and unless something is really memorable then it often gets lost down the back of some furniture, or in the depths of my phone’s message history.
What makes a successful short story in your opinion? Is there a short story by any author that you consider perfect?
I think that there are many things which short stories can try to do, and so the success of any given story depends on its objectives – what it’s trying to say or do or point towards. If it manages to do that then it has succeeded. Some very successful short stories that I was fortunate enough to be able to publish in Neon (after first reading them elsewhere) include “2000” by Nadine Darling and “Quicksand” by Matthew Di Paoli. Beyond that there’s “Light At The End Of The Tunnel” by John J Clayton, and “Adding Up And Taking Away” by Richard Madelin (which is sadly no longer available anywhere). I think that all of these stories are perfect in their own particular way.
Which other short story writers, collections or magazines would you recommend to our readers and why?
I am, as you might imagine, pretty into literary magazines. Strange Horizons publishes consistently strong sci-fi and fantasy short stories for free online. Shimmer has a unique atmosphere to it, and tends to feature really strong speculative fiction. FRiGG I love as well, because it’s cold and quiet and beautifully-presented. Popshot and Linebreak for flash fiction and poetry. Fuselit is great fun, but publishes infrequently. Pank is consistently strong, and Pindeldyboz expired years ago, but its back catalogue is still available online to read. I could go on for ages, but that’s a good start. There’s a lot of amazing work out there.
What are you up to at the moment? Any projects in the pipeline you would like to tell our readers about?
I’m currently living in London, which means doing an excessive amount of freelance work just to survive. I still find some time for my own work though: at the moment I’m writing a couple of text-based games that I’m pretty excited about. When I finish one to my satisfaction, I’ll probably post about it on Twitter, so if anyone’s interested, that’s a good place to follow me. Oh, and I have a website as well.
Krishan Coupland is a graduate from the University of East Anglia MA Creative Writing programme. His debut chapbook When You Lived Inside The Walls is available from Stonewood Press, and his short fiction appears in Ambit, Aesthetica and Litro. He has won the Manchester Fiction Prize, and the Bare Fiction Prize. He runs and edits Neon Literary Magazine. He is unduly pre-occupied with theme parks. His website is can be found here.
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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