You have long been attracted to the uncanny and first came across the term – with all its associations – after reading Freud’s essay (readers can read the essay here) on the subject. Your own publishing house, Nightjar Press, emphasises this mood. As you’ve said before, plenty of people are drawn to the dark side of life and writing – why do you think this is?
The short answer is because it’s there. There’s a curtain. Why wouldn’t you look behind it? You come back to an empty house late at night. You check all the rooms. You want to know there’s nothing there. Or, if there is something – or someone – you want to know about it.
You fittingly named your press after the Nightjar, which you describe in the following way on your website: ‘a nocturnal bird with an uncanny, supernatural reputation that flies silently at dusk or dawn as it hunts for food. The nightjar is more often heard than seen, its song a series of ghostly clicks known as a churring.’ Where did you first stumble upon this winged creature and could you elucidate upon your relationship with birds in general?
I have pored over guides to British birds since I was very small. I started with Ladybird books, moved on to various child-friendly spotting guides, then got into the Observer’s Book of Birds etc. The nightjar always looked special with its small beak and wide mouth, big eyes, whiskers, brown plumage like leaf mulch. I always assumed that only serious birdwatchers got to see birds like that. I’ve always been a birdwatcher, just not a serious one. I’m an amateur, in the true sense of the word. In 2005 or 2006, when I was writing a new story to round off my first collection, Mortality, which Serpent’s Tail would publish in 2006, I decided to write about the nightjar and in order to write about it I had to go looking for one. On a family holiday with another family in North Yorkshire, I went out at dusk with my friend Chris. We had chosen to stay in an area where nightjars were known to be active. Had we selected the location deliberately? I can’t remember. Anyway, we went out one night, to the perfect spot, forested land with clearings. And we heard them. The churring. Like a cross between a Geiger counter and sewing machine. We stayed there an hour, hoping to see one, but didn’t get lucky. Well, that’s not true. We’d already got lucky just hearing them. This is a story about one particular species of bird but it’s an analogue for how I feel about birds in general. Recently on the Isle of Skye I saw five golden eagles in one afternoon. On the same day I saw a wheatear, two redpolls and four ravens. It’s about seeing something beautiful you haven’t seen before and, crucially, identifying it. And then it’s about seeing another and another and another. Or seeing the same bird day after day. The pair of jays that live in the communal gardens where I live are just that, a pair of jays, yet every time I see them it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time. I’m not religious, so I’m not sure about using this kind of vocabulary, but it feels a little bit like a blessing.
What are the major challenges in running an independent press and what would you do differently if you could go back and start again?
The major challenge is probably marketing the chapbooks. They do sell out eventually, but cashflow would be improved – and I’d have more space on my shelves – if they sold out a little more quickly. At the moment there are eight in print, out of 28. The earliest of those is from May 2015 and I started in September 2009. Very soon I’ll be down to seven and then six very soon after, because there are very few copies left of Tom Fletcher’s ‘The Home’ and Wyl Menmuir’s ‘Rounds’. Probably the only thing I would do differently is not take a year’s gap: I didn’t publish any in 2014. Partly this was because I was struggling to devote the time to it that it needs and partly it was because while I had one story I knew was good enough to publish (‘The Home’), I didn’t have one to publish alongside it, until Alison Moore sent me ‘The Harvestman’. I’d like to get back on track so that by 2019 I’ll have published four a year for ten years, when averaged out. Forty sounds like a nice round number.
Looking at your writing, much of it features death. In fact one of your own books is called Mortality and by your own admission ‘most of my stories are about death, or an encounter with death’ (The Word Factory ) . A huge number of short stories, in general, are concerned with this theme – do you think this is partly because many writers feel that the brevity of the short story demands an injection of drama and intensity which this weighty, universal fact is capable of delivering?
I had to check that link because I don’t remember saying that and I wasn’t convinced it was accurate, but of course I did and it was. That was a few years ago, though. Yes, I’m interested in death in the same way that we’re interested in the door that stands ajar at the end of the corridor. But what I’m really interested in is what happens on the way to the end of the corridor and who’s in the corridor and what other doors there might be off the corridor before we get to the end of it. I don’t think the short story needs any more drama than the novel, but, yes, it’s likely to be more intense.
With some frequency, you’ve cited J. G. Ballard as an influence – what is it about his writing that so appeals to you?
A combination of things. His prose style. I think I would be able recognise it. If you gave me ten opening lines to stories, I think I’d be able to pick his out, and not from memory, because my memory is not that good. His characters, who are often faintly obsessive males. Hmm, I wonder why I understand them so well? His ideas. You feel that his short stories – and his novels, come to that – start out as ideas, as mine do. I’ve never really understood those writers who say they start with character. I’m more likely to start with place than character. Place – and then idea. Sometimes idea comes first and place could be anywhere. Getting back to Ballard, when I found out that Paul Delvaux was his favourite artist – or one of his favourites – it all made sense. Delvaux had been my favourite artist since seeing a detail from his Venus Asleep on a record sleeve when I was 17. It was probably around the same time that I read my first Ballard, which just happened to be Crash. What a one to start with. Let’s just say I got a bit more out of it when I reread it a few years later. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I discovered Ballard was a Delvaux fan and had two ‘fake’ paintings in his house in Shepperton. I never visited him there, though I did do a drive-by once and saw him getting out of his car and going into his house. In my memory it was a Ford Granada, but I couldn’t swear to that. I met him years later. His girlfriend lived around the corner from where I lived in Shepherd’s Bush and I saw them out walking on Goldhawk Road. I’d had a little bit of contact with him when I’d asked him to write something about Delvaux for the Time Out Brussels Guide, so I stopped him, my heart in my mouth, and introduced myself. He was extremely pleasant and we chatted for a few minutes.
In an interview with The Word Factory you mention that endings are harder to write than beginnings. Do you still hold this opinion? Is this connected to your own writing process – when you get the seed of an idea, do you let it grow until you have the whole thing in mind, or do you get writing straight away, not knowing what leafy wonder will flower?
I think I do still think that, generally, endings are harder than beginnings, although there will always be exceptions. I don’t tend to know how a story will end when I start it. I write it in order to find out. If I always knew, there wouldn’t be much fun in writing it. I might have a sense of the nature of the progression, but not where it will take me.
How has your role as both editor and creative writing lecturer affected your writing, and vice versa?
The most obvious way in which those roles have affected my writing is in severely cutting down the amount of time I have for it. You don’t have to be a writer to be an editor, but you do have to be a writer to be a lecturer in creative writing. You have to publish, because the books you publish end up as ‘research outputs’, and these are one way that universities attract funding, but you have very little time for writing, and at the end of a day spent helping students write better novels, you may have little energy left to work on your own novel. But it’s boring moaning about how the job cuts down on your writing time – and one always has colleagues who seem to manage, so why can’t you? As far as vice versa is concerned, I think my being a writer makes me a better editor than I would otherwise be. Which is not to say that any editor who is also a writer is a better editor than one who isn’t. I’m only talking about myself. I can see my author’s manuscript from the point of view of a writer, a writer who is also an editor. My roles – creative writing lecturer and editor – have come together like braids of running water in a stream. Some of my MA students at Man Met have ended up as authors of mine at Salt – Stephen McGeagh, Kieran Devaney, Kerry Hadley-Pryce, Wyl Menmuir.
It seems fairly accepted that the big publishers are increasingly ‘playing it safe’. Fortunately, smaller publishers like Salt are prepared to take greater risks. What are the causes of these two approaches and do you see this divide widening, or do you think this may change in the future?
I don’t want to speculate on what might happen in the future. I am in an extremely fortunate position at Salt. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, who run Salt, allow me complete freedom. If I like something, I don’t have to present it to them and then take it to a meeting where I’ll have to win people over. If I like something and think it could work I can just make the decision to go with it and then tell them about it and that title gets added to the list. We’ve had some extraordinary good luck, with two of my books making the Man Booker lists – Alison Moore was shortlisted, Wyl Menmuir longlisted – but we all know there are no guarantees. I do like to take risks with the publishing (as well as with my own writing) and am lucky to be working for a publisher that encourages that approach. In the publishing conglomerates, on the other hand, it’s all about avoiding risk, which is why, in my opinion, it may not be a good idea for a risk-taking writer, having enjoyed a taste of success with a small publisher, to switch to a big publisher when encouraged, by that publisher or by an agent eyeing an advance, to do so. The big publisher, being risk-averse, may not want them to write the kind of book that got them noticed in the first place.
It’s been noted that you like to work in cafes and bars. As someone who shares this tendency, I’d love to hear why you choose these venues.
I like being surrounded by people going about their business. I find it more distracting to be shut away in a quiet room at home. I also like writing on trains. I’m sure the forward motion helps. And when I’m stuck, the only way to get unstuck is to go for a walk, although not on the train.
Lastly, what short story projects do you currently have in the pipework?
I want to write one or two stories set in London to complete a collection of London stories I promised to a publisher several years ago. Obviously they will have changed their minds by now, in which case I’ll take it somewhere else. I’m hoping to do one or possibly two other collections as well in the next couple of years. My first collection was published in 2006 after I’d been writing and publishing short stories for about 20 years; my second, Ornithology, has recently appeared. I’ve got a lot of stories still waiting to be collected. And new stories to write.
Nicholas Royle is the author of First Novel (Vintage), as well as six earlier novels, and three volumes of short fiction, Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), In Camera (Negative Press London) and Ornithology (Confingo Publishing). He has edited twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). A senior lecturer in creative writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press, publishing individual short stories, signed and in limited editions, in chapbook format.
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.