Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Nigel, thanks for speaking to us here at TSS. At the end of last year you released a collection of short stories called Who Killed Emil Kreisler? – which is your favourite short story in the collection and why?
Having a favourite usually means that one regards the others as somehow less successful. So, I don’t have one! But in the opening story, Old Roffe, I like to think that I managed to combine big themes – human innocence, human frailty, and our relationship with the animal kingdom – in an almost minimal style. The original draft was twice the length. Affairs of the heart confuse Evelina the zoo keeper but she alone is privy to the amazing behaviour of Roffe, the aged but delinquent gorilla. The story is set at a failing zoo in Sweden for no reason other than that creating a variety of geographical settings is my way of dealing with universals: it could happen here, it could happen there, it could happen everywhere. But accuracy of local colour is important and down to research. Other wide-ranging stories in the collection are thus of their time and place. The title story, almost a piece of microfiction, is based on the death of the composer Anton Webern, shot dead by a drunken US infantryman during a curfew in Austria in 1945. I’ve fictionalised and ventriloquised the real killer, Raymond Norwood Bell, in a first-person narrative recounted by an ex-soldier in the Mid-West who discovers he has killed a famous person in wartime. Bell died an alcoholic and full of remorse. The book is dedicated to some of my relatives and to his memory.
A number of the short stories are concerned or touch upon music. How important has your non-fiction in magazines like the Jazz Journal been for both content and style of your short fiction?
Well, a lot; but sub-consciously. I review records, interview musicians, and write essays for Jazz Journal. Before its editor took me on six years ago, I’d been a journalist on a daily newspaper and for many years was its music critic. My predecessor was the distinguished critic and broadcaster Kenneth Loveland, who reminded me that newspaper music criticism was a branch of journalism, not musicology. He meant that we were music-lovers expert in communicating our joy or the lack of it, not fustrated teachers, composers, or academics dealing in dry technical matter. I now write music criticism for the Wales Arts Review. A story in my first collection, Funderland, has a scandalised musicologist notating the evening whistle of a shepherd calling a sheepdog. Alfred Hickling, in the Guardian, said I had ‘a good ear’, whatever that meant. Another reviewer, writing about a different story, said it was no coincidence that I wrote about jazz; I took that as a compliment, but it could have been a criticism. Did she detect So What or Livery Stable Blues? If my style is ‘musical’, it’s nothing to do with conscious effort; it just happens that way. But music means a lot to me, so maybe if a story’s andante suddenly turns into a scherzo, there may be a provenance to establish. The longest story, Rhapsodie, is about music and a strange (fictional) instrument, the osculaphone; but its form is epistolary, and that’s what I was interested in. The setting is late 19th-century New York and Paris; non-urgent communication between the two was by letter.
On the topic of style, the collection tends towards the chatty, colloquial in tone – what’s influenced this do you think?
Possibly Peter Taylor, the American short-story writer and novelist. I discovered Taylor when his novel, A Summons To Memphis, came out in the late 1980s. I warmed to his unruffled, conversational tone: it was like sitting down with him on a settee and being told something important at length while being brought cups of tea by a noiseless flunkey (Taylor was old White Southern). There’s an element of this, too, in the work of the American New Realists – Carver, Wolff, Ford, Smiley; that lot. It’s also to do with focus and concentration, always and necessarily limited in a short story. Anything in my style to do with that I ascribe to my training as a newspaper reporter, though a story is not like a news item; it does, however, fix itself on essentials and is the enemy of superfluity and circumlocution. The Americans are particularly good at this, unlike many pre-Waugh British writers for whom ‘a far-reaching proposition’ was always ‘a proposition of a far-reaching character’. My novel, Slowly Burning, is ‘chatty, colloquial’ personified in the figure of Bunny Patmore, a former Fleet Street crime bureau chief washed up on a weekly newspaper in Wales. It’s had a mixed reception. Only one reviewer understood that while the story Bunny tells is sensational in his terms, the real subject of the novel is the voice of Bunny Patmore. We never hear from the ‘red top’ journos themselves; we just get uncomplimentary stories about them. Bunny, however, though no angel, is strictly pre-Leveson.
How important to your fiction writing was winning the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and has it changed the way you write and think about short stories?
Winning the prize was food for kudos and important matter for one’s CV. After I won, no publisher or agent telephoned or emailed me, so it wasn’t important in that sense. The Welsh publisher Parthian did approach me some years later with an offer to publish a collection, which appeared as Funderland; it was widely reviewed, and long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize. I’m Welsh and Davies was a Welshman, so there was a link. Better writers than I in Wales have never won a competition, but their work has been recognised for what it is. Lewis Davies, Rhys’s brother, wrote to me after the award and said Rhys would have liked my work. That comment was worth a lot. Davies was championed by D. H. Lawrence and stayed with the Lawrences at Bandol, in the south of France. I’ve been there, on a Lawrence-Davies pilgrimage. In his autobiography, Rhys describes first seeing Lawrence on a crowded Bandol railway station, and noting his fluttering, high-pitched, almost effeminate voice. What wouldn’t we give for five minutes of the recorded voice of D. H. Lawrence? Or Gerard Manley Hopkins, for that matter. The award has changed my attitude to writing stories only insofar as I bought all Davies’s out-of-print books with my prize money and tried to learn from him. I’m always learning – from Hemingway, and Chekhov, and Bierce no less than from Davies, who once or twice came close to the perfection of Chekhov. Winners of literary prizes have almost a duty to examine the nature of what they do, and I look for ways in which the short-story might be applied to other genres: satire, for example, of which George Saunders is the current undisputed master. (American again.) I’ve written ghost stories and sci-fi in short-fiction form. It’s the length that’s important; I first started writing stories because I was working unsocial hours as a newspaperman and that was all I had time for. I’m always looking for new ways of doing things. At the moment, writing seems to be in the doldrums when it comes to innovation and experiment.
One of my favourite short stories was ‘Bismarck’s Helmet’ – what was the inspiration behind this narrative?
Most of the stories in my latest collection have a strong element of time passing, of temporality. After death, we all exist as remnants, and memories if we’re lucky. Even they evaporate. I realised the other day that there’s hardly any record of the existence of my grandparents, and I found that shocking. I used to be able to find my paternal grandfather’s grave; now, it’s impossible to locate. I’ve inherited studio portraits of my maternal great-grandparents. I’ve had them re-mounted and re-framed and they hang in the hallway of my apartment. I had the idea of one such remnant, the eponymous helmet, itself travelling towards oblivion in some obscure Californian brass foundry. This story first appeared in Arabic, translated especially for Cairo’s Abawataka Review. The helmet’s trajectory required some imaginative thought and planning. I like that story, too. The life of the artefact is not something new as the subject for a story, but I thought I’d try it. I’m always trying things that have been done before. When I’ve hit on something truly original, I’ll know – and let others know!
The short stories are varied, creating quite a rollercoaster collection – what was the process behind selection and ordering of the stories?
One reviewer complained of this variety, this rollercoasting. I’m always astounded that critics believe a book of short stories should be gulped down. Only someone who’d done so could complain of indigestion. When choosing what I wanted for this collection, I deliberately went for variety of place and length. These stories travel everywhere. There are also long short stories and flash fiction, or almost flash. This is because the stories were chosen from previously published material, for which by definition there can be no theme. Maybe, on reflection, I can sympathise with a reader who might find the rapid changes of scene breathless. But, I repeat, take the stories one or two at a time. I rather like the idea of someone else finding a theme in a collection. This happened with my first, when its editor, Eluned Gramich, thought all the stories were about families in some shape or form. In WKEK?, I purposely ended with Ziggurat, a flash about loneliness and death. It seemed like a good way to finish.
The artwork for the cover – also done by you – makes for an interesting spectacle. What’s the story behind it and how do you see it relating to the short stories within?
Glad you asked me that. For six months, I studied Art, English and French at A level. Despite my having talent as an artist, like him, my father thought I should switch to science, which I did. It was disastrous, and I finished my university career without a degree. For some reason, my father thought it might be a wise move for me to become a pharmacist. I don’t blame him. But was there some jealousy there, associated with our frustrated abilities as draughstmen? I’ll never know. I got into journalism relatively late in life and enjoyed almost every minute of it, pursuing art as a hobby, though I hate the connotations of the word. My attitude to everything has always been professional, a result of journalistic training. So my ‘amateur’ efforts as an artist are always aspiring to something higher. The cover your refer to is a collage, a picture made up of different bits stuck together, in this case mostly from magazine photos and illustrations. I think, therefore, it reflects the dislocations highlighted in many of the stories, certainly of the title story, about a man confused and finally broken by a bizarre mis-deed in the heightened circumstances of the end of the second world war. By the way, I chose the fairground illustration used for the cover of Funderland, and I drew the portrait of a miner at the pithead baths which was used as the cover of my poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool. And it goes on: the 1950s Chelsea pub scene that forms the cover of my novel, Slowly Burning, was chosen by me from the John Bignell archive held by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The borough allowed us to use it gratis, so long as we credited Bignell and the archive.
More generally, I wonder if you could tell us if you have a writing routine and in particular an approach to your short fiction writing?
I still write journalism as a freelance, so my output is a mixture of things, depending on my mood and what editors want from me. Any routine is thus often dictated by deadlines, which I am punctilious in observing. Speculative writing for me follows the familiar pattern of inspiration that arrives unbidden. I always know when an experience needs to be rendered as a poem, an essay, or a story. And further to that, I always know when a story has reached its terminus – mostly, anyway. I’m working on a second novel – 55,000 words so far – and I should be spending more time on getting it finished. But I’m hopeless at following strict timetables for writing. After all, I have a life beyond the page that involves other people, non-writers. I can’t be too fixated on writing but I always know what’s going on, what needs to be done. If only one had more time. My attitude to writing short fiction follows a rather odd principle of accretion: I just add them to my hoard and hope to write a sufficient number from which to choose for the next collection. I do try to improve with every new one.
Are there any contemporary short stories you particularly admire?
If by contemporary you mean going back a fair way, I’m reading a lot of stories by writers not normally associated with the form: Pirandello, for instance, and Brecht. I first read a Graham Swift story in London Magazine, so submitted one of my own, which the then editor, Alan Ross, published and asked for another. Ross had also commissioned an essay from me on Rhys Davies but died before it could be published, his successor having decided to start with a clean slate. There’s so much excellent short fiction being written today that it’s impossible to keep pace. As I said, Saunders seems to be the writer to watch. His work is the ideal marriage of form and content – and he’s also funny. There are not many laughs in short fiction. Few contemporary short story writers can match Alice Munro. I love the way her stories almost burst the short fiction parameters to become potential novellas; and the way others might, in different circumstances, have become novels.
Lastly, if you were to turn back the clocks, would you approach your writing career any differently?
For various reasons, everything I’ve done in life has been late. I messed up my education and I became a journalist when I was a father with two young children and my newsroom colleagues had an average age of twenty-three. I’m a frustrated writer and artist. But turned-back clocks can never alter one’s congenital talent. If you have it, use it; if you think you might find it if you work hard enough, then work hard. As Henry James, reported by Ezra Pound, said when describing where one of his clause-bound protracted sentences was going, ‘Something will come, something will come…’
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, was published to wide acclaim, notably in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times. His début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool (‘a virtuoso performance’ – Patricia McCarthy, editor of Agenda) was published by Parthian in November 2013. His first novel, Slowly Burning (‘evocative and richly detailed’ – Wales Arts Review), appeared from GG Books in March 2016. His second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? (‘passages of great virtuosity and inventiveness’ – London Grip) was published by Cultured Llama in Autumn 2016. Jarrett now freelances, reviewing poetry for Acumen magazine and jazz for Jazz Journal, as well as music and other subjects for a variety of publications. He lives in Monmouthshire.
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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