Interview by Katy Wimhurst
Thank you for speaking to us. You’ve had books of short stories published, including The View from Endless Street and Mercy, and you’ve edited other collections. What is it about the short story form that appeals?
I think it’s true of me as of many people, that I began writing short stories because it didn’t appear — in the first instance — to be a daunting prospect. It became more daunting over time as I realised how hard it is to write a good short story, but battling with the form also became addictive, and so I continued.
What appeals to me about writing short stories is that I find it more challenging than writing novels. Although you need endurance for novel writing, it doesn’t pull at the same mental muscles. The short story form is like a heavy-duty working rubber band compared to the novel which (to me) more resembles a piece of gentle elastic. And as an aside to the question, I do sense that the book world is flooded with badly structured and tediously written novels, but it would be harder to find a shoddy short story collection as the standards are so exacting, for which we can be thankful. But I don’t mean to imply that there are no good novels. I just looked in my bookcase and came up with Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and a truly intriguing novel by Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier.
I understand you studied anthropology originally and did fieldwork in Africa. How did being an anthropologist shape your desire to tell stories or the kind of stories you tell?
It’s true that I studied anthropology, but I didn’t go to Africa as an anthropologist, because it came to feel wrong to hang out with people and study what they did, thought and said. I wanted to be engaged in something useful, and so doing an MSc in medical parasitology meant that I could work as a tropical diseases diagnostician and be involved in the saving of lives. But an anthropological way of thinking can lead to wonderful insights, and I was thinking anthropologically. As people got to trust me, they began to tell me about tribal matters and I began writing things down. I was with a tribe whose belief in witchcraft was very omnipresent in much that they did, and consequently came to be so in mine. Although I wouldn’t say that being an anthropologist shaped my desire to tell the kind of stories I do, it’s more that in many ways the life up there in the forest in Tanzania suited who I’d already become. I think now, and I thought before I went to live in Africa, that humans are deeply complex and very strange.
You’ve also published longer works such as your recent novel Jack Werrett, The Flood Man (2016); what are the main differences and difficulties in transitioning from writing short fiction to novel-length fiction?
Well, Jack Werrett the Flood Man was a bit of fun really, but I was happy that it was published as a novella. For me, the main difference between short story writing and writing in the longer formats is that you can strike out at a leisurely pace with longer work. That doesn’t mean you can meander or put in irrelevant detail necessarily, but you have the freedom to examine your subject from many more different angles than you might do with a short. I’m inclined to say that the more you engage in the longer form, the more out of practise you become with the precision of the short form. That’s where I am now; I could easily knock out 3 or 4 thousand words without feeling that I’m nearing the end of a story. So, I do to some extent have to re-learn the rigors of short story writing.
Some of your stories use realism, but others like ‘The Lobster Woman’s Luck’, ‘Mercy’ and ‘Willard’s Curios’ are magical realist. What draws you to magical realism and what does this genre offer you as a writer that straight realism doesn’t?
I don’t think ‘straight realism’ really exists at all in fiction. All fiction is stuff we make up and so if it’s all ‘unreal’ it can, and maybe should, go in any direction whatsoever. As you say, some of my work has magic realist elements, but then life has magic realist elements too. You mention my story ‘Mercy’ from my collection Mercy and Other Stories [Tartarus Press 2014], but actually, that story was based on a real man called Carl Von Cosel who you can look up and find out about, as I did. So, in life itself, I’m interested in unusual people, and unusual events, and suspect that if I were to embark on a novel that was concerned with the very ordinary, I’d never finish it. I guess you could say that I’m not drawn to magic realism precisely, but that I can’t imagine life, or writing, without it. A perfect ‘magic realism’ moment I had in Tanzania was when I suddenly knew why Maasai people around our hospital wouldn’t be blood donors —They didn’t know blood regenerated itself; so what I took from them, they lost forever. I asked if any of them had been to the ocean, and they had, so I drew an analogy between the endlessness of waves and the endlessness of blood, and so there began a whole new willingness about blood donation in the tribe. For me, that was magic realism.
In ‘The Lobster Woman’s Luck’ a magical realist moment involves a shirt and a cup of tea being flung from an upper window by Mainland Mary and landing on the pavement, the shirt still folded, the tea unspilled. How do you come up with wonderful magical realist images like this? What do you think they bring to a short story?
That particular image started this way: I lived in a small street in Stepney, East London when I came back from Africa. There was a couple across the road from me who had a terrific fight one night, and everyone in the street could hear it. Then after all had gone silent for a couple of minutes, we heard the tiniest of sounds of breaking glass. And in that way typical of writers creating and inventing things out of what they see and hear, I decided it was the little blown-glass animal he’d given her when they were first married… because that’s what I wanted it to be… in my head.
Later, when I was thinking about writing Lobster Woman’s Luck, it came to me that a cup of tea with a saucer and an ironed shirt comes out of the window but lands perfectly — and for no other reason than I had decided it could do. I think a reader would be better able to say what an image like that brings to the story than I can, but what it does mean is that anything could happen in this story, and when I read short stories I don’t want to feel that much is predictable.
Some of your short stories include characters involved in traditional British occupations or past-times – eel fishing, lobster catching, hop picking, tanning. What draws you to these sorts of settings and what role does research play in your writing?
I have strong leanings to base my fiction in the past because I see it as more ‘bejewelled’ than the rather drab, anxious and cut-off lives we seem to live now. For example, living in East London gave me solid and powerful material. I met men who fished for eels in the Thames, I read about the East End hop picking excursions from the 1920’s. My story ‘The River’, winner of the Bristol Short Story Prize 2008, was inspired by my London life. I’ve never believed in the silly idea of ‘write what you know about,’ because I think writers should be brave and adventurous, but at the same time I strongly believe in carrying out diligent research. If you’re writing back in the past, as I shall be with the novel I am planning based in London in the year 1850, research not only enables you get the facts right, but it also provides a sense of mood and atmosphere of the setting, of how people thought, what they did, what upset them and so on. I recently listened to an intriguing and clever story read out by a writer at a public event, but in the last line his thrush was eating gnats… Damn! Spoilt by a slight moment of carelessness because he didn’t check out what thrushes really do eat.
Your recently published novel Jack Werrett, The Flood Man is set in Norfolk and The View from Endless Street is set mainly in South England. Do you see yourself within a tradition or cohort of English writers at all and, if so, which writers?
I’m an entirely self-taught writer and not English, although I’ve lived in England for a long time. So, I don’t identify strongly at all with any other writers, except maybe those I have discovered who are writing in the genre we call the ‘new weird’ as I am doing myself right now. They are writers mainly from the US, although where they come from doesn’t matter, it’s to do with how we write and what we’re interested in. I’m particularly keen on reading the Irish writers, but of the English writers I admire, Robert Aickman and Walter de la Mare, would be two. I don’t read commercial fiction, so I’m not aware of the writers who are involved in that genre.
At the end of ‘The View from Endless Street’, Charlene talks about having ‘your own piece of heaven as best you can’. I particularly love your short stories which involve ordinary people in ordinary settings who experience little moments that give their life a slither of magic or a piece of heaven – like Maggie singing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ over the eel and then experiencing awe in ‘The River’, or in ‘The View from Endless Street’, Lily-Allen May teaching Robert how the sky can be his own if he learns to see pictures in the clouds. It almost feels like a philosophical or religious sentiment underlying these scenes – the importance of magic found in the everyday or ordinary. Can you delve into this a bit for us?
I’m very drawn to magic and beauty found in ordinary life, it is true. But equally, I’m alert to the cruelty and ugliness visible in humankind. For me, story making is often a kaleidoscope of these different light and dark elements. But because I was a solitary child totally absorbed in the natural world, the things I experienced were, to me, magic. That sense of magic or its possibility at least, never has left me. I think ‘naturalist’ children are like that, even if they don’t end up as writers. I met a young boy a while back carrying a rhinoceros beetle carefully in his hand and recognised him to be one of ‘my kind.’ We walked along together and he told me all he knew about the beetle, which included mythological details, and I could sense his delight that an adult was actually interested. I wanted him to know that there were people like him, even if not many, so that he was strengthened in his sense of self… against ridicule and so on. The part of me that appears to be philosophical or even religiously inspired, is just who I happen to be… as an atheist.
One thing I always take away from your stories is the striking, memorable details: in ‘Time Stolen’, the tabby cat up a laburnum tree dressed in a doll’s pink bonnet and coat; in ‘The Egyptian Boat’, Abbie’s model of an Egyptian pharaoh’s funeral barge with goats heads; and in ‘The River’, Maggie singing ‘All things bright and beautiful’ over the landed eel. How important is ‘detail’ for bringing short stories to life and how do you come up with your ideas here – do you keep a notebook for observations in daily life?
I used to keep notebooks of observations, pieces of conversation, descriptions and anything else… thoughts I was having perhaps — and I’ve got a great number of notebooks that I never pick up and read anymore. Sometimes I recall having written something that I could use in a current story, but because I tend not to pin them down with dates, I end up not knowing where to find them. I could go through my old note books if I was really anxious to find the thing in question, but the prospect is often frightening because I might become waylaid, emotional, and end up weirdly exhausted. These days, I don’t tend to do this type of note-taking because I’ve moved into novellas and longer short stories, for a while at least, but I do keep note books on research I might be doing.
This is going to sound odd, but I’m not aware of ‘consciously’ thinking ideas up… it’s more that they appear themselves from somewhere, the back of my mind perhaps? I see them visually in my head, so they’re not in idea form, but in picture form. I saw, in the eye of my mind, the broken glass animal on the pavement that I mentioned earlier. And yes, I do think detail can be crucial… so the difference between a window and a fly-spotted window could be huge in the context of a story.
I’ve read you say that there should be nothing extraneous in short stories. What questions do you bring to a story to work out if a sentence or scene is extraneous? What practical advice would you give to writers on how to edit?
Editing becomes like an instinct for a writer over time, like driving a car maybe? But the questions I might be asking in the context of editing my own work would be the same as advice I’d give to other writers. However, thinking about the editing process for a whole page of work is easier to describe than for a sentence or two. So, for the whole page you might ask yourself the following questions:
Are you in control of your adverbs and adjectives, have you repeated yourself, used too many qualifiers, tended to use the same single words over and over? Is each sentence as neat and compelling as you can get it, are there any typos to deal with, have you spotted any clichés in ideas, dialogue strands, or the way a sentence is structured, and have you taken care not to use too much exposition? It’s a good idea to read your drafts out aloud to really feel the flow of the writing.
Another piece of advice would be to always keep the first draft for reference because sometimes the energy of a story is captured in that first writing, and can be lost many edits later on, so if you end up thinking the work has become dull, you can re-read your original and maybe recall what it was that inspired the writing.
What makes a successful short story in your opinion?
I reckon if I could answer that with any conviction, it would merely take away the magic of the whole business, because if you consider that each story is unique, then the elements or combination of elements that go together to create the synergy is different every time. Then there are the separate genres and sub-genres of story writing, all of which have unique characteristics — so to be successful within any given genre might demand singular skills of the writer. And something that is rarely mentioned in this context is the readers’ taste, which is, of course, as important. Essentially, a successful short story has to stir the reader in a number of different ways: intellectually maybe, emotionally certainly, and also the story must be able to evoke a sense of wonder.
What contemporary short story collections or writers would you recommend to our readers and why?
It’s kind of impossible to recommend collections, short stories or writers to the other side of this partnership — the reader — unless you know their taste in subject matter, complexity of language, personal interests… in fact unless you know the reader personally.
I come in for my fair share of recommended books from people who, impressed by the work itself, want me to read it without any consideration for my own tastes and interests. A good book is not necessarily good for everyone, is what I mean. For example, I have no interest in science fiction old style, romance or comedy because I’m drawn to the ‘new weird’ of which I am attempting to be one of the pioneers. Therefore, if I had reason to believe that a reader might be interested in the ‘weird story,’ there are a few writers working now who I think are exciting. Michael Wehunt, Scott Nicolay, Brian Evenson and Robert Shearman are four such. All these writers are in the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume Three from Undertow Publications 2016 by Michael Kelly with Simon Strantzas.
What are you working on at present? Any projects that you would like to share with our readers?
In 2016 my novel Oothangbart was published by Pillar International Publishing in Ireland, and my novella Woolfy and Scrapo was published by the Fantasist magazine in the US. Right now, I’m slowly working on research for my novel The Child Cephalina mentioned earlier and set in 1850 in London. I’m attempting to write an ordinary-sized short story about my dead next door neighbour who carried the most peculiar curse with him, and I’ve just finished a novella called Whelp that uses the life of a serial murderer as material. This year, I’m expecting a short story collection I wrote in 2015-16 to come out with a publisher I admire greatly, but I can’t talk about it in detail until it’s underway. Thank you for this interview; they were good questions and I hope my answers make sense to readers.
Rebecca Lloyd’s story collection Mercy, nominated for a World Fantasy Award, was published by Tartarus Press in 2014 alongside The View from Endless Street, a collection with WidDo Publishing. In 2016 her published work included Ragman and Other Family Curses (Egaeus Press), Jack Werrett, the Flood Man (Dunhams Manor Press), and Oothangbart (Pillar International Publishing). You can find more about Rebecca 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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