Padrika Tarrant was born in 1974. Emerging blinking from an honours degree in sculpture, she found herself unhealthily fixated with scissors and the animator Jan Svankmajer. She won an Arts Council Escalator prize in 2005. Fates of the Animals is her third work, following Broken Things (Salt, 2007) and The Knife Drawer (Salt, 2011). She lives in Norwich in a little council flat with her beautiful daughter and some lovely stuffed animals. She hates the smell of money. She does not entirely trust her cutlery.
Tell us a little about your background (where you grew up etc.) and your earliest experience/engagement with literature.
I was born outside Bristol in 1974, the fifth child from a gaggle of seven. We were born-again Christians; I have long since lapsed, but the notion of God was a major backdrop to my childhood. We had cats. I think I discovered literature in nursery, when a helper read to me from a cardboard edition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I still recall my astonishment when he turned into a wonderful butterfly.
When and how did you realise that you wanted to be a writer and which author/s inspired you to pursue a literary career?
My writing career began in Bunty, a girls’ weekly that cost 15p, in 1982. My little piece was illustrated and everything! They also paid me two quid, which was about a hundred years’ pocket money.
I didn’t start out as a writer per se. I studied Sculpture at Norwich School of Art. One day I gathered up some courage, took a sheaf of things to an open workshop run by the lovely George Szirtes, and he told me I could write.
Describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years?
In junior school, on a Tuesday, we had art, history and creative writing. I lived for Tuesdays. I sometimes made tiny books and sewed them together with knitting wool. One, I recall, was on yellow paper half-inched from school, and ran to four very small pages. It was about a bat who sneaks into a house to watch the news.
I rediscovered writing after a protracted struggle with mental ill-health; I broke down very badly at nineteen and have been in and out of hospital ever since, although I managed to get a degree. I joined a creative writing group at a day centre run by charity Rethink, and have written with them for years. Sadly, I threw most of what I wrote away, not knowing that it was quite good.
What do you like to do to relax? (Do you have long walks, or enjoy watching and having fun with your family to pick up material for short stories?)
I am very much a city creature. I love to watch people, and pigeons, and sly cats with agendas of their own. I like to sit alone in cafes. I like spilt petrol and headlights in puddles. I have a beautiful daughter named Jay, and a Siamese called Icarus. I also watch lots of television.
The captivating ‘Fates of the Animals’ anthology is a wonderfully deep read – for such an eclectic anthology where did you draw your inspiration?
I have gathered bits of inspiration from absolutely everywhere, not always consciously, and they rise and sink like dumplings. Although obviously I love to read, there are many things that populate my brain. I adore animation, especially that of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. I saw Down to the Cellar as a child and it terrified me, as did those awful adverts made to scare kids out of dangerous behavior. There is the strange world of psychoses, my own and my friends’. There are fragments of Christianity, of the wonderful collages of Max Ernst, Bagpuss, the paintings of Dorothea Tanning, and cautionary tales of Hoffman (The great tall tailor always comes for little boys who suck their thumbs). Shudder. Fates is a mischievous book, and I hope I make you laugh. But running through it is a narrow thread of fear.
Many of your short stories within this collection are what shall we say…short. It’s a brilliant achievement to achieve so much in such a brief amount of time. How did you develop this intriguing (flash fiction) style?
At the Rethink group we always read round new work, do some sort of exercise, then read round again. The vast majority of my output still comes from here, albeit fleshed out somewhat. The natural fall of words on paper for 20 minutes is about 400, so that’s what I do. It’s habit, I suppose.
What do you think makes a good anthology? Also do you have any advice for those who may want to start writing?
I use a method that one might call a ‘bucket’ approach; which is to say that I write a lot very quickly without thinking too much about order. When my bucket is filling up the stories begin to talk to one another, and characters might reappear, or have their own tales told from another angle. I find the piece that wants to be the beginning and the end, and then I empty the stories onto the floor and piece them together.
My advice for a newer writer would be to write and write and write. Don’t fret too much about structure; it will come.
You have written both a novel and collections of short stories is there a particular form you prefer to write in, if so what is it and why?
If stories in a bucket (to stretch a metaphor) can be likened to beads, then a novel is a matter of stringing them into a necklace. In The Knife Drawer, I drew timelines for every major character, such that I knew what happens to them in each episode or chapter, and then with that in mind I would write the same 4-500 words in the way I would for a short. Shorts are easier to write, I think, because you only need to find a second, one tiny gleam or resolution, and then wrap the words around it. For a novel you need to be a bit more meticulous.
‘Fates of the Animals’ is aptly titled as all of the stories within it focus around animals, why did you choose to create an anthology around these, and where did you draw your inspiration?
The Fates of the Animals is a glorious painting by the Expressionist Franz Marc; the first story I actually wrote was At The Show Trial, written in response to this. As a child I was fascinated by animals; my most treasured thing was a tank of water-snails that lived on the dining table. The fish expired months before, but I was happy with my snails. I would watch them for hours. I was also convinced my cats were psychic. I suppose that making a collection with child-voices would naturally tap into that half-remembered mindset, where animals are mysterious beings, fallible, magical and stupid.
The Fates of the Animals by the Expressionist Franz Marc
‘The Music of the Foxes’ the beautifully haunting short story that opens ‘Fates of the Animals’is a wonderfully paced story about the thief of the night, and the scourge of the bin men, where did you draw your inspiration from?
I was struck by the thought of a white and black zebra crossing with a vixen trotting over it, red and sleek and laughing quietly. Foxes are magical, for sure, and their wild, unearthly barking echoes the whole street.
With having so many short stories within this collection, we counted forty-five did much thought go into the structure of the book? What made you settle for your opening and closing short stories?
I chose those two pieces as book-ends, as they seemed logical: beginning with the creation myth of the foxes. The collection ties up with the final escape from God, whose cleaner steals angel wings and makes a break for it.
God is a recurring character that I feel knits this whole spiritually mindful anthology together (elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity can be found within the stories) – how did this come about?
I must admit I am rather cruel to God. In Fates of the Animals, he is a fallible, flusterey, well-meaning sort of being who lets things get on top of him. He is a bit of a soak, and he eats Pot Noodles in his pants, but he does his best for his creation.
Speaking of your recurring character ‘The Upstart’ was a favourite of mine; it’s a great idea that you execute superbly. Did you have a muse behind this arresting character?
I’m not sure quite where the upstart came from; I think he/it sort of evolved (tee hee) around the thought of a tobacco tin full of talons, and God having had too much gin. The rest just seemed to come into place.
I also personally loved ‘Piglet’, this being one of the longer stories within the collection. Could you elaborate on the creative side of this story?
Piglet was great fun to write, being narrated by such different voices: a Victorian child and a modern woman, who inhabit the same house some 150 years apart. They are both haunted in different ways by Jacky, a rocking horse with a huge painted smile.
‘Winter at Home’ for me was an ode to the Brothers Grimm – another deftly crafted piece with a surprise ending, do you enjoy writing stories that leave a little to the readers imagination? What inspired this story?
I began this at the Rethink group; we were asked to write a response to the Eliot line, “It was a cold coming we had of it”, and this is what hit the paper. Sometimes I am as surprised as anyone else by what happens in my stories; this even shocked me a little. I hate to be cold, absolutely hate it, and I suppose that is how the story came about.
What is your favourite genre to write and also to switch off and read?
I’d like to be a poet, but when I try, the poor things strain and burst at the seams, and turn naturally into shorts. I do love to read it though. Helen Ivory’s poetry is gorgeous, and I practically worship Ted Hughes.
Which of these short stories was most enjoyable for you to write and why?
I think my favourite in the collection is The Housewarming, in which God is given a fluffy baby angel as a gift from Satan. Poor God, I do feel sorry for him sometimes.
What are your top 5 books?
The Readers’ Digest Family Health Encylopaedia
T. S. Eliot The Waste Land
Bruno Schultz Street of Crocodiles
Collected Works Hans Christian Anderson
Sir James Frazer The Golden Bough
What is the one piece of advice you would give aspiring writers?
Wait 24 hours before you edit anything. And wait 24 hours more before hitting submit.
What is the best piece of advice you received?
To stop throwing work away.
Are you currently working / writing anything new?Short story or novel?
Maybe…I have a few little things, but am not yet quite sure where they are going.
What are you presently reading and what books would you recommend?
I just re-read Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Marvelous. And the GashlycrumbTinies, which I bought for a friend and ended up keeping.
Where there any short stories that didn’t make it into your final anthology around the same theme?If so what were these and why?*
I had a few things which were either too long, or too contemporary in voice to sit nicely with the rest of the collection. With Fates of the Animals, I was aiming for a certain wistfulness, nostalgia even, slightly awkward like the translations of the Grimm brothers.
For those who may not have read your novel ‘The Knife Drawer’ and your short story collection ‘Broken Things’, could you offer them a brief summary of each, and what they can expect from Padrika Tarrant the novelist?
The Knife Drawer is a novel about a house over run with feral cutlery. The mice that infest the dining room chimney-breast are living out their own dreams and nightmares, learning voodoo and the meaning of love and forgiveness. In The Knife Drawer, dead bodies miraculously vanish as if scraped to nothing by pudding spoons.
Marie’s mother has rather lost her wits since she did away with her husband. She could swear they’re out to get her; even the house gets messy on purpose, all by itself. Marie’s twin is living in a hole in the back-garden, small and round as a cherry pip, waiting.In The Knife Drawer the steak knives grow so hungry that they scream.
Broken Things describes a world of fractured realities and magic. Here are voices lost inside themselves, where the world is not as it should be and nothing may be trusted. These are the lives that are eked out at the very edges of the city, where God might be found in a bonfire or a bag lady can burst into a flock of pigeons and wild laughter. A kitchen knife crawls after a little girl to keep her safe and an old lady hears her mother calling from a cupboard.
EXCLUSIVE TO STORGY
‘XII The Hanged Dog (Dog’s Nightmare III)’ by Padrika Tarrant
Available online from Sunday 11th December.
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Interview by Ross Jeffery
STORGY Interview with award winning author Ali Shaw.
Available online from Sunday 18th December 2016.
Read more of Ross Jeffery‘s Interviews:
Read Ross Jeffery‘s reviews:
Sweet Home by Carys Bray
Fates of the Animals by Padrika Tarrant
The Trees by Ali Shaw
Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen
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Top 14 Horror Books
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