EXCLUSIVE: The Evolution of a Story by Tim Major

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My first short story collection, And the House Lights Dim, was recently published by Luna Press. Its contents are billed as ‘strange stories about houses, homes and families’. The stories were written over a three-year period, and it was only when I started to prepare them as a collection that I realised just how prevalent particular those themes – houses, homes and families – have been in my writing. Perhaps it’s no surprise. The earliest of the stories was written when my wife was pregnant with our first child; one of the novellas was written in a mad hurry in the weeks before his birth; even now I write in a fog of fatigue due to my second child’s sleepless nights.

I’m interested in the idea that writers always end up writing about the same thing, unconsciously. And I’m interested in the idea that reviewing a bunch of stories written in a particular time period might be as revealing about oneself as, say, a diary.

Three of the stories were written exclusively for this collection. My favourite is ‘O Cul-de-Sac!’, which explains its positioning right at the beginning of the book, though the decision fills me with anxiety – unlike most of the stories, this one has had none of the validation of prior publication.

‘O-Cul-de-Sac!’ is narrated by a sentient house, and relates its attempts to understand its occupants, and its fears about its latest residents, the Scaife family – Carly, her mother Marie, and her newborn child Oliver. Perhaps I feel particularly fond of this story because the idea rattled around in my head for so long before becoming a story.

I wrote my first notes on this story in July 2014, after visiting friends who lived in a large, new house in a cul-de-sac set apart from a larger housing estate. I found the concept of houses and families being in such close proximity – all gathered around a turning circle that acted as a peculiar point of focus, all windows angled toward one another – fascinating. I was keen to address the changes in lifestyle I’d experienced after the birth of my first child in September 2013, so I knew that the family that moved into the house in my story would include a newborn baby, the couple consolidating their change in circumstances with a move from the city to the countryside.

My initial story notes and a draft of the first 700-or-so words featured a husband and wife who treated one another with suspicion following a breakdown of communication caused by sleeplessness and the culture shock of becoming parents. The couple would be preoccupied with the past and the future. (Chloe stroked Becky’s cheek as she watched an older Becky, outside, crawling and then, tentatively, walking. Months from now, maybe a year.) The mother would be intimidated by the neighbours, with whom she had little in common. (As Chloe shuffled to face each house in turn, light snuck above the rooftops but holding Becky meant that she couldn’t shield her eyes. She saw silhouettes in all of the windows.)

A snippet on the Answer Me This podcast a couple of years later provided a potent jumping-off point. A listener wrote in with a moral quandary: she had moved into a new area and a neighbour insisted on washing her car, even though she had refused the offer. Should she pay the neighbour, or ignore the strange intrusion? For some reason, this situation sparked all sorts of new ideas, including circumstances that might lead the young mother to feel more paranoid and more isolated. I removed the husband, introduced an older woman and made the move to the countryside due to necessity and the new mother’s fear of the consequences of being discovered. I chose the name Carly before making the connection with the goddess Kali, the ‘divine mother’ and destroyer.

I can’t remember when I became certain that the story would be narrated by a sentient house, who would also be the central character. All I remember is that the first line (O neighbours! If only we might speak!) rolled around in my head for an awfully long time before I started writing.

I’ve been writing seriously since 2012, and I’m still enough of a beginner to experience delight and no small amount of amazement when I see scattered ideas coalesce and become something specific and coherent. It seems to me that the delays and wrong turns are a necessary part of the process, and yet a story remains a snapshot of a certain mentality at a certain time. Whereas novels are teased out over many weeks, with several drafts to iron out inconsistencies and errors, I find that my short stories are much more direct. ‘O Cul-de-Sac!’ could not have been written in precisely the same form at another stage of life – moreover, if it had been drafted on another day, it might have turned out entirely differently. I find this idea all sorts of wonderful.

Part of this blog post is based on Commentary notes in And the House Lights Dim.

And the House Lights Dim

Strange stories about houses, homes and families

A sentient house is overprotective of its occupants, a husband and wife cope with loneliness on a lengthy space flight, a Greenland shark mounts a supernatural attack on a mother and son, two sisters live in fear of the destroyed world beyond their walls, an engineer sabotages a post-apocalyptic holiday village, a camping trip turns a family feral, a man defragments his mind and another splices a rival’s brain patterns onto his own.

Published by Luna Press

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com

Tim Major

Tim Major is a writer and editor from York, UK. His love of speculative fiction is the product of a childhood diet of classic Doctor Who episodes and an early encounter with Triffids.

Tim’s most recent books include Snakeskins, short story collection And the House Lights Dim and a non-fiction book about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires, which has been shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award. His short stories have appeared in Interzone, Not One of Us, Shoreline of Infinity and numerous anthologies, including Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year.

Find out more about Tim’s writing at www.cosycatastrophes.com

Cover image by Qimono (Pixabay – photos free of copyright)

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