Adam Marek is an award-winning short story writer. He won the 2011 Arts Foundation Short Story Fellowship, and was shortlisted for the inaugural Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His stories have appeared in many magazines, including Prospect and The Sunday Times Magazine, The Stinging Fly and The London Magazine, and in many anthologies including Lemistry, The New Uncanny, Biopunk, and The Best British Short Stories 2011 and 2013. His short story collections The Stone Thrower and Instruction Manual for Swallowing are published in the UK by Comma Press, and in North America by ECW Press. Visit Adam online at www.adammarek.co.uk
1) Which writers influenced you the most?
Maurice Sendak, Dr Seuss, Roald Dahl (his children’s books), Orwell, Kafka, JG Ballard, Will Self, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami. If I can include filmmakers, too (I originally studied film-making): Michel Gondry, David Cronenberg, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Chris Cunningham, Hayao Miyazaki.
2) What is your favourite short story?
Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was the story that got me hooked on short stories and the reality-fantasy mash-up. And I love Nabokov’s perfect Signs and Symbols, and Karen Russell’s Ava Wrestles the Alligator.
3) What is your favourite short story collection?
Karen Russell’s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
4) Which current UK writers are exciting you?
Alison MacLeod, Robert Shearman, Clare Wigfall, Evie Wyld.
INSTRUCTION MANUAL FOR SWALLOWING
Instruction Manual for Swallowing explores what happens when ordinary people collide with bizarre, fantastical situations. A man discovers he has testicular cancer on the day that a Godzilla-like monster attacks the city he lives in; a kitchen-hand is put under terrible peer pressure in a restaurant for zombies; a husband and wife discover they are pregnant with 37 babies; and a man travels into the engine room of his own body to discover Busta Rhymes at the controls. The 14 stories are grotesque, hilarious, unnerving, and moving. No matter how outrageous the subject matter of the stories, they have at their heart genuine human experiences that are common to us all.
5) What are you working on at the minute?
A novel. I’m within a couple of months of finishing the first draft, which I’m looking forward to – editing is my favourite part. I’m also finishing up a story commission for Comma Press for the latest in their series of writers-meet-and-respond-to-scientists anthologies – I got to go to an artificial intelligence conference in Sicily to meet my scientist, which was awesome. I just hope the story lives up to the experience.
6) Describe your own writing habits.
I get up at 6, make porridge, and head up to my attic – my imagination is sharpest first thing. When I’m working on a first draft of something, I have a 1,000-word daily target for myself and when I accomplish it, I mark it on a year planner on my wall – I try my best to make sure there are no gaps (this is Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity method, which is very effective). I write just about every day, at weekends, and on holiday too. I am constantly note-taking – I don’t judge any ideas when they come, but record them all in a notebook or Evernote. The ideas that sparkle out of months’-worth of scribbles are the ones that I develop.
7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of?
The 40-Litre Monkey was the first story I had published (in the Bridport Prize anthology 2003) after writing every day for nearly 10 years and getting nothing but rejections. I’m very grateful to this story for breaking through.
Fewer Things came out so clean and easy, it was a pleasure to write, a real rush. It felt like a step up onto a new plateau for me, and when it was shortlisted for the first Sunday Times EFG prize, that success reassured me that I was going in the right direction with my work.
I think The Stone Thrower is my most successful short story – I wrote it especially to read at the Kikinda Short Story Festival in Serbia, because all my other stories were too long for their time limit and I’d had the idea at the top of my pile for a while. The Stone Thrower started out at least twice as long but I cut and cut and cut till it was down to the bone. It was a good lesson for me in economy. Sometimes you think you can’t bear to cut something, but the story can take it, and is often better for it.
I guess those three are the stories that stand out for me personally because they were the threshold markers of new stages in my career, but I’m proud of all the stories in Instruction Manual for Swallowing and The Stone Thrower – I’m very selective in what I choose to write up and finish and send out, and those 27 stories stand upon the corpses of over a hundred or more.
8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
First of all, you have to ask yourself how badly you want to write. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours-to-get-anywhere rule is so true. Do you want to write enough to sacrifice thousands of hours of other fun things – watching TV, going out with your friends, playing with your kids, sleeping in late, reading or whatever – in order to develop your skills?
Sure, you can tinker around with a project for a couple of hours every weekend, and if your life so far has given you an amount of skill, you might be lucky enough to get a story published, or placed in a competition, but an hour or two a week will not lead you to a writing career any more than a game of tennis every Saturday will get you a match at Wimbledon.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds of distinct skills to successfully tell a story, and you can learn them from other writers by reading their advice or attending their workshops or by reading their work closely, but to consistently pull off stories that people want to read, you have to internalise each of those skills so you can perform them unconsciously. It’s like driving – at first you’re hyper-conscious of your foot on the pedal, the position of your hands on the wheel, and mnemonics like mirror-signal-manoeuvre – the level of focus required is terrifying – but once you’ve put in a few hundred hours on the road, your unconscious takes over and the car becomes an extension of you. The same is true of writing, except writing is shitloads more complicated.
So, if you’re going to be a writer, commit to it and put in the hours. Be patient. Of course you want to be published, but try not to make your happiness and sense of self-worth count on getting published, or you’ll become miserable and self-indulgent when rejections come or when you’ve spent months working on something that stinks. If you mope about too much you’ll piss off the people who love you – and if you want to be a writer you’ll need their support to see you through the crisis moments.
I can only speak from my own experience, but if you’re at the start of your journey now, be aware that your destination may be 10,000 miles farther away than you thought it was, and it’s constantly on the move. Enjoy the journey because it’s all you’ve got. Maintain the mindset of a humble beginner. Okay, I’ll stop there, before I start getting all zen.
THE STONE THROWER
At the core of Adam Marek’s much-anticipated second short story collection is a single, unifying theme: a parent’s instinct to protect a particularly vulnerable child. Whether set amid unnerving visions of the near-future or grounded in the domestic here-and-now, these stories demonstrate that, sometimes, only outright surrealism can do justice to the merciless strangeness of reality, that only the fantastically illogical can steel us against what ordinary life threatens.
9) Best advice you have ever received?
Write the story only you can write.
Make your own luck.
Choose your battles.
The most important part of any communication is the response you get from your audience.
10) Top tip for writing a story?
Start as close to the end to possible. Create a need to know in your reader that draws them in and holds them. Make sure you’ve got conflict on at least one level, but ideally multiple levels – inner, interpersonal, environmental/societal.
11) Top tip for editing a story?
Edit the actual events in the story first before you start fannying around with individual sentences. Beautiful metaphors won’t save a story that doesn’t work. Get the actual events of the story right, then start making your prose sing.
12) Top tip for submitting a story?
Make sure it’s as good as you can get it before anyone else sees it. When you’ve finished it, put it away and don’t look at it for a week or two. A couple of weeks of rest makes all the faults rise to the surface, so you can see them easily.
Make sure your spelling and grammar are perfect – misspellings smack of laziness and lack of care.
Don’t waste time writing a long letter selling the benefits and exciting origin of your story and your own personality – just a short, polite, humble letter will do. If your story’s good enough it will sell itself, and if it’s not good enough, no amount of spin will get it through the door.
Don’t get angry and bitter when you’re rejected. A publisher’s reputation and livelihood stands on what they choose to serve up to their readers. Write something that’s worth them taking a risk on. Write stories that publishers can’t wait to share with their audience.
Don’t be desperate. Douglas Adams once said ‘nothing moves faster than an author down the stairs when the postman comes’. It’s so true. That was me for 10 years, hoping my SAE would come back with a YES letter in it. Focus on the stuff you have control over – your own stories. You cannot influence an editor or prize judge by thinking about them all day. Send your work out then do your best to forget about it. Get on with the next story. If you’re serious about writing, you will collect dozens, maybe hundreds of rejection letters. It’s the same for every writer. Keep writing, every day, and eventually you’ll be good enough. When you do get published, you’ll look back at your early efforts and say, ‘thank goodness THAT never got into print’. It’s agony, I know, but the submission-rejection cycle is your training – it builds your writing muscles and thickens your skin. It’s what weeds out all the people who want it less than you do. When you’re ready for the next step, it’ll happen. Make your own luck.