INTERVIEWS

Rowena Macdonald

Rowena Macdonald

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Rowena Macdonald was born on the Isle of Wight, grew up in the West Midlands and now lives in east London. Smoked Meat (Flambard Press), her debut collection, was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize. Her short stories have also been published by Influx Press, Galley Beggar Press, Ambit, Unthank Books and Serpent’s Tail, among others. She has won a number of prizes, including, most recently, Glimmer Train’s 2014 Family Matters competition, the Tower Hamlets Prize in the 2014 Write Idea Competition and runner-up in the 2013 Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. She is represented by Zoe Ross of United Agents

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Tell us a little about your background and your earliest engagement with literature.

I was born on the Isle of Wight and grew up in the West Midlands, for the most part in Wolverhampton. My earliest engagement with literature was probably my mum reading Beatrix Potter to me. Apparently I used to cry at the end of Mrs Tiggywinkle, finding out that she wasn’t a washerwoman, she was ‘only a little hedgehog’.

 

What made you want to become a writer and how/when did this realisation occur?

Growing up, I wanted to go into fashion design. I went to art college but ended up eventually doing an English degree at Sussex University. After university I wrote a short story inspired by my summer job as a delivery driver for Oddbins. I sent it to a local competition run by the Asham Trust and was one of 10 winners. We were all given a week at Ty Newydd writing centre in Wales and mentoring by a writer of our choice; I chose Shena Mackay. While at Ty Newydd I had a road to Damascus moment that this was what I wanted to do. And from then on I did it.

 

…It didn’t take much motivation to write; I wanted to. Life felt thin and boring otherwise…

Describe your early career writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write.

I used to write every day for an hour before work. It didn’t take much motivation to write; I wanted to. Life felt thin and boring otherwise. Winning a few competitions and having a few stories published early on also motivated me.

 

What was your experience of living in Montreal and when did you realise this would be the setting for Smoked Meat?

Montreal was a turning point in my life. It was when I gave up a proper career and decided to focus on being a writer. Being in a foreign city was incredibly inspiring, although it was also tough as I didn’t have a visa so I had to work cash in hand. It was an adventure though; it’s freeing to be away from your home country and not pinned down by family and friends’ expectations. I wrote notes all the time because I knew I’d write about the place eventually, although I didn’t start writing Smoked Meat until two years after I’d come back to England. I needed that distance.

 

Between Dog and Wolf, 2004

 Chrystel Lebas, Between Dog and Wolf, 2004

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You mentioned in your interview with 3:AM that your characters are ‘amalgams’ and that you ‘don’t transfer people straight from real life to the page as they need to be filtered through the prism of fiction’. How do you balance this process? 

I don’t write about people that I am closely involved with day-to-day or about my family. I often write about people I vaguely know or used to know but I never put exact replicas of real life people on the page; my characters encompass elements of people I know but a lot is made up. In my current novel, the characters are more imagined, and these days I tend not to use people I know as inspiration so much. Smoked Meat was more of a roman à clef. When I have written about people that may be recognisable – for example, recently I wrote two stories inspired by a friend’s late mother – I have run the stories past them to check they are ok with them. I would never publish anything that impinged on peoples’ privacy or upset them. 

 

Did any of the individuals who inspired the characters in Smoked Meat read the stories prior to publication? Did they recognise any similarities, and if so, what was their reaction?

Two of my muses read and critiqued all the stories prior to publication and although they recognised some events from their life, they weren’t bothered. I think they were flattered actually.

 

In 1998 you won a short story competition run by the Asham Trust, tell us a little about the period which followed and the lead up to the publication of Smoked Meat.

After winning that competition I decided I wanted to be a writer. I was working as a journalist at the time on a local paper. In 1999 I gave up my job and went to Montreal with a friend. I came back from Montreal at the end of 2000 and moved to London. I started writing Smoked Meat in 2002, finished it in 2006 and in 2011 I finally got a publisher, after hawking it around all over the place. I am eternally grateful to Will Mackie of Flambard Press (which now, sadly no longer exists) for taking on Smoked Meat. I was the penultimate book published by Flambard.

 

…the publication gave me more confidence. I felt I could finally call myself a writer… 

Following the publication of Smoked Meat by Flambard Press, how did your personal and professional life change, if at all? Did you notice any differences in personality or practice?

Neither my personal or professional life changed that much. I got to know a few more writers, which was good, and a few opportunities came my way which might not have done otherwise—such as being published in the Red Room anthology, edited by AJ Ashworth (fellow Edge Hill Prize shortlistee). I also got an agent this year, but that was for a novel, which I hope will soon be published. But I continued doing my two day jobs, so no change there. The publication gave me more confidence. I felt I could finally call myself a writer. My practice didn’t change, and it certainly wasn’t like I hit the big time or got a load of money.  

 

smoked meat

Though smothered in snow half the year, Montreal’s demi-monde burns with the secret hurts and poignant epiphanies of those living there. Through the lives of its inhabitants, Smoked Meat paints a portrait of a vibrant melting pot that is buzzing with sexual braggadocio and illicit opportunities.

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Describe your initial induction into the publishing industry and how it felt to become a professional writer. What was your experience of editors, agents and publishers?

I spent about five years trying to find a publisher for Smoked Meat. It took about twelve years to find an agent. My experience of becoming a professional writer has been longwinded and involved an enormous amount of patience and determination. I have had a lot of rejections. I used to cry about rejections; now I expect everything to be a total hassle and not go my way. Will Mackie at Flambard Press was a brilliant editor and I was very pleased at how professionally he produced Smoked Meat. Jamie Coleman at Greene & Heaton is my agent. He seems like a very nice man and I am hoping he is going to sell my novel for lots of money, but we shall see. My other stories have mainly been published by small presses so far: Influx Press, Galley Beggar, Unthank Books, Ambit, to name a few. I can honestly say that all the small presses I’ve dealt with have been great; full of really nice, intelligent, interesting people who are passionate about literature.

 

With upcoming publications due in Ambit and a shortlisted story in the Write Idea Festival, how do you juggle professional economic responsibilities with your more creative aspirations?

I work four days a week – three days in administration at the House of Commons and one day teaching creative writing at Westminster University. During the summer term I don’t teach, so only work three days a week. I write all day Fridays (and Thursdays during the summer). I also sometimes write in the very early morning and at weekends. I wish I had more time to write. 

 

…One good thing about London is there are a lot of writers, so you can feel like part of a writing community, rather than a lone weirdo…

Has the geographic relocation from Montreal to London had an impact on your writing, and if so, how? Does the change of city and its inhabitants inspire you in similar, or different ways?

I have to work more at day jobs in London as it is more expensive, so that’s cut into my writing time. London used to inspire me but I’ve been here 13 years now so I feel a bit jaded. I don’t find it as inspiring as Montreal, but I only lived there a year. One good thing about London is there are a lot of writers, so you can feel like part of a writing community, rather than a lone weirdo.

Tell us a little about your current writing habits. Where and when do you feel most productive, and why? Has this changed since your early writing career and following publication?

I‘m most productive in the morning when I am most awake and fresh. 8am onwards is my best time. I am a day-time person and always have been. Never been a night owl. These days I don’t feel the need to write every day, mainly because I am more confident I can do it. I try and write about 1,000 words a day, on my actual writing days. On a really good day I can write 1,500.

 

When you need inspiration, which book of short stories or novel might you pick up? Aside from literature, which other art forms or artists might you draw inspiration from?

I tend to read books set in the same place as the place I am writing about. So for Smoked Meat I read The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen, The Main by Trevanian and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler. An August Kleinzahler poem inspired ‘Double Take’, the very first story I wrote of Smoked Meat. And from that story all the others grew. In ‘Roger’s Dream’, which is partly set in a junkyard, I wanted to capture the battered Americana of John Salt’s hyper-realist car paintings; one of his paintings is the cover of Smoked Meat. Some photographs of a twilight forest by Crystel Lebas at a V&A exhibition inspired a story entitled ‘Between Dog and Wolf’, which was published in the 2012 Nottingham Short Story Prize anthology. Three 15th century paintings of nude women wrapped in furs that I saw at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna partially inspired a story about a fur farm entitled ‘My Beauty’, which was published by the Galley Beggar Singles Club. Eventually I want to write something inspired by a fantastic self-portrait of the photographer Samantha Sweeting, which shows her breast-feeding a lamb. I often listen to music that I think my characters would like, although not while I am actually writing. So, for the novel that is with my agent, I listened to a lot of Wire, Neu, Morrissey and Joy Division, as this was the kind of doomy stuff I reckoned one of my main characters would like. For my current novel, which is set at a fictional mid-90s road protest, I have been listening to the album Peggy Suicide by Julian Cope.

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Samantha Sweeting, In Came the Lamb, 2009

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You stated that you ‘start with setting and characters and a distinct atmosphere [which you] want to convey’, but how do you navigate between the intentional and intuitive?

The way I write is a blend of both intentional and intuitive. I usually know what my end point is going to be and I write towards that end point. Various unexpected twists and turns occur on the way and sometimes the end point turns out differently from what I originally intended. Ideas occur to me as I write. I don’t plan in minute detail but neither do I blindly write without any idea of what I am trying to achieve.

 

Was there a point in your literary development where you realised your work shared a specific style or source/s of interest? If so, how did this affect you and your writing?

When I read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood I felt we had similar sensibilities in terms of what we notice. I felt the same about Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. However, I wouldn’t say I was influenced by them; I just felt they had a similar style, that they were, like me, very visual writers, interested in concrete day-to-day details like food and drink. Zoë Heller has a similar interest in how family and friends interact and socially awkward situations. Katherine Mansfield is an influence – I like her casualness, her attention to the subtle details of peoples’ interactions and her deceptive simplicity. Her writing is not overwrought. I also like Jean Rhys for similar reasons. I like intimate fiction about daily life; I’m not particularly interested in grand, action-packed plots. A Moveable Feast by Hemingway was an influence on Smoked Meat, as was Dubliners by James Joyce. The final story in Smoked Meat is a homage to ‘The Dead’, although I feel a little pompous saying that.

Do you share your work with close readers and receive feedback as you write, or once the story is complete? How do you approach revising your work?

I share work with various writer friends and editors I know, usually when it is complete. I revise work a lot and always take on trusted peoples’ suggestions. I must have revised my novel at least ten times and am still in the process of revising it according to my agent’s wishes. 

 

…Don’t wait for inspiration. Write every day and you will write through your creative block. Be workmanlike. Don’t be precious…

David James Poissant and Paul McVeigh both recommended leaving a short story for as long as possible before returning to it. Do you agree? How do you know when to stop re-drafting?

I agree. I tend to stop re-drafting just before something is published or just before I am about to send it to a competition. Once it’s published I stop re-drafting.

 

Once you have decided that a story is ready for submission, what is your process of identifying magazines and/or publications? How do you approach submitting your writing?

These days I tend to only submit to publications that pay money, even if it is only a small amount. I would only submit to something that didn’t pay if it was very prestigious or published good writers that I wanted to be associated with. I prefer submitting to print publications rather than online, because they feel more solid. I tend to submit to more competitions than publications, simply because of the chance of money. I submit to as many competitions as I hear about.

 

If a submission is unsuccessful, how do you deal with rejection? Do you have any tips or advice for writers who may experience similar difficulties when seeking publication?

I press on and submit the work elsewhere. I remind myself of my successes and tell myself I’m marvellous and that whoever has rejected me hasn’t a clue. I would advise other writers to do the same.

 

…You have to be like a boxer and big yourself up in your own mind…

What might you tell a fellow writer who was experiencing moments of self-doubts or creative sparseness? How might you inspire the continuation of creation?

Don’t wait for inspiration. Write every day and you will write through your creative block. Be workmanlike about it. Don’t be precious. The world is not waiting for you and your little pearls of genius. Don’t waste time on Facebook envying other peoples’ successes. In fact, come off Facebook altogether. If you’re feeling self-doubt, remind yourself that there’s an awful lot of crap that’s published and your crap is probably better than that crap or at least no worse. You have to be like a boxer and big yourself up in your own mind.

 

What is the best advice you have received regarding your writing and/or literary ambitions, and what advice would you offer our readers and other aspiring writers?

Robert Edric, an early mentor, told me to write every day and cut at least 100 words out of every page. One of my MA tutors, David Morley, advised to always have something out on submission and never use coloured paperclips.

A good piece of advice I once read by Zadie Smith was don’t spend too much time in writing groups or socialising with writers, just sit at home and get on with it. And an American author whose name I have forgotten said wait until your idea feels so tasty in your mouth that you can’t wait to write it down. Obviously, read every spare moment you can. But one of the main pieces of advice I would give is be persistent.

 

…wait until your idea is so tasty in your mouth that you can’t wait to write it down….

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From Chapter 1 of The Secret Policeman (working title of current novel)

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Seren Star’s hula hoop swirled around her in a cat’s cradle of sparkling orbit lines. She was wearing a shiny turquoise leotard and her cheekbones and eyelids shimmered like dragonfly wings. Her feet were bare and her toenails were painted metallic blue. She spun the hoop up and down from neck to ankle, encasing herself in a silver force field. Behind her the sea glittered in the early evening June sun and behind the seafront the tall, cliff white buildings threw back the light. Blue, white, light and sparkle. Seren was both absorbed in her spiralling movements and aware of the effect on the small crowd that had gathered around her; the smiles and the eyes following the trajectory of the hoop. She flicked it above her head, lassoed it three times, then swung it in figures of eight either side of her body before jumping through it like a skipping rope.

A pound coin landed in the upturned top hat at her feet: the teenage girl who had been gazing at her for the past fifteen minutes. A little boy edged forward and dropped in what looked like fifty pence before running back to his mother. A shower of change rained in from a burly middle aged bloke holding a plastic pint glass from the Fortune of War. As well as reading the crowd, Seren could sense silver and gold coins with her eyes closed. Sometimes, at least once a day, she got fivers. Once, even a tenner. Notes were obviously brilliant but they did often involve having to engage with the person who had given them, and often that person was a man who thought that because he’d been so generous he was entitled to ask her out. Busking on the seafront made you a target for all the slimeballs that trawled along trying their luck with lone women. Seren found if she carried on hooping and closed her eyes in beatific bliss they eventually went away. They were unnerved by happy self-absorption.

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Author Photo by Martin Fuller

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Read Rowena Macdonald’s shortlisted story ‘Phosphorescence‘ here (Write Idea Festival):

https://www.ideastore.co.uk/assets/documents/misc/short%20stories/Phosphorescence%20by%20Rowena%20Macdonald.pdf

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For UK Sales:

http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/author/m/rowena-macdonald-7966/*

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For US Sales:

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781906601331

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Paul McVeigh

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Paul McVeigh’s short fiction has been published in the New Century New Writing, Rattle Tales 2 & 3 and Unbraiding the Short Story anthologies, Harrington’s Fiction JournalFlash Flood Journal, The Stinging Fly and been commissioned by BBC Radio 4. He has read his work on BBC Radio 5, at the Belfast Book Festival, the International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna and the Cork International Short Story Festival. He is currently working on a short story collection and his first novel will be published by Salt Publishing in Spring 2015.

Paul is the Director of the London Short Story Festival and Deputy Editor of Word Factory, London’s short story literary salon. He is a reader for short story competitions and prizes and his blog on the short story receives approximately 40,000 international hits a month. He has interviewed prize winning and critically acclaimed authors such as George Saunders and Kevin Barry.

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1) Which writers influenced you the most?

There are writers who made me want to write but it’s hard to say if you can see their influence in my work as such. Hemingway and Marquez are two very different writers but both I love for their powerful storytelling. Henry Miller and Anais Nin for their candour. Hemmingway and Miller again for voice and style. There are a lot of short story writers I love such as; George Saunders, Karen Russell, David Constantine, Kevin Barry.

2) What is your favourite short story?

I loved ‘Final Lap’ by George Saunders. He is a one of those rare authors, like Barry, who can be as funny as he is dark. Saunders establishes such a unique world for his characters that, as a writer, I’m in awe. In ‘Final Lap’ I thought he brought a new emotionality to his work. Something warmer, kinder, more human, into the mix, and I suspect it points to where his work might be heading.

3) What is your favourite short story collection?

Tough question. George Saunders is waving ‘Tenth of December’ at me. Claire Keegan is holding up both her collections and nodding knowingly. Hemingway is sitting at the bar, his elbow resting on his collected works, not looking at me, but confident I’ll be joining him.

4) Which current UK writers are exciting you?

KJ Orr writes beautifully and I love Lisa Blower’s writing. New writers you may not have heard of yet – a young writer from Northern Ireland called Michael Nolan and I read a fantastic story by Zoe Gilbert recently.

‘Never give up.’

5) What are you working on at the minute?

I’m tinkering with my novel ‘The Good Son’ even though it’s supposed to be finished (don’t tell Salt Publishing). I have three or four stories at various stages of completion and I’m thinking about a linked collection.

I’m playing around with two ideas that could be my second novel but I can’t decide which to work on. Do I want to be gentle or go into the darkness?

I’ve started putting some names together for London Short Story Festival next June. Kevin Barry and Jon McGregor are on board and lots in the pipeline.

6) Describe your own writing habits?

All depends on which part of the process and the form. On the novel, I needed time and space to enter into the world of the character. Writing in the first person, I had to get his voice. Once there, I could put him anywhere and the words would flow but I found this difficult to do in small chunks. I needed to read what I’d written so far and flow from that point, so I’d arrange two or three days off work then I’d write day and night. I met Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer prize winner from the US, and we talked about it being like an actor getting into role.

With short stories I can snatch a day or an afternoon. I don’t usually sit down to write until a shape is formed in my head or sometimes two or three things have connected and I set out with an intention to explore that. A first draft comes out usually in one sitting. I leave this for as long as I can and then come back and work on it. When I can’t get any further I have trusted readers who help me move forward. There’s a lot of leaving and returning so my stories take a long time to finish.

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Paul - The Good Son

Set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, The Good Son is a funny, frightening and ultimately moving story centred around Mickey Donnelly, a boy struggling to come of age against the backdrop of bitter and brutal surroundings.

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7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of?

I guess it would be ‘Tickles’. I’d had the first part of the idea when I was at university 20 odd years ago and I had been working on it in my head on and off since. It’s a story about many things, memory, forgiveness and the power of touch. I have a tendency to go dark when I write short stories but having to write something for a daytime radio audience I had to be kinder to the listener. Radio is the most intimate of forms – you are invited into someone’s home, their car. It was the first time I’d thought about telling a story to someone rather than committing something to paper. It brought something else out of my writing and I am still learning from that experience. Two writers got in touch to say they had to pull their car off the road, they’d gotten so emotionally involved with story and felt like someone was there with them telling the story only to them. This is exactly what I had in mind so it felt great to hear.

Also I had a deadline and the story was written in a couple of days so I was pleased how layered it was in such a short time. Hearing it on the Radio just felt so special and it marked a big change in my idea of myself as a writer.

8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Get up early in the morning. I used get up at 5am and write before I went to work. I felt like I had committed to writing in a serious way and that changed the way I perceived myself and my work. There’s a confidence trick that takes you from ‘I really want to write’ to ‘I am a writer’. It’s in your head, so you have to prove it to yourself first. Presenting that person to the writing world helps.

Writing while everyone else is asleep has interesting effects on your work too. You feel like you’re doing something, a little secretive and separate from the world. In those sleepy hours, before you become the person you present to the world, there’s this other more sensitive, open, less critical you.

‘Give yourself space between drafts. Leave your work for as long as you can before returning to it.’

9) Best advice you have ever received?

Never give up. I did for a number of few years and when I look back I could kick myself. I was doing well and just couldn’t see it. So much of writing is perseverance.

10) Top tip for writing a story?

Give yourself space between drafts. Leave your work for as long you can before returning to it.

When I struggle with inspiration or what I’m doing even trying to be a writer, I sit at my desk and think – what would I like to leave here if I didn’t wake up tomorrow? I can jolt me out of that frustration and I panic about wasting any more time. Even if the work is autobiographical in nature I can find a theme, emotion, or an image or sentence out of that work that can send me off on a story when I look at it again.

11) Top tip for editing a story?

Read it out. You’ll find clunky sentences – if you stumble then your reader will too. Then, if you can bear it, let someone else read it to you. You can hear all sorts of new things that didn’t occur to you.

…don’t lose heart…

12) Top tip for submitting a story?

I don’t submit often so rather than from personal experience, I can tell you what I have gleaned from very smart writers I know – make sure you are sending the appropriate work to  the magazines/journals. Read at least some of what they’ve published before. For comps – what kind of work does the judge write/like? Do a little research on that. For both – always read the guidelines and stick to them.

From me – don’t lose heart if your story doesn’t get accepted/win. I’ve read for two competitions recently and so many stories were of a high quality that in the end it just came down to the taste of the judges. Keep writing and keep submitting.

This is a section from a story that I will probably return to at some point. It is by no means ready but because I’m so bad at letting things leave my computer I’m making myself hold on a little lighter here. 

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“Hostel. Backpackers.” I pulled at imaginary straps at my shoulders. Mime was how I translated English into every language in Asia. I’d become so good at it I’d considered drama school if I ever made it back to Ireland “OK? Yes?” I nodded.

“OK,” the driver smiled, then looked worried.

My mouth was dry. My head thumped. At least it was cooler in these late/early hours. A break from the relentless heat and constant sweating. My skin felt dry, crackly, like it was covered in a fine layer of burnt sugar. I licked it to check but it tasted of salt and chemicals. The roads were empty of the manic free-for-all of traffic and only the occasional food vendor and parked up tuk tuk showed tiny signs of life.

We’d been driving around so long the sun had come up. I couldn’t remember the name of the place I was staying but I’m not sure I ever knew it. It hadn’t been that far from where I’d been partying. I remembered going out with the guys I’d travelled from Laos to Chang Mai with that morning. They’d dragged me from my dorm bed in Vien Viang, grabbed my stuff and dumped me onto the bus in my last pair of boxers. I think I remember passport control. I think I was really funny. I think I have a picture of me with my arm around a border guard. I think he and I are Facebook friends now.

The tuk tuk stopped at some steps leading up to a grey building. A long line of market stalls were setting up across the road in the concrete square around us.

“No,” I said. I shook my head and motioned with my hands like I was jiving.

“English,” he pointed up the steps. I guess he needed some help to get me home. Maybe they’d know some of the hostels.

I ducked my head out of the side and looked up to see to a McDonalds sign. I jumped out and ran up the steps. I pushed the glass doors, they were locked, and inside the tables were empty. Two workers at the back were either opening or closing up.

“Hey,” I thumped the glass with my fists. “Help!”.

I heard an engine rev and turned to see my tuk tuk drive off. “Let me give you some money,” I shouted, running down the steps fumbling in my pockets but he didn’t stop. I couldn’t blame him. I’d woken up in the back of it. Hadn’t remembered where I’d gotten in. I discovered my pockets were empty. No phone. No camera. No wallet. No keys. No surprise.

The locals now paid me some attention. I checked the state of me. No shirt. My fake Abercrombie shorts, bought in Bangkok, rode low on my hips because of the heat and the weight I’d lost in the six weeks since. I wasn’t wearing boxers and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I didn’t want to offend so I hitched my shorts up by my belt hooks and held them there. I remembered I’d left all my trunks in a laundry stall somewhere, a guidebook of cities ago and I’ve no idea what happened to my last pair. My chest had blue and yellow painted stripes with a green heart around my right nipple. Green for Irish, of course. They didn’t really do this in Chang Mai, paint you, I was told, like they do in Laos. Some wise guy was trying to recreate it in Chang Mai to get money from pissed saddoes like me.

I sat on the steps, spat on my fingers and rubbed at the Irish heart but it wouldn’t come off. “Fuckin’ twat!” Sometimes whatever they use doesn’t come off for weeks. After dropping acid in Vang Vieng I’d become a tree-man-thing for about 8 hours so I had a guy use spray paint to make a black knot over my heart. The girl I’d hooked up with in Kho Pinang hated it. The knot was to remember my brother, I told her. Or celebrate him. Or show him on me. And trees don’t have tattoos so I wanted a big, beautiful knot. It was ugly in the end. But I didn’t care. It felt right. But it didn’t make it easy getting a shag.

The door of McDonald’s opened. A youngish girl and guy came out in their McDonalds uniforms with glow-in-the-dark hairnets. Where there drugs involved last night?

“Hey,” I bounded back up the steps to show I wasn’t as drunk as I appeared. “Can you help me? I’m looking for my hostel.” I didn’t expect they’d be able to help but they might chuck an Egg McMuffin at me out of pity. I grabbed hold of my shorts as they slid down.

They waved at two men who came over from a stall across the street. My head hurt. I was drunker than I was allowing myself to be and hearing white noise. While they talked in Thai, in the glass doors I saw I had a yellow ribbon tied around my head like a sweat band. I felt like a knob. Being sober was fine, just not while you’re still fucked.

“They take you,” the girl pointed at the two men below.

“Take me where?” I said.

“Hostel,” she looked at me like I was nuts. I considered trying to communicate how can they take me to my hostel when I don’t even know what’s its called through mime but I wasn’t that fluent yet.

“OK,” I smiled and hugged her. I hugged the guy too. Just to show I wasn’t a Westerner here for the sex trade. Though who was I to judge. I’d paid $10 for a blow job in Cambodia from a mouth I didn’t know the gender of.

As I let go of the guy my shorts slid down to knees before I stopped them. “Sorry,” I cringed, pulling them up. I really needed to have a word with myself.

I followed the two men who exchanged looks that seemed like a conversation, like they knew each other really well. Like brothers, maybe. They stopped at tiny green van and opened the back doors, pointed inside.

“Thank you,” I said and hopped in. The doors closed behind me. It was dark. And freezing. And stank of fish. I decided those guys were brothers.

The van bumped along. As I got used to the dark I could see trays of ice and water and the eyes of dead fish looking at me. They seemed angry. Maybe they weren’t dead. Maybe I was.

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Paul McVeigh reading ‘Tickles’ at WordFactory #25

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Visit Paul McVeigh at:

http://paulmcveigh.blogspot.co.uk/

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‘The Good Son’ will be available in April 2015.

http://www.convilleandwalsh.com/index.php/titles/title/the-good-son/

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Check out Salt Publishing for new releases and regular updates:

http://www.saltpublishing.com/

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David James Poissant 

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David James Poissant’s stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The New York Times, One Story, Playboy, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in the New Stories from the South and Best New American Voices anthologies. His writing has been awarded the Matt Clark Prize, the George Garrett Fiction Award, the RopeWalk Fiction Chapbook Prize, and the Alice White Reeves Memorial Award from the National Society of Arts & Letters, as well as awards from The Chicago Tribune and The Atlantic and Playboy magazines. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters.

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Tell us a little about your background – geographic, economic, familial – and your earliest experience/engagement with literature?

I grew up poor, at first. My father was a roofer and a short-order cook juggling three jobs to make ends meet. This was in Syracuse, NY. We were too poor for much furniture, so our bookshelves and toy shelves were cinder blocks with planks between. And there were nights when our dinners were what my mother called weird meals. An egg, a piece of bread, a pickle, some blueberries. My brother and I thought they were great. We loved weird meals. Only later did we learn that weird meals meant my parents were out of money and that we were eating the only food left in the house.

Just before I turned six, my father took a job in Atlanta, and we moved from New York to Georgia. After that, my upbringing was Southern and suburban and solidly middleclass. In some ways, I’m a Southerner, though I never picked up the accent, so no one would know that I spent twenty years of my life in Atlanta.

Growing up, my mother always read to us, but I was a resistant reader until college.

 

What made you want to write and which author/s inspired you to consider pursuing a career as a writer?

Writing came late for me. I was interested in the visual arts for years. I even began college as an art major. But, the more I read in college, the deeper the hook sank, until, soon, I was reading all of the fiction I could get my hands on. In high school, I’d read mostly comic books. In college, I devoured The Great Gatsby, then read the rest of Fitzgerald, a good amount of John Updike, most of Flannery O’Connor, and numerous short story anthologies. I also read—and still read—a decent amount of poetry. Sandra Meek, a poet and professor at Berry College, where I did my undergrad, was supportive of my work and urged me to keep going, which meant the world to me and which is probably a big reason I’m still writing today.

As Saul Bellow said, writers are readers moved to emulation. The more I read in college, then after college, the more I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t know any “real” writers. So, in 2004, three years out of undergrad, I signed up for a creative writing class at my local community college. The class was taught by a living, working writer, Jack Riggs, author of When the Finch Rises and The Fireman’s Wife. He was the first published writer I’d ever met in person. I was thrilled to meet him, and he was incredibly helpful at getting me started early on. He got me reading Mary Hood, and her work would go on to become important to me. Later, I took a summer course with fiction writer Bret Anthony Johnston. He was the first person to demystify, for me, the path to publication, from pursuit of an MFA to finding an agent. Once I saw that there was a clear path to publication, I knew that all I needed was to get better at writing fiction. So, I spent the next year reading and writing short stories and novels. Then, I applied to MFA programs.

But, early on, yes, it was Sandy, Jack, and Bret who kind of lit the path for me. I’m grateful.

 

Once you became serious about writing and decided to ‘dismantle your life and start over’, you moved to Tucson and beyond. How did this initial decision impact your writing, and tell us a little about the journey which brought ‘The Heaven of Animals’ into being.

The move to Tucson was a good one for me, for my wife, for our marriage, and for my writing. Marla and I were twenty-six years old, but, in a way, we were still kids. Leaving our home state and family and friends, plus living on one meagre salary after having had good jobs in north Georgia, forced us to grow up, work together, and to be honest about what we wanted out of life. I began writing in earnest, and I haven’t stopped since.

I had the good fortune to meet my dream agent, Gail Hochman, early on at the 2006 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and she waited patiently while I finished the collection over the course of the next half-decade. After that, I began work on the novel that I’m currently finishing. Once I got through the first 150 pages of the novel, Gail helped me to tighten those pages, then we sent the collection and novel partial to publishers. We got several rejections and had one near-miss before Millicent Bennett came forward from Simon & Schuster and acquired both books. That was a dream come true.

‘Whatever helps you get good words on the page, you should do. Whatever helps you to get lousy words on the page, words that you can later revise into good words, you should do.’

 

You mentioned in your interview with The Rumpus that ‘most of [your] stories are really fictionalised’ and the characters and plots are not drawn from your personal experience, so where do the ideas and inspiration come from?

That’s a tough one. The settings are absolutely pulled from real life. But I’m not comfortable writing fiction that cuts too close to the bone of personal experience. Or maybe it’s that I worry that I’ll be too sympathetic to the “me” character in my stories if I pull my fiction from the stuff of real life. Whatever the case, setting fictional stories in spaces I know well helps me to generate the characters and conflicts that arise from, well, from my subconscious or from wherever these things arise.

 

When discussing your writing with The Orlandoan, you stated that ‘you see everything as a story’ and that ‘anything that happens, or could happen… is ripe with narrative potential’. How do you start? Do you begin with concepts, or discourse, or characters and situations, or some blend of the above? Or is each story a different journey?

Every story is absolutely a different journey. Some first drafts I get down in a week or a day. Others take a month at a rate of a page a day. Some stories are nearly finished after the first draft, though most I work at, off and on, for years, finishing a draft, revising, getting discouraged, putting the story away for a few months, pulling it back out, revising again, getting discouraged, putting it away, and on and on until the story is done or else abandoned.

As for how to begin, I can only speak to my own idiosyncrasies. I like to tell students that I can offer advice, but my first commandment, in workshop, is: First, to do no harm. Which is to say that what works for me may not work for you, and that’s fine. Whatever helps you get good words on the page, you should do. Whatever helps you to get lousy words on the page, words that you can later revise into good words, you should do.

As for me, beginning a new piece, I tend to listen for a voice. In the past, I’d often start with a conflict (what does the character want, and what stands in his or her way). This can get you through the plot of a story, but this doesn’t necessarily give you character. Character is what happens when plot meets point of view. So, these days, I prefer to start with a point of view, which is to say a voice. Once I have a voice, or feel like I have it, I can move toward some tension, some conflict, which may then steer me toward plot. For me, its’ easier to write long and edit, if the voice is there, than to have a compelling storyline without a distinctive voice. Trying to insert character or voice after the fact is a challenge.

You previously stated that you often ‘don’t know where a story’s going’, though you may know the ‘direction in which [your] headed’. How do you balance the intuitive and inventive with the more conventional formal concerns?

Well, I don’t, always! I have many, many failed stories and a few novel beginnings on my hard drive, work with which I never figured out where I was going, fiction that never quite took shape. I try never to throw anything out, because maybe an idea will be sparked and I’ll be able to return to a piece with a new angle and fresh lens. The trick, for me, is always to have a bunch of irons in the fire, always to be working on a novel, an essay, and several stories at the same time. When I lose steam with one, I move to the next, then back to the other when I feel the tug to do so. If I force myself to stick to one thing until it’s “done,” the process is joyless, and that surfaces in the work. I think that you can tell when a writer is tired of a piece, when his or her heart isn’t truly in it, you know?

 

‘…when it comes to revising, I believe that your best friend is time. It’s easy to fall in love with ideas. It’s easy to fall in love with early drafts. But, put a story away for a month or two, and you’ll open your eyes to a whole new piece of fiction.’

In light of the need to write away from home due to familial distractions, when you are developing and editing your stories in café’s or libraries or more public spaces, are you able to switch off from the world around you? Or do you still find yourself observing and generating new ideas for future stories?

Yeah, once I’ve begun writing, I’m pretty quick to go into a kind of trance state that tunes out the world around me. I use earplugs, which turns noise to a dull roar, like white noise. I like that background hum. Somehow, it’s generative. Silence kills me. And music. I love music, but not so much when I’m writing. If I can hear lyrics, my mind will latch onto them, and I’ll wind up hearing the music instead of the voice in my head.

 

You read very widely and when it comes to writing, you state that you ‘just do [your] best’ and ‘try to make each [story] the best [you] can without worrying about larger questions of mode or rage or what kind of writer [you] are’.  In terms of your work, does this freedom to move between styles eliminate possible restraints?

 I don’t know…when I was starting out, I was resistant to anything that didn’t smack of unadulterated realism. For me, it was all Carver and Updike and Flannery O’Connor. But even in O’Connor, you’re touching the hem of the magic or the mythic, just a little. Certainly, she presents an off-kilter world, a world in which men walk around in gorilla suits and you need only to name evil to watch it appear alongside your wrecked car. So, maybe O’Connor opened the door for me. Soon, I was reading Donald Barthelme and Aimee Bender and George Saunders, and then I wanted to write like them too. There’s a fine line, of course, between emulating and imitating, and I’m trying always, first and foremost, to sound like myself, but who knows what one sounds like? Who knows what that even means? I don’t think that any author can look at his or her own work entirely honestly and say: I sound like him or like her, like this writer over here or that writer over there.

 

‘A smart, trusted reader who gets you, who gets what you’re going for, is, in a word, priceless.’

You mentioned that ‘Sometimes, [you’re] too attached to a draft, and it takes some time for [you] to gain some objectivity, but [you] usually get there’. Can you explain a little about your revising methods, and perhaps offer some advice into how other aspiring writers may tackle this aspect of writing?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, when it comes to revising, I believe that your best friend is time. It’s easy to fall in love with ideas. It’s easy to fall in love with early drafts. But, put a story away for a month or two, and you’ll open your eyes to a whole new piece of fiction. That solid throughline looks suddenly like a snapped spine. Those round characters read flatter than trampolines. The vivid imagery you were sure you inserted looks disappointingly dust-covered and dull.

It’s also exceedingly helpful to have a reader or two whom you trust. They don’t have to be other writers. My wife is my first reader, and she doesn’t write. But she knows my work. She knows me. She knows when I’m phoning in emotion and when I’m engaged with a character on the page. She can tell. She’s almost never wrong, and she’s definitely right more often than I am. When I don’t listen to her, it’s usually to my own detriment. A smart, trusted reader who gets you, who gets what you’re going for, is, in a word, priceless.

Tom Wolfe stated in his interview with Harpers that writers should be more like reporters and Emile Zola referred to the study and reportage of what she termed ‘human beasts’ where ‘fictional characters are intended to seamlessly reproduce the real world’.  Is this something you aim to achieve in your own work?

Hmm, I don’t know. That argument requires that we all agree on what the real world is. And, since we’re unlikely to do that, ever, I’m happy enough to attempt to give the reader one character’s perspective on the world. Or, hopefully, many characters’ perspectives over the course of my career.

Which isn’t to say that every story represents my outlook on life. In one of my stories, the main character comes to the conclusion that there is no God. I believe in God. But that realization was honest to that character’s truth. I’m not saying there is no truth with a capital T. But none of us is going to figure that out, at least not in this life, so maybe the best I can do is to say: Hey, take a walk in this character’s shoes for thirty pages, see the world through her eyes, climb inside her head; there, now how does that feel?

For me, it all comes down to empathy. Sure, you wouldn’t throw your son through a window for being gay, but I want you to know what it might feel like to be the man who would throw his son through a window for being gay. If I can get the reader to empathize on the page with characters he or she would detest in real life, then I’ve done my job. Whether that counts as reporting the news of the world, I don’t know.

 

You revealed that when you were discussing the collection with your agent, you tried ‘to put together a really safe, marketable book’, which consisted of many of your ‘realist stories’, however, once you began working with your editor, Millicent Bennett, the aim turned towards completing a ‘book of your best’. Please tell us a little about the selection process and the relationship you developed with your editor, and what this meant for you as a writer.

I’m really happy with how everything worked out. I think that my agent was absolutely right to send out the safer book. I don’t know that the book would have sold with the more experimental work in it. But, once my editor and I developed a working relationship, we became comfortable talking to one another about my stories and which were my best. There was some give and take, but, for the most part, we agreed on which of my stories were strongest and which belonged in the book. Getting that confirmation was good for me. It took a decade, but I finally feel as though I’m reaching the point that I can trust my own opinion of my work, that I actually know which stories are solid and which are less so. Now that I’m there, or getting there, anyway, I try never to send stories out for publication until I’m sure that they’re solid.

 

‘The reader may not be able to relate to a character’s specific dilemma, but the reader should be able to relate to the mental and emotional frisson that such a dilemma creates…’

Many of your stories depict characters with what Guy de Maupassant termed ‘troubled minds’ –those ‘psychologically complicated, multifaceted, and with conflicting impulses and motivations that very nearly replicate the tribulations of being human’. How important is this depiction of the human condition in your work?

First, thank you! I take that as high praise. But, I mean, we’re all screwed up, right? At least to some extent? We all contradict ourselves. We’re hypocritical. Often, we don’t know what we want, and we’re rarely sure what we believe. So, why present the reader with a character who wants one thing and believes in that one thing entirely and never, ever changes his mind? That’s not true to life or to my experience of living. I don’t need a reader to recognize himself or herself in every one of my characters, but I want the reader to see how, for a particular character, the world works this way or that way, and is muddled by this or by that. The reader may not be able to relate to a character’s specific dilemma, but the reader should be able to relate to the mental and emotional frisson that such a dilemma creates, if that distinction makes sense.

 

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The Heaven of Animals explores the tenuous bonds of family; fathers and sons, husbands and wives; as they are tested by the sometimes brutal power of love. The strikingly true-to-life characters reach a precipice, chased there by troubles of their own making. Standing at the brink, each must make a choice: Leap, or look away? Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin writes that Poissant ‘forces us to face the people we are when we’re alone in the dark.’

‘The best you can do is to present a character fully, with compassion, and to hope that same compassion is extended from the reader towards the character as well.’

Your characters are emotionally complex and suffer from an array of anxieties, and despite their flaws and questionable motives or actions, they are, to some extent, vulnerable and fragile. Benjamin Percy once reflected that ‘beyond the veneer’ of his characters, they were all ‘hairy on the inside’. How do you balance the creature of the character with your ambition to elicit empathy from his/her situation?

The trick, I think, is never to attempt to force, cajole, or manipulate the reader into feeling something for a character that the reader might be disinclined to feel. As soon as a narrator asks me to empathize, to pity, or to feel sorry for him or for her, my guard goes up. Or, the second a writer tries to elicit sympathy from me by giving a nasty character a bad childhood or an abusive parent, I call BS. You earn empathy from a reader when you’re as honest as you can be about the circumstances of a character’s situation. You don’t defend the character or make excuses for the character. When you don’t beg sympathy.

The best you can do is to present a character fully, with compassion, and to hope that same compassion is extended from the reader toward the character as well. Sometimes, I read work in which an author seems to detest his or her characters. Other times, writers write down to their characters. I find this curious. If you hate your characters, or if you’re indifferent toward them and their suffering, or if they’re merely dartboards for your disdain, then why should I care about these people? I think—no, I truly believe—that if you love your characters, that comes across in your prose. You can’t help it. And the reader takes her cue from you.

‘The Heaven of Animals’ also portrays a cast of characters who struggle to survive within a complex world of reality and relations and experience the difficulties of loneliness and isolation, whether physical or psychological. How important is the theme of alienation and abandonment in your work?

It’s fairly important to me. Most people are lonely. We all struggle with loneliness and go to great lengths to avoid it. One friend of mine keeps a TV on in her home at all times. What is this if not a cure for loneliness? Others are on the phone when they’re alone. Me, I read or listen to music so as not to feel so alone.

I’m also the kind of person who can feel alone in a group of people. It’s like that line King Arthur sings in the musical Spamalot: “We must be lonely side-by-side. It’s the perfect way to hide.” Loneliness, it’s something most people struggle with and few people talk about. Just one more of the weird, hard things about being human.

 

The inability to communicate and express our true feelings is a theme which runs through the collection, together with the resultant difficulties we encounter when attempting to maintain or understand relationships with those we love, or loved. How important is this in the reality of the collection, and that which exists beyond it?

Yes! I’m so happy you’ve mentioned this. This, to me, is the throughline that ties the collection together. It was really important to me that “100% Cotton” be in the book and near the front of the book, if for no other reason than the line: “Putting a thing like that into words, it’s like trying to explain what stands between people, what keeps us from communicating—I mean really communicating—with each other.” So, there’s this question of communication, of why we can’t seem to say the things we mean. The easy way out is to say that we don’t always love each other, but I don’t think that’s always true. A father who never tells his son “I love you” may very well—and almost surely does—love his son. What makes saying it so hard? I’m not sure.

Sometimes I wonder if everything I write is a way of exploring that problem, of getting to the root of why we hurt the ones we love, of why we don’t love better or more openly than we do.

 

‘If you do your best to love your characters and write honestly about them, if you refuse to look away and, in refusing to look away, extend empathy anyway, you’ll be encouraging the reader to do the same.’

You mentioned that you ‘try to give your characters someplace to go, some destination, some grail’, and a line from ‘Amputee’ reads; ‘He’d tried to find his way back, but if belief is an uphill battle, believing again is a war, musket fire and bayonets grooved for blood’. How important is the existence, or absence, of belief (in all its variations) to your characters?

I think that depends on the character. For some characters, belief in God isn’t an issue. It’s not part of their worldview. The question of belief doesn’t keep them up at night. For others, it’s everything. I want to be honest with my characters, so I try not to give them all struggles with faith or questions about God in, though those questions and struggles are never far from my own mind. I’m pretty much constantly living in that tension of “what do I believe today?”

 

You previously stated that you are ‘on guard’ when someone asks you why your work is depressing and Adam Haslett once stated that ‘Depression is really a lack of emotion in a way, and I feel if anything, it’s the opposite of depression or numbness that is the definition of true sadness. These people are flooded with emotion’. Though for some there may not be a conventional ‘happy ending’, you and Adam Haslett seem to share a belief in the power of redemptive endings and the existence of hope and empathy. How important is this in your work, and how do you achieve it?

Well, first, I’m grateful to anyone who sees hope and an urge toward empathy in my work. I want the worlds of my stories to be redeemed even when the characters aren’t, if that makes sense. Not everyone who reads my stories will find the endings redemptive, but they are to me and to my editor.

But, yes, I’m with Haslett on that one. I don’t know him, but his stories have definitely been an influence on my own. His story “City Visit” is one of the most powerful short stories I’ve ever read. [Link to story]: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/08/city-visit/304123/

Benjamin Percy stated that ‘place is integral to all of [his] work…essentially it serves as a character whose dialogue is heard in wind and thunder, whose features are seen in rock and salt’, and you mention that having a ‘real setting’ aids you in your writing. How important is setting and location to your stories and the characters within?

I must confess that I’ve never quite understood the argument of “setting as character.” Setting doesn’t often change. A lake is here. A mountain is there. Characters, people, they change. And, when place changes—a storm moves in, the ocean sinks a ship—that’s not done by logic or motivation, but by weather and chance. I try to resist overly anthropomorphizing weather or setting. Like, I get annoyed if I’m reading a story and a character is in a bad mood, so a storm cloud rolls in. You know?

A pronounced setting always adds to a story, but I try never to overthink how this might happen or to intentionally pair characters with a place in which the setting will be extra-suggestive of the tone I mean to achieve. Truthfully, I just like to throw characters I don’t know into a place I know well, then I like to see what happens. Sometimes, little happens. Sometimes, things get awesome. For me, the best fiction often emerges not from over-planning but from happy accidents.

 

‘If you do your best to love your characters and write honestly about them, if you refuse to look away and, in refusing to look away, extend empathy anyway, you’ll be encouraging the reader to do the same.’

You seem to share the above short fiction edict with Wells Tower; ‘not to have good guys or bad guys’ and present characters as some form of ‘shape-shifters’ who try to treat each other well, but often ‘fall short’. Your characters fumble for redemption in a way that is recognizable and realistic, but how do you realize this?

I’m not sure how it’s done, exactly. I’m glad you feel that I’m doing it! But, it’s hard to put into craft terms just how that gets done. Part of it, I think, is to stop and think with every new paragraph—heck, with every new sentence—not just what is the character doing now, but what is the character thinking now? We all have competing thoughts racing through our heads at all times—hopes, fears, loves, desires—things that motivate us to do what we might call, for lack of better terms, “right” and “wrong.” One trick in fiction is figuring out when to give the reader a character’s thoughts and when to pull back. This is the old show and tell question. Some say, “Show, don’t tell.” But, of course, you have to tell sometimes. Then again, a story can suffer from too much interiority, and that experience, for the reader, can prove claustrophobic.

So, there’s what a character says and what a character thinks and what a character actually does, and these don’t always line up like clothes on a line. Sometimes a sock comes unpinned and hits the grass. A character may do the “wrong” thing and hate himself for it. A character may do the “right” thing but for the “wrong” reasons. What’s interesting isn’t just what’s done, but the interplay of the said and the done, the hoped for and the feared, the spoken and the thought, the tensions that arise between and among all of these.

Adam Haslett stated that he saw his job as writer as one which wasn’t ‘to judge, but to take the reader as far inside as [possible]…and let them dwell there’ and to ‘portray moments of suffering and ask the reader not to look away’. Do you see your own role as a writer as being governed by similar concerns. Do you find it difficult to delve so deep into the core of what makes us human?

Yes, and yes. I couldn’t say it any better, and I won’t try to. I think that’s what I was speaking to earlier about “honestly.” If you do your best to love your characters and write honestly about them, if you refuse to look away and, in refusing to look away, extend empathy anyway, you’ll be encouraging the reader to do the same. But that’s hard. It can be very hard for the writer.

At a reading, recently, a reader approached me and said that she liked the book but that some of the stories were difficult for her to read, that they required an emotional investment that she wasn’t always ready to give. I told her that I understood, and I do, but another part of me, a less generous part, wanted to say, “Sure, they can be hard to read, but do you have any idea how much harder they were to write?”

So, yeah, it’s hard, or can be. But, I think it’s worth it. I think that writing is making me a kinder, more empathetic person. I hope that it is.

 

‘I’m more interested in exploring the next person’s point of view, especially if that point of view is in some way problematic or unsavoury. I want to write not to defend these people, but at least to acknowledge that fact that they’re people, they’re human.’ 

You once stated that your ‘goal is less to come out on some side of an issue, but to present reality as I see it, to keep it complicated, and to never play it safe’. Do you therefore begin by identifying issues which you would like to examine? If so, how do you choose which to develop? Whilst writing up these depictions of reality, what complications might you encounter?

I might revise that statement, slightly, today, to read: “…to present reality as a particular character sees it.” I mean, who cares what I think? I’m just a guy living in a town in central Florida who moves words around on a computer for four or five hours a day. Seriously, I don’t think that my view of reality—which is always mutating because I’m as hypocritical and confused and wishy-washy of a person as anyone—is any more important or worthy of exploration than the next person’s. I’m more interested in exploring the next person’s point of view, especially if that point of view is in some way problematic or unsavoury. I want to write not to defend these people, but at least to acknowledge the fact that they’re people, they’re human. Murderers are human beings. So are child molesters. So are sexists and racists and homophobes. They have mothers and fathers, most of whom love them. The second we cast these people as monsters, the second we withhold their humanity, we cast them as flat characters, as evil, and then we’re only interested in watching them suffer. We shouldn’t want to watch anyone suffer. And I don’t know what evil even is. So, I don’t have a lot of patience for fiction that gives us entirely flat characters.

That being said, when you broach a topic like, say, homophobia, you can’t set out to write a story about homophobia as an issue. You set out to write a story about a father who abused his gay son, and you understand that whatever truth your character comes to, you’re speaking, in that way, through that filter, to the issue at large. Specificity begets universality. If you start with the issue itself, and no story, no character, you’re probably writing a sermon or a diatribe, and those tend to make pretty lousy fiction.

 

Barry Hannah stated that as a writer ‘you get to live more than others’, and Jonathan Franzen added that ‘becoming a writer is a way of becoming more fully a person. A way of surviving’. How do you think writing affects and/or influences you? Do you find writing cathartic? What is the best and worst aspect of your writing life?

Well, to circle back to some of the things we’ve touched on already, writing is no cure for loneliness. Writing is a solitary act that requires discipline and a lot of alone time. It’s certainly not for everyone. But writing is a way of living more than one life. Just as actors have method acting, I’ve heard many writers speak to an idea of “method writing.” When you’re in the chair, when you’re at the keyboard, when you go into that trance state, sometimes, for a few hours or a few minutes, however briefly, you become a character. You take on a voice. You feel a character’s pain. The story becomes yours. It’s not often cathartic, but it’s certainly an experience worth having—like dreaming, only far more intense.

 

You are currently finishing work on your first novel, which is based on two characters from ‘The Geometry of Despair, in the ‘The Heaven of Animals’. What are the main differences between short story writing and novel writing, and which aspects of these different forms do you like and dislike the most?

Oh, the differences are huge!

There are two advantages of the story form, as I see it. First, when I’m writing a story, I can hold the story in my head, all of it, all at once. I can finish a draft and remember where just about every word is. I’ll remember that I’ve used the word cerulean on page three, so I won’t use it again on page twenty-eight. I’ll remember that I haven’t noted the time of day for pages, so I’ll find a place to mark time. I can hold the rhythms of sentences and the voices of characters in my head for twenty or thirty pages. I can get a feel, quickly, for a short story’s pacing. And, I can more or less control how the reader will read my story because I can assume that the story will likely be read in one sitting.

That’s the other advantage of stories. You have a better sense of what the reader’s reading experience will be like. With novels, you don’t where a reader will put the book down. Some people read novels over the course of a few nights, others a few months. No two people have identical, or even similar, novel reading experiences.

Novels are sprawling. They’re hard to pace. And, by page 300, who knows if I’ve used the word cerulean on page three?

Now that I’m deep into my novel, I enjoy the form, but it’s such a different form from the short story form. Stories are not proving grounds for novels. They’re not practice any more than poems are practice for short stories. They’re wildly different forms.

 

Finally, what’s next, and when will we get to read your next collection?

In my mind, I have a second collection just about completed, but we’re going to worry about the novel first. Besides the fact that the novel is under contract, my stories need time to rest and to breathe. Maybe, as with my first collection, I’ll have to publish and compile another thirty or forty stories before I have enough good ones to choose from for a solid second collection. In the meantime, I’m happy to be finishing the novel.

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Stuart Evers

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Stuart Evers’ first collection of short stories; ‘Ten Stories About Smoking’ was published by Picador in 2011 and went on to win the London Book Award. He published his first novel ‘If This is Home’ in 2012 and his second collection of short stories; ‘Your Father Sends His Love’ will be available soon.

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1) Which writers influenced you the most?

Influence carries a lot of weight; it is both an inspiration and a burden. It should be worn lightly, as linen trousers or a just-grabbed cardigan, but it is more often a duffel coat. I console myself with the fact that every good writer I’ve read comes from a place, or more accurately a sphere, of influence: the best writers are magpieish and the best writers are readers. The literature of the past means they can repoint and reconfigure the present.

This is to avoid the question. You always want names. I asked a very experimental, counter-culturally accredited, though now almost forgotten, writer once for his influences and his only response was Jane Austen. “Because she taught me I could begin a sentence with ‘but’”. I suggested he might have found inspiration in Blake and Burroughs, in Ballard and Robbe-Grillet. He just shook his head. Austen, he said. That’s all. Outing your influences is to bring people into the building blocks of your work, it presents the wiring behind the wall, the processor beneath the computer.

Avoidance, again, I know. So. First, in terms of making me want to write, for providing the hunger for reading and for writing, James Joyce and George Orwell. Joyce for the possibilities; Orwell for the precision. This would have been mid to late teens. Angela Carter, Ford Maddox Ford, Will Self and Frank O’Hara through university. Then the big ones: Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, Philip Roth, Jayne Anne Philips, Jim Crace, Don Delillo, Haruki Murakami, Georges Perec and Grace Paley. These in my twenties and  still, approaching my forties, my touchstones.

They gave me a ragged blueprint of the kind of fiction I wanted to both read and to write. I wanted to concentrate on the kind of forgotten men and women, those that the British novel and short story seemed to want to ignore: boring, ordinary people. People who work in pubs and supermarkets, in offices and business centres, people who have small dreams that never seem to be fulfilled, people who aren’t anywhere when important events happen, but are driving a car taking their kids to school, or waiting for a bus. The kinds of people I know, the kinds of people I see every day.

It is a ragged blueprint because sometimes I deviate. In my first collection Raymond Carver puts in an appearance, as does television magician Paul Daniels. Reading those aforementioned writers allowed me that latitude. They give me permission to deviate from those norms. That’s the best kind of influence, I think: unspoken, unsaid, silently encouraging.

2) What is your favourite short story?

“Where is the Voice Coming From?’ By Eudora Welty, written quickly after the murder of American Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers (no relation) is one that, no matter how many times I read it, I just bristle from its power and kinetic staging. The opening is violent, unpleasant, and it does what all good fiction should do: puts us in places we never should go alone. “Fat” by Raymond Carver is, amongst all of his astonishing stories, the one that I return to in the same way others might to a favourite song in times of crisis. I could probably fill several pages with stories that really get me: Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’, Malamud’s ‘The Jew Bird’, Paley’s ‘The Pale Pink Roast’, Richard Yates’ ‘Oh Joseph, I’m so Tired’… the list is long.

3) What is your favourite short story collection?

Drown by Junot Diaz was the first collection of stories I ever bought and I’m still in awe of it now. For The Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander had a similar effect some five years later. Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips was a revelation, as was The Dog of the Marriage by Amy Hempel. Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology is still the funniest story collection ever written, while Liars in Love by Richard Yates proves that Revolutionary Road is far from his best book.

4) Which current UK writers are exciting you?

We are, thankfully, rather blessed at the moment with British writers doing something odd and strange with the novel and the story. David Peace, David Mitchell, Niven Govinden, Sarah Walters, Naomi Wood, Jim Crace, Kazuo Ishiguru, Lee Rourke, Richard Beard, Kirsty Logan, Stav Sherev. Cathi Unsworth, Nikesh Shukla, Helen Oyeyemi – all are taking their own slant on  their own preoccupations. I will have missed out loads of people, but I am writing in a pub, not by my bookshelves so have no prompts. I like writing in pubs. It’s the best thing in the world.

TEN STORIES ABOUT SMOKING

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‘Ten Stories About Smoking’ features ten stories of allure, betrayal, nostalgia, solitude, seduction, damage, desire and loss; of silence broken by the click of a lighter; insomnia defined by a glowing ember; a magician’s trick; a lover’s scent; and, a final wish.

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5) What are you working on at the minute?

I’ve just finished the new collection, Your Father Sends His Love, so I am flitting about and steeling myself for writing another collection and a novel.

6) Describe your own writing habits?

I have a  job so I write in my lunchbreak and after work and on weekends. I tend to wear jogging trousers and drink time-appropriate drinks (coffee before midday, water after lunch, beer or wine on weekends and at night. I edit in my local pub whenever I can. I can make notes, read and edit there, but not write fiction. I need silence, or at least quiet. I can’t listen to music and write these days.

7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of?

The title story from the new collection, Your Father Send His Love. It sent me loopy writing it. Only my wife can tell you whether it was worth it.

8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read. Read. Read. Don’t give up Read. Read. Read. Don’t be arrogant to assume anyone wants to read your work. Read. Read. Read. Don’t give up. Read. Read. Read. Listen to everything that goes on around you; listen to every word people say to you or near you. Read. Read. Read. Don’t give up. No bit of writing is ever wasted; it’s all part of the process even if you ditch it all. Read. Read. Read. Don’t give up. Read. Read. Read. Listen more than you speak. Read. Read. Read. When you get rejected, remember that everyone gets rejected. Read. Read. Read. When you compare yourself unfavourably with another writer, see it as a challenge and not an excuse to whine. Read. Read. Read. Do not expect to make any money; if you do it’s pennies from heaven. Read. Read. Read. Don’t bore yourself, if you are bored, readers are too. Read. Read. Read. Remember if you don’t buy more than one book a year, at full price, by living writer you’re part of the problem. Read. Read. Read. Try to take on board at least one of these edicts. Read. Read. Read. Don’t give up. Read. Read. Read

IF THIS IS HOME

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Since he was eighteen, Mark has been running away. Running from his small town, his vanished mother, his broken father. But one night in Las Vegas, shocked by violence and ambushed by memories, he is propelled back to his real name and his real past. Back to Bethany Wilder: carnival queen, partner in dreams, and tragic ghost.

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9) Best advice you have ever received?

One of my closest friends is a musician. He got quite angry with me for thinking I was owed a living by writing. The only thing that’s important is the work. The work is the most important thing. Worry about the work, everything else is noise. When I stopped worrying about money, as he had suggested, it all fell into place.

10) Top tip for writing a story?

Don’t rush it, unless it needs rushing. Start with an image, a phrase, a memory and then ask: is this a story or a situation? You’ll know soon enough. Write in different places and always be prepared for a story to change half way through.

11) Top tip for editing a story?

First finish. Up the point size. Re-read and edit. Take down the point size and edit again. Change font. Repeat. Take out everything that isn’t utterly essential. Put the story back together again. Then add all you’ve excised. Is it better for the fat? They’ll be a happy medium between the two. Read it aloud. Is it better now? Leave it for two weeks. Re-read. Edit. Read aloud again. Leave for two weeks. Read aloud without reading it beforehand. Get someone you trust to read it. Ignore their comments but try and see what they see in it. Repeat until you are close to fucking hating the story.

12) Top tip for submitting a story?

I have little joy in submitting stories. You should ask someone who gets in the New Yorker or Granta.

This is from a new story. It may never see the light of day.

You work so long in darkness, the whole world becomes a nocturne. Papa would say this sitting at table; palms up, awaiting, what, punishment? Perhaps yes. The document in light, bathed in cold glow. So long in darkness, he would say, then perhaps remove his spectacles, replace the cap on a fountain pen.

One more time: So long in darkness. No longer looking to me, but hunched over a document, identity card, ration book. A photograph eased into spotlight, the magnifying glass over the paper. Tweezers he would not let me touch without his eye to oversee. The pens and inkpots; tea for staining; lemon shells, squeezed of juice; tobacco rubs; sometimes a typewriter, loaned or bought. A glue pot now a memory of a smell; its odour too commonplace over the years. The world become a nocturne.

He learned from his Papa, as I learned from Papa. Steady hand is the key. Nerve. Once I called it art and he slapped my face, open palm. This is not art, he said. Think art and you forget. Think that, they can see your vanity in the work. We are machines. We are print presses. We are thumbprints and ink. Nothing more. Remember that.

If a man is a word, my father was remember. An edict, a lesson and a curse. Remember this, remember when, always remember. In the dark, his voice clear, an authority his clenched frame lacked. Most telling when on my shoulder. Remember, Josef, like the Arabian rug, the imperfection is intentional. Remember, son, hammer the keys like they are a bully’s face. Remember, Josef, write at the same speed a bored man would.

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Visit Stuart Evers at:

http://stuartevers.blogspot.co.uk/

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Or:

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Toby Litt

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Toby Litt is best-known for writing his books – from Adventures in Capitalism to (so far)King Death – in alphabetical order; he is currently working on M. His story ‘John & John’ won the semi-widely-known Manchester Fiction Prize, and his story ‘Call it “The Bug” Because I Have No Time To Think of a Better Title” was shortlisted for the notoriously lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. He is a Granta Best of Young British Novelist. In December 2013, Vertigo DC launched Dead Boy Detectives, a new monthly comic written by Toby, based on characters from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

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1)      Which writers influenced you the most?

Before books came The Beatles. The bright lyrics to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and the opaque terror of ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’ zipping off into the fairground void. The most important writers, for beginning-me, were world-makers and world-changers. So, SF with Chris Foss covers. And DuneThe Glass Bead Blah. But I’ve given this answer too many times for it to be true. At the moment, the important writers are D.H.Lawrence, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Kafka, and always always Emily Brontë. Anyone who seems to want to be live, and to want their reader to be live. Hello, Jack Kerouac, unscrolling the roll version of On the Road.

2)     What is your favourite short story?

Is this piece of writing of psychic use? Does it think it can change you? Those seem to me worthwhile questions, when faced with a page or a screen that’s made up of words. If something’s just there for entertainment, fine – I can be entertained. If it’s journalism, fine – I can learn things I didn’t know. But take, say, Henry James, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. He seems to want to make his readers capable of greater subtlety, capable

3)     What is your favourite short story collection?

of more interesting humanity, than they ever were. And, because I find its default settings quite objectionable, I like having my mind altered by writing. Give me instead a James-head, a Bronte-head. It seems strange that writing can do this, as opposed to, yes, drugs, music, surgical intervention and sex, but – despite the other distractions – proper structure-change still seems possible, via words. I’ve been affected in ways I am still trying to understand by D.H.Lawrence’s longer short stories, those collected in Three Novellas – that’s ‘The Ladybird’, ‘The Fox’ and ‘The Captain’s

4)     Which current UK writers are exciting you?

Doll’, but also ‘St. Mawr’. So, I would have to choose some kind of bulky and untransportable collection of Lawrence’s not-quite-novels that I’d forgo in favour of glue-crumbling orange-spined Penguin editions with Yvonne Gilbert’s overreal paintings on the cover. You’ll find these in almost any pile of abandoned, unwanted books. The bottom fell out of the David Herbert Market in about May 1979. He’s too ambitious; in a way Joyce wasn’t. There aren’t many current writers who seem to want to climb in through your eyes and rearrange the furniture, perhaps setting fire

5)     What are you working on at the minute?

to the settee. Niall Griffiths is definitely one. Ali Smith is another. But aren’t we all too modest about what we do? Facebook-friendly. Isn’t it better to set-ludicrously-sail-for-wherever and end up in Pseud’s Corner, rather than to stay in your own little corner, having painted yourself there with your first publication? I’ve been gathering is what I’ve been doing. Putting stories together under the signs of M and N. The next book is Life-Like, but was completed a while ago. That’s stories about the middle years. Also, My Mother’s Seven

6)     Describe your own writing habits?

7)     Which of your short stories are you most proud of?

Spirits Demand Justice, a novel. And ongoing for the moment is Dead Boy Detectives, a comic. I have been thinking of giving up on writing novels, but seem to be writing one all the same. I am writing it by trying to avoid writing it, on a regular basis. Other things, I write in the way that seems to suit their rhythm. Say, splurge then ignore then splurge again. Or jigsaw, scatter, remake. Or plod. There’s a lot to be said for plodding, particularly as opposed to plotting.

8)     What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

There’s a lot to be said for plodding, as opposed to plotting. And dwelling as opposed to word-processing. As long as you chuck out everything ploddy once you take flight. And don’t dwell on success. But mostly, if you want to be a writer then being a writer is probably the worst thing you can be. You’ll start out with the likeable characters in the balanced sentences saving the cat, and you’ll end up

9)     Best advice you have ever received?

envying poets. Poets seem to be doing the real work. And by poets I mean poets rather than Robert Graves’s ‘journalists in verse’. However, there are a few things I’ve written that I think are okay: ‘The Hare’ and the first section of Journey into Space and ‘The Monster’ and ‘Call it “The Bug”’ and also the essay on ‘Sensibility’ and the one on ‘Kafka’. If I felt they had got through to someone, and done for them what the writing I love has done for me, then that would be the best I could hope for. In some ways, trying to do better, it’s been approval rather than advice that’s helped. Muriel Spark said she liked reading what I wrote. Just a general feeling that you’d managed to amuse someone worth amusing. But I had an art teacher at school, Mr Cox, who sometimes became so passionate speaking about a picture

10)  Top tip for writing a story?

that his speech impediment, a stammer, overtook him. His nickname was Mr C-C-C-Cox. It was mortifying, for a public schoolboy, to stand next to someone who was struggling to express passion – passion about a painting of apples, for fuck’s sake. Mr Cox would curl his fingers up in front of his screwed up face and try to get across to you – smirking, black acrylic blazer, looking forward to lunchbreak – that you were a smug little cunt and that Cézanne wasn’t. Sometimes Mr Cox worked on a painting for years, then destroyed it. At one time, his house burned down, including most of his work. He wasn’t our only…

11)   Top tip for editing a story?

..art teacher. There was an equally influential one, Mr Lynch. Whereas Mr Cox was a Low Protestant (perhaps even a charismatic Christian), Mr Lynch was a Catholic. Apart from Cézanne, I think they disagreed on most things – and they disagreed utterly on how they saw Cézanne. Mr Cox looked like Frank Auerbach and, I think, might have painted like him if he’d been able to stand impasto. Mr Lynch looked like James Abbott McNeill Whistler but shorter, squatter and with a beard and moustache that – if ever twisted into points – were only twisted into points at the weekend (in Bedford). Mr Cox was all about expressiveness; Mr Lynch was all about control. Mr Cox was grace, Mr Lynch, guilt. Every mark – for Mr Lynch – had to be considered, tonally, in relation to those marks directly adjacent, and to the painting as a whole. No line could flow. It must stitch along, tentatively, like a Euston Road sewing machine trying not to have a nervous breakdown. The art room, with Mr Lynch in it, was the 1950s. His was the passion of suppression – and, if you wound him up the right way, Mr Lynch would rush off into the supplies

12)  Top tip for submitting a story?

cupboard and curse.

Current work: Lecture on ‘Swing’:

I said earlier that I was really talking ‘to the you that writes your first drafts. The you that performs your relationship to time onto the page.’

So, now I’d like to say some useful things to that you. I’m going to speak about being a jazz musician, which you can translate as you please.

In order to master an instrument, you first need to do it dutifully – you need to obey the rules and play the foursquare scales. You need to begin slowly; impatience will be punished by having to go back and unlearn bad habits. Often, you’ll need to be stupider than you are, slower than you can be. Stories of Mozart sitting down at the keyboard and just being able to play won’t help. You need to find a way of enduring being bad. Then, after a while, a certain fluidity will enter your playing. You’ll make mistakes, but there’ll be moments in between the mistakes where it seemed to happen without you doing very much. Then, you’ll have a basic mastery of your instrument: you’ll be able, most of the time, when you’re not pushing it too much, to get it to do the things it does for most other people. You will be a competent player. And this is an easy level to get stuck on, because becoming more and more competent can seem to go on forever. Your playing can become smoother and smoother – the playing of a session musician (a bad session musician) who hits all the notes with technical correctness but doesn’t need to emotionally connect. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where the issue is not the instrument but the expression. What do you have to say, now that the technical means of saying it are within your compass? You’ve heard people saying similar stuff before. All this is very familiar. And the familiarity of it may be your downfall. You can’t learn by other people’s mistakes. You have to have the gumption to make them yourself; you have to have the ego, the lack of ego, the anger, the mischief, the sadness and the scrupulousness to be bad in a good way. Then, when the time comes, because all this has been woodshedding, you will have the chops, you will have paid your dues. The fingers will do, and out-do, what the mind and soul require of them. To get to this beyond-competence, you’ll need to take the kind of risks with time that Louis Armstrong did when he started scat singing. You’ll be able to dance along the edge of your own internal precipices; you won’t freeze at the drop – you’ll treat the narrow ledge as roof, the rope as floor. In other words, you’ll swing. You’ll delight in your disobedience to how things formally should be done. Those looking on will see daredevilry, but you’ll know the height is irrelevant. You will wish you could go higher. All art is and has to be a high-wire act. And the risks have to be almost beyond the capacity of the performer to cope with, to bear. But by making your art in a swinging way, you’ll be doing the highest thing art can do – appearing to create energy from nothing, appearing unconstrained by time.

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‘Litt impresses and hits hard with images that are rooted firmly in reality. He constructs throughout perfectly imperfect little worlds. At times you may think Litt is a bit sick in the head. But dig deep and you’ll lose yourself. For these worlds are the new exhibitionism.’ – Zulfikar Abbany, The Observer,

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Toby Litt’s New Collection of Short Stories – ‘Life-Like

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These twenty-six stories begin with Paddy and Agatha, an English couple last seen in Litt’s Ghost Story. Following the stillbirth of their second child, their marriage has gently begun to collapse. Paddy and Agatha both meet someone else. First, Paddy meets Kavita, and Agatha meets John. Then each of these four engages with a different new person—and so on, through a doubling and redoubling of intimately interconnected stories. The remaining short stories exemplify Litt’s impressive, unflinching prose.

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‘Life-Like’ at Seagull books:

http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/L/bo19117436.html

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Visit Toby Litt at:

http://tobylitt.wordpress.com/

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Check out out Mr Litt’s Lecture on ‘SWING’:

http://tobylitt.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/swing/

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Adam Marek

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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 MagazineThe 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

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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

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.

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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

 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.

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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.

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FOR UK SALES:
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VISIT ADAM MAREK AT:
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ADAM MAREK at COMMA PRESS:
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Debra Dean

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DEBRA DEAN’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. Her recent novel, The Mirrored World, is a tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg. A native of Seattle, she lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/debradeanauthor

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1) Which writers influenced you the most? 

Here’s an incomplete list of the writers whom I read obsessively when I was starting out: John Updike, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, John Cheever, Susan Minot, Raymond Carver, Kazuo Ishiguro, Grace Paley. I expect they all influenced me.

2) What is your favourite short story?

I love stories too much to have a single favourite, but the one I read most recently that made me want to be a better writer and a better person was George Saunders’ “December Tenth.” It’s brilliant and generous.

 

 

3) What is your favourite short story collection?

With the above proviso, I’ll say Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From.

4) Which contemporary writers are exciting you?

In short fiction, Joan Silber and, again, George Saunders come to mind.

CONFESSIONS OF A FALLING WOMAN

 confessoins

A surprised Southern matriarch is confronted by her family at an intervention. . . . A life-altering break-in triggers insomniac introspection in a desperate actor. . . . Streetwise New York City neighbours let down their guard for a naïve puppeteer and must suffer the consequences. . . .Replete with seamless storytelling and captivating lyrical voices, Confessions of a Falling Woman is a haunting, satisfying, and unforgettable reading experience.

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5) What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a biography – the lives of a Belgian-American artist, Jan Yoors, and his two concurrent wives. I couldn’t write this as fiction: no one would believe it.

6) Describe your own writing habits?

They are still more haphazard than I’d like. During the school year my students take precedence, and I write as I can. I try to get at least a few sentences in every day, just to keep it alive; otherwise it gets increasingly hard to go back. In the summers, I become a monk holed up in my cell, completely and happily obsessive.

7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of?

This is probably something I shouldn’t admit, but the published ones all make me happy when I read them, even at the same time as I can see their flaws. It’s so hard to get short stories between covers, that this fact alone makes me proud. I am not even remotely objective about their quality.

8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Revise. Sure, this can be overdone, but it seldom is.

THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD

 madonnas 

The ravages of age erode Marina’s grip on the everyday. And while the elderly Russian woman cannot hold on to fresh memories—the details of her grown children’s lives, the approaching wedding of her grandchild—her distant past is preserved: vivid images that rise unbidden of her youth in war-torn Leningrad.

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9) Best advice you have ever received?

My old acting teacher, Jack Friemann, had a saying posted on the backstage door of the theatre: “Don’t worry about being different; being good is different enough.”

10) Top tip for writing a story?

Something has to happen. As a group, writers are not impressively active; we tend to stand in corners, observing and musing and commenting upon the passing scene. Too often, we pass that trait on to our characters, but really stories are about people who do things, even if it’s not so dramatic as defusing the bomb that saves New York City.

11) Top tip for editing a story?

Read it aloud, the whole thing but especially the dialogue.

12) Top tip for submitting a story?

Recognize that there is a human being on the other end who is giving of their time to read your story. Practice humility and gratitude.

THE MIRRORED WORLD

mirrored

A breath-taking novel of love, madness, and devotion set against

 the extravagant royal court of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

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For UK sales:

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/simpleSearch.do?simpleSearchString=debra+dean&typeAheadFormSubmit=

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For US sales:

http://www.indiebound.org/hybrid?filter0=debra+dean&x=-880&y=-92

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James Miller

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Critically acclaimed novelist and short story writer James Miller opens up about his influences, interests, and affection for the short story. Described by Beryl Bainbridge as a ‘formidable writer’ and Time Outs’ ‘rising star 2008′, James has written two highly praised novels; Lost Boys and Sunshine State, along with numerous short stories which have been widely published, most recently in the short story collection; Still.

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1) Which writers influenced you the most? 

Blake, Shelley, Milton, William S. Burroughs, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, TS Eliot, Brett Easton Ellis, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, JG Ballard, Naomi Klein, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Michael Moorcock, HP Lovecraft, Richard Wright, EL Doctorow, Frantz Fanon, Jean Paul Sartre, Charles Baudelaire, Henri Lefebvre, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Freud.

2) What is your favourite short story?

Probably one of the stories in Flannery O’Connor ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’

3) What is your favourite short story collection?

Flannery O’Connor ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find.’

LOST BOYS

 lostboyscover2

Lost Boys is an apocalyptic fable and gripping geopolitical thriller, evoking a society on the brink of disintegration, dangerously paranoid and utterly recognisable.  

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4) Which current UK writers are exciting you?

Tom Bullough, Lee Rourke, Courttia Newland, Lars Iyer, Francis Spufford, Nicholas Royle, Eimear McBride… but I’ve got a big pile of recentish novels I need to read.

5) What are you working on at the minute?

I’m rewriting my third novel.

6) Describe your own writing habits?

Get up early, meditate, drink coffee, try to write, work in cafes, work in the British Library, go for walks, lift weights, smoke weed, meditate, listen to lots and lots of music, waste time on social media, angst and despair, fear and loathing, angst and more angst, print work out and read it elsewhere, go for another walk, watch shit TV etc etc.

 

7) Which of your short stories are you most proud of, and if possible, where might our followers read it?

‘What is left to see’ in ‘Beacons: Stories for our not so distant future’ easily available on amazon.

SUNSHINE STATE

 sunshinestatecover-190w

Sunshine State is an exhilarating literary thriller and an astonishing vision of the near future.

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8) What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Forget about it. Do the sensible thing and get a job in finance. Sure, you’ll hate yourself but you’ll hate yourself anyway. At least this way you can hate yourself and have money. Or else just write. If you want to write you’ll write. If you don’t want to you won’t.

9) Best advice you have ever received?

I got a lot of good advice, indirectly, from my supervisor Professor Clive Bush, when I was taking my PhD at Kings College London. He really made me look critically at my writing and learn the discipline of rewriting and  learnt not to be scared to scrap huge amounts of work and start again. Nothing is ever really lost or wasted and thinking again about how you are using material – whether we’re talking about academic or imaginative – can transform the work and the idea. Keep going, in other words and be prepared to rewrite it as many times as it takes to get it right.

10) Top tip for writing a story?

Don’t be ridiculous.

11) Top tip for editing a story?

Cut the first and last line of every paragraph.

12) Top tip for submitting a story?

Research your market – don’t send a story to a magazine you haven’t read.

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For more information on James Millers’ writing endeavors and upcoming readings:

http://www.jamesmillerauthor.com/index2.html

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To purchase LOST BOYS or SUNSHINE STATE, follow the links below:

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LOST BOYS

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Boys-James-Miller/dp/0349120986/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1385371435&sr=1-1&keywords=james+miller

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SUNSHINE STATE

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sunshine-State-James-Miller/dp/0349122253/ref=la_B0028OPKCO_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1385371451&sr=1-2

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For more information on STILL and BEACONS:

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STILL

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Still-Stories-Inspired-Photographs-Vacated/dp/0957382804/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1385374038&sr=1-2

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BEACONS

*http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beacons-Stories-distant-future-ebook/dp/B00BF9N22I/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1361523102&sr=8-1

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Interview: Interactive Short Stories and Tomek Dzido’s new STORGY

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STORGY, at its core, is about engaging readers and writers in one thing: creation. But what founder Tomek Dzido has done to widen audience involvement is pioneering. STORGY – “Where Short Stories Surface” delivers on its motto. Readers vote on title choices, the contributors have a week to compile a story and the readers, again, select their favourite story to be transformed into a short film. 

 

Words, Pauses, Noises welcomes fellow MA Tomek Dzido to chat with Amber Koski about STORGY – an innovative, interactive, bridge building storytelling machine that will (and has) changed how stories are told and how readers influence and engage with them. 

STORGY Interview with Tomek Dzido

 

By Amber Koski

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How did the idea for STORGY come about? 

I wanted to create a literary magazine which focused specifically on the short story and enabled writers to share their work with readers who equally adore the shorter form. I also wanted to develop the reader-writer relationship and encourage creative collaboration. The Short Story is an immense ingredient within literature and deserves greater recognition in the UK, as do the writers who continue to write short stories when the industry prefers longer, more marketable manuscripts.

Have you always had an interest in filmmaking? 

I got into film making through a couple of close friends who were extremely enthusiastic about film and from the moment I experienced it, I’ve never looked back. I guess it was only natural that my passion for the written word extended into film, particularly with the possibilities of developing a synergy between both. There is something special about seeing an idea grow into a fully formed piece of film and despite the many challenges involved throughout the production process, it’s extremely rewarding if a project completes successfully.

What (practical, challenging, motivating, or difficult) things have you learned when transforming text from the page to the Screen? 

The most challenging aspect is the process of adaptation from text to screen. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult in technical terms to adapt a story or a novel precisely as it is presented within the pages of its prior existence. This is also problematic because each reader imagines the content of a specific scene independent of outside influence, and hence each interpretation is very different. I always try to be true to the original material and this always poses the greatest challenge, but it’s one that continues to teach me more about the words themselves, which after all, are the most important element of any story, whether in fiction or film.

As a writer, what filmmaking experiences (with STORGY or outside of that project) have changed your writing? Do you see your narratives as films now or are you able to separate them? 

I actually wrote screenplays before I wrote prose, so I think direction and dialogue was always something I felt more comfortable with. Writing prose has forced me to tackle the more complex elements of writing, such as form, structure and content, etc. I guess the fundamental difference is that with film you show the viewer, with prose youdescribe and encourage the reader to let their own imagination run wild. However, I’m far from an expert on film, or fiction, I just enjoy both and love learning and experimenting to see what works, and if it doesn’t, why.

How did you go about finding contributors for this interactive project? What sorts of people are vital to the success of STORGY?

I was fortunate to meet some extremely talented writers whilst studying at Kingston University and the strength of their work always stuck in the back of my head. I also met some impressive writers on a platform called Readwave, and after that it was through the strong recommendations of existing STORGY writers. The most important ingredient for me was passion, and of course talent. When you are lucky enough to find a group of individuals who are highly skilled and extremely passionate, the quality of the writing is the main beneficiary, and close behind is the waiting reader.

What about readership? What’s your secret? How were you able to gain publicity via platforms like Salt Publishing

I think this was a result of the writing itself. I’m really very proud of what the contributing writers have managed to achieve and I firmly believe they deserve greater recognition, which I hope will come. The other important factor is that readers enjoy the short story, despite its apparent limited popularity. In an age where time is particularly precious and technology enables a greater enjoyment of this form, why shouldn’t it be more appreciated? You can read a short story in an instance, and yet it can change your life forever.

STORGY is an impressive and innovative storytelling mechanism. What has it been like bringing creatives from different fields and backgrounds together to build this text-to-film storyboard (if I may call it that) community?

It’s been incredibly enjoyable. Everyone has been extremely enthusiastic and dedicated and I genuinely couldn’t ask for a better bunch of writers. Each individual writer is very different and that is precisely what makes the STORGY experience so interesting, and I hope, enjoyable. Not only can you see different styles and structures and topic and tone, but you can also see an entirely different take on the only aspect of the story which is shared by each writer; the title. It’s fantastic.

Can you give us some ideas of where you want to take STORGY in the near future? 

My main aim is to continue developing the reader-writer relationship and encouraging engagement between those that enjoy all forms of art. I would like readers to become more involved in the STORGY process, such as nominating titles and writing the short stories once titles have been selected. The short story round will also soon extend to reader stories and this will provide an opportunity for the writer to see their story transformed into a short film. I’m also looking to extend creative collaboration and introduce further competitions which will bring in other art forms, such as photography and illustration, in addition to opening up the film round to other film makers. In Spring STORGY will publish its first print magazine which will be more akin to the traditional literary magazine and therefore submissions from other writers and readers will be encouraged. I would love to establish a creative core to STORGY, much like James Frey established with Full Fathom Five, though perhaps without the contractual controversies. I am in love with the idea of a studio inhabited by creative people who all work together to create art in various forms and are able to make a living from their craft. I’m a dreamer, and a writer somewhere underneath.

For the film component in particular do you think this visual aspect will bring in an additional ‘readership’ for STORGY? With the changes in print and publishing, do you think STORGY will bridge that gap with this added end-product feature?

I hope so. The more readers that STORGY can attract, the more exposure writers and other artists will be able to experience. This is one of the aspects I most enjoy about STORGY. All the writers play a part in promoting the community, because each is aware that the more readers who engage with the project, the more may discover their own work. It’s very interesting.

I would also like to thank everyone who has supported us and shared the work of our wonderful writers here at STORGY. At such early stages it really is wonderful to have the encouragement of such a supportive readership. Thank you.

 

 

Tomek’s STORGY is an example of how passion and pursuit can create inspirational shockwaves across creative writing communities. Continued education is a time for learning, to earn a qualification, but it is also a place to mingle and create outside of coursework. Who knows what discoveries can be made?  

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