An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie, Editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story

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Written by 24 prizewinning writers and teachers of writing, Short Circuit is intensely practical. Each expert discusses necessary craft issues: their own writing processes, sharing tried and tested writing exercises and lists of published work they find inspirational. Endorsed by The National Association of Writers in Education, it became recommended or required reading for Creative Writing courses in the UK and beyond.

I really enjoyed Short Circuit and can, without hesitation, recommend it to short story authors, whether a beginner or experienced. There is something for every level. While I gained great insight into the workings of the short story from each chapter, it would be difficult to look at each chapter and their author in this interview. I will endeavour to focus on the ones which had a particular impact on me and try to raise some key themes from the collection as a whole. Thank you so much, Vanessa, for taking the time to answers these questions. 

My pleasure.  I am so glad you enjoyed the book. 

Short Circuit is a wonderful collection of thoughts and ideas on the short story from a range of practitioners and experts, how did you go about selecting the contributors and themes?

I was very lucky – between 2006 and 2009 I’d met many wonderful short story writers at competition events, festivals, on the circuit –  and it struck me then that many who do well in the good competitions are well published (quality not quantity), and many also happened to be well-regarded teachers of writing. I knew the book I wanted to create – the book I’d have liked myself when I was starting out. I wanted each writer to share what fired them up most, craftwise, processwise. I had no intention of standardising the voice of the book – it was important that each writer should speak to the reader in their own voice, in their own way, after all voice is so important in short stories too.  I approached the writers I wanted, and they all said yes. They suggested the topics in the main, and there was hardly any duplication. If there were any gaps, I filled that when all the others had finished their chapters. 

In the introduction to the book, you share Tania Hershman’s words that the story will linger in your mind for much longer than it took to read it. This is so true of powerful short fiction. How does the impact that a short story makes on the reader’s mind differ from the longer novel or novella form?

Hard to answer that one in general, as it must differ reader to reader – I can only answer for myself. I think the impact of the strong short story for me (and it only applies to a really good one, I hasten to add) is something to do with the intensity of the whole experience. The compression of the form renders it deeply resonant, if I, the reader, am complicit. I have to be open to the experience, or the story will slide past and won’t do its work. Perhaps the power of story in a novel-length piece of work can lose its physical impact – as the reader has such a long time to get used to the whole world, the journey. It would not be possible to sustain the intensity of a great short story in a novel – either for the writer or reader, would it?  People are always seeking analogies for the experience of short story versus novel – the comparisons I’ve seen most often are physical. A brief intense affair versus a long-standing relationship. I’ll ask a question: Which makes the most lasting impression – which would you retain a specific memory of – experiencing a starlit sky for hours, or seeing a single shooting star? Simple, really. Both are lovely. One burns itself deeper onto the memory than the other.

Absolutely. I like the comparison between the starlit sky and a shooting star. Alison Macleod’s chapter on Writing and Risk-Taking encourages writers to take on a little more than they think they can manage artistically. She likens it to driving off-road without a map and suggests writers should never feel sure that they can pull off a short story. I liked this analogy because it is often how you feel when writing a short story, the sense that there are no signposts. How do you handle the risk-taking as you write?

I don’t – I mean, if it is being ‘handled’ then it isn’t risk, really. I think it is that sense of being on the edge, of the possibility of failing badly – which is the spur. Not having signposts is very important – I always wonder how I would write if I knew the story before I started – it’s rather as if I am telling myself the story as I write – if I know it already, why would I bother? I remember feeling ‘this is impossible’ as I was writing ‘Wei Ch’i’ – a very short surreal story in which I was just following an older Japanese man as he returns home at the end of the day to the flat he shares with his wife. He begins to find his wife in pieces, literally in pieces… but it is not horrific at all – rather tender, poignant, matter of fact. Had I stopped because ‘it was impossible’ – a really decent little story would not have arrived. I just had to trust that the story was going somewhere good and arrive there at the same time as the story itself.

Time is a theme which is woven through the book. In your chapter on Leaving the Door Ajar you refer to Dorothea Brande in suggesting that stories are formed in the unconscious mind, and that it is a question of trusting the process. You revisited one of your stories a year later, after a visit to Ireland, and called this a ‘gestation period’ for your story. How important do you think it is to let stories rest a while to enable character to form?

For this writer, it varies story to story, no matter what its length. Sometimes, a story will appear almost fully formed, complete with layers – and others will take a long while. It’s not only a question of character, it’s a question of what the story is really ‘about’ as opposed to the surface events. Perhaps uncomfortable themes take a while to emerge, while easy, uncontentious ones flow in a simpler, faster way. The story which is the subject of my essay in Short Circuit took a while, certainly. Maybe I was avoiding tackling a difficult theme, subconsciously? Who knows. But when I was ready, and it was ready, it came right.

I do know I used to grab hold of a story thought too fast – get it down before I forgot it, or I even shared the idea with another writer – ‘Listen, isn’t this a great idea?’ – and in both instances something was taken away from the work before I let it allowed to develop naturally. Time is probably one of my greatest allies – and at my age, one of my greatest enemies!

Graham Mort discusses the influence of the biblical parables, in terms of their difficult moral codes, and of African stories and oral tradition in his work. He relates the parables to some of the key building blocks in poetry; specifically, metaphor and allegory. How important do you think these influences are on a writer’s ability to develop form in their work, and do you see a link between short stories and poetry?

Well, they were patently very important to Graham in developing his work in all kinds of ways, his development of form being just one. (I know his chapter is about form, but it is so hard to winkle out one element and say what influenced its development to the exclusion of all others, really). For the writer in me,  influences such as the parables are also important and I’m now trying to articulate why. I think its because they are ancient, firstly, and I get a sense of tapping into a stream which underpins the development of the culture in which I exist. Their use of allegory is magical – very potent. Their use of metaphor taught me about metaphor very early on, practically, before it was named for me. Don’t we learn from everything that surrounds us? Surely. 

Do I see a link between short stories and poetry? Yeees, said with all kinds of caveats. It’s trotted out so often, isn’t it – every word counts in both, so there must be a link. Both can be short – therefore there is a link. Hmm. Perhaps the link really lies in the use of metaphor to explore an underlying theme in a short story, and use of metaphor to paint something that might/also means something else, in a poem?  Discuss! 

Great idea. Anyone? Strunk and White’s book, Elements of Style, provides useful advice for writers on grammar and sentence structure. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s chapter on Language and Style refers to their work and supports the advice on avoiding the elaborate and the pretentious, with the idea of using normal language. She suggests using short, more appropriate wording, according to the piece you are writing. Which books or authors helped you when you began writing?  

I’ve never read Strunk and White, I must admit. Are they right all the time? I think I’d be much too ‘aware’ of what they say is right and wrong when I’m writing, and I don’t want that. I want what is right for the piece of work I’m struggling with at the time – it may well not need grammatically perfect prose (if that’s what they advocate…). For me, the story needs to take over – if it all needs to be  in carefully constructed  perfect prose, then so be it – but if it doesn’t,  and has nevertheless been written to abide by all the so-called ‘rules’,  then the prose might stand in the way of the story. I don’t want that. For example – say a piece is written in first person, and the narrator is a young, hardly-educated lad from the wrong side of town. He wouldn’t use perfect constructs in his speech in truth, and if he did in the story, the vocab and grammar would render the character flawed, for this reader.  

I agree absolutely with the advice not to use pretentious words.  How often do I see new writers littering work with writerly constructs, thinking it makes the piece better – when all it does is wave a flag that says “beginner!”

Short or long sentences? Doesn’t really matter – the word that means the most is ‘appropriate’, in Nuala’s advice. Would your character use this group of words, would she think like this? If she invented a simile, what experience in her own life would she draw on?  How would she phrase it – not you, the writer…?

All writers help me. The poor ones make me want to write more appropriately. The ones who create work that makes me forget I am reading help me to try to reach those heights.  William Golding. W G Sebald. And a hundred others. 

vanessa Vanessa is an award-winning author and a freelance creative writing teacher. Her novel, The Coward’s Tale, was a UK Financial Times Book of the Year and Guardian readers’ book of the year. Her stories have been commissioned by the British Council, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and are widely anthologised. She also has two collections: Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning. Vanessa’s debut poetry publication, The Half-life of Fathers, includes a poem which won the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry prize. www.vanessagebbie.com

A Review: He Wants, Alison Moore

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Retired teacher Lewis Sullivan always imagined living by the sea.

He lives instead in the Midlands village in which he was born. His grown-up daughter visits every day, bringing soup. He does not want soup. He frequents his second-favourite pub, where he can get half a shandy, a speciality sausage and a bit of company.

When a childhood friend appears on the scene, Lewis finds his life and comfortable routine shaken up.

In the wake of Moore’s award-winning first novel, The Lighthouse, and her debut short story collection, The Pre-War House (which I reviewed here), my expectations were high and this book did not disappoint. With Moore’s typically sparse plot, her attention to the minute detail of everyday occurrences, and her use of quiet tension, I sunk into this and did not resurface until I reached the end. At 182 pages, it is a short novel but needs no further chapters; its impact lies, in part, in its brevity and in its silences.

I appreciated John Oakey’s clever cover design, and the irony of the brightness of the yellow against the protagonist’s rather dull existence. It is possible that the colour yellow is scattered throughout the text for this very reason. Lewis Sullivan’s reserve and quiet desperation is painful at times, but he also resists change in the same way that a child might stamp his feet. Although, Lewis’s determination to keep a routine existence is done quietly and without a fuss. His occasional need to break out or to experience something new, something shocking, touches on the natural curiosity in all of us, and reminds us of the idea that there is always more beyond the borders of our existences. There is something inherently Freudian about the focus on Lewis’s loss, his inhibition and self-absorption.

Moore’s skill lies in lulling the reader into a comfortable, but temporary, sense of experiencing the ordinary, before she shocks the reader with an aggressive and threatening outside force through language which makes the character feel uncomfortable, or a dry expression and a sense of foreboding. Without giving away the ending, the whole story builds up to an unexpected climax, leaving you replaying the story to see where the clues may have been buried in the pages, if at all. Lewis Sullivan’s routine existence, with daily visits from a daughter with whom he shows no real connection, is shaken up when his old pal, Sydney, resurfaces, causing unexpected disruption to Lewis’s days. The fact that Sydney is also a far-flung destination is not lost on the attentive reader.

The book title is followed through with chapter headings beginning with an ominous, He does not want…, He wants…, or He wanted to… There is a combined sense of anticipation, regret, fear and uncertainly in each chapter – with much of the tension rising from what is left unsaid, in the unspoken sentences – in as much as his life is made up of the things he did not do and the places he did not visit. And then there is the matter of the dog who is weaved through the pages, a dog whose ownership is unclear. At one point we find ourselves in the company of the two characters and the dog in the kitchen, and it is unclear for a while to whom both the dog and the kitchen belong: “The man, who has been looking at him, looks at him some more and then says, ‘Your house?’ ‘Yes,’ replies Lewis. ‘You are in my house. This is my kitchen. You are sitting in my wife’s chair at my kitchen table. I thought for a moment that this was my dog.'” In the following lines Lewis wonders if he is being burgled. I can’t help thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as we wonder about the intruder. There is an almost surreal element to the book, a sense of other-worldliness.

The themes of religion and eternity are well expressed with their uncertainties and extremes, in particular in the chapter,  He wants to fly, where we are drawn back in time to Lewis’s father taking him to see Billy Graham in Manchester at the age of eighteen. His concerns about baptism focus on whether or not a person would need to be clothed or naked, and whether it would require a clean pair of pants. He lists some of the Thou Shalt Nots of the Bible, with which many are familiar, in a way that may threaten to close his life in even further.

The narrative is beautifully layered, with generational links and well-planned time frame jumps. So many elements of the book feel familiar, yet much is also unexpected. Themes of loneliness, memory and loss are unfolded with a deep originality. Lewis is, at times, an unreliable narrator and I sense that Moore enjoys this element of surprise. This book is not for those who want a fast paced thriller, but there are dark aspects to He Wants and an intensity of emotion that will pull you in until the last page.

I’m off to buy myself a new suit and travel the world!

The Fine Art of Bookselling

Christina James is a crime thriller writer of the literary variety. Her novel In the Family was published in November 2012 and her next DI Yates novel is due to be released in June 2013. She has written a guest blog post today on her experiences as a bookseller. Thank you, Christina.

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You might think that bookselling is like any other retail activity and, up to a point, you would be correct.  Bookselling consists of acquiring the right ‘product’, setting it out in an attractive manner and making sure that people who are interested in it are able to find and purchase it – and that throughout the process they are treated with unfailing helpfulness and courtesy from the moment that they walk into the shop.  You could say the same of selling cheese or hats or computer games.

Booksellers, however, have always known themselves to be special.  There are numerous reasons for this, some of them valid.  Booksellers are part of that small, select band – its other members include jewellers, posh dress-shop proprietors and some other sellers of luxury products – commonly classified by marketing gurus as ‘high-end retailers’.  It is not unknown for some booksellers to consider themselves a cut above even these illustrious peer-group members, on the grounds that what they sell feeds the mind.  Therefore, the argument runs, their customer service aspirations are of a different order from those of a jeweller who seeks to make a couple happy by conjuring up the perfect engagement ring or the chocolatier who provides the crowning accompaniment to a romantic date.

So far, so bad.  I am a great fan of booksellers in general – I do believe that they are among the great unsung heroes of civilisation – and probably of 95% of booksellers in particular.  But it is true that there is an annoying minority of booksellers who ponce around giving themselves airs, thus ensuring that all but the most erudite and determined customer is either too scared to enter the shop in the first place or, faced with silence or a supercilious greeting, beats a hasty retreat.  It’s amazing how every fresh generation of booksellers seems to breed a few of these – and how, against all odds, on the whole they manage to survive.

Anyway, back to what booksellers do.  Acquiring the right product is not as easy as it sounds when there are more than a million items to choose from UK publishers alone.  No bookshop can stock more than a fraction of these.  An average bookshop may hold 25,000 titles, a large one twice this figure.  ‘So what,’ you might think, ‘I can’t get every brand of T-shirt in Debenhams or even every brand of deodorant in Boots.’  That’s true, but the difference is that a bookseller’s customers expect to be able to find every book that they want in their local bookshop.  Of course, it’s not possible for the bookseller to fulfil all their expectations, however obscure, but he or she does have to get to know the (constantly-changing) preferences of the local community well enough to be able to score a good hit-rate and also to have an efficient, speedy ordering service in place for the titles that, inevitably, aren’t in stock.

Making the product look attractive is what retailing is all about.  No room for special pleading there, perhaps; except that a bookshop contains hundreds of items that have been arranged according to a system (by category, alphabetical order, Dewey decimal, whatever) and the more successful the shop is in attracting customers, the more likely it is that these items will be lifted out for inspection and returned to the wrong place.  The staff of a sizeable bookshop spends a large percentage of its time just tidying up the shelves.  Then there is the risk of damage.  No bookseller wants to stop a customer from browsing – it is what gives bookshops their unique feel; what makes them, in jargon parlance, ‘destination stores’ – but at the same time repeated handling is bound to leave some of the stock grubby, dog-eared or broken-backed. (One of my pet hates is to see someone callously ‘back’ a paperback.  The screeching of gum and binding as this evil act is perpetrated and the resulting mutilation is as hard to bear as watching a butterfly being broken on a wheel.)  Finally, there is the problem of outright theft – again, the curse of all retailers, but particularly difficult to control when the items being pilfered will slip easily into a bag or pocket.  Security systems help, but they are not infallible.  Bookselling margins are already tiny before being further eroded by ‘shrinkage’.

Finally, there is the challenge of making sure that the customer finds the book that she or he wants, or is even surprised and delighted by being offered a book that pleases but of whose existence s/he has been previously unaware.  In order to achieve this, a bookseller needs not just to understand  the local market, as already mentioned, but to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of both backlist and forthcoming titles, along with a highly-developed power of recall.  This is much more difficult than it sounds and is where the bookselling profession really comes into its own.  Booksellers make serendipitous links between what the customer likes and what is on the shelves, dozens of times a day.  Unfortunately, you only get to hear about the times when they drop the occasional stitch.  For example, one of the national newspapers once ran a prominent story on how its reporter had gone into a well-known bookshop and asked for Amsterdam, the novel by Ian McEwan, only to be directed to the travel section.  The member of staff in question was a Saturday girl and, needless to say, she was mortified.

Apart from the three great planks upon which bookselling is constructed – getting the books, displaying them, connecting them with the right customers – there is a myriad of other tasks associated with running a good bookshop, from handling goods-in and returns to keeping the shop floor areas clean and hazard-free to managing complex staff rotas, meeting publishers’ representatives and organising events.

I think that I have just proved the case that good booksellers are special.  And the real crème de la crème of the bookselling industry reinforce their specialness by keeping this to themselves.  They take a modest delight in practising their skills in an understated way, knowing full well that the best way to win and keep customers is by understanding that ars est celare artem.

Christina James Gravatar (1)Christina James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire.  She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher.  She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history.  She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name. You can follow Christina on her blog at www.christinajamesblog.com and on twitter @CAJamesWriter.

The Magic of Short Stories

Today’s guest post is written by author Carys Bray, winner of Salt Publishing’s 2012 Scott Prize. Thank you, Carys. I am really enjoying the complexity of these short stories which are honest and gritty accounts of family life, bound up in a collection which leaves its mark long after the pages stop turning. Highly recommended. Carys also had a recent piece of short fiction published in Literary Magazine, Litro. My Brother is Missing is an emotionally charged story and just as gripping as her collection.

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I gate-crashed an undergraduate seminar a couple of weeks ago in order to listen to guest speaker, Chris Beckett. Chris’ collection The Turing Test won the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize and his novel Dark Eden was the Sunday Times SF novel of the year. During the seminar Chris talked about the way he approaches short stories by combining seemingly disparate elements in order to make his fiction three-dimensional. I once heard short story writer Adam Marek say something similar – I can’t quote him exactly, but he talked about how he often takes something fantastic and combines it with something ordinary.

I don’t believe there’s a ‘recipe’ for writing successful short stories, but I suspect Chris Beckett and Adam Marek are on to something when they talk about the way they mix their ingredients: short stories need depth and many of my favourite stories blend the mundane with the magic of the impossible.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is about a father whose son’s Tamagotchi has AIDS. On the surface, the story is about an impossible thing – a terminally ill toy, but it’s really about a father’s relationship with his son and the fundamental helplessness of parents. The father in the story can’t fix the Tamagotchi and he can’t ‘fix’ his son’s developmental issues. There is clearly a connection between the Tamagotchi’s illness and the son’s development – the metaphor may sound laboured as I attempt to dissect it, but it isn’t. The story is touching and funny, a beautiful exploration of a father’s need to make everything right.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is about an elderly woman who is both fascinated and repulsed by new technology. Clarissa is an Outsider in the Urban Consensual Field, a virtual city constructed in the image of London as it was when it ‘still seemed feasible for millions of physical human beings to casually consume what they wanted of the world’s resources.’ As one of the few physical people left, Clarissa can view the consensual world via an implanted switch. Old and frail, she embarks on a journey through the ruins of London to see the lights of Piccadilly Circus as it was in her childhood. It’s a wonderfully clever story set in an extraordinary world. Beckett addresses aging, our perception of reality and whether something is real if it can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch.

I think there’s something wonderful about these impossible stories. At first glance they’re entertaining, but they’re also illuminating; the blend of the familiar and the impracticable can challenge a reader’s perspective and assumptions.

When I started writing short stories I had tremendous fun creating improbable scenarios; supermarkets where children are bought, a baby carved out of ice, and an old lady constructing a gingerbread house. But in each case I suppose I was also writing, or at least thinking, about something else; the commodification of children and childhood, infertility, and the way outsiders are treated.

I’ve been working on a novel for some time now, but earlier this week I spent a day editing a short story I began last summer. It was lovely to handle something small again, to attempt to blend seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Tobias Wolff said, ‘There’s a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off.’ I agree, and I think that same joy can be experienced when reading short stories, particularly the kind of stories that illuminate the everyday with a little bit of impossible magic.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Tamagotchi’ is found in his new collection The Stone Thrower, published by Comma Press.

Chris Beckett’s story ‘Piccadilly Circus’ is found in his collection The Turing Test published by Elastic Press.

Adam Marek’s story ‘Remember the Bride Who Got Stung’ is available to read at Thresholds, the international short story forum.

Read about Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden in the Guardian.

Author pic from EH Prize edited Carys Bray’s short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines. She currently teaches at Edge Hill University and is a co-editor at Paraxis. She is working on a PhD and a novel.

 

Short Stories and Flash Fiction

Having spent months editing Take Me to the Castle I have missed the writing process, which is what writers love. Editors scour written work for grammar, punctuation, style, consistency. Publishers focus on pulling a book together professionally and marketing it to readers. Writers love to craft novels and stories. I think we come unstuck when it is time to take a scalpel to the writing and cut out or change words, re-read, re-write, and change any inconsistencies. So I decided to take action and write some short stories and flash fiction. This has served two purposes – It has given me the opportunity to write in a shorter timescale than I would a whole novel, and it has sharpened my skills as a writer. I will keep you posted on the release of these. My aim is to publish an anthology in the future, with a collection of short stories and poems.

I have had some communication with the lovely Alison Moore, author of The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She says that she began her journey into writing by writing short stories, and that it tightened her style and honed her craft. I had already read ‘When the Door Closed, It was Dark’ in The Best British Short Stories 2011 by Salt Publishing, and loved it. So I set to work on short story writing and have also written flash fiction, generally under 350 words. For the writer it teaches you to keep the essence of your story within limited boundaries, and for the reader it is a pleasure to read something which is short and intense – like a good espresso!

Before I get back to my coffee, I just want to leave you with an exclusive short story by Hilary Mantel, The Long QT. It is striking in so many ways. Let me know what you think.

What are your experiences with reading or writing short stories and flash fiction? Do you prefer these styles of writing to novel-length work or vice versa? Have your say and feel free to share any of your own reading or writing experiences with short stories or flash fiction.

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