I get asked to review a lot of stuff these days and to be honest I turn most requests down. Whilst I like to imagine myself some queen bitch who will tell it like it is, the truth is that I actually hate to upset anyone if I dislike their work. On the other hand I have no desire to turn my blog into some kind of puff factory where I churn out positive reviews for fellow authors in the hope that one day they will reciprocate should I have something of my own to sell either, so I tend to say no to requests unless I think I'm going to be genuinely enthusiastic about the book.
Hurray for Short Circuit!
It's a guide to writing short stories written by experienced authors and teachers and is packed with essays, advice and exercises. It's a text book that will keep on giving, and one can dip in and out. Having trouble with your ending? Check out the relevant chapters here. Stuck for inspiration? Try one of the exercises. (And so on...)
This ace book was edited by Vanessa Gebbie who answered some of my rubbish questions! (One question is inaccurate but I left it in because Vanessa's answer is so good and if I reworded it I'd make her look a bit nuts!)
As editor of Short Circuit - A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, how did you select the contributing authors?
Easy. I’d either met (thanks to the comp circuit) or otherwise been in touch with (blogosphere etc) so many fantastic writers – I drew up a wish list. I was keen to have only half Salt authors in the main part of the book, for a start. Then I looked at how ‘open’ the people were, whether they were easy to talk to/unstuffy – those I’d met and those I hadn’t. You can tell a lot from blogs etc. I didn’t want any stuffy old academic up one’s self dahling text. Writing is NOT the province of academia, or any ‘set’. I wanted a predominance of top prizewinners AND the majority had to be great writing teachers. I wasn't tough on myself or anything...
Do you think it's possible for anyone to become a good short story writer or does there have to be natural talent?
I think you can learn to be a good writer. Craft skills can be learned – and writing is a craft, just like making furniture. But we can’t all be Chippendales (and I don’t mean the strippers…).
On top of learning craft, there has to be something – a way of seeing the world, a need to express something, an original mind. You can teach someone to open their eyes a bit more, to see through a writer’s eyes… I believe that. But beyond that…what is genius? Where does it come from? No idea! (If you find the answer, can we go halves?)
Can people starting their writing journey learn practical tips for writing short stories by reading Short Circuit?
Absolutely. When I was planning the book, I decided all I could do was create the book I would have loved when I started out. So that if someone picks it up they are instantly in the company of a group of fabulous writers, who are all generous with their time, advice and care. Care? What am I blathering about? Yes – CARE. Because if you (not you – know what I mean…?) just go round telling a new writer that there is only ONE way to do things, YOUR way - you really don’t care or understand at all.
I wanted to send people off on trails of questions, try this, try that, consider this, consider that. And find out what works for them. Not for me. I am irrelevant as far as their writing journey goes, see? But I can put a range of ideas in front of them, let them discover, stretch. Get it wrong! Then gradually, get it right. But avoid some elephant traps along the way.
And people further into their own writing journey?
I also wanted a book that I could turn to when I’m more experienced, but jaded. When I find the strategies I employ let me down and I want to try something else. Or when I am down, and want to remind myself that others get down too, and find this thing hard. Everyone’s honest, in the book. No one ‘flannels’, I don’t think…
I love the exercises at the end of each chapter. Sometimes a writer becomes stuck for inspiration and these are perfect springboards into creativity. Do you have a personal favourite exercise?
No, not really, apart from the exercise that might work today as opposed to yesterday. The one that usually works is flash writing… just spilling it out, not censoring yourself.
And the other is, cutting out the feedback loop by switching off the screen. Or sticking an old teeshirt over it. And typing like the devil…(on a laptop, turn the font colour to white… but try not to hit caps lock.)
What is the worst piece of writing advice you have been given?
Can I have three??
1) “Women writers over fifty might as well recognise that they are not going to get published, so just have a bit of fun.” (Visiting editor of now defunct lit mag (ha ha), Sussex University, 2003).
2) “Learn to write fiction by writing a novel.”
3) “The short story is just a stepping stone to the real thing – the novel.” (The short story is NOTHING like a novel. I know this, and challenge anyone to a duel if they say it is.)
And the best?
1) “Read read read write write write submit submit submit. Seek out rejections. Knock your ego sideways.”
I found myself "Yes, yes-ing..." some of the chapters as I recognised my own writing self, and other times delighting in the clarity of someone expressing something I had previously felt intuitively (Elaine Chiew's marvellous chapter on endings will feed into my own work I think, and Alison MacLeod's chapter on risk taking felt very true. I loved Paul Magrs chapter and will reread his list until it all sticks in my head.)
Did you disagree with anything said?
Not really, because it is not didactic. I tend to automatically disagree if anyone is didactic! If anyone had said THIS is how it MUST be done, then I’d disagree on principle. But even when (for example) Tobias Hill took me to task for making an assumption about something, in our interview - voice/vocabulary use/charactersisation – I thought hey, this is great, because it challenged my preconceptions, made me think. And that’s exactly what I wanted it to do for others.
I can see places where the other writers are saying they work in a different way to me – but you can’t disagree with that, can you?! It just opens my eyes to the range of things we do as writers.
Did you learn anything new?
Yes!! It’s so easy to get into a rut, isn’t it? A mindset that says ‘this is how Vanessa Gebbie works best and I can’t possibly try anything else…’. I know I can get like that easily – and I know it’s out of fear. Fear that I won’t be able to recreate the success I had last year/week/month again. Fear that it’s finished.
But ruts are only made in mud, when mud is soft. I learned from all the amazing writers, their openness, willingness to share - that it is possible to be successful in many many different ways, that it is important to try new things. That mud can be reshaped. (How’s that for a muddled metaphor?!)
As far as I can tell (from my not at all scientific method of quickly scan reading) the single most recommended writer of short stories is Raymond Carver. What do you think makes him so special?
I just know my reaction to a story like A Small Good Thing is visceral, and that this is what I want to achieve in my reader, in however small a way. That he really does write stories that make you forget you are reading (Viz Jon Wyatt of Bridport) and does it so seemingly effortlessly. No poncy writerliness. I think a lot of writers appreciate the technical superiority of his work.
You asked each of the 24 contributors to name their favourite short stories. There are fewer female writers on these lists than males, and six writers, including yourself, only mentioned male authors. Why do you think this may be?
Oy. Petina Gappah is a lady. (Oh gosh, of course I know Ms Gappah is a woman but in my rubbish scanning I didn't see her name in Vanessa's list. My bad!)
But I take your point. Hand on heart – I have no idea. I also know that if I was asked the same question on any day of the week, the answer to ‘give me your six fave short stories’ would change. I’d only just read the Yann Martel story for example, was blown away by it, so put it there because I want everyone to read it. The same with the Gappah – I loved her collection for many many reasons, not the least that quite apart from being bloody good stories, it also taught me something – mostly about my own ignorance. And hey, what vindication of my taste, that she goes and wins Guardian First Book Award months later…!
Maybe it’s a sex thing. Maybe I generally respond better to writing that happens to come from a male brain/heart rather than a female one? Maybe I find writing by blokes who can express themselves beautifully, rawly, with meaning, somewhat ‘sexy’ (The Ledge, Ballistics) Maybe I don’t read enough female writers? Maybe I enjoy work by female writers, but generally, I don’t REMEMBER the work as vividly. Why is that? You tell me.
Or maybe (most likely) I just picked my fave stories, not worrying whether the writer of the stories happened to be the owner of a dick.
Do you have a favourite female short story writer?
No. I enjoy Annie Proulx, Ali Smith, Anne Enright, A L Kennedy, Alice Munro , and thats just some of the 'A's... I greatly enjoy the work of all the female writers in Short Circuit, Salt and Non-Salt and people keep telling me I ought to read this and this and that… aaagh. I am trying!
If so, why did she not make your favourite short stories list?
Cos I enjoy hundreds of short story writers, and it doesn’t cross my mind to consider what physical characteristics the writer has. I’m not sure it’s relevant. The words are what matters, innit?! and Sara, thank you for having me and Short Circuit on your blog. I appreciate it hugely, and its been fun. Thanks for such wonderful and searching questions!!