A short while ago, author and editor Vanessa Gebbie very kindly asked me if I'd like to host an interview with her on my blog as part of her virtual book tour of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. I was more than happy to oblige. So, here is my very first interview.
Welcome to the blog, Vanessa. So, how did the idea for Short Circuit come about? How did you decide which writers would be included, and the topics that they would write about?
It came about during a wander round Cork in September 2008 with Salt director Jen Hamilton-Emery, after the Frank O’Connor Festival lunch with the amazing Jhumpa Lahiri. We were blathering, as you do, and I said, ‘You’ve got a gap in your provision’. Which did not refer to her coat being unbuttoned on a cold afternoon...
It was true. Salt had a how-to book for poetry, written by Jen’s husband, poet and fellow director, Chris. But nowt for the short story. Jen sent me an email a week or so later, saying ‘that idea of yours? Do it!’.
How did I pick the contributors? Easy. I had met a few short story prize winners on the circuit and through networking, superb writers who also happened to be experienced writing teachers– so I went to them first. (Er… when I say prize winners, I mean from the top comps - The National Short Story Prize, Bridport, Fish et al… it seems there are zillions of ‘prize winners’ these days, from comps organised by god knows who or what. It’s important to make the distinction, sadly.)
‘Please would you write a chapter for a new book?’ I said to them ‘Let me know what craft element you would like to talk about. And I also want you to talk about what it is like being a writer. Your writing processes. How to use the craft and how you work. And I want lists of stories you love. Oh, and a few writing exercises. Would that be OK?’
I asked 23 writers, and 22 said yes straight away. I think that’s right…amazingly, the craft elements panned out brilliantly without too much interference from me.
What was it like to edit Short Circuit? Tell me a little bit about the process. What were the challenges of the role, and what were the perks?
It was lovely. I just let them get on with it, after agreeing broad parameters for each contributor. It was important to have them speak, in their words, their voices, their thoughts. Not to have me interfering. I was just ringmaster, working with friends or almost-friends, people who were equally passionate about writing and about the short story in particular. The challenges have to include working to necessary deadlines, and herding writers is like herding cats only harder. I also had to shelve my own writing for a long while as I found I couldn’t do both at the same time. But it was fun. I got to know one or two of the writers better through the process, and I value that hugely.
There are quite a few books in the current market about the writing process. Specifically, what makes Short Circuit different? What do you think makes it stand out from the crowd?
There are some very good ones, but there are also some duff ones. I have found many how-to books unhelpful, purely because they are a single voice telling me how they write. And in the end, my response is ‘Oh OK, so that’s how YOU do it. But what about the others?’
Of course, that is a gross over-simplification. Many single-author books cover valuable craft information and guidance. But in the end, I often feel short-changed, and end up reacting against what I’m being ‘told’ to do!
When I was given the commission to do Short Circuit, I went back to first principles and decided to put together the book I would have loved when I started out. And that meant this:
1. It would be written not by one successful writer but by many.
2. It would treat the reader as an intelligent adult, not as a kid who knows nothing.
3. The writers would be top prize winners as well as well-published, (meaning they could write!) but also, I wanted them to be gifted writing teachers as well.
4. It would cover the craft elements in a systematic way, but from many different voices, different perspectives. It would allow me to discover which voices chimed with mine.
5. It would give me ideas for further exploration. Not ‘writing exercises’, as such… but ideas to expand my own experience, ways to broaden my writing practice.
6. The processes described would be totally personal. Each writer would reveal a little of themselves, talk about 'behind the scenes', if you like.
7. The writers would not necessarily agree with each other. Give me 100 writers and I bet you have 100 different ways of approaching the job.
8. The writers would be honest. They would talk about their own ups and downs and their own strategies for unlocking their creativity. They would not make writing out to be something easy, but something engaging and part of them as people.
9. It would be like sitting down with a series of friends, who just happen to be strong writers…friends who want to share their love of writing with you.
10. It would NOT be stuffy and academic. Although it would need to cover tough topics, it must do that engagingly – not make the newer writer feel small. Just fired up!
You tell me – Did I do any or all of that??
I'd say so, pretty much! You wrote a chapter of the book on short story openings. What made you decide to write about that, and if you could have written on a second topic, what would it have been?
I just waited until I knew what they were all doing, what topics they were covering -then added what was missing. A few had mentioned short story openings in passing, and their importance, but no one else wanted to concentrate solely on that. I think story openings are so fundamental, not only to the story but to the process of writing them… so it was a perfect one for me to tackle. And I put it at the end. Because you’ve never finished, with this writing stuff, have you? You just assimilate info and start again.
I also have a chapter on writing for competitions. It was commissioned originally by The New Writer magazine.
If I’d done another (which I wouldn’t…!) it would have been on theme. (On the ‘why’ of the writing, not the plot!). But that was already done far better than I ever could.
Some of the chapters in the book are interviews with other writers – with you as the interviewer. Could you tell me a little bit about your interviewing process? What, in your opinion, makes a good interview?
Yup. Two writers (Tobias Hill and Clare Wigfall) wanted to contribute, but time and work constraints meant they couldn’t write entire chapter-essays. So we decided to have conversations instead, with me wielding a pen and paper and scribbling notes. I had wonderful natters over the phone with Clare and with Tobias. Hours of phone bill! I had questions ready, after they decided what areas they would like to concentrate on. And then I just let the conversation run as they will.
What makes a good interview? One in which it is natural, flows well, and gets the information across in an interesting way, in which the interviewer probes a bit, perhaps? But in which the interviewee says exactly what they mean in their own words and voice. I sent both writers my draft chapters, and they tweaked the drafts. Nice people!
Each chapter in the book ends with some writing exercises. I’ve always thought that different writing exercises work for different kinds of writers. Do you do many writing exercises? If so, can you give us a few examples of the exercises you’ve personally found most useful?
Some of the writers added ‘ideas for exploration’ – and others didn’t. Salt Publishing decided they wanted them after each chapter, to standardise the book, and so either the writers had another think and came up with something, or I did.
I like trying different things, personally. I find it good to stretch the writing muscles, and try things out that you don’t do normally.
The best one, for me, is doing flash writing. It’s a great buster of writer’s block, and opens up all sorts of good things, if you let it.
The book’s subtitle is The Guide to the Art of the Short Story, but many of the contributors talk about flash fiction, too. What do you think are the main differences between flash fiction and short stories? Is the writing process similar, or vastly different?
The only difference is the length. Written stories come in many different forms – and we love to label them. For me, the best length for a story is the length it wanted to be in the first place, without to much interference from the writer. If you think about it, all a ‘novel’ is is a very long story. A novella is a slightly ‘less long’ story. Etc etc! But I think many of the writers here are aware of the power of using the flash process when they write, as I outlined above. Letting go, and spilling out, then editing. Or not even editing much… sometimes it is possible to write publishable pieces very fast using flash techniques. Watch out for workshops from two of the Short Circuit contributors working in partnership on flash and flashing!
Your anthology of award-winning short stories, Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Publishing), has had great success, and I hear you’ll soon be publishing a new anthology of shorts. What is it about writing short fiction that appeals to you? Have you ever tried to write a novel?
Glass Bubble came out in March last year, and has done fine. It is ranked 16th by Salt in their league table of ‘bestsellers of all time’. (Which is slightly gigglesome – they’ve not been going for all time, but it’s still nice to know it has done relatively OK.) And yes, Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures comes out in the Spring of 2010. Not sure of the date yet. Ed’s Wife is a series of some 80-90 micro-fictions that began life as a daily flash fiction exercise on Critter’s Bar, and they had such fantastic responses from everyone, especially the blokes, who loved them. So I thought, hmm, I’m on to something here...
Why do I like writing short? Short stories are difficult to write well, and I like the challenge. I like the challenge of creating a believable world with believable characters doing something meaningful, in a paragraph or so, so that the reader wants to find out…
I also get bored easily. I’m not sure I have yet found something that will keep me engaged for a couple of years – and if I’m not engaged, the reader won’t be either. So although am writing something I call a novel, (which is approaching 100,000 words!), it is actually a linked series of short stories, linked characters, all set in the same place. I’ve been advised to apply for an Arts Council grant to polish it… we’ll see!
It’s been said that there is not much of a market for short fiction; it seems that a lot of people write it, but not many people read it. Would you say there was much truth in that statement?
No!!! Read The Short Review, Tania Hershman’s site dedicated to the review of short story collections. There are so many being published by mainstream and independent presses, she can’t keep up. They wouldn’t publish them if they don’t sell. It’s a business, after all.
Pulitzer prizes have been awarded to two short story collections in the last couple of years, and the number of enormous cash prizes being chucked at short stories is amazing (Sunday Times, National SS award, Manchester). And that just the ‘literary’ end, if that means owt.
The genre short story market seems huge and lucrative. Women’s short fiction thrives, horror shorts thrive, fantasy shorts thrive. Erotica shorts thrive. They are just different to novels. There doesn’t seem to be any problem, to this reader/writer.
And lastly, ‘Short Circuit’ is full of musings and advice about writing short stories. But if you could give aspiring writers only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Short Circuit is about writing well, full stop. Sure, the advice is focussed on the short forms, as that is what we love, and what Salt is known for. But many of us also love longer work too. Advice? I’d say this. Just write. Forget the length.
Good craft advice is diamond stuff, and it applies whether you are writing a tiny micro-piece or a novel. It applies whether you write horror, fantasy, literary, crime, women’s romances or commercial. Just write. But write as well as you can. There’s no point in not.
My Mum used to say, ‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’ Thanks Mum!
Thanks Sophie for such brilliant questions, and for hosting me and my new baby on our travels!
Thank you, Vanessa.
Click to buy Short Circuit from Salt Publishing with a 20% discount.