Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Keeping the Faith (or why I write short fiction)

The best birthday present I ever received changed my life. I was 23, an actress, playing Eliza in Pygmalion on tour in Italy for seven months and I’d forgotten to pack an English book to read. On the first day of the tour the other actors produced and discussed their hefty book piles. I was so embarrassed to have overlooked this essential piece of kit that I feigned indifference and spent a lot of time studying Shaw’s profuse notes that accompany the playtext.

After English degree finals the year before, I felt I couldn’t bear to glance at a line of fiction again. I enrolled on a physical theatre course in Paris (no English, no literature) then founded a performance company with friends. We devised our own work from improvisations and scoffed at the notion of setting scenes down on the page when we’d be liable to change them next night as the mood took us.

A year on, broke from the non-existent profit earned on our profit-sharing tour, the group split and I landed the Italian job. Criss-crossing from Turin to Calabria in the pre-dawn dark for a series of one-night-stands, for the first time in months I longed to take comfort in a book.

My birthday fell in a week’s break, and the company stopped off in the Etruscan hilltop town of Arezzo. At the hotel a parcel was waiting for me, the size and weight of a breeze-block. It was The World of the Short Story, a 20th Century Collection edited by Clifton Fadiman, an 850-page anthology of international short stories, sent by my parents. The postage alone was ten times the cover price of the book. The book itself was priceless.

It was ideally suited to life on tour. The vivid but truncated glimpses of other worlds were fantastically sustaining on the dull stretches of autostrada between gigs. I started with authors I already knew, Fitzgerald’s gut-wrenching Babylon Revisited and Lawrence’s pitch-perfect Odour of Chrysanthemums, but it was exhilarating to read them alongside new writers and compare styles and effects. Carver’s A Small, Good Thing left me shaken with tears in my eyes – the kind of response that three years of cold textual analysis at college had almost killed. For some time Carver coloured the world around me. The long distance lorry drivers knocking back 50% proof grappa with their espressos in service stations at five in the morning seemed to come from his pages. Colette’s unfinished final sentence in The Other Wife left me breathless with admiration at her confidence, at the power of suggestion gained by…

I became hooked on the singular energy of the form, offering up a scene which in itself is whole, deeply satisfying, and yet is like a wedge of light onto an entire world, fully realisable only in the reader’s own head.

This, for me, is the key to why the short story surpasses other literary forms. It allows the reader to complete the novel of the story in her imagination. It supplies exactly enough to set the mind winging. A novel, however engaging, comes ready assembled from someone else’s imagination. The act of reading it is inherently more passive. It may be less tidy structurally than short fiction, it may be the impressively wild and far-reaching imperfect form, but its wholeness can subdue a reader’s own imagination. I want to play a more active and reactive role in the fictive world the author has created. I want to run it on, adapt it, choose the characters’ next moves in my mind.

John Saul, in a recent issue of The Author, wrote that, “Short stories are not appropriate for small bites of time, as is often claimed; they are usually quite demanding.” I don’t agree. The amount of satisfaction gained outweighs the time invested in reading. That is their immeasurable, unique strength. It is possible to read a short story in a brief snatch of time while the baby sleeps, or the train transports you from city to suburb. Because the story is demanding it will continue to fill your field of vision, will enrich you as you walk from the station, prepare supper, hang washing, scrub floors. But it doesn’t make the same physical demands on your time as a novel does. Your hands are available for the monotonous tasks of daily life while your mind remains freed up in the world of the story.

The next tour I landed was a year and a half in Hamlet around the UK in a van with knackered suspension. I took Carver, Munro, TC Boyle and Wolff. It was possible to read a whole story on the tour bus before car-sickness kicked in, but the story would still be swirling in my mind as I crawled under the trestle stage during set-up to brace the rostra together, or tracked down the nearest laundrette to speed-wash Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s white shirts.

During inevitable bouts of unemployment I worked as a waitress. It was frustrating having to wait to be granted permission from a director or producer before being creative but it never occurred to me to write. With hindsight I see that even at college I revered the students who wrote. I could blithely lumber onto a stage, hopelessly miscast, wreck a show and claim loftily that the process not the product was what mattered. But attempt to put words on a page and risk failing? No way. I thought the written word had to appear ready-perfect, dictated from above.

In rep at Northern Stage, something remarkable happened. We were working on an English translation of a modern Russian play, Stars in the Morning Sky, and our director asked Lev Dodin of the Maly Theatre St Petersburg, who had directed it originally, to spend a fortnight rehearsing with us. He was so charismatic that every single cast member turned up for work one day, sat around for three hours, ran some scenes and lines whilst waiting for him to show up, before realising it was Sunday, our day off. Lev asked us to write the stories of how our characters had made their way to the disused barracks where the play was set. The other actors moaned. Some refused. I was baffled. It seemed the most joyous instruction anyone could set. No one had given me permission to write a story since junior school. I worked hard on the story and afterwards Lev complimented me on it. When that show was over I returned to London and made the decision to stop touring long enough to enrol in a writing class.

I wrote short stories. They had modest success. All those hours of scrutinising every last comma to work out how my favourite authors achieved what they did had paid off. But everyone I knew in and outside the literary profession said I should be writing a novel. Short stories don’t sell. So I did. I spent five years dragging my heels over an unreadably bad novel. It was slog and duty. Short stories would pop into my head like friends suggesting enticing sprees. Most of the time I shunned them, too busy nursing their ailing relative, but once or twice I truanted and the relief was immeasurable. In time, I had two unreadably bad novels in box files gathering dust, reinforcing my growing belief I couldn’t write. They were certainly in no fit state to submit to an agent or publisher. And what good is a writer who hasn’t even submitted one full-length script after beavering away for the best part of ten years?

I logged onto an internet writing forum and whinged about the difficulty making the transition from short to long fiction. Several authors consoled me – yes it is tough but necessary. Then one, the women’s magazine fiction writer, Geri Ryan, popped up and said, 'Why are you bothering? If you like short fiction, write it. Submit it. Hunt for a publisher.' It took her comments to help me realise I had hundreds of pages of short stories. And nothing to lose.

With hindsight it seems embarrassingly passive to have needed another external push before pursuing my ambition, but the framework isn’t there for short story writers as it is for novelists and poets. Poets expect to self-publish pamphlets and sell them at reading and performances. Novelists expect to perfect their first three chapters and a synopsis then send them out and play that waiting game, not unlike the one actors play, for an agent and publisher to give them permission to succeed. What do we do? Submit to competitions, post stories for free online? There’s no career rubric for short fiction writers in the UK.

Nevertheless I sent a collection to three American publishers, one of whom asked me for a collection of flash fiction as these were too long. Two turned it down flat. I also submitted to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize for a debut collection with the mulish attitude that I was pouring the £18 reading fee down the drain as the chances were so slim. Almost a year later I went to bed one evening at eight o’clock as I’d been up throughout the previous night caring for my ill son. Next morning there were seventy emails in my inbox most of which said ‘Congratulations!’ in the title line and I hadn’t a clue what for. Salt had posted their Scott Prize winners online and I was one. With the prize came simultaneous publication in the UK, USA and Australia. The book comes out this November. It’s called Hot Kitchen Snow.

I wanted to write about this experience from first love to publication as an opening blog, because I'm presuming visitors to this blog are also keen readers or writers of short fiction and at times the converted are owed a sermon. We are among the minority who love, buy, read and write short fiction. Sometimes that obsession feels like pursuit of a loony branch of faith when everyone else is orthodox. But if your first literary love is the short story form, if that’s what you read and write by choice, consider sticking at it. If the novel just doesn’t beguile you, why write one out of duty? There are thousand upon thousand of novel-in-my-blood authors out there hankering for publication, and if you’re not one of them, why join that hungry queue? The form we practise, read, love, deserves to be put first. If we take it seriously, rather than dismiss it as a minor flirtation before setting our sights on its more successful brother, then perhaps we can help to re-establish its importance.

My mother, who posted that brick of a book to Italy all those years ago, came to visit recently, picked up a book of short fiction I’d recommended, (Kyle Minor’s brilliant In The Devil’s Territory sent from America) and stroked it. ‘Short stories were highly regarded when I was young,’ she said with such affection for a book she’d not yet read. ‘It’s high time they had a renaissance.’

Hot Kitchen Snow by Susannah Rickards is out now. You can order it direct from this blog, FREE P&P.


Also available direct from Salt Publishing, from Amazon and all booksellers (though they may have to order it in!)

4 comments:

  1. Fabulous post and congratulations on your new blog and your new book!
    This is very timely - I've just re-reading Ken Robinson's The Element (defined as the ability to do something well combined with the passion to do it) and you are a shining example of someone who has found hers.
    Susiex

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  2. Hi Susie,

    Thank you for being first commenter! The Ken Robinson sounds interesting - like Cameron's theory about the Vein of Gold?

    Will email you about festival and writing marathon soon - just getting dates fixed with my students.

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  3. What a wonderful blog, almost like one of your stories, rich and atmospheric, full and short! Welcome to the blogsphere and I know I speak for many many people when I thank your parents profusely for sending you that brick of a book. Amazing to look back and see how our lives might have turned out differently, isn't it?!

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  4. T, that's a lovely response. Thank you so much. xxx

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