Linda Mannheim has been shortlisted for the Edge Hill 2020 Prize for her second collection of stories This Way to Departures (Influx Press), which is a deeply affecting portrait of American society and the constant search for a place to call ‘home’. Her short fiction has also appeared in Granta, 3:AM Magazine, Ambit, and Litro. We caught up with Linda to ask her a few questions about writing and the short story.
What is the relationship between your identity and your writing? Do they affect each other?
I’ve just been reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia — a collection of letters, interviews, and outtakes from her novels – and in it she asserts (several times) that her identity is in her fiction. Her assertion got me thinking about how my identity shapes my fiction. Many of my characters are based on people I grew up with and my first short story collection is set in the New York neighbourhood where I’m from. My concerns and obsessions are apparent in my writing. I’ve thought more about how my identity affects my writing than the other way around, but I’ve spent most of my life thinking of myself as a writer, even when it was hard to write. My sense was that, if I didn’t think of myself that way, my writing could be taken away from me – I would get no time, no space to write, and would have to deal with demands that I do something else. Also, even during the times when I couldn’t write – because of having to take on other work or because I was dealing with a crisis – I was thinking about my writing and the prose I would work on as soon as I was able again.
How have you found writing over lockdown? Did any particular book/s or writer/s help you get through it?
At the start of lockdown, I was editing rather than writing, working on Barbed Wire Fever, a project about seeking and providing refuge. The Barbed Wire Fever blog hosted guest posts by refugees and people working with refugee led groups and every time a post came in, I felt connected to a community of writers, which was an amazing thing at a point when we, most of us, were literally working in isolation. One of the guest posts was called ‘But Everything Has an Ending’ and was from the perspective of people facing the pandemic after already dealing with upheaval when they had to flee their homes. It was about getting through hard times by knowing they’ll eventually end, and I found that really comforting. I also found it really comforting to be reading pieces by people who’d dealt with enormous changes and figured out how to live with those changes. I was able to write before I was able to read a book again. The first piece I wrote after lockdown began was for 3:AM in Lockdown and it was about the strangeness of walking through a city that was shut down.
What are your feelings when you sit down to the blank page?
I feel an incredible amount of excitement. For a long time, writing was the thing I got to do after I did everything else – after the day job, after studying, after dealing with other responsibilities. And whenever I had time off, whenever I had holiday time, all I wanted to do was sit down and write. I was also discouraged from writing quite a lot – you can’t earn a living this way, etc – that I sometimes have an incredible feeling of vengefulness when I sit down to write: joyful vengefulness.
Syd Field says that before a scriptwriter writes a single word of dialogue, they should know 4 things about their screenplay. The beginning, the end and Plot points 1 & 2. Do you need to know anything before starting a story? And if so, what?
I usually know a few scenes in a story, and I almost never know the ending – if I did I’d be bored. I usually know the beginning of a story, but that doesn’t mean that beginning will still be there in subsequent drafts. My experience is that you don’t need to know anything before you start writing. You just sit down and write – writing is an act of discovery. I think what Syd Field does is explain how to write a particular kind of screenplay in a format that’s right for a particular genre of Hollywood films, but you don’t have to stick to that pattern to write a screenplay or anything else. There’s a lovely moment in The Last Days of the City, Tamer el Said’s film about four friends in Cairo just before the Arab Spring, where you see the protagonist Khalid, a filmmaker, arguing with his editor about how to arrange the footage he’s shot, and Khalid says, ‘Let’s move the middle to the beginning.’ And you realise that’s what el Said, in piecing together the film you’re watching, has done and it works perfectly.
Finish these statements in no more than six words:
• Stories are … How we define ourselves.
• Stories should … Be honest and be brave.
• Stories don’t … Have to follow rules.
Here is the first sentence of the first story readers encounter in your collection, “ ‘I’d do anything for you,’ Sam told me once, when we were making love.” Seeing it now, isolated like this, if you could rewrite it, would you and how would you change it?
I wouldn’t change it. I love that first line. It came to me before anything else in the story did. It was part of a joke that I had with someone in real life, and I was thinking about that while I rode my bike along the beach in Miami one day, which (of course) was one of those days with a perfect blue sky and crashing turquoise waves and guys playing volleyball on the sand, and I thought: Oh wow – what if I started a story with this, and what if, after joking about film noir, the characters began to realise they were in a film noir? I couldn’t have started that story any other way.