Ruby Cowling

Ruby Cowling’s short fiction has won The White Review Short Story Prize, the London Short Story Prize and the Grist POV anthology competition. It has also been shortlisted in contests from Glimmer Train, Short Fiction, Wasafiri and Aesthetica. Publication credits include Lighthouse; The Letters Page; The Lonely Crowd; Unthology; the Galley Beggar Press Singles Club; I Am Because You Are (a Freight Books collection of work inspired by the theory of General Relativity.) This Paradise is her debut collection.

What is the relationship between your identity and your writing? Do they affect each other?

Well, as a white person I’m a member of the majority visible ethnic group in this country, and that certainly affects my writing as I’m under zero pressure to include, discuss, define or account for anything to do with my racial identity in my writing, unlike writers of other ethnicities. I’d like to see a situation where all writers can enjoy the same freedom.

Appreciating that freedom makes me all the more rabidly determined not to get pigeonholed in other ways, so I tend to keep quiet on all other aspects of my identity and I think it ought to be okay for any writer to do that, as long as you acknowledge that not everyone necessarily has that choice (though there are writers who thrive on foregrounding their identity, which is also fine). The fact is I’m really not interested in writing about “myself”. I’m interested in the world and how it works, and how fascinating people are in general, not “me”. But I can’t deny that when and where I was born and grew up and my specific neurology and life experiences will inevitably affect my writing, and the various labels someone might attach to “me” (correctly or otherwise) are likely to affect how it’s received. So there’s a lot of tension there. And that’s a lot of sentences about not wanting to talk about myself…

As for whether writing affects my identity: well, the stuff that comes from your subconscious and out onto the page forces you to look at yourself anew, for better or worse.

How have you found writing over lockdown? Did any particular book/s or writer/s help you get through it?

I haven’t been able to write fiction at all, but even before the pandemic I’d already been… let’s say, “between projects”… for quite a while. Then in March/April I couldn’t even read, really. I tried reading some “light” things, but I found it alienating – things are acutely terrible! in a chronically not-okay world! and I want the books I read to make at least some acknowledgement of that, not to act as if everything’s wonderful.

The best direct response to the pandemic I’ve seen so far is Jonathan Gibbs’ Spring Journal (a response to Louis MacNiece’s Autumn Journal) written over the course of the most intense 24 weeks of “all this”. I was lucky enough to hear a reading of the whole thing at one of David Collard’s ‘Leap in the Dark’ events and it’s really moving and authentic – and I believe it’s just been picked up by the excellent CB Editions.

What are your feelings when you sit down to the blank page?

Nausea. A weariness about how few of the words I’m about to write will make it into any final version, and how long I’m going to have to sit there facing my own inadequacy. For this reason it’s better not to have a literal blank page – it helps me to start with notes and questions, and spin up sentences of fiction out of them, fooling myself that I’m not “writing” yet, until eventually I can cut away what remains of the notes and I’m left with the fiction.

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?

Practically speaking: “is there a deadline?” Artistically speaking, it helps to drag me forward if I can envisage an ending, but that ending will change along the way. I only really need to have an idea of the “seed” that I’m trying to unearth this time. (I realise that unearthing seeds is probably not a great thing to do… okay, I need to have an idea of the “gem” that I’m trying to unearth. Gem, or perhaps, potato). What’s the driver for this? Why does it feel as if there’s juice (in this potato)? It’s usually some paradoxical psychological problem or an image that feels weighted with emotion and I don’t know why.

Finish these statements in no more than six words:

  • Stories are…infinitely large on the inside.
  • Stories should…never just be writing exercises.
  • Stories don’t…obey your egotistical aims.

Here is the first sentence of the first story readers encounter in your collection, “When they tire of their fighting games, the children run into the sunroom, shouting, ‘Dance, Nana, dance!’.” Seeing it now, isolated like this, if you could rewrite it, would you and how would you change it?

Oh, please don’t… I never stop editing work even after it’s published – it’s a curse. This sentence is fine for its purpose but I always wished I could take out that “their” without making “fighting” sound like a verb instead of an adjective. The “their” throws the rhythm off, and I’m usually interested in rhythm over almost everything else, but sometimes grammar has to win.

Read Flamingo Land from This Paradise.

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