What is it that draws you to the short story form?
I love the versatility of short stories – how they lend themselves to playfulness and experimentation but also how important shape and structure are as well. Stories can be built around a recurring image, or a list, or a particular timeframe like a day or a whole life. They’re all about what’s left out and what isn’t said; implying a much bigger story that exists just beyond them. I find that idea of ellipsis really interesting and inspiring. I started out writing short stories and will always be drawn back to them.
What is your process when writing short stories? Is your process the same with every story?
I find it really hard to come up with individual ideas for stories! What I have to do is work out the overall idea for a collection and then try to build it up story by story. So I tend to see each story more as a small part of a bigger thing, like a piece of patchwork. In The Sing of the Shore I was trying to show North Cornwall in the off-season, with its sense of
ghostliness and haunting. Once I had the overall idea I could start working out what stories to tell and whose voices were clamouring to be heard. Sometimes I’ll have a particular image I want to write about, like a by-the-wind-sailor stranded on a beach, other times the idea comes from how I want to tell the story, like as a bit of overheard gossip. I usually see the story as a whole before I start writing it. Then it’s just a case of going over and over it again, never being content until it as closely matches how I originally saw it in my head as possible…
Do you have a favourite short story or short story writer? What is it you admire?
There are so many! A few of my favourites are Lorrie Moore, Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver and George Mackay Brown. I love stories about people in landscapes and how the place drives the drama of the story, and I love stories that have a really distinctive way of looking at the world. I really admire stories that have interesting structures – stories like
‘How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)’ by Lorrie Moore, which made a big impression on me when I first read it many years ago. I admire impactful imagery, language and rhythm, the kind of sentences that stop you in your tracks, and writers that conjure up whole worlds in such a small space. And the way that writers like Lorrie Moore can be so funny and so moving is a constant marvel to me.
What advice would you give to new writers who want to write a collection of stories?
I find that having a strong focus for a short story collection is really important and helpful, rather than thinking of it as individual stories gathered together. It’s not necessarily that the stories have to be linked, but more that they build up and contribute to the overall idea and effect of the book. Reading collections by other writers is so useful and inspiring, to get a sense of how stories can be put together in a way that balances and contributes to the others.
Where’s your favourite place to write and why?
Anywhere quiet really! I like to write at the kitchen table because sometimes I think it takes the pressure off a bit more than working in a study. But most writing, at least for me, really gets done away from the laptop and the actual sitting down part of it. It happens moment by moment during everyday life: walking, cooking, reading… It’s the gradual accruing of details, anecdotes and bits and pieces that I might not even notice at the time that make up the backbone of writing for me.
What was the hardest story in your collection to write and why?
It’s strange how some stories end up coming out easily and others are a real struggle. I often find stories in other voices easier to write, so for example the voice of the narrator in ‘Dreckly’ and the voice of the cataloguer of deaths in ‘A Year of Buryings.’ I think I probably found the two shortest stories in the collection the hardest! For a long time both ‘Cables’ and ‘Way the Hell Out’ didn’t have enough of a concrete focus and I was worried that they came across as throwaway or insubstantial. The two people gossiping and telling the stories needed to have their own story and agenda as well – so there ended up being quite a lot of layers to work out. It felt like a bit of a risk including them because I hadn’t ever written such short stories before, or ones that were told completely in dialogue, but I always try to force myself, reluctantly, out of my comfort zone.
Read Home Scar from The Sing of the Shore
Buy The Sing of the Shore here