Simon Van Booy

The Sadness of Beautiful Things (Penguin)

What is it that draws you to the short story form?

The thrill of creating a complete world; a full emotional experience in a small space. Ideally, I want a short story to be like a snow-globe or diorama that readers come to recognise as part of their own emotional landscape. Something we share.

What is your process when writing short stories? Is your process the same with every story?

Each story begins with a profound feeling of connection to a person, or an object, or a memory, or an experience—which in some cases could be a dream. I then write to deepen that connection, and unearth the story I feel is buried there.

Do you have a favourite short story or short story writer? What is it you admire?

I have many actually, from Flannery O’ Connor, to Janet Frame, to Raymond Carver. In my apartment is a shelf devoted to the works of these amazing people, so that when I feel emotionally tired, or keep writing myself into corners—all I have to do is go to the shelf, take down a book and start reading. Within a story or two I feel inspired and refreshed.

What advice would you give to new writers who want to write a collection of stories?

Read as many short stories as you can.   Then at some point you won’t be able to stop yourself from writing. Allow your style to develop naturally. At first don’t be too critical. Move aside, and just let the story tell itself to you in language you think sounds the best. And don’t worry what people will think, be yourself. After all, the goal is not publication—but truth. Then look for a pattern or theme in the stories, and build the collection around that.

Where’s your favourite place to write and why?

Although I’ve never actually done it, my ideal place to write would be the desert, where it’s quiet, bright, and plain—but in a dramatic way. In practice, I write in my apartment when my wife is at work and my daughter is at school, wearing earplugs and with the curtains drawn so the room is dark, as I’m easily distracted by familiar things.

What was the hardest story in your collection to write and why?

‘Not Dying’ was by far the most difficult story I’ve written, ever. Firstly because of the structure, as I had to build something tangible and suspenseful without giving away too much–which might allow the reader to guess the protagonist’s situation. Secondly I had to literally imagine what I would do if the world were going to end in a terrifying way. How would I tell my wife and daughter? Would it be kinder not to? These feelings really helped sharpen my sense of what’s precious. Thirdly, I wanted the experience of the protagonist to be based around a true story a neighbour once told me about when he was in a coma for three years. When I was writing it though, I wasn’t really thinking about all that—the process was more like driving in fog—you can only see so far at a time. So for me, writing is more instinctual. I understand the mechanics in hindsight.


Read A Sacrifice from The Sadness of Beautiful Things

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