Kirsty Gunn: ‘I have often said this about short stories; it’s like dreaming with your eyes open.’
Interview by Sarah Billington.
Kirsty Gunn doesn’t think of herself as “someone who wins prizes”, so was thrilled when she was announced as the winner of the 2015 Edge Hill Short Story Prize for her short story collection, Infidelities. But it wasn’t just the winning why Kirsty was so delighted to have been chosen as the judges’ favourite. Speaking from her home in London, Kirsty, who speaks with such openness and wisdom that’s it’s no surprise to learn that she has been writing and producing work for more than twenty years, explains why a prize such as this is so important to the short story form.
EHUPress: How did it feel to win the Edge Hill Short Story Prize?
Kirsty Gunn: It was very unexpected and I was thrilled to have won, particularly because of the nature of the prize. A prize that has been created to award a collection of short stories is a rare thing and it was very nice and important to have the art form acknowledged in that way.
EHUPress: What did winning the prize mean to you in terms of your writing career?
GUNN: Well I don’t think I regard my fiction writing as career so those words seem quite strange to me. It’s probably more of a vocation. I think if it was career I would be doing a whole lot of quite different things. I’d be writing probably in a whole kind of different way, I’d be making a different kind of fiction that was more commercial. It’s not that my work isn’t accessible; I think it is, but I think I would be working harder to make it more relevant.
EHUPress: So would you say you write more of what you want to write, more of what you believe in, rather than what you think will sell?
GUNN: Yes, exactly. I mean to that extent – and it makes people cross because they don’t like this word in this country – I regard myself as an artist… and I’m not making a product in a market place. I’m interested in following my own thoughts, the line of my own enquiry, and see where that will take me. Going back to your other question…I suppose in terms of career, I have a post at the University of Dundee and obviously a prize like that means a great deal to the institution. It means a great deal to me in terms of my sterling within the institution. It means that students become aware of the prize, they become aware of Edge Hill, in particularly we have all become aware of the great work that Ailsa is doing now for the short story form. (Ailsa Cox is the Edge Hill Prize founder and Professor of Short Fiction at Edge Hill University.) Although I had met Ailsa before through my interest of Katherine Mansfield, it took the prize I think, to make all that quite concrete.
EHUPress: Your story ‘The Scenario’ is to be published later this year in the anthology Head Land: Ten Years of the Short Story Prize’ by Edge Hill University Press in collaboration with Freight Books. How do you feel about anthologies as opposed to individual collections and what are the respective merits of each?
GUNN: Well, obviously they’re doing very different things, but the thing that’s great about anthologies is that they give people a wide range of short stories to choose from. They introduce people to writers that they might not otherwise have heard of and it can work as a really nice introductory class in a way… but that should never obviously stand in for the collection of short stories itself, which remains to me a magical form. I think that’s partly to do with my childhood and my connection with Wolf and Mansfield from a very young age. The excitement of ‘The Aloe’ and other stories, Virginia Wolf’s short short fiction, the collections with Kew Gardens… and just that magical thing of going into the world of short fiction that you get with a collection can’t be replaced with an anthology. Having said that, the other great thing about an anthology for a writer is that at readings I am able to meet and read with other writers who are very different to myself and who bring a large audience so people who have never heard of my work can come up and say; “I knew who Lionel Shriver was but I didn’t know about you”. So that’s a wonderful thing.
EHUPress: What is it about writing short stories that you particularly enjoy?
GUNN: I love the form for all kinds of fiction and I love it for all kinds of writing and I’ve actually realised that in every single thing I do I approach it as though it were a short project. Even my very long novel The Big Music I actually wrote as a series of stories that kind of layered on top of each other. So what do I love about the form? I love the fact that you can create this environment and then go in and then furnish it and live in it and move around in it and create that as a kind of finished context before you then move on to the next one. It gives you a beautiful feeling of finish and control I suppose, of being able to create a kind of psychic temperature that prevails in that context for that period of time. And I also realise as I get older that I am more and more interested in this relationship between the ways the imagination works and time. In a sense they say classical Greek Theatre may have invited its participants to come in for an afternoon and in that afternoon spend time with the words of Clytemnestra and Electra for that period of time and then to emerge from that period changed. So a short story allows us to go into the world of that story and to fully engage with it and interact with it for a period of time that is known and fixed and then to emerge from it.
EHUPress: How would you say then that this differs from writing a novel?
GUNN: Well I think by contrast the longer form gives us some experience that in the first instance I think is more cerebral than that. I’m not saying that a short story isn’t cerebral, it is, but I love the idea that it’s actually affecting in a very particular and almost physical way. As well as emotional and psychic but chiefly this idea of the imagination, the way it can work on our imagination. Then of course we can go away and we can think about its meaning and its various layers… as I say there is nothing about the process that ultimately isn’t cerebral but unlike a longer form where we enter the meaning through our intellectual collections, I believe the short story, like classical Greek theatre, like a poem, like a piece of music, affects us in a more mysterious way in the first instance. I have often said this about short stories; it’s like dreaming with your eyes open.
EHUPress: In your collection Infidelities, your characters all seem to come to some sort of realisation and awareness of themselves. Was this always your intention or was this something that developed during the writing of them?
GUNN: No, I never know what’s going to happen in a short story. I never have any expectations or knowledge of anything. I am actually working on something at the moment and all I know is that this woman is wearing these really fancy shoes and she goes into this quite dangerous environment and she loses her shoes.
EHUPress: Oh dear, I hope she finds them! Some writers describe having a plan before they set out writing, they know their story’s setting and even sometimes how the story is going to end, but for you is it just an image then or a sense of something happening that is your starting point?
GUNN: Yes that’s definitely the way I go in. It’s an image or a sense of temperature or place or kind of a tone. Frank O’Connor is interesting on this when he talks about the distinction between the so called pure and the applied short story. The applied being that other sort of story that you just mentioned, where the writer is thinking OK this is going to happen and I’m going to need this and this needs to happen here in order for everyone to feel excited and to feel they are being delivered a proper fictional experience. By contrast I work in a way that’s much more unconscious.
EHUPress: That brings us back to what you described earlier about the short story and that feeling of ‘dreaming with your eyes open’.
GUNN: Exactly, yes. The writer Deborah Levy talks about things that are happening off the page. I think for me I’m very interested in the things that happening between the words. I think this is why I love ellipses so much and why I love the use of space on the page. I’m very keen that physically it invites us to think about those gaps and ellipses in moments in which we are feeling the effect of what just happened and getting ready for what might happen next.
EHUPress: Your stories often feature strong, female characters situated within the domestic sphere, would you describe your work as domestic fiction? What are your thoughts on domestic fiction?
GUNN: I’m really interested in the domestic world. I’m interested in these quiet elliptical, marginal places that don’t claim attention per-se but never the less all of this stuff is going on there that’s charged with meaning and personal history. It’s an imaginative space again. Perhaps that’s to do with the fact these big political spaces, culturally known “important spaces”, that those spaces are too noisy in a way to let in these other quiet liminal things. I don’t completely know but you are right it is what I continue to return to. Watch this space but I can’t imagine me ever setting a piece of fiction in the middle of a world war. I’m never going to be relevant in that kind of way because those ideas seem to crowd out these other imaginative things.
EHUPress: Your story, ‘The Scenario’, which is in our anthology, seems to be about art, influences and opinions and at the same time it’s about youth, sexuality and identity. Your stories have many layers. Thinking about this, how do you find working with a form that is often described as condensed or contained?
GUNN: Well that’s the deliciousness of the form. One might say the same about a poem, let’s think about those tiny Haikus, they’re so miniature and yet an entire world opens up. The things that’s interesting with ‘The Scenario’, and this is something I’m exploring further at the moment, is with this idea of when someone is telling something, when someone is trying to remember something that they were told and retell it. By definition you’ve immediately got a very interesting kind of layering process going on. From the outset my first question when I’m reading or writing is, ‘who’s telling this story and why do they need to tell it?’. If those things can’t be answered, if I don’t know where that point of view is coming from, I tend to lose faith in the project quite quickly.
EHUPress: Immersion in short fiction is often about making a reader forget that there is a writer behind the story. It’s a risky thing to turn attention to the act of writing like you do throughout the collection. This seems to be a sort of infidelity in itself, was that your intention?
GUNN: Absolutely. The idea that no contracts are fixed, everything’s up to be played with. There’s a wonderful quote by Michael Schmidt in his biography of the novel about Edith Wharton discovering the magic on a life of letters; “Art is a kind of infidelity to class, to marriage: fiction as a first intense adultery.”
EHUPress: You have lived in both New Zealand and England. Has experiencing the cultures of two different countries influenced your work in any way?
GUNN: I think because I have very complicated relationship with place and nationality and identity, it means that all of these places are endlessly interesting to me. So the place that I was born is not the place that was regarded as home throughout my childhood. The place that I now live for part of the time is in many senses… absolutely home and yet is not the place I was born in. London is a wonderful home to so many of us that come from somewhere else; a city made up of people who have come from other places. So I’m constantly mining these places that have a personal history that I’m both deeply connected to and also standing outside.
EHUPress: Finally, what do you prefer to write, the novel or the short story?
GUNN: Short story! (Kirsty answers before I have even finished the question.) I don’t even need to think about that. Even when I’m writing something longer, it actually feels like I’m writing a whole series of short stories. And there is even a great pleasure sometimes to be working on a series of short stories that are about the same people and about the same kind of things but nevertheless in terms of process, in terms of my attitude, that’s how I do it. I have never written one great big long thing and then gone back and redrafted it as one big long thing. I’ve always worked on it as a series of layers and fragments.
EHUPress: Thank you Kirsty.
Gunn’s work has been described as ‘extraordinarily controlled, rich, and melodic.’ Her words acquire a tangible presence which can be savoured, like something which “you could hold in your mouth”. In her collection Infidelities which won the Edge Hill Prize, we don’t just get a glimpse of the character’s lives; we go through their story with them. We live with them, feel what they feel, yet she does so in a way without them ever explicitly revealing what their inner thoughts are. Like with so much of Gunn’s work there is an overwhelming sense to read between the lines, to stop mid-sentence and wonder what the characters will do next, what the consequences of their actions will be. That is the beauty of a writer such as Gunn, the stories she writes and the way in which she tells them make them more than just a story, more than just words on a page written to entertain. Gunn thinks of herself as ‘an artist’ a word many people would not associate with a writer, but there is no denying when we read a collection such as Infidelities, that something else, something other is at work between the pages. The stories are clear, unaffected and poetic. Simply put… they are a work of art.
Infidelities, by Kirsty Gunn, is published by Faber, priced £12.99
Kirsty Gunn’s short story ‘The Scenario’ will be re-published in Head Land, which is available to pre-order from Freight Books now.
Kirsty will also be attending our launch at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year. You can find out more information and buy tickets for the event here.