Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Reading the short story: the best collections I read in 2013

Wonderful short stories deserve a roaring fire

I’ve read more short stories over the last two years than in all the years of my life up until now. This has been driven by desire to learn, sheer pleasure, and the necessity of broadening my knowledge for my Creative Writing PhD, which focuses on the short form. Some astonishingly beautiful work has been recommended to me, often by Tania Hershman, who told me about Tina May Hall and Anthony Doerr amongst many others. Her new website ShortStops is full of information about UK and Irish short story journals, live literary events and more, and is a fantastic and much-needed resource. I’d encourage all writers and short story enthusiasts to take a look.

These are my short fiction collection crushes of 2013, books I just happened to read this year, with a special mention for a very short novel.

Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Such a combination of imagination and excellent writing is rare, and is consistent throughout this collection. At no point could you possibly predict what Kij Johnson might write about next. The river of bees is exactly that – a torrent of insects followed by the protagonist – and we encounter vanishing monkeys, a cat on an odyssey, dogs that tell trickster tales. All these animals may sound rather silly, but there is a seriousness and often melancholy to these stories.
The story ‘Fox Magic’ is one of my favourites of the year, and was expanded into a novel, but even in short form absorbs the reader entirely in an invented world within an invented world. Kij Johnson writes ‘long’ for a short story writer, and compared with the brevity of, say, Tina May Hall, these stories feel like a different genre, one that allows you to wallow long enough to take away powerful, lasting impressions of places you could not have imagined before you began.

Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall
Recommended to me by Tania last year, this sat on my shelf as I put off reading the long title story (85 pages). I happened to finally read it just before travelling to Cape Town, where the story is set, but nobody else should delay reading this book! As a reader (and writer) you always hope for those moments when you discover writing so good it almost hurts to read it. There is nothing fancy about Doerr’s writing. His sentences are often short. There is an element of the fantastic in many of his stories, but in ‘Memory Wall’ it is really just part of a backdrop for a kind of mini mystery thriller and is never overplayed. The story will probably make you cry, but not because of any obvious tragedy in the plot. There is a build up of sympathy in the reader aligning with both hope and grief, and it is a pleasure to let this finally overwhelm you if it happens. I will be re-reading this story every few months to try to see how Doerr does it.

Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall’s prose can be poetic but never overbearingly so. How she manages to use such gorgeous expression and yet never distract the reader from the story, I wish I understood. I wrote about this collection here, focusing on her use of dialect and original voice in the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, but this collection is full of all kinds of beauty. A great pleasure for a reader and an endless source of learning for writers of lyrical prose.

Tina May Hall’s The Physics of Imaginary Objects
Another Tania tip, this collection includes straight stories, stories written in fragments, and a novella made up of titled paragraphs. All of these forms work. Tina May Hall’s writing is tight yet can be soft, she uses the fantastic carefully and with deep effect, and I find myself moved without being able to identify what has done it. Her novella is beautiful, making familiar images newly bright and expressing powerful emotions without ever naming them. This is a small book that should be read very slowly.

Novel special mention: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This is a short novel that could be read in an afternoon. Lolly Willowes defies her family’s expectations of her as resident maiden aunt and in middle age moves to the countryside alone, and becomes a witch. The writing is light, wry, and so clever without reminding you that it is. Take this description of Mr Gurdon, the village clerk: ‘Fiery down covered his cheeks, his eyes were small and truculent, and he lived in a small surprised cottage near the church’. I’ve never seen a house described as surprised before, and yet I can picture it. This creative, concise kind of expression is usually reserved for short stories, but this book is full of it. Anyone who harbours a fantasy of escaping to live in a way that feeds their imagination will derive huge amounts of vicarious pleasure from Lolly Willowes.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Cape Town: Beauty, inequality, and a goodbye to Mandela

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Last week I went to Cape Town. This is a place I had never expected to visit, and knew very little about apart from the obvious things. I chose not to learn very much more before I went, not because I wasn’t intrigued, but because I wanted as much as possible to see Cape Town through the eyes of the people I was going to stay with, to understand from them what it is like to live there. I wanted to avoid any preconceptions. It is, after all, a complicated place.

Of course, it turned out to be a strange and special time to be in South Africa. When I was woken with news of Mandela’s death, it was in a room that looked out across Cape Town to Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for so long. Being in South Africa was an unexpectedly emotional experience, and I often felt overwhelmed by what I learned and saw, the strange combinations of beauty, pleasure, poverty and inequality. I found it strange to be in a place where I could not walk around even a ‘nice’ neighbourhood alone after dark, and in the day was under instruction to carry no valuables. On the other hand, this kind of restriction on how one lives is nothing compared to the restrictions experienced by people living in places like Khayelitsha and the other townships.

I was surprised by how far away the townships were from central Cape Town, but then heard how the government had tried to eradicate the one nearest the airport when South Africa hosted the World Cup, hoping to tuck the ‘problem’ out of sight. A local bus service was only introduced to Cape Town in November 2013; lack of public transport had been one way of keeping the poorest people out of the town, out of sight, and for many out of mind.

The week before I left on this trip I had been shocked by various statistics about the borough where I work and live in London. At least 30% of children in Islington live in poverty, as defined by the government, cheek by jowl with people whose homes are worth £5m, £8m, who can make tens of thousands of pounds a year just by not moving house. I was incensed; having lived in Walthamstow previously, Islington has always felt wealthy to me, but the conspicuous consumption hides profound inequality. However, this is nothing compared to the extremity and scale of the inequality in Cape Town.

Millions of people live in Khayelitsha and the other townships. There is 80% unemployment (that is not a typo), and 30% of people are HIV positive (again, not a typo). Living conditions and HIV levels contribute to an extremely high rate of tuberculosis. Some people who live in the city centre will never go to the townships, and live as if they are not even there. Thankfully, there are exceptions.

I went to South Africa because my partner was travelling there to take part in the ICASA conference on HIV in Africa. He lived in Cape Town for many years whilst working for Medecins Sans Frontieres, and we stayed with a man whom he describes as his hero. Eric Goemaere started the first HIV treatment programme in Khayelitsha, and he and his wife Katherine Hildebrand have lived in Cape Town for 15 years, bringing up children there whilst both working to prevent and treat HIV in Africa. Eric received many death threats during the setting up of treatment centres, from politicians who wanted to pretend that HIV did not exist. Mandela supported his work, and on the day that Cape Town absorbed and responded to news of Mandela’s death, Eric was bombarded with phone calls from radio stations and newspapers asking for comments.

Staying with people who live in the city but work in the townships gave me insights into Cape Town life and how people come to terms with it. Katherine admitted she had found the inequality and the perceived danger too much at first, that it took her years to accept the place and a couple more to love it. As a white Swiss woman, despite the work she was doing, she also admitted it took her four years before she felt comfortable inviting black friends from Khayelitsha back to her home in the city. She had felt guilty about what she had, she said, while her husband had suggested it was better to share what you have. Now it is not an issue, but it is telling that even for someone as generous and passionate about her work as Katherine, it took some time for her to break down the social barriers that were presented to her. 

There is a constant tension in the air in Cape Town, but what I realised was that the tension is different for each individual. For me, there was the intense strangeness of driving through Khayelitsha, where people live in corrugated-iron rooms at the roadside, straight into the lush, oak-shaded vineyards of Franschhoek with its white table cloths and European menus. There was the less intense but unavoidable fact that almost everybody serving the wine and bringing the food was a black person, doing the bidding of a white person. We are only twenty years away from the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and as a result these facts sting. 

I was glad to have been in South Africa on the day Mandela died, if only for the selfish reason that his passing served to crystallize some of the confusing emotions I felt while I was there. I have been disappointed by the cynicism that has crept into the British coverage of his death, because I doubt that anybody in the UK understands just how important it is for many (not all) South Africans to feel they can embrace and carry his legacy. His life was as complicated as the history of that country has been over the last 95 years, but he needs to stand for something. Forgiveness and strength are part of this, but there are so many other aspects that I doubt most British people, including me, are aware of. 

I read a book while I was there that gathered together the thoughts of South African children in response to questions about Mandela. One child, Tebang, wrote, “We can help Mr Mandela a lot by sending the children to school and give them a education so we can have our own Mandela in the future”. He is right, but it is not only the education of South African children that matters. I for one should not have grown up in the UK during Apartheid and its end with so little understanding of it. South Africa has lost Mandela, but we can all do something to improve the education of this and future generations so that there is no need for anybody to suffer and fight in the same way again.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Five writers, one agent, two days: Word Factory Short Story Master Class

Writers spur each other on at Arvon's Lumb Bank

Adam Marek, Julia Bell, David Vann, Alison Moore, Deborah Levy. This is a list of names that might make up a major literary prize shortlist, and one to make writers – and in particular writers of the short form – salivate. This is why I decided a two-day intensive course run by The Word Factory, with sessions from all these writers (and a Q&A with literary agent Carrie Kania) was not to be missed, and I am still happily digesting four days later.

The experience is worth sharing here, as I do think something happens in the head on these kinds of courses, even short ones, that is hard to believe in if you have not been on one. It happens on Arvon weeks, for example, even if you are not ideally matched to your tutors. Partly it comes from sharing time and space with other writers; another large chunk is the result of letting your mind follow somebody else’s tracks for a little while. For me, it is as if my campfire of beech branches is burning low, and I keep building up over the same structure I began with, then somebody comes along and shows me that oak, ash, chestnut, birch and hornbeam are all around me for the taking, and also that there are a hundred ways to build a fire with them. My campfire changes, and keeps changing, for several months afterwards.

I now find intermittent exposure to other writers very important for developing my writing. All the above writers gave me something valuable during the Word Factory master class, but delivered it in such different ways. 

Adam Marek began the first day with creative circuit training. If you think you’ve got it sussed as a writer, this is precisely the kind of exercise that can surprise you. Writing to film soundtracks, writing to pictures, writing to accommodate random words thrown at you, each for ten minutes, may not result in your best ever work. However, it shows you what can happen when you loosen up, or when you combine ideas gleaned from around you instead of within. This was the most effective session for getting out of a rut and finding a new way to tell a story.

Julia Bell gave us exactly the kind of exercise I would never force myself to do, but will from now on. This was to pick some recent event, and then describe it from the following viewpoints: five minutes before, during, a minute after, ten minutes after, one week after, six months later, a year later, ten years later. It was an extremely effective way to watch the shift between showing and telling, from immediacy to nostalgia, and to find – in less than twenty minutes – the best way into a story.

David Vann plunged us into close reading of text, right down to rhythms and word choices and the way these can create cohesion, much as they do in poetry. He also discussed what he avows is the golden rule of short fiction: that there is always a subtext, or second story. This in itself was food for thought, given the many ways in which subtext can show through. Just as enlightening was David’s admission that he had spent ten years trying to write fiction using a learnt approach, only to finally ditch this and find his voice by writing another way entirely. Every writer needs to be reminded to have faith in themselves and their methods now and again!

Alison Moore wanted to get us thinking about the role details play in a story. At first I thought this would be about making stories come to life and feel real, but it was really about atmosphere and priming the reader’s subconscious. Alison writes notoriously dark and unsettling stories, and when she read out her story ‘When the Door Closed, it was Dark’ I was stunned by the amount of portentous and symbolic detail that I had not picked up on when I had read it before. Things that seemed so obvious when you looked for them had not registered in my conscious thoughts, but clearly had hit the subconscious spot because this story had made me feel sick with doom (a good thing!). We then tried doing the same thing for ourselves, which proved to be extremely difficult, but taught me that I can afford to be a bit heavier with the hints in my writing sometimes.

Deborah Levy, I suspect, may actually be the goddess of charisma, masquerading as a human to teach us all some useful things. This she did, in her inimitable way, by reminding us how language has taught us to be polite and encouraging us to explore what happens when we ditch learned modes of expression. She finished by asking everybody to shout their main weakness and strength as a writer. This sounds silly, but in a group of 25 or so the admissions were fascinating, reassuring, and surprisingly varied. Deborah’s responses to them included great recommendations; when I boomed that I was afraid of endings, and therefore rushed them, she suggested I begin a story with the sentence ‘I am afraid of endings’. This I will do.

I choose to spend my wages on things like this, but I know not everybody has this option. Here are some wonderful free resources to inspire and make your writing mind work differently:

Thresholds Short Story Forum – join to watch interviews and master classes, read features and reviews, use writing exercises like those above, and best of all be in touch with other writers.

The New Yorker fiction podcasts, (also free on itunes), let you listen to a writer read out another author's short story and then discuss it, like a high-powered virtual reading group.
Writers on Youtube – for starters try Kurt Vonnegut on the shape of a story, and search on from there.

Last but not least! The Word Factory ran the weekend course I have described, but they are putting more and more material online, including videos of readings and interviews.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

My top five stories for a short story reading group: Carter, Davis, Hall, Parker, Selasi

All these stories will entice you in

“The young man in the new blue suit finished arranging the glistening luggage in tight corners of the Pullman compartment.”

“The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain.”

“He’s sitting there staring at a piece of paper in front of him.”

“Later, when I knew her better, Manda told me how she’d beaten two girls at once outside the Cranemakers Arms in Carlisle.”

“I am the full time driver here.”

I was asked a few weeks ago to nominate my top five stories for use in a short story reading group. Over those weeks I remembered more and more stories, and it was a kind of pleasant torture to try to commit to only five. These are not my five favourite short stories ever, nor even my favourites on the day I had to stop prevaricating and send the list off. Rather they are stories that are brilliant and clever in ways that stand up to, and deserve, picking apart. I can’t wait to discuss them with other readers.

The first quote is the opener from Dorothy Parker’s story, ‘Here We Are’, which I read in The Secret Self Vol 1: Short Stories by Women years ago, and never forgot, probably because reading it is a painful but amusing experience. (There is also a copy here.) I misremembered the author though, and went hunting through Katherine Mansfield, who also wrote some horribly incisive stories set on trains. In this one, a newlywed couple talk on the journey from wedding to honeymoon, revealing far more about themselves and their concerns than the surface content of the dialogue would suggest.

The second is from Angela Carter’s ‘The Erl-King’, which I read in her Burning your Boats: Collected Short Stories. (There is also a copy here.) When people ask what I love to read, this is the story I whip out. It is shamelessly verbose, mixing Anglo-Saxon and Latinate expression, shifting between first and third person, and is so rich in images, textures and gradients of dread that to read it in one sitting is like eating a whole Christmas pudding, with brandy butter and cream. Yum. The Erl-king is a folkloric character, a kind of male sylvan siren, and Carter was far from the first (or last) writer to re-imagine him, but remains my favourite. There is a great article by Ever Dundas exploring this story on Thresholds Short Story Forum, here.

The third comes from Lydia Davis’ ‘Break it Down’, which I read in her The Collected Stories of..., a hefty book full of small stories that surprise you with their longevity in the head. (There is also an audio version here.) I’d been dipping into that book as if into pick ‘n’ mix now and again having only last year found out about Davis, waiting for her magic to work on me, and it was this story that did it. At eight pages, it is longer than many of her pieces, and the subject at first seems so mundane, offensive even: a man sits working out what he has spent on a holiday with a woman, divided by how many times they made love, to calculate how much it cost per hour. First impressions are also broken down, however, as we watch his mind running back through the experience of love.

Fourth is Sarah Hall’s ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, the first story in her gorgeous collection The Beautiful Indifference. (There is also a copy available here.) I’ve heard Hall say (at the Small Wonder short story festival) that she doesn’t think all the stories in this book have that magic that a great short story does, but she can’t have meant this one. Following the teenage Kathleen as she befriends violent Manda and becomes fascinated by her charismatic family that ‘came from gypsy stock, scrappies, dog-and horse-breeders, fire-mongers’, I long to be there with her but am equally relieved I am not. As with Carter’s story, it is fifty percent this emotional dread-desire and fifty percent the language that makes this story so great. Hall draws on Cumbrian expressions and her own poetic leanings to original and beautiful effect.

Last but not least is Taiye Selasi’s ‘Driver’, which is published in Granta 123 but which I listened to as an audio-book read by Selasi herself. If you can get this audio version (it is on Audible.co.uk here) I would urge you to do so; her reading is beautiful and brings out the particular cadences and rhythms in the text that build towards its conclusion. The story follows a young man working as a driver for a rich family in Ghana, whose unassuming account of things reveals a gorgeous, divided and dangerous world. I have not yet seen this story on the page, but listening to it, it could often be poetry. Here is a little sample, where I think the rhythm shows:
‘Madam has the contours of a girl I knew in Dansoman and sculptures sold at Arts Centre and Bitter Lemon bottles. Slender top and round the rest. A perfect holy roundness that is proof of God's existence and His goodness furthermore. Her skin is ageless, creaseless, paint. Her lower back a hiding place.’

Whilst that first sentence, ‘I am the full time driver here’, may seem uninteresting, consider that the next is ‘I am not going to kill my employers’, and see if you can resist reading on.