Ted Hughes said, ‘As an imaginative writer, my only capital is my own life.’ Though I hesitate (correctly) to mention myself next to a writer of Hughes’ stature, I know what he meant, I think.
The narrator of my new story ‘Priest’ is a British guy living and working in Moscow (as I did, not that long ago). He is single and recovering his health after illness. He drives to visit Russian friends he’s not seen for some time at their dacha by a lake. While fishing he catches a taimen (a type of salmon that can reach a great age and size, and which some communities venerate). During the night of a powerful storm he considers what he has done and becomes troubled by the remoteness of the children of his hosts who he feels he has harmed through killing the fish.
All writers I suppose draw on their pasts to some degree. But I feel no urgency to replicate in fiction (at least not wholesale) my history or anyone else’s. We have reportage, memoir and (at a deeper level) creative non-fiction to take care of that. If and when I do disinter my dog-eared self, particularly when it comes to writing short stories, it tends to be in search of what I call Pockets of Truth. By this I mean those moments, often sensorial, that have in them something which seems able to take me where I need to get (both on and off the page). An example might be the splintering fragility of a calendar from the Spanish Civil War that I handled recently at a museum. Another might be the defiance of the winter sun and the deathly blue-whiteness of the shadowed snow that I still see clearly from when, as a young journalist, I reported a tragedy on an upland farm some 25 years ago.
The incredible singing of the choir at the mass I happened upon one bitter evening at the small and crowded Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, in a corner of Red Square, might well qualify. And I know that the faint and lovely smell of tobacco on my mother’s soft fingers, that I remember from when I was very small, certainly would. All of them tickets, some more welcome than others, to places where I think some of my stronger writing lies.
Frank Lloyd Wright spoke about the truth being more important than the facts. And maybe it’s the short story that we as writers and readers turn to for a sense of that.
Something I feel important is that writers ought not to set out too sure-footed in their work. Author, characters and readers need to engage in a feeling that they are searchers and that they are searching together. At the end there may be discovery and even epiphany. But (true to life) we must also meet confusion, frustration and the unresolved (which is still discovery, of course). It’s no coincidence that the narrator of ‘Priest’ is uncertain. Last year I wrote a story, Compass, about an office worker who takes hold of a horse and rides it through Moscow. The Rider, as I called him, tells us he doesn’t fully understand his actions, but I’d like to think that when we reach the story’s end both we and the narrator have ideas as to his impulse. Allegory, used sensitively, is something I like. ‘Priest’, with its multiple applications and nuances, is the kind of word I’m drawn to.
What I think of as the mood of a story is very important to me, particularly in terms of how a story opens. In ‘Priest’ I wanted a feeling of a somewhat awkward calm suggesting tension and confusion beneath. These rise to the surface as the story unfolds: close-up in situations such as the tightness of the fishing line out on the lake, writ large in the breaking of the heatwave and then intimately in the narrator’s insecurity at the end.
Along with mood, something I like in writing is detail that works. By this I mean information that earns its keep. I felt it vital to tell readers about the look and nature of the lure tied to the narrator’s line out in the boat. Moments like this demand their place in stories as far as I’m concerned. The hyper-real (in terms of detail) is something that’s been much talked of as a feature of stories by contemporary writers such as Annie Proulx and Joyce Carol Oates. Its zoom-in technique has actually been with us for a while. Think of Keats’ ‘the hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass’ in The Eve of St Agnes and Tolstoy’s description of dripping candlewax at the wedding of Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina. Here we have communication beyond the pictorial. Consider how we are charged to shudder as if we are in that frosted field or standing witness at that wedding in the cathedral’s gooseflesh chill, how we are beckoned to hear the step of the hare in the taut grass, the collision of the falling wax with the cathedral’s tiled floor (and, quite possibly, to smell the wax, too). Forget the technological innovations of our age. Only the written word, I submit, can achieve these things. And maybe, in the hands of the likes of Carver, Keegan, Cheever, Munro and others, it’s the short story that does this best.
You can read ‘Priest’ in our new issue, which may be purchased here.
Giles Rees has been a reporter on several British newspapers, a teacher and a black cab driver. In Russia he taught English at a school in central Moscow, passing the Kremlin on his daily commute. He recently completed the Creative Writing M.A. at Swansea University and is now undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing / Short Fiction at the same institution.