On Writing ‘What Have We Ever Done For The French?’
I decided not all that long ago that I would write a short story a day for a month. I work best when setting myself ludicrous projects. Some of them actually come off. I’m not a lunatic, however – I knew from day minus 3 that I would not end up with thirty short stories. And I did not write one per day in the end. Things got in the way. But I did stick to it initially, and by the end of that month I had around twenty short stories, in various states of dress. Looking back over them I decided I had ten, maybe fifteen, that could be brought to term. Some finished, some good ideas that needed some loving. “What Have We Ever Done For The French?” was one story that came out of that period.
The technique I employed was to turn my mind to that task first thing in the morning. And I mean for that day’s story to be the very first thought. Wake. Rub eyes. What will today’s story be about? Some days the idea would come quick. Some days it would take hours, some days I would write the story later that evening when all of the parts had come together. And it was an exercise in keeping an open mind, in embracing thoughts and ideas and seeing how one might fit with the other. And allowing myself to take anything I liked and felt inspired me, and running with it. Using news stories was too twee, but news issues was good soil. Hillsborough, Philip Green, Boris Johnston. But also smaller, more intimate ideas. And theft of course. I love using other people’s ideas. That is a part of literature. For the most, when I directly use somebody else’s idea it gets nowhere, other than maybe that fabled bottom drawer every writer has where work not fit for publication ends up (most likely actually a spattering of poorly organised desktop files nowadays). But I write them out anyway, because they are a clearing of the decks. Get that lingering influence out of my system.
But then other thefts are ultimately more integral. I like taking lines. I love titles, I stress over them – the title for my novel, For Those Who Come After (Parthian Books, 2015), was perhaps the last bit of the book I wrote, and the original title, The Setubal Ending, was perhaps the first thing I wrote eight years earlier. Countless titles came in between. Some titles are my personal way of paying homage to another writer. A story about how a government advisor with a working class background who is curiously indulged by his boss, a “fictional” ex-Eton London mayor, until the advisor has the gall to criticize the mayor’s biography of Churchill and is fired, has nothing to do with Barthelme, but the title, “Our Evenings Lacked Promise”, is a line from one of his stories. I read it one day during that ludicrous month and knew I had to use that line. And it somehow is the perfect title for that story.
This story that I am proud to have published in The Lonely Crowd, also has a relationship to Barthelme, in that it came almost entirely from the opening sentence – “It was a few days after the music stopped that the girls turned up from France” – is a riff on a line from one his stories. It just jumped out at me as the perfect sentence when I read it; rhythm, mystery, the rabbit hole opens. Nothing else in the story touches Barthelme, just that line. The rest comes from… I don’t know, really. I suppose when I wrote it I had quite a few conferences coming up. But it mainly all comes out of sitting down and writing using that line as a springboard and seeing where you end up.
Why turn to short stories in this way at this point? I have written stories before of course, but when being serious about them I had always taken the Bellovian approach i.e. that they were in fact novels I didn’t have time to write in full. But I was turned to short stories recently with a fresh outlook.
It had maybe been coming anyway, but the reason I decided to write short stories now is almost entirely down to Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (Fitzcorraldo Editions, 2014). My partner bought it and said I should read it. I take her recommendations very seriously, so I put everything aside and I read it. And it is the finest new book I have read in the last few years. By some distance. Apart from obvious things like defending your family from a house invasion, literature is the only thing worth getting into a scrap for nowadays, and I would have drawn swords for that book. Had I been on the judging panel for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize I would have physically fought, jackets off in the car park if needed, for that book to win it. I would not have backed down. It would have been Pond or I walk. After the initial phase of making me want to quit, Pond made me want to pick up my pen, and it is Pond that made me want to write short stories in a serious way.
Pond is not really a collection of short stories, but is rather a life made up of moments. The moments therein can be isolated like short stories can, but this is really a concept album. I started writing short stories for the same reason Bob Dylan started playing guitar – because he wanted to be Elvis.
I used to write songs. In my teens and early twenties I wrote hundreds. I could write a song in ten minutes. There were periods when they just fell out of me. That has something to do with the format, but also something to do with the energy of youth. And I guess a part of me had longed for that quick burst again, and being able to see the finished product after just a few hours or a few days. So different to the novel. The most frequently asked questions after a first novel, I have discovered, is “How long did it take to write?” and “When is the next one coming out?” I am realising just how impossible it is to fit those two questions together. Put them in the same cage and they will tear each other to pieces. Something seems to inform us that if my first novel took eight years and my second took six months, the first will obviously be superior. It is closer in gestation, after all, to Moby Dick. And if I tell you I wrote “What Have We Ever Done For the French?” in two hours, all in, done and dusted, you will inevitably think either “well, that explains why it’s shit”, or, “it’s obviously not as good as I thought it was at first reading”. What you won’t think is, “why the hell not.”
As for writing a story a day for a month, I may do it again. In fact why wouldn’t I? It felt like being young again.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, short story writer, critic, and lecturer in English and Creative Writing. As well as a regular voice in Wales Arts Review, Gary has written for The Guardian, Rolling Stone Magazine, is a theatre critic for The Arts Desk, and is a regular commentator on arts and culture for BBC Wales. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, and a PGCE in higher education. In 2013, Gary published JRR Tolkien: A Visual Biography of Fantasy’s Most Revered Writer with Ivy Press, and his novel, For Those Who Come After, is out now via Parthian Books.
You can read ‘What Have We Ever Done For The French?’ in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
© Gary Raymond, 2016. Banner image © Gary Raymond, 2016.