Standing in a Fictional Landscape – Dan Coxon In Conversation with Iain Robinson & Lander Hawes

New Lonely Crowd contributing editor Dan Coxon speaks to Iain Robinson and Lander Hawes about their new work in The Lonely Crowd and about their approach to the creative process.

Dan Coxon: You both have a story in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd, and in each case I feel that they quite accurately reflect your work as a whole. I think it’s fair to say that your story is relatively experimental, Lander – or certainly unusual in its tone. What attracts you to the unusual and experimental, specifically when it comes to short fiction?

Lander Hawes: My stories are the product of multiple pressures: responding to and staying faithful to my own perceptions, the inclusion of the staples of narrative drama as I perceive them, and also the necessity of improvising a viable voice in the absence of the kind of inherited modes available to a French or American writer. I’d say where my writing most succeeds is when I find ways of balancing these pressures. I don’t always succeed though: there are huge challenges in rendering the English immediate.

Iain Robinson: My own short stories are not, I think, particularly experimental, although as an editor with Lighthouse I have always been drawn to writers who do experiment, especially when that experimentation coincides with having something to say, which I guess is the most important thing. I think formal experimentation often emerges from the struggle to articulate something difficult, from rethinking and expressing certain ideological standpoints, or certain subjectivities, in a way that frees them up from the frameworks and discourses which might otherwise define and contain them. I might be off the mark here, but I wonder whether Lander’s experimentation has emerged from the way he has been engaged in articulating various visions of masculinity in his stories.

Lander Hawes: I think English masculinity has been the focal point of many of my stories. There was a time two or three years ago when I was interested in writing about male obsession and the emotional detachment that comes with it, and in the peculiar collusion between these states of mind. However, writing about men trapped in their own mazes got repetitive fairly quickly. I think also that the pervasive cultural presence of American masculinity made me interested in the lack of cultural attention to the subject here, or at least the relative invisibility of it. Writing all those stories about isolated men who have forgotten how to stop made me realise how central fraternity is to the English male archetype, and how often that’s the one quality really missing from contemporary men’s lives.

Dan Coxon: Iain, your story ‘Dazzle’ also deals with male isolation, but you come at it from quite a different angle. In many ways it’s a more traditional story than Lander’s, and yet it’s incredibly unsettling at times. Was this topic something you particularly wanted to tackle?

Iain Robinson: It isn’t a concern that I’ve consciously engaged with, or even given much thought to, but now that you mention it I can see that most of my stories, and indeed my novel, have as their protagonists men who are isolated or alienated in some way or form. With my story ‘Dazzle’ I began with a powerful sense of place, of landscape, of the sort of estuary, saltmarsh, beach dune environment which typifies much of the East Anglian coastline. Such landscapes play tricks with your senses. The combinations of light, water, and wind, and the great openness of the spaces, mean that, especially when alone in such a setting, your judgement of distances or objects becomes unreliable; a length of rotten driftwood behind a dune might turn into a human figure, or vice versa; a birdwatchers’ shelter or an old pillbox, which seems only a short stroll away, might take an eternity to reach. It was the uncanniness of the landscape that interested me, and then I moved out to imagine who would be there, and what would be haunting them.

Dan Coxon: Comparing your story and Lander’s, I was particularly interested in the way that you deal with many of the same concerns, but in very different ways. You seem particularly interested in landscape, and exploring it as an extension of your character’s psyche, while Lander engages more with the form of the story itself. Is that a fair analysis? And if so, what do you think it is that draws you both in these different directions?

Iain Robinson: I have become increasingly interested in landscape, and it is often the starting point for my stories. In the past I was drawn to urban landscapes, but I’m now much more interested in lonely rural settings, especially the sorts of environments which seem to offer some sort of interstitial space – marshes, coastlines, forests, etc. – where the liminality can allow for a sort of haunting to take place, which is usually to do with a secret, a desire or a trauma, coming to the surface. In this way, I think this is also concerned with form. I have few hard and fast rules in short story writing, but I have taken to heart Ricardo Piglia’s ‘Theses on the Short Story’, in which he talks about the short story being two stories, one visible, on the surface, and one hidden. This, I feel, is the basic trajectory of a good short story, with the narrative coming to head as the hidden story becomes visible. I’m interested in using landscapes as a way of allowing the hidden story to emerge, so that the latent content becomes manifest. I don’t suppose, either, that there is anything particularly original about this – Rupert Thomson does it particularly well in his novels. It is an impulse I’m still exploring, and I’m not quite sure where I’m going with it. What I do find is that it is a challenge, especially if you only have a single character, more or less, in a landscape. If there are no, or few, people for that character to interact with, it means that you have to look closer at the landscape, get more intimate with it, know it well.

The other maxim, well not quite a maxim but an idea, that I’ve taken to heart is that of Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, when he suggests that the storyteller is a craftsman who uses as his raw material his own lived experience. I always want to try to put the heft of heartfelt experience behind my stories, as I think that honesty, the rawness of it, is one of the things that can carry over in the text, and be felt by the reader. This doesn’t mean that I’m writing ‘what I know’ necessarily, I can’t stand most of those Creative Writing class maxims, just that I’m putting something of what I’ve known into any story.

Lander Hawes: ‘On the Mattress’ was one of a handful of stories written after eighteen months spent writing a novella. Before the novella, I’d spent four years or so working on a novel, with the occasional short story produced on the side. So, coming to write these stories after this eighteen-month lull in short story writing involved a great deal of pushing back against novelistic tendencies like digression, tangential excursions and a certain dependence on narrative momentum. All my challenges in story writing are in this area, and so as my stories tend to resist the inclinations of the shorter form I like to regard structure as a barricade against these inclinations. The stories and short story writers that really sing to me these days are the ones who excel at narrative control, where the pace of the main or real-time story is very deliberately managed by the splicing in of other narratives, either from past time or by switching perspectives. K. J. Orr and Joy Williams have been recent inspirations in this sense.

Dan Coxon: It’s interesting that you mention K. J. Orr. I’ve just recently finished reading her collection Light Box, and it struck me that while she seems to break some of the rules that are taught to creative writing students, these are in fact very traditional short stories. They wouldn’t look out of place alongside some of the classics. It made me wonder if we’re teaching the short story wrong. Do we tend to oversimplify? Are we shackling writers too much with rules and formulae?

Lander Hawes: My experience of attending writing classes and workshops is that they’re useful for making a writer more aware of certain generic problems encountered when writing: point of view issues, for example. I’d say, however, that the high-end problems of writing, for example how a writer evolves a style, or moves towards a distinctive coherence of approach, are not so easily taught. I’d say that style is to a large extent a product of accumulated years of wrestling with the form, and that this process of struggle needs to be recognised as intrinsic. I think the danger of creative writing is when it’s presented as a way of circumventing or softening this process. I suppose my point is that there’s a certain stylistic unity that, to my mind, is the ultimate objective for a writer. It’s observable in the best short story collections, like K. J. Orr’s Light Box, where even the weaker stories have a familial resemblance to the strongest. And I think for a creative writing class to help a writer move towards this kind of unity is a challenge.

Iain Robinson: There is a danger, I think, that many introductory creative writing classes, and quite a few advanced ones, tend to abstract aspects of fiction writing, such as character, setting, and plot, from the verbal texture of the work, which can be useful, but I think means that writers might fixate on one area, say developing a psychologically convincing character, without giving sufficient thought to the overall tapestry, to the way all the elements are woven together to allow the reader to perceive a picture. I haven’t taught creative writing for a number of years, but I teach a module which is engaged in getting students to consider various theories of literary study through the practice of writing. This involves a good deal of experimentation, such as cut-up technique, OuLiPo constraints, and various textual interventions, as well as more traditional takes on adaptation. I personally think that such an approach can do more for students who wish to write than some of the more conventional writing courses, because through the act of deconstruction and reconstruction they are often discovering what really allowed a story or a poem to work in the first place – they are forced to confront the formal qualities of a text in an intimate manner. And as Lander suggests, many aspects of fiction writing are not easily taught, and this is the reason why the workshop format seems to work well for writers in classes at postgraduate level, so that various difficulties can be confronted and debated.

Even the workshop format has its limits though, and I found that there was a point in my development when I no longer wanted a cacophony of opinions on my work, but instead needed to just tussle it out on the page on my own – which where it begins and ends anyway.

Dan Coxon: I wonder how much short stories are still viewed as a testing ground for longer works as well, rather than a literary form in their own right. I seem to remember Ian McEwan saying something along those lines – that short stories were important as they allowed writers to play around with tone and voice, the implication being that they could then ‘graduate’ to longer works (as he has done). Do you think short stories are – or should be – afforded equal status with longer works of fiction? Or are they forever destined to be a niche market, a laboratory in which aspiring writers can experiment and ‘find their voice’?

Iain Robinson: I think that to see the short story as a training ground for the novel is to do the form a huge disservice, and to misunderstand it somewhat as well. Sarah Hall wrote something along the lines of the short story being closer to poetry, it is such a very different beast to the novel. I certainly feel something similar, in that the short story has to do its thing with so few words. I didn’t really have much luck with writing short stories until I had gone through the painful process of writing a novel, so you could say that for me it was the other way round, the novel trained me for short stories in the same way that training for a marathon might help a runner towards a better 5K. I guess that it has not been in the interests of the mainstream publisher, or literary agent, to do much with short stories. My feeling is that attitudes in both publishing, especially independent publishing, and the reading public have come on a lot in the last few years. There is less money for most writers, publishers, and agents in novels these days, in fact if you make any money at all out of writing or publishing it is a small miracle, so why not pursue the short story? To be included in Nicholas Royle’s Best British Short Stories is now quite a sought-after accolade. The chapbooks from Nightjar Press and the e-chapbooks from Galley Beggars Press also give some much needed space for the form, as well as the many excellent journals out there.

Lander Hawes: The conversation around short stories has certainly started to shift, really in the last four or five years. It seems that the increase in the platforms available to publish them has coincided with, as Iain says, a sense that the novel has lost some of its lustre as far as writers and publishers are concerned. From the perspective of a writer, I’d say that there’s less crossover between the different markets for novels than there used to be. Thinking back to the mid-nineties, it was more the norm for writers to have broad appeal across different market segments, Louis de Bernieres for example, whereas now unless a UK novel is aimed squarely at the book club crowd its chances of finding an audience in the tens of thousands is pretty minimal. For a writer, producing market-amenable work of the specificity required is either in their comfort zone or it isn’t, and if it’s not, they may just as well write short stories rather than endure the toil and trouble of a novel destined to spend its days in solitary confinement on the Internet.

In terms of the two forms, I’d say that working in neither form is preparation for the other, and that competence in one is a hindrance in the other. I like to think of the differences as similar to those in manned flight. Novel writing is like piloting a passenger jet: much of the skill is in the take off and the landing, and there are periods when the process takes care of itself, allowing one to sit back and enjoy the ride. Short story writing, on the other hand, is like piloting a helicopter at low altitude. Constant adjustments are necessary, and there is a perpetual fight for control.

Dan Coxon: Having said all this, who’s been impressing you recently, specifically in their mastery of the short story (as opposed to the novel, or other narrative forms). Joy Williams and K. J. Orr have already been mentioned … anyone else?

Iain Robinson: I never feel as if I have enough time to keep on top of reading very much recent fiction, but a few names do come to mind. A couple of emerging authors who are already doing very interesting things are Thomas McMullan and Ruby Cowling, both of whom had knockout stories in Lighthouse 10. Julianne Pachico’s two stories in Best British Short Stories 2015 were among the highlights, and she has a collection just out with Faber which I’m looking forward to reading. Alison Moore is also excellent. Of the more established writers, I have a huge amount of respect for Sarah Hall and Jon McGregor. Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference (2012) and McGregor’s This isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You (2013) are two very fine collections. McGregor’s is perhaps the more experimental, although I think Hall’s stories, which are more formally traditional, do fascinating things with voice and gender politics. It is always a thrill to share stories from these collections with my students.

Lander Hawes: Stuart Evers’ recent collection Your Father Sends His Love and Danielle McLaughlin’s Dinosaurs on Other Planets have both preoccupied me at different points in the last couple of years. They’re both writers whose primary residence is the short story, and they’re each ensconced at the sophisticated end of the medium. Also, Joanna Walsh has had much well deserved attention in the last year or so, and I tend to pounce on her stories whenever I find them.  I continue to be amazed by the quality of the work coming out of the US: Ben Marcus’s collection Leaving the Sea is stacked with stories that are flavoured with a distinctly contemporary sensibility, in a way that seems more difficult for English writers. Coming back to home, Dan Powell’s collection Looking Out of Broken Windows is another that has made me go all weird on the sofa.

Dan Coxon: Before we wrap this up, then, how do you both envisage the future of the short story? As a specialist discipline, the kind of niche interest that poetry currently occupies? Or might it find a new market in this age of short attention spans and portable e-readers? I’m talking not just about the literary short story, but also the genres that have traditionally employed the short form – science fiction, horror, mystery fiction, etc.

Iain Robinson: Rather depressingly, I foresee that reading in general might become something of a niche interest. A solicitor I know, a parent at my daughter’s school, was lamenting the fact that none of the younger generation of solicitors that he knew would read or could discuss literature. That, I think, might be a problem, that only the literature crowd end up reading and buying fiction, a problem for society. President Obama read novels during his presidency, which he said was ‘a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about’. Somehow you can’t imagine Trump doing the same, though he could learn a lot from a novel like Moby-Dick. Incidentally, I don’t buy into the distinction between genre and literary fiction – literariness is a quality, genre is a taxonomy – there is no reason why genre fiction shouldn’t be literary.

Within that increasingly niche interest of reading I see no reason not to be positive about the future of the short story. There are now so many different ways to read, should you choose to do so, and it has never been easier for a short story writer to find a readership. What I rather dread is the continuing proliferation of Kindle self-publishing, a publishing model that lowers standards and makes Bezos wealthier. Good editors, lots of good independent publishing houses and journals of various sizes, chapbooks, prizes, and the occasional breakthrough collection that finds a larger readership – this could be the future.

Lander Hawes: I think the future of the short story here is pretty rosy, and that the renaissance which the form is undergoing in the UK is likely to become embedded in the academy, and that the short story may well, in a decade or so, become the medium of choice for young prose writers. I’d say a situation is already emerging, similar to the one which has existed for poets for some time, where short story writers have an audience and reputation that is almost entirely within universities. Of course, this has been the case in the US since the 1960s at least, and it’s resulted in huge benefits for the medium there. I’m not so optimistic about the English literary novel though; the fact that writers are competing for attention with various entertainment media means that a novel needs to be incredibly entertaining and captivating to stand a chance of finding an enduring readership, and I think that novel writing has a heritage of priorities other than these which bear down on a novelist at work.

Dan Coxon edited the award-winning anthology Being Dad (Best Anthology, Saboteur Awards 2016) and is a Contributing Editor at The Lonely Crowd. His writing has appeared in Salon, Popshot, Gutter and The Portland Review, and is forthcoming in Unthology 9, amongst others. He runs a proofreading and editing service at MomusEditorial.co.uk. Tweet him at @DanCoxonAuthor.

You can read Lander Hawes’ & Iain Robinson’s stories in Issue 6 of The Lonely Crowd, which can be bought here.

Copyright © Dan Coxon, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.