On writing ‘Whale Season’ – KM Elkes

The story of this short story? Much like the story of every short story I write – random memories coagulating, some weird shit glimpsed in my peripheral vision, a character or two burping from the murk like hot gas. Stirred and heated and stirred again until, eventually, the voice comes – the thing that makes this murky, mud-pool bubble pop.

Voice is the key in the lock. Voice is tone and mood and style. It’s what I think F Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said: ““Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.” Voice is the interior designer you don’t trust who says ‘this’ belongs with ‘this’ to produce ‘this’ and you sit back shaking your head until the jerk-forward moment of ‘dammit, you know what, you’re right’.

The story of this short story? Wind back a decade. I’m sat with my wife on the roof of a bashed up, underpowered hire car parked among sand dunes, scanning the ocean for Southern Right Whales with a pair of bashed up, underpowered binoculars. We talk about spotting tail action. We snigger over the word spume.

The dunes are near a town called Witsand in South Africa’s Western Cape. A one-road-in, one-road-out little place among the flat, empty southern plains. We’ve already tried other towns. Those big, tourist friendly, watch-whales-frolicking-from-the-comfort-of-our-hotel-lounge towns. They had failed to yield a single sighting.

We’re staying in an apartment that was built in the 70s, but decorated for the 60s with a side order of 80s. A monumental affray of clashing colours and wicker furniture. Everything creaks. It smells of wet wool. Anything electrical, including the toaster and kettle, are either chained up or bolted down.

A few days later, walking down the path to the vast, low-tide beach we see in the distance a small crowd round a beached whale. The way they stand, arms crossed, squatting on haunches, hands on hips tells us everything we need to know. We don’t get a chance to see the whale up close – the tide comes in swiftly and malevolently in Witsand. At least that’s our excuse.

Scroll forward a couple of years. I break my wrist playing football. But I’m due to go out that night, so I get a temporary cast and self-medicate on booze and painkillers. The effect is like being licked by marshmallows. I tell everyone hazy, incoherent, untrue stories about how I broke my wrist in a fist-fight.

Wind forward again. At the dinner table my wife, a psychiatric nurse, tells me about chatting to an unnamed patient who had threatened to cut his genitals off with a razor blade while travelling in the back of a taxi. My fork stays suspended in mid-air and I press for details.

Forward again. A fun fair, with a friend’s young son.  We put him on a ride and cheer each time he carousels into view, laughing at his laughter. But when he disappears around the back, another boy appears. This one sits, huddled in on himself, and bawls for the entire ride.

If you read the story, you can see these elements breaching like whale flukes in the narrative. I could pretend that there’s a planned, common thread running them. Or that it was a conscious decision to include them alongside the complete inventions – a Chinese taxi driver named Xue, a fight over park bench space, a tasting menu of the world’s worst ice-cream flavours. But that’s not the truth. It never is.

Instinct and gut are underrated writers tools. Sure, good hard editing is the way to pull these things into the shape of a story, to layer, to add in the sharp corners which will catch a reader unaware. But it’s the subconscious that does the initial chemistry, for me anyway, and that’s where the essence of this story lies.

All of which, sparks another random association. Or maybe, not so random. A quote from Flannery O’Connor, who knew a thing or two about writing short stories: “I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction…”

You can read ‘Whale Season’ in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here. Ken will be reading ‘Whale Season’ at our Cardiff event this Wednesday. Do join us at Little Man Coffee from 730pm.  

KM Elkes lives and works in Bristol, UK. He began writing fiction seriously in 2012 and has since won or been placed in a number of international short fiction competitions including the Fish Publishing prize, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, the Bath Short Story Award, the Prolitzer Prize, the Labello Press Prize and most recently the Short Fiction Journal competition. His work has appeared in nearly 20 anthologies and has been published in literary magazines including Structo, Nottingham Review, Synaethesia Magazine, Brittle Star and Litro. He is currently the Editor of The A3 Review arts magazine and is working on a debut collection.

© KM Elkes, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.