In Death & Love on the Prairie, I wanted to encapsulate the vastness and unpredictability of nature by echoing the distinct feeling of expansiveness in my prose. With long, meandering sentences, I wanted the writing to mirror the ceaseless undulation of the story’s environment: the mighty plains and rolling valleys of the American West.
I don’t tend to make copious notes when writing short stories, and the notes I do have are often abstract. For example, one of the few points I’ve written about this story in my notebook is: ‘Granddaughter questions grandmother re: actions under Nazism.’ I prefer to meet and question the characters, the story, the setting, on the page. Often I’m surprised by what I learn – the granddaughter’s binge eating of potatoes, the grandmother storing photographs of her son beneath a cushion, the steps it takes to navigate from living room to apartment door – and enjoy the texture they add to the world of the story and the dynamics between characters. These details take the reader on detours, but I’m always conscious of bringing the focus back to the present moment of the story: a granddaughter and grandmother, a difficult conversation, in an apartment in West Berlin. I look for the lapses – the needless journeys – when editing.
Rathlin is beautiful. It is a wild and battered beauty, craggy and stark. It’s an island off an island, a remote corner of a remote corner. There is a lonesome quality to the place, a sense of outpost in its lighthouses, its seabirds who come and go with the seasons.
I think this was the start of Sam’s story, ‘Wolf in the Ultraviolet’. Here is a girl who doesn’t want to cry because of the cost. I decided she must already know the cost. She’s suffered a traumatic loss; she’s seen her world turn dark; she’s felt herself prey. And so, Sam wants to be able to see in the dark, sense any attack, like a horse.
I have noticed this trend in a few of my short stories recently, a tendency to point to a different layer of self, operating below the surface. The short story is a better vehicle for this unpicking or unravelling process than the novel because of its compression, which allows for the kind of intensity that generates these moments of awareness, or recognition.
I hate cruelty. It’s why I became a reporter: I thought writing about cruelty would do something. It’s also why I stopped: writing about cruelty doesn’t do anything. There seemed to be no space in news to write about things in a way that would really transport readers into the lives, minds, and nerves of the people they were seeing in the news. I think only fiction can do that, really, so I started writing novels and stories again in 2015 or so. Whether or not it’s politically useful to write about anything is an open question, but I think crime gets closest.
In spring 2020, I developed an obsession with the idea of collective grief. This is probably not surprising, given that we were in the midst of a global pandemic. I was supposed to be using this time to plan and write a series of short stories set in a dystopian British Isles of the near future. My collection of short stories was intended to imagine the future of our country as it further subsided, both ecologically and politically. I wanted to explore climate fiction from a geographically British perspective; interrogating the possibilities for writing that reflected the experience of living here as the world changes. But before I had made much progress with the project, the real world collapsed into my speculative pitch. My plan for spring 2020 had been to visit locations to research settings for my stories, instead I found myself wandering along country lanes on Google Earth or descending Wikipedia rabbit holes.
This sub-text of violence and hostility runs throughout the story, from the blood-red of the pomegranate juice staining neighbours’ hand as they share a meal in a garden to the conker dust that gets into eyes like “shrapnel from an exploding shell.” The language of war arrives in the story before the bullet, just as the other-ing rhetoric of conflict and difference arrives in communities before fists and bullets. Even the jocularity comes with a threat: “The way Adrijan hugged him and laughed, spilling his wine, I thought he’d break my father’s ribs.”
The interplay between the real and fantastical as a conduit for self-discovery is something which I explore within the broader parameters of my writing. In Carlos’ case, this is encapsulated in his encounter with the old man of the mansion house and his subsequent undertaking of three challenges; challenges fused with a darker side of his day to day reality and the unreal, with three doors, three sightings of his sister and the transformation of the three adults who care for him.
An anecdote, in itself, is not enough to create a work of fiction. However, I disagree with the fictional Uncle Sima. For me, anecdotes are jumping off points, thought-provoking fodder and inspiration for my work. Of course, an anecdote has to be twisted and turned, stretched, recalibrated, reinterpreted and wrought into a piece of fiction that works. What I am always trying to achieve is a story that has resonance, subtext, emotional heft, significance of some kind; an insight into why people are the way they are and why they do the things they do. My fiction is mostly realistic and character-driven, so the anecdotes and throw away lines I hear on a bus or a train or in the supermarket or the pub are essential and without them, I don’t have a stepping-off point that leads me into something else.
Tracey Rhys on the impetus for her four Bathsheba poems in Issue Twelve. There has only been one dream in my life that I have ever written about, although I’ve often woken up convinced that I’d dreamt the best plot ever, only to realise … well, it was a bit shit really. This one was…
My best writing however, comes from a place of contentment, a place in nature – a calm sort of high is what drives my pen. So as to mania and creativity, I would concur with Jeanette Winterson – in Why be Happy when you could be Normal? – that madness does not inspire, but that creativity is the means by which one defeats madness. Creativity was a slow ladder out of it all.
Rachael Smart: Firstly, congratulations on Love Stories for Hectic People, a collection which excavates love in all of its forms. It is tender and wounding, erotic and transporting, it takes both regular and extraordinary moments in love and offers up brief narratives that are oblique and always unflinching. Your former collections, Pelt and The Cartography…
Truth and Fiction in Story-Telling When I was a young, confused graphic design student, in the long-ago days of collage and drawing boards, I remember train rides across Sydney to art college. I remember the obsessions of a late, damaged teenagehood involving the death of a child, years of classical piano, Tchaikovsky LPs, warped discotheques…