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.”
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.