Your story ‘They said there were Pirates,’ it’s compressed, shifting, allusive atmosphere has stayed with me long after I finished reading it.
I was hooked by the opening lines, it’s spare lyricism. I was hooked in fact by the absolute quality of your writing throughout.
“I’d been part of the water for so long now, it no longer felt like I was moving…. as though it were the planet that swayed to and fro. To and fro.”
By this power of repetition, like an incantation, by the meanings that work in layers, and open up by what you purposefully omit,
“You’re my only treasure’, she said, ‘I have nothing left to lose,” such an understatement of the depth of this woman’s loss.
One of the ways it’s so effective in conveying the quality of dreamlike uncertainty is the way you mix the past, present and future throughout, by your use of verb tenses. Was this a technique you discovered as you wrote your story? Can you tell me more about it?
26th May. 17.27
Thank you for your kind words and astute reflections!
I think my habit of playing with tenses is related to my thoughts on how we perceive and experience time as a dynamic thing. Our experience of the present is always informed by our memories and past experiences and what we expect to happen. I think this is something I’m always trying to represent, often subconsciously.
I wrote this piece (which I see as both flash fiction and prose poetry in a way) as a stream-of-consciousness and when I write in that way tenses often shift around. It’s only through the editing process that I really examine this and figure out how it adapts and reflects meaning and movement in the narrative.
I originally wrote it without the first paragraph, but then I had a discussion with my friend who is the father of a small boy, and we felt the poetic reflections in the piece felt like an adult looking back to their childhood thoughts, rather than a child’s thoughts as they happen.
Exploring the perception of youngsters leads me nicely into your story which neighbours mine in the Dusk anthology. ‘In-between Dog’ has a protagonist Alice, who is herself in between — a preteen just starting secondary school and facing the transition into her teenage years.
The point-of-view here uses the apparently naive worldview of a preteen as a tool to carry us through the narrative, revealing aspects of the setting and characters as we go. The subtlety of this was very effective in helping the reader build a picture of this family’s life through sparse information. It reminded me of something the writer and critic Jenn Ashworth said about how a good short story is like ‘a sliver of light between a pair of half-drawn curtains’. It reveals precisely what it needs to.
In this way, you hint at the magic realist element ‘the in-between’ while still holding something back, the way youngsters always hold something back from adults. The dog Loopy is brought into the family by one of her fathers, but its elemental nature seems to belong to her.
What inspired this otherworldly aspect to the story and the relationship between Alice and the dog?
29th May. 16.55
And thank you, too, for your thoughts and nice question.
What inspired the other worldly aspect to my story is the French expression, quoted by Alice, about dusk being between dog and wolf.
This gift of an expression conveys, with vivid economy, the uncertainty of twilight when things are slipping and changing, and no longer what they appear during daylight hours. Imperceptible alteration, uncertainty, ambiguity – brilliant places for a story to start. And a wolf! Who doesn’t love a wolf as the embodiment of ‘other’, a wilder, exhilarating, dangerous element. (As a side note, ‘wolf’ in French is le loup, and ‘Loops’ became the English version) So I wanted to include this aspect of ‘wolfness’ in the story and also to leave it shadowy and understated in the same way the original expression conveys the meaning of not one thing nor the other.
As you say, Alice is also in that in-between stage of life, neither child nor teen. She’s childlike in her strategy of magical thinking, that is, a belief that if you want something, then all you have to do is think it, for it to take place. And also older than her years in trying to protect her Dad and partner from the bully boys. She came over as socially isolated so it felt like she would naturally develop a strong bond with Loops as her close friend and companion. And it felt right she had that yearning for things being wilder, playing alone in the park with Loops as it grows dark, connecting with something other, raw and alive, that exists just beneath the humdrum surface.
Moving on to your story. Your opening lines, that place the piece, in the first instance, in the here and now before we find ourselves moving back and forth within memory and ambiguities of the dream like state. I want to ask you about the coin. The coin here – intimations of death, of betrayal, of treasure, poignant link with the memory of her brother. The way to pay or buy their journey. So much is conveyed by this simple coin. Can you say more about it, and how the coin came to you as a way to contain these meanings.
All the best
9th June. 17.28
It’s funny, but the River Styx analogy didn’t consciously occur to me until you asked this question! And yet there it is. I think my starting point for the coin was the pirates. I dreamed many years ago that I was on a boat and pirates were coming. It was during a period where real-life Somali pirates were in the news a lot, robbing boats off the coast of Africa. And then more recently I was set a task to write on a political theme during the height of the most recent refugees-in-boats crisis. So I paired these two things together and the coin seemed like the perfect simple object for the child to be carrying (in realistic and symbolic terms). My focus when writing was the timelessness of the refugee flight, how this dance has been played out many times over, and the fragility of life in these circumstances — the bartering with the gods (metaphorical or literal) for a safe passage.
I think what’s really interesting here is how the history of literature and storytelling can seep into what we’re writing without us knowing. So the coin gathers its own meaning and moves beyond the intentions of the author — so meaning in literature isn’t just what we put in but what the reader takes out.
There are certain stories, and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ is a great example, which are ingrained into our psyche. Whenever I see someone falling down a hole in a movie, I think of Alice, whether it’s an intentional reference or not. I love these repeated patterns (or leitmotivs) and I think the wolf is another one which has so many layers of meaning attached to it.
I’m curious, what other things do you write? Are you mainly focused on short fiction? What themes from ‘In-between’ connect this story to your other work?
20th June. 17.49
Finally! Finally I get to think about what I most want to think about but which gets shoved to the back of the queue on a daily basis, partly because it needs time and I don’t want to dash off some unthinking quick response.
Also … because I tend to allow what’s really important to me, to be overridden by other apparently more pressing demands. Which is what happens also with my writing. Which is a whole other topic that could be unpacked. ‘The most common problem writers have is not writing ‘(Mohsin Hamid). Anyway, I’m sorry for the delay and hope it doesn’t interrupt our flow too much.
In answer to your question about what other things I write – I also write stage plays. Having written quite a bit of short fiction, I wanted to not exactly ‘move on’ but to develop and extend my writing skills.
When I started script writing it was deeply weird. How is it possible to set up context? What about interiority? How can you tell a whole story with sub text, only through dialogue and physical action? What about past and future how do you covey that? The whole writing process is always a ongoing puzzle for me, but I do think the rudimentary script writing skills I’ve learnt have fed back and improved my short fiction writing as well. Refreshed it and enabled me to write more succinctly. Keeping to the point. Keeping it fresh and alive.
As for themes. Someone (and I’m rubbish about remembering who says these things, I think it was a guy) he said about his own writing that although he’d been writing stories all his life – in essence they were all part of his one big story. I find that liberating. I kind of know what he means. It’s as if we return to the same undercurrents all of the time. To answer the other part of your question about ‘In between’ and how it connects to other writing themes of mine, I’ve not often written from a young person’s point of view. But there was something about the Dusk brief that I found compelling and the fact I could bring in a wolf of course, and maybe the element of the unknown wildness theme is part of a general theme I allude to without being deliberately conscious of doing so.
The other thing about In Between is I wrote it rapidly and relatively easily. Most of the time it doesn’t happen like this. Normally a lot of stalling and not knowing how to make my writing work. Hours, days, in changes, repetitive, obsessive rewrites, and tweaks. It’s never, ever perfect, it could always be better.
I also think I only ever learn how to write the particular story or play I’m on. Each new project is like starting from scratch with no idea how to do it.
Which leads me on to wanting to ask you a three-part question. Firstly, have you too written in other genres and if so what led you into this? Also, what led you into writing in the first place? And lastly, more of an impossible question really, can you tell me more about the process of your writing, what is your process, how do you locate what your story is actually about, how do you bring it to any sort of completion?
All the best
5th July. 17.33
I really identify with what you said about prioritsing our writing and also the type of writing we’re doing. I’m currently finishing a part-time Creative Writing MA. I decided to do the MA in order to prioritise my writing more in my life as, as you say, more ‘pressing matters’ tend to take over—things which have actual deadlines or family crises or a great big fat pandemic, you know, the usual.
This worked in some respects because it gave me deadlines and classmates to bounce ideas off and a set amount of time to really develop my writing. However, it dragged me away from writing my novel. It put other ‘parts’ of my creativity on the backburner by making other writing more pressing. So it did radically change my priorities but didn’t exactly fix the problem. I’ve found having a mentor and writing buddies or groups the best way to help prioritise my writing by creating accountability. In fact, I actually planned out a workshop I would deliver a year or so ago on helping writers to find the space in their life for their writing but it didn’t happen for various reasons.
In terms of form and genre, I now have 3-4 areas of writing I work in depending on how you categorise and delineate. For short work I tend to write either prose poetry or short fiction or some hybrid of the two. Then I write novels – I have self-published one climate-fiction novel about 7-8 years ago, have my first draft of my second full novel and two other half-worked ones waiting in the wings. These are largely speculative fiction of the Margaret-Atwood-type variety, often set in the near future with themes around the environment, identity and society. Lastly, my MA has introduced me to the lyric essay and other hybrid forms which combine elements of poetry, fiction, memoir and essay with various experiments slipped in through the cracks between form and genre. I’ve fallen a bit in love with these and my dissertation (which I’ve just started in the last few weeks) is in that hybrid style.
To the question of what led to what. I have always written stories since I was little. I was one of those precocious children who started their first ‘novel’ at age 8 (about a family of foxes and very much a rip off of Colin Dann). I didn’t find an idea for a novel I could actually stick with to the bitter end until my mid-twenties and wrote a lot of short stories and half novels instead. I also started writing these stream-of-conscious pieces which I really couldn’t categorise until I finally realised they were prose poetry. I was always terrible at traditional poetry so I think I was in denial that that’s what they were but I’ve embraced this now, though I still have imposter syndrome when I speak to ‘real’ poets.
In terms of process, most things I write which are concept-based tend to start with a dream. Much of my dreams are nonsense but now and then my subconscious throws out some brilliant lump of clay for me to shape into a real thing. The less concept-based stuff comes from free-writing and stream-of-consciousness. I just write and see what comes out and sometimes it’s good enough to form into something else. I do write more than one thing at once and jump around a lot and I guess the ones I go back to and actually finish are the ones which still spark my interest over time. My editing process is first me and then other writers. I’ve been in various critiques groups and worked with an editor on my first novel which all helped me develop my craft and ability to self-edit. Now I have two close friends who write in a similar oeuvre and the three of us share work around. I find feedback really essential to my process now.
In terms of planning things out, I’m the ‘gardener’ not the ‘architect’ writer type (if you’ve heard that analogy). I plant things and nurture them and see how they grow in the world rather than planning everything out to the nth degree before writing it. With novels, I don’t write everything in chapter order, so I do have to organise and create a framework as I go so as not to get completely lost.
In terms of ‘finding what the story is really about’ I think putting something aside and coming back to it is key. Sometimes for a week, sometimes longer. The novel I am writing now started as a short story based on a dream many years ago. I lost my way with it and put it aside. About four years ago a life-event suddenly chimed very deeply with the themes in this story and I saw it more clearly and realised it was too complex for a short thing, so I began developing it into a novel. I like what you said/quoted about everything we write being our story in a way. I think I write because it helps me understand the world and the life I’m living and the people I’m living it with, even if I’m writing about a place I’ve never been or a thing I’ve never directly experienced, it all still relates back.
I’m interested in what you say about differences with playwriting and how the differences feed back into your handle on short stories. I’m a writer who really enjoys writing dialogue (I know many who don’t). I feel that’s where my characters change from some half-formed idea into a person that takes on a life of their own. How do you find writing dialogue? What have you learned from plays about the art of subtext which has informed your story writing? Also how do you feel about directors taking a script you’ve written as a basis and doing something different with it? Are you comfortable with giving up some creative control?
14th July, 21.34
It’s interesting to hear you decided to do the MA to help you prioritise your writing in your life, and yet it also takes you away from other areas of your writing work that you feel are equally essential.
Yes, it often feels like this to me – no matter what writing I’m on, there’s always other work languishing in the background that needs attention, and completion, and just getting round to actually SENDING out!
And intriguing to hear about the hybrid genre, that sounds so fresh and creative, in addition to your prose poems and longer form fiction. Sounds like such rich and fertile ways to work.
Other writers who critique your work and whose insights you trust, are true gold.
I think you must finish that story about the family of foxes btw!
Re your climate crisis novel, I’ve found much of my recent work has involved floods, or trees, without intending for the work to go that way.
To your question about dialogue writing and if I find it easy, what’s weird is that in a play script I can find it deceptively easy, but not so much so, in short fiction. I say ‘deceptive’ as it’s very easy to allow irrelevant dialogue to meander along and really snag up the action, when, like in any form actually, every single word has to have its purpose and momentum.
The useful things I’m learning from script writing, that hopefully do feed back into short stories, pretty basic really, is succinctness, creating an ‘atmosphere’ between characters from what they do, rather than what they say, to have characters say one thing but mean something else. I love the immediacy of theatre, its here and now ness.
Did you, by any chance, catch ‘LUNGS’ by Duncan Macmillan that was performed live on stage to an empty auditorium and streamed from the Old Vic just a week ago or so? It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre writing I’ve seen. So beautifully and intelligently crafted. An absolute class act in how much to leave out and allow the audience/reader to understand. One of my lockdown high points. They sold ’seats’ as if it was a live performance to an audience, so it was limited each night to the capacity of the theatre.
To answer your question about what it’s like to hand work over to directors and giving up creative control. I think of my script as the starting point for the performance and the director and actors bring their range of skills to make of it what they will, and that’s fine as long as they’re true to the intentions of the piece and the writing. Writers aren’t massively welcome in the rehearsal room normally, but whenever I’ve been allowed in, I’m fascinated by the process. By the serious playfulness of it, or maybe it’s the playful seriousness.
Yes, the whole world is breaking down, and here we all are heading merrily to hell on the hand cart, so, to counter this, let me offer you one small, beautiful reason to be cheerful. A swift. A small, birdy miracle. Not that I believe in miracles but can find no adequate word to describe their extraordinary existence.
They fly solo. What this means is that when the baby swift leaves the nest in the UK it flies – never having done this before – all the way to Southern Africa and then all the way back to the UK the following year, with no-one showing it the way. Seriously how do they do this? I mean I can’t navigate my way out of a signed car park. Or out of a badly written sentence.
A swift weighs, apparently, around 40 grams. It spends its entire life on the wing. Think about that. It sounds like hard work. It mates on the wing, drinks rain water on the wing, catches airborne insects on the wing, uses airborne straw and random airborne leaves for nest-building. It even – I can’t get my head around this – sleeps on the wing. How? How does it do this? The peregrine falcon flies faster whilst diving in a stoop, but in horizontal flight the swift is the fastest flying bird reaching a recorded 69 mph. It is the essence of flight.
This year, the swifts were here, in the south-west, on Friday 5th May. They always turn up on this date. I look out for them, and in the evening, summer has arrived as they wheel and swoop in at the end of their 14, 000 mile return trip. Their screaming calls are the sound of summer itself. I count them. There are, of course, fewer now than twenty years ago, because yes, the world is breaking down and we are too careless as a species to mind about any of this. But this is striking the wrong note here. So, my Arachne writer friends, one small, beautiful reason to be cheerful and one small reason to keep on writing is, each year, the swifts arrive.
We had a great night in Bath, with our join Liberty Tales/Shortest Day, Longest Night outing,with a very enthusiastic crowd, and readings from, in particular, Nick Rawlinson who not only read his own Into the Blue (Liberty Tales), but helped out Pippa Gladhill with Mercury and tackled David Mathews‘ Mouse. Nick felt the story was so intense it didn’t need the distraction of him performing and sat with his back to the camera! And Jill Sharp (On Reflection), was not happy to be filmed so we just have sound for each of these.
Also reading from Shortest Day, Longest Night and very happy to be filmed, was Cherry Potts (The Midwinter Wife)
Tuesday 10/1/2017 7.30 St James Wine Vaults 10 St James Street, Bath, BA1 2TW
Combined reading with Liberty Tales. poem: Bernie Howley, Elinor Brooks, Jeremy Dixon, Jill Sharp; story: Nick Rawlinson, Pippa Gladhill, Katy Darby, Cherry Potts, Polly Hall