I had planned to do what I did last year and write and record a story for Halloween. But I’ve been a bit ill (feeling much better now, thanks to all who sent good wishes, you’re very lovely) and very, very busy so I’ve not got round to it.
So, Anne, An A-Z of Possible Worlds – what is it?
It’s a box of 26 individually bound short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet. Imagine you’re on a journey around your mind and each story is a possible destination on that journey. What would yours be like?
[Nik: mine? I dread to think. Colourful, terrifying, bleak, with occasional sunny spells.]
And who do you think it’s for?
Me, of course! And anyone who likes reading. I think it’s particularly good for people who are traveling because you can just take one or two with you at a time and they fit in your pocket.
What does your ideal reader look like?
Again: me, of course! Actually, make that me as my teenage self, lying on my bed and reading the first books that really burrowed under my skin and have been with me ever since. That would be the ideal.
And what would they say about it?
Hmm, I hope it would set them to thinking: if the inside of my head was an entire world that I could travel through, what sort of people would I find living there? And would I really want to meet them?
Tell us how these stories came about?
It all started when I was commuting to work by train and had plenty of time to study the other passengers and what was going on outside the window. The golfers in the distance looked like robots and that set me to thinking, what if they are? Is that possible? And what if those motorists actually like being trapped in their cars every day? In fact, what if they’re driving addicts who come here at the weekends as well? And what if that person opposite me isn’t a commuter at all but is actually selecting a victim for his next kill? From there, it was a small step to start imagining entire societies devoted to a single passion or emotion: an addiction to war for its own sake, the pursuit of beauty, reverence for authority, the desire to prolong life at any cost, perfectionism, tyranny, paranoia, hedonism, the death wish… All impulses that, to a greater or lesser extent, I think we all have. Just be thankful they don’t exist in their pure form!
And, more generally, where do you think stories come from?
Well, that’s another impulse that I think we all have: the desire to try and make narrative sense out of the world as we experience it. I’m sure that when early humans huddled round the fire after a busy day hunting elk or whatever, one of them would say: did you hear about that bloke who….? It’s a way of applying order, some sort of cause and effect, to our lives, and of testing out the possible outcomes of a particular situation, the eternal ‘what if’? I think that’s why I find fiction far more stimulating than factual writing. If I find out that a story I like is actually true, I feel a bit let down. When a narrative is tied down by what really happened, it actually seems less authentic. I like to know there’s the guiding presence of an author with me when I’m reading because then I have the chance of being taken into a world of ideas and possibilities. By that, I don’t mean a world of unicorns and mermaids and magic boots. I like fiction that’s logical, that describes things that could happen given a certain set of circumstances. It has to reflect the real world in some way without being tied down by it.
Why do you write?
Ha! – to be Lord of the Universe, free to murder and create, to commit unspeakable crimes and heroic acts of martyrdom – and to punish and reward them as I see fit, of course! Seriously, though, I like to take a particular situation or idea and think through what might happen, to see things from several different viewpoints at the same time, and to apply some sort of order to all the chaos out there. After all, it needs it, doesn’t it?!
And why do you think we read?
Aw that’s difficult! Probably for as many reasons as there are readers. Anything from pure escapism to searching for the Answer to Everything. And all the gradations between… I guess I read as a sort of springboard for thought – and for pleasure, too, of course. It’s extremely comforting when you discover that something that’s always irritated or amused you has also irritated or amused somebody that you’ve never met. I know that this is probably absurd, but sometimes I think I know my favourite writers better than I know my best friends. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like that.
What should every great story do?
Stay with you. For whatever reason, it stays with with you. The ones I like all capture a certain atmosphere and when you’ve finished them, they feel complete. Unlike novels, great short stories don’t leave you wanting more. You know when they’re done. If I had to name a few that seem to me to be almost perfect, I would say: Jody Rolled the Bones (Richard Yates), The Trouble with Mrs Blynn, the Trouble with the World (Patricia Highsmith), The Gospel According to Mark (Borges) and The Gentleman from San Francisco (Ivan Bunin). In each one of these, except perhaps the Bunin, the ending comes as a surprise and then you realize that it was built into the story right from the beginning and it couldn’t be any other way. That’s incredibly satisfying.
And every writer?
Whatever they set out to do is the quick answer. To have enough control of your material that you can take the reader to precisely the place you want them to go, even if that place is one of confusion and uncertainty. But that’s easier said than done. People read for so many different reasons, you can’t please em all!
You wrote the stories in an A-Z of Possible Worlds on trains. Is that a process you’d recommend and a method you’d employ again? Or do you fancy a desk? Or a table in a cafe?
Well, I had most of the ideas on the train and jotted them down as bullet points. For the actual writing, I needed my desk, my pen and peace and quiet. It’s true, though, there’s something about trains that’s conducive to ideas, although the time of day was important as well. I would cycle to the station, which got the blood pumping as I usually cut it pretty fine, then leapt onto a train full of very quiet, well-behaved commuters and I had this bubble of silence right at the start of the day that was extremely productive. On the journey home, it was much noisier and I was too knackered to do anything creative. A cafe sounds dreadful. I’d feel guilty that I wasn’t buying enough coffee.
Many of the stories in the collection could be interpreted as commentaries on the not so great bits about life and society (often depicting a hopelessness which put me in mind of Kafka), what would you say to that?
You’re probably right in that you will most likely grab a pen when something pisses you off than at any other time. But then, I found that by taking a group rather than an individual as my main character, events which would be catastrophic to one person actually seemed less so when they affect a crowd. There’s something quite funny about watching a pack of people self-destruct. I wasn’t expecting that, but it sure made it easier to mow them down! And, to be fair, it’s not relentlessly gloomy, is it? [Nik: absolutely not!] I’m quite fond of the islanders of The Straits. For all their boorishness, they show great courage when the chips are down.
How do you feel about the collection’s wonderful packaging?
O, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? It’s much, much better than I imagined. I love the colour, which is British Rail maroon and used to be on the old Pullman coaches. And it just feels so nice!
Which books or authors would you suggest people who liked your work read?
Ha! I wouldn’t like to say that I’m anywhere near as good as the writers I’d recommend, so maybe I can just list some that I really, really like? And they would be: Bruno Schulz, Varlam Shalamov, J G Ballard, John Fante, Victor Serge, Isaac Babel, John Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Dostoyevsky and probably quite a few more…
Tell us about you.
Well, for my day job I’m a freelance documentary editor, cutting anything from cookery to crime. It’s great cos I get some good chunks of time off to write when I’m ‘between’ jobs.
What’s next for you?
Some work, hopefully! And chance to finish a proper, grown-up, full-length book, which is currently in pieces and pinned up all over the flat.
Anything you’d like to add?
This is the age of the train!
Welcome to the blog, David. You have a new collection of flash fiction out, Aromabingo – can you tell us a little about it?
Aromabingo came out in hard back last year and now the paperback is just out. It’s a follow up to sawn off tales, which was my collection of ultra-short fiction – stories all exactly 150 words long ( count them, its true as long as you allow me a hyphen in the word pop-tart) Aromabingo is one third flash fiction, one third slightly longer pieces and one third even longer than that. I’ve divided the sections like old vinyl records – 45s, 12 inch singles, and LPs.
I read and enjoyed your debut collection, Sawn-off Tales, how does the new book compare?
The themes are my usual stuff: weird people in humdrum worlds, humdrum people in weird worlds, weird people in weird worlds, and a few humdrum people in humdrum worlds (but not so many like that). A couple of the longer stories maybe feel a little more serious, possibly just because they are longer. I only publish longer ones when I have completely failed to find a way to cut them right down as I do prefer ultra short; but longer stories have the advantage of allowing the reader to relax a bit more and settle into the fictional world. In flash fiction you never get time to kick your shoes off and pour a glass of wine.
What, in your opinion, is flash fiction?
It’s stories of less than 500 words I’d say. Maybe flash is a male thing like minimalism -there are no cushions or scented candles in flash fiction, it’s all barebones and getting right down to the nitty gritty. When people go shopping in flash fiction story they buy only essentials, things they are going to need for the next few hours. I see flash as concentrated injections of pure distilled reality. I read an article recently comparing sandwiches from different shops; a Marks and Spencer’s sandwich was like one made by a posh chef, whereas a sandwich from Boots was like one your mother would make. Well if flash fiction was a sandwich it would be the sort of sandwich made by your dad, complete with thumb prints – and definitely no salad. In fact, to continue the food theme, making flash fiction stories is like cooking spinach; you fill a pan with enough leaves to feed an elephant then after a few minutes all you have left is a coating of thin green sludge on the bottom. But don’t worry – its incredibly tasty. Flash fiction, like spinach is very, very good for you.
And what makes good flash fiction?
Flash fiction don’t just cut to the chase, it cuts to the point of the chase, hitting you with a powerful one off injection of ideas and emotions which flood the mind and leave you reeling. But the problem is with this intensity is you often need a break from reading. A few flash fictions in a row might amaze and delight – one after another and you feel like you’ve been run over by lorry full of fridges. I think that really good flash has a kind of formal and emotional exactness. You can find yourself lost in these frozen little shards of time, and you hold your breath, suspended between an endless known moment and an endless unknown future. That’s why I love them. A good piece of flash may seem innocent on the surface but glows from the inside with secret menace. I think that flash fiction sometimes has more in common with text art than literature; people like David Shrigley, or graphic novel/comic books artists like David Frith with his Salad Fingers series. And why not celebrate short things? Short songs have always been the greatest – Blitzkrieg Bob rather than Pink Floyd, that’s what I say.
What’s your writing process?
I type, but I hold a pen at the same time. Holding a pen helps you think. I recommend it. Long hand is good too. I wrote a lot of my recent set of stories – 24 stories about the M62 motorway between Liverpool and Hull – longhand in cafes then typed them up later. I tend to write longer and then edit down, I have never written a short piece and stretched it out, I’m not sure I could do that.
I have an ideas folder where I put all my rough sketches for stories and there’s a lot of stuff in there, so I never really have to start with a blank page. In fact I would recommend never starting with a blank page, even if you have a pick a bit of paper up off the street that someone else has written on, like a shopping list, its better than starting blank. I once found a torn piece of card which turned out to be the packaging off something called Party-Feet – sticky plastic pads you wear in high heeled shoes to make them comfortable to dance in. On the back someone had drawn a map showing how to get to the railway station from their house. This was a short story nearly written out for me! All I had to so was fill in the gaps. Or not. Gaps are good in short stories aren’t they? The devil is in the detail, but God is in the gaps.
It’s been a couple of years since Sawn-off Tales was published, have you noticed any shift in the public perception of flash fiction in that time?
I think that there has been more interest in flash over the last few years. I get asked to do a lot of workshops on flash fiction and there are loads of web mags and print mags publishing it. However I don’t think flash fiction is ever going to be up there with longer short stories – the 3 – 5 thousand worders. Those stories are the competition winners, those stories are the big hitters. I think us flash fiction people are doing something a little different.
I’m assuming you’ll have been asked what most short fiction writers are asked: Are you working on a novel? What’s your standard response to that?
I’ve already published a novel called Never Never. It’s out on Tindal Street Press – and it’s about people with debts biting back. It’s set in West Cumbria and is a comic thriller (or a thrilling comic, whichever you think sounds best). However, I prefer writing short fiction because of the sense of elation you get every few days when you finish a story – with a novel, it feels like your acting out the sex life of some withered-up cactus that flowers every two years for five minutes, and even then waits till your down at the betting shop.
Tell us about you. Who is David Gaffney?
I’m a man without a hat, but with glasses and a coat.
What’s next for you?
I have a new collection of short fiction out in June on Salt called the Half life of songs, and a novel half-written which is about some bailiffs who write a stage musical about Mott the Hoople and take it to the Edinburgh festival. The last part will be based on my experience of taking my show, Destroy PowerPoint, to the Edinburgh festival this year. I also have a project at the Poole Literature Festival coming up called The Poole Confessions which consists of people in Poole telling me their secret confessions which I then turn into short stories and read to the public in a mobile confessional box which will tour Poole in 2010. The public will decide on a penance for each of the confessional stories and the penances along with the final stories will be published at the end of the festival.
Anything you’d like to add?
Check my website for more stuff is all I would say www.davidgaffney.co.uk
David Gaffney is from Manchester. He is the author of Sawn Off Tales (Salt 2006), Aromabingo (Salt 2007), Never Never (Tindal Street 2008), Buildings Crying Out a story using lost cat posters (Lancaster litfest 2009), 23 Stops To Hull stories about junctions on the M62 (Humbermouth festival 2009) Rivers Take Them a set of short operas with composer Ailis Ni Riain (BBC Radio Three 2008.) andDestroy PowerPoint, stories in PowerPoint format (Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009) and In 2010 The Poole Confessions, short stories based on the confessions of people form Poole and delivered in a mobile confessional box at Poole Literature Festival, and The Half Life of Songs a new collection of shorts on SALT press.
And if anyone would like to buy themselves a copy of Sawn-off Tales WITH a 30% DISCOUNT, they should go here and enter this code:
“I Met a Roman last Night, what did you do? By Nik Perring.
Review by Archie Clark. Aged 8.
The book ‘I met a Roman last night what did you do? ‘ is a very good book. It starts with a boy called Jack who does not want to go to bed, he wanted to find out more about the Romans he’s learning about them at school. Eventually he went to bed and to sleep and in his dream he met a Roman and the next night he met a Celt and the
next day when Jack was at school the teacher, Miss Bean told them they were gong on a surprise school trip. That night he dreamt he met a Viking the next morning Jack went on a school trip. That night Jack wanted to stay up to find more info on the computer but he knew he needed his rest for sports day, so he went to sleep and he met a young girl in the war then he woke up and went to sports day.
Make sure you buy this book for your child. I would rate it age 7+ and the story 9+.”
I’ve had a nice weekend, which makes a pleasant change if I’m honest, in that I’ve seen people. Yes, very nice indeed.