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!