Another interview for you today, folks. This time it’s with (fellow) Edge Hill Prize long-listed Jo Cannon, to talk about her collection, ‘Insignificant Gestures‘ (Pewter Rose Press) which I’ve been dipping into and very much enjoying. I give you, Jo…
Welcome to the blog, Jo. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
Thanks for inviting me, Nik, and for your interest and support.
A pleasure! So, ‘Insignificant Gestures.’ Could you tell us a little about it?
Insignificant Gestures consists of twenty five short stories, including some flashes. A recurring idea is exile, in the widest sense. Although some protagonists are far from home for various reasons, others are alienated from society or from their sense of self. Some characters dip in and out of each other’s stories; Eve is seen at different ages and from altered angles, and her long running love story with Tim weaves through the book. Some stories are sad, others are – I hope – funny. Many have a surreal edge, as I play with the idea that the world we inhabit is a projection of our inner life.
Who would you say it was for?
I don’t really write for a readership, so couldn’t say. Creating the first draft of a story seems a deeply personal activity; for a time I become the protagonist, and if I let an imaginary observer read over my shoulder it would feel intrusive, if not indelicate. I’m thrilled that anyone reads my stuff, whoever they are. I’m fascinated and flattered by the various ways readers interpret the stories — even some I never intended — and that they name different ones as their favourites. I’ve learned that the interface between a story and the reader is nothing to do with me and cannot be predicted, rather like a child’s relationships outside the family.
How long did it take you to write? How old’s the oldest story in there?
I wrote the stories over about five years, along with others later discarded, and then spent many months rewriting and editing before submitting them as a collection. My writing is sporadic, squeezed in between work and family stuff, so I’m not prolific. The oldest story, Rictus , which is also the first I had published, was written in 2004.
Where do your stories come from?
As with every writer they come from the subconscious, I suppose. The protagonists are invented by me, so their inner life and emotions inevitably have similarities with mine. The backgrounds to the stories come, in a jumbled way, from all I have witnessed or experienced in my different roles of doctor, mother, friend and even newspaper reader. Everyone reaches mid-life with plenty of stories to tell. I am rather a wind-bag, so it is a relief for everyone when I shut up and write instead.
What do you think a story has to do for it to be great?
I think a story is great if it moves me, often by describing an emotion, situation, or moment that I recognise but have found difficult to define or put into words. This needn’t be serious; there may be an ‘aha!’ moment that makes me laugh. It must feel authentic, so I identify with the character and his or her predicament — or if the story is magical realism, happily suspend disbelief. I love it when language adds further depth to the story, perhaps by the use of metaphor. I admire all this in other writers’ stories, but have a long way to go.
What’s your writing process?
I started my writing life in a reflective writing group for doctors. One exercise was to describe a dysfunctional consultation from the point of view of the patient. For example, I was once perplexed by someone who always appeared hostile and disappointed, yet continued to make frequent appointments. Seeing myself through his eyes led to useful insights and reflections. I still use this technique as a starting point sometimes, but with made-up protagonists. For example, after the London tube bombings I saw a news clip of the terrorist’s terraced house, and realised that his act would irreparably harm his unwitting family. I then wrote a story, Daddys Girl, from the view points of an imaginary bomber’s wife and child.
At other times I take an emotion or incident from my own life and extend it. For example, we all have regrets, but what if one had committed something irrevocably bad? I imagined that feeling and wrote a story around it: One Hundred Days.
Any tips you’d like to share?
I wouldn’t presume to advise other writers. Except to restate the obvious: don’t be discouraged by rejections, but rewrite, edit and submit your story elsewhere. I’m delighted to see my work as a collection, but it was a stroke of luck that the book appealed to my publisher. I know lots of people who write fantastic short stories that deserve a readership. It’s a shame there are so few publishers willing to publish collections, and I salute Pewter Rose Press, and other Indie publishers, for putting their money where everyone else’s mouth is, so to speak.
Anything you’d like to add?
No thanks, Nik. I’m delighted to be sitting on the Edge Hill long-list with you. I enjoyed Not So Perfect and wish you lots of luck with the short-list. (Nik: Thank you, and likewise!)
Jo Cannon is a doctor who has worked in Malawi and Tasmania, and is now a Sheffield G.P Her stories have appeared in The Reader, Mslexia, Cadenza,Brand and New Writer among others, and in anthologies including Route, Leaf Books and Willesdon Herald. Competition successes include Fish International, City of Derby, and Brit Writers Award. ‘Insignificant Gestures’ published by Pewter Rose Press, is her first collection. Jo is married with two teenage sons.