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BBC National Short Story Award 2017: Q&A with Will Eaves 

This post is part of a series on the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award. 

Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with one of the authors shortlisted for the NSSA, Will Eaves. (Read my review of his story ‘Murmur’ here.) 

How does it feel to have been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017?

It’s an honour, of course. I like in particular the NSSA’s relationship with radio, which is an intimate medium. A radio voice speaks to listeners one by one, in their rooms, in their cars, in the bath. One hears that voice with a dramatic sense of others caught in the act of listening.

Can you give us a bit of background information to your shortlisted story? What inspired you to write it?

It’s a story that comes at the beginning of something longer – a chain of linked stories about a scientist struggling to maintain physical and emotional equilibrium in the wake of his conviction for Gross Indecency. Alan Turing is an obvious inspiration; but equally clearly the story spins away – far away – from his recorded circumstances. “Murmur” and its companion pieces are collectively a fantasia on the life of the mind, logical paradox, loyalty, and love.

The unique element of the BBC NSSA is that your story will be read by an actor and broadcast to Radio 4 listeners. Have you thought about what your characters’ voices might sound like, or do you have a particular voice in your head?

The speaker is a man in his forties. His voice might have an edge; he’s sharp but not severe; careful; quick to notice things, sad; occasionally vexed, not short-tempered.

What do you enjoy most about writing in the short story form, as opposed to longer-form or novels?

I’ve submitted to the NSSA before, always in the knowledge that I don’t write conventional short-form fiction. (I have a high regard for those who do: see reading suggestions below.) The truth is that I’m never sure what form I’m writing in. One has some idea of the material, the scale and shape, but these are rather different things. I’m not the sort of person who decides to write a poem or a novel or a story. The whole process is extremely uncertain. I tend to follow the voice. Form and content must grow together.

Which short story or collection by another author would you recommend to readers and why?

“Regret” by Guy de Maupassant. An old man confronts the woman he has always loved – the wife of a friend. Would she indeed have given herself to him, that sunny day years ago when they walked together by the riverside after lunch? A masterpiece of concision and tension, the whole story is strung upon the agony of a simple, devastating “what if?”

Also: “Millennium Blues” by Helen Simpson, from Hey Yeah Right Get A Life – an unimprovably great title that her US publisher wanted to change to: Getting A Life

Which short story writer would you recommend to readers and why?

Flaubert (Trois Contes, and “Herodias”, in particular), Maupassant, Chekhov. Among contemporaries: Alice Munro, for her handling of time, and brilliant voicing. The thought and the said run together effortlessly. Her best collection is probably Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage (2001), but they are all good.

What are you reading at the moment?

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, by Barbara W. Tuchman. A historian friend introduced me to this. It’s a vivid commentary on the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Papal Schism, and the economic and tactical disaster of chivalric combat. You can only read a few pages at a time because the violence and suffering are so disgusting.

What was your favourite book as a child? 

I’m not sure. It changed from week to week, I think. My first great emotional experience was reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, late into the night, under my covers, and feeling distraught. I cried myself to sleep – I’ve loved spiders ever since. I liked Conan Doyle and Saki as a young teen (“Tobermory”), and still do. Then Persuasion and Jane Austen. As an uncertain gay adolescent, I found Graham Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography uplifting, and very funny.

Was there one writer that inspired you to start writing?

No, because I didn’t think very much about who had written what. I liked reading on my own and the feeling of liberation and retreat that came with scribbling in exercise books. Music was as important to me as literature when I was growing up, and songs and piano and 60s/70s R&B and funk (Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder) still matter. Musical composition makes sense to me. When I started acting, I found myself drawn to Shakespeare’s late plays (The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale) for the transformations and magic. I’ve never set out to write anything in a particular style, although I do absorb the work of other writers and think about it over a long period of time. That’s essential. I try to notice and remember solutions to different technical problems. There’s a chapter in Beryl Bainbridge’s Injury Time (the whole book is lovely) that taught me how to move from one centre of consciousness to another. She makes it look so easy. Dickens helps one to be brave about changes in register and address.  

Will Eaves was born in Bath in 1967 and educated at Beechen Cliff Comprehensive and King’s College, Cambridge. He worked for twenty years as a journalist and was the Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011. He teaches in the Writing Programme at the University of Warwick. He is the author of four novels: The Oversight (Picador, 2001; shortlisted for the Whitbread – now Costa – First Novel Award), Nothing To Be Afraid Of (Picador, 2005; shortlisted for the Encore Award), This Is Paradise (Picador, 2012), and The Absent Therapist (CB Editions, 2014; shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize); and two collections of poetry: Sound Houses (Carcanet, 2011) and The Inevitable Gift Shop (CB Editions, 2016; shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry). He lives in Brixton, London.

Himself by Jess Kidd: review and Q&A

himselfToday’s post is part of a blog tour for Himself, the debut novel by Jess Kidd. As well as writing a review, I’ve asked Jess a few questions, and I thought I would try to interleave the two…

In 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig, a village on the west coast of Ireland – and his childhood home. He can’t remember the place – but then, Mulderrig is a place apart at the best of times, and he broke the mould simply by leaving, even if he was a baby at the time:

Here the colours are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?

There is a vivid sense of place in Himself, and it came as no surprise to me to learn that this was the seed of the novel:

Mulderrig has always felt like a character in its own right, says Kidd, because it’s so strong in my mind. From the beginning I was able to wander around it in my imagination. It first emerged in a short story and I found myself totally intrigued by the town. Writing a novel offered me the scope to explore the setting further…Mulderrig and Mahony emerged, as did their intertwined histories.

Ah yes, intertwined histories. The infant Mahony was taken from his mother (“the curse of the town”) and left on the steps of an orphanage. He has now returned to Mulderrig because he’s been told of that secret past (and his real name), and he wants to uncover what happened. He’ll meet some fascinating characters: one who really stands out for me is Mrs Cauley, a splendidly irascible old actress who becomes Mahony’s partner-in-investigation.

She’s also the person in whom Mahony is able to confide another secret: that he can see the dead. The supernatural in Himself is strikingly low-key, and I asked Kidd to elaborate on that choice:

For me there are two main supernatural elements in the book, the dead and the magic that erupts from the place itself. I wanted the supernatural elements to feel part of the fabric of the text and not just added on for entertainment value, to shock or surprise. I was therefore careful to weave these events into the narrative, always making sure that they had a place in furthering plot or developing character.

The dead have a communicative function in Himself. Whilst there is the suggestion of a chilling Gothic-style haunting (without giving too much away) the dead in general have a very different kind of presence because of the way they interact with the living. This is because I wanted the dead to be fully developed characters in their own right, with their own stories and a sense of lives lived. The other supernatural elements in the novel, such as the biblical storm, swarming creatures and misbehaving wells, are very much linked to folklore and the land. Above all I wanted to create a world that the reader could become completely immersed in, however bizarre it became! To achieve this, the supernatural elements had to feel like a natural part of the fictional setting. I wanted even the most outlandish supernatural events to feel perfectly plausible and right in the context of the town. The otherworldly outbursts also provide an important contrast to the atmosphere of the town, which is very locked-down, silenced and repressed. In a way the supernatural communicates the rising tensions and repressed fear and guilt of the villagers.

That feeling of the supernatural being an everyday part of the world really comes across in the novel. For example, there is the scene where Mrs Cauley makes a whirlwind of her library to find a clue:

Soon light pamphlets of philosophical thought start to join them, skidding across the floor and fluttering up into the whirling cloud of paper. Slim volumes of difficult poems come next, scuttling out from dark corners and flapping headlong into the swirling gyre. Even the most aloof classics join in, shedding their covers and flinging themselves, one after the other, into the vortex.

I love the rhythm of that passage. I guess it may come across as a bit overegged, what with all the repetitions (more so out of context, I think). But to me, this just heightens the intensity of the moment. That’s one of the ways Himself works: those little flashes of something extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary place.

Then there is the language itself; there’s a real exuberance to it, as I hope the quotations here show. I commented to Kidd that I could imagine being regaled with this story over a few pints in the pub:

The narrative voice was there from the start. Very early on I’d decided to use magic realism in the novel. I’d already experimented with this narrative mode in my short stories but now I wanted to apply it to a full-blown novel. There’s often a storytelling flavour to the magic realist narrator and I thought this would suit both the setting and the way the plot unravels (with stories about Orla [Mahony’s mother] central to the investigation). I’m delighted that you picked up on this quality in the narrative voice as I very much intended the reader to feel that they were being drawn into a tale – led by the hand into a fictional world. Storytelling is a core element of the book, along with the tale-telling narrator many of the characters tell stories – often in the pub!

Although Jess Kidd was brought up in London, her family is from Mayo; I wanted to find out more about what drew her to the particular time and place of the novel:

I think my choice of time and place was very much inspired by my earliest memories of Ireland (in 1976 I would have been three). As a child I was fascinated by the natural world and responded to it by drawing, painting and writing stories. Although the book is very dark, and in places a little twisted, I hope there is also a sense of wonder and even nostalgia there, particularly with regards to the landscape. Mulderrig is a bit of a patchwork of the places I’ve known and visited. Although it’s very definitely Irish I wanted to try and give the setting a universal appeal so that readers from all different backgrounds could relate to the small-town atmosphere of the novel. My choice of setting was also strongly influenced by two play texts. I’ve always loved Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, for its portrayal of an insular, eccentric, seaside village. The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, is set in Mayo and deals with themes of violence and storytelling. As the play unfolds we watch an isolated community create its own realities through the tales it tells itself. Both plays have a strong sense of setting and this was something I really wanted to carry over into my own work.

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Thanks to Jess for answering my questions. If you like the sound of Himself, you can buy a copy from the publisher, Canongate, here; and there’s more to discover at the other stops on the blog tour, which are listed in the graphic below.

himselftour

 

Q&A: Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press

With The Testament of Jessie Lamb having won the Clarke Award last week, I thought it would be interesting to find out more about the small Highland press which published the book. So I got in touch with Sandstone’s Managing Director, Robert Davidson (pictured left, © Gary Antony), who was kind enough to answer a few questions.

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DH: What’s your background, and where did the idea for Sandstone Press come from?

RD: Sandstone flowed quite naturally from the activities of my earlier life. I sometimes entertain the dangerous notion that everything up to its beginning was preparation for what was to come. For more than two decades I had lived not just a double life as engineer by day, writer by night, but triple since I was also intently involved in hillwalking, the local community, the Neil Gunn Trust, Reviews Editor at Northwords Magazine, and much else. My second book was titled Total Immersion; not for nothing. Something had to give and in 2000 I came out of my job with Site Works begun and many other projects being actioned. Soon I was Managing Editor at Northwords, where I spent three years. By that time much had been learned of what not to do and a bit more about what actually works. To extend both my own creative work and also my work with other people and projects, a new structure with new mechanisms was required and Sandstone Press was born. I think it must be obvious from outside the company that, by now, Sandstone Press is a lot bigger than any one person. There have been changes in personnel, the arrival of two great Board members in Iain Gordon and Moira Forsyth, ever rising ambitions, great support in recent years from Creative Scotland, achieving Faber Factory Plus as selling agents, many more books and increasing international recognition and outreach. My early ambitions are now refined down to project management of the whole thing. Personal projects will have to wait. I have probably written my last book, which is a sadness, but the larger project prevails. Don’t misconstrue that as a complaint. This is one of the most exciting times of my life.

DH: What do you look for in a book when you’re deciding what to publish?

RD: The strap line to our principal logo is ‘contemporary quality reading’. The list has also become refined and now focusses on outdoor (which is a natural product of our Highland location), literary and biographical non-fiction, and more general, contemporary fiction. An increasing number of titles will be bought in from abroad and it is likely that we will publish fewer, high risk, first time authors. That rather avoids your question though.

The first thing I look for is the ‘idea of the book’, and I feel it is best if it can be described in just a few words such as ‘the biography of the recently retired leader of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team’ or ‘what happens to a child when his parents mysteriously disappear in Australia’. This is the seed from which all else grows. There can be too many ideas at root, I believe, and ideas which come along in the course of writing should conform to that key note.

The second thing both I and Editorial Director Moira Forsyth look for is, quite simply, good writing. Good writing can carry a book through to a disappointing conclusion and it still be deemed a success, as every reader must know. Some of their favourite books have flat or implausible endings. The word ‘quality’ looms large for us and I guess that recognising quality beyond personal leanings is one important mark of the successful publisher.

Increasingly we must seek the commercial. Personally, I love the art book. I love the quixotic and different and lyrical. To also publish such titles we must first pay the bills. We therefore seek quality and commercial attributes combined.

DH: Let’s talk about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which I guess could be considered your breakout book. Clearly it has struck quite a chord; what was your feeling when you read it?

RD: I had no doubt about its quality as I turned the A4 sheets. I am already on record as saying it is a work of genius on several levels. Mature adult subjects treated through the eyes of a child or young adult are difficult to almost impossible to bring off and it takes an author of the highest calibre to do so. Jane Rogers achieves this with what looks like consummate ease. Its themes are contemporary and vital. It gives food for thought, indeed argument, to feminists, environmentalists, moralists of every stamp, and Christians. The work goes deep. If your heart is not aching for Jessie and her father by the end it must be made of stone. To me, all of these things were obvious. There is a part of me that wants to carry the book forward with Sandstone alone, but Canongate’s offer of partnership will work best for the title and the author. It was also too generous to refuse and I should say that I am very happy with the relationships which have developed and which are continuing to develop.

DH: What can we look forward to from Sandstone in the future? What are your ambitions for the press?

RD: My ambitions for the Press are what they always were. We are to be a self-sustaining, which is to say sustained by trade, international publishing company located in Highland Scotland, employing here and contributing to our economy. The rest is growth and  . . . Beyond that? Let me repeat what some senior Waterstones personnel said to me earlier in the year in Edinburgh. ‘Just keep publishing great books.’

DH: Finally, please recommend a book that you think deserves a wider audience (but not one that you publish).

RD: I should have been ready for this one! Still seeing myself as a writer, editor and publisher I would choose Journal of a Novel (The East of Eden Letters) by John Steinbeck for other writers, for editors, Letters from the Editor by Harold Ross, original editor of the New Yorker, and for publishers, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, of course.

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Thanks to Robert for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about Sandstone Press on their website.

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