Saturday, 20 October 2012

Up Close and Personal

I have spent the past few weeks wrestling with my short story collection, due out next year. I've yet to decide on story order, although story precedence seems to be falling into place. I've also had feedback from some very generous readers - some of whom have thrown my thinking on its head. As the stories voyage from Africa to Europe and back, vastly different environments are drawn up, sketching characters who deal with their appearance or physical foibles or fixations, in shifting contexts coloured by history and landscape.

I've also been reading up on what other writers have said about trying to stitch up a collection. It's rarely comfortable reading, because there are so many elements, so many different opinions. What to aim for - a vast and diverse collection, or a thematic voyage through interlinked characters? A parade of stand-alone stories (I can think of Nam Le's 'The Boat') or a tessellated piece like Gretchen Shirm's 'Having Cried Wolf'. And, is the story collection a prelude to the more imposing authorial task of the novel, or is it art unto itself?

So many tussles going on. And this poor writer's pieces go from gay druggies in Berlin to a story of incest in Sekondi, Ghana. How to map these out without losing/baffling the reader?

And yet, as one of my readers said and some of the discussions I read confirmed, short stories are meant to be reread, fished through, digested and thought about. They sit on the stomach. They smoulder in the mind. They are not a comfy flow from one snatch of free time to the next, the connected world of the chunky novel that gives the reader relief. Rather they are demanding, feisty, often unresolved and can leave you sorely wanting. Cliff-hangers, in their most effective form, with the crux of the story's reality just beyond reach, the story around the story, leading the reader up a garden path that buzzes with suggestion.

If you are a short story writer or interested in how these collections come about, do read this discussion, one of the most pertinent series of points I've come across lately

Some of the most interesting points include:

..Publishers favour the linked collection, especially if they can disguise it as a novel. If that isn't possible, they may still suggest a unitary title. This is how Mothers and Sons was given its title, homogenising Tòibin's wide-ranging collection, and privileging one theme among many.

..However tenuous the links may be, story cycles and thematic collections are highly visible, and they are popular with both publishers and literary critics.

..How do you go about assembling all those bits and pieces into a book-length manuscript? Do you just put your best stories together and hope for the best? Or is there some inner logic?

And, for me, one of the most resonant point of all:

..A short story doesn't really resolve anything. It sustains tension, which is probably another reason why people don't take it to the beach. It's not a relaxed form. It can mirror a confusion which doesn't have to go away.

..The word story, the word plot, means a crisis, a conflict, an escalation and then a resolution. Resolution can be a positive, reassuring, warm resolution, but it can also be a kind of Shakespearean, apocalyptic resolution. The short story does have a lot more of the latter - confusing resolution, resolution that turns everything on its head - but it's still a type of closure, a truth slamming down on the reader.

This entire piece is worth reading and is called Oceans of Stories: Collections, Sequences and the Short Story. The discussion is chaired by Ailsa Cox, of the Edge Hill Prize, and the speakers included Anthony Delgrado (bluechrome), Ra Page (Comma Press), Duncan Minshull (BBC Radio 4). Very glad I discovered this.

And this is the bit where most short stories writers photograph their post-its on the floor or the bed, showing you how maddeningly off their rockers they are. Check this out. Can betrayed Laila rub shoulders with broken Sebastien in Brussels? Will Nathalie lead on to Veronique and her contemplation of scarred Heinrik? Will Celeste stand back and allow her brother and his lover to take their own lives?

I read a beautiful comment by Scott Prize winner Carys Bray. She said that unconsciously, she had bookended her collection with two similar pieces. I was thrilled to discover a while back that I had done the same thing too - 'Pelt' starts with a feisty pregnant woman determined to win her man back, 'Volta' ends with another, completely flawed pregnant woman about to lose hers.