Added: Thursday 10th August, 2017
In Celebration of the Short Story - An Interview with Vanessa Gebbie
In the run up to Small Wonder Short Story Festival we ask award-winning writer Vanessa Gebbie about short stories.
What, for you, does the short story form offer, if anything, that the novel doesn’t (for both readers and writers)?
There are so many analogies, from single gemstones compared to a treasure chest, to music from a single musical instrument compared to that from an orchestra. A single perfect diamond must be stunning, mesmerising. Stick it in a pile of other gems and it loses something, surely. The sound of the clarinet is glorious. Put it in an orchestral piece and it merges, disappears as an individual sound. I get both analogies, but neither fully explains the pull of the short story, for me.
A perfect short story is something rather special. It belies the word count, drawing the reader in to a whole new world peopled with living, breathing characters who spring into life after only a few lines. You share their worlds with them, stand alongside for a short while as they act out their stories, and the odds are, that you will remember those moments, possibly for ever. They say that a perfect short story can be life-changing. That sounds a tad dramatic - but I know what they mean. If your heart is beating a bit faster as you reach the closing paragraphs, if you are so invested in what’s going on that you are physically reacting to the experience, and if you are a willing participant, sharing an experience which sheds a fresh light on who we are and how we are with each other…you are enriched. It has something to do with the concision, the intensity of the experience. The depth.
Can you have the same experience with a novel? I’d argue, not quite. You can't sustain the intensity for the length of time it takes to read a novel. You can’t put down intensity and pick it up exactly where you left off. Ideally, to have the optimum effect, a short story must, I think be read in one sitting, and with care. Every word counts. Really!
For writers, the short story presents so many challenges. It is very hard to get rightish, let alone right! But - it is possible. And within a short timescale, relatively.
Some writers assert that it easier to experiment with short stories, would you agree with this?
I think it is. As a short form writer, you haven’t got to make the huge investment of time that a novel takes - you can chuck yourself into the tasks of learning about and writing short stories without setting aside a decade of your life. On the way, you learn such a lot that will be of use should you wish to tackle a novel at some point, too. Arguably, all your learned short story craft will be useful for longer works. But does it work the other way round? I’ll leave that as a question…
Short stories can often be very subtle, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps or guess at what might happen next once the story has finished. Do you think this partnership between the reader and writer is part of the short story’s appeal?
I think it is part of the appeal of any well-written fiction, and part of writing well is leaving out as much as you can without leaving the story full of holes. If I as reader am fed every detail, I don’t need to use my imagination. That’s why I often find a disconnect when I go and see the film of a book I have read and loved. I have to get past ‘hang on - he doesn’t look like that!’
And for me, the best endings of any fiction are those which don’t tie up all the ends in a secure knot. Life isn’t like that. Life goes on, and that’s how it should be.
How do you go about writing a short story? Do you plan it or just sit down and write?
Usually, I am intrigued by the possibility of a character. Maybe someone seen from a distance, fleetingly, doing or being something I don't understand. A snip of conversation I don't understand. I don’t actively plan, ever, am certainly not a conscious plotter, but I do know that if I am intrigued, then the subconscious creative bit of me is working away until at some point, it’s ready to be written.
I’m reading ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, at the moment. I nearly ran round the garden whooping in glee when I read this:
“ I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible...”
“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice…”
Controversial? Sure. I think he’s being a tad harsh. Put a hundred writers in a room and you will have a hundred ways of creating - from plotters to freewheelers. I am definitely, like King, the latter. Absolutely nothing wrong with being either, but so nice to have a bit of validation for whichever you instinctively are.
I suspect, if Mr King read Nietzsche on creativity, he’d chime with the notion that much of the planning is done behind the scenes as it were, in ‘active forgetting’. Nurture your subconscious!
You have both won short story competitions and been a judge for several of them. What makes a winning story stand out?
For me, as judge (I cant speak for the rest) - it is a combination of voice and character and situation - the start of a confident story - that says ‘stick with me, this will be worth it’. Mind you, it has to then sustain it.
I suggest writers always write as well as they can. And better. That way, you will always have something to hand when a submission possibility or entry possibility arrises. Write what empassions you. What you care about, deeply.
You have said that reading is the best way to learn how to write a short story. What is the best way to read a story in order to learn from it? What elements do you look for/draw from it?
Golly… just read! Anything. Read stuff that others say is rubbish. Read the back of the cereal packet. Read the Booker shortlist. Everything, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. That way, you find out which you love most, and thats arguably the sort of stuff you might write best yourself? Who ever had a satisfying time writing stuff they didn’t love?
BUT. If you have not yet met short stories that move you, try again. Slow down. Don’t read for plot, read for the people, for the pleasure of the words, and find out what happens that way.
Once you have started to learn about the craft, you'll find that certain elements spring into focus as you read. That 'Aha! moment when you realise everyone is aiming at the same skills, and it is lovely to recognise a fellow-traveller, even in the greats.
What short stories would you recommend to people who want to learn how write short stories?
Ali Smith’s The Child - its fun, wicked, totally mindblowing. You will never see a supermarket trolley in the same light again. Read this one for the voice, for the themes, character and pace as well as opening and ending. Here it is, online.
Peter Orner’s The Raft - about as different as you could get. A huge novel-depth narrative packed into 1250 words. Read this one for characterisation, dialogue, structure.
and my favourite story, The Ledge, by Lawrence Sargent Hall - published first in 1960, I think, the language might be a bit dated but goodness, I think it lasts the test of time. Only read this if you’ve got time, space, quiet, tissues, and room in your heart for some exceptional characters, and an exceptional series of events which won’t leave you…
You have four short story collections. How do you go about putting a short story collection together? Does there need to be a common thread linking them all?
Some say yes, some say no. My first (Words from a Glass Bubble - Salt) only had the most tenuous link between the pieces, but mostly they were pieces that had won prizes or been shortlisted. The second (Storm Warning - Salt) was definitely themed, in that it was all stories to do with the echoes of conflict. The third (Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures - Liquorice Fish) is tiny stories, micro fictions, that all build to a portrait of a marriage, through somewhat strange means. It’s illustrated. And the fourth (A Short history of Synchronised Breathing - Cultured Llama) is all strange, weird, ‘you what?’ stories. I love writing those! So is that a theme? I guess it might be.
But for this reader, if the theme is too obvious, such that I know roughly what the next story is going to be about, then I get bored. There’s no discovery.
It is often said that publishers aren’t interested in short stories. You have obviously managed to get collections published but would you agree with this assertion? Do you think things are changing?
I think this - thank heavens for the independent presses! They are prepared to take far more risks than the big players - and the reading world is richer for it. Of course some of the big players champion the short story now and again - but as we all know, you wont get rich on the proceeds… neither will they. Unless, of course, your collection is that bit different, and wins a big prize - now there’s a challenge!
Vanessa is running a Short Story Masterclass on Sunday 24 September, 10am - 4pm. Find out more and book here.