It’s all about the right conditions
I’ve watched this game of writer’s tag with interest, enjoying its supportive spirit and collaborative camaraderie. I’ve really enjoyed learning about other writers – some familiar, some not so familiar – and following the meandering path to a host of new reads. However, I didn’t expect to be included in the game. I was happy to remain a spectator, cheerleading from the sidelines, but I was delighted when Bernie McGill hollered over the vegetable patch and asked me to contribute.
Bernie McGill (@BernieMcGill) is a short story writer (a collection is forthcoming in 2013 from Whittrick Press) and author of The Butterfly Cabinet. She was the winner in 2008 of the Zoetrope:All-Story Contest in the US and her short fiction has been shortlisted for numerous prizes including the Bridport, the Fish, the Asham, the Michael McLaverty and the Seán O’Faóláin short story awards.
I’ve just delivered my next novel to my agent Sallyanne Sweeney, but, like many writers, I’m a bit superstitious about revealing too much about that particular project until it’s found a home. So I’m going to talk about my experimental short fiction sideline, which may or may not be a success. All will be revealed…
1) What is the working title of your next book?
The short fiction I’m currently writing is intended for competition and journal submissions, but I’m experimenting with interlinking plot and characters with the intention of turning them into a novel. At the moment, there are two working titles – The Book of Us (taken from a poem recently published in Southword journal) and Dinosaur Stones. If anyone has an opinion on which they’d be more likely to pick up and read, I’d love to hear why!
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
I believe that variety is important when you’re writing. Although I mainly write novels for a younger audience, I like to challenge myself with adult short stories and flash fiction at the same time. Engaging in such a different discipline helps keep the ideas flowing and, more importantly, allows me to play.
The idea of constructing a novel from linked short stories – with each chapter a stand alone tale, written from a different character’s viewpoint, but ultimately inextricable from the bigger picture – has always appealed to me. I love patterns. I love puzzles. And I enjoy the extra dimension these elements give to my writing.
This is something completely new for me and I’m treating it like a scientific experiment. I usually write books I know I can definitely write, and so this is a self-induced challenge. It’s a sideline; the chance to fail spectacularly. And something about that really excites me.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
At the moment, short fiction – it’s a mix of short stories up to 3000 words and flash fiction, as short as 500 words. But if the idea of turning it into a novel works, then I’d say literary fiction.
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
One of my stories would really benefit from Jack Nicholson playing the main character – a jaded, indecisive widower with a dark future ahead of him. And in another, I’d love Paul Dano to play the disaffected, displaced youth – he conveys anger and torment so convincingly.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Always a difficult one but something like this perhaps…”A darkly humourous yet revealing tale examining the intricacies, depth and contradictions of human relationships.” Maybe that sounds more like a review?
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My aim is to submit the stories separately to competitions and journals, with a view to presenting the evolved, novel version to a publisher in the future. If the novel idea does not work – as I say, this is completely experimental and may not work at all – then I might present the stories as a collection. But as we all know, the short story does not receive quite as much attention as it deserves. Thank goodness for entities such as the Cork International Short Story Festival and The Short Review.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The first draft is a work in progress because it’s a sideline, written in tandem with my main projects. I’m also taking a completely different approach using short stories as the basis. Usually I write a first draft of a novel in one month – more of a non-draft really – and that provides me with the lump of clay I need to mold.
In this instance, I expect the collection of stories to build up over the next year and then the shaping of the novel to take another year. I find short stories extremely difficult to write. Novels give you more room to explain and examine – short stories are a completely different art form. I need to let them sit for longer and they take much more time to feel ‘complete’. Having this as a side project makes the timeline possible without it being frustrating.
Let the great world spin… Philippe Petit walks between the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, 7 August 1974. Photograph: Alan Welner/AP
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
If the novel idea works, think Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. That’s a great example of what I’d like to achieve. In terms of short stories, I’m still not sure I’ve mastered the art, so I’d rather name some amazing short story writers that I love and that I hope will somehow influence my work – Kevin Barry, Alexander McCleod, Haruki Murakami, Angela Carter, Raymond Carver, Deborah Willis, Flann O’Brien, Roald Dahl.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The desire to play with a variety of characters and scenarios. The need to work on something without deadlines, just for fun. The need to experiment and possibly fail. And reading Collum McGann’s Let The Great World Spin at the end of last year reminded me of a project I always wanted to do.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The stories are in-depth character studies of seemingly ordinary people in a variety of seemingly ordinary situations: a kind of ‘behind closed doors’ look at how human beings function. Like any writer, I just hope that I write something that strikes a chord and brings pleasure to others. If it doesn’t work out how I expect it to, then I’ll have learned plenty along the way, and that will inevitably feed into something else…
Next week, on February 30th, Renée Pawlish and Hazel Larkin will be answering the same ten questions as above.
Renée Pawlish is the award-winning author of the bestselling Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the first in the Nephilim trilogy, the Reed Ferguson mystery series (This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, The Maltese Felon, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat), The Noah Winters YA Adventure series (The Emerald Quest), Take Five, a short story collection, and The Sallie House: Exposing the Beast Within, a nonfiction account of a haunted house investigation. Renée has been called “a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre” and “a powerful storyteller”. Nephilim Genesis of Evil has been compared to Stephen King and Frank Peretti. I highly recommend her blog.
Hazel Larkin was first published when she was 12. Since then, her work has regularly appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers. She has written on topics as varied as Asian finance and orgasms; parenting and real estate; childbirth and transcontinental travel. Hazel spent her 20s in Asia where she made her living writing for stage, screen and publication. She was the co-editor of The Big Book of Hope (2010) and has also written a memoir, which is currently under consideration by an Irish publisher.
Susan Lanigan has short stories published in a variety of journals and newspapers, such as The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She has been shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award several times, and has won highly commended awards for short stories and poetry elsewhere. She is currently shortlisted for the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair.