Sunday, 22 June 2014

Why Edith Pearlman is awesome

cover of Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Last week I taught Edith Pearlman's "The Story" for the first time.

It was a bit of a risk: I love Pearlman's work, but I didn't know how my very varied group of adult learners would react. I probably shouldn't have worried. I'd hardly got into the room before one student began enthusing about it.

I was so pleased: Pearlman has become my all time favourite short story writer this year, since her collection Binocular Vision was recommended to me by writer and teacher Sherry Ashworth.

I want my students - and myself - to learn to slow down when reading short stories. I want us to notice the sentences, notice the words. Not to skim read or scan the page, but to read each word mindfully, like poetry. Some people do this naturally; most of us don't. Pearlman's writing reminds us to decelerate.

"The Story" seems to be about two couples simply having dinner together. Nothing happens. Or rather, something doesn't happen. One of them - Lucienne - decides not to tell a story about herself, a story which reveals who she is, why her life has taken its shape, a story she has told many times before, which would certainly bring her closer to the others at the table. The mystery of this tale is why she chooses not to speak.

Cue much discussion in class. Again, I want my students to learn that simply going back to the author's words carefully will give them answers. (Hoping this doesn't come across as a primary school level instruction - but honestly, primary school was probably the last time any of us read s-l-o-w-l-y.)

The story opens with three lines of dialogue (from Harry, Lucienne's husband, and the other couple), and a silence (from Lucienne who "uncharacteristically said nothing"). Pearlman is never afraid of introducing lots of characters into short stories. But the only way to read the first couple of paragraphs is attentively - or perhaps twice. Otherwise, as my students noticed, you may get lost in the names.

Barely have you become acquainted with Harry and Lucienne Savitsky and Justin and Judith da Costa, you're plunged into another paragraph describing the restaurant violinist, the name of the restaurant ("The Hussar"), its 26 year old chef and a nervous busboy. In just two paragraphs, you're submerged in the world and setting of this story but at this point have no idea where the story is going. The only way is onwards.

Unless it's backwards. The story hinges around a flashback of sorts: Lucienne’s story - which is related to us as readers (but not to Justin and Julia da Costa) by Harry. Usually, I’d say to writers, work your flashback into the story, weave it in so the reader hardly notices we are reading about the past of the story. Stories have their present narrative time, where the action is taking place, and a history or a memory (the back story). The key is to stay in that present narrative time. But this story is different. Pearlman does something I’d usually counsel writers against: setting out a flashback in italics, as a separate story. How does Pearlman get away with it?

Well, she waits until the story is almost over before revealing it. Beginning writers often place flashbacks very early on before the reader has the sense of where the story is going.

Second, this flashback isn't simply a memory, it’s a story which has been repeated many times over Lucienne’s life. It's presented to us as a story within a story, and the way it stands out on the page emphasises this.

Third, it’s told with “the nouns unadorned, the syntax plain, the vocabularly undemanding” – plain language which contrasts with its dramatic and emotional content, and indeed with the sophisticated way that Pearlman relates the rest of the scene.

The best part of teaching this story was when I asked my students the significance of Lucienne's one shouldered shrug at the end. And seeing realisation dawn on their faces as they reread the flashback section. The power of a well placed gesture.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Book Festival round up

Well, the Prestwich Book Festival is over for another year, and though it was small it was perfectly formed.

Check out lovely pictures from the marquee - a day of childrens' events on May 18 at Prestwich Clough Day, via Emma Farrer's Flickr photostream.

Meanwhile there's a great write up of our readers' day on June 1 by blogger Molly of A Place In Prestwich. There were many highlights to the day, but I only just noticed, from the picture in this blog, how fabulous Emma Jane Unsworth's shoes were.

Finally, the lovely Park View Primary School ran a short story writing competition among its 600 or so pupils: and local author Sherry Ashworth went along to award prizes to the very best of them.

This year's authors: Sherry Ashworth, EM Powell, Dominic Berry, Tony Walsh, Emma Jane Unsworth, Vanessa Lees, Honor Giles and Paul Neads.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Tamim Sadikali - Dear Infidel

Tamim Sadikali is a software developer by day, novelist by night. His first novel Dear Infidel "a story of love, hate, longing and sexual dysfunction, sifted through the fallout from the war on terror" is already making waves, though it's not out until August 1. You can follow Tamim on Twitter, check out his blog, and read his reviews at BookMunch. We asked Tamim about the writing life:

How do you balance the day job with your writing?
My life as a software developer and business analyst couldn’t be further removed from writing fiction. Yes, software can be creative, but business analysis involves many meetings and often tricky negotiations, and money is foremost in everyone’s mind. When I write fiction, my only need is for splendid isolation. Writing is a kind of meditation, and I’m torn out of the moment if I so much as hear another soul. I don’t have a writing schedule (and with two very young kids, regulating it would never work). I keep a scratch pad on me at all times, and whenever an idea strikes I put it down. To flesh it out and refine it then takes anything from a few hours to a couple of years… Patience is indeed a virtue.

Tell us about your path to publication.
I started writing Dear Infidel over ten years ago, and right from the beginning, my intention was to get it published. I ignored all reality checks (statistical likelihood etc), and saw every rejection as just another bend in the road. I never doubted that I’d reach journey’s end. What I didn’t appreciate at the time, though, was how little I knew about the craft – the science – of writing; that there was more to it than stringing together a couple of cute sentences. It is a truism that practice makes perfect, but in my experience, real learning – and real improvement – needs honest feedback, too. I don’t mean asking your friends what they think, or relying on views from those writers’ circles where everything gets a thumbs-up. I paid for critiques, and had my work torn apart, and boy did it hurt – but it was priceless.

I also went to many, many workshops – I found Spread the Word’s events particularly useful. Johanna Bertie of Chapter One Promotions unofficially mentored me in the early days, and gave me some great tips – for example, when you read your own work, read it out aloud, as if performing to an audience – the flaws become transparent. I came runner up in C1P’s 2008 shortstory competition - and my entry can be found in that compilation. I’ve also had a ‘vignette’ published by the magnificent Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

You’ve got a maths degree and a career in computing. What has the reaction of your family and friends been?
I didn’t get into writing by design – in truth, I stumbled across it. One night, for a reason that I still don’t know, I just picked up pen and paper and began scribbling. Over the next few days I kept on scribbling, and within a week I had over 10,000 words worth of scribbles. (Some of that has actually made it into Dear Infidel). And by then I was hooked. But after the initial excitement of wanting to tell the world that ‘I’m writing a novel!’, I decided to keep that part of my life secret.
My family are so proud; really made up for me. I must especially mention my wife, from whom I stole so much of what should have been ‘couple’ time, to lock myself away and write. Sometimes she understood and sometimes she didn’t, but I was selfish and did it anyway. Farah – thank you. 

What does it mean to be a British Muslim writer in 2014? Or are you simply a writer and other labels are meaningless?
I’m British, I’m Muslim and I’m a writer – I’m comfortable with all that. Does that, though, make me a ‘British Muslim writer’..? It would be churlish to deny how big a part my own experience has played, in shaping my first novel. But in no way would I accept being pigeonholed. If I choose next to write about a gay, Irish New Yorker, I will. Good fiction resonates across boundaries – categorizations such as British, American or ‘ethnic’ are fine as reference points to the story, but certainly not to any (potential/likely) audience. I can think of no greater insult than to be told my work would only appeal to some well-defined subset. 

Did you face any technical challenges in writing it? Or did it ‘write itself’?
Irvine Welsh has said that ‘…you have to respect the blank page’, and there is much in that. However I don’t see writing as an exercise in ‘free-styling’ – previous experiments were too hit-and-miss. At the other end, I once read a book on novel writing that reduced the whole thing to a sum of parts, like manufacturing widgets or assembling IKEA furniture: connect A to C and D to F, tighten all the screws and Hey Presto!’ve got yourself a bestseller. Frankly, I found that approach appalling. Over the years I’ve worked out my own Zen middle-path, wherein I first become clear on what I’m really trying to say, and thereafter just roll with it.
I consciously spent time on making my characters believable. The challenge was not only to give each of them a unique voice, but also to ensure that ‘their’ voice, their POV on life, was not polluted by mine. I found this very hard to achieve. There is also an inherent contradiction in this as I am, through the vehicle of my characters, trying to say something; but nevertheless – once a character is reduced to a mere mouthpiece for the writer, they are effectively dead. Another great tip I got from Johanna was that the story had always to continue moving forward. Every chapter, every scene had to contribute to the wheels turning. I edited out over 20,000 words on this principle alone. If a passage – however well written – does not contribute to an unfolding story, it is dead weight. These and other aspects to the craft of writing, I learnt organically and slowly. It took me three years to write this novel, and a further seven years to edit.

Who are your favourite writers?
I love Irvine Welsh – the rawness, the honesty of his writing really appeals to me. And that his characters are so variegated – i.e. able to evoke love, hate, disappointment and awe – gives his stories real depth. Marabou Stork Nightmares is my favourite novel of all time. There aren’t any other writers whose body of work interests me, but some novels have really left their mark – The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Fattest Man in America by Christopher Nicholson. I read The 25th Hour by David Benioff as I began writing Dear Infidel, and I was so impressed, it made me doubt my ability to produce something of a similar standing. Whether I have, I’ll leave for others to decide… 

What are your tips for aspiring writers?
Of course, keep writing. But beyond that, get honest feedback on your work. Pay for it, if need be. And attend writers’ workshops. I found that just the mere act going somewhere new and being around different people, sparked some moment of epiphany. 

What now?
Play more squash. Take my kids swimming more than once a week. Try to be a bit more romantic, and less of an automaton. I’m also sitting on a collection of short stories that’s about 60% complete. I’d love to see that project through.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


Chekhov's Gooseberries is one of three linked stories featuring the old vet Ivan Ivanich, high school teacher Burkin, and reluctant country farmer Alekhin.  Ivan Ivanich and Burkin are on a walking holiday together, and the men tell stories to pass the time. Burkin’s tale features in The Man in a Case, Ivan Ivanich’s in Gooseberries and Alekhin’s in About Love.

Each tale within a tale illuminates a problem, an aspect of life: The Man in a Case is about a man who shields himself from life with external protections and coverings: galoshes, an umbrella but also inflexible and judgemental attitudes than eventually cause his undoing. Ivan Ivanich’s tale is about a brother who acts most unscrupulously in pursuit of his dream of country life and growing his own gooseberries; and Alekin’s tale is about the pointlessness of undeclared love.

Gooseberries has ambiguity in spadeloads, and nothing that resembles a traditional plot. It feels perplexing if you read it as a standalone story, but with its companions it makes more sense, though we are left with a tangle of ideas, no moral.  FrancineProse writes: “I have often thought that Chekhov stories should not be read singly, but as separate parts of a whole. For like life, they present contradictory views, opposing visions.” I find this profoundly reassuring: it’s not just my leaning towards longer narrative: these stories make more sense when read together – and if Francine Prose says so it MUST be true.

Prose says Chekhov breaks all the rules she tried to teach her creative writing students. Instead they have “the impact of direct experience” as one blogger describes it.
As writers perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Chekhov is to learn to observe and absorb life, and reflect something of its mysteries back on the page.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Short stories and photographs

  'Isn’t it odd how much more one sees in a photograph than in real life?' [said Virginia Woolf] This gives us, I think, a clue to the enduring power and appeal of the short story – short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more 'than in real life.' ”

-          William Boyd from his essay A Short story of the Short Story

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Is this a new short story age?

“Short stories are not an especially easy read. Because of their intensity, they can be quite demanding. But the age of text-messaging may well be disposed towards short concentrated bursts.”

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

William H Gass on reading slow

"I went over a little story called 'Ping' [by Samuel Beckett] one day with the idea of reading it aloud. It’s about six or seven pages, but it is a half an hour or more in the reciting. If you do it properly, well spaced, larded with silence, then it’s overpowering. You gotta wait, you know, and wait, and wait, and wait, and we just don’t do that sort of thing—the world turns—who has time to wait between two syllables for just a little literary revelation? A lot of modern writers, I remember saying, are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motorboats. The connections are all spatial and all at various, complicated, intellectual levels. They stand to literature as fastfood to food."

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood

Why did legendary writer Alice Munro get hate mail for her realist short stories? Find out in this interview by Margaret Atwood - Munro's first public appearance since winning the Nobel Prize in October 2013 (17 minutes).

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Today Will Be A Quiet Day

Once upon a time I didn’t enjoy short stories. It was laziness and something else: despite an extensive literary education (English literature degree, creative writing MFA, library job, books for breakfast) I had never learned how to read a short story for anything other than plot. Reading Amy Hempel’s short stories has changed that.

They are short, sometimes very short, and at the end of each I have to pause to take in what I’ve read, and usually read them again. The meaning isn’t always apparent, so I read slowly, absorbing every sentence, every word, to pick up the nuances. I'm a beginner again, feeling my way. I’m not page turning to find out ‘what next?’ Reading these short stories is more like contemplating a poem.

This sounds dull. But Hempel’s writing isn’t at all. Her voice has “something to do with stand-up comedy, contemporary poetry, celebrity magazines, visual arts, the West, and the popular song” according to Rick Moody in his essay 'On Amy Hempel'. One-liners, references to pop and celebrity culture, the shallow side of California: all those things I love. But it is necessary to pay attention, particularly at the beginning of Hempel’s stories: there’s no traditional set up, no gentle easing into a scene. Today Will Be A Quiet Day’,  from her first collection Reasons To Live  propels the reader straight in with a disagreement:
“I think it’s the other way round,” the boy said.
How’s that for a first line? We’re given information that is partial at best. No name, no indication of what the boy is talking about, no setting. What this does is force us to read the next line to orient ourselves as readers. What is the other way round?

“I think it’s the other way round,” the boy said. “I think if the quake hit now the bridge would collapse and the ramps would be left.”
Ah. So we’ve entered this story half way through an argument about the effect of an earthquake on a bridge. But it would be tedious to read a repeated line, so Hempel omits it. Hempel’s stories seem as pared down as possible – like poetry -  giving the reader only what is absolutely essential for the story. She’s a slow writer (four short story collections in twenty years) – but I like to think she’s spending her time cutting, honing and polishing her sentences until they are as minimal as they can possibly be. Hempel just drip feeds the reader what they need to keep reading, to build up a picture of what’s going on. The next sentence tells us who the boy is arguing with:

He looked at his sister with satisfaction.

OK, so this is a brother and sister arguing. What’s more the boy is enjoying the argument – we can tell by the word “satisfaction”. Now a third character jumps in:

“You are just trying to scare your sister,” the father said. “You know that is not true.”
“No, really,” the boy insisted, “and I heard birds in the middle of the night. Isn’t that a warning?”

We’re eight lines in, and though we have no names, no time of day, no descriptions of what the characters look like, we do know there are three people in the scene: a father and two kids, and we can tell quite a bit about this family’s dynamics, which is what the story is about, plus we have a tone of voice: annoying younger brother, a father who is trying to be authoritative. The boy is needling his sister – and the father knows he’s doing this on purpose: we suspect in fact that he’s quite enjoying it. We don’t know where they are yet: they could be together watching something about earthquakes on TV (though why would that scare the sister?) or perhaps they are on the bridge itself. The next two lines give us the information we need:

The girl gave her brother a toxic look and ate a handful of Raisinets. The three of them were stalled in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Finally the setting is revealed: they’re in a car on the bridge. We can go back and read the opening again, with more understanding, and this time round, can hear the needling tone of the younger brother, sense the girl’s mood.

Tempting as it is to do line-by-line analysis of the whole story, I’d rather you read the story for yourself. The other thing I particularly noticed in this story is Hempel’s wonderful ear for banter between children: this story teems with the sort of talk that parents/adults tune out. But it’s not saccharine or cute in any way – it’s well observed, well listened to, which saves it from being sappy:

“Can I have one?” the boy asked, meaning the Raisinets.

“No,” his sister said.

“Can I have two?”

“Neither of you should be eating candy before lunch,” the father said. He said it with the good sport of a father who enjoys his kids and gets a kick out of saying Dad things.
The dialogue is very much on the surface: it crackles with corny jokes, family sayings and wisecracks – which a) is fun to read and b) tells us so much about these three characters and the levels of comfort and discomfort they have with each other.
The reason the three of them are on a daytrip in the car together is that the father wants to check that they are OK after one of the son’s friends committed suicide. It would be so tempting as a writer to slip in some heavy conversation, a leaden “on the nose”  question: “How are you feeling son?” “I hurt so much dad.” But people rarely speak like that: how much more often do we sidle up to the real subject by talking about something else? Or argue passionately about things that don’t matter at all, while leaving important things unsaid? So why shouldn’t characters in fiction do that too? The clever thing about this story is that the superficial dialogue – the squabbling and joke telling - is all the father needs to understand exactly how his children are doing.