I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of Déjâ Vu, and this story originated in something I wrote when I was still at school, a highly melodramatic piece about walking into one’s own past. That story remains as just one scene, as Lucy/Hilary steps out of the train at a station, and goes to a house she once lived in. The rest is dystopia and fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty and Snow White both get their tropes in, waking from long sleep and being offered poison by a door to door saleswoman. There is a hefty element of paranoia to the story – a Stepford Wives meets Smiley’s People cold war angle inspired by one of those what-if conversations. Huge fun to write!
Two stories came from the same picture, which I have been completely unable to trace. I think it is from an edition of The Snow Queen, and the illustrator might have been Kay Neilsen or Edmund Dulac or possibly Arthur Rackham, but as I’ve been unable to track it down I can’t confirm; maybe, like the rest of the story, I dreamt it.
The Bone Box (Mosaic of Air) definitely owes something to Kay Neilsen, whose illustration of the North Wind for East of the Sun, West of the Moon (a book I haven’t read!) influenced the design of the story and the language too. I had a reproduction of this picture on my pin board for about eight years. Neilsen’s North Wind is a solid, rather Art Deco god. This lent simplicity to the language I used, while my heroine, Adamanta, got her stubbornness from the frowning wind, and her good sense from the girl in the lost picture, in her voluminous coat. If this was a real fairytale its origins would be in Siberia, despite the lack of snow.
Another girl in an oversized coat features in All Hallows, (Tales Told Before Cockcrow) where she embodies my objections to TS Eliot’s claim that London Bridge is swarming with ghosts – ghosts don’t go anywhere, I remember thinking, and started wondering about the everyday ghosts, the homeless, with nowhere to go, and I imagined this ghost rooted to the spot, in all the surging humanity that is London and the more I thought about her the further back in time she went. This could have been really long, but I reused some scenes for the beginning of another novel, and this remains what it started as: concerned with what it is that keeps a ghost rooted to a place through time and how they might be set free by the right intervention.
There’s been a lot of chat going on recently about short stories, including on the radio, this week’s Open Book had Aminatta Forna giving a potted history of the short story from Poe, Chekhov and Saki to Helen Simpson, and even Ramblings (a walking programme … fascinating, listen!) had Claire Balding in company with short story writer Anna Maria Murphy. (nothing like being stuck at home recovering, for catching up with the radio in between sleeping.)
Having written two collections of short stories myself (and with enough material for 2 more!) and planning to publish (I hope) at least 6 anthologies over the next year or two, you’ll have gathered I’m quite keen!
I had an email yesterday in response to my posting about London Lies, in which the writer says
I was sure that it was near impossible to get short story collections published unless you are a well-known author
and asking how I managed it.
My very first short story was published in an anthology over 20 years ago. It was called Penelope Is No Longer Waiting, and I had sent it to Rosemary Manning, who was a friend, to cheer her up when she was unwell. I got a phone call a couple of days later, saying
you could publish this
and then I saw a call for submissions from Onlywomen Press, and sent it off, and was accepted. That easy. I can still remember opening that letter, so thrilling.
I had two more stories in a further anthology at OWP, and then having got quite friendly with Lilian Mohin, the director at OWP, she was complaining about the quality of a lot of the submissions she received, and how she wished everyone wrote as well as me (or words to that effect). My response was
plenty more where that came from
and I started drip-feeding her stories, one a month, under the heading of ‘entertaining Ms Mohin’, until she gave in and offered to publish a collection. That was Mosaic of Air.
Mosaic didn’t sell very well, partly because I was in a wallflower phase and wouldn’t do any publicity, (I am so over that, as you may have noticed) and ended up with the remaining stock being pulped. Not a happy moment!
Life rather caught up with me then and I wrote almost nothing for 11 years, then pulled myself together and published another collection, Tales Told Before Cockcrow. This did much better than Mosaic, and has almost sold out.
But what is it about the short story?
I’ll admit that some of my ‘short’ work is very long, almost novella length (now that’s really difficult to publish) but there’s something about a short story that’s like a jewel: carefully faceted and burnished to perfection, not a word wasted nor out of place.
Novels often have slow passages or subplots that don’t quite come off, but you are in it for the long haul so you put up with it, whereas you can’t afford to drift in a short story; and you can take risks and play games with language and structure, and the reader is prepared to come along because they know it’s not going to take you long to reach the punchline.
Since joining a writing group (WOOA) I’ve discovered that with a defined set of limitations I can write a fully formed story with a beginning middle and end in 20 minutes flat. Short Short stories… not quite flash fiction, because if it’s working, I write fast.
A really good short story settles into your mind with a sigh of satisfaction, like a good malt, or a perfectly toasted and buttered crumpet.
© Cherry Potts 2012