shining the spotlight on short story collections
How long did it take to write all the stories in this collection?
I started as soon as my first collection, Fresh Apples, was published in 2005, so six years altogether, either side of two novels and a play. It seems a really long time, two stories a year, but I wasn’t rushing them, just fitting them in when I could.
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
I suppose I did, because my first collection was a success and a second collection seemed like the natural way to proceed but the first two stories I wrote were commissioned by magazines with the theme already set so initially I didn’t know what the theme or encompassing idea would be for the whole collection until I was halfway through and displacement, war and death were three of the recurring matters.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
With a lot of help from my editor. I submitted thirteen stories originally, two of which were very sketchy first drafts. My intention was to rework them during the editing process but I had other work on and never got around to it so those were the two that were dropped. I ordered the stories so that the two Jewish, two Irish, two American and two Welsh settings weren’t too close together. My editor agreed largely with the list but moved what I think was her favourite story, Czech Marionettes, to the beginning.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
The word ‘story’ to me means ‘voice’. I’m much more interested in who’s telling the story and why, than the plot and the perfect way to structure it. Stories change slightly when they’re told by different people. Some people exaggerate more than others and some people are more interested in one aspect than another. And through voice we recognise ourselves in other people’s stories. That’s what I’ve tried to concentrate on a little with the Cosmic Latte collection. We’re more similar than we are different, wherever we come from or whatever our culture is.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
Yes, myself, and I can’t see further than that, and honestly wouldn’t want to. I think it would be a great pressure to have to try to please a certain kind of person. I’ve been asked this a few times and when I give this answer have often been told that I must have some idea who I’m writing for but I just do it for myself and hope that there’ are other people out there somewhere who are interested in the same kind of things as me. You are always your harshest critic anyway, probably, so it seems like a good way to go.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
I suppose, since it’s the first time I’ve written work set outside Wales, and in some cases don’t know the respective countries very well, I’d ask if the settings and dialects work. The first time I read The Blue Ruin Café aloud, (it’s set in Belfast), was at a festival in Swansea at which The Revelator Orchestra were also performing, and just as I was about to start, Peter Murphy walked in. Had I known he was coming I might have read something else but he didn’t seem to have any complaints about the Irish dialect. Actually, he was probably just being nice. Tell you what, scrap that; ignorance is bliss. Instead did they notice the continuity error in the Milstein Kosher Liquorice Co. where daisies freckle a Lithuanian field in early January?
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
Mind-blowing. Why would they? That’s always my initial reaction, because I wrote it for myself. Then I think, are they really, because the royalty cheques always seem very few and far between.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the same novel I’ve been working on for the past five years, a love story about a Hasidic Jew from Stamford Hill who falls for a prostitute on his holidays in a mid Wales seaside town. Prostitution and Hasidic Judaism are also two of the secondary themes in the Cosmic Latte collection, which came about when I was researching this novel. My first play for theatre, Tonypandemonium, is about to be staged by National Theatre Wales and I’ve also started a third short story collection. Again the overall theme has yet to materialise but so far they’re all set very close to home in the south Wales valleys.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
The Answer and Other Love Stories by Rebbecca Ray. You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down by Alice Walker and The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell.