shining the spotlight on short story collections
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Four years. The first story I wrote in the collection was Tamagotchi in 2008. The last was Earthquakes, which I finished in 2012, just before sending in the final manuscript.
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
Yes. It was a different process to my first collection, Instruction Manual For Swallowing. Instruction Manual was a ‘best of’ the stories I’d written up to that point. With The Stone Thrower I knew right from the start that I wanted all the stories to grow out of my experiences of being a parent.
Even when I wrote stories to commission for various anthologies, I interpreted the briefs to fit the theme at the heart of The Stone Thrower – how having children takes the most tender, fragile inner part of yourself and puts it outside your body, outside of whatever armour you’ve built to protect yourself. The collection is about the struggle to protect a particularly vulnerable child, and how being a parent makes you vulnerable, too – all those feelings transformed into fantastical metaphors.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
There are thirteen stories in the book that made the final cut. Over the 2008 to 2012 period, I wrote about 20 or so stories. I cut any that I wasn’t in love with and that didn’t fit the theme of the collection, and then I sent them to my agent, Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit. Will made editorial suggestions to individual stories before sending it off to Comma.
Once Ra Page, my editor at Comma, had read through the book, we met up and went through each story in detail. Ra cares passionately about every story and gives praise and wise (sometimes harsh!) criticism wherever it’s deserved.
For a few stories he just suggested tweaking a word here or there. For others there were plot points that he asked me to take another look at. And then there were a couple of stories that he said we should cut altogether because I’d already explored similar ideas more successfully in other stories.
The order got changed about a lot during the editing process. I put them in an order that I thought worked, then Will made some adjustments, and then Ra did too. There were practical issues such as making sure the stories in the first and third person, and past and present tense, were evenly spread. After that, it was about hitting the right emotional notes at the right moment in the book.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
It’s something that snags your imagination and leads it from one point in time to another, ideally through some kind of conflict. Readers yawn if there’s no conflict. The best stories are metaphors that make solid some part of human experience that was vague before.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
Always. Not a particular person, but I’m always thinking about the audience the story is intended for. A writer is an entertainer. You have to titillate your reader, get them invested emotionally in your story, and then guide them to a satisfying outcome. To write well, you have to imagine your reader there with you at every step and make decisions about what you’re going to show them, where you’re going to direct their attention to make the experience as vivid and immersive as possible for them.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
Did it work? Did it at any point perform that magic trick of making you forget you’re looking at ink on a page and transport you somewhere that felt utterly real?
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
It’s wonderful and I feel very lucky. I wrote for years before I got published, and there were times I thought my only reader would be my wife. It’s such a thrill to know that my books are out there, and things I imagined are living memories in the minds of people I’ve never met.
What are you working on now?
I wrote a story last year in which I could see all kinds of possibilities for further development. So that’s what I’m doing, exploring all the threads in the story. It may turn into a novel, or a clutch of connected stories. I’m trying not to impose an idea of what the finished product might be while I’m writing this first loose draft. It feels like playing right now, and that’s a good sign, I think.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell
The Atrocity Exhibition, by JG Ballard
Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story