shining the spotlight on short story collections
author of Dot Dash, reviewed by Sara Baume
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
The original version of one of them (The Problem with Pork) was written in 1993, but the rest were written between 2004 and 2010. That said, the individual stories varied considerably in the amount of time taken to write them. One of them (Canine Mathematics) was written in less than an hour as part of a charity stunt, but others took much longer. rZr and Napoleon, for example, took several iterations over the space of a year to arrive at a satisfactory ending.
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
I would never have been so presumptuous! It was only a chance remark in a one-to-one session at the Winchester Writers Conference that made me even begin to dream that I could have my own collection published. But having been given the bait, I never let go from then on.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
I was playing around with ideas for a collection to submit to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize in 2010 (having failed even to make the shortlist in 2009 with a somewhat weaker selection) and I realised I had enough ultra-short pieces available to alternate them with full-length pieces. That gave me an unusual and – to me at any rate – pleasing structure for the book. The next question was what to start with, so I picked a couple of fairly strong stories to open with (rZr and Napoleon and Convalescence). Then I realised that the fake ending of Somewhat Less Than Thirty Pieces would make a nice way of ending the whole collection. As for the rest, I simply picked stories that had either already been published somewhere or had been placed or listed in a competition; that way, I wasn’t just relying on my own judgement of their quality. I think there’s only one story in there (one of the ultra-short ones) that hadn’t previously been recognised in one way or another. Fortunately, the new selection had a much better reception at Salt this time around and the book was one of the winners. The choice of stories and the order remained unchanged when it went to print.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
This sounds like one of those “define from first principles” questions that I used to get when I studied Mathematics! To me, a story is something that contains some kind of narrative flow. It can be anything from a handful of words long to several hundred thousand. It usually has a beginning, a middle and an end, although not always all three and not always in that order. It can be true or made up or somewhere in between. One of the most gripping stories I’ve read recently was Simon Singh’s account of the search for the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
No. I write purely for myself, partly for the sheer pleasure of creating something and partly to try to make sense of the world. I often work from prompts, and that often has the effect of drawing out themes that I hadn’t planned to explore at all. I recently went to a talk by George Saunders who quoted Gerald Stern’s brilliant line, “if you start to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” So if you try to write a story with a particular goal in mind, whether it’s a particular theme you want to explore or a particular reader you’re trying to address, you’ll end up with something that’s pretty worthless. It’s the unexpected stuff that emerges during the writing that gives value to the story.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
It would probably be along the lines of “Well?”, accompanied by a hopeful and slightly desperate smile. I guess I would be interested to know which stories worked for them and which ones didn’t. Obviously I have my own favourites and it would be interesting to know if readers feel the same way.
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
It’s the most wonderful thing imaginable. The best thing that can possibly happen for a writer is for a complete stranger to appreciate their work. Sure, it’s nice when your friends say encouraging things, but you know they’re biased. But when someone with no axe to grind whatsoever reads your book and enjoys it, you’re making a whole new range of connections.
What are you working on now?
A number of things, the most important of which is doing the final tweak on the manuscript for my next book TAKE IT COOL, which is being published by Two Ravens Press later on this year. This is the true story about my search for a little-known reggae singer called Dennis Pinnock – a quest that led me into several other areas, such as finding out how my (let’s face it) slightly daft surname crossed the race boundary. I’m really excited about this, as it’s a project close to my heart and one that I’ve been working on for years. I’m still writing more poems and short stories, and I’ve also found that I really enjoy performing them, which is a whole new and quite unexpected area. Finally, every now and then I start writing another novel. And not long afterwards, I usually stop writing it, too.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
I recently read George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Nick Parker’s The Exploding Boy and tiny tales (both wonderful in very different ways), and I’ve just started Lydia Davis’ monumental collected stories. I think Puppy and The Semplica Girl Diaries from Tenth of December are close to perfection.
Jonathan Pinnock is the author of the novel Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, the short story collection Dot Dash and the forthcoming memoir Take It Cool. He blogs at www.jonathanpinnock.com and tweets as @jonpinnock.
Read the review of Dot Dash