shining the spotlight on short story collections
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
It took me five years to write them and a further two years to edit the full collection, both in terms of close-editing the individual stories and in reordering them. There came a point where I had to say, ‘No, you cannot fiddle around with them anymore’. Even now, when I read from the book, I think of edits I could have made.
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
It started with a pair of stories that were linked by character and time – The Done Thing and A Coffee and a Smoke – which I wrote whilst doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. I only intended to write those two, but my tutor, Patricia Debney, said ‘I think you’ve got something here that could run’. I wrote another story, linked with the first two, for that module. Again, a comment from Patricia spurred me on, that the stories showed that I needed, more than anything, to write to discover where I came from. I was just starting to explore my Irish heritage at the time, and the stories are all about Irish women living in England and their daughters. It was then that I decided to work on a full collection, after writing the third story.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
I included all the stories I wrote. They were written to link with one another. The ordering of them came late in the editing process. I set up a flipchart and listed all the story titles, how they related to one another and which were stronger. I decided to go with a loosely chronological order – the stories span more than half a century, but the order in which I wrote them jumped between the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and present day. I decided to start with two of the stronger stories: the title story As Long as it Takes and A Tea Party, so as to draw the reader in fast and keep them interested. The two final stories in the collection, Self Help and Combing out the Tangles were the last two that I wrote. I didn’t know when I would stop writing stories for the collection, but when I wrote these two, I knew they provided an ending, that the collection was complete.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
It’s a self-contained narrative that has possibilities for the characters outside of the story. For me, the best stories are in a contained setting or world with the minimum of characters. Something must happen in a story, some kind of change must occur. And the reader must leave with a lingering memory and want to know more. Ends must be left untied.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
Not at all. The only thing I have in mind is that the reader will be able to get what I am trying to say. I did write my first effort at Sci-Fi recently, but not because I am trying to reach a new readership, but that’s how the story came out.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
That’s a question that’s stumped me – no I can’t think of a thing. I hesitate to ask if they have enjoyed it, as they would be unlikely to tell the truth if they haven’t.
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
It’s a very weird thing: wonderful, scary and at times overwhelming. The reviews are the hardest thing to read. They have all been positive, but it sometimes feels that the reviewer is writing about another writer, another book. Can that be me they are referring to? One left me feeling sick and slightly dizzy. Is it normal to feel like that about a good review? I suppose I lived with these stories for so long on my own, and now letting them out into the world is like giving away my darkest secrets.
What are you working on now?
Mostly the answers to questions like these! I am writing the second story of a new collection and I always have some poetry on the go. It took me a long time to start writing stories again after finishing As Long as it Takes. I think I had to grieve for the characters I’d lived with for so long. The poetry got me through until a new story idea found me.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
My Mother was an Upright Piano by Tania Hershman, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore and Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning by Maggie Harris. I also dip into anthologies quite a bit, but rarely read them in their entirety. Short stories are like rich desserts – you don’t want to consume too many at one sitting.
About the author: Maria C. McCarthy was born in Ewell, Surrey in 1959, and raised by Irish parents. Her Irish heritage features strongly in her poetry, stories and her columns for BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths (written and broadcast as Maria Bradley). Her poetry collection, strange fruits (2011), and a collection of linked short stories As Long as it Takes (2014) are published by Cultured Llama. She has an MA with distinction in creative writing from the University of Kent. She writes in a shed at the end of her garden in a village in North Kent.