Over the next couple of weeks, I will be interviewing some of the brilliant writers behind my favourite reads of 2012.
Today, I an delighted to be joined by the fabulously talented Alison Wells, author of her amazing short story collections – ‘Ooh’ , ‘Ah’ and ‘Stories to read on a train’.
Hello Alison and thank you for dropping by. Can you tell us a little bit about your OOH and AH? (ha ha)
The ‘Stories to Make you go ‘Ah’’and Stories to make you go ‘ooh’ are some of a set of mini short story collections (Stories to read on the train is also available and Stories to make you go ‘whoosh’’ is on its way. They consist of three to five stories of a particular theme. Stories to Make you go ‘Ahh’ are stories with a theme of love, desire and obsession. In one we’re not sure whether Janey’s boyfriend is telling the truth when she goes missing. Stories to make you go ‘ooh’ are similar in theme but slightly more surreal and edgy – in one story a woman’s lover is literally a stone! In another a man’s obsession with his old lover is framed round an octagonal house. Stories to read on the train tell the stories of different people on train journeys, again, love and memory feature. Several of my stories have been shortlisted or longlisted in competitions such as the Hennessy Awards for New Irish Writing, Bridport, Fish and Sean O’ Faolain and these stories are included in these and future mini collections.
What attracts you to the short story format, and what can a short story offer the reader that a novel can’t?
Oh I must say I’ve really fallen in love with short stories as both a reader and a writer over the last few years. Practically short stories are easier to keep in your head and as a writer with a young family, it can be helpful to focus on shorter pieces. I love the intensity of feeling, moment and language that you can pack into a short story that just isn’t sustainable in longer work. For the reader I think the short story can make a much stronger impact and live longer in the mind once read. I’ve done a lot of flash fiction, which can range from a sentence to about 1000 words. I love the discipline of telling a story in shorter format, you really have to focus on the essence of the story, the emotion & the perfect word. Everyone’s saying it but in the modern world our brains are getting used to smaller chunks. Readers still don’t purchase short stories as often as novels. However I’ve read quite a few novels that are made of short story-like chunks (A message from the Goon Squad, Hawthorn and Child and City of Bohane and going back Ray Bradbury’s The Chronicles of Mars) and I think that’s where literature can deliver both impact and an engaging read. Indeed several of my current novel length projects either include short stories or are novel/novellas made up of shorter pieces. I want to combine what’s best about both formats with the intense stories combining to create a longer narrative with many angles.
I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about short stories and some flash fiction so here are some links if you want to read more.
The wonders of flash fiction http://www.writing.ie/guest-blogs/the-wonders-of-flash-fiction/
Growing up to be a short story writer http://alisonwells.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/growing-up-to-be-a-short-story-writer/
You have a beautiful and elegant prose style and many of your stories read like poetry. Is this something you consciously work at, and what role does poetry play in your reading and writing life?
Thank you, that’s lovely to hear. While I don’t consider myself a poet, I’ve always been a fan of poetic and lyrical writing by people like Steinbeck, William Trevor and Nabakov. My favourite poet from school days would be John Donne, quite prosaic but I love the wordplay. I also have Irish poets Eavan Boland and Paul Durkin on my shelf. Again I like their focus on the prosaic. Poetry as a form in itself is something that I’d love to learn more about and do more of.
In terms of my writing, I’m very conscious of the rhythm of words, double and layered meanings and sentence breaks – all elements of poetry. For me it’s not purely about the story but how the emotion of the story can be conveyed and evoked through the senses of the reader and through the musicality and nuance of language.
At the heart of all of your stories are richly drawn, complex characters. Would you say that in a short story, characterisation is more important than plot?
I wonder if it’s true to say that people writing what is termed literary fiction tell stories more through characters and their development rather that a very active plot. With regard to short stories I’ve certainly found that for much shorter pieces (particularly those about 500 words or so) that character can totally become the story. Having studied Psychology I know how fascinated we are in people, why they are the way they are, how they came to be that way and how their reactions to each other change the trajectory of their relationships. In short stories we often focus on a single life or small group of lives and how a single event shapes them, so yes, I agree character definitely comes under the microscope in short stories. In a novel there can often be a wider sweep of world affairs, history or society to add to the story.
I particularly enjoyed ‘Filch’, a dark, intense and highly original take on family separation. Where do your story ideas come from?
Like other writers, my ideas come from everywhere. With Filch for example I think I wrote down some of the opening lines and the drive for me was the rhythm and the energy of the person who is sneeking around about to break into a house, the slap of her feet on the ground etc. It’s a story with a staccato rhythm. So a story can start with a feeling or sensation, with a single line, with the juxtaposition of two interesting pieces of information. The best stories come from ideas and thoughts relating to our interests and obsessions, whether it’s science or cookery or transatlantic cable wires. Eavesdropping is also fantastic, even misheard conversations can set me on a train of thought. The essence of every story is the question ‘what if?’ so the combination of ideas followed by a leap to further explorations.
Finally, what’s on the cards for 2013, and perhaps you’d like to share one of your beautiful poems?
My newest project is a feast of short, intense evocative fiction called Eat that I’m hoping to expand to novel length. The Book of Remembered Possibilities, a novel about stories and containing two short stories and Unusual Flashes of Light, an interconnected flash fiction novella are almost ready to submit to agents in early 2013. I’m also finishing a draft of The Exhibit of Held Breaths, a novel about an unusual exhibit’s effect on a town and museum curator. There are one or two other things I’d love to do, including a follow up to my self-published comedy Housewife with a Half-Life but that might be a tad ambitious under the circumstances!
This is my shortest and most recent poem. I wrote it and later incorporated into a flash fiction story (about a poet!)
Send me a secret story in a song just for me
Send me a grain of dust
Send me a heartbeat flipped, squeezed with lemon juice, soaked with sugar
Send me the sharp stars
Send me the winks in the water
Send me songs, photographs, breaths, petals, kisses, muddy puddles
Send send me the satellites and the lights of Japan and the sizzle of electric eels
Send send send
Send me the weave and the weft, the ragged starts and endings
Thank you Alison, what a beautiful poem! And thank you too for a very interesting interview. It looks like you are going to be very busy over the coming months and I look forward to reading more of your brilliant stories, novels and poetry.
Head above Water Blog: http://alisonwells.wordpress.com
Stories to make you go ‘Ah’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Stories-make-you-ebook/dp/B008YGJAIU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1345152973&sr=8-1