“You can look at your story, test every seam of its world, and see that you’ve made a beautiful thing.”
Alison MacLeod is a novelist and short story writer. Her story collection Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin) was ‘highly recommended’ by Time Out and deemed by the Guardian to be ‘as inventive as it is original’. Her stories have been widely published and broadcast. In 2008, her story ‘Dirty Weekend’ won the Society of Authors’ Short Fiction Award. In 2011, she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award for her story ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ while in 2012, the same story was longlisted for The International Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. She is currently completing her next short story collection, and her third novel, Unexploded, was published by Penguin in April 2013. She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester.
In this series of interviews it’s become clear the short story, though small and often marginalized, punches above its weight. Sometimes described as the high-wire act of literature, the best stories appear to rupture their own boundaries, transcending themselves to great effect. I wonder why you think this might be and what draws you to the story?
Yes, absolutely. I love this, perhaps above all, about the short story form: the sense that it can continually break and re-make its own ‘rules’ and boundaries. It’s a very mutable thing. When I’m writing a short story, I never feel I’m not allowed to do something. That’s thrilling. It’s also a gamble. My stories, I realise, often fuse bits; bits of biography, history, science, report, script, transcripts. Taken together, they’re wet clay on a potter’s wheel, and at the best of times, I have the sense of something genuinely new taking shape, like an animate thing, something I can feel at my fingertips.
In part, it’s the beautiful brevity of the form that makes this possible and, perhaps, in part, it also has something to do with the short story form naturally working at the ‘edges’ of life. If I’m honest, it never occurred to me not to mix and stir forms within one story if that was what a particular story needed and wanted.
That’s the key, I think: what a story wants. You can’t do things with a literary form in order to appear original or clever or new. You bend boundaries because it happens to be the most honest way to reveal that story. In my early twenties, I was most inspired – most exhilarated – by the stories of Angela Carter; I learned from her how the short story form is naturally hybrid; how it’s not remotely interested in the authority of the single view or voice. The best stories only want to reveal, in an onion-skin sort of way, the secret life of a subject.
For me, I suppose it’s always ultimately about James Joyce’s ‘revelation of the what-ness of the thing’. That’s the litmus test. The revelation has to be intimate, surprising and, at the same time, entirely human. Whatever any ‘how to’ advice says, there can be no ‘set’ or ‘classic’ way of achieving that. Otherwise the form gets rigid. It loses its kick, its power and daring.
This fusion in your work, evident in ‘All the Beloved Ghosts’ – a story featured in our next issue – and the powerful and affecting ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’, gives the stories a vibrancy and resonance, as well as that critical element – intensity. How do you know when the gamble has paid off? Does the clay ever misbehave or, worse still, fly off the wheel?
You’re right. Both these stories, and at least a few others that will appear in my next collection, fuse fiction and biography, two things that we mostly think of as incompatible. But I’m childish in some ways. I hate feeling something is not ‘allowed’ to be done on the page. More than that though, I find myself moved by the shapes of certain lives, and I find myself wanting to imagine, as if from the inside out, what it might have felt like to have experienced that life. I want to move my reader as I have been moved.
I’ve been fascinated for a long time – ever since I started my first novel many years ago – by the way reality is seemingly a plastic thing; by the way facts are, at times, porous to the imagination and to the vagaries and power of memory. So I wanted to try to work with the facts of two lives, in the case of these two stories, to explore what might be the personal, private or intimate truths in between those facts. But I’ll only dare to do this when I’ve felt, as I say, very moved by the story of that life.
While many writers will draw upon biography or autobiography to a greater or lesser degree when creating fiction, the seams between fact and invention don’t show in most cases. We’ll generally never know that a particular character is based, lovingly or not, on a writer’s mother, neighbour or dentist (or possibly all three). But these two stories are like the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The joins and the plumbing of the creation – or the seams between the life and the invented life – are there for anyone to see, simply because I draw upon real contemporary lives (those of the artist Angelica Garnett and the biologist Denis Noble, respectively), and yet these are short stories, not biographies.
Sometimes, I want to be able to work with a real model, as a painter might, to suggest that person’s story; to evoke the layers of time, history and ageing, and the way a life might grow more elusive, stranger, more wonderful – not necessarily more familiar and ‘cemented’ – with time. Their lives, I hope, stand for many others. I wanted the story to shift and flux in its certainties just as a life does. After all, our inner lives are partly given to us by circumstance and partly invented or conceived. A short story lets me capture that and offer a felt experience of it for the reader.
But yes, this sort of fusion – between biography and invention – is the riskiest kind of story I’ve written to date. And I don’t mean technically risky in this case – the clay flying off the wheel. The truth is, I’ve hardly ever abandoned a story, only because I don’t usually start one until my instincts tell me it will somehow come good. So I have a writer’s kind of faith once I begin something – I trust the story that seems to want to be written even though I’m usually also very nervy as I write it. But in these instances, the risk I was very conscious of from the start was the reaction-to-be of the real, very much alive person.
I did a lot of research in each case and was very, very mindful of the facts. Artistically, I only gave myself permission to imagine in the gaps between the facts. Personally I think that’s the most any artist is entitled to do with someone’s life when using their name. If the respect goes out of the process, I think that betrayal will compromise the story itself. But even so, I was very nervous about both their reactions — nervous for them and nervous on behalf of the story. I really don’t know what I would have done if either had requested cuts or asked me not publish. But the greatest risk is risking nothing.
I’ve heard it said that some truths can only be expressed in the story, a claim that, for me, alludes to the form’s purity, where emotional resonance captures our humanity with an authenticity other forms cannot. The result can be more akin to hearing a beautiful poem or a piece of classical music. And yet the best stories do this at no expense to an unspooling narrative. As someone who works with several literary forms, do you adjust your mindset for each? And are some more adept than others at teasing out the truth?
For me, there is something innate, something peculiar, in a short story’s coming-into-being that has to do with passion. I don’t mean love or lust necessarily – but something involving a longing towards life itself. In Chekhov’s stories, for example, so many of his characters seem to echo Anna in ‘Lady with Lapdog’ who ‘wanted to live. To live! To live!’ Even ‘mad’ Gromov in ‘Ward Six’ says, ‘I want to live, terribly. Terribly!’ At the end of Claire Keegan’s ‘Walk the Blue Fields’, the main character, after coming ‘back to life’ from real grief, says, ‘How strange it is to be alive.’
For me, it’s this passionate drive or passionate impulse at the core of the form that is Chekhov’s real legacy to story writers – more than his famous allowance, in his endings, for life’s provisionality. In great story after great story, the question seems to be not only how do we live our lives but how do we feel alive in them.
Of course the question of how to feel alive and to remain feeling alive is there, very powerfully, in novels too. Who could read Anna Karenina and say otherwise? But novels are also about ‘society’ and social mores, while EVERYTHING in a great short story seems to be urgently running forward from this question of life and alive-ness, even if it is never voiced directly. We get an intense concentration on an urgent question – whether the story is comic, tragic or absurd.
And perhaps that explains something of the breathlessness we experience as we read a great short story. ‘How do we feel alive in our lives?’ is a visceral wondering. It’s not an abstract or a philosophical question. That’s also why short stories, in spite of their brevity, take it out of us. They leave us breathless or blinking or moved or walloped – but spent. In a good way. No wonder my friend Adam Marek describes the short story as an ‘inky orgasm’. I love that.
For me the best short stories approach a near-perfection, whether achieved through atmosphere or, as you put it, by evoking a visceral wondering. And although my fondness for longer forms remains undiminished, even some of the best novels risk, at times, lumbering and creaking, buoyed as they often are by structure and contrivance. I wondered do you have a preference, or a different approach, when writing the story or the novel?
Novels, for me, are big, beautiful animals. They’re always bigger than their author. I’m probably still learning how to write them. Perhaps one is always learning how to write them – or you are at least if every book is genuinely new. It seems to me that, by their very nature, novels have to ‘exceed’ their author. Because of the sheer number of parts in motion, certain dynamics or effects always remain ‘other’, always elusive, to the author, no matter how often one re-reads it in the writing of it. For the novelist that’s high-risk stuff and the risk – along with the massive labour of it all — goes on and on. It’s exhausting, frightening and exhilarating. It’s taming a tiger, or at least coaxing it from the wild of the mind into the coherent space beneath the big top of a book jacket.
With stories, on the other hand, the author necessarily comes to know every line, phrase, image, pause and beat and virtually every effect. The making of a short story is incredibly intimate, frustrating and, at times, joyful. You can look at your story, test every seam of its world, and see that you’ve made a beautiful thing.
Of course everything one says in the abstract, as I’m doing here, is both true and untrue. But if I continue speaking in truth-and-untruth, I’d say that novels are about life as it is lived and the deep wisdom of that, while stories are about soul and life’s essences.
We can become ‘other’ through the power of the novel. We can transcend our own circumstances because of novels. We can connect to others who might have appeared very different to us. Novels are great like that.
Stories act on us in different ways. They are of course more ephemeral than the novel, more fleeting, more evanescent, but at their very best, they are a more exquisite form and even quite haunting because they are exquisite. They offer the reader an intensity of change. With the best stories, something in our spirit shifts a little or is re-made.
So perhaps it’s life versus spirit; depth versus intensity. It’s a novel’s web of connections versus a story’s radiant flash of seeing, knowing and un-knowing. I say ‘un-knowing’ because mystery is a vital pulse in many great short stories – and because it’s so distilled in a story’s form, we feel it keenly, strangely and thrillingly, even if we can’t point to it exactly on the page.
Ultimately, both forms reflect us back to ourselves and show us who we might also be. As a writer, I’m actually only concerned with the stuff of story itself. That’s the magic, that’s the creative force which no amount of paraphrase or analysis is ever equal to. There are short stories and there are long stories; in each case, I suppose I’m simply impelled by the story to deliver it onto the page in the best way I know how. The story and I work together. It moves through me, and I move through it.
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