“Like those compressed Japanese paper flowers you drop into a glass of water and watch unfurl and bloom.”
Michèle Roberts has published novels, short stories, poetry, essays and memoir. Her work has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the WH Smith Literary Award. She is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature and a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
1) Given the relative prejudices and lower commercial impact experienced by collections, why do you write stories?
I write stories because I want to. Because they demand to get written. Because they are a wonderful form: succinct, poetic, compressed. They can detonate in the reader’s mind. They are small, but they can unfurl to something big in the reader’s imagination, like those compressed Japanese paper flowers you drop into a glass of water and watch unfurl and bloom.
An artist can’t let that commercial stuff, those publishers’ prejudices, get in the way. You’re not writing to the dictates of the market. You are writing out of the desire to make something beautiful. Anyway it’s no longer true that audiences don’t want short stories. There is a market for short stories these days, on the radio, in magazines, on the internet. They fit with modern life and modern attention spans: bite-sized snatches.
2) I love the flower analogy. I read somewhere that some human truths can only be expressed through stories; does this resonate to you? Can (should) stories instruct as well as provide pleasure?
Human truths can be expressed in lots of different ways. Yes, sometimes by stories. There are stories you tell your confessor in the confessional, stories you tell your psychoanalyst, stories you tell to children, etc. Fiction is distinguished by the paradox of truth being told through lies, i.e. through art. The best liars make the best novelists. It’s up to the reader to decide whether she or he feels instructed as well as amused. The Renaissance poet Philip Sidney thought that poetry should both instruct and delight. I tend not to make such pronouncements. Writers write out of a passionate commitment and desire, and hope people may read what they write.
3) Where do your short stories come from and how do they start life? Is theme something you’re conscious of at this stage?
Short stories sometimes come out of a desire that is impossible to act on for moral reasons: for example, wanting to murder someone I both love and hate, or wanting to have a wild affair with someone unattainable for whatever reason; so the story can explore the unknown, the not-happened, the not-allowed, i.e. move from felt desire and the unknown imagined outcome into making an artwork, often ironic and comic. Or a story can come out of two images clashing, two visual images. Or the sudden desire to take an existing ‘story’ and turn it inside out and write back to it from the underneath. Working out the narrative voice, the narrative perspective, means I find the form, and then I can start to write. My stories never describe the life I have lived; they always go into the unknown; but they may originate in fear or hate or desire. Or if they appear to describe the life I may have lived, they’re a representation of it, rather as Colette did when she put a woman called Colette into her novella Break of Day and said: ‘this is just my model’. Sometimes you are given a donnée and that gets you going, say a commission to write a story for radio on the theme of lido swimming – it’s the grit into the oyster and you try to make a pearl with what you’re given. I suppose my main themes – food, sex, sensuality, bodies – just keep turning up because they are in my unconscious imagination.
4) The short story’s appeal, whilst at times appearing universal, seems to flourish more in certain countries. Story writers in the UK seem, after some initial success, to experience an implicit pressure to produce a novel, a pressure that feels absent elsewhere. I wonder whether you’ve experienced this at all, either here or in France, where you spend a lot of time. Perhaps you could tell us a little about the health of the story there?
Yes I do think publishers bring pressure to bear on writers to produce novels rather than collections of stories. As I think I said before, I think they are wrong, since we are witnessing a resurgence of the audience for stories. I think the same goes for France. Certainly in French bookshops you see novels more prominently displayed than short stories, and most of what gets translated into English is long fiction. French writers of short stories depend on the internet and on magazines to get published.
5) On your website you mention you are ‘fascinated by the difference between forms. I have written a novel (Flesh and Blood) composed of short stories (all broken in half) and I have written a short story (in Playing Sardines) that in effect is a novel.’ Can you tell us a little more about this blurring of forms?
I wouldn’t call a blurring of forms so much as a playing with forms. It’s also to do with playing with time – for example the short form of the story paradoxically encapsulating a much longer narrative – and playing with space, writing being treated as something material that you can crumple up and make small or unfold and make big. As you can see I take metaphors for writing from visual art. So a novel composed of broken short stories, torn in half, is like a collage that the reader has to complete, putting the stories back together again. I invented this idea of stories enclosing other stories, which has since been copied by other writers, and now I see that in my own turn I must have been indebted to the form of The Arabian Nights, which is a huge book composed of short stories leading to other short stories.