“The best stories end with either an integrated rush or in total dissipation, with an emphasis and resonance I don’t think novels can replicate.”
COLIN BARRETT is from Mayo, Ireland. His debut collection of short stories, Young Skins, won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. His stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly Magazine, Granta, The New Yorker and elsewhere.
Short Fiction: What’s the first short story you remember as having an impact on you, and why?
Colin Barrett: Probably the stories in Kevin Barry’s first collection, There Are Little Kingdoms – ‘Atlantic City’, ‘See the Tree, How Big It’s Grown’, ‘Last Days of the Buffalo’. They weren’t the first short stories I’d ever read by any means, but they were the first that made a lasting impact. I read them in my early twenties, and had not read too much stuff in the form up until then. They were excitingly good, charged with lovely flourishes of language. They were set in a stylized but vividly recognizable world. And they were written by someone who was still very much alive. They were the first stories I happened to encounter that made the form seem like a legitimate proposition to an aspiring writer in the here and now.
SF: Talking of form, what would you say makes the perfect short story? Is there even such a thing?
CB: The thing that unites my favourites is only a certain intensity of language, and an inimitable sense of timing as to where they start and stop, and where they go in between those two points. Because of their brevity, even ostensibly realist short stories can be much stranger and more audacious than a (conventional realist) novel in terms of how the narrative, perspective, chronology etc is manipulated. The occult spell and tight, yet almost associative flow of something like Chekhov’s ‘The Horse Stealers’ is very hard to sustain in a longer narrative without calcifying into something mannered. Short stories are free of the requirement to delineate ’rounded’ characters endued with a consistent psychology, the obligations of narratorial cause and effect, the deadweight of ‘backstory’ etc. Mood, language and image are paramount in a story. You are looking to control and combine these things in a way that creates a kind of pressure, to force open a threshold onto what Joy Williams calls ‘an anagogical level.’ There’s a scene near the end of the Denis Johnson story ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ where the narrator, a feckless junkie, encounters a woman about to be told her husband is dead: ”The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.” There’s a couple of lines from a Joy Williams’ story, ‘Hammer’, I think about almost every day: ”I suspect there’s only one thing to know about that other world. You don’t go to it when you’re dead. That other world exists only when you’re in this one.” Walter Benjamin said ”Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.” A good story brings all these quotes back to me.
SF: The Irish are well known for their short stories – authors such as William Trevor, Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry. What do you think of the idea that short stories come from submerged cultures, that they’re ways for those cultures to explore their past and work through their present?
CB: I don’t know how true it is anymore, the notion that the short story is the primary conduit for the voice of the ‘little man’, the functionary and factotum, the indigene and unhero, the members of those strata of society that are/were once invisible. That was Frank O’Connor’s idea about it, anyway. The novel, fruitfully for it as a form, has itself been pushed to the margins, and if that means it has lost whatever cultural valency and authority it once, putatively, held, it also means that it is as likely to be the delivery system for the voices of a given socioeconomic subset or marginalized group as the short story, I think, these days (and neither is as likely to be the delivery system as other mediums, like pop music and the Centaurian forms of internet discourse). In tandem with the atomisation of the novel has been the short story’s ascendancy within the academy. It’s the fulcrum around which creative writing courses tend to pivot, and is at the heart of journal culture. Of course the short story is still a commercially worthless proposition, and it’s incapable of attracting a (lay) readership, but in most other respects it’s doing okay (even if that’s a little bit like being a patient whose heart has happened to stop, but in all other respects is fine.) Still, it’s decently esteemed I think. Most writers respect the form, they just know there’s no living in it. (That, however, is not the short story’s problem.)
SF: There’s often an emphasis on the start and end of stories – I suppose the entrance and exit of the writer. Leaving aside how that risks forgetting the importance of the rest of the piece, and forgetting the start, how important do you think endings are? Do endings always have to end with a ‘wow’ moment, or is less sometimes more?
CB: With short stories, the ending should be on your mind right from the start, and very often you will find that key fragments of the ending were already present, encrypted in the opening. Which is not to say you need to initially know where the story is going, or how it will end. But with a story, even at the outset, you understand you are already inside the declining arc of the narrative. Your time and focus are finite in a way you don’t necessarily feel with a longer piece: there is the tacit tension of how efficaciously and elegantly you are going to resolve your premise even as you open it out, begin to delineate it. Stories tick – like a clock, like a bomb – in a way novels generally don’t. So many stories end on a melancholy note because the form is essentially valedictory: you start, always, very close to the ending, and the actual substance of the narrative is often a kind of controlled extemporization, the purpose of which is the temporary staying or suspension or obscuration of the inevitable, concluding stroke. Letting that pressure build. The best stories end with either an integrated rush or in total dissipation, with an emphasis and resonance I don’t think novels can replicate.
As to whether a given story should end with a Wow or a composed whimper or whatever, I don’t think it’s possible to tell until, each time, you get to the end, unfortunately.
SF: Why did you write Young Skins? Or, more generally, why do you write?
CB: I write because I want to. I used to think I needed to. I think that’s still true. Mostly I really, really want to. I have such a shallow and lazy understanding of the world, myself, others, and feel, much of the time, irreparably fucked, intrinsically inferior, like a perpetually baffled, desperately mimicking robot. Writing is a way of establishing tiny islands of lucidity, reprieves, in the oceanic haze that is my life, memory, experience, though even this lucidity is treacherous, because it issues from me. Every day you get up and the world cascades with such wild, reckless profligacy away from you. I write to hang on by the fingernails.
The dream is erasure, but an erasure you can come back from. Sometimes, in the flow of work, you get close to that erasure, when you are most deeply immersed within yourself. You are there and you are not there. For every impulse I identify as motivation for me to write, it might equally be true that its opposite probably also motivates me. To isolate and withdraw into myself, but also to connect and reach out, to yield up control, but also to impose pattern and order and so on, one sophomoric paradox after another.
SF: How important would you say it is for writers to read? If I was to ask you to recommend just two short stories for our readers to explore, what would they be, and why?
CB: Oh yeah, of course you need to read. The problem is how intensely are you reading? Some people will take more in in one read than others will going through the same text a dozen times. This isn’t about intelligence. I’m not intelligent. But when I’m reading something, and it’s good, it’s like it’s being directly transcribed onto the inner wall of my intestine. Colours and images pop off the text, ramify in the aftermath. And you do need to learn to read short stories: the first bunch I read I got little from. I hadn’t worked out how to read them yet. I was used to novels and was banging through them too quickly, looking for the novel’s depth and welter instead of appreciating the story’s intensities and tacitness.
I could pick dozens, but today, two good ones to read, to me anyway, are Denis Johnson’s ‘Work’ and Joy Williams ‘Honored Guest’. Both skirt with being episodic, potted, yet both course with an occult intensity. The shape of their design gleams and dims with each shift and feint of their wayward, but meticulous, narratives, and they progress as much by image as by ‘plot.’ They are like poems, but I think they are better than poems. And most novels can’t touch what they are doing either.
SF: It’s often said that 90% of writing is rewriting, and that’s something many new writers (or, even, experienced ones) often forget. It’ll depend on the story, sure – but on average how much of your writing would you say is rewriting? How long is the process from that initial word of the first draft through to what you’ll send to your agent? Any thoughts on the importance of letting work breathe?
CB: A story of even just 3000 words of so will usually take months to write, and yeah, it’s mostly rewriting. I generally start back at word one, the beginning, every day, and work it over, removing/adding new stuff incrementally as I go along. When I’m doing longer pieces I do the same thing by sections. I also tend to work on several pieces at once, so will finish nothing for ages, then have a few things come together in relatively close succession, if I’m lucky. It’s good to let stuff breathe, especially stories – again, you’re not looking to generate reams of material. You want the distillate. I like working on several stories at once so that I can rotate between them, and in that way have breaks from each one, and let the unconscious do its work.
SF: Last question. If a new writer asked for just one piece of advice from you, what would it be?
CB: I consider myself a new writer, so don’t know that I have anything like wisdom to impart. Apart from the usual – keep reading, keep writing, don’t give up, I would say don’t be in a rush to get published. Everyone is dying to get published as soon as they can – me included, and it’s entirely understandable, because until it happens you’ve no idea if you’ll ever get published at all. But you then have to live with, stand by, what you’ve written. Most writers of a certain amount of talent get to a stage where it is obvious they are a talented writer, but the work is still inchoate/underdone. You then enter the zone of temptation, where you have become essentially publishable, however you define that, but are still not as good as you can be, and not every editor/publisher has the stamina to wait until you emerge from that zone. A good editor will make you wait.