“What I think this teaches us is that distraction, gossip, fragments of experience, digressions and byways are the makings of fiction…”
Ailsa Cox is a fiction writer and critic, with a special interest in the short story genre. Her stories have been included in various magazines and anthologies, most recently in Unthology 6 and Best British Short Stories 2014. She has been shortlisted for prizes including the V.S. Pritchett Award and the Bridport Prize. Her collection The Real Louise and Other Stories is published by Headland Press.
You are known internationally as an expert on Alice Munro. What first attracted you to Munro’s short stories? What do you feel writers of short fiction can learn about craft from Munro?
I think probably the first collection I read was The Beggar Maid, in the 80s. In Canada, the title was Who Do You Think You Are? There was something about Rose, the protagonist in all the stories, that I could identify with as a woman who’d who’d been educated out of the background they were born in. I scarcely thought about Munro as a Canadian at all, and I imagined her as someone from my own generation, though in fact she’s only two years younger than my mother. But I also loved the grace and subtlety of the language.
There are lots of things you can learn about time, memory and viewpoint through trying to unpick Munro’s stories – about layering a story and building ambiguity – but more than anything to do with craft and technique the one thing a writer can learn from Munro is utter dedication to her art. She went through a time in the 60s and 70s when she was very depressed about her career, and it was never easy, but she’s always been absolutely single-minded about the practice of writing and the concentration that requires.
You mention Munro’s use of time. Julian Barnes admires the way ‘she can move characters through time in a way that no other writer can.’ He also says that he has tried to work out how she does it but never succeeded. How do you think she does it?
She’s very widely read, and learnt a lot from her predecessors, modernists like Katherine Mansfield, but also Eudora Welty and other southern writers. But when she talks about her own process, she describes it as something intuitive, and there’s a distrust of ‘tricks’ that you can see in stories like ‘Material’. In fact she’s very dismissive of some of the stories in her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, that she regards as ‘exercises’. One of the stories in that collection, ‘The Office’, gives some insight into how she works. In this story, the writer is a mother with small children, unable to shed her domestic responsibilities at home, so she thinks this will be solved if she takes her writing out of the house into an office. (It’s my belief that the character’s trying to write a novel at that point!) But of course there are distractions there as well – a nosy landlord – and although he’s annoying he does himself become the story. What I think this teaches us is that distraction, gossip, fragments of experience, digressions and byways are the makings of fiction, rather than the pre-ordained pattern. She stitches those things together wonderfully well, always accepting that everything is provisional, and as she says, just the attempt at a story that, so far as she is concerned, is always halfway there, and will change not only during redrafting but between the first publication and its appearance in a collection.
It’s interesting that Munro’s work changes between first publication and its appearance in a collection. Did your short stories also change between first publication and their appearance in your collection The Real Louise and Other Stories? How do you think writers can tell when their work is finished? Is it, like Munro’s process, something intuitive or is there a trick to it?
I didn’t change anything between first publication and the book. Sometimes when I’m giving a reading I want to cut out a word or two. The stories go through many drafts over such a long period of time, months, often years, and once I’m writing I’m always working on the sentences and the sound of the words rather than thinking about the content. I can have all sorts of bright ideas that come to nothing on the page because they just don’t fit. A story is finished when you find the right ending, and that’s one of the hardest things to get right. Sometimes it’s difficult because you don’t know what’s going to happen, sometimes because of the rhythms and pace of the ending, and the dying fall of the final image.
Do you think that final image is key to a successful story?
It’s often the image and something more in the closing line, something that seems like an afterthought but really retreats back inside the story and could even be its first sentence. In Munro’s ‘Pictures of the Ice’, the image is exactly that, the pictures taken by a drowned man, but the last sentence reads ‘She just wants to make them wonder’. In another drowning story, Jon McGregor’s ‘We Wave and Call’, it’s ‘Sometimes it happens like this’. Short stories often are circular like this.
Do you have a favourite short story?
Lots of favourites, but speaking of circularity, I especially admire Helen Simpson’s ‘Constitutional’. It’s so tightly constructed and densely packed, exploring mortality, memory, the cycle of life. And it’s funny. We don’t often think about that, but wit and satire are often sharper in small doses. Like Elizabeth Bowen’s ghost story ‘The Cat Jumps’ – that makes two favourites, excluding Alice Munro.