Interview with Naomi Booth –
Short Fiction/University of Essex International Wild Writing Prize 2021 judge
Naomi Booth is a fiction writer and academic, with particular interests in eco-fictions, writing and the body, and northern landscapes. She is the author of The Lost Art of Sinking, Sealed and Exit Management—which was named a Guardian Best Fiction Book of 2020. She is the recipient of a Saboteur Award for Best Novella and her short fiction has been longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the Galley Beggars Short Story Prize. She was recently commissioned to retell the northern folktale of the boggart for Audible Original/Virago anthology Hag; the resulting story, ‘Sour Hall’, is being adapted into an audio drama series. Naomi grew up in West Yorkshire and now lives in York. She lectures in Creative Writing and Literature at Durham University.
We’re delighted you’ve agreed to judge the Short Fiction Journal Wild Writing prize. You’ve mentioned previously that short fiction is your first love, I think many of us here would agree! Can you tell us how you first came to short fiction both in terms of reading and writing?
I’m really looking forward to judging the entries for the inaugural Wild Writing prize. I’ve always loved reading short fiction: I cut my teeth on the lush, gothic tales of Angela Carter and Daphne du Maurier, and that one-sitting intensity means reading a short story often feels like a more heightened experience for me than reading long-form fiction. When I first started writing, short stories were all I wrote—partly because of the time available to me, and because I like being able to get in and out of something quickly, the brutal possibilities of that rhythm. I think it’s an exciting time to be writing short fiction now: I’ve really enjoyed themed anthologies over the last few years (especially from Comma Press and 3 of Cups), and I’m enjoying new approaches to short fiction that audio is allowing too.
Your story Cluster had an emotional impact on me. The mother feeding, vulnerability and responsibility which suddenly reaches outside of the room with the watching of the other - seeing another woman’s flesh as she is dragged home by her partner - and a new understanding of the world in that way, which is quite overwhelming. It feels like there is a message in that story, as well as others, Sour Hall for example (staying and facing issues rather than leaving). Can you tell us about exploring themes that are important to you in fiction and how this works. Does it happen before, during, after writing? Or does what we write simply reflect our concerns and who we are?
Writing always starts for me with a thought or an experience that I can’t let go of: something that’s troubled me or that I find perplexing and interesting. I suppose the things that we find interesting and/or perplexing are driven by who we are; but the challenge is then to make them interesting on the page, and to think about how they might be developed or resolved in a way that produces something interesting for the reader. I don’t often think explicitly about theme when I start writing, but I do think a lot about resolution and the kind of ways a fiction should or could resolve itself in order to speak in an urgent way to the reader—and part of that question is how it connects to larger, common concerns. So “theme” might be something I come back to as I edit, thinking about it in terms of what sorts of experiences and larger conversations the work might speak to, and what sort of a contribution I want it to make.
Sealed focuses on new motherhood, anxiety and psychological horror in the Australian outback. The protagonist has moved to escape an epidemic, symptoms of which are skin growth which covers all bodily orifices. It shows the anxious perceptions of the mum to be, her observations that the immediate world around her denies and belittles, as the physical impact of the epidemic – and contamination - grow more apparent to us. I think this draws on universal issues of mental health, human interaction and power in a dystopian fictional landscape, the ecological particularities of which are not far removed from reality, particularly right now. Do you think it is natural that contemporary fiction, even traditional narratives, increasingly reflects, explores and comments on the Anthropocene?
Yes. I think this is such a pressing concern that it’s necessarily beginning to be apparent everywhere in art and literature. The challenge, I think, is not to reduce this to a trope—but to attempt to create work that radically refigures the ways we’ve conceived of the relationship between humankind and the environment. That can happen in all sorts of different and unpredictable ways within art and literature, and not just in literature that is presented as climate change fiction, for example.
Can you tell us what you’ll be looking for in a short story for the wild writing prize?
I’ll be hoping to find something that, as well as exploring ideas of wildness, feels wild in its approach to language and form.