Friday, January 29, 2010

Short Circuit: a discussion with Vanessa Gebbie (1)

Last year saw the publication of a new guide to writing short stories, Short Circuit: a guide to the art of the short story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie and published by Salt Books. Since then, Vanessa has been on a periodic blog tour of various writing blogs to promite the book, and today she turns up here. With neither Vanessa nor I known for our reticence, however, the discussion stretched on a bit, so instead of a blog visit, it's ended up a sleepover, and over the next three days I'll be featuring our conversation as we discuss Short Circuit and short story writing in general.

TC: I want to start by talking about the nature of the short story itself. In Short Circuit, Graham Mort points to its fragmentary nature, the way it focuses on a tiny patch or patches of time. Tania Hershman gives a good example of this from a Grace Paley story which ends abruptly and the reader is left not knowing the outcome.

VG: Yes, I think some superb stories do indeed spin round short patches of narrative time – but I’d ask the question, do they have to? And the answer seems to be no. That’s too tight a definition – as if there was one! It’s not just a question of timelapse. I have read plenty (and written plenty) that deal with greater stretches of time, in which the reader is almost bounced across the surface of the time of the narrative as the story delivers itself in snippets. The point is the coherence of what is delivered – and if fragmented time hinders it then its not worked as well as it might. If however, the writer creates a structure that feels ‘right’ then however they manipulate time, the story works.

Does ‘structure’ in the short story equal ‘time’ in some measure?? Question for mulling. You wont often find a straight single answer I’m afraid… ha!

TC: I guess in a way it might do, yes. Even with postmodern works – think Barthelme’s The Indian Uprising, for example, which deliberately play with time, such as a sentence starting at one particular time with one character and ending in a completely different time with a different character – the very fact it is playing with time takes you back to the idea that story structure and time must be linked. They have to have been linked in the first place for Barthelme to unlink them. Or something like that.

Elaine Chiew calls this focusing on a fragment of time ‘open closure’, where not everything may be resolved and there may be a sense of openness. My partner, a voracious reader, hates short stories for that reason – ‘they just stop,’ she says, ‘you start to get interested in the characters and then they just stop.’ She wants neatness, resolution, all ends properly tied up.

VG: But aren’t we moving to a different consideration here? And then a third? The second seems to be a question about how a story resolves itself or not. And the third seems to differentiate between the length of the reading experience as distinct to the narrative timeline. All very different issues.

TC: I tell my partner, ‘So finish it yourself. You have all the evidence. You know the characters. What’s going to happen to them?’ But she can’t see that. For her, reading is not a two-way process, but entirely one-way – the author in control, telling the reader, dictating the action.

VG: But there is a fundamental issue to do with reader-engagement here. You went on back there to say that your partner is frustrated at the way short stories ‘just stop’ –when she begins to get interested in the characters. Then that she looks for neatness, all ends tied up.

Well, a lot of stories do resolve themselves… A Small Good Thing, for example – you could not really carry on after the breaking of bread – it would be unnecessary. It would be another story – how the couple carry on with their lives after the episodes in ASGT. As far as this story is concerned, it has all been said. It is ‘done’. The final scene echoes the opening perfectly. And The Ledge – the ending is perfect too, it finishes everything that needs finishing, and yet still leaves me with such echoes... I can’t just pick up another piece without breaking off to do something different.

Conversely, it seems to me that some novels do not resolve themselves. Well, thrillers or whodunnits might – but take The Road (I know you have issues with this one!) which has been likened to a superb short story – does that resolve itself? Nope. Leaves you hanging, jangled, hoping, thinking... exactly how I like to feel at the end of a story, meself! Hearing the echoes of the story somewhere inside.

Maybe your partner’s frustration is in not hearing those echoes when she knows you do yourself?

TC: Yes maybe. Graham Mort talks of ‘shared consciousness’, where the text is ‘activated’ by the reader, creating an imaginative ‘experience’. Is that how you see short stories, and is that a particular vision of the short story writer?

VG: Graham Mort talks about the reader ‘completing’ the story by meeting the writer in that hard-to-define ‘space’ left for the purpose, and that ‘completion’ does not, in my interpretation, mean ‘ending’ – more ‘completing the experience’. There has to be interaction. Reading a quality short is not a passive thing, or it will leave the reader unmoved and dissatisfied.

But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with passive reading. Seems to me it’s what most readers want, hence many blockbuster successes. There’s nowt wrong with a good plot – even our old guru [Alex Keegan, of whom more tomorrow] wrote five well-plotted crime thrillers before discovering that actually, writing shorts is in some ways more challenging, and ultimately, more satisfying.

But if short stories don’t satisfy her reading needs – no problems. My partner does not read fiction at all. In thirty plus years of marriage, this intelligent bloke - interested in hundreds of things from classics to architecture, the law to travel – has read precisely three works of fiction. Driving over Lemons. Disgrace. And a few pieces of my collection. Count yerself lucky that she reads fiction at all!

TC: This vision thing - is that what makes us short story writers different from novelists? Why do we focus on single events or particular moments, rather than a grand narrative sweep?

VG: So – do I see the short story as being the only fiction that responds rewardingly to active reading? Of course not. Go back to McCarthy and read The Road as you would a short story... or Pincher Martin and Lord of the Flies by Golding (my current passion). Skim for plot and that’s one thing. Engage with the text fully, and they are very different beasts. Are we getting perilously close to saying that literary fiction responds to active reading, and some genre work doesn’t – it is what it is, and there is nothing to discover bar the plot? Probably. I’ll send you an invite to my forthcoming trial.

TC: Well, it’s a fair point. Another McCarthy work is a good example here: No Country For Old Men is, at first sight, a thriller. If you read it as a thriller you come to the conclusion it is weak, because the plot is full of holes. But it clearly isn’t a thriller, it is just borrowing some of the thriller’s conventions. That ending – the one you get instead of the formulaic showdown between goodie and baddie, is perplexing. A better example of forced active reading it would be hard to find.

Anyway, let's move on to my second question (!): I’ve said previously in my review of Short Circuit that what I like about it is that it doesn’t present an identikit list of things you must do and things you mustn’t do if you want to be a successful writer. Some of the advice in the articles is almost contradictory, and so it should be, because not every writer is the same and we’re not all writing from the same motivations or with the same ambitions. For example, Tobias Hill talks about the two distinct ways of writing – plot-based and character based – and I think he’s broadly right. How different do you think the skills sets need to be for these? Do they have much in common?

VG: I really enjoyed my talk with Tobias Hill. He taught me a lot – and the most useful thing (so far) is that a writer needs to be able to do both plotty writing and intuitive writing. I love the thought that there is a friction that builds up between the two sets of skills and that produces a third energy.

You ask how different the skills are – well, plotting is a far more left-brained activity, isn’t it? Planning, researching – working out the intricacies before you start to write creatively? Don’t you need to be organised, clear-headed, focussed, non-chaotic? That is so different to how I am used to approaching my writing. I will know roughly the scenario I’m wanting to explore, but I try to let the characters just act things out without too much direction, and it is than that surprising things leap in out of left field. I would hate it if things didn’t happen like that, myself.

But there again, I wonder (thinking out loud now) whether it is far easier to ‘let go’ in a short piece and ‘write into the void’ as Marian Garvey so succinctly put it in her wonderful essay, whereas in a longer one, the writer needs to be more consciously in control of at least some structure, what’s happening, ... juggling a whole huge cast of characters and events and approaching it blind might be giving ourselves more problems than we need? Open question. For discussion!

TC: It’s certainly a discipline that has to be learned. I like the idea of two sets of skills creating a third energy. A while back I started on a novel, and it was totally different from anything I’ve done before. It had to be intricately plotted because it was a series of different plot threads which had to converge at the end. I compiled a detailed story plan, worked everything out, had it all arranged and colour-coded on an Excel spreadsheet – and got stuck. The third energy didn’t happen for me. I think, having worked out the story, I felt I’d already finished it, so couldn’t force myself to get down to the actual writing. It’s my personality type, I think. I need to be a little out of control, reeling it in. Once I think I’ve got on top of it I want to do something else.

Anyway, I had a long list of questions, but we’ve run out of time for now. Back tomorrow for the second tranche of the Short Circuit interview.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

what I meant to say was...

Hi Tom, greetings from writing retreat in Ireland - where I am discovering the 'orrible stickiness of knowing how the novel has to end, and being bored because I know!

Or maybe it's just displacement activity...

thank you for doing this interview.

Tom Conoboy said...

Enjoyed doing the interview very much.

Hope the retreat does the trick for you. Being bored because you know how it ends: yes indeed, the very point I made in the interview - once I'm in control and I know what I'm doing I don't want to do it any more. But I'm sure the story will have a few more unexpected twists along the way to surprise you and keep you interested...