He leaves with his black umbrella under his arm and the house bellows after him, What good is a black umbrella at a time like this? You know that if you go now you can never come back again? It is dry out and the light is falling. In the sky to the west the sun sets like a dead anaesthetist set fire on a longboat and pushed out to sea. He watches the funeral as the longboat gets further away and the fire begins to die out and soon it is dark and he puts up his black umbrella. It does him no good. He walks through the streets which are filled with quiet and noise, and crowds and loneliness, and a million things happening a million times no matter what, and things are happening to him and through him and around him too and there is nothing his black umbrella can do to make it stop. When he reaches the train tracks he settles on the embankment, puts down his umbrella, takes a candle from his pocket, lights it, picks up his umbrella again. He waits through a million things, the hum of the late traffic somewhere away there and. And then, at midnight, the train comes – the engine and then a long line of bathtubs linked head-to-toe, head-to-toe, porcelain-plastic-steel-tin carriages rattling through rattling through rattling, slowing slightly as they pass and his candle goes out with the draft and the railroad thunder. Always a bathtub carriage to your heart, he thinks. And, What good is his black umbrella now? The long line of bathtub carriages come to a stop, slowly and eventually, and they are no longer carriages at all, just bathtubs. Lonely, rusted, long-ago bathtubs. Each one of them tip-tapping out a dripping water clock. And he could climb in and rust away off into the night and the million things happening out there somewhere else again. He could set down his black umbrella and climb in. He could leave now. You know that if you go now you can never come back again? And he doesn’t, he sits and watches the bathtubs until they set off, somewhere into the night again, always a bathtub carriage to your heart. On the way home, water begins to fall from the pitch black sky and patters against the fabric of his black umbrella. A million different things happening a million times more and him walking home again beneath the safety of his fake black sky, through the streets and adventures and the sound of gravestones in the rain.
Adventures In Writing And Reading, Part 3
After writing Parts One and Two in quick succession I may have slacked slightly, but here we go with Part Three! And this time I want to fulfil the mandate set out in the title a little more accurately and write a bit about Writing as well as Reading. So, I’m going to try and consider, a) how the stories I have picked out have affected my writing, and b) the function of a writing community in encouraging and improving the work of those in it. But, really, it’s still just going to be me rambling on about short stories for as long as you can be bothered to read, ok? Good.
ROBERT SHEARMAN: ‘Luxembourg’ from Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical
I’ll start with Robert Shearman because he’s a really good writer and he has a new book out, though the story I’m going to write about is not from his new one because I haven’t bought it yet. Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical is Shearman’s second themed collection of odd little stories following Tiny Deaths. He writes strange stories which have one foot in Science Fiction as he invents odd impossibilities and shows how they affect individual’s everyday lives.
For example, in his story ‘Luxembourg,’ the whole country inexplicably disappears one day, taking with it the protaganist’s husband who is on a business trip. The story unfolds as the protaganist calmly accepts the news and resolves to not make a fuss. The way in which the disappearance of Luxembourg is handled – as if it were the most normal thing in the world and barely worth mentioning – is indicative of the way Shearman treats his narratives. No fuss, no drama, the tale inches forward in quietly compelling ways.
He takes absurd notions and then follows the logic of what happens next. And I think this is why I like short stories and why I like writing short stories. I think ideas are important and I like stories that ask ‘What if?’ and ‘What happens next?’ These are questions to kick an imagination into action. So I like that Robert Shearman asks, ‘What would happen if Luxembourg disappeared one day?’ and then asks ‘What would happen next?’ Perhaps the key is finding interesting questions like this to tempt the reader in, and then supplying interesting answers so that what is left is not just a neat idea but a good story.
Anyway, I can thoroughly recommend Rob Shearman, who does this stuff way better than I do.
A.C. TILLYER: ‘J Is For Job Centre’ from An A to Z of Possible Worlds
From independent publishing house Roast Books comes this lovely collection of surreal short stories from AC Tillyer, twenty six tales set in twenty six different locations. Firstly I must mention the presentation of this set – twenty six beautifully printed little books packaged into a small box which suggests the compilation of a universe just as each story revolves around a different Possible World.
And the theme is not just a handy umbrella – these modern fables are powered by places and ideas. There are few readily identifiable characters throughout and Tillyer seems to be more interested in group mentality than tales of individual deeds. The places are all fictional, though described as Possible rather than Imagined which hints at the way in which Tillyer uses these set-pieces to satirise and explore the real world. These are tales full of exposed dictators, ridiculous government bureaucracy and pricked pomp and circumstance as well as gentle philosophising.
In ‘Job Centre’ we see what happens when a government announces that there is no unemployment, news which takes by surprise both those working at and those attending the job centre. Tillyer works through the logical repercussions and then sets to work finding a solution.
What I like about these stories, and what I hope to try and achieve with my own storywriting, is that they are full of ideas, sometimes strange, surreal ideas which nevertheless stitch themselves to the fabric of everyday life in order to try and make sense of it all. I also like the timelessness of these stories, the lack of detail and the suggestion that all the little people scurrying around these tales are cogs and wheels in some bigger plan. They could be anybody and anywhen, and what emerges is a poignant study of human nature. Or something. Next!
Actually, before I move on I should mention the presentation of these stories again because as regards my own work it is something of which I like to be in control and have some fun with. I like devising different ways to publish things – whether it is printing short stories onto envelopes or publishing poems in tiny hand-bound books – and I like it when other writers do the same. I’m sure that it would have been far easier for Roast Books to publish these stories as a single bound book but instead they chose the more difficult option of publishing them separately and housing them in a box. And that makes me happy. Apart from the aesthetics of it, this is also useful as the reader can take the stories out individually – when I first read this collection I took one book to work with me each day and read it while I ate my lunch. I do not know whether the format was the author’s idea or the publisher’s but I think it is important for writers to have ideas – and even a hands-on approach – as regards the presentation of their work.
Finally, before I move on, I should say thank you to Rach for finding out about these books and giving me them as a present. Thanks!
Now – next!
DAN PURDUE: ‘A Night In With Zil’ from Somewhere To Start From
A few months ago I attended a Sudden Fiction workshop at the library as part of the Guernsey Literary Festival (actually I think it was May… never let it be said I am prompt in writing up my adventures). This was a break from my usual isolationist way of doing things but it is rare to hear of an event revolving around Sudden Fiction – and it meant I got to be in the library on a Sunday! Events like this remind me somewhat of writing workshops at University, everyone sitting around and writing at the same time and then feeding back with the work they have done. Writing on demand is an interesting way of working and, although it took me a while to get going, I did come up with a short story with which I was quite pleased. It was also good to meet some more writery types in Guernsey.
Leading the workshop was Dan Purdue, a writer from the mainland whose writing blog, which also links to some of his published work, can be read here. I found his talk really interesting because he is a writer still trying to establish himself in the literary world – he has had some success in competitions and has just put together a collection of stories – and it was good to hear from someone in that position. He did a good job of introducing Sudden Fiction to those attending and spoke about editing stories down to their core ideas to create pieces of sudden fiction, before setting everyone off to do some work.
So, I thought that I would review one of the short stories in his collection. A Night In With Zil is one of Dan’s prize-winning shorts and imagines a house share between Godzilla and King Kong. He uses the comedy of the situation well, exploring the dysfunctional relationship between the two monsters as they share a flat and try to integrate themselves into society, resisting the temptation to crush buildings, eat people, etc. Using existing well-known characters in a short story is a good way of solving the problem of how to build up good characters in a short space of time. However, I think this only really works if you bring something different to the characters – such as putting them in a new situation as Dan does here.
Obviously the comedy of the situation (situation comedy?… I suppose it is a sit-com of sorts, a bit like Men Behaving Badly with Godzilla and King Kong in the starring roles) is a key part of the story, but this also a story about fitting in and putting the past behind you and evolves from being a comedy set-piece into a poignant tale.
I have also enjoyed reading Dan’s blog which he uses to discuss writing rather than to publish his work. He reports on competitions he is submitting entries to, on his successes and writes about his productivity and about confidence, various authorly pitfalls and the avoidance thereof. It’s not so much about passing on technical tips and giving advice, more about expressing the kind of doubts that I think all writers have as they go about their work – the nagging feeling that any worth the author may see in what they have done is all in their head, the worry that the original idea you think you’ve had is actually an unconscious steal from someone else, etc, etc. Writing is a solitary exercise and I think sharing experiences and forming networks provide support is important, seeing someone else share these thoughts provides a lot of comfort and lets you know you are on the right track, or at least not necessarily on completely the wrong one. My favourite of Dan’s posts was probably this rather positive missive about how we should all have more confidence in ourselves.
And as a demonstration of how these networks are a good way to find new and interesting writers, I found some great stories by Teresa Stanton, a writer of Dan’s acquantaince, from reading his blog. I liked her story ‘Things Which Are Not True’ which was recently included in the Guardian’s Summer Short Story Special, but I thought the other story on her website, ‘Ball Wall,’ was even better – simple, funny, effective, neatly capturing childlike imagination and the group mentality of the school class.
Next Time – Part 4! Stand by for more hot Sudden Fiction chat as I hand-pick some of my favourites from the genre-defining collection ‘Sudden Fiction International’ and asking, what good is a really short story when everything else seems to go on forever?
Somewhere across the street an early summer barbecue was under way – shouting, laughter and a thrash metal soundtrack drifting across on the breeze. Shuttlesmith leaned back against the wall and listened, and watched as the breeze worried at the edges of the rock star posters which adorned every surface of his bedroom walls. “And this is where the garlic goes in,” Gustav was saying, lying flat on Shuttlesmith’s bed and sketching out plans in quick, sleek, straight pencil lines. Shuttlesmith’s parents being away for the weekend, his friend had convinced him that this was a good time for them to design and build their often-discussed invention, their business idea, their first million – Garlic Bread In A Tin. Shuttlesmith was unsure. He didn’t properly understand Gustav’s plans, but having hitched his plight to his friend’s genius some years previous he was used to this feeling of incomprehension. “Come on,” Gustav suddenly sat up, “lets make jam black coffees.” In the kitchen, Gustav made them coffees with big spoonfuls of jam in lieu of sugar, stirring the lumps into the bitter brown liquid. “How did you come up with this?” asked Shuttlesmith, baulking at the sweet strawberry taste of his coffee. “It’s Russian, apparently,” said Gustav. They examined the plans again – Gustav’s sketches were startlingly professional, his prodigous genius clear to see in the detail and extraordinary physics of his design. “So now we just need to find out how to make garlic bread.” “Research?” “Research.” The two boys collected their money together and headed out to the shop. As they passed the house which was hosting the barbecue, a collection of half-dead bikes and cars in the front yard, Shuttlesmith cast envious glances in the direction of the carefree laughter and shouting spilling with smoke from the back garden. That and god-knows-what-else was going on back there. At the shop they bought as many different types of garlic bread as they could afford and then headed back. Outside the barbecue house two kids not much older than Shuttlesmith and Gustav were necking against the garage door. The music was loud and fast. “Well,” said Gustav, glancing across. Shuttlesmith did not say anything. Back at the house they cooked some of the garlic bread. “Which one do you want to watch first?” “Start at the beginning I guess.” Whilst they ate they watched Planet Of The Apes, and then Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, and after that Return To The Planet Of The Apes. They ate a lot of garlic bread, Gustav making tiny notes in a tiny notebook. Outside the sky grew dark slowly and beautifully forever. Halfway through Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, Shuttlesmith dropped off to sleep and towards the end of the film he found himself waking again. The film was still going. Gustav was nowhere to be seen. The smell of garlic filled the room. He got up from the chair, fuzzy incomprehension filling his mind, and made his way out into the mild night. The sprawling, wasted sounds of the ongoing party drifted across. Shuttlesmith wondered what time it was – late, very late. He headed back into the house and stumbled through the ill-lit hallway in search of his friend. As he got further from the back door and all the sounds of the night that came through it, another noise came to his attention. A clanking sound, a sawing sound, an out-of-tune whistling from the garage as if someone was building something in there. Shuttlesmith stopped and leant against the wall in the hall, closed his eyes, felt himself between two worlds. “You did it, you finally did it,” he said softly, to himself.
I like making books. And I like making envelopes. I also sometimes write things down on tiny bits of paper and then have to find somewhere to stick them so they don’t get lost. On top of all that, I sometimes like to cut things out of newspapers or magazines and these cuttings form little piles which I fall over when I get up in the middle of the night to write something down on a small piece of paper.
Something had to be done to solve all of these problems (and the envelope-making is a problem because I probably have over a hundred unused handmade envelopes sitting around and it is getting ridiculous), and so behold the Envelope Book Thing. That’s what I’m calling it.
It is a hardback book in which all of the pages are envelopes, bound together to form a handy stuff-keeping recepticle. I used envelopes which I had made from a variety of sources – magazines, old calendars etc. – which gives the book a bright and jumbled look. In order of appearance, the envelopes depict: Scout Niblett, Alan Moore, Beth Ditto, the Hitcher from the Mighty Boosh, Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a Roy Lichenstein illustration, an illustration of a war demonstration, He-Man, Hiro from Heroes and a picture of garish 1970s living room. I think that if I make another one of these it might be themed but as a first go I just used a random selection. The paper used for both the cover and as endpapers is from a Green Stack of recycled papers from DCWV, which some kind people gave me for my birthday.
Enough waffle, here are some pictures:
That’s how it looks, but how does it feel? Well, I’m quite happy with it, though I think it is a bit too tight – it doesn’t quite open the way I would like it to. And it may be a touch wonky. As I plan to use this myself I’m not too worried but its something I will have to sort out if I make more.