Sunday, June 22, 2014

London Short Story Festival

A feast of short stories this weekend: on Friday evening and on Saturday I was at the London Short Story Festival, at Waterstone's Piccadilly. The festival opened with the launch of Best British Short Stories, in which my story 'Tides' is included. Three of the contributors - Louise Palfreyman, Sian Melangell Dafydd and Stuart Evers - read, and our publisher Jen Hamilton Emery was on hand. After the readings there was a discussion in which festival organiser Paul McVeigh quizzed the three contributors on the ways in which their stories were chosen for the book, and their reactions to having them chosen, and Jen on the evolution of the book and the series. There were several other contributors present, and it was great to meet up with them. I had taken my camera, but I was so engrossed in the proceedings and in talking that I mostly forgot to take photos. Here are the two I did take: first, Stuart reading, with Sian in the background



then Louise and Paul pondering a serious point:



I was a bit more systematic with my camera next morning, at the event 'The Weird and Wonderful World of Short Stories', though not entirely. Tania Hershman introduced the three readers, Adam Marek, Dan Powell and Robert Shearman, by throwing out some questions about the nature of the surreal literature - often called 'weird' - which all three write (as Tania said, in their different ways), and after the readings chaired a discussion. 




I managed to get shots of Adam and Dan reading, remembering only just in time because I was so involved in their readings:







but then forgot altogether as Robert held us spellbound.

How are we meant to take stories in which surreal things happen, such as people turning into tables? Tania wondered. Are we meant to see it as metaphor or actual? For her own part, she said, she was happy to take it as actual, and Dan and Adam agreed, though I got the impression that Robert saw his own work as metaphorical. Dan said he didn't mind, though, if people took his work as metaphorical: once a story was out there, it belonged to readers to interpret as they saw fit. Asked why he writes surreal short stories, Robert talked about the liberty compared to the restrictions of writing for stage and TV: no one to say, 'Oh can you take that out because it wouldn't really happen'. Adam talked of coming across Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' before he started writing, and how it blew him away with its mode of taking a very ordinary situation and inserting into it something strange. It made him want to write, and it made him want to write like that. All three writers talked about the playful nature of it all. An audience member asked how you retain that playfulness, and Adam talked about the ability to keep that childlike lack of a sense of boundaries (children haven't yet learned to 'box up the world' as he put it). Robert, concurring, spoke of the need to accept and allow your own 'silliness'. Adam also spoke of openness, of the need to be open to your subconscious. He never rejects an idea out of hand, and so always keeps a notebook: some ideas fail, but you've got to try them out. What about the business of knowing where a story is going to go before you start? Dan said that he very rarely did: he usually starts with an image and waits to see where it will take him. Only at the end of a first draft will he know what a story's about, and then subsequent drafts will be honing the story in the light of this.

Now an audience member stated that she thought quite a lot of surreal writing was written out of anger and alienation, and did they recognise that? Adam and Dan strongly said no. Adam said that although he felt that a certain sense of alienation was germane to all writers, anger wasn't part of his emotional spectrum. He wouldn't write as catharsis or simply for himself, and he reiterated that writing for him was play and fun and that his project was to entertain. Dan said that he too didn't write from a position of anger, and in fact he thought writing stemming from anger wouldn't be good to read; writing weird stories was, rather, a way of explaining the world. Robert said that, far from anger, what he felt on approaching a story was a sense of excitement. In fact, he said he didn't believe in nihilistic writing: the act of writing itself is a form of optimism, and all writing involves the experience of joy - which I think is right. Earlier, however, when asked whether he was ever surprised where the weirdness of his stories sometimes takes him, he said yes, he was often surprised by where a story takes things emotionally. My feeling is that the very joy of writing is the joy of overcoming, processing and distilling emotions such as anger, so that the questioner and the panel weren't as far at odds as may have seemed.

Someone now asked about the balance between form and content. As the content of stories gets weirder, is it harder to create meaning? All three conceded that this was so, and Adam referred back to Kafka's grounding technique of having just one weird thing happen in a mundane context. Dan strongly stated the undesirability of weirdness for weirdness' sake, and Robert agreed: the story has to be saying something true and genuine about the world, and there has to be a recognisable reason behind it.

And here are all three signing books:



A quick lunch, and then it was the panel discussion on short-story 'gatekeepers', which I'll blog about another time - if I get a space in the coming days.

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