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Clare Wigfall: The Short Form Interview

What I’ve learned from the first book is that it’s also a privilege to write for yourself.

Author of story collection, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, and winner of BBC National Short Story Award for “The Numbers”

The Interview

Several of your stories, like “The Numbers,” “The Ocularist's Wife” and “On Pale Green Walls” are vivid in atmosphere and images. Likewise, “Caro at the Pool” is pretty much a postcard. What component of these four stories came to you first: was it an image, a voice, or, in the case of “Caro at the Pool,” the colors?

When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be an artist when I grew up. I used to draw all the time. Paint a lot. I also loved playing make-believe. Then I hit adolescence and I still thought I was going to be an artist but suddenly it wasn’t okay to play make-believe any more, so I started writing stories instead, because it was okay to use your imagination when you were writing. I soon discovered I could create pictures with words just as vividly as with a brush and I began to think maybe I didn’t want to be an artist, I wanted to write. So it makes sense that people pick up on a certain visual quality to my stories.

In fact, I remember with “Caro” I was consciously thinking about the drawings I’d made as a very small child, the clarity and confidence with which I used line. I wanted to write a story like that, something pared down, close to a sketch on a page (it can actually fit on one side of A4), that would capture the essence of what it was like when, as a teenager, you first became aware of your sexuality, when this was something very novel and curious, something to experiment with.

If I take an experience from my life, it’s usually something abstract like this — I never write autobiographically. But occasionally I’ll steal small details to splice in, like the dead baby bird in “On Pale Green Walls” which I did actually find in the dirt on the way to school one day and brought in to present to my horrified teacher! Other times what inspires a story is something I chance upon unconnected to myself — “The Ocularist’s Wife” sparked from reading a caption to a photograph which noted that during the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of Paris the city’s zoo animals were sacrificed to feed the wealthy.

“The Numbers” stemmed out of an obsession I had with the Outer Hebrides (which I’ve still never visited): writing to satisfy wanderlust. I often write about places I’ve never seen. I actually like that there can exist a sort of counter-reality of my own making alongside the truth. I’d argue there’s a validity to both versions, in spite of one of them being made-up.

It can be hard though to put a finger on the triggering component of a story, it’s often too nebulous for that, more a sense of something evolving very suddenly out of nowhere, unformed and unspoken, but nagging and real and waiting to be explored.

I was pretty sure I was hearing the voice of CB, and could I maybe be somehow channelling him, this long-dead Texan male?

Without giving away too much, the two main characters in one of your stories already have a lot written about them; they've inspired an exhaustive amount of literature. Were you certain about writing about them from the start, or did you have to weigh the pros and cons and convince yourself?

I lived for many years with another writer, we met as undergraduates. One day I was lying on my bed and I started to hear this voice in my head. I lay there for a while, and then I got up and went through to my friend’s room. I told him I knew this sounded weird but I was pretty sure I was hearing the voice of CB (I won’t divulge the full name), and could I maybe be somehow channelling him, this long-dead Texan male, could that be possible? ‘Go write it down,’ was the advice he gave me. So I did. The story begins with the first encounter of the two main characters.

Of course later, when I actually started reading up in books, I discovered that this wasn’t at all how they’d met in real life. It was kind of a disappointment at first, to realise that I clearly hadn’t been channelling CB. As the story progresses, having by then done a lot more research, my fiction begins to interweave more tightly with historical truth — BP really did have aspirations to become a poet, for example. At that point I did grapple with whether I should go back to the beginning and rewrite it to stick more closely to what really happened, but I decided this wouldn’t be true to my story, that the very nature of writing fiction meant I could tell the tale any way I wanted. It’s one of the things I love to remind students when I teach: the great thing about writing is that there are no rules.

I also think that because it’s only some way in to the story that people usually realise who it is they’re reading about, it lets them develop their own version of the characters first, without being preconditioned by what they already know.

I was never trying to evoke a Hebridean accent, instead I wanted to present a voice that would be immediately transporting for a reader.

You've played with different dialects and accents in this collection. Are you especially attuned to accents? How did you tackle an American dialect in “Folks Like Us”, for example?

Yes, I love to play around with dialects and accents. Maybe it’s because my own accent has always been somewhat flexible. I grew up in Berkeley, California, until I was eight, and used to sound pure American, but a few weeks in an English school and I was talking like a little Brit. I’m now married to an American, live in Berlin, and have friends from all over the place, so I think my accent has become a sort of weird hybrid and can easily adapt chameleon-like to whoever is around me.

I always read out loud constantly when I’m writing, which makes it hard to write in public spaces, but means I am constantly listening to how the sentences sound. It helps me to hear a voice I might be writing. Sometimes those voices and their specific accents just appear quite naturally, as they did with the “Folks” story mentioned. Other times it’s something I more consciously construct. In “The Numbers”, Peigi’s dialect is totally made-up, a mish-mash I concocted from weaving in Gaelic words I’d found during my research and just creating a voice that felt “right” to me. I was never trying to evoke a Hebridean accent, instead I wanted to present a voice that would be immediately transporting for a reader, taking them somewhere far off and unfamiliar.

This had consequences though. There were a lot of angry Hebrideans when the story won the BBC National Short Story Award. They assumed I’d simply not done my research, which wasn’t the case. Likewise, I didn’t consider while writing the first collection just how tricky the dialects were going to make it once I had to give readings from the book!

I’ve been told “Safe” should carry a warning notice for new mothers.

You've mentioned someone tallying up a body count in your collection. Do you think there's something in the format of a short story that more easily allows for the grotesque — having at your disposal a few quick haunting strokes — or do you think that, at this point, some of the attraction towards the dark also has to do with the tradition of the grotesque that's by now prevalent in short stories?

I remember reading an interview with Ian McEwan in which he was asked why his subject matter was so often so very dark (I highly recommend his early stories, by the way). He responded that the writing was a way to explore the subjects that frightened him from a point of safety, to help work through those fears. This struck a chord with me.

While I was working on the book, I thought there was nothing to connect the stories, but when I finally read them all together I realised there were themes and undercurrents that ran through many of them. It was disconcerting because suddenly I saw that they were much more revealing of my subconscious than I’d intended. It’s definitely not that my personality is dark, quite the opposite, but I think I do often find myself writing about what frightens me in order to understand and gain some control over those fears, or perhaps as a means to exorcise them from my thought.

A story like “Safe” for example is a little gothic horror story. I’ve been told it should carry a warning notice for new mothers but I wrote it long before I became a mother myself. I think I needed to write that story to come to terms with the reality of how terrifying the responsibility of parenthood is, but in so doing it has probably allowed me to be a much more relaxed mother in real life!

I just wanted that the few facts I did know might provide a springboard for my imagination.

We've already touched on this a little, but your stories tend to be removed from the reality of your immediate surroundings, the opposite of the autobiographical. Your first-person narrators are very much unlike yourself. Would you consider yourself a writer who writes from a distance? How does this apply to the novel you are writing, whose story is based on your own grandmother and great grandmother?

Writing about myself doesn’t interest me. With the novel I’m going to write next, yes, it’s based on family history, but only very loosely. Both my grandmother and great grandmother passed away some time ago and to be honest, in my family, we only know a skeleton of their story.

What I do know is that the story takes place in Penang in British Malaya, in the early half of the last century. We have photographs of the house my grandmother grew up in, but no address — it’s an elegant, white, colonial villa, much grander than any home she ever lived in on their return to the UK. A little while back I travelled to Penang to begin research on the book. I hired a guide to help me and it was like we were in some crazy detective show. There we were driving round in the sweltering heat, my six-month-old daughter in a sling at my chest, showing these faded sepia photographs to everyone we met just in case someone could give us a clue to follow. We went to the archives of my great grandfather’s club, explored abandoned derelict villas, snuck into the dusty innards of a Masonic temple, talked to old people at a day centre, even spent an afternoon queueing in the city registry office.

In the end, we found nothing. Or at least nothing with any connection to my family’s history. My guide felt awful about it, but I tried to explain that I’d never really been concerned about discovering the facts, indeed for my purposes they might even prove stifling, I just wanted that the few facts I did know might provide a springboard for my imagination, and in this respect our efforts had been a total success.

I did wonder at first if writing the novel was going to alter the relationship I have with my late grandmother, but to be honest, already just in formulating my thoughts about the book the character I’m seeing has become very distanced from the woman who once lived. She’s my character now, no longer my grandmother.

The point is that by allowing each individual reader to fill in the blank for themselves they naturally insert whatever is the worst crime they personally can conceive of.

In several of your stories, some information that the characters are already in knowledge of is never fully revealed to the reader, like in “The Party’s Just Getting Started”, which is in contrast to stories such as “The Parrot Jungle” and “The Numbers,” where the user is eventually filled in. Stories of the former kind have the effect of eavesdropping, like you've just pointed the telescope into someone's life. Do you agree with that, and do you find that this is an effect you are especially drawn to?

Writing a short story is a bit like walking a tightrope with no safety net. Due to their diminutive size, you can’t possibly include everything, so you’re forced to rely on your reader to fill in the gaps — that’s exciting, and it’s one of the particular challenges of the form that I love, but it’s also scary because you have to relinquish control to an unknown.

Set in LA, “The Party’s Just Getting Started” is a contemporary rewrite of the story of Lilith, who Jewish myth claims was Adam’s first wife before he paired up with Eve. Some people get that straight away, others don’t even make the connection that the main couple are actually Adam and Eve and simply read it as a story about a man whose ex-wife turns up in town. And this reading isn’t wrong, because that’s what the story is about. But for those who do make the connection, there’s another level they can pick up on, they get what Lilith is talking about when she asks Adam, ‘Is it ever kinda weird when you’re buying apples in the supermarket?’

I have other stories like this, where people’s readings can be vastly different, and at first I used to worry that it marked a failure of the story that my intention wasn’t clear. “Safe” is a prime example — that was bizarre because the reader response was very gender split: women read it one way, men another. In the end, I decided I wanted actively to retain the ambiguity in these stories because I think it makes their effect much more organic, and seemed to grant more respect to the individuality of each reader. It gives the story a life of its own, an ability to engage in an unpredictable way and invite participation, thereby making the reading experience much more charged. For example, in “Night After Night” a woman discovers her husband has committed a terrible crime. I never name the crime. I’ve been asked why I made this choice, but the point is that by allowing each individual reader to fill in the blank for themselves they naturally insert whatever is the worst crime they personally can conceive of, and that’s so much stronger than me just deciding for them.

Have you made some conscious decisions to do anything differently in your upcoming story collection? What might be some of the things you learned from the first one? Do you find that there are influences in style and content depending on which city you might be writing in?

My first book was essentially the book of my twenties. I spent almost nine years writing it, living intensely while I did and doing many other things too, not just writing. I’m not sure how much influence the city I was living in (Prague mostly) had on its style, nor on its contents as I’ve still never written anything set in the Czech Republic, but certainly I needed those years of living and experience in order to gain the maturity necessary to write that collection.

I suppose, when I look back on it now, I envy the fact that largely I wrote that book just for myself. Even though it had been commissioned very early on, the fact of its publication still seemed so unreal that any future reader was not only an ‘unknown’ they were still totally hypothetical. They really didn’t exist for me yet, and I certainly wasn’t clamouring for them. On the contrary, I was very hesitant to show my work to anyone. There was a sort of innocence in that which I can’t help looking back on with some nostalgia.

That’s not to say I’m not grateful now for a readership. Having a book published is a privilege and an honour, and seeing how your work can impact the lives of others is extraordinary. I’ve had so many new and wonderful experiences and opportunities thanks to the book receiving favour. So I’m grateful, very grateful. But it’s not why I write.

Maybe what I’ve learned from the first book is that it’s also a privilege to write for yourself, and sometimes you have to give yourself the space to do just that.

Recommended by Clare Wigfall

from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration
Excerpt

We have lived a string of dull, thirsty weeks. Everybody is irritable, and looking for someone to blame. Our wagons bump along, a pod of wooden leviathans, eaten away from the inside by mold and wood-boring mites. Our road is full of tiny perils, holes and vipers, festering wounds. Today would have been indistinguishable from the twenty before it, except that Clem and I finally got a good ball play going.

As soon as we got done striking camp and picketing the horses, we went exploring. Just north of the campsite, a quarter mile downstream, we found a clearing in a shallow stand of pines. In the center, a shrunken lake, an unlikely blue, was fringed with radish reeds. Behind us, you could see the white swell of the wagon sails, foaming over the trees. And the sky! The sky was the color that we'd been waiting for, our whole lives, it felt like. An otherworldly alloy of orange and violet, the one that meant a thunderstorm at sundown, and night rain for our stills.

Nights at the Alexandra
Excerpt

I am a fifty-eight-year-old provincial. I have no children, I have never married.

“Harry, I have the happiest marriage in the world! Please, when you think of me, remember that.”

That is what I hear most often and with the greatest pleasure: Frau Messinger's voice as precisely recalled as memory allows, each quizzical intonation reflected in a glance or gesture. I must have replied something, Heaven knows what: it never mattered because she rarely listened. The war had upset the Messingers' lives, she being an Englishwoman and he German. It brought them to Ireland and to Cloverhill — a sanctuary they most certainly would not otherwise have known. She explained to me that she would not have found life comfortable in Hitler's Germany; and her own country could hardly be a haven for her husband. They had thought of Switzerland, but Herr Messinger believed that Switzerland would be invaded; and the United States did not tempt them. No one but I, at that time an unprepossessing youth of fifteen, ever used their German titles: in the town where I'd been born they were Mr and Mrs Messinger, yet it seemed to me — affectation, I daresay — that in this way we should honour the strangers that they were.

We read it in Nights at the Alexandra.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish
Excerpt

“Where's the lady?” Sybil said.

“The lady?” the young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. “That's hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser's. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room.” Lying prone now, he made two fists, set one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the top one. “Ask me something else, Sybil,” he said. “That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit.”

Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. “This is a yellow,” she said. “This is a yellow.”

“It is? Come a little closer.”

Sybil took a step forward.

“You're absolutely right. What a fool I am.”

We read it in Nine Stories.

Originally published in The New Yorker.

Tricks
Excerpt

She had been too preoccupied, until now, to notice that he spoke with an accent. What was it? It was not French or Dutch–the two accents that she thought she could recognized, French from school and Dutch from the immigrants who were sometimes patients in the hospital. And the other thing she took note of was that he spoke of her enjoying the train ride. Nobody she knew would speak of a grown person doing that. But he spoke of it as being quite natural and necessary.

At the corner of Downie Street, he said, “We turn this way. My house is just along here.”

He said house, when he had said shop before. But it could be that his shop was in his house.

We read it in Runaway.

Extra
Excerpt

She has an odd suspicion that Old Tang is not ill. He knows she is there, and he is observing her secretly. He knows that his wife of fifty-four years has left him for good and that Granny Lin is his new wife, but he refuses to acknowledge her. He pretends to have lost his mind and expects her to play along as if she were a hired caretaker. But Granny Lin decides not to concede. He is her husband; she is his wife. Their marriage certificate is secure under her pillow. If Old Tang is testing her patience, she is ready to prove it to him; it is a tug-of-war that Granny Lin is determined to win. She puts down the magazine and looks boldly into Old Tang's face, trying to outstare Old Tang. Minutes stretch into an hour, and all of a sudden Granny Lin awakens in a dread that she, too, is losing her mind. She drags her body out of the couch and stretches, feeling the small cracking of her arthritic joints. She looks down at Old Tang, and he is still a statue. Indeed, he is a sick man, she thinks, and feels the shame of having cast rootless doubt on Old Tang, a man as defense-less as a newborn baby.

We read it in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

Originally published in New Yorker: Dec 23, 2003.