Beautiful Sentence #5 ~ Gerard Woodward

“This / is the use of trampolines / I will remember, the broken sunlight / Coming through the trees in a strange / Land, and lighting up my rising / And falling children, and their friends, / And the apples falling, / The new trees rising.” – Gerard Woodward, from the poem “Several Uses For a Trampoline,” from the collection The Seacunny.

A Writer Sees, An Artist Writes ~ Gerard Woodward and Philip Hartigan in Conversation

The very fine visual artist and art writer Philip Hartigan (as many of you know) is my husband. He is also the curator and writer of the art blog Praeterita. And he and I teach a course called “Journal and Sketchbook” at various locations and to various populations. (Next up, a semester long course in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.)

This fine line and connection between the visual and literary arts has always been of interest to Philip. Here then, is a brief excerpt from an interview he did with Gerard Woodward, one of my favorite contemporary writers (check out the conversation he took part in for this site here.) I encourage you to click through to Philip’s website and see the images and video connected to the post as well.

Artist-Writer Artist: Gerard Woodward (excerpted from Praeterita, by Philip Hartigan)

I am extremely pleased that poet and author Gerard Woodward agreed to be interviewed for this series. Gerard and my wife, Patty, were colleagues for a short while at the end of 2008, when Patty taught for one semester at Bath Spa University, where Gerard is a faculty member in the Creative Writing program. Gerard spent the spring semester of 2011 in Chicago on a reciprocal visit. Gerard has published poetry, short-stories, and novels. “Householder”, his 1991 collection of poetry, won the Somerset Maugham Award in the UK, and his novel “I’ll Go to bed at Noon” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Of his most recent novel, “Nourishment”, The Daily Telegraph reviewer wrote: “It is a novel to be savoured, and Woodward is a novelist to be treasured.” It turns out that in addition to his success as a writer, Gerard started his adult life in art college, and still draws and paints when he can. So here, from a writer’s point of view, is a discussion about how a writer sees, how a writer draws, and what parallels he observes between the sister arts.

PH: Your first stint in higher education was at an art college (and I believe you are married to a visual artist). What do you remember about yourself and your relation to visual art at that time in your life?

GW: I chose to go to art school as a way of escaping the humdrum working life I was living at that time. I left school at 16, convinced there would be a nuclear war by 1985, and didn’t want to waste my life in sixth form. So instead, I wasted it working in a Tescos supermarket (and many other places – I had six jobs in two years). So going to art school was a way of escape – but I didn’t choose it out of any life-long ambition to be an artist. In fact I didn’t want to be an artist at all, and had originally applied to do graphics, with an eye to being something like a designer of some sort eventually. But then, when I got there, I met lots of people who wanted to be artists, and we hung around in little groups sneering at graphics students with their scalpels and their letraset sets. So I switched, during my foundation year, to fine art, in the full knowledge that I’d just signed away any chance I’d had of getting the good job I’d come to art school to get, and would be likely to end up back in the factories I’d tried to escape. (read more…)
Thanks for reading! – PMc

They Talk, We Listen ~ A Brief Collection of Author Interviews

Author interviews. I have to admit, I like them quite a lot. A glimpse into what makes them think, write, rewrite, enjoy life, and so on and so on. When I read of their concerns, their vulnerabilities, their insecurities, I recognize that the authors I admire are just people, people like me, maybe. And sometimes the interviews can remind me that these authors are also something else, something sort of super-human…or if not SUPER, maybe EXTRA. Extra-human. Their lives, while filled with the daily considerations we all have (doing the dishes, finding socks that match, cleaning the litter box, watching our salt intake,) there lives are often spent looking deeply into these things, searching for story moments not just to imagine (because we all do that, right? Imagine little stories as we go on with their our days?) but to write down and making meaning of and from.

And so, I provide here a list of a few author interviews you can find on the internet. Some of the links will lead you to writers you have known and loved for quite sometime (Ray Bradbury, Thomas McGuane,) and others will lead you to discover someone new and emerging (Katey Schultz, Alan Heathcock.) And if you feel so inclined, I invite you to add any links you might have as well.

David Abrams speaks with Thomas McGuane for New West 

Katey Schultz answers Philip Hartigan‘s questions for Preterita 

Ray Bradbury‘s official biographer (and friend of mine) Sam Weller interviews the literary legend for Paris Review 

Another Chicago Magazine: A Conversation with Dinty W. Moore by Neil Stern

Alan Heathcock answers my questions here

Salt Publishing Blog conversation between Vanessa Gebbie and Jonathan Pinnock

 

Mike Pride interviews Maine’s Poet Laureate Wesley McNair

 

 

Bonnie Jo Campbell interviews Bonnie Jo Campbell in on
e of The Nervous Breakdown‘s Self-Interview series

Carrie Margolis interviews Anne-Marie Oomen 

Bookgroup talks with Gerard Woodward 

The Paris Review talks with Toni Morrison

Leah Tallon talks withGina Frangello for Knee-Jerk Magazine 

Jhumpa Lahiri talks with The Spectrum 

Andrea Waterfield interviews Dennis McFadden for The Missouri Review 

A transcript of NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon‘s recent interview with Roddy Doyle

A. Manette Ansay talks with K C Culver

And I could go on. Perhaps I will. Another time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In Conclusion…” ~ Gerard Woodward on Endings

Why the Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers” is near its end, and as we face the final curtain (apologies, Frank) Gerard Woodward answers his own questions about endings:

Gerard: Perhaps it would be appropriate for an entry about endings to begin with one. In conclusion I would say this—there should be no hard and fast rules for how we end stories; as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, closed endings can work just as effectively as open endings, even in what we call literary fiction. What is important is a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.

There is a story I love that has a closed ending—though love is not quite the right word for a story on such a horrible theme—by the British novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor. It is called “The Fly Paper,” and I’m going to summarise it now, (I’m afraid an unavoidable problem in writing about endings is giving them away). The story concerns an 11-year-old girl called Sylvia, who is on her way to a music lesson when she gets pestered by a creepy guy. She is rescued by a kindly older lady who sees off the creepy guy, and then invites the girl to her cottage for tea, to let her recover from her ordeal. After a reassuring chat over tea and biscuits, the girl is horrified when a visitor arrives, and it is the creepy guy, who greets the elderly lady as a friend. The whole thing was a set up and the two older people have lured the girl into a trap, and there the story ends. This story is uncharacteristic of Taylor, and was written as a deliberate shocker. It is horribly prescient, written just a few years before the Moors Murderers put child abduction (and the role of a motherly figure as a lure) into the public consciousness. The whole story is beset by a bleakness of vision and a torpid provincial entropy—everything from the scruffy peripheral landscape that is seen from the bus, to the fact that Sylvia herself is recently orphaned, and has discovered herself to have an unappealing personality—“She did not go into many houses, for she was seldom invited anywhere. She was a dull girl, whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it.” The cleverness of this portrayal of Sylvia is very characteristic of Taylor—she makes her protagonist a little unendearing, so that her terrible fate is slightly more bearable, and even darkly comic. Had Sylvia been sweet, innocent, pretty and happy the story would have taken on a tediously moralistic good-versus-evil dimension, and would have been both too painful and too boring to read. Instead we have a marginal world where good and evil seep into each other, where misery and joy are different shades of the same colour, and the world is too tired to even notice that a child is entering hell.

In some ways this story might seem open ended, for we do not actually know what will happen to Sylvia. It is not described. The final sentence has the three of them sitting down to tea, “she noticed for the first time that there were three cups and saucers laid there.” But of course, the lengths of subterfuge and careful planning that have gone into the abduction of Sylvia can only indicate that her fate is to be a terrible one. Part of the horror of the story is that the reader is forced to imagine what that might be—without that brief bit of imagining on the part of the reader, the story has no power at all. So in fact the openness of the ending is very limited. It is only the nature of the suffering that is left open, the fact of her suffering is absolutely certain.

The closure of the story is dependant on an inversion, what is sometimes called a ‘twist’, so characteristic of suspense genres like the classic detective stories of, say G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown, or the novels of Agatha Christie. Like those stories, the twist in “The Fly Paper” is like one of those etchings by M.C.Escher, when a lattice of sailing ships suddenly becomes a lattice of fish—the background becomes the foreground and vice versa. In “The Fly Paper” the moral certainties of the world are completely inverted—little old ladies transform from safe moral guardians into their antithesis, tea becomes poison. This moral inversion is compressed into a single phrase in the story—after witnessing the entrance of the man into the cottage “Sylvia spun round questioningly to the woman…” In fact it is just that verb that does it, precisely chosen, as always with Taylor, it conveys powerful, urgent movement in space as well as the sense of a moral universe turning itself on its head. The story is very tightly, firmly closed at this point, but with just the right amount of pressure to keep the narrative flowing beyond the time of the story.

But it is perhaps indicative of the power of the open ending that the closed ending is so rare in literary fiction—unless the intent is to turn the world of the story upside down. This is very different from the ‘reveal’ of detective fiction, where the closed ending is akin to a set of answers to a puzzle that you have been trying to solve as you progressed through the story. The ending of “The Fly Paper” isn’t a reveal, because there were no puzzles in the earlier part of the story, no mysteries that needed solutions. At the same time there is a sense of satisfaction when a story ends like this that should have its equivalent in any story, and not just ones that set out to shock and horrify.

The danger of the open-ended story is that the reader experiences a sense of disappointment. In reading a narrative, the desire for a sense of completeness is very strong, and if this desire is unfulfilled the story has failed in a very significant way. You could go so far as to say the reader has been cheated, or even betrayed. This holds true for novels just as much as short stories, and in fact for any narrative form. However, leaving an ending open is very different from leaving it incomplete. Raymond Carver is a master of the open ended but satisfactorily complete short story. The endings are so open that, bizarrely, they can be hard to spot. When I use these stories in teaching, some students have difficulty in ‘getting’ their endings. Take the story “Boxes” for example. This is a deceptively simple story about a man and his partner helping his elderly mother move house. The story reveals many layers of complexity in the triangular relationship between man, partner and mother, but nothing extraordinary happens. A domestic chore is completed, the mother’s move is successful, as confirmed when the mother calls the narrator a couple of days after the move. And that is the end of the story, except for one thing. When the narrator puts the phone down, he is distracted for a moment by a little scene that is taking place across the street. A porch light has gone on and shown a couple in a ‘welcome home’ embrace. And the story ends like this –  “What’s there to tell? The people over there embrace for a minute and then they go inside the house together. They leave the light burning. Then they remember, and it goes out.”

Some of my students miss this ending, they misjudge its weight and don’t feel its impact. Of course, for it to work properly you have to experience it as the closing paragraph to what has gone before. It is cleverly downplayed (What’s there to tell?), and draws little attention to itself. But if the story is read with enough engagement the scene comes to life in those few words as a tableau of human frailty and love which binds together all the images of fractured and difficult relationships that have gone before (like the memorable image in the middle of the story, of a workman hanging precariously from the top of a telephone pole). And what could be more final than a light going off? And it is quite characteristic of Carver that the moments of significance are found outside the narrative itself, in the incidental epiphanies that are glimpsed far away from the action. Another good example is “Intimacy,” which ends with a vision of dead leaves. In this and so many other stories of Carver’s, you might wonder at first why it ends the way it does, before realising that it couldn’t possibly end any other way. And whether endings are open or closed or a bit of both, that is the effect one should strive for in writing them. Which is more or less where I came in.

This has been fun. Thanks to my fellow contributors—Dennis, Gina, Vanessa and of course Patty for putting it all together.

 

Thanks to you, Gerard, for your insight and questions. Chicago just ain’t the same without you here, by the way. Coming soon, Vanessa Gebbie shares her thoughts on the ever elusive art of endings. Thanks for reading. -PMc←

 

Something Dignified and Heroic ~ Gerard Woodward on Earning as a Writer

For the past few months, the novelist and short story writer Gerard Woodward has been writer-in-residence at Columbia College Chicago. It has been a great joy to have him spend time with us, and we will miss him. But Bath, England is home for Gerard, and so he must return. Through the magic of the internet, though, we can keep the conversation going. Here Gerard answers Gina Frangello’s questions about writing and money making, and he also poses the next questions for us to consider in “Why the Short Story? – A Conversation Among Writers.”

Gerard: I have always seen a writing career as a way of avoiding, or side-stepping, or ducking, the need to have any other sort of career. When I made the decision to try and be a writer, at the age of ten or thereabouts, part of its attraction was that it appeared to be an occupation for which one needed no qualifications, no training, no financial investment (apart from pens, paper and typewriter), no network of other people to worry about, no bosses or supervisors. The only downside, I could see, was that there was no salary.

Well, I exaggerate a little to say that I foresaw the impecuniousness of the profession at that tender age, and like most people I assumed that once you had a book published with a proper publisher, your financial problems were solved for the rest of your life. Beyond that vague notion, the question of money and how I would support myself didn’t enter my head.

But sooner or later it did. Perhaps it was after the first thrilling, (but shockingly small), cheque arrived from a literary magazine. Ok, you gradually realise, I’m not going to make much money at this, at least not yet (and the ‘not yet’ is very important). How am I going to find a way to support myself that doesn’t take away all my time and energy for writing?

There seem to be two kinds of writers – the pragmatists who sort out their financial lives with a steady job and regular income before trying to make room for writing, and the idealists who launch into a writer’s life straight away, and then try and find room for doing something that makes money. Both approaches have their pros and cons, the penniless bohemian might sometimes look enviously on the comfortable lifestyle of the gainfully employed but time-starved writer, often to have their envious stare returned. In the end there is only one answer to the above question – how do you support yourself as a writer in a way that doesn’t take away your writing time – by selling that writing to publishers. Any other means of support is going to eat into that writing time, no matter how closely related to writing it is. I have nothing but admiration for the pragmatists who maintain high pressure careers, waking up at the break of dawn to write for a couple hours before the day’s salaried work begins. Some people just have those sort of overspilling brains that still have something left after the day’s demands have taken their toll. I’ve undertaken all sorts of work, most of it of the manual and menial kind, to support my writing. I was lucky enough to get some awards and prizes for my writing early on, a few thousand pounds here and there, which in those days I could make last for years, and which persuaded me I was heading in a direction that was worth following. Eventually the prizemoney ran out, and I still wasn’t earning enough from writing to support myself, (I was a poet) so I took a job. It wasn’t the first time I had worked. When I left school, aged sixteen, I had six jobs in two years, thanks to a low boredom threshold and a healthy job market (yes, it was a long time ago).  There are some very versatile and industrious and resourceful poets who do manage to make a living out of freelance teaching, giving readings, doing workshops and so on, but I wasn’t resourceful enough to be one of them.

As a writer, I’ve always felt that it doesn’t really matter what one does in the world, it is all experience that will feed into the writing. The jobs I had sound mundane (warehouseman in a motorway service station, vending machine filler, pizza restaurant waiter, antiques dealer to name a few) but they provided a vast resource in terms of characters and stories that I will be mining for years to come. It doesn’t matter if a job is physically demanding, as long as it’s not mentally demanding. It means there is energy left in the brain. In fact I think hard manual work can be quite good for the imagination– it tires out the body but actually invigorates the brain, getting the oxygenated blood flowing through the cortex. One forgets how physically demanding thinking actually is (stop laughing, people with physically demanding jobs), you can measure the energy consumption of the brain as it performs mental tasks, and it is like watching an electricity meter when someone switches a toaster on. I sometimes start creative writing classes with physical exercises, to stimulate blood flow. Never forget that the imagination runs on blood. (I frequently forget, which is why I’m struggling to stay awake as I write this).

So, let me try and answer the specific questions in Gina’s post. The first one is by far the most complicated. “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write?”

I feel, quite strongly, that a piece of writing doesn’t exist, in any meaningful way, until it is published. Up until that point it is simply an externalised and fixed part of your imagination, something you can refer to if you want but something that affects only you and those people you might have shown it to. To bring a piece of writing fully into existence it needs to be published. (I will ignore, for the moment, on-line publishing, its still too early to say what counts as proper publishing in that nebulous world). In other words, one writes with the eventual goal of publication in mind. (I exclude purely personal writing such as journals, diaries or pieces of writing aimed at one person, like an epistle (although no one writes those any more, so we’re told)). What this means is that one should write with publication in mind. When a piece of writing is published, money usually changes hands (or it certainly should). So writing, publishing and making money are all part of the same triple-streamed process. But this doesn’t necessarily mean one writes purely for money. As we have already discussed, there is so little money to be made from publishing short stories that the financial imperative couldn’t seriously play any part in the creative process. Even more so the case with poetry. (When a teenager of my acquaintance speculated that a certain poet was only ‘in it for the money’ I had trouble explaining why I was rolling on the floor laughing). With novels it is different. The potential market for any novel is huge. Of course, most novels only reach a tiny fraction of the market. Nevertheless, it is a very different world from poetry or the short story, and in theory one could make a living from writing novels, and nothing else. But do the maths (or the math), decide what you think is a comfortable annual income, and multiply it by how many years it takes to write a novel. That’s how much advance you’ll need for your next novel, and for every novel you write thereafter, for the rest of your life. Then consider how many writers you know might earn that sort of advance. And then consider how many writers are currently professors of creative writing.

But why not? Updike managed a novel a year over his very long career, and was quite open about the fact that that was the only way he could hope to earn a living from writing – a novel a year for the whole of his working life. And he managed it, without too much dilution of quality (forget about ‘Terrorist’) right up to the end. Not all of us have that energy or sheer talent. I’m already seeing gaps of two or three years opening up between my novels, the sad mathematics of which means I’ve maybe only got five or six left to write. Oh God, how did I get to this depressing piece of speculation? What I’m trying to say that there is nothing wrong, in fact I think there is everything right, about writing for money. I would even go so far as to say there is something dignified and even heroic about it (stop laughing again, people with proper jobs), much as I try and avoid romanticising the writer’s life, anyone who tries to dedicate their life to the production of written stuff in a time when written stuff is being pushed aside by filmed and digitally animated stuff is a hero in my book (or will be in my next book). But the point is – the money should not affect the content. I should say that in big letters really, THE MONEY SHOULD NOT AFFECT THE CONTENT. The writer’s purpose should be to make well made things that publishers would like to buy. If a book is written well enough, the content is of less importance. So don’t write something because you think it will have a mass appeal, write it because it’s what you’re interested in and excited by. The most common feeling I have when writing is – who on earth will want to read this? – and then carry on regardless. If it’s well made, someone will buy it.

I think I’ve answered as much as I can or want to. Now I must get back to making some money.

Oh – I nearly forgot. It’s my turn to ask a question now. I have a strong feeling that the best ones have already been asked, but here’s one that has always intrigued me. What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Thanks, Gerard. We will miss you over here! -PMc←

Gerard Woodward on the “sagging, ungainly corpses” of bad short stories

Gerard Woodward has picked up the thread of our conversation and provides us with his response to Vanessa Gebbie‘s question “Is the short story training ground for the novel?” It is an interesting juxtaposition to Dennis McFadden‘s answer earlier.

Gerard: I have a playwright friend who says he gets very annoyed when people apply to do his course so that they can ‘improve their dialogue’ in their novels. I can imagine this would be very annoying, just as much as if the opposite happened, and someone took one of my novel-writing courses in order to improve their writing of stage directions. The point he was making, of course, is that dialogue works very differently in dramatic work, and that it is a big mistake to think writing a play will help you with your novel – a category error, almost. I don’t know enough about writing plays (in fact I don’t know anything about writing plays) to know if he’s right. It couldn’t do any harm, you might be thinking – any writing in any form will help whatever you’re doing, it’s bound to feed in some interesting stuff – but maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t be any help at all, maybe it would even do some damage. If you learnt how to write successful dialogue for a stage play, and then applied that same technique to a novel – well, think about it, a novel full of stage play dialogue – what would that be like? Maybe a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel? I don’t know.

Anyway, I take my friend’s point, and I feel similarly with regard to the short story and the novel. I think it is a big mistake to think of the short story as a practice ground for the novel, a stepping stone towards the longer form. This is because the two forms tend to work along opposite lines of force to achieve their effects. The novel is all about filling big narrative spaces, while the short story is all about suggesting those spaces and using the restrictions of space and time to powerful effect. Short stories written with the same blithe disregard for the boundaries of narrative as a novel are usually very sorry-looking things, and many British anthologies are littered with their sagging, ungainly corpses, often begotten by distinguished novelists.

Of course, a short story may sometimes become so gravid with character, plot and theme that it mutates into the larger thing, by which time it will have spawned a family of sub plots and sub characters, and will fill its space with ease, but this doesn’t mean that the two forms are easily interchangeable. As I said earlier, they are more like opposites. Short stories are not just truncated or abbreviated or compressed novels, they are more like the opposite of novels, they are inverted, or reversed or exploded novels. Their power is delivered in an entirely different way.

If you are using the short story as a training ground for writing a novel, both forms will tend to suffer. You will write weak short stories because you will have little respect for the form (because you will simply be seeing it as a prototype of something else) and you will write weak novels because they won’t have the bulk and meatiness necessary for the panoramic scale of a novel. Write both forms by all means, but don’t treat one as the poor cousin of the other, they both need distinctive approaches and different sets of skills.

On the other hand, they do share much. In America there is a great tradition of the collection of linked short stories – as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts. The series of connected stories, or the novel-in-stories, has emerged as a form in itself. But it is a very different thing from a novel. It is interesting how publishers these days often try and present a collection of short stories as though it is a novel, and it’s not until you begin reading it that you realise it is in fact a short story collection. Then, even if you are a fan of the short story, you can’t help feeling a little bit cheated.

I’ll finish with a quote from an article on the novel versus the short story that has just popped up on The Guardian’s blog pages – “The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different.” As Richard Ford once told the Paris Review, recalling arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel, “Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.” Which sums it up nicely. The rest of Guardian article, which ties in to a lot of the issues that have been raised in this debate, can be found here http://gu.com/p/2zxg3

Since we’ve started this conversation…

Our short story conversationalists have had a few rather lovely things happen in their writing lives since we started chatting about writing. Dennis McFadden, up next with his response to the question “Is the short story a training ground for the novel?” has had “Diamond Alley,” one of his stories from Hart’s Grove, chosen for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011; Gerard Woodward’s short story, “The Family Whistle,” has moved from the long list to the short list for the very lucrative Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2011 (site has a cool little video with judges comments on what makes a short story great); Gina Frangellos collection Slut Lullabies has been named a finalist in ForeWords Book of the Year Awards; Vanessa Gebbie’s collection Words from a Glass Bubble was selected by Booktrust as one of “Ten Collections to Celebrate the Strength of British Short Story Writers;” and me? Well, no big prizes or short lists (if I say “yet” here will that screw with my karma?) but the first offering of The Temple of Air, the Story Week Limited Release, sold out before the end of the festival and I have been signing books for friends and new readers alike–a very humbling and exciting experience.

So these writers who are giving so generously of their time to fill the pages of this blog with their thoughts on the short story are the real deal, folks. I hope you enjoy what they have to say on the subject. And do feel free to join in on the conversation. Maybe their magic will rub off on you just a little. Or maybe yours will rub off on them (us.)

Oh, and you probably figured this out, but the lovely image above is by Pablo Picasso. The man whom we named our cat after. We call him Pabs, usually. He has a brother named Enrique (Reeks.)

Reading, by the way, exhausts him.