Following a series of accolades for her short fiction, (including being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, and broadcast on Radio 4) Rebecca F. John’s first book, Clown’s Shoes, was published in October by Parthian, just ahead of her trip to Canada for the PEN International/New Voices Award ceremony. Zoë Ranson spoke to her about the process of putting together a collection of stories and why she doesn’t see writing as a challenge.
Can you talk a little about how the collection came together – were the stories flowing in a particular sequence or were there disruptions along the journey?
I didn’t really sit down to write a collection, Zoë. I just wrote the stories I wanted to write, over a number of years, so I suppose in a sense there were massive disruptions. ‘Moon Dog’, for example, was probably drafted over five years ago. Some were written far more recently.
Perhaps what binds them, though, is a sense of frustration as to where I was in my own life. These are all stories about people who are in locations or situations they don’t want to be in. And that’s how I’ve often felt through my twenties: I didn’t have the job I wanted, or the home I wanted, or the personal life I wanted. My life wasn’t yet what I had thought it would be, despite my best efforts. And many of the characters in these stories feel similarly, though their circumstances are far more dramatic. In ‘English Lessons’, Eunkyung is geographically displaced and just wants to go home. In ‘The Glove Maker’s Numbers’, Christina has been locked up and longs for her returned freedom. In ‘Bullet Catch’, Victor yearns for fame and success. And so on.
‘The short story has limitless possibility’ is a quote I heard recently at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Do you agree with this idea and what appeals to you about writing in the short story form?
Yes, I do… in a sense. One of the great joys of the short story is that it can take you anywhere. The stories in Clown’s Shoes amble around the globe, trip across history and into the future; they run through the minds of starving little girls and lost mothers, desperate men and neglected children; they explore voices and styles that might not be sustainable over the length of a novel. And though they are small, short stories tackle the very biggest of subjects with more punch, often, than any novel. The story I like to talk to students of all ages about is that famous six-word story, allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never Worn’. Six words and the reader has experienced an entire life. That’s the power of the short story; that, for me, is its limitless possibility. It can contain, in such small space, entire lives.
Of course, if we were to be academic about it, the short story form has as many limits as any other form, I suppose. Its length. Its requirement to begin ‘in’ the action; to end in the action, for the most part. It is a snapshot, and must be shaped as such. But I love writing them for the aforementioned reasons – they are tight, and precise, and as big as can be! I didn’t set out to write short stories, in fact. I set out to write novels. I began writing short stories as a ‘way in’, if you like, because there were so many competitions out there; so many opportunities to get your work read. But I really did fall in love with the form, and I hope I can persuade others to do likewise.
How long did you spend working on Clown’s Shoes and what about the stories that didn’t quite fit?
A number of years. I couldn’t tell you how many, but certainly more than five, and also, in the case of some stories, far less. It has been a collection that has grown through the cracks between my work and my studies and all those other time-consuming necessities. In fact, I believe that of the sixteen stories collected here, there remains only one that I had included in my first messy attempt at a collection. And so, much has been lost or abandoned; much. And I’m glad it’ll never see daylight again!
What was your greatest challenge during the process?
I wouldn’t call any of it a challenge, really. Getting someone to publish me in the first place wasn’t easy. It very rarely is for us first timers. But I worked very hard: on my own craft, by studying for a BA in English and Creative Writing and then an MA in Creative Writing; on hunting out places to send my work, and filling my diary with competition deadlines; on researching what I needed to do to shape a career for myself and knowing how to approach agents and which independent publishers produced books of a great standard. I treated that process like a business, as far as possible.
As far as the writing goes – that is almost invariably a pleasure for me. I work a couple of jobs to make ends meet, I’m studying to qualify as a lecturer, I’m just starting to lead creative writing seminars, I’m writing (as ever) the next book. It’s a very exciting time, but it’s an extremely busy one, too, so when I do get the time to write, I savour it. I really do. There is no greater pleasure for me than taking words and tossing them about until I’m left with something more than words.
Editing, though! That’s kind of where the love ends.
If Clown’s Shoes contains work written some time ago alongside your prize nominated stories, how does it feel to see them collected in one place like this?
We are always developing – as writers, as human beings – and looking back on old stories is sometimes as embarrassing as watching a home video of your five-year-old self putting on a play in the living room, or finding a photograph taken during your traumatic teenage years. Still, we accept that development. We must. And I have had to. We cannot always publish what we are capable of writing right now – the publishing process is far too lengthy for that – and so some stories feel fresher and stronger than others, but they fit each other, in their funny little ways, and I’m happy with their diversity. It’s a collection I’ve come to feel very proud of.
Having worked on compiling a short story anthology I know how much time and discussion goes into the sequencing of the stories and, in some cases, that order can be crucial to the way the book is read. Can you talk about your involvement in the final running order of Clown’s Shoes – were you working autonomously or in collaboration – and, if the latter, were the discussions heated or easy?
When it came to sequencing them, they’d almost done the job for themselves. In the opening of ‘English Lessons’, ‘The lighthouse casts a long wedge of deep, syrupy darkness down the stretch of the jetty and into the sea’. The plane descending into darkness shortly afterwards was the image I needed to begin with. I wanted to plunge the reader into that darkness with the plane. The significance of this is likely not entirely felt until the final story, ‘The Dancing Man’, when Kayleigh, a bored office worker, dances with a stranger on a snow-stilled railway platform:
‘Faster,’ she cried. ‘Let’s go faster.’ And as they did, she watched the sky revolving above her. The sky, which was brightening now, allowing long strands of sunlight through the gaps in the clouds. The sky she felt she could rise into.
That shape is not accidental – though it was not designed from the outset – and it reflects, I think, what I wanted to say through these characters. Dancing on a railway platform right next to us, or performing onstage a murky somewhere ago, we are all of us connected by our hope. It is what drives us: the hope that our efforts will gain recognition; that we’ll win back a lost lover; that we’ll finally understand ourselves or our friends or our family; that our grief will ease. Our hope is our survival, almost. That’s what I wanted to talk about.
I was allowed to work autonomously on the running order. My editor gave me general advice on how collections are often stitched together, but she then allowed me to make my own decisions. And I hated it! I’m not good at running orders, and I’m not good at titles. But I had that general shape I mentioned earlier in mind – the descent and the ascent, if you like – and so I worked to that, which in turn forced my hand in certain places. And my editor must have approved, because she didn’t mention changing it.
Do you have a favourite piece, or sentence in the book?
I have a favourite story, yes. And oddly enough, it’s one [‘Salting Home’] that hasn’t often been remarked upon. It hasn’t done well in any competitions; it hasn’t been mentioned by reviewers. I feel it’s been a little neglected, since I think it’s the best short story I’ve written to date! There are a few lines I like particularly. The opening line: ‘In the pale waking hours, the estuary is sprinkled with cockle pickers’. The closing line: ‘And she wonders, as they go, how many cockles are chattering against each other in the bumping Land Rovers’ boots, and how many are still nestled in the sand, still lost, growing safer with each deepening inch of incoming water’. And various descriptions, for example, this one of Enzo the dog: ‘His paws leave trails of shallow prints, which chase themselves into galaxies’. I felt that my observational skills were working well in this story; that it was a thing that could be felt, touched almost.
So I have wondered why it hasn’t had the reception other stories in the collection have. And I can’t really find the answer. Perhaps it is because the story is quite interior – too much inside Felicity’s head for some tastes. Perhaps it is because the setting, the feel, is very Welsh, and so it loses that wider appeal. I’m not sure. Perhaps this favourite of mine is simply too indulgent, and has too much of the imagery, the description, that I love to dive about and play in – though I hope not. Whatever the case, it remains my favourite. It feels like home.
Do you like to read other authors alongside writing your own material?
Yes, yes and yes! Though I’m severely lacking in time for anything that doesn’t have a deadline these days. I think you have to read others. That is how you discover you want to be a writer. That is how you begin to learn to write. And when you finally pluck up the courage to admit that you are a writer, that is how you remember what that stuff consists of that constitutes ‘your voice’. Then, of course, there is the joy of it. I cannot believe there is a writer on the planet who didn’t love reading first. Why should that stop because you’re now on the other side of the process? So I read, and reread Clare Wigfall short stories. I read Maggie O’Farrell, and Sarah Waters, Elizabeth Strout and Ian McEwan. At the moment, I’m reading Sarah Waters’ latest – The Paying Guests – one page at a time, almost, before I fall asleep.
Where are you headed next?
Well, I’m working on the novel… the big, scary first novel. It’s called The Haunting of Henry Twist, and it’s about a man – the eponymous Henry – who loses his young wife and believes her to be reincarnated as a man, who he subsequently falls in love with. So, that’s drafted and ready to be edited and eventually shown to the world. And I’m just about ready to start planning the next book – though I’ve so many ideas wandering about I can’t quite decide which to grab hold of yet. Otherwise, I continue to work as a ski instructor and an English tutor, study my PGCE course to qualify as a lecturer, and I’ve just started leading creative writing seminars for undergraduates at Swansea University, which is fun. It’s all very busy, but very positive, so I’m an extremely grateful writer at the moment.