Interview with a published short story writer – and an invitation
This striking cover belongs to a new collection of short stories. I’ve read it, I love it and I think you might as well…
15 Minutes is about people whose lives have been touched in some way by the rich and famous. In a world obsessed with celebrity culture do the best stories belong to ordinary people? A tramp wanders through New York on the day John Lennon is shot; a doctor remembers a Muhammad Ali fight from his childhood; a mother’s Harry Potter obsession follows the death of her child.
The author is Erinna Mettler. She has already published a ‘daisy chain’ novel (more on that below) and now has done one of the most difficult things in the world of writing – found a publisher for her collection of short stories without being a celebrity herself. The publisher is far from conventional – although I’ve heard more than one author say that Unbound’s method could be how most books are published in the future. However, having said that, Erinna’s journey hasn’t been easy.
This interview reveals how she did it AND if you live within easy travelling distance of Brighton you can come to the launch next Saturday evening.
Where did the idea for 15 Minutes come from and which story kick-started the collection?
I co-host a spoken word group in Brighton called Rattle Tales in which writers read their work to an audience who then ask questions. I have read at the shows many times and one night someone asked me why I always had famous people in my stories. I hadn’t even noticed I was doing it. I suppose the cult of celebrity is so all encompassing these days it’s a part of our cultural experience. The stories aren’t really about famous people though; celebrities have at most a walk on part.
The first story to feature a celebrity, Jackson Was Good, is about an Alzheimer’s doctor treating a patient who used to be a boxer and it triggers a memory of being taken to see Ali fight in London as a child. It’s quite a special story to me, because my Dad had dementia and boxed when he was younger.
You’re well known for your ability to create characters in a few sentences. What do you need to capture on the page to make them live so vividly in the reader’s imagination?
I know much more about the characters than appears in the stories. I build a dossier for them – they have a past and a present which is planned in great detail, but I don’t always know what happens to them when I’ve finished with them because generally you don’t when you stop seeing someone.
It helps to build in little mannerisms. The old man in Jackson Was Good for example, keeps looking at the bird tattoo on his arm, this gives us an idea of his past and of his confused state, it also represents freedom, maybe even death. Giving characters a visual tick or symbol is a great way of making them real.
Short story collections are notoriously hard to get published: how did you do it?
It makes me very cross. In the UK short stories are really looked down on. Agents and publishers always come out with the ‘but they don’t sell’ line. Bullshit.
They sell in Ireland and the US, in India and the Far East. Collections have won Pulitzers and been shortlisted for the Man Booker. There are prizes in this country that pay upwards of £10,000 for a single short story.
I go on about this a lot but it feels as if as a short story writer I have to do so much more than other types of writers. I’ve been shortlisted for The Manchester Fiction Prize, Fish, The Writers & Artist Award, published internationally and had stories performed by Word Theatre yet I can’t get an agent or a traditional publisher when both are willing to take on any old crime novel. I’ve nothing against well-written crime but there is scope for other things, for a bit of imaginative publishing.
This is why I chose Unbound. William Shaw (a very good crime writer!) first suggested them to me. I’d half-heartedly tried a few agents and publishers, getting quite far along with a couple, but I knew they wouldn’t take me on.
Unbound are a crowdfunder with all the values of a traditional publisher. They take on about 10% of submissions. I sent them the collection and 6 weeks later I went live with it. It took four months to raise the funds and it was almost constant marketing but despite short stories ‘not selling’, we did it. The book is out now, it was edited to a very high professional standard and the cover art is incredible.
Which short story in 15 Minutes is your favourite?
I have a couple. I think Carbon In Its Purest Form gives a view of Thatcherism that you don’t really get anymore.
It’s about a redundant miner on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death and it shows what happened to those men who were put out to pasture when the mines closed. Ricky is one of my favourite characters because he’s an amalgam of family members and parents of people I went to school with. He’s the salt of the Yorkshire earth. Men like him were totally overlooked in all the hullabaloo around Thatcher’s death.
I never once mention her by name – and that’s the way it should be in that story because it’s not about her. I also like Miley Cyrus Fault because the title is a pun and because it has absolutely no punctuation. That could put people off but I don’t care; I wanted to challenge and I was sure it would work. I submitted it to The Manchester Review and they published it so then I knew it worked! That was a big boost for me.
Many of the stories in 15 Minutes have an American setting and/or character. They all have a very strong authentic flavour. Do the ideas and language come from research, imagination or personal experience?
I first went in my mid-twenties and fell in love with New York and then in the 1990 air fares were cheap, I had friends in various cities and no kids to worry about so I went as often as I could. I’ve done a couple of roadtrips too. Sometimes it’s better not to come from a place you are writing about because you see all the detail a native takes for granted.
It’s so much easier to get things right now than it was; there’s Youtube and Google Maps and endless resources online. I research everything the best I possibly can. I’ve made mistakes in the past but I don’t think I have with this book – anything I missed was picked up by the two editors Unbound assigned anyway. I ask American friends to look things over for me if I’m not sure.
The two New York stories were written from memory, the sights and sounds, a bit of Youtube to confirm things. We’re all American anyway, we see so much of it on TV and in movies, in writing groups people used to tell me off for Americanisms but I think that’s just how we talk now. I went last year and made a lot of notes for my next book but I’m not sure I’ll go back while Trump is in charge. What an A-hole!
Your first novel Starlings is called a daisy chain novel. Can you sum up the plot and explain the structure?
A daisy chain is a set of inter-linking short stories. You could read each one individually but they are much more meaningful and satisfying if you take it as a whole.
It’s set in Brighton. I kill a lot of people. There’s a missing child, a ghost, a gangster and various other flawed characters. The characters shift each other’s stories, that’s why it’s called Starlings, because they move around like the murmurations.
People still come up to me and tell me how much they like it, in fact I know of three books groups reading it at the moment and it’s six years old. Maybe it’s a late bloomer.
Do you write flash fiction as well as short stories? What’s the longest short story you’ve written? And the shortest?
Flash is a good discipline. There are a couple of flash fictions in 15 Minutes. So many people who write them forget that there’s supposed to be a story. The New Yorker recently commissioned some and most of them were literate lists rather than stories so even really famous authors can get them wrong.
In short, something has to happen that changes things. I’m a judge in a writing competition and I’ve just read a load for a competition and so often nothing happens. For me length doesn’t depend on the subject. The story Ruby of the Desert started out as a tweet.
‘She worked 9-5 for 40 years. She assumed her final tip was a note but fishing in her apron pocket found only a lottery ticket.’
That then became a 4,000 word short in 15 Minutes and has the potential to be something else.
The longest short story I’ve written is around 9,000 words – they are as long as they need to be.
You often judge competition short stories. What do you never want to see again in an entry?
I’ve just finished my reading for The Brighton Prize. My eyes are swirling!
I don’t want to see anymore stories with spelling mistakes, punctuation errors or too many words!
Don’t rip off other people, be original.
There are definite fashions for subjects. One year we had loads of stories about dementia sufferers, this year we’ve had a lot of end-of-the-world stories. I would say that if you are going to write about a popular subject you have to be as good as the best. For example, if you write about dementia it has to measure up to Elizabeth Is Missing or it has to address it in a completely different way.
Most entries would benefit from the first and last paragraphs being cut.
Have you got a favourite short story writer? And what’s the best story you’ve ever read?
If you want to write great stories read William Trevor. I think Kevin Barry is pretty amazing too. I was lucky enough to see him read recently; the Irish have a way with words.
My absolute favourite short story is A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver, but then another absolute favourite is Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story by Paul Auster.
What are you writing right now?
I’m writing a lot of letters begging people to review 15 Minutes!
I’ve written quite a bit of another daisy chain style novel. It’s set in the desert near Las Vegas. It’s coming along nicely but as the rain lashes against my office window I feel like I might need to go back out there for research purposes.