Forget plot, be honest, read in order
At the Cork Short Story Festival, writers Kevin Barry, Will Boast and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne discuss the form, its limits and its soaring popularity
Why are you drawn to the short story?
Will Boast:“I didn’t know any writers as a kid, so the idea that anyone could write a book was a phenomenal idea to me, and the short story seemed a less intimidating place to start. It was a more democratic form.”
Kevin Barry:“For me, it’s a kind of congenital impatience. You can be in and out quickly with a short story, which can be really satisfying, and even if it doesn’t entirely work, it’s a finished ‘something’.”
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne:“I started off with the short story and I feel much more comfortable with it.”
KB:“I love when writers keep writing them all the way through their careers. It’s such a hard craft – it needs a lifetime of dedication to it. It’s no accident that the best short story writers, like William Trevor, Alice Munro and George Saunders, keep putting out books of stories.”
EnD:“The short story suits people who are halfway between fiction and poetry. It’s a more poetic form. It also has a neatness, and because of its relationship to time is much more manageable.
“What I don’t like about writing a novel is that I change, and by the time I’ve got to the end I’m not interested any more.”
KB:“Well you’re a different person by the time you finish a novel.”
WB:“Frank O’Connor said that a novel requires a character that can sustain your interest over a large number of pages, but the short story can have a semi-hero, or a half-hero.”
Was there a more hospitable environment for the short story in 2012?
KB:“For a while, going into a publisher’s office with a collection of stories was like dragging a corpse in. One reason stories are flourishing again is that there are more places to submit them. Writers respond to platforms for their work.”
WB:“The short story collection is considered ‘the apprentice book’. It’s a shame that it has a stepping stone status.”
KB:“I don’t like the idea of the short story being marketed as a convenience food, being pushed on to people to gobble down on their way to work.
“I react to that idea. It should be read very slowly, you should have to open the window for air.”
WB:“It’s become very rarefied. It’s akin to changes in painting, and the form has changed. The short story asks a lot of the reader.”
EnD:“Elizabeth Bowen said the short story was ‘the most modern form’. And it’s the most writerly form.”
Can you take more risks with a short story?
EnD:“You can do more artistically, yes, and hope to find readers who will get what you’re doing, but it still has to work at a level they enjoy. When I publish a collection, people come up to me and say ‘I read that story’, meaning they read a story, which is not something they’d say to a novelist.”
KB:“It drives me mad when people when people don’t read the collection in the order it’s written. I plan it for months. I imagine I’m Marvin Gaye, and reel them in with the order.”
People often assume short stories, due to their brevity, can be written quickly. How long does it take you?
WB:“God, some things take years. Some stories can be 20-plus drafts.”
KB:“The best stories come quite quickly, in a couple of weeks. I have some stories, ones I like, that went through 40-odd drafts. Ones that were awful for a long time, because of something very stupid on my part that I didn’t see. Other stories can take two mornings.”
EnD:“I can remember writing a story in one day, but more recently my stories have become very long. I wrote one for Kevin [for Town and Country, an Irish anthology due to be published in June], but it took about a month.
“The means of writing, with computers, makes it easier. When you read about writers in the past, 50 drafts means something very different.”
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
EnD:“David Marcus said that a writer should put a story away in a drawer for six months and then go back to it.”
KB:“That’s the one piece of hoary old writing advice that is actually true . . . A story needs time for seasoning. I need to do this because I usually think everything is wonderful and then I put it away for a month, take it out and see that it’s not great.
“I write a lot of stories, so my room at home is like a junkyard of half-dead stories. I try to weld bits together to make Frankenstein’s monster come to life. Ray Bradbury said that if you write a story a week, it’s impossible to write 52 bad stories in a year, so write lots of them.”
Are the Irish culturally or socially more predisposed to the short story than other nationalities?
EnD:“Frank O’Connor said the short story was the right genre for the marginalised. As a folklorist, I do think it’s coincidental, and the Irish short story as practised by Joyce, McGahern or myself has little relation to the oral tradition, even though I draw on it. I’m more inspired by Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.”
KB: I kind of agree. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a small island, and the example of great writers is there. Also, it might sound glib, but 300 days of rain is the ideal situation for people to sit around telling each other fibs and yarns and stories. Every country has a story-telling culture . . . ”
EnD:“But we’re better at it.”
KB:“Yes, we’re better. The oral tradition also sounds vaguely ‘porno’.”
What dominates a story for you – plot, character, theme, or something else?
WB:“A discreet emotional problem. Plot hardly matters at all to me. If there is something a character hasn’t worked out – that’s the story for me.”
KB:“William Trevor says that a short story doesn’t need a plot, it needs a point.”
EnD:“I’m very bad at plots, which is another reason I write short stories. I can’t remember why I wrote Bikes I have Lost.”
KB:“Do either of you have a weird thing where you can’t remember much about your favourite stories, the ones you think are the best?”
EnD:“Yes, it’s the most honest ones. I can always remember commissioned ones.”
Who do you consider to be a hugely under-rated or forgotten short story writer?
WB:“Ivan Bunin, a contemporary of Nabokov’s.”
KB:“Saul Bellow. He’s never mentioned as a short story writer.”
EnD:“Elizabeth Taylor, whose short stories I’ve only recently discovered. Also Karen Blixen, who wrote Babette’s Feast.”
KB:“Babette’s Feast is a terrible film.” EnD: “It’s not. She wrote a lot of great stories. There’s a wildness to her imagination.”
KB:“James Kelman, too – everyone reads the novels and forgets about the stories.”
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry is published by Jonathan Cape.
The Shelter of Neighbours by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is published by The Blackstaff Press.
Power Ballads by Will Boast is published by University of Iowa Press.