KJ Orr interview: ‘I love that the short story can make you really look at things’
‘I liked the idea of the short story as a light box, because it can convey containment and expansion at the same time – the idea of something compressed, yet boundless too’
KJ Orr: When I was first experimenting with short stories one of my concerns was how I would find cohesion if I were to put a collection together, but I was also keen not to overthink this: it can throw the writing process, this kind of end-gaming
K J Orr was born in London and grew up in the rural Midlands. Her short fiction has appeared in the Dublin Review, the White Review and Best British Short Stories, been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award.
Tell us a bit about the title of your collection. Why Light Box?
I love that the short story can make you look – really look – at things, whether these things are inanimate objects or relationship dynamics. It can put them under a spotlight, put them on pause, but somehow in a very active way, making them vivid, bringing them to life through a close focus that can get lost in longer works. This is one of the reasons that I chose the title Light Box. There were other reasons. Thematically the territory I was drawn to, over and over, had to do with characters being confronted with change – people who were in transition, physically or emotionally, and living on a threshold of some kind. In one of the stories an astronaut uses a light box to help himself adjust to life back on Earth, and so the light box made sense for the collection as an image associated with change.
In terms of the form was it love at first sight? What made you decide it was the form for you?
Short stories make me deeply happy. Christine Brooke-Rose wrote: “Reality is a scandal, it never quite fits.” I think the short story can plug right into this feeling. With stories there can be an expectation or hope of neatness, of things fitting – of the beginning, middle and end carried forward from childhood tales. But the story may or may not fulfil that expectation. You can never be sure where it might take you. And because of this there can be a kind of wrangling with the order and mess of life that feels honest to me. And because short stories are so compressed, this wrangling can be powerful. So you have the possibility of things getting sorted right alongside all the uncertainties that are never soothed, the mysteries that are never solved, and the gaps in understanding. For me that expresses so well what living feels like, and – perhaps ironically – makes me feel more connected and understood.
What was the first short story you came across?
I’m not sure. I was probably reading them for a long time without necessarily being particularly conscious of them as a form. But Gogol stands out from when I was older. I loved the dark humour of his stories, but also the aching vulnerability. The Overcoat was a favourite. It amazed me that the story of a man whose overcoat is stolen could be so completely consuming, could bother me and hook me to the extent this story did. There is such great energy thrown into the telling of the tale. I also loved the way that Gogol acknowledged the presence of the reader.
How was the process of bringing your collection together? How did it find a cohesive form?
When I was first experimenting with short stories one of my concerns was how I would find cohesion if I were to put a collection together, but I was also keen not to overthink this: it can throw the writing process, this kind of end-gaming. I was reassured when a writer I really respect told me that although I was exploring a wide range of characters and scenarios, my stories were always recognisably my own. I learnt to trust that and to follow my interest, and this led me to explore thematic territory that had its own kind of glue, despite the fact that my stories are set in places as far-flung as the US, Japan, Siberia …
Can you say more about this?
I wanted to open up a new world with every story, and this felt a little risky, to set each of them in a new place. But change is a universal that connects us all, often in very emotionally charged ways, and once I was sure that the stories were connected by this thematic and emotional glue, I was more confident that they could communicate themselves together in a collection. Travel has been so important to my writing – I grew up in a tiny village, and longed to travel, and then did. There is something in that experience of leaving a circumscribed world … there’s a charge to it that I try to capture in my writing, and which relates to change of any kind. I was interested too in exploring what it means to live in the contemporary world, a world whose vastness is on your doorstep … where identity and perception can so readily be challenged.
Short story writers are often told by agents and publishers: “Come back when you have a novel” – did you experience this? Do you think you might move between the forms?
Nobody will tell you that working with short stories is easy in commercial terms, but there are agents and editors and publishers for whom the form matters deeply. I ultimately made the decision to work with short stories because I love them, and after that certain things just fell into place, and concerns like “Should I be writing a novel?” fell away. It has also helped that I have been awarded some funding for my work along the way. In terms of the novel … I have this reminder scrawled above my desk that whatever form you choose – short story or novel or any other – you constantly want to be asking yourself, is this the best form for what it is I’m exploring? Flannery O’Connor writes about “matter” and “mode” in Mystery and Manners – this question of aiming for something ‘that works in itself’, on its own terms. Books that are hard to pigeonhole – like Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – are great reminders of this too.
You mentioned to me that theatre has been important to you. Do you enjoy reading your work live?
You know, reading my own work made me squirm at first, but I am more used to it now and have been known to enjoy it. I do love hearing stories read aloud, being read to. When you witness someone reading really well it’s just such a huge pleasure. Writers like Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, Claire-Louise Bennett - these are electric readers. I wish they’d all record their work. Let’s beg them to record their work!
Are there other Irish writers you admire?
There are many – including playwrights. But there is so much going on with short stories at the moment. Mary Costello … I found her stories devastating. Kevin Barry. Colin Barrett. These are such strong voices. I also have a dearly-loved volume of William Trevor’s Collected Stories; much too heavy to carry about. I read it flat out in bed, the book propped against my ribs … it exerts a physical pressure that only adds to the reading experience.
“A short story is like a …” Authors seem to enjoy finding new ways to describe short stories - do you have favourites? Have you invented your own?
I have so many favourites. And they are so different, which shows just how much you can do with this form – how many ways it can communicate. I love AL Kennedy’s “small in a way that a bullet is small”. Alice Munro is known for her idea of a house offering shifting perspectives. Wells Tower has talked about the compression of the story in terms of herniation – that’s one visceral way of thinking about it! Ali Smith has talked about it as a “life/death form” – and there’s so much in that. I liked the idea of the light box, because it can convey containment and expansion at the same time – the idea of something compressed, with boundaries, and yet somehow boundless too, spilling over … which is what some of the best stories do – they spill over, they stay with you.
Light Box by KJ Orr is published by Daunt Books,a t £9.99
Paul McVeigh is the author of The Good Son, chosen as this year’s City Reads title in Brightonand shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker Prize. He co-founded the London Short Story Festival and is associate director of Word Factory