A guest today. The lovely and talented Jo Cannon has popped by to talk about her short story collection, Insignificant Gestures.
Welcome Jo. It was wonderful to read your book, especially as my own debut collection came out around the same time. For me it was a magical moment, first seeing and holding it after years of hard work; how was it for you?
Thanks, Tom. Yes, it feels as though our little ones started school together! Like you, the moment when I opened the jiffy bag from my publisher to see my book for the first time will stay with me always.
I remember us being published in Cadenza together – I think you pipped me to the first prize. I wonder, did you have any sense back then of a full-length collection?
That was September 2007. Although I’d been writing stories for a few years, I certainly didn’t expect to publish a collection. Many things happened subsequently. I met Vanessa Gebbie, author of Words from a Glass Bubble, who encouraged me to put a book together. I joined Fiction Forge, an on-line forum for short story writers (where we met!) which helped me take my writing seriously. A few more ‘hits’ increased my confidence. I had no concept of an overarching theme for a collection until I was rewriting and editing in preparation for submitting the book. And to be honest, Pewter Rose accepting my collection was a lucky break.
What can people expect from your stories?
Having coughed up eight quid, I sincerely hope they enjoy reading the book. I’d be delighted if they identify with the inner worlds of my characters, and recognise a shared humanity. Although a few of the stories are dark, the book is intended to be upbeat, and I hope it makes the reader smile too.
I’m interested in whether you had any say in which stories were included and also the order they appear.
My publisher, Anne McDonnell, allowed me plenty of say. She rejected several stories, but let me argue one, my favourite, back in. She was keen to start with the story ‘Insignificant Gestures,’ but beyond that accepted my ordering, and even tolerated me changing my mind more than once. We differed on the title. My choice was Running on the Right Side of the Brain, but Anne thought Insignificant Gestures was catchier and better conveyed the theme.
Now that The Method has been out there a while, people have commented on the book’s themes, some of which are more prevalent then I realised. Were you aware of specific themes, a unifying aesthetic perhaps, or is theme something that seeps into your work almost unconsciously?
As with dreams, themes may not be immediately clear to the writer, so I’m interested when a reader, like a psychiatrist, spots them first. I’m sure they arise from the sub-conscious. Inevitably they echo the writer’s preoccupations. I came to writing in mid-life, ahem, so many of my stories reflect the concerns and experiences of these years: bereavement; child rearing; deepening friendships; increased experience in one’s work. Inevitably they resonate with the Zeitgeist. Written in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq war, many of my stories have a backdrop of fragile, disintegrating societies which mirror the characters’ internal worlds. I’d thought the theme of the book was exile, but my publisher focused on the idea that the characters are outsiders, and the ‘Insignificant Gestures’ motif. Other people have commented on the prevalence of children, religion, runners, and squirrels...
Writing stories as opposed to longer works feels, to me, more like sculpting. I’ll pare down as much as possible, slowly chipping away what’s not needed over ten or more revisions. Can you tell us a little about your own approach to composition.
I tend to write the first draft quickly, maybe in a few hours, and often by hand. I may have a character or situation in my head, but no idea of plot or ending. It feels like flying: a joy, but panicky. And for me it doesn’t happen predictably or often. As Sylvia Plath says,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
When the story is down, I settle into the more mundane, but enjoyable and satisfying stage: editing. I lose myself in considering every line, reflecting on every comma. I’m embarrassed to say how many times I rewrite. It goes on for weeks – years, sometimes – but feels like a meditation, so I suppose it’s okay and not a symptom of something.
After the euphoria of publication I found it difficult to maintain good writerly habits, at least initially. I wondered if you experienced a similar slump with the distraction of publicity, the sense of, I’ve reached my goal: what now?
Ten weeks after publication, I feel empty of creativity. After so many months editing the collection, I launch into edit mode before I’ve even got a story down, and this is inhibiting. Also I’m busy at work just now. But there is a time for everything, a natural ebb and flow. I just have to hang on for the return of the angel.
Thanks, Tom. I loved The Method and have great expectations for its success.