ON THE COUCH WITH ... Alison MacLEOD
MONTREAL-born Alison MacLeod is the author of Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2007) which was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She grew up in Canada and has lived in England since 1987 when she accepted a place on the University of Lancaster’s MA programme in Creative Writing. She is also the author of two novels: The Changeling (Macmillan, 1996) and The Wave Theory of Angels (Hamish Hamilton, 2005). MacLeod lives in Brighton and teaches English and creative writing at the University of Chichester.
The Canadian author recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in Brighton, England.
How did you find out about the longlist?
It was a complete surprise. Tania Hershman, the editor of the brilliant online The Short Review, e-mailed me her congratulations as soon as she heard the news.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
Some things never change—I phoned my mother. Then I picked up the battered copy of the collection that I use for readings. I had a flick through. I must admit, it was wonderful and strange to imagine the stories travelling more widely in the world. I write at a small desk in my front room in England, but of course you never know the spaces and worlds your stories will enter; the lives they will meet.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
It’s an impressive and exciting list. I know some of the British writers: Adam Marek, Wendy Perriam and Vanessa Gebbie—all of whom are terrific. I recently heard David Gaffney read from Aroma Bingo and enjoyed that a lot. I’ve been looking forward to reading Clare Wigfall’s collection and many of the others on the list. I get a bit compulsive about story collections.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard about it when Yiyun Li won it for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a collection I admired. I think the Frank O’Connor Award is exciting because it’s truly international; it’s also genuinely about discovery—discovering the best new story writing, whether that writer is up-and-coming or a household name.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
If a novel is like a marriage between the writer and her story—something you settle comfortably into, the short story is more like an affair, urgent, poetic, and mysterious. I love both forms for very different reasons. I enjoy the big canvas the novel offers; the sense that, as a writer, you can transport your reader to a world very different perhaps from their own; that its characters will reveal themselves over time to us, as in life. But I also love the beautiful economy of the short-story form; the gamble of writing when every line counts; the quiet, internal pressure of the form that, as V.S. Pritchett once said, “should capture a character at bursting point.” And I love, above all, the resonant hum of a good short-story ending when you know you’ve got it right.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers tend to publish their short-story collections after publishing their novels. What are your thoughts on this?
This was my experience, too. I published two novels before Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2007. I’d been writing and publishing short stories for twenty years, but yes, there is often the belief in the major publishing houses that a new story collection by a previously unknown author will sink out of sight, no matter how good. Having said that, my publisher Hamish Hamilton, pride themselves on their eclectic list, and they were very open-minded from the outset. More generally though, in the U.K., the short story has not always flourished as it has in North America. I think many readers here have been unsure of how to approach collections until recently. Some readers don’t like the idea of having to imagine a new world and a new cast of characters every 10 or 15 pages—or they don’t until they discover the ‘rush’ of a short story, that is; the sense, with a good one, that you’ve had something like a hit to the brain. More and more readers in the U.K. are buying story collections now. That’s due, no doubt, to the attentions of awards like the Frank O’Connor Award, the National Short Story Prize and The Small Wonder Short Story Festival; also perhaps to the rise in MA courses in creative writing, where many people are discovering brilliant stories for the first time. Good independent houses like Comma Press, Salt Publishing and Serpent’s Tail have also taken risks—and made their reputations—with publishing short stories.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
That’s a tough one—and my answer changes whenever I’m asked so I must be fickle—but I’ll say Amy Bloom’s 1993 collection Come to Me. It’s daring, provocative even—but beautifully grounded in everyday lives and, at the same time, so tender.
At the University of Chichester, do you encourage aspiring writers to publish a collection of short stories first, or should they start with a full-length novel?
It really depends on the writer and the story he or she wants to tell. Publishing single short stories is no mean feat, and it’s a great way to build a track record; agents and editors will respect that. I have one MA student whose story collection seems to be on the brink of finding a good independent publisher. Other students are natural novelists and write ‘big’ narratives more easily; they can’t always work with the economy of the short story. But, as I say, the story—whether it’s a novel or a short story—has to come first. If you set out firstly to publish, rather than to write, you can get yourself into a muddle. Every writer needs to be realistic and aware, but you also need to protect the private, free-wheeling space of your writing. If you’re thinking about what you ‘should’ be writing, if you don’t takes risks of one kind or another, nothing happens.
How do you manage your time between teaching and writing?
I don’t always! It’s a very tricky balancing act, both time-wise and financially. I lecture part-time (3 or 4 days a week), so that’s a substantial commitment with a new novel to write, new stories on the go, and so on. I’m very fortunate, however, to have some wonderful colleagues at Chichester, including other writers from whom I’ve learned a great deal. It’s a very creative community, and, in spite of the old image of the writer in the garret, most writers need, at least some of the time, the company of other writers, readers and artists. I know I do.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
Yes, publishers and editors might themselves appreciate the power of a great short-story collection, but they do usually find them hard to sell. And these days, editors are very accountable to their company’s accountants. I think the situation is improving with the success of some high-profile collections and story writers in recent years. Short-story events at festivals (or entire short-story festivals like The Small Wonder Short Story Festival) are vital because that’s where the unbeatable ‘word of mouth’ factor can begin for new collections. Also, practically speaking, short-story awards are an enormous help to publishers simply because they know we’re all a bit obsessed with ‘literary fashion’ these days. But I think publishers need to do a lot more work at the ‘front line,’ perhaps changing the attitudes of their own sales reps and the perceptions, above all, of the large book retailers. Perhaps organisations (in the U.K.) like the Book Trust (wonderful supporters of the short story) could help with this kind of ‘re-education’ initiative. After all, the large bookshop chains have so much power in determining our literary culture they need to be aware of the impact they’re having on literary culture and the writers who ‘feed’ them. Also, I’m afraid agents, brilliant as they often are, can also be a block in the process, only because any advance for a story collection will be significantly lower than that offered for a novel, so the commission they’ll earn probably won’t merit the work it will take to place it. As a result many agents simply won’t consider story collections and that has a domino effect in publishing. Agents might also worry that their novelist-client’s sales figures will be lower for a collection and that could be damaging. So only when large booksellers change their ideas about the commercial potential of stories, and promote them in the same way they do new novels, will other areas of resistance in the publishing chain begin to shift.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008