ON THE COUCH WITH ... David GAFFNEY
DAVID GAFFNEY is the author of a novel, Never Never (Tindal Street Press, 2008), and two short-story collections, Sawn-off Tales (2006) and Aromabingo (2007), which was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Gaffney was born in Cleator Moor, West Cumbria, studied in Birmingham and now lives in Manchester. He has worked as an English teacher, a film studies lecturer, a holiday camp entertainer, a medical records clerk, a pub pianist, a debt counsellor in Moss Side, a legal consultant in Liverpool, and now works for a shadowy government organisation. His stories have been published in Ambit, The Illustrated Ape and The Mix.
Gaffney recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in Manchester.
How did you find out about the longlist?
A selected number of longlist nominees were invited to a breakfast meeting at the British Council and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The nominees were announced by, of all people, children’s entertainers The Chuckle Brothers who, I was told, have edited a collection of short stories for children, sponsored by the British Council and the Museum, Libraries and Archive Council.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
Actually I gave one of my books to The Chuckle Brothers and asked them if they would read it and give me a quote because I thought it would be a laugh to have them quoted on my next cover. But I haven’t heard from them yet.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
I like the Carys Davies book a lot, and I like the Comma Press one too but I don’t have time to keep absolutely current with new stuff—there’s so much older stuff to read as well! Salt Publishing should win a prize just on production values and covers alone. The Salt books are all such beautiful things to hold and own; if you press one of their hardcover editions against your cheek it’s a very pleasing sensation—try it.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I knew about it, but not a great deal of detail. I’ve never entered a short story into a prize ever so I’m not that up to speed on prizes. The last prize I ever won was when as kid at school in West Cumbria and we were asked to design a uniform for the traffic wardens on the Isle of Man and I won! I think that to this day the traffic wardens on the Isle of Man still wear a little bit of the livery designed by me!
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I write novels as well as stories and I think the main difference is in risk. Novels are a much bigger investment in time from a writer and so the story, characters and setting need absolute and certain commitment from the writer. You can take more risks in a short story, but taking a chance with a novel is very expensive time-wise. Any wrong turns in a novel and you can find yourself throwing away thousands upon thousands of words as well as the hours spent honing them. If you make a mistake in a novel is a bit like the difference between making a mistake flying a jet plane and making a mistake pushing your mower round down the garden.
I started writing novels first, then tried short stories when The Phone Book Limited (www.the-phone-book.com), a Manchester-based short-story publisher, read my novel and asked me to try my hand at flash fiction. Each story had to be exactly 150 words long, to fit on a mobile phone screen. I used to write them on the train when I commuted from Manchester to Liverpool every day. I like the immediacy of the form, I like the way that publishers can find a space for it much more easily than for say a 2,000-word story, the way you can get people to read one without them even noticing, and I like the compression, and the intensity you can achieve. They are nimble, nippy and accelerate quickly, and when you write ultra-short fiction any tendencies to go all purple are completely eliminated—adjectives are anthrax. Plus, compared to writing a novel, you get a sense of completion every few days rather than every few years. I tend to start long and then make it short and it does at first feel a bit destructive wielding the axe to your carefully sculpted texts, cutting your glittering prose down to a bloody stump. It’s a bit like demolishing a building from the inside, without it falling down on top of you. Yet the results can be surprising—some stories can live much more cheaply than you realise. You can distil an awful lot into a few words—micro fiction can have real narrative arcs and real character development. The problem is these stories have a huge appetite—they’re like little fat monsters gobbling up your ideas all day.
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?
I think that this is because it’s much, much, much easier to get a novel published than it is to get a short-story collection published. Many agents and publishers won’t even look at short stories and the sales of short-story collections are tiny, really tiny. I think that writers who have had a successful novel find it easier to persuade their publisher to put out a short-story collection next, and I sometimes wonder whether people who liked the author’s novel, actually think the collection is another novel—certainly I know people who bought Irvine Welsh’s Acid House, the short-story collection that came after Trainspotting, thinking it was a novel. Then again Trainspotting was like a set of interconnecting short stories, so who knows?
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America at the moment—her use of language is brilliant as is her structure and her dialogue. Genius. I enjoyed the William Trevor book recently too, and I just revisited Chekhov which is amazing, too.
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?
I think that short stories need to be illustrated and produced with high-quality design standards—more like graphic novels. McSweeney’s are great for this. In this world of virtual digital stuff, people love something beautiful to touch, hold and keep.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008