ON THE COUCH WITH ... Robert SHEARMAN
ROBERT SHEARMAN was born in London in 1970. He was the youngest ever playwright to be recognised by the Arts Council of England and has won several awards, including the Sunday Times Playwriting Award. He is a dramatist who has also written for radio and television. He is the writer responsible for re-introducing the Daleks to Doctor Who. Tiny Deaths (Comma Press, 2007) is his first collection of stories. The stories are comic and surreal, featuring a conversation with Hitler’s pet and a child who is reincarnated as her parent’s ashtray. Based in Manchester, Comma Press is a small but influential company with a reputation for innovative short fiction.
Shearman was shortlisted for the 2008 Edge Hill Short Story Prize along with Christopher Fowler, Jane Gardam, Claire Keegan and Simon Robson. (The Edge Hill Short Story Prize is awarded annually by Edge Hill University for excellence in a published single-author short-story collection. The first award was bestowed on Colm Tóibín for Mothers and Sons in 2007. The other shortlisted authors were Neil Gaiman, Jackie Kay, Nicholas Royle and Tamar Yellin.)
He was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
Shearman recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in London, England.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I’m rather ashamed to admit it—but I have a Google Alert set up, so if ever my book is mentioned on a blog, I get told via email! I can make excuses for this. Before I wrote Tiny Deaths, I wrote exclusively as a dramatist, for TV, radio or the stage. And so everything I produced was very specific to a fixed time of broadcast, and it was relatively easy to gauge people’s reactions. One of the things that still startles me about having written a book is that it can be read at any time! It may have been released last year, but it’s still in the shops, and there’s always a potential new audience out there for it. So if I want to find out how it’s going down, Google Alert is a lifeline! It’s not just self-obsession. It really isn’t. ... Well, it is, a bit.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I rushed downstairs and told my wife. She was outside gardening. I think the neighbours heard how excited I was. Then I phoned everyone I could think of. I phoned rather too many people, actually—even those who hadn’t known I’d written a book to get longlisted in the first place. Those phone calls took a little more time than the others.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? There are themes ranging from diasporas to Chuck Palahniuk-type explicitness in the longlist. What are your thoughts? Are you familiar with any of them?
I think that’s the wonder of the short-story form. It’s such an urgent way of writing. If you want to write something lyrical, then you can get closer to a prose poem than you ever can try in longer media. If something on the news, say, inspires you to write in a red-hot passion, there’s an immediacy the short story offers that I think can get drowned within a novel. It’s absolutely right and apt that the longlist covers such a range of styles and approaches. I hear people too often moan about the short story, that it’s more uncommercial or cerebral as a storytelling means—but it’s nonsense. I think there’s more versatility to be found here than anywhere else—sometimes even within the same collection by the same author.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
It was something I’d heard of, of course, and to be honest, not paid very much attention to. Tiny Deaths is my very first stab at short-story writing. Embarking on the book and looking at the biggest award for it in the world, would have been a bit like dipping my toe into producing a novel and setting my sights on the Man Booker or the Pulitzer. I’m staggered I’ve been longlisted. I’m staggered to see my name amongst so many writers I admire. For the first few days after the announcement, I kept returning to the website—partly to gloat, and partly to check there hadn’t been some awful mistake made and my name removed accordingly!
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels? In your experience, what is the difference between scriptwriting and creating short stories?
I’ve never written a novel. I love reading novels, but I somehow doubt I could sustain writing one. When I write short stories it’s out of a sudden rush of enthusiasm for a premise or concept—and part of the joy is setting it up to surprise the reader with what little tricks I may have up my sleeve! But I can’t wait too long, I want to share what’s exciting me so much, and a few thousand words in I can’t resist it any longer and have to let the reader into my confidence. A novel can’t work like that. For the most part, I think, it has to rely less upon one startling image or conceit, and more upon an unfolding story. I enjoy the shock of the short story, I love the way you can play with a reader’s expectations—and, if you’re very careful, you can do that for the duration. To try that with a novel would look calculated and mean, somehow. You have to deal with your readership more directly, maybe, play around less with the style, shut up, and tell your tale. Playwriting and screenwriting are very similar to the novel in that way. They need to be a collision of ideas, a developing storyline. The joy of the short story is that it can be as complex as you like, some can play out like a little novel—and then in others you can sharpen the focus suddenly, present a tale which is more like a snapshot, something which is suggestive. The great power of a good collection is that shifting of styles, that you’re constantly asking the reader to readjust to long or near vision each time they turn a chapter! With novels, and with drama, I think it pays to be more consistent. And drama relies upon the here and now. When you watch a play, you’re necessarily seeing something in real time—even if it’s really a flashback, even if you play around with structure, the characters are still talking to each other in dialogue at that moment, and responding at that moment. There’s a great pleasure you can take in writing that, there’s something very clean about taking a conversation and making every word count. But in a short story you’re free to emphasise or deemphasise the conversation as you wish; you can dip into reported speech, you can miss bits out, you can elongate the dialogue by having the characters dwell upon what’s being said. In theatre and TV, of necessity, all the words spoken assume an equal importance—it’s up to the actor or the lighting engineer to shade them. In a short story, the writer takes on all the roles at once. It’s exhilarating.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Jhumpa Lahiri has just published her second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Anne Enright published her short-story collection, Taking Pictures, after the Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
Whenever I go to the U.S., I can’t resist packing my suitcase home with as many short-story collections as I can find. It’s the same in Canada, or in Europe, or in Australia. There appears to be a real appetite for the form overseas, it’s not simply seen as the poor relation to the novel. And writers can make a career specialising in that form. Here in the U.K. it’s not quite so straightforward. There are the collections out there, but they’re usually published on the back of more successful novels—they’re presented as something more literary, more uncommercial. And the usual response I’ve had to having produced a short-story collection is that people are expecting I’m touting for a novel commission, as the next step up. I see signs of change, though. It’s been said often that the short story is the right length for many people today, travelling to and from work, coping with full lives. I think there are many reasons to celebrate the short story, and not just the fact you can squeeze a complete and self-contained adventure in between Green Park and Acton Town on the Piccadilly Line tube! But anything which popularises the short story, and gets readers used to it, is fine by me!
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
When I was a teenager, I was taken on holiday to New York by my parents. To shut me up, they bought me a collection of the Complete Saki. I absolutely fell in love with those stories—they were so sharp and witty, they never wasted a single word. I went back to school and tried to write like Saki—and got away with it for longer than I should have—I think it was the constant allusions to Edwardian society which probably gave me away in the end! A couple of years later I discovered Guy de Maupassant, who is just sublime—he has the power to move or frighten you with such apparent simplicity. And he has such range—from mad horror stories like “Le Horla,” to detailed social commentary like “Boule de Suif,” to a story like “Deux Amis” which is so touching I still find it hard to read without tearing up. From him I went on to Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield and Raymond Carver, who are just masters. Nowadays I snap up collections by Lorrie Moore, Scott Bradfield, Kelly Link, Mary Gaitskill and Kevin Brockmeier—writers who play with the short story, squeeze as much out of it as they can. Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber and Faber, 2007) is on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor Award as well, and it’s just beautiful. I've had the pleasure of doing a couple of book launches alongside Adam Marek, whose Instructional Manual for Swallowing (Comma Press, 2007) is also a nominee. It’s at once deeply galling and deeply wonderful to sit through your own launch and find yourself preferring another writer’s stories to your own!
Digressing from Tiny Deaths (and for random knowledge of your other works), what was the weirdest thing you did in the name of research for Doctor Who? (I’m curious because I heard so much about its cult following when I was studying in the U.K.—Tan May Lee)
The shameful thing about Doctor Who is that I never did enough research! I’m very bad at researching things. I only want to know so much about a subject that it doesn’t get in the way of what I want to write—the more I poke at the truth, the more I discover obstacles to my story! I’d written a number of Doctor Who dramas for audio release, and for them I’d dabbled my toe in topics as diverse as Edwardian servant arrangements, the layout of the Tower of London, and the evolutionary history of music … and never well enough that I got a single one of them right! For my television episode I worked upon the (incredibly silly) idea that our heroine could pass on her DNA by touching a Dalek monster, who’d change his character as a result. Last year I was invited to give a talk at the Museum of Science and Technology in Manchester, which was basically an excuse to say sorry to everyone—because the furthest I’d got into researching DNA was by googling it to see what the acronym stood for. Doctor Who is such a huge juggernaut over here in Britain, and its fans are legion. If you skimp on your homework, as I did, years later it’ll come back and bite you!
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?
If I’m honest, I don’t have any answers to those questions. I only wish I did! I think it’s probably impossible to persuade an audience to follow a less commercial form—any more than you can usher people into opera houses or art galleries if they don’t want to go. I suppose the only solutions are that writers themselves should stop treating short-story writing as nothing more than a stepping stone to longer fiction, and give the form the dignity it deserves. (Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to write novels, of course, but I’m a bit bemused by certain writers I know who see it as calling cards for bigger commissions!) And if we just write them better, maybe more will get published, and maybe if more collections are out there, more people will buy them!
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008