ON THE COUCH WITH ... Tim JONES
TIM JONES was born in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom, in 1960. His family emigrated to New Zealand when he was two, and, not having much choice in the matter, he accompanied them. He grew up in southern South Island, where he still has many friends and fond memories. He now lives in Wellington, where he is a writer, editor, part-time marketing manager for a web company, husband, father, activist on sustainable energy issues, and lover of cricket, music, and many other fine things. He has published two collections of poetry, Boat People and All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens, a previous short fiction collection, Extreme Weather Events, and a fantasy novel, Anarya’s Secret. His second short-story collection, Transported, published in June 2008 by Random House New Zealand, was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is currently working on a novel and is gradually accumulating enough poems for a third collection. He sees more short stories in his future.
Jones spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in Wellington, New Zealand.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I found out about the longlist first from Tania Hershman’s blog; then I confirmed it by reading the story in the Guardian online; then my publisher, Harriet Allan of Random House New Zealand, got in touch to tell me the good news. After that, I was ready to believe it.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I thanked my publisher for submitting the book, and congratulated Sue Orr, the other Random House New Zealand author on the longlist. Then I called my wife, and then I got back to work on the short story I was writing at the time. (That last part sounds good, but to tell you the truth, I don’t really remember what I did after that—it’s equally likely I fired up some Metallica and performed air guitar solos in the living room for a while!)
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them? Have you read any of them?
I think that it’s a very extensive longlist, and that there are some very fine writers included on it. I expect every writer included on the list is a fine writer, but I’m not familiar with many of them and their work. I haven’t read any of the other collections on the longlist, but I have read fiction by a number of the authors. The longlisting has prompted me to seek out work by the authors listed—I’ve been reading and enjoying some of Vanessa Gebbie’s stories, for example.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I had heard of it, and recall hearing of Haruki Murakami’s success with Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman in 2006, but I wasn’t very familiar with it—and I didn’t know Random House New Zealand had submitted the manuscript of my collection.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
Writing ideas either come to me while I’m walking, or are sparked off by something I’ve read: for instance, the story “Filling the Isles” in Transported was sparked off by a misprint of the phrase “filling the aisles” in a newspaper report. Usually the idea is for a setting, a plot, or a “what if?”—the characters come along later.
The next question is, “what sort of idea is this—poem, story, novel?” I can’t really explain how I decide this; it’s a matter of instinct rather than analysis, and the boundaries are often blurred. In my most recent poetry collection, All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens, there’s a poem inspired by the same idea that generated a story in my first short-story collection, Extreme Weather Events. The first story in Transported, “Rat Up a Drainpipe,” about a New Zealander trying to make a go of it in Australia, has also spawned a poem on the same theme called “Accountant.”
Most of my poems have some narrative element, so the difference between poems and short stories isn’t very large. But to merit consideration as a novel, an idea has to call up a network of associations, settings, potential characters, plot points and themes that feel as though they have enough potential to be developed over 300 or so pages.
As for the actual writing process, a short story (if it’s going well) is a pleasure to write, whereas a novel—even a novel that’s going well—is a slog. Turn on computer, write the day’s quota of words, turn off computer. Repeat until finished. I’ve written two novels so far, and one of them—my fantasy novel Anarya’s Secret—has been published. I’m glad to have written them, but I’d be lying if I said it had been fun all the way.
Short stories appear to be gaining more popularity. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish great collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
My interest in reading and in writing started with a field, science fiction, in which the short story was for a long time the dominant literary form—it’s really only the past thirty years or so that the novel has come to dominate the field in terms of both sales success and critical acclaim. In the last ten years, however, the circulation figures of print science-fiction magazines have been dropping steadily, and excellent web-based magazines like Strange Horizons have only proved a partial replacement.
So that’s not somewhere that short stories are getting more popular. But perhaps the picture is better for literary fiction: the length of the Frank O’Connor Award longlist is a sign that publishers are still willing to publish short-story collections, and the award provides welcome recognition of the form. On a purely commercial level, awards sell books, and simply being longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award has brought Transported attention it wouldn’t otherwise have received. I hope that the establishment of this award has served, or will serve, as a turning point in the fortunes of the short story.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
My favourite individual short story is Mikhail Lermontov’s “Taman.” It’s one of the five linked short stories and novellas in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time: that’s usually described as a novel, but to my mind, it’s more like a linked collection. The stories are about the misadventures of a young Russian officer in the Caucasus in the early 1800s. In “Taman,” he gets in too deep, figuratively and literally, in a seashore town. What I love about the story is that character is revealed primarily through action rather than introspection. Anton Chekhov once called “Taman” the perfect short story, and I see no reason to disagree!
My second favourite, though, is probably a novella, “The Voices of Time,” an early story by J.G. Ballard.
My favourite collection is Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths. Borges is the writer I turn to when I feel tired of writing. A few pages of his fiction—or his poetry—and I’m raring to go again. He’s an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
I’d also like to mention three great collections of science-fiction stories, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, by Gene Wolfe; Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr. (the writing name of Alice Sheldon); and Expedition to Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke. It was these early stories by Clarke, full of wonder and nostalgia, that first got me interested in writing short fiction.
Finally, I will read anything by Alice Munro with great delight.
What’s the publishing scene in New Zealand like? Is it easy to get your stories published in New Zealand?
Yes and no. New Zealand has a proud tradition of short-story writing—with Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson among the founders of that tradition, and Owen Marshall its best-known current proponent—but that writing is very much in the realist tradition. Some of what I write fits within that, but not all: as well as the realist stories, Transported contains metafiction, satire, and various flavours of speculative fiction. In terms of publishing individual stories, I’ve been able to get the more realist stories published within New Zealand, but have often had to go offshore to find homes for the others. I’m grateful to Random House New Zealand for publishing such a diverse collection.
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?
My answer at this point—I’m responding two days after Transported was officially released—is that bookstores are reluctant to order large numbers of copies, because they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the public prefers novels. I have friends who’ve told me personally that they don’t read short stories, so perhaps the booksellers are right. I think there’s still a perception out there that short stories are like trainer wheels for people who are practising to become novelists.
What to do about it? I’m not sure. Write more vividly, use all the channels to reach readers we can, and console ourselves with the hope that, in an attention-challenged world, readers who consider themselves too busy to read novels will alight on short stories instead.
Information about Tim Jones’s books is available on his blog. Transported is available to international readers via New Zealand Books Abroad.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008