ON THE COUCH WITH ... Adam MAREK
ADAM MAREK was born in 1974, and has been writing fiction since his teenage years. After leaving film school he worked in the music video industry for a few years, but is now part of the editorial team at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. His first collection of stories, Instruction Manual for Swallowing (Comma Press, 2007), which was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, draws us down into the subconscious engine room of modern man, conjuring a bestiary of animals, mythical creatures and unlikely hybrids from the distant future/ancient past all deployed to explore and celebrate the most human of truths. Adam lives in Bedfordshire with his wife and sons.
Marek spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in Potton, Bedfordshire in the U.K.
How did you find out about the longlist?
Alison MacLeod, who is also on the longlist, e-mailed me to say congratulations. Alison and I shared a slot at the recent London Short Story Festival and we kept in touch.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I got this big stupid grin on my face that lasted the rest of the day. I ran downstairs (I work in the attic) to tell my wife, and then I e-mailed Rob Shearman, who I saw was also on the list—Rob and I did a couple of readings together to launch our books with Comma Press.
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’ve read Rob Shearman’s Tiny Deaths, which is awesome. Rob has got a wicked imagination and his sense of humour is spot on. I’m reading—and loving—Alison MacLeod’s Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction at the moment. I look forward to reading some of the other books on the longlist soon.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard about the award when Haruki Murakami won it a couple of years ago for Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman—he’s my favourite writer.
Where do you find the time to do your writing?
I write fiction in my spare time. I get up at six every morning and write for an hour before I go to work, and in the evenings and weekends. I work as an editor for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, so I still get to write all day (mainly advertising copy), and help save the planet too, which is always a good thing.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
There are so many analogies to draw between short stories and novels. How about this one: a short story is like a first date with someone you’re crazy about—you’ve only got their attention for a night; you can strive to be the perfect you, well-groomed, wearing your coolest outfit, smelling of something expensive. You can go out somewhere incredible and unexpected. You can reel off all your best anecdotes and make your date feel like the most magnificent creature on earth. And the kiss at the end of the night will be like no other kiss and you’ll always remember it. Writing a novel is like the relationship that comes after—you spend a long time with this person; your understanding of them is deep and rich; you get to know where all their moles are. But you can’t be perfect all the time. One foggy morning they walk in on you taking a shit and all your illusions fall away. I don’t think it’s possible to have a perfect novel, any more than it’s possible to have a perfect relationship. You can, however, have a perfect night.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers tend to publish their short-story collections after publishing their novels. 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?
I hope shorts are getting more popular. Short stories are where the really exciting stuff happens. The guy who started IBM said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate”; I think that because short stories only need a small investment in time for the writer (and the reader), we are more willing to take risks, to make mistakes, to try something that might suck big time, or might be amazing. The fiction I like best is the stuff that makes me see something familiar as if I’ve never seen it before, or that shows me something completely original. For me, that happens most often when I’m reading short stories.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
My favourite story has to be Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I read it during one really long bath when I was about 17, and I think parts of me are still wrinkled. I love Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which won the Frank O’Connor Award two years ago. There’s also a great collection edited by Haruki Murakami which features one of his stories, but all the stories in it are great and are about birthdays—it’s called Birthday Stories. I love Will Self’s stories, but he makes me feel like such an idiot because his vocab is so ... big. I bought J.G. Ballard’s complete short stories a couple of years ago—it’s the weight of a brick with tiny print, and I dip into it every now and then and always come out dazzled. Etgar Keret’s Missing Kissinger is great—his shorts are really short; they make mine look like trousers. Karen Russell has an imagination that could burn holes through a buffalo—her collection St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is fantastic. Also, do you remember the little Penguin 60 books of short stories that Penguin released on their sixtieth anniversary?—I loved those. I’m always looking for them when I’m in secondhand bookshops. There was one with four Patrick McGrath stories—one in particular, “The Angel,” has stuck in my head since I read it.
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?
Hmmm, I don’t know. I guess the market is controlled by the readers—publishers will respond to whatever people are buying. To get more people reading short stories, we need to write stories that are so damn good they can’t help but recommend them to everyone they know. Independent publishers, like Comma Press, should get more support so they can publish more books and promote them better. Maybe short stories need a make-over, a rebranding. They’ve been mistaken for the runty cousins of the novel for too long; bring on the champions of the short story and show everyone what they’re missing.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008