Sunday, February 21, 2010


Here is an updated version of an interview published in the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine

ERIC FORBES and TAN MAY LEE talk with CLARE WIGFALL about her first book, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, a collection of stories

CLARE WIGFALL’s début collection of disturbing and darkly provocative stories demonstrates that the form is alive and well.

Wigfall was born in Greenwich, London, in 1976. She grew up in Berkeley (California) and London. She lived in Prague for some time, and now lives in Berlin, doing face-painting for children to support her passion of writing short stories. Her début, The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber & Faber, 2007), showcases a collection of stories that have been featured in magazines as early as 1997. It was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The first story in the collection, “Numbers,” was set in Outer Hebrides and is the only story written in the Gaelic vernacular, also using digits to depict a girl’s obsession with numbers and how they “lend a logic to the world.” “Numbers” won the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award, with two-time Whitbread Prize-winner Jane Gardam a close runner-up. (Gardam won for her short story, “The People on Privilege Hill,” from a collection of the same name.) The other writers on the shortlist included Adam Thorpe (“The Names”), Richard Beard (“Guidelines for Measures to Cope with Disgraceful and Other Events”) and Erin Soros (“Surge”). Wigfall received £15,000 for the story—the largest award in the world for a single short story.

According to the chair of the judging panel, broadcaster and writer Martha Kearnsey, “It’s exciting that a relatively unknown voice, in fact the youngest writer on our shortlist, has distinguished herself amongst some very well-known authors as a leading talent in the world of storytelling. Clare’s evocation of superstition and frustrated lives on a remote Scottish island is an act of historical ventriloquism. She shows just what the short story can achieve, conjuring up a whole world in microcosm. The strength of our shortlist ranging from the gothic to the comic demonstrates that the short story is alive and well, the perfect art form for a time-hungry age.”

We began corresponding with Wigfall way before she was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Saying that the short story is a subject close to her heart is an understatement. In an article she wrote for a website, she talks about her love of reading and writing short stories: “I have known that junkie craving one can feel as you work your way through a brilliant collection, aching for the next 15-minute or half-hour slot of time when you can sit down and read a story through in one sitting, hitting the high with its conclusion and feeling the effects long after you’ve left the story behind.”

She is now working on a novel and a new collection of stories.

The British author spoke to us in an e-mail interview from her new home in Berlin, Germany, where she lives with her husband Troy Giunipero and their baby daughter Elsa Rowan.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
More familiar than most people, perhaps. I had the honour of being invited to read at the 2007 Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, where they award the prize each year. My collection had only been released the previous week and it was one of my first public readings—I was absolutely terrified and giddy with excitement in equal measure! I had an extraordinary time. I was struck by how dearly Ireland holds the short story in high regard, even though perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me because Ireland is a nation of born storytellers (just spend a night in an Irish pub and you’ll see what I mean!). It was a thrill to be amongst people who loved and respected the short-story form—that felt very special. The award is still young, but each year it’s growing in international renown and I think that’s wonderful and important as it’s angling a spotlight on a literary form which deserves more of the world’s attention.

Because the Frank O’Connor committee decided to award Jhumpa Lahiri the prize and bypassed the shortlist, did winning the BBC National Short Story Award with the first story in your collection make up for this decision?
The Loudest Sound and Nothing is only my first book and I’m still a young writer, so to even be nominated for either of these high-profile awards, where the calibre of the other entrants was so high and their careers so well established, in itself felt like an achievement worth celebrating. Of course, you hope the judges might like your work, but I certainly wasn’t holding my breath. When it was announced that the BBC judges had chosen to give my story the award, I was totally overwhelmed.

How pleased were you with the BBC National Short Story Award of £15,000—the largest award in the world for a single short story? What will you do with it?
The prize money is indeed a godsend. It will afford me the luxury of being able to write full-time. So, dull as it might sound, I’m afraid I’m going to be very sensible and eke out the money carefully so that it can keep paying the bills for as long as possible. However, I did allow myself one treat though: I bought a bicycle. Everyone in Berlin cycles and I’ve been longing to join them.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s much more difficult to write a good short story than it is to write a novel, but I haven’t written a novel yet so I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly writing a short story presents its own specific challenges. One aspect I appreciate is the economy of the form; the story must create a world, a mood, a plot, wholly-real characters, an exploration of life and its complexities, and all within the space of only a few pages. There’s something almost beautifully mathematical and precise about it, and what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. For that reason, I suppose in a way your safety net is taken away, because when you write a short story you’re relying on an unknown quantity: your reader. With a novel you have the space to fill in all the gaps, with a short story you’re forced to leave these for your reader to complete—the difficulty for the author is getting the balance perfectly right, creating something that will satisfy. This is probably what makes short stories—when they’re written well—such an intellectually demanding form of literature, and I suspect is why so many readers shun them. Those who like to stretch their minds and imaginations when they read often feel passionately about the form. A great short story may be brief, but it demands and relies upon personal investment from the reader. I believe this is why the very best short stories can haunt you long after you’ve read the concluding line, because so much of the experience is not just about the words on the page, but is individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read. There’s something magical about that.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, it’s an odd phenomenon, and a pleasing one—it does seem that readers are growing more interested in short stories. There’s been much in the British press recently about how short stories are coming back in vogue. Simon Prosser, an editor at Hamish Hamilton, has even gone so far as to say that the short-story form is “better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel.” Perhaps he’s right. When our time is so much in demand, there’s something very satisfying about how well short stories can fit into our busy lives. You can read one on the commute to work, in bed before you turn out the light, as you wait in a doctor’s office, you can even download them from the internet and listen to them as podcasts (the PRI’s Selected Shorts or The New Yorker story podcasts are some of my favourites), and somehow because a story can be enjoyed in its entirety in this time slot it feels like the time has really been used to its full. The increase in high-profile novelists releasing story collections is definitely positive as it helps to introduce new readers to the form, and increases public respect for it, but I do wish publishers would take more risks with debut story writers. It’s still very difficult to succeed as a young writer if you’re writing short stories. But as the renown of prizes like the Frank O’Connor increases this will definitely help as it offers publishers much-needed exposure for their new writers, so I’m hopeful that slowly, slowly things are changing.

What is your favourite short story or short-story collection?
This is a tough question. I’m afraid I’m not very good at picking favourites. I love J.D. Salinger’s stories—I’ve read all but one: “Teddy.” I want to save that one because I know that once I’ve read it I might never again have the pleasure of reading something by Salinger that is totally new to me. But there are so many other short-story writers I love and look up to, such as Alice Munro, Claire Keegan, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, and I always recommend people to read Truman Capote’s stories—they haven’t received the attention of his longer works, but they’re brilliant.

Aside from winning literary prizes and selling many copies of a book, how do you know that you’ve written a brilliant story?
I’m always filled with self-doubt when I finish a story, and am constantly reading other authors whose work convinces me that even when I do my best, I’ve still got a lot to strive for. But when a reader tells you they loved one of your stories, or that it has moved them, or gripped them, or given them a window into another world, or made them think about their own life, well, then you begin to give your story a little more credit, because you know that it’s given something to the lives of others.

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 believe the main problem is that short-story collections rarely receive the kind of exposure necessary to achieve strong sales or recognition. There are a myriad number of reasons why this is the case, but I also think that too often short stories are marginalised, deemed to be of minority appeal and therefore marketed as such, so it’s no surprise that they sell poorly. The irony is that when a collection does receive the kind of high-profile media attention and in-store promotion usually reserved for the novel, its sales can be comparably strong; look at the success of Jhumpa Lahiri’s two collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, for instance—they’ve achieved phenomenal sales, deservedly so, and totally disprove any notion that short stories can’t be popular. If the writing is of exceptional quality, there is clearly a large audience out there who aren’t put off by it taking the form of stories. So why does the myth prevail that people won’t buy short-story collections? People don’t buy them because they don’t hear about them; I suspect it’s as simple as that. I know it’s a many-layered problem, and you can point the finger of blame in a number of directions, but I think that if publishers really want to start seeing a change, then they must stop being defeatist and start taking more risks. If they truly believe in a writer, whether they’re writing stories or novels or something else entirely shouldn’t be of consequence. This is a great book, they should be telling us, this is writing you must read. If they shout loud enough, I think people will start to listen.

Will you come visit us in Kuala Lumpur?
Faber & Faber have asked me to write two more books for them: a novel and another collection of stories. You might be surprised to learn that the novel is set in British Malaya. It will be fictional, but is loosely based on the story of my grandmother who grew up in Penang and about her mother who left her when she was a small baby. I am very excited to say that in order to research the novel I am coming to Malaysia in March 2010, together with my baby daughter Elsa Rowan and my husband. I am still piecing together our travel plans, but we intend to visit Kuala Lumpur at some point during the trip and I hope I might have the opportunity to finally meet the both two of you as well as other book lovers.

I still can’t quite believe we are making the trip—Berlin is still cloaked under what seems to be a never-ending layer of ice and snow. Will spring never come? It will really be surreal to arrive in Malaysia with its tropical climate! Just yesterday I was talking with my husband and saying I wonder what my grandmother would think to know her granddaughter and great-granddaughter are now tracing her footsteps.

Isn’t it funny that having come into contact with you almost by chance a couple of years ago [in September 2007], I now have the opportunity to visit Malaysia and meet you?

I can’t believe we are leaving soon. This morning I woke up and realised that this time next week we’d be in Kuala Lumpur and I would be doing the reading! And it is still snowing outside! It’s minus 4 degrees tonight here in Berlin. It really is the longest winter ever. I was just out walking our dog and shivering, hardly able to believe that in just a few days we’ll no doubt be sweating. I am very much looking forward to meeting you all soon; I feel like you’re all old friends already!

ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else. He is a contributing editor to Quill magazine.

TAN MAY LEE graduated from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where she was awarded the Bonamy Dobree Scholarship for International Students to do her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She also trained as a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Linguistic Programming. She is the editor of Quill magazine.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sunday, February 21, 2010 1:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview, Eric! Quill is as close to a literary magazine we will ever have here in Malaysia, though it is getting less literary. Hate the covers with public figures, though!

Monday, February 22, 2010 4:41:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Can't help it, anon. Have been forced to cater to the lowest common denominator, if you know what I mean! Advertisers want to maximise mileage from their advertisinmg dollar, and the easiest way to do that is NOT to appeal to thehighest common denominator! Thanks for the feedback, though nothing will come out of it, as always!

Monday, February 22, 2010 2:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't find Clare Wigfall's The Loudest Sound and Nothing in all the bookshops!

Monday, February 22, 2010 3:11:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

I will get you a copy. It costs RM46.50.

Monday, February 22, 2010 3:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Monday, February 22, 2010 3:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have yet to pick up my latest copy of Quill. The cover turned me off! But I enjoyed both the Ubud Festival and Singapore Writers Festival issues of Quill!

Monday, February 22, 2010 4:16:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks! I know what you mean!

Monday, February 22, 2010 4:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyway, the best and more interesting articles are already on your blog!

Monday, February 22, 2010 4:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Eric and Sharon, for organising this event. It is always great to meet foreign authors who come to our shores, rare though they are.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 10:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The events pages in Quill are quite a waste of space. Most of the time featuring the launching of books nobody wants to read. Most of the books featured are vanity kind of books, with no nutritious value whatsoever.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Eric:
I am sorry to bother you with what may seem like a trivial question, but given the recommendation and publicity, I picked up Clare Wigfall's The Loudest Sound and Nothing, and am halfway through the book. I'm confounded by one story though: The Ocularist's Wife, and wonder if you could shed light on the story, particularly the ending and how it ties in with the rest of the narrative. I must have missed something in the narrative, and so would very much appreciate it if you tell me your thoughts on the story and its meaning. It haunts me, you see, the story and any story, for that matter, which I can't seem to fathom.

I hope for your literary input in this. And do keep blogging as I enjoy reading your author interviews, book highlights and editor rants very much!

Friday, March 05, 2010 4:26:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Perhaps the most interesting, though unsettling, story, the setting of this story is located in the past, during the 1870-71 siege of Paris. As the Parisians struggle for their freedom, a young woman battles to overcome her own domestic strictures, while her husband's business, making glass eyes, fails. Much of the power of Clare Wigfall's prose resides in the things that are left unsaid, especially in the darkly beautiful tale of The Ocularist's Wife.

The Ocularist's Wife takes place in 1870 over five months (July 16, three days preceding the French-Prussian War, to December 16, 1870). Monsieur Herve Pontellier is an established ocularist, whose trade evidently would suffer from the effects of the war, when even food became so scarce that a boy tried to catch and eat a pigeon. A friend from Pontellier's schooldays, Courtois, who's now a zookeeper, is very emotionally affected by the war, already troubled before July 19 as he read about the impending news. Months after the war began, Courtois also expresses his distress and disgust with the spoilt upper class who are still enjoying their airs while many are suffering. Working closely with animals, he compares the characteristics of humans and animals, and sees the faults, especially the conceit, of his fellow humans.

Madame Mereille Pontellier is the intriguing figure in the story. Her appearance implies that she is fragile and ill—once she even collapses on the floor. It's not clearly stated in the story, but there's implication that she's blind, as she connects to the world through her other senses, not her sight. Attention is paid to the taste of her food; she eavesdrops on the two men; she 'knows' that it's not jargonelle season when her husband tries to fetch her one; she 'sees' sounds; she 'senses' the glass eyes 'staring' at her (but doesn't see Courtois so she bumps into him); and although she appears dissociated from the present war, she has memories of a holiday in Prussia during her childhood. The ending recounts a memory of her having to put on her spectacles when she was a child, and she was told not to look at the sun because it would blind her.

There is irony in Mereille being Herve's wife. The ocularist designs glass eyes which are a substitute that creates the illusion of a real eye. He would understand the predicament of being blind; however, there's a sense of hopelessness in him not being able to completely restore sight, although by providing ocular prostheses, customers do not have to suffer the stigma of having missing or wounded eyes. The ailing Mereille is detached from the horrors of the war—unless she listens to discussions, she cannot even read the news. She is rich enough to even have a servant lace her boots for her, but in Mereille's delicate state, perhaps that's fair and acceptable. Mereille's world and what she knows is limited, but she clearly expresses sentiments and strong responses to the senses she has. The French and even the universal struggle in history cannot and shouldn't belittle an individual's personal struggles.

I hope all this makes sense.

All the best
Eric Forbes

Friday, March 05, 2010 4:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Eric:

To give a little background, this story was first inspired by reading a footnote in a photography book which mentioned that during the Siege of Paris food was so scarce that the zoo animals were sacrificed to keep citizens alive. This explains Courtois’ deterioration during the course of the story. As he says at the end to Pontellier, when talking of having felt sickened to see the rich dining on his beasts, ‘I reared those animals’; they were his life and he has been forced to sacrifice them out of a sense of duty, although he wonders whether those who benefited were worthy of the sacrifice. It also explains Pontellier’s intense gratitude to his friend, who has supplied the couple throughout the siege with parcels of meat (note the one C drops when he bumps into Mme P, and C’s distaste as he looks in on the Pontellier’s lunch towards the end of the story) while out in the streets others are starving. Knowing full well of Mme P’s weak constitution, P suspects that without these parcels she might not have survived, and he tries to console his friend with this knowledge.

Which brings me on to Mme P. No, she’s not blind, at least not physically, although she is perhaps emotionally blind, only occasionally having lucid moments when she can distinguish her emotions, such as when she is looking in on her husband through the shop window and first notices how he is ageing. Physically she is ailing - in the early stages of tuberculosis - although for the story this is largely irrelevant because it is still undetected, it is just meant to indicate to us that she is not a healthy woman. Instead, her main ailment is more a psychological one. She suffers from a kind of malaise, an inability to connect with the world around her, and in the past has suffered from episodes of nervous exhaustion and existential terror (these are referred to by Mr P to C in the conversation she overhears when C says ‘You don’t want a recurrence’). Mr P is constantly afraid of their return, and rightfully, because in the final scene his fears come to a head when he wakes to find his wife lost in her terror and screaming uncontrollably. (to be cont’d)

Clare Wigfall

Friday, March 05, 2010 5:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the scene your reader referred to and was perturbed by. Before I explain further, it might help to give a little more background as to my inspiration in writing the story. I was working on it at exactly the point that 9/11 happened. As you will remember, this was a terrifying time throughout the world, and the events were such that no one could ignore them. I was interested in the way people responded to the threat of terror or war and wanted to reflect this in the story, transposing it to 1870 Paris and the Prussian siege. So the story for me was also a study of how differently these three individuals reacted to the pressures of the war occurring around them. Mr P is largely unaffected, Courtois is directly affected and as a consequence effectively breaks down, despite at the beginning having felt almost excited by the news reports each day - I remember observing a similar almost voyeuristic yet horrified thrill shown by people as they searched for news in the hours and days after 9/11. Mme P, due to her dissociated state, is seemingly almost totally unaware of the war going on around her - when she first reads of the threat in the headline of the newspaper C gives to her, her only response is to think of a childhood holiday in Prussia. Likewise, she worries her husband by demonstrating no understanding of the gravity of the situation when she asks if they might go on a holiday. She certainly doesn’t appear to have any awareness that what they are dining on each night is zoo animal, and shows little compassion when she observes the reality for others on show outside her window (the starving boy/the funeral procession). But is she to blame? Mr P is so careful to shield her from reality, and in a sense his over-protection is stifling her. She reacts in small and subtly manipulative ways, for example when she makes P leave his conversation with C and come up to wash for lunch (C clearly doesn’t feel comfortable in her presence), or when she ignores her food, knowing how this will worry her husband, and then demands he go out to fetch her a jargonelle, despite knowing that this will be a fruitless mission as they aren’t in season (we could view this as another of her moments of lucidity, when we realise that there is some element of her which is still firmly rooted in reality, and using it to exert power over those around her). But in her defence, while she is seemingly not even cognisant of the situation of war that surrounds her, is perhaps her mental state still adversely affected by it, the fears of others seeping into her even if she doesn’t comprehend what is going on around her? Somewhat like a child. (to be cont’d)

Clare Wigfall

Friday, March 05, 2010 5:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which brings us to the final scene, the move from her episode of screaming terror to her recollection. She is focusing on the sound of her own screaming as a means to anchor herself to her sanity, and the pure clarity of that sound is what brings to mind her recollection of witnessing as a child the sun in the sky moments before an eclipse: ‘Her whole consciousness is entirely focused upon the sound, obsessed by it. Its clarity is mesmerising; visible against the night. It is like staring at a bright sun in the sky. The same dazzling funneled intensity.’ So the movement in Mme P’s mind from the screaming to her childhood recollection is purely an associative one, but for me it was also enlightening of her adult state and her inability to function properly in the world. What this recollection represents was the first moment in her life when she realised she wouldn’t always be safe, wouldn’t always be protected, and that she was at the mercy of life. I wonder if you can remember a similar instance in your childhood when you likewise came to this realisation? Most of us can deal with this, we are aware of the dangers in the world and accept and live with them, but something in Mme P finds this reality so terrifying and destabilising that it has haunted and traumatised her in her adult life. It is an existential awareness of our inescapable fragility that so disturbs her.

Gosh, that’s a very long explanation, and I hope it might throw at least some light on the story’s ending for your reader, and for yourself. Sometimes it’s difficult to explain the intentions in my stories, and sometimes I’m not even entirely sure I understand everything myself, if that makes any sense.

With all best wishes,
Clare Wigfall

Friday, March 05, 2010 5:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Eric/Clare:

Thank you so much for taking the trouble to respond; I’m still digesting the response you gave yesterday and will do the same to the one after. Clare writes beautifully, and I enjoyed the collection as much for its narrative beauty as for its stories.

Friday, March 05, 2010 5:44:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home