Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Interview with Clare WIGFALL

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

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.

Photographs of Clare Wigfall by Tan May Lee
Location: MPH 1 Utama, Petaling Jaya

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 going to Malaysia in March 2010, together with my baby daughter Elsa Rowan and my husband Troy. I am still piecing together our travel plans, but we intend to visit Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya at some point during the trip and I hope I might have the opportunity to finally meet both 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!

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

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 also a contributing editor at 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.


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