Susie Maguire is the author of two short-story collections – The Short Hello and Furthermore – and editor of four anthologies. Over thirty of her short stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland. She tutors for Moniack Mhor and The Story House Ireland, and is a mentor for Spark and for WoMentoring She tweets @wrathofgod
Photo credit: Angus Behm
Hi Susie, it’s great to speak to you about your short story collection The Short Hello and short stories in general.
First off, perhaps you could tell us why you started writing short stories?
I started writing them because they were short. When you have very little confidence you just tiptoe along sentence by sentence, finding out what’s possible. It took a while of playing and tinkering to arrive at anything I would call a real story. Those were around 750-1000 words, fairly compressed. I kept growing them and eventually inched up to 1500, 1800… 2,000 words. That still seems to me a good length, though now I might write 10- or 12,000 words to get to the final count of 2000-5000 words
All this was done without any understanding of form. I don’t remember choosing to write short stories per se. Length was less important than making something which contained a moment of change, a corner turned. In retrospect, that sounds like a dramatist living through her larval stages.
So you now write at such length and then pare your work down… Has this changed the nature or style of your writing and your short stories in any significant way do you think?
I suppose the fact in itself indicates something, but – as with many questions about creative activity – answering it makes my brain seize up. Analysis is a jigsaw puzzle of hindsight, a psychological guessing game, cart and horse jostling for position.
I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time and I don’t really need to or want to. There is a kind of trust you develop with your internal mechanism, and that’s where putting in your hours of apprenticeship is important. It’s hard to hang onto the trust, sometimes, and I try not to over-think and let the shadows dominate
I’m primarily writing to find out what I feel and maybe to ask why I feel it. That takes as long as it needs to, in terms of time and word lengths.
How do you slim down 10,000 words to a 2,000 word short story? Do you have a selection criteria or a process to whittle down the word count?
I might begin something new, find the approach doesn’t make my heart pound faster, so I’ll discard it, try again, and repeat and repeat, until I’ve found not just the way into a thing but the tone it needs to come alive. The story emerges that way like a monster crawling out of an egg in slow motion. Or I might write very quickly and at some length and only later take out everything that doesn’t make it go fast enough, description, preambles in dialogue, reflections.
That edit-ratio is really about going deeper into something, looking for new things, often finding that the really interesting bit starts much, much later, and needs far less scene-setting. Or needs much simpler language. All the things you write to persuade yourself into the story can be lopped off when you’ve got to the end and are editing its shape.
Many of your short stories are colloquial and have a wonderfully chatty flow, is this influenced by your time on the stage do you think?
The Short Hello contains a lot of monologues. Because I spent some time inventing characters to amuse and distract and provoke people when I was performing comedy live in clubs or theatres, first person stories feel natural to me. They freed up a bit of me that didn’t feel confident speaking in her own voice.
That’s typical of the history of many comedians, I should imagine. Something needs to get out and be heard, so it finds its way into a material that can be emitted, like lava creeping through cracks in rock. My lava is anecdotal, and flowed from performance into text-lumps.
When you say that something ‘needs to get out and be heard’ I’m reminded of the oral tradition of story-telling… When you write short stories, do you consider how they would sound read aloud?
That’s always been my instinct, part of my equipment. I suppose I knew how altering your voice – from a whisper to a command, or anything in between – can affect the listener and therefore the reader, make them lean in or lean back. You can do that in a straightforward way or turn it on its head.
‘Being heard’ is really about inviting a stranger to listen, so it requires that you are sensitive to presentation, which first and foremost is voice and manner. When people read a short story on paper it’s a personal experience, you’re in their head, their private echo chamber. In real life our senses tell us if someone is being truthful or pushing a half truth at us in a manipulative way, or aiming for our sympathy, and we react to that. It’s the same on the page and on radio, I think, particularly in first person stories – you offer your eyes to the reader, they can climb in behind them to see what you see, although they are simultaneously watching that person as a stranger and judging them. In that sense, the story becomes a dialogue with the reader.
A number of your short stories were produced for radio – did this affect your writing?
Primarily it taught me about what it was possible to do in approximately 14 minutes with any idea, how to mix playful entertainment with content that had some take-away value.
Writing commissioned short stories is enjoyable. There’s something about the imposition of time and word limits that stimulates and challenges. I’m not by nature an organised person, but in order to write for a broadcaster or newspaper you need to be aware of the hovering of gigantic editorial scissors which will prune anything that is outside requirements, and it can be rather satisfying to complete such projects ingeniously enough to fend off the scissors.
Your short story collection seems playful in many ways, challenging the form and what people might expect from a short story (‘Poetry in Motion’, ‘High Heels’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under the Cherry Tree’ in particular). Did you consciously try to push the boundaries of the short story and challenge convention?
No, I didn’t think of any of it in those terms. I didn’t then consider at all how it might be evaluated. The pleasure of writing before anyone knows what you’re up to or can tell you who or what at you are (as people are wont to do, finding a box to fit you into) is freedom of style.
I did feel quite strongly that I didn’t want to have only one voice or one theme or have only one sort of effect on a reader, and hoped the collection would be a selection box of mixed chocolates: nougat, nuts, coffee creams, cracknels, and weird little ganache things with twiddles on top.
This was also probably from my acting background, the impossibility of auditions – look, I can be tall, I can be young, I can be Russian, I can take all my clothes off, I can age into a crone, look! – a refusal to be typecast. I see quite clearly how much agents and publishers like to find a voice which can be repeated successfully for the market, one that is a recognisable ‘brand’ – and I admire that ability in other writers – but it doesn’t seem to be how things worked in me, or not then.
Regarding the three short stories you mention; ‘Poetry in Motion’ came from an experience of making just that sort of trip, and one of the children conjuring a poem from the driving rhythm – it’s almost entirely lifted from reality, except for the elements inside the child’s head, when he’s observing the adults and thinking about his place in the family. He was too young to ask, and I wanted to know, so… I tried being him. ‘High Heels’ was completely fabricated, except for the shoes (I still have them). ‘Don’t Sit Under The Cherry Tree’ was an idea that would have worked as a radio sketch, but I didn’t know where to send such a thing; the collision of three distinctly different cultural strands: psychoanalysis of the Freudian type, popular song, and a famous Russian play filled with angst and nostalgia. It just seemed to make connections in my head that fizzed in an interestingly odd way.
If I was to sum up the mood, or a theme in many of your short stories, it would be with the word safety or perhaps comfort. Many of your characters seem to require comfort, desire safety, or noticeably lack it. Could you explain this for us?
The Short Hello was a first collection, and one learns many things from that stage and after that one writes with a different set of aims, maybe, or more awareness. But I’m learning to be generous to my younger self about what might have been naive or clumsy about earlier works, so my answer is in that context.
The impulse to write some of those ‘comfort or safety’ short stories may have been to do with the reaching-for-answers state I was in around that time. Putting some characters into difficult situations and wondering whether it was possible for them to grow up or escape or heal or leave or fight back. In place of ‘comfort’ or ‘safety’ you could also say ‘reasons, answers, stability, a place to rest, a reliable mirror.’ Or Self. Looking for self, (not Will Self).
You mention writing with ‘a different set of aims’ after your first collection of short stories was published – would you be happy to elaborate on what those are?
Being published – being identifiable as the originator of a thing, seeing your name on it, all the mixed-up personal stuff from your own mind and heart and soul, knowing that people you know will read it – is exposing. The paradox of actors and writers is that they are often in private life quite shy, so there is a transition, a bargain to be made. By the time you do it again – another collection – in my case six years after the first one – you’re older, maybe not wiser but bolder, and forewarned. So inevitably that leads to considering how to do things better or differently, how to say something else.
After The Short Hello my aims might be phrased as ‘no longer writing primarily in order to be amusingly acceptable’. I could see, by the time I was putting Furthermore together, that some of my early work had been written with the brakes on, some in order to earn an approving nod or laugh. A few others took risks, and showed me there was more stuff in the story-mine and where to look for it.
It has been said by critics and writers that short stories tend towards the tragic or at the least the nostalgic. However your collection includes a number of short stories that are the quite the opposite… Why do you think there are so few comedic short stories in general?
Because writing comedy is hard. That statement may cause curled lips among those who write comedy with flamboyant ease, and sighs from anyone who doesn’t, and tears in those smarting at being told their efforts didn’t make anyone fall on the floor in convulsions of mirth.
But it IS quite hard.
I’d been doing comedy – in character – for some years before writing short stories, and with some success (clubs, TV, etc), so I had developed useful instincts, and could, it seems, reproduce on paper some of what makes a character funny but also real.
However. Humour is utterly subjective. Why do audiences shriek with hilarity at one thing and not at another? How does it work in the head of a single reader? The response is personal, visceral, cerebral, contextual… a mixture of all those. It is variable, not always repeatable – the effect can wear off on a second or third reading.
In dramatic writing there is an expectation that the tension in a situation, aided by the voice you use, and the stage effects, if you like, will all keep people from laughing; in comedy it’s the same operation but to a totally different end. I don’t know how I do it, when I’m doing it. Something to do with patterns and rhythms and sounds and vocabulary and basic things like the character’s fear or ambition.
So, comedy writing in prose is a risk. Comedy is lateral connections made or missed between writer and reader, and one person’s tickle is another person’s impertinent assault.
Many of your short stories are told from a female perspective – do you find it easier to write in this voice?
Let’s think out loud about that question: most of my earlier writing was written in first person, and the narrator was usually female – maybe that was because 1) I’m a woman; 2) I’m a performer who likes to read and perform her own work; 3) I’m a feminist, therefore even if those characters are not right for my age or vocal skills, I had actress friends who could shine in them, if the story was on radio; 4) I was writing stories ‘from the inside’ of those characters, and naturally exploring what my own insides showed me helped me to find the truths for the characters; 5) in the drama or fiction out there already, in things I was reading or hearing or watching on TV, there were never enough representations of women of the kind I could identify with. There were mothers-and-girlfriends, who may have begun as independent characters but then morphed into compromised beings who wanted to be ‘in love and happy ever after’ by the end-credits, as if that solved every other issue in their world; women who were content to stand at the side of the action admiring how the men did things that were dangerous, adventure by proxy. It was frustrating. Naturally enough, I wanted to set about redressing what I saw as a vacuum in that respect.
I have written a number of stories in male voices, and with male central characters, and some of them have been read on radio by excellent actors and it didn’t feel odd or as if I were crossing a line.
I read a lot of fiction by men, and it never occurs to me that I shouldn’t find in their stories things that resonate with me.
I want to explore and inhabit a wide variety of experiences across the spectrum of male/female lives, and the ways we are alike as much as the ways we differ. Writing fiction seems like a good way to do that.
While we’re on the subject of writers, are there any female short story writers that you particularly admire?
As an editor of anthologies I’ve been lucky enough to include or in some instances commission stories by Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Candia McWilliam. Ruth Thomas, Hannah McGill. On my shelves I have collections by Muriel Spark, Alice Munro, Elspeth Davie. The gender of these authors is not material to my liking their work, but if someone wants a place to start, these would be the names I’d send them. Two favourite stories: Patrice Chaplin’s 1987 story ‘Night in Paris’, and Elspeth Davie’s ‘Allergy’.
As for male short story writers, I love Saki and Chekov, and have great admiration for Bernard MacLaverty.
It’s noticeable that a number of the men in your short stories are rather cold and even unpleasant. Could you comment on this?
Are they? Perhaps that representation was part of my experience. Some family and romantic relationships can become territorial battlegrounds, which is quite informative. Being a feminist in 1980s Scotland was also highly educational.
In my earliest short stories I probably cast several male characters as ‘the opposition’. Lots of basic plots do the same, but it seems rarely to be remarked upon if it’s male authors writing about women who are unsympathetic, disloyal, cruel, etc.
Drama is opposition, conflict – viz Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations. I think all my short stories are dramatically shaped, even the comedic ones, and they pretty much all explore the misunderstandings of human relationships.
I’m more likely now to write with a 360 degree view, or as near as I can get, of relations between the sexes, because life changes, and so do people, and I have a developing perspective on how each party contributes to the chemistry of conflict.
If you were to go back in time and give your younger self some advice about writing, comedy, and short stories, what would it be?
I would say, Susie, find a quicker way to dismantle your barriers of self-doubt and perfectionism.
I’d say, buy a better chair to work in so you won’t need osteopathic treatments later. Learn to touch-type sooner. Re-code the word yoga as fun.
I’d also tell myself, from this great distance, comedy can be powerful, don’t disregard your ability to use it. Use it harder, don’t back down.
I have no idea if that younger Susie would hear any of that, but I’d say it kindly because she needs encouragement.
Interview by Rupert Dastur / The Short Story / 6th July 2015