The Short Story Interview: Dan Coxon

Dan Coxon is the author of Ka Mate: Travels in New Zealand and the editor of Being Dad, an anthology of short fiction about fatherhood. He was previously the editor of Litro magazine. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in: Popshot, Unthology, The Lonely Crowd, Gutter, Flash and Neon, amongst others.

 

Hi Dan, thanks for speaking to us. You’re going to be editing a short story anthology called Being Dad – what can you tell us about this collection of short stories?

It brings together sixteen brand new short stories about fatherhood, by writers who are fathers. Contributors include Toby Litt, Dan Rhodes, Nikesh Shukla, Nicholas Royle, Courttia Newland and Dan Powell, to name just a few. I’m really proud of the authors we have lined up for it. The short stories are already selected, and we’re in the process of raising funds via Kickstarter. We have a publisher on board – Bristol-based Tangent Books – despite the fact that short story anthologies aren’t really seen as a viable prospect by many publishers at the moment. The Kickstarter campaign is to allow us to pay writers, help cover some of the design and printing costs… basically to make this book a viable financial venture.

Being Dad

Where did the idea for this short story collection come from?

I’m a dad myself. I have two boys, one of them three-and-a-half years old, the other just past six months. I’m also a stay-at-home dad, as my wife works full time, so for the last three-and-a-half years I’ve been facing fatherhood head-on. I’ve written a few essays about it, and a short story, but as I met more and more writers I realised that I wasn’t alone. Lots of writers are dads, and lots of us take on a very proactive role with our children – but, for some reason, we don’t write about that experience very much. The anthology seemed like a good way of redressing that balance. As it turned out, a lot of the contributors had already written a fatherhood-themed story – they just hadn’t realised it.

How important do you think ‘life experience’ is when it comes to writing short stories and writing in general?

I have mixed feelings about this. I think the age-old writing advice to ‘write what you know’ has probably killed off thousands of creative impulses over the years. I love it when people write what they don’t know, when they imagine themselves into the weird and the wonderful and spin something entirely new out of it. What the ‘write what you know’ advice doesn’t account for is the fact that almost everything you write will be based in your own knowledge anyway. When you imagine new worlds, or new characters, they can’t help but be based in your experience, because it’s you writing them. It seems to me to be a redundant – and potentially harmful – piece of advice.

To come back to your question, I wouldn’t recommend that every writer try to write from their direct experience. But I left the guidelines very vague for this anthology, and I’m pleased to say that the stories reflect this. Some of them are very firmly rooted in the author’s experience of fatherhood, at times barely fictionalised at all. Others are bizarre and fantastical – but also somehow tethered to what we’ve all experienced in reality. (In fact, sometimes the weirder stories get closest to the truth.) It’s great to see the writers approaching the topic from so many different angles, but with such a feeling of purpose and solidarity at the same time.

As an editor, what particular qualities do you look for in short stories?

I love to be surprised. Wading through piles of submissions, I’ve found that many stories are competently written, but few actually deliver something shocking and new. That doesn’t mean they have to be overblown and bizarre – sometimes the smallest shocks resonate the longest – but there’s nothing worse than thinking you know where a story is heading and then being proved right. I’m also a big fan of clarity and direction in the prose. Overblown phrasing and overworked metaphors are a sure sign that the writer isn’t confident in his or her story. Find a wonderful, complex, surprising story – then tell it as simply as possible.

Why do you think short stories are important?

For a long time I was trying to write novels, and it never even occurred to me to write short stories. But for the aspiring writer it can be soul-destroying to spend a year or two on an idea, only for it not to work out and nobody be interested in publishing it. Short stories allow new writers to flex their muscles, trying out different voices, new styles. I still believe that they’re the best way for aspiring writers to ‘find’ themselves and develop their own voice. Having said that, many writers fall in love with the form, and never want to let it go. I can see that. It allows you to experiment and evolve at a pace that novel-writing never will. When you write the first line of a new short story the potential is mind-boggling, whereas novels – at least published novels – tend to lean more towards traditional forms, and sustaining the status quo.

I think the same applies to reading short stories. In this day and age they’re a convenient length to read on a train journey, or on your way to work. But at the same time they offer a variety and scope that’s very appealing.

Do you have any tips for budding short story writers?

Just the normal: write a lot, read a lot. I’d suggest editing a lot too. Most beginners ignore editing as a skill, but it’s just as important as writing – probably more so. I used to love the initial rush of getting a story down on paper, and would want to send it out into the world as quickly as possible. Now, I love the process of editing, of working and reworking a piece until it’s actually doing what I want it to do. I’m not alone in that, either. You come to love the red pen.

I’d also suggest picking apart the stories that you’ve enjoyed reading. Read them sentence by sentence, making pencil notes in the margins, or whatever it is that you prefer to do. It’s like a trainee clockmaker learning his craft by dismantling watches – it’s only when take them apart that you really start to see what makes them tick.

Aside from donating to the Kickstarter (which readers can do by following one of the many links on this page – look here’s another one… Being Dad) what lasting words would you like to leave our readers with?

The Kickstarter campaign finishes on Monday (October 12th), but we don’t want people to tune out after that. The anthology should be out next March, and we’ll be going on the road with some live events over the summer. Keep an eye on our Twitter (@BeingDadStories) and Facebook page, because there will still be a lot happening. Backing the book on Kickstarter is actually a great way to do that too, as we’ll be sending out updates from time to time about publication dates, events, and so on. And remember: you don’t have to be a dad to enjoy the stories in the book. We’ve got some wonderful writing lined up for you all.

 

The Short Story Interview / Hattie Beaufort / 9th October 2015

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