Jessie Greengrass was born in 1982. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and London, where she now lives with her partner and child. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It won the Edge Hill Prize 2016.
Interview by Rupert Dastur
Thanks for speaking to us, Jessie. Perhaps you could begin with offering our readers a brief synopsis of your short story collection, covering a few of the themes you’re interested in?
The stories in the collection more or less all deal with loss and with isolation- chosen or imposed, physical or mental. Most of them are in the first person and with a very few exceptions their narrators are nameless. More than one of them have the sea in. Beyond that, though, they’re a pretty varied bunch, ranging in location from plague-ridden Strasbourg in the 16th century to Yorkshire in an imagined 2058, when peculiar phenomena are the subject of a shady research project.
Which is your favourite short story in the collection and why?
It’s pretty hard to choose a favourite. There are lots in the collection that I probably wouldn’t write at all now, or would write very differently; but that’s just to say that work moves on, which is as it should be. The two that I think I like more than other people do are the last story, Scropton, Sudbury, Marchington, Uttoxeter, and Winter, 2058, which took a huge amount of work to get right and which I was really proud of finishing.
The collection often seems to be reaching for answers, for motives behind the actions of the characters… is this a result of studying philosophy at Cambridge and London?
I think this is a bit of a chicken and an egg question. Studying philosophy very much formed the way that I think and gave me a language to think in, but there was a reason that I chose it as my subject at university instead of, say, English Literature. These are things that have always interested me- I think a large part of it is just that it’s the way my mind works.
The style and tone of the collection is immensely distinctive… almost academic, with some of the sentences filled with multiple clauses, all requiring close attention. Was this a conscious decision that you worked at, or was it more of an organic result arising through practice?
This was a really accidental thing and I’m very (pleasantly) surprised that it feels distinctive to other people because one of the things that worried me was that the voices of other writers would be too obviously present- when I read the stories back (which mercifully I don’t have to do very often) I can hear all sorts of echos there. I think it was probably also a result of having spent a quite formative three or four years writing nothing but weekly essays, and also a result of the subject matter: trying to describe ideas which are at the same time precise and complicated seemed to demand a certain kind of language.
Throughout the collection, there’s an absence of direct speech. Could you tell us a little about that?
I’m not sure quite what to say other than that I’m not very good at writing dialogue. It’s not one of my skills and so I tend to avoid it- but also I think there wasn’t much demand for it. The characters in the stories are giving accounts of themselves, of their thoughts and responses to situations, so there’s very little description of anything outside of that.
Similarly, the majority of the short stories are told from the first person. Do you find it an easier voice to maintain?
Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s quite the reverse- I find third person writing trips along rather and often doesn’t have the same precise demands. It wouldn’t have fitted with these stories though. A lot of them are really monologues- I imagined them as responses to an imaginary interviewer or interlocutor, to a demand to describe something that had happened to them. Told in the third person they would have been completely different and- in a lot of cases- only about three sentences long.
What was the hardest thing about putting the collection together?
I never particularly intended these stories to be a collection. I wrote them really just as ideas occurred to me, which is why they’re so diverse, subject matter wise. I’m not sure what I would have done differently if I’d consciously been trying to write stories that formed a “set” but still, I suppose the hardest thing was convincing myself that there was a book in them at all.
It’s notoriously hard to get a collection of short stories published – particularly with little prior publication history – how did you go about this monumental task?
This was really a monumental bit of luck on my part. I showed some of them to an old friend who is a journalist. He’d been to a few meetings at John Murray to talk about a book that he was thinking of writing and in the course of that he mentioned me to Mark Richards, who is now my editor, and who said he’d be willing to take a look, so I sent them along and that was about it. I don’t really know what the moral- or lack of it- is in this except that I was really incredibly lucky to find someone who was willing- and able- to take a risk on what might have seemed a very unlikely book, and the JM Originals imprint, which Great Auk came under, is a great thing for allowing that sort of risk.
Many of your short stories seem to deal with particularly modern problems, almost existential in their exploration of the ennui of existence. What can you tell us about this?
I hadn’t thought of these problems as particularly modern, although it’s possible that they are to an extent, or that their universality is a luxury of relative wealth. Concern with the status of individuality, with the subjectivity of experience, the bounds and confines of language, are I think as old as thought. Perhaps we’ve all just got the time to worry about them now. Certainly discontentedness and attempts to reconcile oneself to oneself seem to me to pretty common human complaints. I’m not the best judge of my own work, though. I can only see what I put there on purpose, which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of better stuff that got put there by luck or serendipity.
Do you draw much inspiration from you own life? If not, what are your main sources for ideas?
There’s a bit of a mishmash- odds and ends of all sorts of things end up being useful. I don’t write directly about myself but I do use fragments of things that have happened to me, places that I’ve been, rooms that I’ve lived in; and I use things that people have said to me, things that I’ve heard or read. All of this gets mixed together and somehow I end up drawing a line through it, using experience perhaps as a box to fit other ideas into until what I end up with is nothing that has happened to me at all.
Do you have a process for writing?
To an extent. A lot of it involves being as matter of fact as possible- treating writing like any other job and sitting down to do it five days a week, setting myself deadlines, having the odd holiday, trying to keep things ticking along. If I’m starting on a new project I have a daily word count which I keep going until either I’ve got a bit enough chunk of text or until it’s clear that I’ve gone wrong somewhere and anything else I write from that point will end up being unusable. Then I go back to the beginning and edit and edit, chopping things back until the shape of a story somehow emerges. It’s got more in common with topiary than writing, really; but I do think ninety per cent of the task of becoming a writer for me has been learning what to cut.
Did you have much support from your friends and family?
I have a lot of support from my partner but other than that writing is fairly solitary and I don’t like talking about it all that much- in particular I find it hard to talk about work that is ongoing. I arranged my life so that I had time to write and that meant that I didn’t need a huge amount of help. Things are slightly different now, as I have a two year old child, and so it requires more timetabling and a lot more organising and input from elsewhere, because if I’m not looking after my daughter then someone else has to be, but it’s also easier to justify needing time now, to other people and to myself.
You recently won the Edge Hill Prize for the best collection of short stories. Apart from the financial reward, have you noticed a difference in your own approach to writing or the world of publishing?
It was a lovely prize to win and I am enormously grateful, but I think any difference in my attitude to writing has been to do with being published more generally. It’s allowed me to strip away a level of anxiety which was about whether what I was doing was any good at all- I’m not saying that I think it is good, whatever “good” is in this context, but that knowing that there is a place in the world for it makes the question seem less important. Knowing that what I write will be read by somebody makes it easier and less immediately troublesome, which means that I’m probably a bit more productive than I was, and certainly a lot happier.
Have you been hounded to write a novel yet, as seems to be the case so often with short fiction writers?
I haven’t exactly been hounded, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and having a collections of stories published has given me the confidence and time to get on with it. I don’t really think of it as an either/or situation. I haven’t turned my back on short stories and will certainly write some more- there are things, both conceptually and stylistically, that a shorter form is better suited to than a longer one; but then there is also a luxury in having space to digress, in being able to develop ideas, to add in more than the strictly necessary. And my writing remains pretty episodic so it’s not even too different, really.
How do you deal with reviews? Do you read them?
I do, ish. So far my policy has been to read them once, with one eye shut. There’s a difficult balance to be found between confidence in the value of one’s work and pig-headed refusal to accept criticism. If I only ever wrote what I thought would be well reviewed then I’d be a pretty lousy writer, I expect; or at any rate quite a tedious one. Risk is important. I try and keep in mind that good and bad reviews should probably be accorded the same weight- the extent to which you take any of them seriously is the extent to which you should take all of them seriously- I hope to get further opportunity to try this maxim out in practice.
Have you got any more writing projects in the pipeline?
I’m working on a novel which- if all goes according to plan- should be out in 2018. It feels like a long old slog at the moment but then end is- mercifully- in sight.
Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
Take your writing seriously, give yourself time and space, and work at it. No one gets good at anything except by doing it, and doing it over and over again.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and director of TSS. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story. He has supported several short story projects and anthologies and his own work as appeared in a number of places online and in print.