KM Elkes is an author and journalist from Bristol, UK. Since starting to write fiction seriously in 2011 he has won the 2013 Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and was a winner of the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He also won the Prolitzer Prize in 2014 and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Short Story Prize 2015. He has appeared in various anthologies from Words With Jam, Momaya Review, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. His stories have also been published in literary magazines including Structo, Litro, Nottingham Review and Everyday Fiction. His work has featured on school curriculums in the USA, Canada, India and Hong Kong. Website: www.kmelkes.co.uk Twitter: @mysmalltales.
Interview by Rupert Dastur and Hattie Beaufort
Hi Ken, thanks for speaking to TSS about the short story form. Why don’t you begin with telling our readers when and why you began writing short stories?
I spent a good few years dabbling. I wrote juvenile poetry so bad it had to be destroyed in a controlled explosion. I co-wrote a BBC sitcom pilot that never became a series. I also wrote about half a dozen short stories, a couple of which were successful. But it wasn’t until 2011-12, when I had a ‘now or never’ moment, that I joined an online writing group called Bootcamp run by Alex Keegan. That’s when I started writing for real.
And why? Quite simply because short stories are one of the greatest forms of writing, crystalline and intense and infinitely flexible. They link to the story telling tradition at the heart of all narrative.
They are also one of the best ways to learn writing craft (though if anyone tells me they are a great apprenticeship for writing novels, then we might fall out big time…).
You’ve had a lot of success with your short stories, could you tell us what your winning formula is?
Success is a slippery concept. For me, it’s not (solely) about winning competitions or being published, but about being consistent, being bold and original rather than self-limiting, finding the right voice and tone for a piece, simply getting better.
A few million decent words written and published. Stories with layers and resonance that leave the reader still, moved, reflective, changed. Never, ever being just competent. That would be success.
There is no winning formula. Each writer finds their own route and that route changes as you progress. But from what I can see, there are some common areas that help many people:
1. Time. It’s precious and finite, so find some for writing and use it well.
2. Write hot, edit cool.
3. Read widely and read closely.
4. If you are going to submit somewhere, do your homework and read what they print first.
5. Did I mention the thing about reading?
If you could pick one short story writer from the past, to ask them one question, who would it be and what would your question be?
“Hi Ernest, just a quickie to solve a very dull argument – was that ‘baby’s shoes’ six-worder really yours?”
Why do you think the short story market is so tricky and what do you think can be done to overcome or challenge the pessimism found lurking behind the reserve of many publishers?
Mainstream publishing isn’t the only gig in town. There are competitions which can propel interesting new voices to prominence. There are opportunities to get published in anthologies, there are beautifully produced magazines with great stories. These all have worth. What lacks is a wider audience for short story collections.
There’s no easy solution, but here’s some random, top-of-the-head, ‘sheesh aren’t these painfully obvious’ ideas:
1. Poke they eyes of online book retailers until they all have a searchable category for short stories. You see, sometimes I don’t know what I want to read, I just want to browse. So make it easy for me.
2. Bookshops should give up some real estate on their shelves for a short story section. Poetry gets space. So do plays. Even literary criticism. So why not short fiction?
3. Short story specials in newspapers and magazines are great. Letting writers dust off a below-average ‘been looking for a home’ piece from their bottom drawer is not. Commission new work. Give more consideration to short story authors. Don’t commission novelists who are ‘trying their hand’.
4. Short stories should be a central part of the school curriculum and children should be encouraged to write short fiction until a much later age. More short stories for young adults. More places for young writers to get published.
5. Encourage more diversity. Much, much more diversity. We need different voices talking about different experiences of the world. And we can learn a lot from other country’s attitude towards the short form.
6. The short story community needs to blow its own trumpet, and loudly, in the direction of literary festivals so they put more short story writers and events on their programmes.
7. Journalists should stop writing about either a. The death of the short story or b. The renaissance of the short story. Come on people, play a new tune.
In his introduction the newly released anthology The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, editor Philip Hensher makes the claim that shorts stories ‘generally flourish’ between 4,000 and 15,000 words – do you agree?
I haven’t read this introduction or the book itself yet, so I can’t comment specifically as I’m not aware of the context.
What I would say, more generally, is word count cannot be the only criteria of worth. After all, would we say that great poems are generally between 10 and 20 stanzas, or that great novels are generally 95-108,000 words?
To put it another way the American writer David Sedaris said: ““A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.”
That can be the case whatever the word count.
An interesting comment that’s sometimes made by writers and editors about short story anthologies is that they are artificially collected – winning short stories, often written at different times and about different subjects, are placed together under one cover. As a result it creates an illusory sense of theme and the temptation is to start forming links between stories which in reality were created disparately. Do you think this is a problem and if so how might it be addressed?
Reading this question, I instantly thought of music. Sometimes we want to listen to an album, or a symphony by a composer we enjoy. Though each track (or each movement) will be different, the soundscape, chords and progressions, instrumentation, orchestration will connect the whole thing.
That’s how a short story collection works. I’ve written about this previously, because I am putting my own collection together, on short story writer Judy Darley’s blog: http://www.skylightrain.com/tag/km-elkes/
But sometimes we want a rattlebag of different voices, tones and moods. A packet of Revels. A mixtape. Sure, we might invent some connections between the tracks, but the variety is the thing that holds it together. Each track should make you think “Wow, I love this one too”.
So no, I don’t see a problem, I ‘m more concerned that anthologies contain stories which are fantastic examples of short story writing whatever style or theme they have.
What do you think the short form does differently from other forms?
It has the unique ability to bring together the intensity of language and profound revelation of poetry, with the narrative drive, characterisation and rich dialogue of the novel.
It also has the flexibility to do something different, unexpected and new – that’s why reading short stories from other cultures and places is important.
Would you recommend writers learn about the theory and history of the short story, or do you think it’s not particularly necessary when it comes down to the craft of writing?
Sure, learn away. But (and it’s a big but) that’s not half as important as reading. For example knowing Italo Calvino’s backstory and influences (Cuba, botany, fighting for Partisans in World War II, being a communist, not being a communist etc) will give you some context, but read and pull apart his stories to learn about fabulism.
The key is to actively learn from the text of great writers from the past as well as contemporaries. Pick apart technique, understand craft, cram your little hamster writing cheeks full of nourishing short story goodness and get it deep in your system so you can poop out better stories.
Are writers born or made, and how beneficial do you think creative writing courses, residential, and degrees are?
I believe competent writers can be made, that you can be taught to a certain level. But great writers have the drive, insight, pain, joy, interest in the world and ego to turn basic competence into something richer.
I’ve only ever done one creative writing course (online) and one workshop so I’m no expert, but I think such courses can be helpful (depending on the quality of the tutor and the willingness of the student).
Returning to your own craft, do you have a particular method when writing your short stories – a set number of edits you’ll do, a daily word count, that kind of thing?
I work pretty much full-time in several different jobs, so I have to fit in writing around that.
I try to treat each story on its own merits. Some stories, particularly flash fiction, have come out almost fully formed. Others need more drafts and to marinate in my bottom drawer for a while, but not too long, otherwise I find it hard to recapture the voice and tone, the fire that drove me to write that story.
Short stories are often said to be one of the more experimental forms of writing, but I wonder whether you find yourself slipping into a particular voice, a tone, or style that is particularly yours – and is this something positive or negative when it comes to composing short stories? How do you escape a particular style?
Read George Saunders, read Hemingway, Ami Bender, Carver, Calvino, Munro. All have a recognisable voice, just like a composer or songwriter have their own sound, just like you can tell an instrumentalist by the way they are playing, regardless of the tune.
You know that great actors like Helen Mirren or Al Pacino or Christopher Walken will bring a ‘themness’ to a role, but that just adds to the power. You know it is that actor, but it doesn’t detract from the delivery.
It’s when stories are bland, could-be-written-by-anyone, formulaic and wooden that there is a problem.
Have any short story writers had a significant influence in your own writing?
Too many too mention, both good and bad. The ones that inspire do so because from the very opening of the story, you know you are going to be transported, wrung out, amused or left bereft.
But I’ve also been influenced (positively) by reading the stories of writers that plod, demonstrate empty dialogue and flat language, that instruct rather than seduce, that show their scaffolding too easily.
Who are your favourite short story writers and why?
I just had a look at my deskside bookcase. Short story writers currently making the cut are: Edith Pearlman, Denis Johnson, Anthony Doerr, Nathan Englander, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Joy Williams, Chekhov, Ami Bender, Julio Cortazar and John Edgar Wideman.
Finally, what advice would you give aspiring short story writers?
Aim to write stories so strong they can hammer a nail into a wall with a scatter cushion.
If you join a writing group, remember it’s about critiquing the writing, not the writer.
You are going to get rejected. A lot. Sometimes unfairly, by weak readers. Don’t throw your toys out of the pram, but look at the story, see if there’s any weaknesses, fix and send out again. Write a better story next time.
Developing as a writer is a game of Snakes & Ladders. You’re going to land on a few snakes. But stick at it, try to improve and you’ll find another ladder.
Don’t succumb to the disease of competence.
Revel in the deep joy of being able to use in a story, expletives that would make your mother blush.
Don’t look directly at the sun. In other words, if you want to write about something (especially big issues like love or death or war) then don’t try to tackle it head on, you won’t do it justice. Sidle up to it, choose an angle and locate a feeling that will say something fresh.
The Short Story Interview / Hattie Beaufort and Rupert Dastur / 8th January 2016