Ashley Stokes is the author of Touching the Starfish, a novel, and a short story sequence The Syllabus of Errors (both Unthank Books). He’s the editor of The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings and the Unthology series. His short fiction has appeared in London Magazine, The Warwick Review, LossLit and The Lonely Crowd, among others. He’s also runs the Unthank School of Writing and provides fiction workshops in Norwich and online. He’s recently completed a new collection, How to Disappear, and a novel, The North Surrey Gigantopithecus. He lives in Norwich. More about Unthank Books here and more about Ashley Stokes here.
Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Ashley, thanks for speaking to us here at TSS. Let’s begin by asking where your passion for the short story originates and at what point you decided the writing life was the one for you?
Hi Rupert. I don’t think I can exactly pinpoint where I was when I had my fateful first encounter with short story bug. From this vantage point, it seems like it’s always been lurking in my system. Certainly since 2010, the short story has dominated my activity, both as writer and editor. To be honest, I may not have read a lot of literary short fiction until I started to write myself, when I was twenty-five. Before that I’d largely stuck to reading novels. The only short story books I can remember reading before then are Laughable Loves and various Kafka collections. As soon as I started writing, I began playing with the short form between longer projects, drawn both to the briskness, and curious expansiveness of the short story, and the world of little magazines and small presses that often introduced me to writing outside the mainstream. When I started to teach creative writing at the University of East Anglia I became more and more enmeshed in short stories. Obviously, you can go through a story line-by-line with a workshop much in the same way you can a poem, to look for instructive devices or ideas that illustrate this point or that point. You can do that with David Foster Wallace’s Incantations of Burned Children, but you can’t with Infinite Jest. In some ways, it’s all come out of writing itself. I’ve come to love short stories. They are postcards from people you’ve never met. They are flashpoints and checkpoints. They flutter, then they melt, like snowflakes.
I didn’t necessarily decide to tether my life to something I’ve just compared to melting snow. I would say, though, that I’d always wanted to write. As a kid I read voraciously, all the time, almost to the point of being anti-social. I was a massive comics, SF and horror geek until I was about fifteen. Then it was history until my early twenties. I didn’t know anyone who made a living as a writer, nor met anyone who wanted to. I just assumed writing was something other people did, not people like me, from my neck of the woods. Once I started, though, I was incapable of doing anything else. I was doomed.
In collusion with Robin Jones, you dreamt up Unthank Books one evening after a literary event for Staple Magazine, back in 2009. What were you first steps from conception to realisation and what would you have done differently if you could start over?
Initially, our plan was to publish novels, and the basis of the Unthank list was novels, in particular David Madden’s completed Edwin Drood and my novel Touching the Starfish. So we proceeded along this line until we launched the first book. Along the way, I had the idea of publishing a semi-regular Unthank ‘sampler’ that would showcase the shorter work of the novelists we published. That’s the origin of Unthology. We only had two novelists at the time and one didn’t write short fiction, so we expanded the concept to include any length of fiction. I’m not sure we could have done anything different without a lot of money behind us, and we had none. Unthology has grown slowly. I can’t say it could have grown any other way. If I did have a rewind-delete facility, I would have opted for a smaller format right from the start and shunned the rather constrictive jacket designs we used early on.
There has been a staggering increase in self-publishing and a rapid rise of online publishing. On the one hand it seems to me that it offers emerging writers opportunities like never before, but at the same time, the dilution effect can make it harder to find the gems. What’s your opinion, as both writer and print publisher?
In 2002, I won a Bridport Prize for short fiction. At the event, all the winners and shortlistees had a chat with Tobias Hill, the judge. The question came up, as it always does, as to ‘what do we do with our short fiction? How do we get a publisher?’ Hill said that publishers had forgotten how to promote short fiction. They no longer knew what to do with it. Nothing’s really changed since then in terms of mass-market publishing. You still have to go back to Will Self or Helen Simpson to think of anyone making a big splash with short work who then built a career on it. This is not America. Even so, short fiction seems to be everywhere: new prizes, willing publishers and new online and print magazines spring up all the time. I think we have to admit that left to the big publishing houses the form would have withered. It really has been short story writers refusing to let the form die, or become relegated to a mere teaching resource in creative writing classes. The internet really has been used to connect writers and readers and create and sustain a lively and diverse scene. We might say there are too many outlets, but it’s better than none. Other than that, I just learn which gatekeepers to trust.
Both you and Robin edit and put together the excellent Unthology series (volumes of short fiction) – the latest of which is Unthology 9. What are the major challenges of putting such a collection together?
The major headache is the sheer number of submissions, wading through them, classifying them into ‘yeses’, ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’. That’s the hard part. The rest is process and we learn to hone this all the time. We have great design people now (Robot Mascot) and they do a wonderful job in making Unthology look so striking. We have sales and distribution, which we didn’t at the start. I suppose it’s fifty percent an exhausting expenditure of judgement (and with that there’s the saddening routine of disappointing people who may love Unthology but this time just quite haven’t made the cut). And it’s fifty per cent logistics. We were doing two a year, due to the volume of good submissions, but we’re going to rein it back to one a year now.
In an interview with Dan Malakin, you state that you ‘have no agenda’ when it comes to reading submissions, but that you hope for stories that ‘stand-out and linger, that we don’t feel we’ve read before.’ I’d like to pick up on that last point, something a number of editors have mentioned to us… could you elucidate on the kinds of thing of see over and over again and are, perhaps, best avoided?
1: He/She wanders off from his/her wife/husband while on holiday in Florida/Greece and realises he/she used to be happier before the kids came along.
2: Nothing much happens, but the walls are painted with Farrow and Ball and her Jimmy Choos clack on the floorboards.
3: Something interesting happens but we didn’t need to know about how the person it happens to’s parents met and all about their courtship and how they raised the deposit for their semi before we cut to the chase.
4: A lot happens but it explains baldly, as if we didn’t already know, that war or racism are bad.
5: I, Protagonist, had a relationship with a transparently crap person who in the end I reveal as crap. I, Protagonist and You, Antagonist are often writers.
6: “The grey light filtered through the curtains.”
7: An anecdote with a title is not a story.
8: A novel compressed into 2,000 words is not a story (it’s a list).
9: A myth retold from this or that slant is probably boring now.
10: Very, very few writers can get away with being zany.
In the same interview, you speak of the ‘mystery and charge’ of the short story. Would you be happy to name a few favourite short stories that encapsulate this, either from your own anthology series or elsewhere?
I get asked this question a lot. It’s a bit like being asked your top ten favourite albums. The next day the list will be adjusted and revised. I gave a lecture at the London Short Story Festival the year before last, which became the introduction to Unthology 8, in which I laid out the following as quintessential Unthology stories:
Bleach by Michael Baker (1)
Classified by Joshua Allen (2)
127 Permutations by Steph Reid (2)
Eleanor: The End Papers by David Rose (3)
So Long Marianne by Sandra Jensen (3)
The Theory of Circles by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt (3)
A Little More Prayer by Angela Readman (5)
The End of the World by Catharine Mee (5)
The Lesser God by Andrew Oldman (5)
Hay. Pee. Ah. Wrist by Jonathan Pinnock (6)
Death and the Architect by Roisin O’Donnell (7)
The Hollow Shore by Gary Budden (7)
My Lobotomy by Barney Walsh (7)
If I was to list other short stories that I think have the qualities of charge, we’re talking The Five Forty- Eight by Cheever; The Lost Decade by F. Scott Fitzgerald,; Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff (I know this is a cliché in terms of short story recommendations but it is peerless); AJ Ashworth: Offerings: Lydia Davis: Breaking It Down: A Knock at the Manor Gate by Franz Kafka: Cranley Meadows by James Lasdun: The Heart of Denis Noble by Alison Macloud: Flora by David Rose: The Depressed Person by David Foster Wallace: The BAR Man by Richard Yates: Birds without Wings : by Angela Readman: Girls on Ice by; Helen Dunmore I could go on … I often think about The Darling by Chekhov and The Overcoat by Gogol. And I’ve just started to read Thomas Ligotti for the first time and so far I’m really liking him.
Charge: I just want to feel some sort of shock, somehow, and to be, in some way, shaken out of my ordinariness.
What do you think it is that makes your selections so special, or would such analysis somehow spoil the ‘mystery’?
I hope it’s openness and being receptive to an eclectic range of stories that we somehow weave into a pattern. You can read certain journals – The Paris Review is one – where you always know what sort of story is going to be featured, so you skim to the interviews after a while. Or the same writers appear over and over again. I suppose I’ve always liked the idea of a journal that includes established writers, just-emerging writers and first-timers. To achieve that mix has been one of our objectives all along.
When I was reading Unthology 9, there was an unmistakable flow of themes and moods. Given the eclectic range and styles of the short stories, how do you set about deciding on the order? Do you follow a general pattern for all the anthologies, or mix it up with each publication?
I am quite synaesthesic, so often see in stories colours or shapes or patterns or a number or weather. After the first couple of Unthologies I started to rely on this to organise the order of the stories, creating little thematic runs or moods within the collection. Unthology 9 is a very particular really. We made the selection for 9 and 10 at the same time, from the same batch, and realised we had two stories about drowning, one in which a character dies and one in which a character is saved. Using these as bookends, I worked the stories from stories of catastrophe to stories of survival, salvage and redemption. We start grim. We recover, walk away. That’s the arc I followed. Really, we just look for secret patterns in what could seem disparate and superficially dissimilar stories. It’s part of the fun, I think.
You work as a creative writing lecturer and editor. You’re also a writer whose work spans both short and long fiction, and non-fiction (The Syllabus of Errors, Touching the Starfish, The End, Plotting the Novel). How do these disciplines inform one another and do they ever interfere with the creative process?
They do cross-fertilise, yes, and they’re all related to one another. I certainly learned a lot about writing when I first started to break it down into subject areas and teach fiction classes. And I’ve learned a lot over the years from working with unpublished writers, not so much in terms of what can go wrong, what pitfalls await the unwary, but in terms of how a story or novel can be fixed, how it can be drafted and edited. Unthology was a good thing, in that it allowed me to do something more positive, or more definite. As a lecturer, you’re often saying no all the time. It was good to be promoting work, not taking it to bits. At the moment, I find the general good humour and enthusiasm of my Unthank School workshops rubs off on me and makes me actively want to write every day. It’s all part of creating a community of writers, a sense of camaraderie, of being in it together. Too much work can, of course, get in the way of writing, and it would be nice to write full-time, but at the moment I feel I’ve got the balance right.
What do you think is the most useful writing advice you’ve given?
Learn what sort of writer you are. Learn to draft. Stick at it. Be nice to yourself. Read.
Let’s return, briefly, to short stories and your own craft. What’s your approach and process to writing these little ‘shots of vodka’? Do you wait for inspiration or do you sit at the desk every day? Where do you work? Do you use prompts, listen to music, work in the morning or at night?
I usually have a big backlog of ideas or situations that I hone in my notebooks. Over time they coagulate and intersect until one rises to the surface and becomes the next project. I’ll then spend some time collecting my thoughts and building a spine or skeleton for a story. When I start to write, I’ll just build it up slowly, usually about 500 words a day, but I go over and over the story until I can’t make any more changes. I might then put it away and write a draft of something else before I attempt a final version. Then I’ll share it with some people, see what they think. I don’t think I’ve ever had an idea and just rushed into it. I am a bricklayer, not a watercolourist. I’m a morning writer, so I tend to get up and start before the internet or anything else can cloud my thoughts. I’ll write my journal, then explain to myself what I’m writing next and why, where I’m heading, to what point. I’ll go over yesterday’s work and then push on. Often the content, the language is already in place. I l know what I’m going to write, but not always. I do use images as prompts, postcards, for the most part (I hoard them), and I make collages, but usually only during the planning stage. I can’t write if music is playing; I like it too much. At the moment, I’ve started writing in a café some mornings and that isn’t turning out to be too bad. It’s good to have a routine but it’s also useful to mix it up. The priority is to be always working on something I like.
Thank you, Ashley. That’s it from us, but before we go, are you accepting submissions to the next Unthology and do you have any parting words?
I will be updating our website soon to say we’ll be looking for submissions again in November. You can send us work now, but we won’t get to it quickly, I’m afraid. Otherwise, I’d say, parting-shotwise: just aim to make each story more realised than the last and you’ll get there in the end.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. 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.