Monday 9 January 2012

Getting Noticed by The Guardian - Part 2

A few days ago Dan Purdue asked me some questions and I gave him some answers. Now we have done a swap-a-roo.

And I shall call it, Qs 4U, Dan Purdue.

Teresa: One Street Corner Too Soon takes a universal theme, in this case unrequited love, and zooms in on one particular ‘slice of time’, that walk home with someone you’re sure you’re in love with. Like the best short stories, it’s about something seemingly tiny that carries a whole world with it. Did you set out to write about such a focused moment?

Dan: I’m not sure, exactly. I tend to build my stories around an image. This one started with a vaguely magic-realism-esque scene of a young man standing on a deserted street at night, holding his own heart in his hand. The very sketchy first draft (written on hotel notepaper in a New York pizza restaurant, no less) kept the surreal nature of this image and had him levering up a paving stone to bury his heart in the spot where it had been broken. So really the ending of the story came first, and I worked backwards from there. This is unusual for me; most of the time I’m very linear – pick a good first line and plough onwards from there. The focus of the story is also encouraged by the word count of the competition. You can’t meander much in 2000 words.

T: There’s an immediacy about One Street Corner Too Soon that feels very personal. Is it based on a true experience?

D: No. By which I mean, yes. By which I mean, kind of. I started with that image of the guy alone on the pavement, and the first thing I wanted to establish was why there was nobody else around. For some reason the first thing I thought of was walking back from a concert – something I did quite a bit of at university. I lived a fair way away from most of the venues and often I’d end up saying goodbye to the friends I’d gone to the gig with and walking the last bit on my own. Generally this would be after the pubs had closed but before the nightclubs were starting to empty. Often it seemed like there was nobody else around at all; quite an eerie feeling after the noise and energy of live music. I tried to tap into that mood, and used the idea of heading home after watching a favourite band to put the ‘couple’ in context and give their relationship some grounding.

In terms of the actual events of the story, there are scraps of real life in there – I think you need those to give a story any kind of resonance. As you say, unrequited love is a universal theme and I’ve had my share of (occasionally ridiculous) crushes. I’ve never accidentally lunged at a girl and pulled her hair, though. The closest I’ve got to my protagonist’s disastrous kiss is getting one of those spirit-crushing pecks on the cheek that lets you know things are never, ever going to go in the direction you’d hoped. Almost as bad, but not quite.

T: I love that image you started with, it’s very striking. You use the notoriously difficult-to-get-right 2nd person in this story, did it start out that way, or is there a 1st or 3rd person version somewhere in your drafts folder? How easy was it to write? Did you hesitate at any point and think you should be a bit less risky?

D: The initial draft was in first-person, and it really was patchy – a few notes and bits of dialogue and a rough plan of the structure. I didn’t flesh it out for a few weeks and almost immediately first-person began to seem too personal. So I swapped it for third-person. This solved some problems but then I couldn’t settle on a suitable name for the protagonist or find a compelling way to start the story, plus the prose was lumpy and the magic-realism bits just seemed silly. I decided it wasn’t the story I thought it could be, and left it to gather dust for a while. A few months later, I heard about the Guardian competition and, at that time, this was the only story I had that fitted the word count. I decided to take another look at it.

After a bit of pointless tinkering, I decided to rewrite the story entirely. I had a much-scribbled-on print-out by the side of my laptop, but a fresh Word document in front of me. I typed the opening line, You should be holding my hand. It kind of came from nowhere, but I liked the directness of it. Still first-person, still the guy’s perspective – so I was staying on familiar ground. It sounded too confrontational, though; I didn’t want the guy to be angry with the girl. I changed my to her, and something just clicked into place. It only dawned on me a paragraph or so later that I was writing in second-person, a form I’d never attempted nor seen done particularly well (that’s changed since, having read A.L. Kennedy’s Day, which has bits in second-person and works brilliantly). When I finished I was really pleased with it, and I submitted it almost straightaway – a day or two before the closing date. I immediately felt I was maybe punching above my weight, though, and I couldn’t bear to let anybody else see it. It stayed under wraps until I got the email from The Guardian.

T: That’s really interesting, almost like you had a ‘eureka’ moment – only it probably wasn’t that dramatic – but you were at your laptop, focusing and working, and you had a break-through. How important is it to you to sit and write, and how easy is it? Are you a procrastinator? What takes you away from ‘the zone’ and what keeps you in it?

D: Breakthrough moments like that are all too rare, unfortunately. In its way, this one was fairly dramatic – I felt a bit of a rush, a sort of fizzing excitement that I was on to something, a kind of nervousness that I would lose it again before I got to the end. I worried that if I got up to make a cup of tea I would come back and have no idea what the next word should be. I love it when it all starts chiming like that. You won’t get this reference because you’re so irritatingly young, but it’s like a needle that’s been skipping all over the record suddenly finding its groove and then – blam! – there’s the music.

I guess like a lot of writers, I find the will to write and the time to do it are on opposing ends of a seesaw. When there’s absolutely no question of being able to write, I’m burning with ideas and seeing inspiration everywhere. But on the rare occasions I can put aside a couple of hours as dedicated writing time, I suddenly find I can’t tear myself away from Facebook, or I spend ages on Amazon reading reviews of books and CDs I already own. It doesn’t make any sense how hard it can be to steer myself back towards the story I’m supposed to be working on, considering how rewarding I find it when I do manage to get back in ‘the zone’. I’m at my most productive when I have a fresh idea that I can’t wait to get down on paper, or at the other end of the process, when I’m editing an almost-there story on paper. That’s when I can be still and focused, and I lose all track of time. It’s the middle bit that really feels like hard work.

T: You self-published a collection of your short stories, Somewhere To Start From, last year. I know for you self-publishing was a fairly natural move and part of your appearance at Guernsey Literary Festival, is it something you imagined you would do, say 2 or 3 years ago? Do you think attitudes to self-publishing have changed in recent years?

D: Putting the book together was an odd experience. I reread some stories that I hadn’t looked at in months, and in many cases I was pleasantly surprised. It was stressful, too, as there wasn’t a lot of time between deciding to do it and needing to place an order for the books so they’d be in Guernsey in time for the festival. That’s what prompted it, really – I found myself about to be A Writer in Public, and the prospect of reading my work from bits of paper just didn’t seem professional enough.

I’ve been really impressed by the quality of the books and the service from You’ll know they’re self-published if you know what to look for, but I’ve ended up with a product I’m genuinely proud of. In terms of attitudes, the improvements in self-publishing are a curse as much as they are a blessing, I think, much the same as the explosion in ePublishing. Now that, with a bit of effort, anybody can put together a book or Kindle download that looks pretty close to a professional publication, there seems to be even more suspicion among readers that self-publishing is still basically amateurism, only in fancier clothes. I never try to conceal the fact that my anthology is self-published, although in my next breath I do find myself explaining that it’s a collection of (mostly) already-published work, with a dozen or so stories placed in various competitions, so it’s been properly edited and there’s an element of quality control that most self-published books won’t have.

T: One Street Corner Too Soon is the final story in your anthology, why did you choose to end your collection with it?

D: Sorting out a running order was difficult. As the story I was most proud of, and arguably the best thing I’ve had published, I figured Street Corner had to be either the first or last story in the book, and initially it was the opener. But the ending seemed too ‘final’ to lead into another story, and I didn’t think anything else in the collection had the right style of opening to fit comfortably after it, so I shifted it to the end. The way I picture the ending is a slow, cinematic zoom out, with the protagonist in the glare of the street lamp slowly shrinking away to nothing. I think the story as a whole works well at the back, in a sort of save-the-best-‘til-last kind of way. In some ways it’s the story that I think says the most about me as a writer, and I hope if only one story stays with people after they’ve finished reading the book, it’s that one. One of the reviewers on Amazon called it “stunning”, which is as good a response as I could ever hope for.

T: Finally, I’d be interested to know what you think of the question you posed to me, do you think The Guardian are taking advantage of aspiring writers by not paying them? And what did this particular success mean to you back in 2009?

D: I must admit, when I read the comments about how “disgraceful” it was that a respectable newspaper was grabbing first publication rights for free, my first thoughts were that it was a nasty display of sour grapes. I was annoyed and a little upset, because the comments were made on a website I was a member of, and possibly even on the thread where I’d mentioned I had been shortlisted. It came across as a personal attack and undermined what felt like a huge success. Fortunately, The Guardian published Street Corner online a few days later, and I started getting some brilliant feedback from family, then friends, and then strangers, who’d read it. I don’t think the paper is taking advantage of anybody. They’re upfront about the fact that publication is the only prize, and as you mentioned in Part One, it’s free to enter the competition. So nobody’s being tricked.

For me, getting a publishing credit there is worth so much more than a monetary prize. When people find out I write, the first question they ask is usually, “Have you had anything published?” Obviously now I can whip out a copy of my anthology, but back in 2009 this result meant my answer went from mumbling the names of a couple of competitions they’d never heard of to being able to say, “Well, you know The Guardian?” And I don’t mean that in a smug way; it’s just a question of giving people from outside the writing world something they recognise. I don’t know whether you find that when you tell people you’re in a Bridport anthology, their reaction is entirely governed by whether they write or not?

T: Yes, completely. It’s hard to get across what the Bridport Prize means, but the ‘G’ word – everyone knows.

D: Exactly. And I think it has a reputation for quality that people respect, so it comes across as a tangible endorsement of your work. Anyway, for me, the Guardian result was a huge boost, a very welcome one that helped reassure me I wasn’t entirely wasting my time tapping away at the laptop.

Of course, for a while it also triggered an immense fear that I had somehow lucked out completely, and I’d never get another result anywhere. I nervously awaited my public unmasking as a total fraud. However, the enthusiasm it gave me to keep writing, and keep challenging myself, has meant that hasn’t been the case. It just took a while for me to come to terms with the fact that not every story can be the best thing I’ve ever written, and that it doesn’t actually matter; it’s just a question of making each piece as good as I can and trusting in luck and perseverance to do the rest.


Thanks for that, Dan. I had an enjoyable experience chatting and thinking and then trying to articulate things, and learning more about your writing process for One Street Corner, which is maybe one of my favourite short stories. Maybe.

(Oh, and I should point out here that although I am irritatingly young, I get the vinyl reference.)


Rachel Fenton said...

This was really insightful - I am so nosey - I loved finding out about the writing process and chasing that flash of eurika. I know all too well that feeling of, oh, great inspiration but not going to get it down right before aome little dude - namely one of my children - pulls me to go build a railway or comb the birds out of hair.

Super interview.

Teresa Stenson said...

Hi Rachel - thanks - really glad you enjoyed this. Love the image of one of your little dudes combing birds out of your hair - brill.

I'm very nosey as well, was pretty relieved when I realised I had a reason for it, or could at least have an excuse for it: "I'm a writer, it's important that I eavesdrop, even if it means I'm not actually listening to the person I'm with, but the people at the next table..."

Dan Purdue said...

A much-belated thanks for hosting me on your blog, Teresa. I enjoyed answering your questions and it's interesting to see that we took such different paths to our stories.

If anybody has only read this bit, I would urge you to check out Teresa's answers on my blog, as they're far more interesting.