Mark Mayes Interviews Elizabeth Baines about Unthology and short story writing.
1. In a recent review the Unthology series has been credited with ‘quietly becoming a reliable guide to the state of the modern short story’. What sort of themes or motifs would you say are prevalent in the ‘modern’ short story?
Well, I guess there’s a current popularity for weird and quirky stories, and flash fiction is certainly having a moment. But I think the modern short story is incredibly diverse – from surreal to realist and from flash fiction to near-novella – and this is reflected in the openness of the policy of Unthology’s editors. So many anthologies and magazines are partisan, reflecting the particular taste of the editor, or straitjacketing writers into themes and word counts, but there seems to be no agenda at Unthology apart from publishing good short stories and allowing writers to be creative in the ways they see fit – which is a mark of great generosity as well as of a serious and dynamic commitment to literature.
2. You write plays, novels, novellas, and non-fiction, as well as short stories. When you first began writing which of these forms first attracted you, and why?
Stories of course! I started out intending to be simply a short story writer, but the inevitable happened: an agent took me on on the strength of my short stories, but said straight away that no publisher was interested in short stories as they don’t sell, and would I write novel? It so happened that I was thinking of starting a novel, so I did, and became a novelist. And then I got pulled into writing plays… And both paid, whereas short stories didn’t… But I never stopped writing stories, though it wasn’t until Salt came into being, one of the first small presses to defy that traditional wisdom, that I was able to publish my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World.
3. At Project U, hosted by Unthank Books, you read your story ‘Clarrie and You’ to a live audience. What was that experience like?
Brilliant! It was a lovely atmosphere – a really thoughtful writerly audience, and there were those fantastic Unthology cakes! And I loved hearing the extracts from Sharon Zink’s novel Welcome to Sharonville and Maggie Ling’s Unthology 5 story, ‘Death and the Maiden’.
4. Tobias Wolff is quoted as saying “I believe that the short story is as different a form from the novel as poetry is, and the best stories seem to me to be perhaps closer in spirit to poetry than to novels.” Does this also hold true for you, and if so, in which ways?
Well, I don’t think it’s as removed from the novel as poetry is, but for me the short story is closer to poetry than the novel as a rule – that economy, focus and condensation, and the verbal and structural patterning they allow. But as I say, I think it’s a very flexible form, and because I like to push my own boundaries I’ve tried to do something a bit more novelistic with ‘Clarrie and You’ – based it more in a plot than I’d usually do.
5. What was the genesis of your short story in Unthology 5, Clarrie and You?
One of the things I’m obsessed with as a writer is the underside of things: secrets, the unknowable, and the fact that often the most mundane and ordinary-seeming people can turn out to have had the most incredible emotional lives. So there was no way I couldn’t base a story on the following that happened: an elderly woman told me about a recent very petty-seeming family dispute which she herself didn’t really understand. But she had also happened to tell me something far more dramatic from her past about her husband, and I suddenly saw a connection between the two things that she hadn’t seen for herself. Another thing I’m obsessed with is viewpoint, and the story is written in the second person as an address to the elderly woman, mapping out the convoluted connections and the pain and secrecy fuelling the current apparently petty skirmish.
6. What are you working on at the moment, and where can we find out more about your previous work?
Nothing! I’m having a rest – I’ve just finished something long and I’m enjoying a fallow period, looking around me at last (it’s such a purdah writing something long!) and waiting for new ideas to ferment and bubble to the surface. My two novels Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine and my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World are all available from Salt Publishing, Amazon, The Book Depository etc, and the two novels are on Kindle. Recent story publications include one in the Unthank anthology Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, ed A J Ashworth, and ‘Tides, or How Stories Do or Don’t Get Told’ in Best British Short Stories 2014, ed Nicholas Royle (Salt). ‘Tides’ can be read on The View From Here where it was first published and three of my stories can be read on East of the Web. My website gives an overview of my work.
7. You have been called a ‘A skilled fabulist – one with a gift to see the fabulous in the mundane’. How does one cultivate such a gift, and does your reading inform this approach to imaginative writing?
It’s a good quote, but I don’t really understand it, frankly. I don’t really believe in the mundane – it’s all fabulous and weird! I guess it’s just the way I see things. I don’t know if that can be cultivated, but I suppose my childhood reading – Dickens and comics and Enid Blyton – must have had something to do with it.
8. Are there any particular short-story writers that inspire you?
When I first started writing I was inspired by Sillitoe, Ballard, Ray Bradbury and Angela Carter. All subversive in their very different ways. That’s what the short story can do: subvert – subvert common perceptions via its capacity for subversive form.
9. When you are beginning a new piece of writing, do you always know what form it will eventually take, or might a piece begun as a short story extend to becoming a novella or novel, or even some other form?
Until recently I’ve said that I always know exactly what form an idea will take when it comes to me, but last year I wrote a story that I realised in retrospect was really a novel. Partly it was because I began it too soon (I was so excited by it). Mulling the idea – and the fact that the story didn’t really work – made me see that it was too complex for a short story. So it wasn’t so much a case of one thing turning into another as my making a category error from the start.
10. Do you have any advice for people who may be at or near the beginning of their writing journey?
Read loads. Read the greats and immerse yourself in their psyches and language. Then put them aside and develop your own. Expect rejection, but never accept it: try again or determine to do better. Get tough but stay receptive. Be alert. Sleep lots and keep in touch with your dreams.
Mark Mayes has published short stories and poems in literary magazines and anthologies including: The Reader, Staple, New Writing, The Interpreter’s House, Other Poetry, The Waterlog (Two Rivers Press), True To Life (Ruskin), Fire, and The Shop. In 2010 he was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and has had work broadcast on BBC Radio 4. He has recently completed his first novel and a book-length story for children.
Elizabeth Baines‘ collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, is published by Salt, who also published her two short novels, Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine. She has also written prizewinning plays for radio and stage.
Clarrie and You by ELizabeth Baines and The Regular by Mark Mayes feature in Unthology 5.
Our little collection has been picking up some sensational reviews.
“Another brilliant collection compiled by Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones that will add a seriously new dimension to commuting or coffee time.” OUR BOOK REVIEWS
“Unthology is quietly becoming a reliable guide to the state of the modern short story, a companion to Nicholas Royle’s annual Best of British Short Stories anthology, and this latest instalment should do that reputation no harm.”
“A flawless short story anthology is a rare thing, but this may well be it. Editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones have selected 14 startling, unsettling tales and strung them together in an order that best shows off their facets, of which, of course, there are many.”SKYLIGHTRAIN