The Unthology Interviews: Dan Powell Talks to Elizabeth Baines

Dan Powell: Hi Elizabeth, I wanted to start by asking some general questions about your thoughts on the short form in general and your stories in particular. So, to begin, what, for you, makes a good short story?

Elizabeth Baines: I guess one that gets me in the gut and leaves me thinking about it for ages afterwards, forever, even! But how that’s achieved: well, I suppose economy plays a big part: precise selection of detail, as well as avoidance of over-explicitness, since the most resonant prose is the prose that sneaks in through the emotions via association and intimation rather than via the intellect. But it’s hard to make rules – sometimes discursiveness in a short story can work – and what you need above all is that indefinable spark. Language – stretching or inventiveness of language – is very important for me in a short story. I suppose no amount of literary technique is any use without the right sensibility in an author, though, and what gets me is a sense that the author has hit on something profound about people or life.

Elizabeth Baines at Project U

Elizabeth Baines at Project U

DP: Frank O’Conner and Charles May have both argued that all good short stories reveal ‘an intense awareness of human loneliness’ and a ‘yearning for union.’ Is this something you see reflected in your short stories?

EB: I hadn’t read that! It brought me up short. I have to say that it’s probably true that my impulse to write in the first place did indeed come out of a kind of emotional or intellectual loneliness, and I did feel that in writing I was creating something to fulfil a yearning, something patterned and meaningful to hold against the chaos. And of course, once you are published you’re creating a union with readers. And I did start out with short stories. But whether short stories are particularly suited to that particular stance, or always express that human condition, and whether my own stories reflect it, I’m not sure. I do think that there’s something in the technical distillation of short stories that perhaps distils this essence, or makes it more obvious. Now that I think about it, I guess both my Unthology stories illustrate it. In ‘Clarrie and You’ (Unthology 5), the protagonist is grieving the loss of closeness to her sister, and in ‘Looking for the Castle’ the protagonist-narrator is searching for a unification of her memories and the present.

DP: Who are you short story influences? Do you lean more towards the classics or works by more contemporary authors?

EB: So many influences! Obviously the classics – Chekov, Maupassant – teach you solid fundamental skills, but I think Postmodernism has strongly affected my own stories, as it suits my way of thinking: the idea of the contingency of stories, that there’s never just one story. It’s more postmodern theory itself that has influenced me in this respect, though, rather than short-story writers, I think. The short stories by others I’m most drawn to are contemporary – stories that stretch language and/or form – writers such as Sarah Hall and Kevin Barry, and Kirsty Gunn whom I recently discovered to my delight, and who does indeed play with the idea of reality and fiction in a postmodern way.

Dan Powell at Project U

Dan Powell at Project U

DP: In both ‘Clarrie and You’ in Unthology 5 and ‘Looking for the Castle’ in Unthology 7, you employ second person to tell the story. What is it about this point of view that interests you as a writer and as a reader? And how do you know when a story needs to be told in second person?

EB: The second person has recently become very popular, if not overused, so, never having previously used it myself, I was reluctant to do so. The usual way it was used, as far as I could see, was as a substitute first person, which, although it can be a really good way of involving the reader in the psychology of the narrator, I thought was starting be used as a lazy short cut, and a bit of a trendy tic. (I was a guest reader on a lit mag recently and the permanent editor expressed a wish never to see a story cast in the second person again!) But then I saw that there were maybe other ways, or more complex ways, it could be used, and got excited by this. I wrote two stories, published in Salt’s (now defunct) online Horizon Review. In the first, titled ‘What Do you Do If?’, the second person is not a substitute first person but a substitute ‘one’; the whole story is a direct question to the reader, and ‘you’ is anyone and everyone facing the situation presented in the story. The second story, ‘Possibility’, plays with multiple ‘yous’ – it’s multi-viewpoint, switching constantly from character to character but each one presented in the second person. It’s a story about identification and empathy and subjectivity, and the aim was to allow the reader to identify closely in turn with each character while also getting an overview, and so experience the contrasting subjectivities within a single situation. So again, in a way, it was another variant of ‘you’ being used as ‘one’, the subtext being ‘if you (ie the reader, or anyone) were this person, then this is what you would experience and feel, but if you were this other person then this other thing is what you would think and feel.’ ‘Clarrie and You’ was intended as a different use again, this time simpler. The story was written as a result of an old lady telling me a story about her own life which she didn’t really understand, and so the story is an address: ‘you’ is not the narrator but another, the old lady protagonist with whom the narrator goes over what has happened, in order to help her give it shape and meaning. But I think in all of these situations there’s also on some level the possibility of reading ‘you’ as ‘I’, as first person, and what I was aiming at was a combination of universality and close identification for the reader. All of this sounds very theoretical, but it was all much more of a gut instinct, and the second person just arrived for me as the voice of each of the stories as I began.

DP: In Looking for the Castle, I had the sense that the you of the story was both the teller of the story and the person listening to it, as if the narrator was speaking solely to herself and we were somehow privy to those thoughts. Was this an effect on the reader that you were aiming for?

EB: This is the story that is closest to using ‘you’ as a substitute first person, but it isn’t quite that – a complete identification of ‘you’ with ‘I’ – because the story is about fragmented identity: there’s the child self the narrator has tried to put behind her, the adult self she became later (and now sees as mistaken), the yet older self looking back on the past in the ‘present’ time-level of the story, and, fourth, the wiser self who is now telling the story, having put it all together. So yes, she’s talking to herself, but in this case there’s a certain distancing in the ‘you’: she’s talking to herself about past, not present or current, selves from which in fact she feels divorced. So second person is not being employed to force the reader to identify with the narrator so much as to let the reader share her sense of her past selves as ‘other’ and/or lost.

DP: What was your starting point for ‘Looking for the Castle’ and what steps did you have to take when developing the story?

EB: I did actually go back to one of my childhood homes and found it all razed, and it was such an unexpectedly resonant and unsettling experience – with all sorts of challenges to my sense of myself! – that I simply had to write a story about it; it wouldn’t leave me alone. It took me a while, though, to develop an actual story to pin on the experience. I just had to wait for that to come to me.

DP: I particularly admire how you control the narrative in ‘Looking for the Castle’. Did you start the story with a strong sense of the structure and how you would deal with the multiple times that are described in the story, or did the structure emerge as you were writing?

EB: As far as the basic structure goes (ie swapping between time levels), I think it’s just how I think: I always see the past underlying the present, I’m always plagued by the connections. So once I got the story, the structure was obvious to me. But I did have a problem, in that I started out casting the main time level – in which the narrator visits her childhood home and thinks back – in the present tense. It’s a technique I’ve often used, but somehow on this occasion it just wasn’t working. It was only when I realized that this particular narrator-self, too, was a past self – that, in being able to put it all together and tell the story, she had moved on to yet another, wiser self – that I understood that all of it needed to be told in the past tense. It’s much easier to distinguish between past and present for the reader if you change the tenses, so then carrying the reader between the time levels became more tricky and required more care.

Elizabeth Baines

DP: As a returning contributor to the Unthology series, what brought you back, had you hitting submit once again?

EB: I’m a great admirer of Unthank’s mission to buck the trend for themed anthologies and word-count strictures, and their mission to provide a platform for a range of writing – it’s so freeing for writers! Unthology has become an important place to be published, and why wouldn’t you try to be in there?!

DP: What’s next for your writing?

EB: My next collection of stories, Used to Be, will come from Salt in September. (All of the stories referred to above will be in it.)

DP: What one piece of writing advice do you wish someone had given you when you were just starting out?

EB: When I first started writing stories it never occurred to me that when I came to publish a book of them I would need to think in marketing terms of a cohesive collection, so when I put my first collection together, Balancing on the Edge of the World, there were many that are important to me, and that were published in prestigious places, that I simply had to leave out. But in a way I’m glad I didn’t know: I’m not sorry that I wrote all those stories that still aren’t collected, and not at all sorry to have explored so freely my aesthetic and thematic concerns, and the immense possibilities of the short story.

Unthology 7 front cover-1

‘Looking for the Castle by Elizabeth Baines and “Free Hardcore’ by Dan Powell both appear in Unthology 7.

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