I interviewed author, editor and teacher Melanie Whipman about short stories and writing. Melanie lectures at Chichester University, judges fiction competitions and is commissioning editor for The Story Player. Her short stories, which have been broadcast on Radio 4 and published in numerous magazines, are now appearing as a collection called Llama Sutra. She is currently editing her novel, written during her MA in Creative Writing, that was awarded the Kate Betts Prize.
Leslie: In your view, who are the great, classic short story writers? Why them?
Melanie: There are so many to choose from – both classic and contemporary. I love Chekhov, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Sarah Hall, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Helen Dunmore, David Constantine, Tania Herschman… I could go on and on… They have different styles. Some write rich, lyrical prose, some have that understated ‘stripped back’ style. But the one thing they all share, is their ability to shine a lens on some small moment of life, which is often seemingly insignificant, yet which says something profound about humanity.
Leslie: What would you say are the principle characteristics of your own debut collection Llama Sutra?
Melanie: When Ink Tears asked me to produce a collection, I thought it would be easy at first. I had dozens of stories I’ve written over the years, and, as I have a tendency to focus on marginalized and transgressive characters who inhabit societal borderlands, I thought they would automatically be connected through theme and style. However, making the selection proved very tricky. I’d just started my PhD and I was spending 25hrs a week examining short story collections and cycles. I was looking for unifying threads – motifs, symbols, recurring characters, settings, landscapes, themes; I was examining the subtext, trying to discover connections.
So I became over-critical about my own collection. I spent hours editing stories that had already won or been shortlisted for literary competitions. When I finally made my selection, there was the challenge of how to order them. I wanted the collection to be more than the sum of its parts. To flow like a symphony. But instead I was struck by prosaic practicalities. Do you put your ‘best’ story first? Or save it to last? Do you vary the tone? Or does moving from pathos to surreal humour jar the reader? And let’s face it, it’s the reader who’s important here. A good writer never underestimates the intelligence of the reader. And I believe a literary short story demands a particularly active and intelligent reader. In a collection, the interstices between the stories are vital. They provide a space for readers to collect their thoughts, before they move on to the next piece. I believe the stories almost act as stepping stones through the thematic current. So with this in mind, the order of the collection was absolutely crucial.
The themes that run through the collection are the ‘the outsider’, acts of transgression, the natural world, liminality and borderlands. Landscape’s important to me – how it impacts on my characters. It works to reflect or represent them. Metaphorically. Water is present in most of the stories. Whether in the form of rivers or seas, to me water suggests borderlands. The space and light on the coast has an impact on the tone of the stories. I’m from Brighton, and I love the way the sea creates a perpetual sense of movement and change. It’s the opposite of stasis. There’s a sense of freedom and possibilities. And there are the animals, of course: lions, llamas, storks, parrots, turtles, birds, elephants, a deer, a singing fish, and a bull. And sexuality. Hence the name: Llama Sutra. ‘Sutra’ literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. I thought it was apt for a collection of short stories.
Leslie: You use Magic Realism in your stories. What do you think are the advantages and possible dangers of this approach to fiction?
Melanie I don’t think there are any dangers. We’re exposed to magic realism almost from the moment we’re born. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, legends, bible stories. These are stories that are part of our collective heritage. I love tapping into these communal narratives, taking myths and fairy tales and giving them a contemporary twist. I think that yoking a modern woman’s views with ancient myths creates a sense of universality and emphasizes our narrative heritage. There are several of these stories in my collection. The idea of the surreal erupting into everyday life works well with my themes of transgression and borderlands. It seems to enhance that sense of dislocation that I’m intrigued by. I want the reader to be as unsettled as my protagonists; magic realism can facilitate this.
Leslie: What are you looking for in competitions you judge?
Melanie: Obviously something original and well written, but I guess it’s more about what I’m not looking for. No clichés, no padding, and easy on the abstracts and adverbs. It needs to be a story where something actually happens. Even in the most pared back, ‘slice of life’, ‘glimpse in passing’ stories, there has to be a sense of change. And conflict – be it internal or external.
Of course, ideally, whether the story is funny or sad or dark or light, it will be layered with subtle symbolism, and will say something profound about the frailty of humankind!
However, I have to say that entering competitions is always a lottery. Most of the decent literary competitions have a team of people sifting through thousands of entries to whittle the avalanche of hopefuls down to a manageable short list. So in reality, the chances are, the named judge or judging panel won’t ever set eyes on your hard-worked piece. You just have to hope that something about your story ‘stands out’ and that the ‘reader’ whose desk your story lands on happens to like your style – be it lyrical, sparse, humorous – then you have to hope that someone in the judging panel is of the same mien.
Having said that, clearly research helps. You’re not going to send a romantic tear-jerker to ‘Dark Tales,’ and you’re not going to send your sparse, hard-hitting kitchen soap drama to ‘Yours’ magazine. However, competitions like the Bristol and the Bridport and the Fish, all have different judges every year, so researching their ‘style’ isn’t necessarily going to help matters.
Leslie: Do you think writers should always ‘show not tell’? Do you think they should write ‘stripped back’ prose modelled on authors such as Hemmingway and Raymond Carver?
Melanie: I absolutely believe in the old adage ‘show don’t tell.’ As writers we need to paint a picture in words. We need to ‘show’ our reader. I love the sparse prose of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, but I also love the rich lyricism of David Constantine and Sarah Hall. Sometimes I crave stillness, but other times I want to read writing that demands applause. Not showmanship, but beautiful and surprising imagery and metaphors.
Leslie: What approaches have helped you towards finding your individual voice as a writer?
Melanie: Read, read, read! Dave Swann, a lecturer at the University of Chichester and judge at the Bridport Prize, used to say ‘if you have the arrogance to write, have the humility to read.’ I totally agree. It is only by reading widely that we can develop and enhance our own craft.
Next week’s interview will be with Alaskan blues/soul singer Kelly Moneymaker who has shared stages and collaborated with Todd Rundgren, Diana Ross, George Clinton, Keith Urban and Ringo Starr.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here