Monday, June 23, 2008

First Dates and Marriages

Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee of MPH have done an incredible job, interviewing the longlisted authors of short story collections nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize (in which of course MPH has a vested interest!).

The most recent interview is with Witi Ihimaera of New Zealand Aotearoa. I met Witi when he came to a Commonwealth literary conference (MACLALS?) some years ago. As a speaker, he just sparkled. (Would that all academics were in that mould.) And when I went to New Zealand some time later for my hols I picked up his novel Bulibasha : King of the Gypsies, a Maori western and romance (new genre there!) which I was so enjoying that I could hardly bear to tear my eyes from it to look at yet another snow-capped peak or turquoise lake. (Kidding I am but only just.)

Later I enjoyed Whale Rider, which as you will remember, got made into a film. Had to order the book from Amazon since it never made it to the shops here. (Why is it so hard to get fiction from other countries in the region??)

Sorry for the diversion. Now where were we?

Ah yes, short stories and Eric's blog. Well one of the questions Eric and May Lee are asking is about how short stories differ from novels. I really liked Witi's answer :
I believe that writing short stories requires the same commitment as writing a full-length novel. When I write a short story I put the same amount of thought, intensity and commitment into it as I do into a novel. So in Ask the Posts of the House you are getting seven “novels” as it were. One of the stories in my collection, “Ask the Posts of the House,” for instance, took five months to write. Others have been in my head for years, so the thinking process has actually taken as long as any novel I have written. On another level, I also think short stories are harder to write. They have to work so precisely at the micro level where all one’s faults and weaknesses can be exposed. With novels, I am able to obscure my faults with technical trickery and, I think, I can forgive myself a little easier for letting things pass that I wouldn’t pass in a short story.
Adam Marek, author of another shortlisted book, Instruction Manual for Swallowing, also talks about the greater need for precision in the short story :

There are so many analogies to draw between short stories and novels. How about this one: a short story is like a first date with someone you’re crazy about—you’ve only got their attention for a night; you can strive to be the perfect you, well-groomed, wearing your coolest outfit, smelling of something expensive. You can go out somewhere incredible and unexpected. You can reel off all your best anecdotes and make your date feel like the most magnificent creature on earth. And the kiss at the end of the night will be like no other kiss and you’ll always remember it. Writing a novel is like the relationship that comes after—you spend a long time with this person; your understanding of them is deep and rich; you get to know where all their moles are. But you can’t be perfect all the time. One foggy morning they walk in on you taking a shit and all your illusions fall away. I don’t think it’s possible to have a perfect novel, any more than it’s possible to have a perfect relationship. You can, however, have a perfect night.
There is so much good stuff in these interviews, I urge you to go over to Mr. Forbes' blog and read the whole lot! Even the official award site links Eric's interviews!

If you would like to actually read some excellent short fiction online, The New Yorker, always the best place to start, has Natasha, a hitherto unpublished story by Vladimir Nabokov (which you probably noticed a couple of blog readers raving about in the comments!).

And I also forgot until just (and apologise to both writer and blog readers!) but Preeta Samarasan sent me a link to her short story Fair Trade on the Ego magazine website which you really must read.


Anonymous said...

After reading Natasha in the New Yorker, you should check out the podcast section. Mary Gaitskill reads Nabokov's Symbols and Signs which is the best short story I have read todate.
Gaitskill explains why.

- rajan

Damyanti said...

Thanks for the links to the stories. I have been reading the interviews on Forbes' blog, and find them very interesting.