New Strange Places: An Interview with Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders is that rare beast. He writes only short fic­tion. Rarer still, his short fic­tion is con­sist­ently excel­lent. His first antho­logy Brother, What Strange Place is This? (2004), received rave reviews upon pub­lic­a­tion, such as my own in Spike Magazine:

This fine col­lec­tion should prove thought-pro­vok­ing and sad, music­al and ener­vat­ing. A kal­eido­scope of lives, twis­ted but bright, and a worthy debut.

Tom’s new antho­logy is called Roof Whirl Away. It com­prises twenty-six stor­ies set in vari­ous times, places, and worlds. One of my favour­ite is ‘Tick Tock’, which begins with the line: ‘The cro­codile took the man on a busy Sunday after­noon in the park.’

I asked Tom if he’d like to be inter­viewed for This Writing Life.

Shall we do an email ten­nis inter­view? Feel free to expand your answers into any ran­dom ter­rit­ory.

Okay, ten­nis.

How did you come to be a writer? Is it some­thing you’d always wished to be, or can you trace it back to a par­tic­u­lar moment?

It took me a very long time to start writ­ing. Far too long, you’d have to say. I was just an ordin­ary kid raised on a coun­cil estate, a Secondary Modern boy. Writing wasn’t ever really an option. It wasn’t some­thing that ser­i­ously occurred to me, to be truth­ful, although I’ve always been an avid read­er. After I left sec­ond­ary school I wrote the occa­sion­al let­ter and that was it. I didn’t knock out a suc­ces­sion of five-hun­dred page nov­els as a child. There are no exer­cise books filled with jot­tings, no secret diar­ies or journ­als. The attic isn’t packed wall-to-wall with my col­lec­ted juven­il­ia. I didn’t write my first story until I was thirty-eight years old. I was doing a degree in English at the time and there was a large notice­board in our stu­dent com­mon-room and someone sug­ges­ted start­ing a wall magazine. They wanted stor­ies and I had an idea so I sat down and wrote the story. People seemed to like it and I wrote sev­er­al more. Later, when I was offered a post-gradu­ate grant to do an MA I man­aged to get on the Creative Writing course at UEA and that set me down the road I’ve trav­elled ever since.

Can you tell us a little about what it’s like to study a Creative Writing MA? Obviously, not all are the same, but what was it like for you? Which aspects of the craft can be improved in a teach­ing envir­on­ment?

Malcolm Bradbury used to say that one of the most import­ant things about a cre­at­ive writ­ing course is that it dram­at­ises the notion of being a writer for the stu­dent. You’re there for a year and you’re treated as a writer by the staff and by your peers. This is very lib­er­at­ing and it gives you a heightened sense of pur­pose and worth. This was espe­cially so for the MA at UEA, as it was the first one of note in the UK and hard to get on to. In my day, we just wrote what we wanted to and then took turns, two stu­dents at a time, to bring it to the writ­ing work­shop. It could be a com­plete short story or an excerpt from a longer piece or nov­el. There were no writ­ing exer­cises or pro­jects or form­al les­sons on tech­nique or gram­mar or whatever as some people seem to ima­gine. Just our own writ­ing. Malcolm would guide the dis­cus­sion and make gen­er­al points in a non-con­front­a­tion­al way. The work­shops were tough some­times, but nev­er angry or less than object­ive. Other writers are always the best crit­ics and bad habits are soon exposed. There was noth­ing taught on the course that wouldn’t have become appar­ent to us as writers even­tu­ally, but hav­ing the spot­light put on your work with a cer­tain amount of rigour and intens­ity surely saved us a lot of time. The second part of the course took the form of one-on-one tutori­als with Angela Carter. Angela was more con­front­a­tion­al, but still kind. You had to learn when to cave in on a bad idea or how to stick up for your­self when you really believed in what you were doing. I think what she really wanted was to instil a sense of com­mit­ment in us, a pas­sion for writ­ing and our own ideas.

That sounds like a fant­ast­ic start for a writer. You men­tion the pas­sion for writ­ing and for ideas. That, I guess, is the art. But there’s the busi­ness of writ­ing too — the eco­nom­ic forces, the luck and the graft. Many people wouldn’t both­er try­ing. How have you main­tained your pas­sion for writ­ing?

Ah yes, the busi­ness side of writ­ing, can’t claim to be a suc­cess at that. Without par­tic­u­larly want­ing to I ended up as a short story writer. This in a coun­try that has more or less giv­en up sup­port­ing the short form. I’ve writ­ten two nov­els, but nov­els are not what I do well and quite rightly they haven’t been pub­lished. I now love writ­ing short stor­ies and I think you can do things with a short story that you just can’t do with a nov­el. There’s a focus and yet there’s also a kind of poet­ic dis­cre­tion. A short story can move you and leave you think­ing in a way a nov­el rarely can. As for main­tain­ing a pas­sion for writ­ing, I wish I could say that I have always main­tained my pas­sion. The truth is, it’s been very hard to keep going in the face of a gen­er­al dis­in­terest from the pub­lish­ing industry. Without a nov­el prom­ised in the pipeline, short story col­lec­tions are nearly always passed on by the major pub­lish­ing houses and agents have no interest in short story writers. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of sup­port and encour­age­ment from the people who’ve actu­ally taken the time to read my work. Also from UKA who pub­lished my first col­lec­tion. But most import­antly from my wife who has sup­por­ted me fin­an­cially.

Can you tell us a little about how the pub­lic­a­tion pro­cess works for a book of short fic­tion? One might think that short fic­tion is less likely to be re-shaped by an edit­or than, for instance, a nov­el. Did you find the pro­cess rel­at­ively straight­for­ward?

Have to pass on this one as I’ve nev­er been edited by a pro­fes­sion­al edit­or. With UKA I was edited by a fel­low mem­ber and the latest book was pub­lished by my wife’s tiny pub­lish­ing com­pany (which mainly con­cen­trates on re-pub­lish­ing out-of-print works by Victorian nov­el­ist and nat­ur­al­ist Richard Jefferies) and she edited it. The only tex­tu­al changes that were made in the edit­ing pro­cess on both occa­sions were typos.

Can you tell us some­thing about the cre­at­ive pro­cess involved in writ­ing your short fic­tion? Does it begin with a char­ac­ter, an image, a situ­ation?

My stor­ies are very var­ied and the ideas for them come in a vari­ety of ways. The first per­son stor­ies do often start with the character’s voice. You get a new voice and the story just evolves out of this. They’ll intro­duce them­selves in some way in the first sen­tence and then, if you’ve got the voice right and you’re com­fort­able in it, you’re off and run­ning, going who knows where. But images can trig­ger a story, the vis­ion of a place you’ve been to or some­thing seen in a film or TV, a place that seems some­how res­on­ant, story-filled. Books can set me off on a story also, idea-wise rather than style-wise. I’m far too lazy to copy someone else’s style if it’s a nov­el and my ideas are usu­ally very oblique and the thing that’s got me going is nev­er recog­nis­able in the fin­ished story. I’ve also star­ted with a situ­ation and just plonked some voices down in it and cre­ated their char­ac­ters on the wing out of what they say and how they inter­act. Once, and only once so far, I dreamt the first line of a story and then had to go on from there and find a way of jus­ti­fy­ing it. The main thing for me, as I nev­er write dir­ectly out of my own life using actu­al people and events, is to trick the ima­gin­a­tion into begin­ning to invent with some sort intriguing spark, some­thing that will make me want to carry on and see where I’m going to end up. I’m always look­ing to go some­where I haven’t been before, for a chal­lenge if you like. Sometimes you start some­thing and it simply doesn’t take off and you have to leave it. I couldn’t just write one sort of story. As a read­er I don’t mind writers who go deep into one par­tic­u­lar area or type of story, I like it even, but I can’t do that myself. I’d be bored and it’s just not some­thing I feel or am good at. It’s import­ant to find your own ter­rit­ory as a writer, I feel.

Thanks, Tom. You pick up a copy of Roof Whirl Away in vari­ous places, includ­ing Amazon.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

5 thoughts on “New Strange Places: An Interview with Tom Saunders”

  1. I really enjoyed this inter­view. Thanks. Tom is one of my favor­ite short story writers. You can’t go wrong pick­ing up either of his col­lec­tions.

  2. A really inter­est­ing inter­view with one of my favour­ites. I can recom­mend both col­lec­tions of short stor­ies.

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