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.
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.