A look at the pros, cons and possibilities of short story anthologies and publication with Declan Meade, Orfhlaith Foyle, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Tania Hershman, chaired by Billy Ramsell.
O: I was in the midst of trying to write my second novel and I found myself writing bits of short stories instead. Nuala was the editor for Horizon Review and she suggested I sent something in. -I wrote and sent in The Secret Life of Madame Defarge. I had to put the novel aside to complete it, then sent it off to my editor at Lilliput press as a kind of proof that I was still writing. He sent it on to Joseph O’Connor and that’s how I was included. Joseph asked if I had anything else. I’d been wrestling with another idea and wrote The Summer in Minnesota. It had been part of this novel outline but when I saw it in its nugget form, I was able to write it as a short story in a couple of weeks, fully expecting not to be included. It was beyond my dreams to be included really. It was a great boost because it told me I’m still a writer; you do get very down days as a writer because you sometimes feel you’re just repeating themes and writing them in the same way. Writers have a theme and although you try to get away from it, it’ll drag you back.
How would you describe or identify the themes you write about?
O: I think my themes are quite visceral; it’s love, it’s sex (even though my family think it shouldn’t be), death, loneliness and wanting to belong or not having the ability and failing at the last moment. Redemption, failing yourself. I was quite surprised to find family and ruined families are big themes – but families are a microcosm of the world; everything that happens can be related back to family Sometimes I wish I could be more of an academic or political writer but there’s no point trying to be what I’m not.
Declan, what was your procedure behind The Stinging Fly anthologies – how did they come together?
D: With both of those early anthologies we had open submission calls. The magazine was set up in 1998 and in 2005 we decided to set up the book publishing imprint. The short story has always been central to what The Stinging Fly does. With the press, we printed a special fiction issue of the magazine; it was part of establishing the identity of the press, to show it was going to continue its commitment to the short story. I edited the first two anthologies – so it was what responded to, what I thought was good, not in any way going for a theme, that got included. The interesting bit for me is trying to place the stories, create a logic behind the sequencing.
Do you suggest changes to authors?
D: Yes. In the very early days I was more tentative about the editing process – in Issue 4 I had one writer who was horrified that I’d suggest changes and refused flat out that any changes could be made. I’m not suggesting changes for the heck of it; I’m trying to tap in to what the writer is trying to do; it’s usually tuning into the voice and making sure the voice is consistent throughout. Some stories come in and you know that you want to publish them but you can see that they still need a lot of work – but there’s a kernel there and you want to publish even though you think the story isn’t ready at the moment. In that situation, I go back to the writer and say go again – send in a completely revised draft – and that usually works. It’s an opportunity for the writer to go at their story again and the writers appreciate that opportunity. There’s deadlines etc and sometimes they might have rushed it to get considered.
What did you think of the Granta Anthology?
N: I really like the Granta anthology – and I love Anne Enright – but what annoyed me was that no one under 40 was included; which is suggesting to people outside of Ireland under the age of 40. I was annoyed for young writers who are doing their best; though in Anne Enright’s defense, she read a huge number of stories and she was very thorough in her work. She ended up with her selection which she did say in the foreword. She did a panel on the anthology recently and the lack of Irish language was brought up – Anne admitted she did ignore Irish language stories and perhaps would have done it differently if asked to do it again. But the Irish language is something that all Irish anthologies, and festivals, should be taken into consideration. Also, new writers need to be included. There are plenty of people who buy anthologies to discover new writers. So when people come to this and all they’re getting is the people they already know about; where’s the helping of the newer people? It’s important to look past writers but it’s important to talk about writing today. that’s why Stinging Fly is important because it’s committed to new writers (not ‘young writers’) and that’s how it should be. Why ignore or exclude good writers because they’re not yet famous? But saying that, I do love it; I have it on my bedside.
The other night, Alexander McLeod talked about how Canada has too much geography and not enough history, but in Ireland there’s an over supply of history and short supply of geography…do you think Irish literature reflects modern society?
N: I’d say for myself, or for Orla, or Pat Cotter as a poet; we look outwards rather than inwards. My stories will be set in America, for example, and so sometimes your work won’t be included in anthologies because they’re not considered Irish enough. This is frustrating.
D: In relation to the urban-rural writing, there were 500 plus stories last year sent into The Stinging Fly and there was a distinct lack of contemporary Dublin stories. There was no great sense of the city whereas the country appeared time and again. Going back to what Nuala said, there are quite a few story writers have consistently fallen outside of that expectation of traditional ‘Irishness’, and the expectation of style. That’s why we need as many people as possible to take up the challenge of getting involved in publishing or editing. We had a guest editor for our third anthology – so that brought in new writers that wouldn’t have submitted if I had been editing – so it’s important I keep that avenue open.
Tania – could you tell us a little about the Short Review?
T: It happened in 2007; in June of that year I got the life-changing news that Salt wanted to publish my first short story collection and I was in so much shock that I couldn’t write! So I thought; I’d like to do something for the short story. I realised that short story publications don’t often get reviewed so I thought I’d set up an online journal that reviews all such books, new and old, and now we publish ten reviews every month. It’s a totally random selection and we try to interview as many of the authors as possible as well. Even big name authors have been happy to get their collections reviewed because despite their popularity, they’re struggling too in this genre. Every time I despair a bit about how much time it takes for me and my deputy editor to set it up, I’m just so happy about the number of anthologies out there.
Nuala, when you were interviewing Valerie Trueblood, you mentioned charity anthologies in a negative light…
N: I was talking about the type of charity anthology that invites celebrity authors and invites people who don’t write at all. They wanted light and frothy. These get huge publicity and people buy them – and we wonder why people don’t like short stories – it’s because they’re not necessarily reading good short stories. There are two anthologies coming out – Dedalus’ Shine On and one by Console which asked the like of Colm Tobin and Anne Enright to be involved; they’re doing a charity anthology in the proper way. I don’t think non short story writers should be asked to write short stories to fill gaps. But there are also great things you can do as a writer such as the recent 1000 Stories for Haiti where you donate a story – it’s great to be able to help out with a world catastrophe like that.
(Audience question) There’s a problem with long short stories getting long stories (8000 plus) published – what is the panelists advice?
N: There’s One Story in America, and Picador Shots but it’s hard; even if you get a story in the New Yorker – you get it cut down. You can try to ask editors to be lenient with upper limit – if your story blows them away, they might include it. Editors are all the time thinking about space. Do you give one person an 8000 word spot or three people a 2500 word slot each? It’s difficult.
Is there a danger that there’ll be a number of writers who never truly emerge because they’re shackled by writing short stories to satisfy editors?
D: The writer must decide – the writer has to get the work out there but a writer cannot exist by thinking an editor will like such a style/story/length etc so that’s what I’ll write. That’s not sustainable for anyone. You have to carry on and write the stories you want to write in the way you want to write them. You have to make your stories the best they can be – that’s the only route you can take. You’ll come across obstacles, of course, but that’s life.
N: …and being in anthologies is unusual – it’s not something that happens early in your writing career. It comes after a few years.
D: Anthologies like Faber are under pressure to have names in there and to showcase new people; but it’s not an open call. It’s down to how a big publisher will operate; it’s hard to sell a book anyway, never mind a book of unknown writers. People are hesitant about embracing new writing; they need to be nudged towards it. The Stinging Fly has built up it’s name so people have come to trust something from their press. It’s business.
(Audience question) As short story writers, can you live behind your work or do you have to be out there to promote it?
T: I was interviewed recently about the concept of literary platform; when my book came out I did everything I could – blogs, website, blog tours, interviews – and it can go on and on and seem endless. But I don’t think the book would have sold at all if I hadn’t. Blogs have been so useful to me and Nuala…
N: You spend so long writing the stories but you’d be mad not to come out of the cave and promote your work by getting behind it. People act as though it’s new but Charles Dickens was a notorious self promoter. You have to support your work.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
O: Growing up, I loved short stories. Some people want resolution at the end of a resolution at the end of a short story and you don’t get that in a short story; you make a razor cut into a characters life and all you see is what’s in that cut. They’re not necessarily depressing but they make people think and feel; there are plenty of people out there who love short stories but they’re not publicised enough. I just think it’s a pity that short stories aren’t lauded enough – it’s the same as literary fiction. There are marvelous writers out there and they’re undiscovered and that’s where The Stinging Fly comes it. I remember being delighted when I had a story accepted by The Stinging Fly. I love it when an editor comes back and suggests changes; it means they’ve been reading my work.
T: It’s lovely to talk about short stories. I want to talk about some of the most exciting anthologies I’ve come across, like one that I was included in that was inspired by string theory. It was an incredible thrill because I thought I was alone in taking inspiration in science. I’ve been writer in residence in a bio chemistry lab so I’ve been hanging out with scientists for a year and it’s been incredibly inspiring. I applied for a grant for short stories based on science and about 50 short shorts. All linked to bio chemistry in some way. I highly recommend any writer to experience these worlds of the lab. It’s like another planet and they use beautiful words. Being there as a writer, I don’t have to know what they mean – I can just take them and use them. The range of anthologies is huge; there’s the ‘best of’s’…then there’s things like The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction, Victorian Vampire Fiction, Getting Even revenge stories, Master’s of Technique (short stories inspired by chess) etc. There’s a whole wealth or anthologies. Being part of an anthology is very exciting and the small presses are so enthusiastic and vigorous and you feel like you’re part of something; more so than when you publish your own book and are solely responsible for the promotion. There are lots of calls for submissions on themes – it’s inspiring for me to work with these themes because even if it doesn’t get published you have a new piece of work. And, you do get paid – which is great for any writer – even if it’s a tiny amount.
Recommended anthologies from the panel:
N: My Mistress’s Sparrow – a collection of love stories (wedding present) and Cutting the Night – an anthology of Irish women writers
T: Freedom by Amnesty International and a range of Flash Fiction titles including Sudden Fiction and Sudden Fiction International
O: The recent Faber anthology
D: Best American Stories (various years and the decade edition), The Art of the Story, The Art of the Tale (for the brilliant range and international reach), Frank O’Connor edited Irish Short Story, British Short Stories edited by Malcolm Bradbury.