ON THE COUCH WITH ... Clare WIGFALL
CLARE WIGFALL was born in Greenwich, London, in the summer of 1976. She grew up in Berkeley, California, and London, lived in Prague for some time, and now lives in Berlin. Her first book, The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber and Faber, 2007), is a collection of disturbing and darkly provocative stories. This collection was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
The British author recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her new home in Berlin, Germany.
How did you find out about the longlist?
When my book first came out a friend told me about Google Alerts so I set one up for the title of my collection—it lets me know whenever it receives a mention on the web. So it was actually Google who drew my attention to the list—sending a link right into my mailbox.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
I wrote to tell my family in London and they wrote back immediately, so we had a little buzz of excited e-mails batting back and forth.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
The Frank O’Connor has a history of highlighting new talent, so it’s heartening to see this tradition continuing with a longlist that honours a number of début authors alongside some very well-established names. I’m familiar with a few of the writers, but the majority are new to me, so I feel I have a lot to discover.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
More familiar than most, perhaps. I had the honour of being invited to read at the 2007 Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, where they award the prize each year. My collection had only been released the previous week and it was one of my first public readings—I was absolutely terrified and giddy with excitement in equal measure! I had an extraordinary time. I was struck by how dearly Ireland holds the short story in high regard, even though perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me because Ireland is a nation of born storytellers (just spend a night in an Irish pub and you’ll see what I mean!). It was a thrill to be amongst people who loved and respected the short-story form—that felt very special. The award is still young, but each year it’s growing in international renown and I think that’s wonderful and important as it’s angling a spotlight on a literary form which deserves more of the world’s attention.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s much more difficult to write a good short story than it is to write a novel, but I haven’t written a novel yet so I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly writing a short story presents its own specific challenges. One aspect I appreciate is the economy of the form; the story must create a world, a mood, a plot, wholly-real characters, an exploration of life and its complexities, and all within the space of only a few pages. There’s something almost beautifully mathematical and precise about it, and what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. For that reason, I suppose in a way your safety net is taken away, because when you write a short story you’re relying on an unknown quantity: your reader. With a novel you have the space to fill in all the gaps, with a short story you’re forced to leave these for your reader to complete—the difficulty for the author is getting the balance perfectly right, creating something that will satisfy. This is probably what makes short stories—when they’re written well—such an intellectually demanding form of literature, and I suspect is why so many readers shun them. Those who like to stretch their minds and imaginations when they read often feel passionately about the form. A great short story may be brief, but it demands and relies upon personal investment from the reader. I believe this is why the very best short stories can haunt you long after you’ve read the concluding line, because so much of the experience is not just about the words on the page, but is individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read. There’s something magical about that.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, it’s an odd phenomenon, and a pleasing one—it does seem that readers are growing more interested in short stories. There’s been much in the British press recently about how short stories are coming back in vogue. Simon Prosser, an editor at Hamish Hamilton, has even gone so far as to say that the short-story form is “better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel.” Perhaps he’s right. When our time is so much in demand, there’s something very satisfying about how well short stories can fit into our busy lives. You can read one on the commute to work, in bed before you turn out the light, as you wait in a doctor’s office, you can even download them from the internet and listen to them as podcasts (the PRI’s Selected Shorts or the New Yorker story podcasts are some of my favourites), and somehow because a story can be enjoyed in its entirety in this time slot it feels like the time has really been used to its full. The increase in high-profile novelists releasing story collections is definitely positive as it helps to introduce new readers to the form, and increases public respect for it, but I do wish publishers would take more risks with debut story writers. It’s still very difficult to succeed as a young writer if you’re writing short stories. But as the renown of prizes like the Frank O’Connor increases this will definitely help as it offers publishers much-needed exposure for their new writers, so I’m hopeful that slowly, slowly things are changing.
What is your favourite short story or short-story collection?
This is a tough question. I’m afraid I’m not very good at picking favourites. I love J.D. Salinger’s stories—I’ve read all but one: “Teddy.” I want to save that one because I know that once I’ve read it I might never again have the pleasure of reading something by Salinger that is totally new to me. But there are so many other short-story writers I love and look up to, such as Alice Munro, Claire Keegan, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, and I always recommend people to read Truman Capote’s stories—they haven’t received the attention of his longer works, but they’re brilliant.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
I believe the main problem is that short-story collections rarely receive the kind of exposure necessary to achieve strong sales or recognition. There are a myriad number of reasons why this is the case, but I also think that too often short stories are marginalised, deemed to be of minority appeal and therefore marketed as such, so it’s no surprise that they sell poorly. The irony is that when a collection does receive the kind of high-profile media attention and in-store promotion usually reserved for the novel, its sales can be comparably strong; look at the success of Jhumpa Lahiri’s two collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, for instance—they’ve achieved phenomenal sales, deservedly so, and totally disprove any notion that short stories can’t be popular. If the writing is of exceptional quality, there is clearly a large audience out there who aren’t put off by it taking the form of stories. So why does the myth prevail that people won’t buy short-story collections? People don’t buy them because they don’t hear about them, I suspect it’s as simple as that. I know it’s a many-layered problem, and you can point the finger of blame in a number of directions, but I think that if publishers really want to start seeing a change then they have to stop being defeatist and start taking more risks. If they truly believe in a writer, whether they’re writing stories or novels or something else entirely shouldn’t be of consequence. This is a great book, they should be telling us, this is writing you must read. If they shout loud enough, I think people will start to listen.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008