ON THE COUCH WITH ... Elizabeth BAINES
ELIZABETH BAINES was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is an occasional actor as well as the prize-winning author of plays for radio and stage, and of two novels, The Birth Machine (1985) and Body Cuts (1988). Her award-winning short stories have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. Balancing on the Edge of the World (Salt Publishing, 2007), her first 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 home in Manchester, England.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I subscribe to Google Alerts, and although I wasn’t alerted to the award web page, I was alerted to a blog which announced the news!
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
Well, of course I went and looked at the official page, and was immediately staggered to see some of the impressive names I was up against!
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
It’s a pretty long list, and I have to say I don’t know many of them, but I’m thrilled to discover how many collections of short stories are now being published, and look forward to reading many of them. There are collections on the list I know and love—Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing, for one. My publisher, Salt Publishing, who specialise in short stories (and poetry), have eight books on the list altogether, and two of them I have read: Carys Davies’s Some New Ambush and Vanessa Gebbie’s Words from a Glass Bubble—both stunning. I love and admire Anne Enright’s writing, so I know I’m going to relish her collection, Taking Pictures.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard of it the year Yiyun Lee won with A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. That’s a wonderful book.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
There’s a big difference, of course, not simply in length. It’s hard to generalise, but short stories employ a different kind of ‘grammar,’ as I call it, from that of novels—they’re more implicit and work more via association and ellipsis—rather, I suppose, in the way that poems do. So for me when I’m writing short stories I’m thinking in a different way from when I’m writing novels. When I write novels I’m often thinking forward, and the writing is a kind of rush forward, but when I’m writing a short story I feel as if I’m concentrating on the point where I’ve dropped a stone into a pool, and the view is clearing and widening as the circular rings move outwards.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. What are your thoughts on this?
I’m thrilled. Short stories are my first love, the first kind of writing I ever did, and the kind of writing I love to read. For a long time there seemed such a prejudice against the short story and of course print outlets became all but non-existent. I do wonder if the rise of literature on the Internet has had a lot to do with the resurgence of short stories, but I also think that the new blossoming of independent presses is partly responsible—an impressive number of the Frank O’Connor-longlisted books come from small independent presses.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
It’s impossible to say. Just to dip in: I love the short stories of Anne Enright, Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Alice Munro, Juno Diaz and plenty more ....
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 often hear the argument—usually from people trying to promote the short story—that short stories are ideally suited, indeed more suited than novels, to the pace of modern life, since our time is now limited. Stories suit the snatched periods we have now for reading, this argument goes, and for this reason it’s baffling that short stories don’t sell well. I think this is to misunderstand the nature of the short story. I have indicated that writing short stories takes a different kind of attention than that required for writing novels, a more contemplative, still kind of attention, and we need same kind of attention for reading them. It’s precisely the kind of attention we find it hard to give things nowadays, and in those snatched periods. But, in my opinion, if there’s one thing in this contemporary world we need to remember how to do it’s to contemplate, and so for me the short story has a very political role to play in our culture. And I do think it’s possible to sell stories, after all: I think it only takes the will to do so, and some inspired marketing—which I think my publishers, Salt Publishing, are proving!
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008