ON THE COUCH WITH ... Niki AGUIRRE
NIKI AGUIRRE is a London-based fiction writer, born in Chicago to Ecuadorian parents. She studied English Literature at the University of Illinois and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. Her début collection of short stories, 29 Ways to Drown, was published in 2007 by Flipped Eye Publishing and was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is the recipient of the Birkbeck Oustanding Achievement Award for Creative Fiction in 2006 and a grant from the Arts Council of England in 2007. Her short stories have been published in Tell Tales, Mechanics’ Institute Review, X-24: Unclassified and LITRO Magazine. Aguirre is currently working on her first novel.
Aguirre recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in London.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I returned from a wedding, a little tipsy from too much champagne, to find an e-mail from my publisher. I had to read it a few times to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
See champagne reference above. I did a little cabbage patch, ‘It’s your birthday, it’s your birthday,’ dance, before crashing. The next day I e-mailed family and friends and went out for a celebratory meal. Writers spend so much time willingly chained to our desks and laptops; it’s good now and then to step away and have fun.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them?
I recently read Vanessa Gebbie’s Words from a Glass Bubble and I’m currently reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth. I’m looking forward to Clare Wigfall’s The Loudest Sound and Nothing and Wena Poon’s Lions in Winter. The fantastic thing about the Frank O’Connor Award is having a whole list of new collections and authors to read.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I first heard about it during the 2006 Small Wonder Festival, which is three days in Charleston completely devoted to short stories. Miranda July’s win last year for No One Belongs Here More Than You was also well publicised.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
Timing is crucial. In shorts you can’t get as carried away or ramble as much as you you’re allowed to in a novel. Short stories require decisiveness and precision. You have to make choices (often brutal) about what goes and what stays. A good story is like watching an Olympic gymnastics routine—years of training for a few breathtaking seconds, which could culminate in a spectacular fall or a flawless finish. You never know. In such a small space, everything counts; everything is possible. It is both exciting and terrifying to try to fill it with what you want to say. A longer narrative has interesting side streets to weave in and out of—pit stops and places where you unravel and tease out the telling. Timing is also important, but in a different way. As a reader, I am more forgiving of inconsistencies in the longer form. In 300 pages there are bound to be a few highs and lows, right? As long as I’m hooked on the narrative, I’ll continue. Most challenging in a novel is being able to sustain the energy and excitement I get from writing a short story.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers tend to publish their short-story collections after publishing their novels. What are your thoughts on this?
My first love is short stories. I love reading them. I love writing them. Until recently—minus a few painful years at university when I dressed in black and fancied myself a poet—that’s all I’ve ever wanted to write. So I’m glad I published my collection first before trying my hand at a novel. I hope to continue writing both. But to answer your question, I know there are short-story writers out there who feel they have to wrestle with a novel first in order to be taken seriously. This is partly because the publishing industry keeps insisting short stories don’t sell, so writers pen a few novels that will secure them agents and publishing deals, after which it is permissible to publish a collection. The opposite also happens, where unknown writers cut their teeth on short stories in order to get their name out. While this is a great experience that teaches the value of succinct prose and economy of language, few writers seldom return to the form after a novel. Without subsequent collections it is difficult to note progression. I don’t want to imagine a world where Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor stopped writing stories to dedicate themselves only to novels. I’d read them still—they are great writers—but what a loss! On a positive note, I was thrilled to find that the U.K. has an unprecedented 14 books on the Frank O’Connor list. That gives me hope that the short story is on the rise and on the way to becoming respectable again. The U.K. has often lagged behind the U.S. in terms of publications and outlets for writers of shorts. With the increase of small independent publishers and live events taking place in London, exciting things are starting to happen.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
That’s a tough question. I’d have to say it’s a tie between Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat and Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones. Both leave me awestruck for different reasons. Gogol because of his ability to combine humour with hopelessness, and Borges for his amazing ideas and the twisted worlds he introduces to his unsuspecting readers. To me these writers embody the things I love most about the form: dazzling intellects, amazing imaginations and heartbreakingly beautiful prose. And all in a few pages!
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?
Yes, I think publishers have a hard time selling collections, particularly small presses, which don’t have the big budgets or resources of the larger publishing houses. In addition, it is difficult to market collections from unknown writers. It is challenging to get people to review them and almost impossible to get them well-placed in brick-and-mortar bookstores, which often only want to stock books that sell by the thousands. The good news is that a lot of collections sell through word of mouth and self-promotion—so despite what the industry says, they do sell. I think one of the ways to get the word out is through high-profile events, like the Frank O’Connor, which highlights international writers. Readings are another way to publicise stories and a good place to network and meet other writers. I had the opportunity last year to read at the Brooklyn Book Fair and that was great fun. Finally, places that review shorts are very good for exposing new collections, such as The Short Story Review.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008