Interview with David Gaffney
TW: You’re best known for writing very, very short stories. I first came across your work when a student of mine at Salford recommended Sawn-off Tales (Salt) to me. I read them and was (excuse the pun) blown away. More recently you’ve been publishing longer things – looking at The Half-life of Songs, your latest collection of short fiction, the length of your pieces seems to be creeping up. Is that deliberate? Is the very short form ultimately limiting?
David Gaffney: I’m not sure. I know that lately I have found it more difficult to get things down to a 150 word format - the length I used in Sawn-off Tales - and my pieces tend to be now 500-1000 words, which I find a bit frustrating, especially when it comes to reading live because I enjoy reading the really short ones in a live setting. In a live setting I think it’s hard to concentrate on longer pieces of fiction – poetry works better as performance for the same reasons. You can grab hold of it and really explore it.
Sometimes when writing short fiction you are aiming to discover what the story really is, where it lives. Where is its beating heart? If you can excise a live, writhing sliver of 150 words from a bulky chunk of text then it’s a delight, but you don’t always find those nuggets. Very small stories are like tiny scampering animals with a constant need to eat and they are very tiring to look after. So yes, the short form does have its limitations. It reduces the time the reader gets to spend in the world of the story. You could probably reduce a lot of stories down to a few hundred words and keep the essence and the message. Here’s a 145 word version of Chekov’s the lady with the dog I just made now.
THE LADY WITH THE DOG
A new person appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri met her in the public gardens.
"May I give him a bone?" he asked; and when she nodded he asked courteously, "Have you been long in Yalta?"
"Let us go to your hotel," he said softly. And both walked quickly.
Afterwards they talked of how to avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception, for living in different towns and not seeing each other. It was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages. They both knew that in a little while the solution would be found, but it was clear that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.
What you lose with flash fiction is the cumulative effect, the richly textured world which a reader can think about while they are reading, adding their own thoughts and interpretation as they go, and comparing their life to the lives of the characters. With flash fiction the reader is in and out so fast the story doesn’t touch the sides, so a re-reading is often needed, but it doesn’t always happen. People tend to gulp flash fiction down quickly like oysters, one after another, and it has been said to me that my stories ‘do your head in’ if you consume them like this. In Sawn Off Tales there are 58 stories. That’s 58 settings, 58 sets of characters, 58 scenarios and 58 plots. It’s a lot to take in. But in a sense, as my style is similar, and some of the outsider-type themes to my stories are related, there is continuity. Although the characters might have different names and jobs, possibly they are in fact the same; there is a little sawn off world where all these people live, a kind of twin peaks crossed with the archers.
TW: And you’ve published a novel, Never Never (Tindal Street Press). Was the process of writing a sustained longer piece very different from the process of writing flash fiction?
DG: The writing of novels is incredibly different to producing short fiction. The main difference for me is you can’t sit and read the whole thing quickly, or experience it the way a reader will. A reader will read your novel in small chunks and you don’t know which chunks these are going to be. Engineering a novel feels like taking your whole house apart and laying all the bits flat on the floor to have a look at them and then putting it all back together again and doing this everyday while you are still trying to live in it, or like putting together a flatpack piece of furniture when you don’t know what the piece of furniture is for, or what it does, and you have no instructions and there always some bit left over and you don’t know where it goes. I’m writing a novel at the moment and I’m trying to make each chapter like a short story because it’s easier for me to focus on completing each part if I do that.
TW: Your work is resolutely contemporary – it takes place in the world we know, of Hula Hoops and benefit fraud, Aldi and Guardian Soulmates – but it’s also often very strange. Sometimes it seems to me to veer towards speculative fiction (like in ‘Special Pudding’, where the narrator tastes everything her lover eats – and puts on weight accordingly), but more often it’s about the oddity of real people, of characters who could really exist. Do you see yourself as a realist writer? Can you comment on your choice of material, setting, tone?
DG: You are right there are a few sci-fi type weird ones, but they are all rooted in reality. 'Special Pudding' was inspired by a large woman who sat opposite a tiny thin man in a restaurant in Budapest and ate everything on the menu while she nibbled at olives. I tried all kinds of ways to get it into a story, and I’m not so sure it works that well. After I’d written it Irvine Welsh wrote a novel with the same theme. I prefer the realist stuff, but sometimes your writing takes you in that direction. There really isn’t much control. I think that fiction - or any art - should not be fully knowable or understandable on a literal level, I think it works best and has more resonance, when it’s mysterious, when you don’t know what it means or why it’s there and you can’t put your finger on why your mind keeps coming back to it and bothering it, turning the ideas of the story over and ovcr and wondering why it disturbs, why it’s funny, what it is about. So with that in mind I always tends towards the obscure I think, be it fantastical or just plain humdrum weird. You can tell people what to think or you can make them think it. An example of a work of art that is annoyingly literal is I think the lyric to John Lennon’s song 'Imagine'. Here’s how I imagine its inception.
YOKO: Mmm I like the tune John, but what’s the words gonna be about?
JOHN: Well I want the song to make people imagine that there no heaven, no god and no countries. But I’m struggling with how make people imagine those things.
YOKO: Well what about you just say imagine there’s no heaven, imagine there’s no god above us and imagine there no countries?
JOHN: That sounds too easy. What if they can’t imagine it?
YOKO: Just say it’s easy if you try
JOHN: Ok that should work –job’s a good un. What should I call it?
YOKO: Call it the distillation of truth in an annihilating world
JOHN: Catchy - thanks
TW: Who are your own favourite writers of short fiction? What books should fans of your work be reading?
DG: I love the stories of Tania Hershman, but increasingly I’m influenced by the work of visual artists like David Shrigley and text-art type poets like Patrick Coyle and James Davies.
TW: You’ve worked ‘beyond the page’ with several projects – turning your stories into mini-operas, working in the medium of PowerPoint, turning real people’s confessions into short stories, telling stories via lost cat posters, and so on. Your latest project is a sound installation for Birmingham Book Festival. Will you tell me about that, and perhaps talk more generally about your interest in this sort of project? Is it important to you to work outside the traditional writing structure of desk–coffee–paper–brain? To work with other people?
DG: Yes, I really love the collaborative aspect to ‘off the page’ projects and also I like the fact that these projects are a great way to stimulate new ideas. There can be much more to writing than producing text for printed books and in some cases it’s a better way to reach people. More people might see a piece of text in an art gallery for example than on the pages of a slim volume in the little visited short story section of Waterstones. Literature can be really enhanced by linking it up with other platforms and formats. I am always trying to develop writing projects that flex with the culture and push at boundaries. My current projects include a sound installation for Birmingham book festival called Boy You Turn Me, a project with Cornerhouse Manchester called Errata Slips which will involve me inserting fictionalised errata slips into publications in Cornerhouse bookshop, a project for Preston Guild which consists of three interlinked stories which will continue for twenty years, and I’ve just finished a project at Manchester Piccadilly station called Station Stories a unique literature event using technology and live improvised electronic sound where six writers linked to the audience by wireless headphones technology take you on a tour of Piccadilly station and read specially commissioned stories inspired by the station and the people who use it and work there. Different artistic formats can converge into exciting new products no-one has ever seen before; an example might be the recent project ( not one of mine) linking car satellite navigation systems with stories about certain places, and the emerging iphone apps that use augmented reality to relate fictions about cities as we wander about and point the device at buildings. This way of working can mean coming up with really meaningful art form collaborations. I performed my PowerPoint stories project with a live free improvised music group. Having said all of this, I value a good quality printed product – something to hold and enjoy – which is why I enjoy the innovative design and graphic work of work of McSweeney’s printed books, for example, and also the work of graphic novelists like Daniel Clowes. In this world of transient digital ephemera people still want things they can touch and own and hold on to. And it’s not all about digital, which is the mistake some people make when trying to force freshness onto a writing project. Too many new developments are just printed stories on websites.