It’s a huge pleasure to welcome the brilliant Dan Powell to the blog today. You may remember me mentioning him and his debut collection, Looking Out of Broken Windows, a little while ago when I talked about my words being on his cover. This, incidentally, is what I said:
‘Looking Out of Broken Windows is a sparkling debut by a writer with a hugely interesting mind. Its stories are wide-ranging and varied – from the heart breaking to the hilarious, the sombre and the magical, they all touch you in precisely the right places.’
Well, Looking Out of Broken Windows is published very soon (March 15th – you can pre-order here) and Dan’s here to talk about his life in short fiction (as I did with him a little while ago.) So, let’s do it…
The first short stories I remember reading would be the ones included in the Spike Milligan books of the sixties. My Dad was a big fan and as I grew up in the seventies he would read the poems and stories from A Dustbin of Milligan, The Little Pot Boiler, and Bedside Milligan to me and my brother and sister. I remember borrowing them and disappearing off to a corner of the house to dig in to the weird and wacky stuff behind those great cartoon covers. I remember the mad creativity of the stories and how funny they were, but even then, as a child, I was aware of the sense of sadness in some of the tales. Reading about Spike Milligan’s life as I grew up, and talking to my dad about him, I soon understood where the sadder, darker side of his writing came from. That said, the overriding quality in his work is the real and tangible joy of playing with language. There’s a reason why there has never been a funnier radio show than The Goons. I’d recommend ‘The Great Man’ from A Dustbin of Milligan, ‘Once Upon’ from The Little Pot Boiler, and ‘The Singing Foot’ from The Bedside Milligan. Looking back at these books, I realise I was reading flash fiction way back when I was still at primary school.
2. The short story that turned you on to writing short fiction.
It was actually a collection published back in 1998, rather than a single story, that switched me on to short fiction: Michel Faber’s Some Rain Must Fall. It was the first collection that I read from cover to cover, devouring every story. The blurb on the back talks about Faber’s ‘astonishing variety of themes, characters and styles’ and it’s not wrong. There’s gritty realist stories in there, rubbing shoulders with imaginative, powerful sci-fi and fables. The stories move between playful humour, tense drama and into out and out fantasy. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say that the title story, ‘Some Rain Must Fall’, with it’s delicate handling of tragedy, and ‘Toy Story,’ with its sheer exuberance and confidence of narrative as it follows a child God at play in the universe, were the stories that rally grabbed me and showed me some of the infinite variety possible in the short form. I’d recommend this collection to anyone looking to start writing short fiction. It’s a great primer.
3. A story by the author whose body of work you feel has most influenced yours.
My collection seems to be split very clearly between gritty realism and more overtly playful and magical realist stories, so I’m going to cheat here and plump for two stories.
The first is Raymond Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, his classic story of a middle-aged man who has pulled the contents out onto the lawn of his house. It’s one of the best examples of Carver’s use of minimalism. The reader is never told why the man has done this but the reasons are there to be discovered in the subtle description of the scene and the man’s actions. The narrative pivots at the point at which the man begins to dance with the young woman, who along with her boyfriend has stopped by thinking the stuff on the lawn is actually a yard sale. In a moment of gritty epiphany we realise that the story is as much about the girl (if not more) as it is about the man. By the finale we realise that something significant has shifted, even if, like the characters, we might struggle to articulate what. This, and other Carver stories, showed me the power that lies in what you don’t show the reader but what you as a writer must clearly know. It’s Hemingway’s iceberg in action and it’s something I work at with my stories.
The second story is Jackie Kay’s ‘My Daughter the Fox’ which marries gritty realism in its emotional aspect with a truly fantastical plot. This story of a woman who gives birth to a fox is part fairytale, part realist examination of the deep changes that parenthood forces upon a mother. It is a beautifully tender piece of writing, a deeply sympathetic tale, and the fantastical element of the story is handled with a lightness and a surety which I have tried to capture in my own writing of this type. The ‘Ultrasounds’ trilogy of flash fictions in my collection were my first attempt at trying to craft something similar in tone, while ‘Storm in a Teacup’ is perhaps my most successful attempt at marrying the real and the impossible in a believable way. Vanessa Gebbie’s wonderful story ‘How Claude Romarin Lost the Buttocks of Celestine Bigorneaux’ was another story with a similar sense of sympathy and playfulness with subject matter that has influenced my more imaginative writing.
Sorry, you asked for one and I gave you three. To be honest I could go on all day. I haven’t even mentioned Amy Hempel, Alasdair Gray, or, more recently, George Saunders, or some of the great contemporary UK and Irish short story writers like Carys Bray, Adam Marek, Tom Vowler, and Nuala Ni Chonchuir, whose collections and stories have challenged me to work harder with my own fiction.
4. The story from your own body of work that most reveals something of who Dan Powell is.
My story Storm in a Teacup is probably the story from my collection that most reflects me as person. Weirdly it is also one of the few stories in their that I can hand on heart say it is all made up. The plot hinges on a literal manifestation of the classic idiom in a greasy spoon in Bridgenorth in 1973. The characters all sprang, pretty much fully formed, from the sense of the setting, they all just started coming into this fictional cafe I created. It is one of only a handful of stories that feel like they were handed to me, like a gift. That said, the story is really all about the many types of love and how they make us and break us and so the emotional current of the story probably reflects the many brushes with love that I’ve had in my life. There’s unrequited love in there, long term relationships, broken hearts and everything in between. While nothing in the story that happens to the characters ever happened to me in quite that way, the feelings in there are autobiographical at some level. Probably. It’s also my most overtly optimistic story, which I hope reflects how I feel about love and life in general.
5. Your all time favourite short story.
Without a doubt it is Anton Chekhov’s Misery. You can read it online and there is a great reading by Kenneth Brannagh on Youtube. I urge your readers to listen to or read the story before reading on to avoid *spoilers.* Misery tells the story of sledge-driver, Iona Patopov, who is so desperate for emotional connection as he grieves for his son that, in the absence of a sympathetic listener, he tries to tell his grief to those he meets as he goes about his night’s work. Tragically for Iona, no one is listening, and so, at the stories end, in a final desperate lunge at connection, Iona unburdens himself to his horse. The image of this man, destroyed by grief and seeking sympathy from his horse, is at once ridiculous and painfully tragic. The whole story moves between these two emotional modes with the delicacy and deftness of touch that mark out so many of Chekhov’s stories as classics of the form. If I could only read one short story writer’s work, without question it would be the stories of Anton Chekhov that I read to console myself of the loss of so many other great writers.
Thanks for having me on the blog and giving me space to bang on about the stories that have helped shape my own writing. As the person who usually hosts other writers’ lives in short fiction thinking and writing about these stories has been a great pleasure.