So. Niki Aguirre, what is 29 Ways to Drown?
29 Ways is my first collection of stories published in late 2007 by Flipped Eye Publishing. It took me roughly a year and a half to complete. I started writing some of the stories while I was doing my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck.
What was the first story you had published?
I was seven when I wrote my first book – a stapled mess of construction paper on which I scribbled poems, stories and stick people drawings. I made it for my grandfather who was in hospital. I think it was called something like ‘Why God doesn’t want you in heaven.’ He thought it was the most hilarious thing ever and showed it to all his nurses and visitors. I only wish the book was meant to be funny. I was so traumastised, I didn’t publish anything again until university. My poetry workshop took me seriously and never laughed at my poems. Come to think of it, those guys never laughed at anything.
The wonderful stories in 29 Ways to Drown are a varied bunch, in theme and in mood; how would you describe a typical Niki Aguirre story? Are there certain ingredients you put into everything you write?
I don’t have a set list of ingredients I purposely include, although I am conscious of things creeping up. My obsession with duality and mirror images for example: light and dark, hope and despair, religion and science. Humour, is another biggie. No matter how badly things are going for a character, they will always try to say or do something outrageous. They can be quite irreverent. A writer once told me that literary stories should never be funny, but I disagree, Kafka is hilarious. So is Gogol.
I hope this doesn’t make me sound mean, but I enjoy subverting expectations. This is partially a reaction against people who stereotype. For the record, having South American roots does not automatically translate into ‘writes magic realism’. Mainly, I want to rattle my readers a little. That’s a natural, healthy desire in a writer, right?
When writing 29 Ways to Drown, I worried my stories didn’t have a cohesive theme. But then I realised they were related. This was a book about people drowning – mostly metaphorically, but in a few cases literally. It was about people trying to escape their predicaments. It’s taken me a long time to accept that my subconscious is responsible for all my best ideas.
When I was younger and much more literal, it use to annoy me when a teacher talked about Hemingway’s fishing rod. I couldn’t understand the need for subtext when the writer had obviously taken such care to describe the sea, the boat, the water. Why couldn’t a rod be a rod? What happened when Hemingway was describing a sex scene? Was that really about fishing?
Who do you write for? Do you have a reader in mind? If so, what do they look like?
My ideal writer laughs in all the right places and thinks I’m a brilliant, misunderstood genius.
I don’t really have anyone in mind when I write, but I do have an ideal critic who pops up during the editing stage. My critic is intelligent, well-read and demanding. He needs to be entertained as well as challenged and finds paint-by-numbers stories devoid of concept and thought, pretty patronising. Despite my critic’s impossible standards, he is willing to go on a bumpy ride – as long as I don’t ignore the payoff.
My critic has warned that if I ever lead him into a wall, or worse, into nothingness, after I’ve asked him to follow me blindly for 400 pages, he will walk. Then who would I write for?
Your story ‘Shed’, about a struggling writer, made me grin the whole way through; do you think that most writers have that intense, neurotic, selfish streak? Could we all do with lightening up?
I had so much fun creating Henry the Aspiring Novelist. Writing can be so emotionally and intellectually demanding – you have to get into the right headspace to come up with ideas and storylines – you have use that space to flesh out compelling characters and realistic dialogue – you have to stay there for months or years at a time without going mad or losing your passion. You are isolated in your own world, you eat dinner with your characters, you say their lines out into empty space. Being neurotic and self-absorbed comes with the territory. That’s why it is important to laugh at ourselves whenever we can.
You’re an American, born to Ecuadorian parents, who’s now living in London – which one of those countries most often influences your work?
Sorry to give you the beauty pageant answer, but all of them have influenced me in some way. Each country I’ve spent time in brings its own unique set of elements, accents and nuances to my ever-changing database of voices. I enjoy observing mannerisms and the subtle (and not so subtle) forms of expression in everyday speech.
In Flight of the Blackbird and Language of Trees, I used a South American form of story telling, complete with legends, myths and unreliable narrators. I also tried to emulate oral tradition by employing the stories within stories approach.
With Two Percent, Anna K and Time Immemorial, I used my ‘American voice’, which is visual, less constructed and more direct.
The setting mostly determines how I will be influenced, such as my title story, 29 Ways to Drown, about an American woman who moves to London. The voice emerged as both British and American, which was interesting. I found myself aware not only of the words the character used, but of the pauses between her speech – what she couldn’t say. In the background to that story there was ever-present rain. The couple couldn’t communicate except by weather conversation.
The Shed was also inspired by living in Britain and was all about subtext and shaded meaning. The elements play a big part – not just rain, but the of the seasons. Henry is a man of few words, but with so much going on beneath the surface. He is a man with secrets.
Talk to us about your reading habits.
Like most writers, I am a voracious reader and often have three books going at the same time. I can be quite ruthless about putting something down if I don’t like it. On the other hand, if I really like something, I’ll read until my eyes fall out and after I’m finished I’ll reread it again and again. I’m quite obsessive. At the moment I can’t get enough of Roberto Bolano. Love at first read. Love, love, love.
Any bad writing habits?
Oh yeah. I have periods where I’ll write until I drop from exhaustion. Other times, I won’t write a word for months – not even a grocery list. I’ve tried to be more disciplined about my schedule, but so far no luck.
I also have to have music on to write. If it’s a really good song I’ll stop what I’m doing and break into dance.
What should a great short story do?
It should be unforgettable, evocative and haunting. It should keep me thinking about it long
after I’ve finished the last page.
What would you say to someone who wants to be a writer?
If your goal is to be published you have to work hard and develop a tough skin. Rewrite and edit when appropriate, but know when to stop messing around. By that I mean you need to step back and recognise when your work is good enough. Don’t tinker around for years dreaming of perfection or change it to fit someone else’s vision. Doing that will wreck havoc with your confidence. Remember, publishing is a business and your book may not fit in with what a publisher wants. Lots of amazing books get rejected initially. Don’t confuse the quality of your work with saleability. Some of my favourite writers would never be published today.
I read that Flann O’Brian’s second book, The Third Policeman, was rejected by everyone: friends, colleagues, even the publisher of his first novel. O’Brian was so crushed he shelved his novel for 26 years. 26!! He reportedly kept the manuscript nearby so he could see it every morning during breakfast.
When you’re not writing, you’re most likely to be found…
Spacing out on public transport, or walking in the park with headphones on. It is a good way to work out thorny plots.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully there will be a novel out soon. I’d also like to work on another collection of stories. I recently started a new project. The idea came to me in a dream and the images were so intense and lingering, I felt I had to write about it. But it is proving hard work – while it is clear in my head it isn’t translating to the page just yet. Stay tuned.
Niki Aguirre is an American fiction writer based in London. Niki studied English Literature at the University of Illinois and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London.
She is the recipient of the Birkbeck Outstanding Achievement Award for Creative Fiction (2006) and a grant from the Arts Council England (2007).
29 Ways to Drown is Aguirre’s debut collection of short fiction published in 2007 by Lubin & Kleyner. Her short stories have appeared in Tell Tales, X-24, LITRO and Pen International Magazine.