Neil Campbell drops by today for an interview in anticipation of the publication of his second short fiction collection Pictures from Hopper by Salt. The book will be launched in Northumbria, at Gallery North, tomorrow night at 6pm.
Neil’s début collection of stories, Broken Doll, was published by Salt in 2007. Two chapbooks of poetry, Birds, (2009) and Bugsworth Diary, (2011) have been published by Knives, Forks and Spoons. Born in Manchester, he now lives in Northumberland.
Hi Neil and welcome to Women Rule Writer. Huge congrats on the publication of Pictures from Hopper, your second short fiction collection, by Salt.
Sum up Pictures from Hopper in five words.
Stories influenced by Hopper paintings.
Talk about your love for the artist Hopper. How did you 'discover' him? What draws you to his work? How did you first hit on the idea of writing stories inspired by his work?
Many years ago I went to New York, and wandered into the Hopper Room at the Whitney Museum. I also saw a documentary on TV at some point. But the truth is, I'm no expert at all, and that helped me in writing the stories. I've never read what Hopper or anyone else has said about any of the paintings, so I had no preconceptions at all.
I write instinctively and didn't even know the word ekphrasis until a few weeks ago (though I had read and admired Pictures from Brueghel). I started with Gas, and was pleased with the results, and so I took it from there. I was house sitting for Nicholas Royle, and inbetween drinking all the beer that Nick had tried to hide, I used a Hopper book from his shelf to find paintings I thought I could get a story out of. So I owe a thanks to Nick for that, and much else, really.
There were also correlations with Hopper and the writers I was reading at the time, like John Cheever and Elizabeth Bishop. Compare Hopper's Gas and Bishop's poem In the Filling Station, and you get the idea.
Tell us more about this new short story collection – does it differ from Broken Doll in terms of themes or subject matter? Do you feel any changes in your writing from your own POV?
This book is different from Broken Doll in that there are many more narrative voices and types of short fiction, and it is much less obviously autobiographical. There are some unreliable narrators too. But it is a pity more people didn’t read Broken Doll.
The cover for Pictures from Hopper is haunting – a big building with lots of windows like dead eyes. Can you tell us how the use of that image came about and what relevance does it have to the book?
Chris Hamilton Emery (publisher at Salt) came up with that and I immediately thought it perfect. It is like a Manchester version of Hopper’s ‘Sunday Morning’. And though I like your simile I don’t think the eyes are dead.
What is your favourite thing about the short story form?
You wrote a thesis on Raymond Carver and you are a fan of Richard Yates. Would you say they have influenced you? If so, how?
I used to drink with this guy in Middlesbrough. For some inexplicable reason he gave me a copy of Cathedral. It was an American edition with a picture on the front of man drinking beer at a table. And there was a hardhat on the table and a TV on in the background. Carver was the first writer I thought I’d be able to have a beer with. I understood the people in his stories.
Yates was an influence on Broken Doll. But once I read John Cheever I realized why Yates never got a story in the New Yorker. Cheever is a genius of the short story, perhaps the best of all. Goodbye My Brother, The Swimmer, The Sorrows of Gin etc etc. And Richard Ford probably knows more about the short story than anyone alive. I wish someone would publish his non-fiction.
Who are your favourite short fiction writers and why?
John Cheever writes sentences of utter beauty, and he’s got that little something extra that you can’t put your finger on. And he’s funny too. Richard Ford for his absence of bullshit. Andre Dubus because he writes about the heart. Elizabeth Bishop for her concentration. Sam Shepard for his voices and humour, Flannery O’Connor for her peacocks. The Nick Adams stories by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was an absolute master, and not ‘macho’ in the stories at all. Etgar Keret for his optimism and humour. I’m reading Day out of Days by Sam Shepard at the moment. And Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, and they are both great books.
I have that Dybek book – it is masterful.
You are a poet as well as a short fiction writer. Do you find a crossover of themes between the two, or does each stand alone for you?
I write poems sometimes, entirely on instinct. Landscape is playing an increasing role in both. In fact, all my poems are nature poems really. I love Norman MacCaig’s Assynt poems. I get an idea either for a story or a poem, that’s it.
What is your writing process – morning or night; longhand or laptop?
I’ve just started to write longhand in the evenings. I’ve had enough of screens.
What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?
Don’t piss into the wind.
What are you working on now? Any plans to write a novel?
No, none at all. I’m quite happy to read them occasionally, especially if they are by Cormac McCarthy. But I’ve got too many stories to work on. I’m just writing one short story after another, and I absolutely love it.
Thanks a million for stopping by, Neil. I look forward to reading Pictures from Hopper very soon and I hope it does the business for you.
Well, me too, and I must read Nude.