Wednesday, 8 August 2012


Welcome Sarah and, indeed, all involved in the book. Tell us about the Pangea anthology. Who is producing it and what’s the idea behind it?

Hello, Nuala, and thanks for hosting this leg of the Pangea blog tour. The anthology was the brainchild of our lovely editors, Rebecca Lloyd here in the UK and Indira Chandrasekhar in Mumbai, and published by Thames River Press. It’s a book of stories that span the globe while at the same time bringing the world closer for the reader – making the earth whole again, if you like, hence the name ‘Pangea’.

We just had our first gay wedding fair in Ireland, which is cute. One of your stories in Pangea, ‘The Wedding Fair’, is a wry look at the wedding industry, via workers at wedding fairs. I love the tie in with Cinderella and the exuberant product naming. Did you do a lot of on-the-spot research for the piece? Do you enjoy that part of the writing process – research?

Ah, now, that’s a wedding fair I’d have loved to attend… My wedding fair was how I imagine most ‘traditional’ wedding fairs were, eight years ago in the UK. I stumbled on it in a hotel in Harrogate. It was like a very gaudily wrapped gift to a writer, full of religious and irreligious tradesmen peddling wares like chocolate fountains, underwater weddings, floral-and-fruit tributes that would’ve toppled Carmen Miranda… Just breathing the air was enough to set me scrabbling for a pen and pencil. Sometimes the stories come right at you, don’t they? As for my more usual writing process – yes, I love research. I can spend hours in there and usually have to be dragged out to start actually writing.

You have a flair for gorgeous language. A snippet from your Pangea story ‘LoveFM’: ‘...they lay on the beach, love’s jetsam, her long hair roped with sand, his skin grainy with goose-bumps.’ And from ‘The Wedding Fair’: ‘She loved [the car’s] severe lines and narrow nose, the round headlamps mounted on a metal brace like eyes on stalks. Peering inside, she saw the deep buttoned pleats of its seats, the colour of clotted cream.’ How naturally does this type of language come to you? Do you work it much? Are you a fan of lyrical writers and, if so, who do you admire?

Thank you for the kind words. Both stories in Pangea were written a long while back and my writing has become less lyrical since then, mainly as a result of my inner critic telling me to speak plainly. But I do love gorgeous language – what writer doesn’t? I still write to a rhythm (buttoned and clotted, I like the half-echo there), despite being tone-deaf to music. Back then, it was a style that came naturally to me, and I didn’t have to work at it. What I had to work at was the plain-speaking, and to write like that now would probably be hard for me. Little glimpses of lyricism in otherwise taut prose – those are the writers I admire most, for their restraint as much as anything. There are some terrific stories in Pangea that fit this bill. An image in Vanessa Gebbie’s 'Breakdown', of an orange streetlight in a puddle – like a kid’s spilt fizzy drink. Or the plain-speaking attention to detail in 'You’re Dead' by Tom Williams.

Elvis makes a somewhat spooky appearance in ‘LoveFM’. Are you a fan? Do you often use well known people as characters in your fiction, or do you prefer the freedom of invention?

Well, I do turn up the radio whenever ‘Conversation’ comes on, does that count? I think it probably does. I’ll tell you a secret. That story started life as something very different. (Whisper it: fan-fiction.) And Elvis was actually Lucifer. I’ve been told I have a good ear for voices (again, while being tone-deaf) so I do enjoy writing ‘real people’ in one sense, but nothing beats inventing your own characters. They do as they’re told, for one thing.

I saw my first real, live trailer park in Arkansas this year; it was very neat and ordered. The one in your story is battered, ‘the lousiest, most godforsaken spot Johnny’d ever seen. It might’ve been a shanty-town but for the gaudy ghetto touches: neon signage on the biggest of the trailers, gold paint peeling from the window-frames, stars and stripes slung in fraying swags everywhere’. Great description. Have you witnessed such a place?

Nope. And how disappointing that the real ones are neat and ordered. Although in a sense that’s even spookier… What’re they hiding?

It may just have been the one I saw - it was in a dry county, so no drink 'n' drugs culture to corrupt anyone!

You write literary short fiction and you also write crime novels. How do you handle the move between the two? Have you considered adopting a nom de plume for one or the other, to separate your writing selves as it were, in the mode of John Banville/Benjamin Black?

Banville says he finds it liberating to write as Black; he uses a keyboard rather than a fountain pen and the words flow… He suggests there’s less discipline to writing crime, but I think there’s more, or there should be. Crime demands a certain parsimony, I find. Less indulgence, and a debt of compassion to be paid to the real life victims of crime. But really, the writing’s the same, for me. To try and tell a compelling story in the best way possible. As for a nom de plume, at the Harrogate Crime Festival last month, someone pointed out that the most successful writers of the moment have the initials SJ, which just happen to be my own initials. So maybe that’s the way to go.

This is a horrible question, I know, but how do you rate the state of and/or future of the short story? Is it healthy or doomed? Were you disappointed that Costa didn’t decide to offer short story collection prize, rather than a single story prize, for example?

It’s a shame about Costa, but short stories were around long before prizes and I don’t see any real threat to their longevity. I think people are more aware of short stories now, which is a good thing, and sites like Shortfire Press and Ether Books are championing the short story. (Pangea is available as an e-book.) Not to pretend that publishing isn’t fraught with problems, but I think readers and writers of short stories will prevail. The evidence certainly points to that.

Sarah, thanks so much for stopping by Women Rule Writer.

Thanks for having me!

Pangea is available to buy here.


Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks again, Nuala, for hosting this part of the Pangea blog tour. It's great to see the tour striking out on its journey - next stop Australia!


Fab stuff, Sarah :)