Christina Sanders, winner of the Short Fiction category in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2017, shares her process of writing and discusses the opportunities presented by the short form. Her winning piece What Happens at the Edge is part of a short story collection on the theme of compromise. Other stories in the collection have been published in the Bath Short Story Anthology, Rattle Tales, Litro and Toasted Cheese. Her work explores the borders between desire and eventuality.
A: How does What Happens at the Edge fit into your theme of compromise?
CS: This story grew out of an interest in a specific issue: In this instance, I was thinking about death, how absolute it is, yet grief can be fragmented and contradictory. The narrator pinballs between grief, guilt, ennui and lust – all emotions are present. Compromise – not getting what you desire – is a real possibility; something the narrator has to live through and act within. It is the antithesis of achieving a desire or perfection.
Compromise, although frequently viewed as pejorative, is more nuanced, and dynamic; it contains opposites (loss and lust, in this instance). Flannery O’Connor famously described the short story as “a moment of grace that is either accepted or rejected.” In What Happens at the Edge, I was interested in what the narrator would do; how, or if, he could hold ambivalent emotions without resolving them; if he could find the grace in his situation.
A: What are the opportunities and challenges faced by writing in the short form?
CS: The short form is wonderfully ambiguous. It can be a kind of prose poem, as brief as Lydia Davis’ wonderful two line stories, run between five and seven thousand as American magazines favour, or approach the length of a novella, like Foster by Clare Keegan. This flexibility provides fantastic opportunities to experiment with language and form; to play around. Conversely, length doesn’t always make it is easier to write. From experience, I think writing short stories is often harder than working on a longer piece, as essentially, you are always beginning again.
While short stories have long been regarded as serious and popular literary contenders in the US, publishers and readers in the UK have been less enthusiastic on the whole. Yet, if the increasing number of online literary zines, competitions, apprenticeships, anthologies, and residencies for writers of the short form is anything to go by, it’s beginning to change. In the last few years, fantastic collections have appeared from writers like Adam Marek, Carys Davies, Irenosen Okojie, and K.J Orr, to name a few. The downside, as always, is that it’s nigh on impossible to make any money from the form. You do it because you cannot not do it.
A: When beginning a work, do you plan or let a spark of a journey/exploration?
CS: I would love to be a writer who plans. It would make life so much easier and efficient. But, this is not the case. It is usually a phrase, a thought or an image that sets a story in motion. Originally, in What Happens at the Edge, I had a picture of a man cocooned in his house, unable to leave or move, and the kids running feral. I worked with the story on and off for a couple of years, unable to find the right form. Then, it came to me that the narrator had to paint, and only with blue paint, as a way through his stasis. A couple more unsatisfactory drafts down the line, I read a brilliant story by Francois Campion called ‘Things I did to Make it Possible,’ where he used numbered paragraphs, so I experimented with this, and it worked. The form found the story.
Writing is a journey of discovery, of seeking to understand. I think I’d quickly lose interest if I plotted and knew the answers before I started writing. For instance, this morning, waiting at a cashpoint, a man in his early forties wearing a long black raincoat and dirty white trainers was talking on his phone: “I am supposed to be in America,” he said, as if surprised to find himself standing in a pedestrianised street in Hove on a freezing January morning, rather than in New York or Florida. It got me wondering why isn’t he in America? What happened? Who is he?
A: Where do you hope to take your writing next?
CS: I have a couple of things on the go. Firstly, I am still editing (tinkering/rewriting) stories in the Compromise collection, and will look to get that published this year. As a few of the stories have now appeared in print already, I’m hoping to find a small independent publisher. I am also working on a longer piece, based a walk I did from Brighton to Bristol last summer. It is part-fiction, part-memoir, part reflection, linked to the works of Werner Herzog. Frequently, I find myself asking ‘what actually is it?’ Is it a memoir, a novel, travel writing, autobiography, non-fiction? This need to categorise seems peculiar to literature.
Watching a documentary about the South African artist, William Kentridge, who sketched the landscapes of his native Johannesburg, and developed the drawings into an animated film, it occurred to me that people are unlikely to look at his work, and say: ‘Are those trees really there? Did he really feel that when he drew them? Is he making that up?’ Yet, in literature, we ask these questions all the time. We need to categorise fact, truth, fiction, opinion, and market it accordingly. The late and great John Berger, critic, artist and storyteller, understood the limitations of this thinking very well when he said of the story form: “What do you invent? What is real? It is not interesting.”
For more information on Christina Sanders’ writing, visit www.createlearnconnect.com
1. Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2017 Cover image: Judith Jones, Rendezvous (2016). Courtesy of the artist.