Since 2003, when his story ‘The 40-Litre Monkey’ was chosen as a supplementary winner in the Bridport Prize, Adam Marek has gained a reputation as being one of the UK’s best young short story writers. The following year, his story ‘Bobby and Sun-Li’ was runner up in the Douglas Coupland Award, and in 2005, he returned to the Bridport, winning 2nd prize for ‘Robot Wasps’. Instruction Manual for Swallowing, his first collection of stories, was nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize in 2007, and this year, his haunting story ‘Fewer Things’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.
Below is the extended version of Adam’s Live Question and Answer session which took place 21st October 2010.
* * *
Loree: Welcome to Thresholds, Adam. How does it feel to be our guinea pig?
Adam: Thanks for having me over for your first Q&A. I spent my whole childhood in an experimental facility, so being a guinea pig makes me feel kind of nostalgic.
Loree: That sounds intriguing… Perhaps we can chat more about that later… First, though, we should get onto the questions…
Ellie Piddington: As a successful short story writer, what does the short story mean to you? Furthermore, what do you feel are the key elements of short story writing?
Adam: I love reading and writing short stories because there’s something special about being able to hold the whole thing in your head at once. With a novel, you can only ever see one part of it clearly at a time. Writing a short story is like wringing out a flannel – writing a novel is like wringing out a duvet.
Writing a short story is like wringing out a flannel – writing a novel is like wringing out a duvet.
It’s quite difficult to define what makes the ideal short story — its beauty is its versatility. Everything from one of Etgar Keret’s two-pagers to a monster like Kafka’s Metamorphosis are classed as short stories, but are as different in extent from each other as shorts are from novels. There’s a huge freedom with them, in terms of length and content. That’s one of the things that I like about them, the rules are few. You can get the reader to suspend their disbelief much further with a short than with a novel. But when I’m writing a short, there are certain rules I’ve set for myself: like all stories, there has to be some kind of conflict in it; it has to have at least one surprise in it somewhere; keep it simple; make it believable and tangible, especially when it’s about something unbelievable; and for goodness sake never be boring.
Katherine Orr: At the Small Wonder Festival, last month, you said that a lot of your stories begin with a ‘collision of two different ideas’. I wonder if you might expand on this, and also comment about whether or not this is something you have any control over – i.e. does inspiration just strike you with a story, or is this ‘collision’ something that you can instigate?
Adam: This will sound quite esoteric, but I have a sense of what one of my stories should feel like – an internal idea of its form or feeling. I get lots of ideas everyday, and I record every one, whether it’s terrible or not — I carry a notebook and pen everywhere — I even have a crayon in the shower for writing on the tiles. Most of these ideas don’t go any further than that, but if one keeps coming back to me, I hold it in mind, and then compare against it every other idea that comes to me. When I find an idea’s perfect pair, the story suddenly starts to look and feel like one of mine. Sometimes there are more than two ideas. When I have a combination of ideas that spark off each other in a certain way, then I get excited enough to write it.
I carry a notebook and pen everywhere — I even have a crayon in the shower for writing on the tiles.
Dora: I find the hardest part of writing short stories is coming up with a title. Do you have any suggestions?
Adam: I think a title has to be memorable, so that if (hopefully) people talk about the story, they refer to it by its name, rather than, ‘that one about the…’ So simplicity is good. Something like ‘The Lottery’ is a ‘does what it says on the tin’ title, and perfect. My stories feel naked until they’ve got their title — sometimes the title comes early on in the process, and having it there at the front of the story makes me feel like the rest of it will go okay. I find if I get to the end of the story and I still don’t know what to call it, then I really struggle. My advice, don’t finish the story without a title you’re happy with.
AJ Ashworth: I know you’re writing a novel at the moment as well as short stories — but is the thrill you get from writing the same no matter what form you’re writing in or is there a difference?
Adam: When the writing is going well, both the novel and the short story are equally pleasurable. When it’s going badly, the pain with the novel is about a hundred times worse. Moments of crisis in a short story are usually quite quick to resolve — solve it or bin it. I’ve been working on my novel for three years now — on the days where it’s not working, and I wonder whether I’ll ever fix it, I face the possibility that I’ve wasted all that time.
AJ Ashworth: Yeah, novels sound tough! With short stories do you feel a constant pressure to push boundaries and try new things?
Adam: The pleasure is in pushing boundaries and trying new things. Whenever anyone sits down to write, they have the pressure of the whole history of literature at their back. If you’re going to write something, you’d better not write something that already exists. Finding unexplored territory, or a new way to write about familiar territory, is essential.
Finding unexplored territory, or a new way to write about familiar territory, is essential.
Amanda: I’ve read and enjoyed lots of your stories and wondered how you get started on a story because often there seems to be a strong metaphor coming across. Is it that or something completely different?
Adam: The most important thing for me is that however odd the situation I put my characters in, the story has to be about something real and everyday, a common human experience. I’ll usually start with clashing two things together that don’t naturally belong (testicular cancer and Godzilla for example) and then try to think what this might represent in my actual experience (in that case, the relativity of misfortune — the protagonist in that story finds out he has testicular cancer on the day when Godzilla attacks the city he lives in, and he has to wrestle with this event overshadowing his terrible news).
Alison: As a reader and as a writer, I love the way your stories fuse the surreal with the everyday… I guess I’m thinking of stories like ‘The 40-Litre Monkey’, ‘Instruction Manual’, etc. They’re brilliantly original. What draws you to this kind of story?
Adam: I’ve always loved the unusual, ever since I was little. I think the short story is the best form for bending reality, because the story reader understands that not everything will be explained to them. I can write about a restaurant for zombies as a way of talking about peer pressure without having to explain why the world is full of zombies. In a novel, if you’re going to introduce something unusual on page one and then not explain it in the next 300 pages, you risk disappointing your reader – that said, there are of course novels that do work brilliantly in this way, I’m thinking of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which never really explains the apocalypse that happens before page 1 and is even more awesome because of it.
The best bit of writing advice I ever heard was ‘write the story you’d most like to read, but that hasn’t been written yet’ — the stories I like to read most are the ones that bend reality while keeping a firm foot in reality, if you see what I mean.
Alison: Are they hard to write? And have any other writers inspired you in this territory?
Adam: Hmmm, they’re fun to write. And I feel a big sense of freedom with them, because my style of writing means I can take the story in very lateral directions. I don’t find the actual writing part hard, because before then, I’ve always planned them out in my head. The tricky part is the planning, before my fingers get anywhere near a keyboard.
I’m a big fan of writers like Haruki Murakami, JG Ballard, Will Self and Karen Russell who all work in that territory.
Juliet West: Have you ever abandoned a short story, or do you manage to turn every idea into something worthwhile?
Adam: Oh yes, I’ve abandoned lots of stories. I’m thinking about abandoning the one I was working on this morning in fact. Sometimes ideas look very shiny to start with, but then don’t live up to my expectations. I’ll only finish a story if I can stay excited about it for eight drafts or so. My wife is always the first person to read my stories, and unless I can imagine her loving it, I won’t finish it.
I’ll only finish a story if I can stay excited about it for eight drafts or so.
Loree: Writers are notorious for finding excuses NOT to write. Work, friends, family, studies, hoovering – we let all sorts of things get in the way. Do you write every day, as the advice tells us, and if so, how do you accommodate your other commitments with your writing?
Adam: Yes, if only writing were as easy as making excuses. I have a very strict routine, and I stick to it because I know that if I were to stop, I would find it very difficult to get my momentum going again.
I get up at 6am every day, including weekends. I make a bowl of porridge and take it up to my attic, where I write. I work until just before 8am, when I have to run downstairs and rush to get ready for my day job (I write advertising copy for a conservation charity). In the evening, after I’ve taken the kids to bed, I write again for an hour or so. If you want to be a writer, it has to be right up there at the top of your priorities. A good exercise is to ask yourself throughout the day ‘is what I’m doing right now more important than writing?’. There are things like paying the bills, passing your exams, feeding your kids and being a good husband/wife/partner that have to come first, but then activities like watching TV, reading trashy magazines, having a social life, sleeping too long or relaxing just have to be sacrificed.
…ask yourself throughout the day ‘is what I’m doing right now more important than writing?’
Loree: You read your story ‘Fewer Things’ at Small Wonder and afterwards you admitted that the bony ‘Knuckle-fish’ was an invention – that it doesn’t exist. I remember that there was an audible gasp from the members of the audience, as though they were shocked that you had tricked us into worrying about these poor little chicks, needlessly. I thought this was a great credit to you because writers are in the habit of inventing new worlds which readers believe in and you very obviously succeeded. I wonder if you can explain the way in which something unreal becomes ‘real’ on the page?
Adam: The knuckle-fish were only half invented. Seabird chicks really are choking on a kind of fish called pipefish, which the parent birds feed to them when their main prey, the sandeel, is not available – sandeels are disappearing from the ocean as a result of their food chain being disrupted by climate change. So there is a real tragedy going on. I invented the knuckle fish because I wanted there to be a rite of passage moment at the climax of the story, when the boy has to put a bird out of its misery – something which doesn’t happen in reality for this situation as the pipefish can be slipped out quite easily if there is someone around to do it. My made-up knuckle-fish have two spines on their backs which sometimes get stuck in the chicks’ throats and sometimes don’t – it’s a device to create drama.
I admit that it’s dangerous when you base a story on something real, because people may assume that the fiction you’ve woven around it is real too. I did worry about that with Fewer Things. The funny thing about fiction is that we know it’s fake, but the writer has to create the illusion of truth or we hate them for it. As readers, we want to be lied to expertly. I think the trick to making the unreal ‘real’ on the page is the same way that great liars get away with it – confidence, believability and specificity – a good lie is told in a confident manner, without holes, and sprinkled with the kind of details that create the illusion of truth.
As readers, we want to be lied to expertly.
Loree: What are your ‘literary preoccupations’ – the things which appear in your writing over and over again as though your subconscious is trying to work through a puzzle?
Adam: I have lots of preoccupations that recur in my stories as themes and motifs, yes – parenthood, children who are unwell, birds and other wildlife, images from science-fiction. My fictional world is a hugely distorted and exaggerated reflection of my real world.
Loree: I guess that’s it, then. It’s been a bit of a mad evening, with questions filling up my inbox, but I think we got to everyone in the end. Thank you very much, Adam. You’ve been a great guinea pig. And thanks, too, for agreeing to stay late.
Adam: It’s been fun, thanks all for your questions. I learned all kinds of things about myself that were a mystery until now.
* * *
Read Adam Marek’s story ‘Fewer Things’ here.
Listen to Adam read ‘The 40 Litre Monkey’ and ‘Testicular Cancer vs the Behemoth’ at Comma Press, here.