Robert Shearman is the author of two short story collections, Tiny Deaths (Comma Press, 2007) – for which he won the World Fantasy Award, and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (Big Finish, 2009) which won the Best Collection category of the Shirley Jackson Awards and the Edge Hill Short Story Readers Prize. His third collection, EVERYONE’S JUST SO SO SPECIAL, comes out early 2011. His stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio Three and Radio Four and can also be found in the anthology Phobic — Modern Horror Stories (2007) and volume 5 of Riptide.
Rob was also one of the writers for the BAFTA award winning first series of the revived DOCTOR WHO starring Christopher Eccleston. He has written many plays which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and is a regular writer for Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. His play EASY LAUGHTER, winner of the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, has been staged all over Britain and the USA, and was most recently produced in Los Angeles by Francis Ford Coppola.
You can hear Rob read his strangely poignant story ‘So Perfect’ here at Comma Press’s Story Bank.
What the critics say about Tiny Deaths…
TLS: ‘Blackly humorous and absurd, his stories examine death from a variety of off-kilter perspectives, upending cliché, jumbling together good and evil, encouraging us to side with the villain and the underdog.’
The Metro: ‘Far from morbid, each bizarrely comic tale has a peculiar interior logic and, although the humour is invariably gothic, it’s also clever and oddly passionate… Wistful, dream-like… strangely beautiful…’
Loree Westron: Hi there Rob. Welcome to THRESHOLDS. On behalf of our members I’d like to thank you very much for joining us this evening. It’s an honour to have you here.
Rob Shearman: Oh, thank you, Loree! Absolutely my pleasure. The thing about writing is that we believe — all of us, I think — that we’re frauds, and that we’re going to be found out at any moment. And yet in our heads sometimes we catch ourselves rehearsing that South Bank Show interview for when we win the Booker! So this is my nice head-swelling South-Bank-Show-like moment. My ego is sufficiently stoked!
LW: We’re more than happy to oblige on the ego-stoking front. And it’s a great thing to hear, Rob, that I’m not the only one who sometimes feels like a fraud! Though of course you aren’t a fraud. Not at all!
Dora: Thank you for being here, Rob. I really enjoyed hearing your story on Comma Press. Your resume is impressive to say the least. Firstly, I’d like to ask how you keep up with all of your writing projects. I’m attempting a couple of projects myself and my head is spinning. Forget about having a life too! Also do you frame the whole story before starting to write or is it a simultaneous process?
RS: Hi, Dora! And thank you — that’s very kind!
I sometimes think the most important part of being a writer is juggling all the different things that are going on. And I mean that for all of us — whether it means juggling other relationships, or other jobs, or just the day to day grind of being alive and having what would pass for an Ordinary Life. To be honest, it’s easier for me than for most: I’m a full time writer, which means that the only juggling I end up having to do is between different media and different stories (and, frequently, doing a radio project, say, at the same time as doing a book, allows for a lot of helpful cross-fertilisation!). I have a very understanding wife who also works in the arts, and doesn’t mind too much when I’m off somewhere in cloud cuckoo land — or, if she does mind, I’m too distracted to notice. I also have a cat that I adore, but can shut the door of the office against if I don’t want him mewing at me. (Children, I know, wouldn’t be so easy. They can use doorknobs.)
But I do believe that that cross-fertilisation I mentioned is very important, and can be drawn from anywhere — which is why I know lots of brilliant writers choose to have supplemental careers, or larger families, just so their writing can be so much richer.
I rather like having an ending in my head, and then doing my very best to avoid it…
As for the framing of the stories… It honestly depends. Sometimes a story can start simply with a single image, and the writing process is all about my discovering what that image is. Sometimes the ending of the story is clear in my head from the word go — but I distrust that a bit, because it can sometimes reduce the whole story to being a preamble for a punchline or a twist. (I rather like having an ending in my head, and then doing my very best to avoid it, just so the story never feels predictable.) What I do always have a grasp on, even if the plotting is up for grabs, is structure and point. Those are the two essentials. I’m a bit of a structure whore. I love playing with structure, and until I know the time frame or style of the piece, I can’t even begin to play with the words. And as for point… there’s nothing that makes me feel more empty than embarking on a project and not being able to answer that nagging question… why?
Dora: Thanks! I like what you said about being in cuckoo land when you are writing because I feel like that lots of times.
On another note, have you done any press – readings etc – in the US? Last week I searched Barnes and Nobles for your short story collections, as well as those by the other writers I’ve had the pleasure to read, without success. Thank God for the internet (I’ve ordered a couple of collections)!
As far as juggling, boy will I have lots of stories to write … If I can only find the time. Right now I’m at work, eating my lunch while participating with my blackberry. Who has it better than me?
RS: Ah, international distribution for short story collections is so hard. They’re so determinedly uncommercial – even in the US, which I think of as the home of the short story! I am available on Amazon, but I think only through import. I do a fair few events abroad – I’ve just come back from Orlando, and I’m off next week to a convention in Chicago – but they’re usually tied into the way my work is often promoted as genre fiction (either sci-fi or horror). Not that I’m complaining – if I marketed myself purely as ‘lit’ short story writing, I don’t think I’d ever leave London!
If someone invented the brain-sucking machine, I wouldn’t buy one.
That’s the problem with writing, isn’t it? That the stories actually need to be written, not just sucked out of our heads clean as the perfect little conceits they are. (And just as soon as we start putting them on paper, they get tarnished or corrupted in some way.) But I suppose that’s the point – I rather like the fact that writing is such an awkward cussed thing to make time for. It means that what we come up with has to be fought for! If someone invented the brain-sucking machine, I wouldn’t buy one. (I wouldn’t work out how to use it anyway. I’m rubbish with gadgets.)
I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer yet who doesn’t feel that. That in some ways we’re just pretending we know how to do it. Because we all read when we were young, and those writers who wrote the books we love were our heroes – and we’ll never really measure up to that childhood love we felt. They were Proper Writers. We’re all just flailing around in their footsteps!
LW: Yes, yes, exactly. And of course when one’s hero is Hemingway, as mine is, well…dear, I might as well stop now!
Alison MacLeod: It’s such a treat for us to have you here. Two of my very favourite stories of yours would be ‘Perfect’ and ‘So Proud’. They’re such powerful and yet simple explorations of the complex feelings around parenthood. Very poignant. And also so unexpected, so surprising. You bounce us out of what we think of as ‘realism’. Can you remember what image or idea or experience triggered each of these?
RS: Hi, Ali! Lovely to see you!
‘So Proud’, I think, just suddenly bumped into my head one day, almost fully formed. It’s lovely when that happens. It’s so rare. It was just a day’s work, sitting down, and extracting it. From what I remember it was simply that one impossible image about ‘space’ that did it. In this instance, a woman giving birth to a Chesterfield sofa. And I was exploring at the time ways in which the short story could do things that other media simply couldn’t – making sense of something that would make your head hurt to visualise. I love the ambiguity of that. And (this sounds a bit as if I’m reaching, but I think it was in my head) – I was just starting to write short stories back then, and I was finding it astonishing how the really best ones I read seemed to sum up entire worlds of experience and depth with almost shocking economy. So, in some ways, a woman giving birth to furniture acted like a metaphor for writing short stories itself – packing into just a few thousand words something too big that could fit into such a small space of word count.
Whereas I think ‘Perfect’ was a rather harder story to come up with — which seems absurd now, because it feels so much more normal and low-concept. I’d played around with the idea of imaginary friends before on stage and on radio, but mostly for comic effect. And Alan Ayckbourn at Scarborough had just revived one of these plays I’d written in the 1990s, about a husband and wife living a marriage through a mutual imaginary friend to bounce off. I just wanted to take it a bit further, and look at it from the point of view of an imaginary child — and what might happen to that kid when the parents realised they could produce a real (flawed) one of their own, and stop dreaming.
AM: Yes — Tanya’s story is so poignant– heartbreaking, in fact.
RS: Ah, thanks, Ali. It’s a weird one, because I really don’t like ‘Perfect’ all that much now. You know the way you sort of resent stories, a few years later? Maybe because your head wasn’t in the right place when you wrote it, or because it never quite felt as emotionally sincere to you as it does to the reader? If I look at ‘Perfect’ now, I find it just a bit… smug. I don’t know why. But writers are (thank God) not the ones who should be judging their work after publication. It’s out there, and we have to move on!
LW: I’ve had a few people email me with questions for you, so perhaps we can move on to those now. Jack has written in to ask: What was it than made you want to be a writer, and what was the first thing you published?
RS: Ha! Oh dear. Of course, over the years, you start to fictionalise the reasons you write, because you spend so much time wondering why. I always say it was because of my stammer. Because as a teen I had a terrible stammer — it still pops back when I’m tired, I still worry about it every day leaping into my conversation and shanghai’ing me. So I began to write more than I spoke, just because I could control words so much more easily that way. (That said, my parents tell me I was copying out entire Mr. Men books when I was five, and pretending I’d written them, long before I had speech problems at all. So, as I say, you find reasons.)
I was copying out entire Mr. Men books when I was five, and pretending I’d written them…
At school, I took over the school magazine! I inundated it with bad stories, and worse poetry. And, occasionally, things that tried to be funny. So when I was a student, it was being funny that got me through. And it was my comedy plays for the stage that began to get me professional work, just as I was graduating. In terms of publishing — I was a very late starter, and a few short stories and articles aside (always written very grudgingly), I avoided prose like the plague until my late thirties. (Damn. I really missed out on so much fun.)
LW: It sounds like you were born a writer, Rob. I can remember starting to write my autobiography when I was about eight — discussing my glittering literary career! Dear oh dear.…
RS: Ha, Loree! I think I was writing my autobiography back then too!
But, you know what, I think that when we live and work as writers, and we train ourselves to indulge the stories in our head — it’s pretty much inevitable that we’re going to indulge, too, the fantasy that We Are Great Authors. Maybe as yet not reaching our potential, but that one day people will look back on our work (still in print, hundreds of years later!), and say that we added something to literature. It’s the sort of thing we mutter to ourselves under our breath. But it’s that other story in our head, alongside all the ones we put down on paper, that keeps us going.
…Mind you, I’m the sort of person who plays scrabble on Facebook pretending I’m in a world championship, and that there are TV commentators discussing my every move. So I might be well worth disregarding on that score!
Sue: What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you that has helped with your writing career?
RS: Hmm. That’s a hard one.
When I worked in theatre, Ayckbourn used to tell me that you could and should write anything — it could be funny, or dark, or confrontational, or difficult. But that it should always still leave an audience wanting to come back after the interval to see the second half. And I think that probably applies to all writing, not just for the theatre. When you write a book, it should still be ‘entertaining’ — even if that entertainment is not remotely a simplistic or superficial thing. Dostoevsky is entertaining. Dickens is entertaining. Good writing, no matter what the subject matter, no matter how serious the tone, insists that the reader picks the book up again and resumes.
…when you start a project, you must finish it…
The other thing I was told — and I can’t remember who it was now, but it was terrific advice — is when you start a project, you must finish it. As first time writers (God, as any writers), we have demons on our shoulders who tell us to give up, that the book isn’t worth completing, that the short story might as well be abandoned. And I talk to writers who have got maybe half a dozen half-finished novels in the drawer — tons and tons of words, and so much effort — but psychologically, because nothing’s been finished, they don’t believe they’ve ever written anything at all.
Finish what you start. Even if you realise it’s gone off the rails. Even if you suspect it might be crap. We all write crap. Without writing crap, and the experience of taking the risk to write crap (and finish crap), we never build on it to write something better.
LW: I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to hear you say that you’ve got these little demons, too. I think the advice about finishing work is so important because it’s only once a piece is finished that it can be judged. Perhaps that’s why so many of us DON’T finish things. We fear the possibility of rejection…
RS: Oh, yes. Well, inevitably, rejection is all that it’s about.
But I think — on the whole — people end up being far more forgiving about our work than we do about it ourselves. We look back on what we did years ago, the successful stuff and the not so successful stuff, and the downright disasters — and we end up a bit contemptuous of it. Because the New Ideas As Yet Unwritten are always so much better.
I always picture my writing stories the way that animals behave to their offspring in the jungle. They love them and indulge them and nurture them when they’re growing. But once they’re fully formed, they snarl at them, and tell them to leave the pack.
LW: Lord knows I’ve got a few wild offspring I’d like to be shot of…
Michael Davidson: From the bits I’ve read of your work, you seem to be interested in ‘realities within’ reality. Is that fair to say? Is that a preoccupation and, if so, how do you capture that sense without just writing about ideas of what is really real?
RS: Hi, Michael! I think that probably is fair, yes. I don’t know why it is. I suppose in part it comes down to the way that I think we all spend so much of our lives living little fantasies. The way we like to present ourselves in our heads is not the way we present ourselves to the world at large — and we know that, and yet still we live these twin lives, the reality and the illusion. I love ambiguity — one of the reasons I find writing for TV a bit of a bind is that dialogue is deliberately clipped and functional, whereas in real life it’s badly phrased and contradictory.
So I think the only way to capture that sense is to write about it honestly. You can raise that ambiguity to the plot itself — as in the recent movie Inception, which is really just one glorious metaphor for uncertainty writ large for imax! — or you can do it softly and subtly within characterisation. But so long as the honesty is there, then the theme never gets stale. (Fingers crossed!)
Dora: Starting what you finish is definitely good advice. I was one of “those” with piles and piles of stories, etc. which I refused to have anyone look at. Finally in April I overcame the fear and really believed in myself and sent my story off with some success. Now I feel I must make up for lost time.
RS: Oh, the making up for lost time feeling! I know that only too well. The sense that there are so many stories left inside, and now you’ve found a way to get some of them out, the rest should be spooned out too, in droves!
…some stories require a lot more cooking than others…
Always remember, though, that some stories require a lot more cooking than others. And there’s no shame in having an idea that takes decades to turn into something that you can turn into good prose — that’s just the way some ideas are.
Many congratulations on your overcoming the fear, and here’s to new successes!
AM: This year, in the M.A. group I teach, we discussed your story, ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’. Everyone was intrigued. The story takes such a quietly sinister turn, and yet there’s something so psychologically right about the piece. It really reminded me that the best uncanny fiction fills us with a sense of disquiet more than anything. The developments near the end are exactly what every writer wants. We’re led to a realisation that is both surprising and seemingly inevitable. Yet you don’t rely on any easy twist in the tale — a mistake sometimes perhaps for very new story writers.
Did you know from the start that that was your ending when you sent your the bereaved wife up to the attic?
RS: I think I did in that instance, yeah. Again — and not unlike ‘So Proud’ which was written a month or two later — it was this idea of some impossible visual. In this instance, photographs of a relationship that go back long before the two people in that relationship met. It’s more obviously a horror story — which is why I use the darkened attic! (I’m terrified of my attic.) And I wanted again that sort of effect you get when you look at a surrealist painting, where your head spins in contemplation of it. But I hoped, too, it was about the way that we all know — but still ignore — the fact that there are deep deep secrets about the people we know best in the world that we will never learn. Because they dared to be alive at a time before we met them. When I look at my wife, the fact she had a childhood and adult life before I came along sometimes makes me have that head spinning thing right there.
…there are deep deep secrets about the people we know best in the world that we will never learn…
AM: Thanks, Rob. Fascinating — and so true. (And yup, attic. Basements. Cellars. What would we as writers do without them?!)
RS: It’s where we stash all our early drafts, and the stories we wrote at school, Ali! (I know I do.) There are forgotten yarns up there, just knocking on the door, waiting to be let out. And wondering why we’ve discarded them…!
LW: My mother recently sent me some of my old school work that had been shut up in a cupboard for years, and there was a transcript of a story that I told my 1st grade teacher. I was shocked when I read it that I actually recognised ‘me’ in it! I was six years old at the time I told that story and I find that I’m still basically trying to tell the same story! Talk about arrested development… Something’s got to be wrong there.
RS: Oh, I don’t know, Loree. Sounds to me like something’s really very right. That you’re still trying to write something personal, and can recognise that very same person trying the same thing all those years ago…!
…Whereas I think I was trying to write my own Asterix books. I loved Asterix.
AM: I’m with you, Rob. I use to write secret codes, messages and tiny stories on the wall beneath the basement stairs in my childhood home. The house was sold a few years ago, and I wonder occasionally what the new owners made of those scribblings — if they’ve been unearthed yet, that is.
LW: One of these days, Alison, there’ll be a film crew go back to that house…!
RS: I love the idea of story fragments all around us, just waiting for our imaginations to make sense of them. I wrote a story this year about a man who collects books. Tons and tons of books. But not for the printed stories inside them — just for the handwritten messages and dedications there when they’ve been given as gifts, as apologies. …I’m a bit like that. If I’m browsing a secondhand bookshop, and find some volume with a letter tucked inside it as a bookmark, I’m intrigued by the contents of that letter, and buy the book at once! I love the idea of the new owners of your house piecing together some new Alison Macleod from the scraps they learn about you on the walls…!
AM: Thank you, both — but I suspect the bucket and scrub-brush were their first thoughts!
RS: Bah, Ali. Well, if you will sell your house to philistines…! You should have vetted them first. Asked them if they read Faulkner or Hemingway.
Juliet West: Hi Rob. I wanted to ask whether you write with an audience in mind. How does your short story-writing differ from writing a play?
RS: Hey, Juliet! Lovely to see you!
I suppose I do write with an audience in mind sometimes, and I’m not sure that’s an entirely helpful thing. And it all stems back to writing drama, of course. Where you’d go to the various commissioning theatres, and actually analyse their target audience (Scarborough — holidaymakers wanting something funny, can go dark; National Theatre — audiences wanting to feel they’re in the company of a playwright more intelligent than they are — even though they’re usually wrong!). And TV is utterly obsessed with it. I think, frankly, to the point where true originality is usually shunned in favour of something that has already been digested elsewhere more easily.
I try to avoid that with the prose. I do. But I’m aware that there’s an audience out there in the sci-fi / horror genres that like to see me as one of them, and invite me to their conventions, and give me awards. And that they get thrown when I don’t want to stay in that camp. Just as there are the more academic circles that are very warm and welcoming to me with some of my work, but do look somewhat askance when I turn in something a bit naughty and nasty. (Oh God, I have no idea what either of them will make of my new book.) But, ultimately, what carries me on from job to job, is merely what will interest me at the time. So, in a fit of self-indulgence, I choose my ideal reader as… Me.
Dora: How do you know if you are meant to write a short story or a novel? I find that as soon as I start a new story that suddenly it becomes populated by many characters. Is it just a question of weeding them out? How can you decide?
RS: Oh, God, that’s a hard one, Dora. I think it’s probably less to do with characters, really, but more about story intent. Do you want to tell something that is broader in scope, or something that is very precise and delicate and hinges upon one single event? It’s possible, of course, to write long fiction around one incident, but it might just be that you’re letting too many characters get in the way of clarity if you do so!
Ultimately, I think, short story ideas can grow into novels. But it’s best if that’s to do with plot development more than a surfeit of characters all picking at your sleeve for attention!
LW: One last question, Rob. Sarah O’Neill wants to ask: Which contemporary books or writers do you most admire and what are you reading now? Two questions in one!
RS: Oh my God. I should have been prepared for this. Because there are so many!
I have all the Booker shortlist by my side, tempting me in… Their covers look very shiny and inviting.
The last book that I utterly was floored by — in a tremendously satisfying way — was Paul Auster’s Invisible. I think Auster is extraordinary, but if I read more than one book of his a year I get attacked by feelings of writer inadequacy. I’m a huge admirer of Julian Barnes, and the way he blurs the lines between longer and shorter narratives within his fiction — and never writes the same book twice. I recently finished Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a big bruiser of a novel, every bit as impressive as I was told, and yet somehow just a bit too cold for me to take to my heart. I think my favourite this year, though, is the recent translation of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin — written in 1940s Germany, but largely forgotten until now, it’s a gripping, frightening, painful page-turner of a novel. Recently I’ve been stuck in research for my own book, so I’ve been frustrated with just how little fiction I’ve read these last few months — but I have all the Booker shortlist by my side, tempting me in, asking me to catch up with the rest of the world. Their covers look very shiny and inviting.
LW: Right. As much as I hate for this to finish, Rob, I suppose we should wrap things up, and let you get back to your family! It’s been a fantastic evening. And I for one have really been encouraged and buoyed up by some of your comments – something which I think we all need from time to time. Thank you!
RS: You’re very welcome, Loree! And thank you, all of you, for giving me my Self-Indulgent South Bank Show moment!