How to enjoy the London Short Story Festival? The novel approach – a full 3 days to linger in Waterstones Piccadilly, flitting between five floors to drop into c. 27 events, browse books and enjoy meals in a choice of cafes. Or go short story: compressed, intense – 6 events in 10 hours. The Jude and Jane way.
First up was the Ambit Magazine freebie. A generous hour in the company of Editor Bryony Bax with fiction editors Kate Pemberton and Gary Budden. Unsurprisingly, this was a popular event as Bryony, Kate and Gary gave honest, useful information about our chances of being published in such a prestigious magazine. Not great if you ignore the ‘no-nos’: gratuitous/transgressive writing that offers no illumination (Kate); ‘bedsitter’ stories (i.e. sad men/women in basements (Bryony); travelogues, which Gary described as ‘being subjected to someone’s holiday photos’. Note to self : keep Tenerife volcano story dormant. Check out their site for information about submission windows and their summer writing competition
We dashed upstairs to ‘Stories of the City’, chaired by the brilliant Kit de Waal (2nd Prize in the 2014 BSSA and so much more). The cities ranged from the masculine, brooding Edmonton (Lynn Coady); feminine cleft-like Florence (Alex Preston) to benevolent-mother Mumbai (Murzban F. Shroff). How do you avoid the cliches? They did and showed, through the reading of their chosen stories and responses to Kit’s questions, how to turn place into plot and story. Cities are replete with stories; the trouble is, said Alex, choosing the right one. Alex is a man with a memory for quotes and left us with one by Richard Russo, ‘The more intimately and particularly you describe a place, the more universal it will become.’
Next, a quick lunch in the 5th floor restaurant with its rooftop views of the city and time to tweet mugshots of ourselves so Twitter ‘friends’ at the festival could spot us and say hello. Not that it worked as we saw only a few; apparently, most were developing their skills in one of the many masterclasses. We’d booked the afternoon and evening packages which proved an excellent deal and certainly got more than our money’s worth through the range and quality of the events. In ‘A Fiction Map of Wales’, chaired by Wales Arts Review editor Dr John Lavin, the focus was on the significance of the writer’s ‘square mile’ or ‘milltir sgwar’ in Welsh. The stories by Carys Davies, Francesca Rhydderch, Cynan Jones and Rachel Trezise were imbued with a powerful sense of locality where emotions had been mapped onto a recognisable place, yet, in line with the Russo quote, they all had universal appeal.
I admit to being a huge Adam Marek fan and search for his stories on BBC Radio 4 Listen Again – the perfect accompaniment to filling in Excel spreadsheets. ‘Dead Fish’ was one I’d heard and an excellent choice for ‘Finding your Voice’ as Adam explained he’d experimented using a different voice. First person, present tense is extremely popular today as it creates a feeling of immediacy; however, in ‘Dead Fish’, which is essentially a chase broken up by the reflections and actions of other characters, the voice is in 2nd person with an authorial tone. This creates the framework for a traditional tale in which we, as readers and listeners, can participate. Just brilliant. More insight into voices from Niven Govinden, also a fan of the 2nd person which ‘whispers in your ear’ while Ethel Rohan rarely writes in 1st person, preferring 3rd, but gives her characters a close, internalised point of view. Useful tips include: Choose a theme tune for your character. Put headphones on and listen to it as you write. Read your story out loud. When Anita Sethi, the chair, asked about influences, Adam used a gardening analogy: making compost is like the sum total of your reading. Everything dissolves. If you throw a pumpkin onto the compost, it takes ages to break down – as a writer, you want to ‘hide’ your influences like perfectly made compost. Beware of the pumpkins that continue to protrude; Adam confessed his pumpkins were Murakami and Carver.
By our fifth event Jude and I were feeling peckish and hoped ‘Cooked Up’ would have a tasting element. Bingo! Delicious homemade cheese straws made by the chair Elaine Chieuw, served with a glass of white. We were definitely up for what turned out to be a cornucopia of stories on the theme of food/eating. Appetisers included a discussion about the writers’ favourite foods. Ben Okri, unsurprisingly, is addicted to Nigerian pepper soup, an important component of his Booker-winning novel ‘The Famished Road’. Elaine’s top two foods are noodles and chocolate (not together) while Krys Lee always assumed that kimchi and pasta should be served together as that’s what her mother had done when she was growing up in South Korea. She recalled making kimchi with her mother with food ‘a pleasure of home, nostalgia.’ Associations are key to our relationship with food and to Charles Lambert English food is connected with moments of embarrassment: What’s that bowl for? And what do you do with an artichoke? So unlike Italy, his home, and the country of Felliniesque feasts. The main course was the stories. Ben’s powerful ‘Stoku’ (a story/haiku cross) ‘The Mysterious Anxiety of Them and Us’, read in his magnificent, sonorous tones was a sharp contrast to ‘Fat’, Krys’s funny, insightful story about gaining weight to avoid compulsory military service in South Korea. Charles transported us to the Midlands in the 60s. ‘The Noise, and After the Noise the Calm’, set in a battery farm had the best description of a hen’s ovary. Ever. For dessert, we learnt about the writers’ eating/writing habits. Ben is a man of iron will and neither drinks nor eats while writing which he does by longhand; he used to type his stories and then he enjoyed munching away, attributing this to the rhythm between nibbling and typing. Krys confessed to a laptop littered with the remains of many meals. Writing is a pleasure of the mind and food of the body. We were left with a sense of the rituals of writing and eating. And seconds of cheese straws. Yum.
Just as we were beginning to flag at end of our Festathon, Paul Mc Veigh bounced into view. Paul’s enthusiasm and love of the genre make him the perfect Master of Ceremonies and he could barely contain his delight at nabbing May-Lan Tan, Laura van den Berg and Jon McGregor for Modern Voices, the last event of the day. At short story events, Paul said, there are more writers than fans of authors and these writers were chosen because their work challenges. Challenges and entertains through mystery and intrigue ( Laura’s ‘Aftermath’) , poignant humour (May Lan’s ‘Little Sister’) and ‘Where Hast Thou Been Since I saw Thee?’, a brilliantly droll ‘will he get laid?’/ coming of age story from Jon McGregor where the protagonist meets God-frey. Who inspires inspiring writers? Laura recommends Amy Hempel, Deborah Eisenberg and Edward G Jones; May-Lan would chose Mary Gaitskill who ‘takes a moment, turns it into layers of Saran Wrap which she picks apart and teaches us not to be impatient.’ Jon is a big fan of George Saunders and most of the population of Ireland.
The LSSFest is in its second year. On the Saturday there were 52 writers, 13 panel events and 3 masterclasses providing, once again, so many opportunities and ensuring that the genre continues to grow and make its presence felt beyond the world of literary magazines. Here’s to more and more writers being able to make a decent income from short stories without feeling they have to have a novel on the go to pay their rent. Thank you LSSFest. We’ll be back.
Jane Riekemann with Jude Higgins