Gerard Woodward is a novelist, poet and short story writer. He studied fine art at Falmouth School of Art, and Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, later carrying out postgraduate research in the same subject at Manchester University. His trilogy of novels concerning the Jones Family (August, I’ll Go To Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth) have won widespread critical acclaim, including shortlistings for the Man-Booker Prize and Whitbread First Novel Award. His five poetry collections (Householder, After The Deafening, Island to Island, We Were Pedestrians and The Seacunny) have earned him a Somerset Maugham Award and two T.S.Eliot Prize shortlistings. His most recent publications are the novel, Vanishing, which is set partly in the village of Heathrow (before the airport was built) and partly in Egypt and Libya during World War Two, and Legoland a collection of short stories. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Independent and TLS and is currently working on a new novel.
(Gerard Woodward is appearing at the Bath Literature Festival which begins next weekend, 27th February 2016. His workshop on March 3rd on writing Short Stories is sold out, but you can hear him reading his poetry alongside poet Greta Stoddart on 29th February, 8.00 pm – 9.00 pm at the Guildhall Bath. Book at Festival box office.)
Interview by Jude, February, 2016
- I’m re-reading your short story collection, Caravan Thieves, which I like very much. The stories manage to be both unsettling and funny. Several make me laugh out loud. I think this combination is also a great feature of your novels. Can you say more about your new collection Legoland? Is it infused with a similar dark humour?
Yes, I think so. I like to unsettle, certainly, and this is part of the attraction of humour. I especially like the type of humour where you suddenly wonder if you should be laughing at all. Humour and comedy operate in much more subtle ways than we usually imagine, partly because we tend to divide works into ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’, when the best writing is very often a combination of both. I’m currently rereading the classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House – it is a very frightening novel, but it is also (intentionally) very funny as well.
- I interviewed A L Kennedy for the Bath short story website in 2014 and because humour is also a feature of her stories, I asked her about writing humour She said ” it’s hard – you have to be quite confident before you deploy it and then it’s about timing and observational skills being really tested.” Would you agree with that?
Yes, timing is very important. It is also very instinctive – you follow a particular line of thought because it appeals to you in a certain way, and for me that is often because it makes me laugh, and the thought of being able to share that emotion with a reader becomes very exciting. The comedy is often about surprise, and in order for the surprise to be effective, the context in which it happens has to feel very real. It is like the set up of a joke – the punchline is only funny if the story that leads up to it is well told.
- In a recent interview with Bath Life Magazine, you said you’ve been working on Legoland since Caravan Thieves was published eight years ago and you’ve also had a couple of novels and a poetry collection published within this time. Do you move in between genres as the mood takes you. Or do you have periods where you concentrate on one form?
I tend to work on one particular form at a time, but keep in touch with the other forms during that time, and don’t abandon them completely. The writing of novels is by far the most time consuming, so stories and poems tend to get written mostly in the quieter spells between novels.
- At a workshop on suspense you gave for Writing Events Bath several years ago you said if you get stuck, you choose random words from books to further the writing. Your example at the time, was finding the word ‘blackberry’, and as this was a novel set pre-technology rather than a mobile phone incident you had a pot of blackberry jam tip into a character’s hand bag. Can you say more about your short story writing methods?
The random word trick is just a way of using the world that is immediately to hand as a way of breaking through an impasse. When the writing is going well you tend to be doing that all the time, using things that happened yesterday to fill in the blank spaces in the writing, the person at the bus stop provides the face for a minor character, something that happened at the dentist’s provides the detail for a scene in the novel. Sometimes your head is empty (or feels like it is) so you reach for a prompt by looking for a random word, or a picture or anything. Most often you pick up a novel or other book by someone you love reading, and that very quickly gets the ideas and the words flowing.
- Which short story writers do you admire and return to? Do you have any contemporary favourites?
I enjoy reading most of the names that are familiar in the canon of great modern short story writers from Chekov onwards – Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, James Salter. Our own Tessa Hadley is one of my favourite contemporaries
- Finally, what short story writing tip would you give writers who want to enter Bath Short Story Award this year?
Make use of the limitations the form imposes on you. You can’t get everything into a short story, so don’t try to.