Giveaway now closed.
After revealing that our shadow panel Young Writer of the Year winner is An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with the writer of that collection, Jessie Greengrass.
All the protagonists of the stories in your collection are isolated in some way; did you deliberately set out to write a collection about isolation?
I didn’t deliberately set out to write a collection at all- I was writing very much from one story to the next, and so the themes that emerge are just those things which interested me at the time. I wasn’t trying to explore isolation specifically but was very interested (as I still am) in the attempts that people make to describe their own subjective experience of themselves- to make public through its articulation what is by definition private. Coming up against the limits of language is profoundly lonely- that awareness of the singularity of being a subject, our experiences overlapping with those of other people but never intersecting with them- and I think most of the protagonists in the stories are struggling with some version of this problem, and their isolation is proportional to their inability to find a solution to it.
Isolation isn’t the only reoccurring theme or idea: there’s also death, animals and the sea. Is there a point where you begin to notice your preoccupations and use them to your advantage?
I think there’s definitely a point- and it really came after I’d finished these stories- where I started to notice stuff that was recurring and thought that I needed to be careful about it. It’s easy for certain images to become a kind of mental shorthand- a cliche, really- and I think the longer you’ve been writing the harder you have to try to find new ways of talking about whatever it is you’re trying to talk about, which is as it should be. So I’m definitely imagining a future of fewer animals and less sea. Death is a pretty big topic though so I think I’m safe there, and in general I can’t imagine my subject matter changing all that much. I sometimes think that it might be time to try writing about people who are happy, or at least who are unanxious, but I can’t imagine it. They’re just a blank. What is there to say about them? Do they even exist? People who don’t spend their time feeling vaguely unnerved by the difference between the way they feel and the way other people see them? Plus it’s just the way things come out for me. It’s a long running joke in our house that everything I write is miserable. Even shopping lists.
Very few of the characters in the contemporary stories are named or gendered. Did you have genders in mind when you were writing?
I did, just as a kind of side-effect of needing to construct voices for them, but I made a very conscious effort to keep as many details as I could of the characters beyond their own thoughts out of the stories. The image that always hovered in mind was of Beckett’s Not I: the protagonist stripped back until they are nothing but speech, a voice in emptiness with no distraction from the struggle to articulate thought. All the characters are engaged in some kind of attempt at personal accounting and that’s fairly universal, I would have thought.
You studied philosophy; how much influence does philosophical thinking have on your fiction?
I think the influence is pretty clear in the work that I’ve done, although I also think that the reason that I chose philosophy as something to study in the first place was that my mind already worked in that way. The problems philosophy deals with felt very immediate to me but also the kind of abstractions used came fairly naturally and it was exciting, at the time, to find a mode of thought that allowed me to explore what I’d always blundered up against. Perhaps it was the result of a particular kind of anxiety and the fact that I was simultaneously able to be anxious and to find my own anxiety interesting (or just a tendency to try and draw universal conclusions from a really, really limited evidence base). So I think a few years of the dedicated reading of analytical philosophy solidified that way I think, and given me a language for it, but I also think that I was a bit that way to start with. Whatever that way is.
You write predominantly in complex sentences, often with multiple clauses. How did your style develop? Who or what inspires you?
I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to this, beyond the fact that it’s a little bit of everything I’ve ever read, and given that I grew up a socially awkward only child I’ve read a lot. Different writers have absorbed me at different times and I’ve been left with a bit of each of them, an echo maybe, and all those put together make up the way that I write- which is literary tradition as a kind of untraceable theft, I suppose, although without it there would be no movement- we’d all be trying to write Don Quixote without having read it, like the chap from Borges. Notable personal phases have included a few obvious ones, like a Beckett phase, and then a couple of months where I read pretty much nothing but David Foster Wallace’s essays. I’ve loved Larkin consistently since by mid-teens and I had a big thing for Berryman’s Dream Songs in my early twenties, followed by a patch of reading a lot of Elizabeth Bishop, including her wonderful letters, and then there are some less obvious favourites, like Alan Garner- Owl Service and Red Shift in particular- and Russell Hoban, and M John Harrison whose work I find consistently extraordinary.
If you had to exchange places with a character in one of your stories, who would it be and why?
They’re all miserable sods living in really, really cold places so ideally none of them. My life has changed quite a lot in the last few years and so while I’m still interested in the same things I think I probably feel a bit less bleakly pessimistic about them- I suppose the only character I’d not actively mind being would be the narrator of Scropton, Sudbury, Marchington, Uttoxter which is the last story in the collection and the only one where I felt the narrator had reached some kind of resolution, or made peace with themselves.
Your collection won the Edge Hill Prize and is now shortlisted for The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award; what does it mean to you to be recognised by these prizes?
On the one hand it’s enormously encouraging, and it’s great to feel that people like what I do, particularly when I’m half way through the next thing and it feels like it’s all completely, irredeemably awful and I obviously can’t write for toffee. There’s a boost of confidence. On the other hand the book is still the same book, the next book is still the same as it would have been- I’m probably going to be writing the same words whether anyone thinks they’re good or not. It repays the faith that my publishers have had in me though and I’m really grateful for that because they’ve been brilliant, both in taking a punt on a book of broadly plotless short stories about unhappy people in the first place, and in supporting me through to having the courage to write something new.
Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?
Yes! I’m about two thirds of the way through what I’m variously referring to as “a thing”, “a sort of novel”, and “that poxy book”, depending on how I’m feeling about it on any given day. And I’m afraid at the moment that’s about all I can usefully say, except that I suppose in many ways it’s like a long form version of one of the stories- a first person narrative, quite reflective, but I hope a bit less tightly wound.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
I find it so difficult to talk about favourite writers! But there are so many early- or mid- twentieth century women who aren’t read nearly as much now as I think they should be. Stevie Smith’s novels for example seem almost entirely forgotten about, and then people like Antonia White and Elizabeth Bowen, or F.M.Mayor who wrote the Rector’s Daughter. I re-read Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party recently which was absolutely as good as I remembered and I’ve also recently read Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard which is great.
If you want to find out more about Jessie’s superb short story collection, I have one copy to give away. All you need to do is leave a comment below. Entries are open until 5pm (UK) Sunday 4th December. The giveaway is open to readers in the UK and Ireland only. The winner will be drawn at random and notified as soon as possible after the close of entries.
Thanks to Jessie Greengrass for the interview and to The Sunday Times Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award for the competition.
Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway. I’ve allocated you a number in order of entry as follows:
1 – snoakes7001
2 – Cathy746Books
3 – Caroline Woolley
4 – Emma
5 – lizsmithtrailingspouse
6 – Jamilah
7 – Beverly
8 – Sofiane F
9 – Sally Pemberton
And consulted the random number generator. The winner is:
Congratulations Sally, check your email!