Short stories: Atwood, a U turn and the beauty of small

When my mum suggested a few years ago that I should try short stories, I was rather dismissive. I said I like to go deep with my characters and the short form wouldn’t allow me. For me, fiction is an exploration of what it means to be human, and I assumed the short story was bound to skim the surface. Since marvelling forty years ago at Chekhov’s genius, I’d read stories that, for all their cleverness or style, felt like games or exercises: slight, manipulated and fundamentally trivial. I also rejected the idea of fast-food fiction because I’m not a fan of pace of packaging. As a reader I like slow burners; I crave delicacy as well as depth. So as an author, writing across genres for children, teens and adults, I chose the full-length option. Until I read Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips, I didn’t know a few thousand words could deliver everything I need from a novel – interior character, narrative flow and linguistic power – in miniature and yet somehow in full. With Isis in Darkness Atwood blew away my assumptions that a short story must have a conceit or USP, a limited palette or a twist. That one sublime story opened my eyes and I began to write.

The result is RAVELLED, described by author and Creative Writing tutor Stephen Carver as “a masterclass in short story writing” and by poet, playwright and novelist John MacKenna as “a wonderfully diverse, challenging, beautifully written and understated collection.” I value such reviews above sales, and given the size of my profile and publishers, that’s just as well! The diversity was a choice over unity because I’d read collections that felt too uniform in tone and theme, like an album that grows less engaging a few tracks in because the rhythms are on repeat and the tunes are only variations. I hadn’t at that point come across the phrase ‘transgressive boundaries’ but if anything unites my stories – apart from the inevitable core of love and loss – it’s my characters that cross lines. As a woman with alopecia who no longer wears a wig and is married to a cross-dressing man, I’m drawn to unorthodox ways to be equally human.

I’ve experimented with different kinds of narrative too, including a dreamy fable that only feels like fantasy and another that unfolds in a few minutes of real time. There’s a traditional story with a modern sensibility, and yes, one or two that overturn assumptions for reasons bigger than the fun of it. Whether set long ago and far away, in the Seventies or the present, the stories have their own registers and moods. Elderly eccentric Gerry arrives at her annual hotel in Away for Christmas and introduces her new young driver: “Meet Kyle Green. He’s not a bus stop. I would have got off.” But grief has a different vocabulary in Included: “His smiles were like missed notes, falling short. I saw – I heard – his attempts at normality slip away into a void, and that was where he’d find me, in mine.” Author Karen Maitland described The Goddess as “dripping with sensuality” and “exquisitely beautiful”: “In the waves that broke flat on sand, she looked for her old face. No longer edged in flickering black it seemed so small, like peeled fruit soft inside.”  But at the core of each contrasting story, characters must live – and vividly – through whatever changes in or around them.

That pivotal change may be small. In Sid’s case it feels total when, newly retired and single, he’s relocated to what the removal men call Divorce Drive. For Tess it’s a morning’s rebellious impulse that might be a rescue cry. And on Eva’s seventieth birthday, the past invades the present’s peace with the world she rejected. In the words of journalist, reviewer and author, David Guest, “these are tales about dealing with life’s challenges” and sixty years have shown me how various those can be – even in the absence of vampires or invasive supernatural forces. Did I build stories around these ideas? No. I found my characters. It was up to them to find their own story.

Writing this collection was a challenge in itself. But it was so rewarding – as a process and in terms of reader response – that a follow-up collection, WOKEN, will be published in May. The stories may be a little darker and some are very much of these times. In fact, the title story ends at the Women’s March on London after Trump’s Inauguration in January. But I’m more of an idealist than a politico and I never let ideology get in my characters’ way. On the back the publishers quote American writer Rick Cross: “Sue Hampton’s greatest strength is her almost preternatural ability to step into the shoes – the lives – of every character she introduces, large or small, every one of them as rich and real and secretly raw, as surreptitiously vulnerable, as any human being you’ve ever (or never) met. She is a sharp observer of the entire human experience, treating her creations with a remarkable tenderness and reverence even while she peels them to the bone.”

I’ll never have a review that means more or requires more tissues! Will this collection be my last? Well, as they said in Friends, I’m ‘on a break’. But I think I’m too much in love to stay away for long.


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