1. What can you tell our readers about your new collection All the Bananas I've Never Eaten?
Well, first of all that it’s got lots of very short stories in it. Most of them fit on to a couple of pages, so they’re very quick to read. People have told me the book fits well into their busy lives. Some people read on the train and might only have ten minutes to sit down and concentrate – you can read two or three stories in that time. Or maybe you read in bed at the end of a long day. I do that myself, and sometimes I can only read half a chapter before I fall asleep, but with these flash fictions, as they’re called, you can get the whole thing done and dusted.
I’m not sure there’s anything that ties the stories together, except people. There are a lot of people in the book! Quite early on I realised that when a story is so short, just a few hundred words, the most important thing is to make sure there is still a story there – it’s not just a scene, it has tension and some sort of ending that will satisfy the reader. And to have story you need characters. I’ve got an astronaut, commuters, a flying doctor, office workers, mums, dads, granddads and grandmas, crazy twins and cricketers and girlfriends and boyfriends and air hostesses. So you could say that it’s a book about people, anyone and everyone. I hope it’s funny, but also tender – I found I ended up really caring about my characters.
2. Where did your inspiration come from for each of these stories?
That’s a particularly good question because I don’t really know the answer! The simple answer is that I just made them up. I’d lie there at night, racking my brains for strange situations and strange ways of looking at normal situations. I got on a kind of roll, where suddenly three ideas would occur to me at once and I’d get up and write them down immediately. But the seeds for the ideas must have come from all over the place – things on the telly, in newspapers, episodes from my past which I’d mutate into things that were more interesting. I’ve got out of the habit now – I’ve been writing longer stories, and I tend to circle round and idea and develop it over days or weeks, instead of just writing it out as soon as I think of it.
3. What is your writing background?
For years I only wrote poetry. I’m not entirely sure why, except that poems tend to have fewer words in them, so maybe they seemed easier! I’ve published two books of poetry so far, and I’ve just finished another one. The poems are different, more about place and landscape than people themselves. That’s one reason this book was so much fun: instead of harping on about footpaths and villages I just focused on all the weird and wonderful stuff people get up to. And I discovered that very short stories could work just as well as long ones.
I work at the University of Northumbria, in Newcastle, where I teach creative writing. It’s wonderful to see people discovering new things to read and finding out they can do it too.
4. What made you want to write the stories over only a couple of pages in some cases?
What I really like is the speed of it, boiling the story down to its sessence, so that reading it is like overhearing someone talking. In real life, when we tell stories about ourselves we don’t pad it out with lots of description or include umpteen scenes – we go for the jugular: This happened, I did this, she did that. I wanted to reproduce that, so that reading the book was a quickfire experience, overhearing a roomful of conversations rather than sitting with the same people all night.
I also found that, once I got into the swing of it and was writing these stories that were very short, it felt impossible to make them longer. I’d think of an idea and how it could work, what the ending would be or what the one central event would be, and after that it felt a bit rude to the reader to spin it out. I just wanted to deliver it quickly, like a waiter in a restaurant I suppose, and then wander around with a white towel over my arm until they called me back for the next course.
5. Which authors have influenced you most in your writing life?
I first started reading very short stories with an American anthology called Flash Fiction. That was my introduction to the genre. But the writer who I have learned most from in this form is David Gaffney, the Cumbrian flash fiction writer. He’s published a few books of very short stories (Sawn-Off Tales, Aromabingo and The Half-Life of Songs), and he really opened my mind to how much story you could jam into on of these things. His work is bursting with ideas – the stories in Sawn-Off Tales are all only 150 words long, but they have the force of whole novels.
6. Who do you most like to read and why?
I read all sorts of old and new stuff, weird and traditional. I really like the big nineteenth-century European novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and so on, but also contemporary short story writers like the great Alice Munro. I think Munro really writes novels, but she does it so efficiently that they end up as short stories. She’s wonderful. One of my favourite novels is Growth of the Soil, by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. It’s the story of a family living in the mountains of Norway, over a forty or fifty year period. That’s all I can say about it really – it sounds dull, but it’s one of the wisest and most tender books I’ve ever read. Recently I’ve been reading old-fashioned horror, stories by HP Lovecraft and things like that, which is a bit scary but mostly hilarious.
7. What is next for you?
Well, I’ve just finished a new book of poems, which is about the hill I grew up on and Edwardian furniture and dead opera singers and all sort of other things. What I’m working on now is a novel. It’s early days but so far it seems to be about a public footpath and the lives of all the people who use it, and what they do when the land the footpath is on is about to be developed. So, people again. One thing I’ve noticed is how much I like writing about women, how interesting it is for me to write from a woman’s point of view. I’m not sure how well I do it, but it seems to give more possibilities for interesting situations and subtleties of emotion. I like putting the men in the wrong, too, and seeing if they can redeem themselves. So far I have four main characters in the novel, and three of them are women. Maybe I need another man to redress the balance!
8. Do you have a favourite in the collection?
One in particular is special to me because it’s true. Lots of the stories are based vaguely on fact or draw on the experience of my life, but ‘The Wonderful Thing’ is basically my grandmother’s story – I haven’t knowingly changed anything, except one of the names. My Nana went through most of her adult life bearing the terrible grief of losing a child – I didn’t even know about it when she was alive, I got told about it years later when I was grown up – and the story that is the nub of it is in the book.
Other than that one, I like ‘Judy’, because more than any of the others that one is just like someone gossiping in the high street. It has nothing ‘literary’ about it. It’s just the story of a girl who comes to work at a local florist’s, and how it doesn’t go so well.
9. You wrote these stories in a matter of months, can you tell us about your time writing these?
Yes, I started writing the book almost by accident. I’d played around with writing prose for years, but only in a casual way – I spent all of my ‘serious’ writing time on poetry. But I started to build up these ideas, just a handful really, and one day I thought I’d have a go at writing one, while it was fresh in my mind. It ended up so short that it only took three-quarters of an hour or so, and then I thought, why not have go at another. So within two or three days I have a little nucleus of five or six stories that I was happy with (most of them made it into the book), and that just got me kickstarted.
I wrote the book in fits and starts. I’d have these purple patches wen I’d write three in an evening, and then nothing for a few days. I was working as a graphic designer at the time, and this was a release more than anything. I had one sheet of paper whch I used for planning and keeping notes through the whole time I was writing. I’d have an idea and just write down one cryptic word to remind me – like ‘cichlids’. Sometimes these ended up as the titles of the stories. I found that the stories are so short that if I made more notes than that, it killed the story, so I just kept the barest record of ideas, then tried to write the story before I forgot what the clue meant.
We moved house from the Midlands to Northumberland in the middle of it. That slowed me down a bit. But I finished the last story almost exactly six months after I started writing the first. It’s definitely the quickest book I’ve written, and I think the one that has the most energy.
10. What is a day like in your normal writing life?
At the moment I’m very lucky, as I’m on sabbatical from teaching. That means I get to write for most of the day. I’m up at seven walking my dogs while my wife gets our son ready for school. Then coffee and breakfast, cereal usually but perhaps an egg if it’s Friday, and into the shed where I do my writing. Then I just sit and claw at my own face for three hours till lunch.
It’s daft really – writing is so much fun and so much easier than proper work, and yet it’s torture at the same time. I aim to write at least 1,000 words a day, and sometimes I can get that done in an hour, other times it takes me all day. In the middle of the day I take the dogs on another walk. It’s so precious, that time: an hour or so to get away from the desk and the emails and just to think through the story I’m working on, or to think about nothing at all. When I get back I’m recharged and ready to attack the page again. Even so, sometimes I take the laptop to bed to reach my quota for the day.
11. Tell us about some of your favourite characters from the collection
I think my favourite is the guy in ‘When Rachel Left’, who has started painting all these ornate pictures all over the walls of his house after his partner, the mysterious Rachel, leaves him. He’s kind of unhinged, but you know, I can sort of sympathise. Then there’s the man who is jealous of his wife’s chickens. There are a few fools in the book, endearing or otherwise. And the lovers too – I do like the woman who’s obsessed with horses, and the couple who worry that they might be robots. But my very favourite is the loveless granny in ‘Call of Duty’ – I’m so glad I made her so unremittingly cruel!
Readers can get a total 30% off the book’s cover price at the Salt shop: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781844713219
To get the full discount they need to enter the coupon code ‘Bananas’ at the checkout. The code will work till the end of November
Female First Lucy Walton