Bristol Prize

Interview with Sarah Salway, guest speaker at this year’s prize giving

June 11, 2010   Joe Melia

We’re thrilled to announce that the acclaimed writer Sarah Salway will be presenting prizes and speaking at our awards ceremony next month. Sarah is not only a brilliant short story writer, novelist and poet but also a renowned creative writing teacher.The author Neil Gaiman calls her “an astonishingly smart writer” and Scott Pack, Publisher at HarperCollins’ imprint The Friday Project,  considers her to be “probably the best short story writer in the UK at the moment”.

Sarah was interviewed for BSSP by Ellen Grant, a 2nd year English Lit and Creative Writing student at Bath Spa University.

Who are your favourite short story writers?

It’s difficult to pick just one or two, but my favourite writers fall into three categories. The first I read for the story, when I am completely drawn into the world and characters created: Alice Elliot Dark, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Carol Shields, Karen Russell, A M Holmes. And then there are the stylists, where form fits the story so precisely another layer of meaning is created: Lorrie Moore, Peter Hobbs, Margaret Atwood, and lastly there are the writers it’s impossible to categorise, but they are so surprising and wonderful, I want to run round shouting out about them (and often do): Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Michael Ondaatje and Lydia Davis for example. Of course, all of the writers above write in all of these categories, which makes my attempt to organise a bit silly. And I will probably be bothering you for weeks with emails about other writers I’ve missed out of a list like this !

How does your approach to writing short stories differ from your approach to writing novels?

Both of my first two novels came from short stories I had written. The first, Something Beginning With, was actually one story in a collection of linked pieces but the narrator, Verity, kept talking to me after the story had been published. By the time I got an email from an agent saying ‘I wonder if you have ever thought of expanding this story’, I had 25,000 words to show him straight away. I think he was surprised, but happy! The second novel, Tell Me Everything, was from a story that same agent asked if I would expand because he had always wanted to see what had happened to the girl in it. It was a different kind of challenge, but I soon realised that I knew exactly what her story was. I think that’s why short stories are so powerful. There are always layers and layers behind what we are actually reading on the page, and somehow – with the best ones – we, the readers, can trust that the writer is only showing us what is necessary at that time. My third novel, Getting the Picture, was a novel from the very beginning so perhaps I’ve broken that pattern! I think there is a difference between writing a short story and a novel which goes far beyond a novel just being longer. I like the intensity I can apply to the writing of a short story. The pace of the piece is mirrored in the way it is written. I’ll get to the end of the first draft before I start thinking about editing, and I’ll rarely show anyone. With a novel, I need to plan and plan, and have a bevy of amazingly wonderful readers who will keep me going. I don’t like writing novels, but then I don’t like not writing them either. It’s fun to have this different world going on. However, I always like writing short stories. What’s not to like?

Your short stories often depict the intimate, sensual and dark secrets of everyday people. How do you go about embodying your characters and portraying their inner turmoil?

Yes, what fascinates me is what isn’t being said. Often because we don’t know ourselves what forces in our lives are invisible to us, and if we did, we might very well change them. Although my characters aren’t autobiographical and only very rarely based on people I know, I do try to slip into their skins as I write. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable, but often it’s worryingly easy given the type of characters I write about. I am the biggest worrier in the world, so it’s actually like a little holiday to think of what other people’s inner turmoil is like. I’m particularly interested in this idea that we all carry within us the seed of our own destruction. What might that be, and how did it get there? As I said before, it’s often invisible to us, but powerful to imagine what it might be in someone else. Do you read the business pages? They are absolutely fascinating in terms of thinking about characters. It’s a real adventure story. The trouble is that it’s us who have been left behind at the ranch at the moment.

What are the most important elements in constructing short stories?

Character, character, character. Even for stories which don’t contain any characters. There needs to be desire too. Particularly the desire of the writer to write the thing.

When did you first become interested in reading short stories?

When I was a kid I was obsessed with the Greek myths, and used to read them again and again. I think most good short stories of any genre have similarities with those myths.

Where, when and with what do you write?

I always start writing with a pen on proper paper. It connects me with the writing somehow, and warms me up. As soon as I feel my brain working faster than my fingers can write, I move to my laptop. I make an effort to write in as many different places as I can – cafes, parks, different rooms in the house, even the car – and I write when I can. I am best in the early morning, but I often forget this because I’m not very good at getting up. However, I do have long periods of not writing, and I try not to worry about these. I think of it as resting.

How and/or has your experience as a journalist informed your prose writing?

To begin with, it was a disaster because the words came too easily to me, and I wasn’t spending the time I should have searching for the right one. Also when I started writing fiction, I had been working as a feature writer for the Scotsman newspaper for some time so each story turned out at exactly 800 words out of habit. However I rely on newspapers a lot to start an idea. I’m a great cutter outer, and this is something I used to do as a journalist as well. I should stress I always make up my own stories and my own words, but there’s a seed often that will start me off. They talk about a ‘nose for news’ and I think this is something I developed as a journalist. Also it was fun. I have never really got this idea that all writing needs to be suffering.

How useful has it been for you to have an MA in creative writing?

Essential. Not least because it gave me two years to say I was learning creative writing and that was a huge safety net for when I failed and failed and failed. I look back at my first pieces now and I cringe. But I also look at the supportive comments on them from my tutor and feel so grateful. It’s also good to still be part of a community of writers from my MA, we seem to be drawn to each other even if we weren’t studying at the same time.

How did you begin to get your work recognised by publishers?

I sent individual stories to magazines – both in print and on line – that I enjoyed reading. When I got my first acceptance letter, I slept with it under my pillow I was so excited. Although I had been getting my journalism published for years by then, this was different. When I had enough stories for a collection, I sent them to publishers. Although it was completely naïve of me, I got some lovely letters, although all I saw at the time was that they were rejections. One editor at Bloomsbury said she’d like to see my first novel, so when it was ready, my agent sent it to her and she took it on. It turned out she remembered the stories absolutely, so it’s definitely worth getting your work out there. My first agent contacted me from a story I published on the internet, so again, you need to spread your work as wide as you can. No one is going to come knocking on your door and beg to read you.

How has your life changed since becoming a successful author?

I think the biggest shock was realising that I was going to wake up after my first novel was published and have to make the kids breakfast just I had as every other day before. And the dog didn’t care either. But it would be silly to say that it hasn’t made a difference. I have a job I love at the moment as the RLF Fellow at the LSE and I certainly wouldn’t have got that. Also I can help other – new – writers, and that’s important to me. However, the last six years since Something Beginning With was published have made me realise that what keeps me going is the process itself. I would hate to be just an ‘author’ of any kind, I’d much rather be writing.

And finally, would you rather be re-incarnated as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Samuel L. Jackson?

Well, I’d go for Samuel Taylor Coleridge because he had a rowing boat and better clothes, but then he also had really bad anxiety attacks, so I think I’ll plump for Samuel L Jackson. And then I could be a Jedi Master too.

Sarah Salway is the author of the short story collection ‘Leading the Dance’ and 3 novels ‘Tell Me Everything’ ‘Something Beginning With’ and the recently published ‘Getting the Picture’. She has also co-written ‘Messages’ with Lynne Rees, a collection of 300 pieces of 300 words and co-edited the spin-off ‘Your Messages’, again with Lynne Rees. She runs regular creative writing workshops in London and Tunbridge Wells and blogs at Sarah’s Writing Journal and A Quiet Sit Down.

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