A detester of bohemianism and about as politically Right as Josef Stalin: This is Nigel Jarrett, Welsh author of the widely acclaimed story collection Funderland. He speaks about short stories, journalism, finding inspiration and his own worst fault as a writer.
WCC: You had a first story collection published by Parthian in 2011 and your short fiction continues to appear in literary magazines. Why short stories?
NJ: I’d always read and written but I first took writing fiction seriously when the American New Realists were entering the scene – Carver, Wolff, Ford, Phillips; that crowd. There was nothing like it in Britain. I was subscribing to the magazine Granta when Bill Buford was its prescient editor; he’d devoted a whole issue to them. As a newspaper reporter working sixty hours a week minimum, I didn’t have time to finish a novel – well, I did, but it was taking so long that I lost track of plot and character; it was hopeless. I could knock off a story at one sitting. It was just as well that the best short stories had no proper endings. The first adult book I read was a selection of stories by de Maupassant.
WCC: Was it difficult to get Funderland published?
NJ: Yes and no. You need the stories in a collection to have been published in magazines or to have won a literary competition, preferably not the East Newlyn Writers’ Circle Open. I was OK on both counts. But even then it’s difficult to interest a publisher. There’s this huge delusional thing going on. The Creative Writing industry teaches short fiction as a staple yet publishers are always trying to create a demand for it among a reluctant readership. The result is an unpublishable glut beside those collections that do make it and are over-exposed. Story collections are notoriously slow sellers unless the authors have done something else to warrant attention, such as having spent thirty years in Corrie or been the third member of a ménage a trois with Gilbert and George. It helped that, several years before, I’d won the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction. I was a finalist again last year. My stories were also liked by Richard (Lewis) Davies, founder and ringmaster of Parthian Books. That helped, too.
WCC: You’ve been a daily-newspaper journalist and you now freelance. Is there a connection between newspaper work and writing fiction? Does journalism make fiction easier?
NJ: No connection that I know of. Few of my colleagues ever wrote fiction. (One could joke, of course, that all newspaper scribes write fiction as part of their investigation of facts.) Working on a newspaper does feed fantasies of being a ‘proper’ writer and the example of Hemingway and others, who both reported and wrote stories, sustains them. Writing for a newspaper and ‘subbing’ copy – I did both – should help in the writing of concise fiction, but I found that, freed of the daily imperative to watch the word count and the syllables, I was tempted by a Jamesian convolution that I had to resist. One of the best modern stylists was Evelyn Waugh, whose economy of means as a writer came naturally. I continually re-read him to find out how he did it.
It amuses me to think that I include fiction in the myriad of items I churn out as a freelance journalist. Sad to say, most small but influential magazines are too poor to pay their contributors. Had they done so at New Yorker rates I’d have a holiday home in Nice by now. Like Dr Johnson, I think writers should always be paid. I therefore write, inter alia, for the Conservative Salisbury Review because it pays me promptly. Needless to say I’m about as politically Right as Josef Stalin.
WCC: Newspapers are struggling. Do you see a future for writers in printed form?
NJ: I don’t see much of a future for print itself, but I think it will co-exist with digital for a while yet. The trouble with digital-only is that some magazine editors might ‘publish’ any old rubbish once their space, or cyberspace, becomes unlimited. Print magazines with an online element deny that their digital stuff consists, ipso facto, of rejects. At the same time, they always have a hundred pages of publishable material to fit into forty. Therefore, when rejected by a print-only magazine it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work’s no good. Rejection by one with an infinite online presence means it probably is or that the editor thinks it is. The good news is that a vista is opening up for writers that offers the prospect of being able to self-publish professionally and sell books on a website. Literary agents and traditional book publishers will soon be developing the jitters. But there’ll also be a mountain of crud to sift through. I hope the reviewing journals, print or online, can preserve their integrity as well as their identity..
WCC: Where do you get your ideas?
NJ: From anywhere. In the early days, my style was an imitation of whichever writer I happened to be enamoured of at the time. Newspaper ‘In Brief’ columns are a useful source. Anyone who can’t construct a half decent story based on a ‘NIB’ shouldn’t be writing. You always know when something you’ve heard, witnessed, read, thought about or experienced directly is going to turn into a story pretty soon. It’s an instantaneous feeling, though you have to want to do the writing, an activity always capable of being deferred by the claims of the coffee machine and the newspaper (I’m a ferocious newspaper reader). Someone, like me, who often sits in front of a computer screen not knowing what’s going to happen is undergoing a familiar and undeniable writerly ritual. Something will come, as Henry James (since I’ve mentioned him) used to say.
WCC: What advice would you give to a writer just beginning to be published?
NJ: Learn the rules, break them and get yourself a website. Treat advice from people ‘in the industry’ with something just short of disdain. Learn from people who’ve been published – ie, other writers.
WCC: Do you know what your writings are about in the sense that there’s a common theme to your work?
NJ: Tough one. I used to trot out all the definitions of art as answers to this question.The relationship between big events and unsung people, the War and Peace thing, always interests me. Then I liked fiction as a means of giving voice to the inarticulate or mute.It’s not easy. Making a pattern out of an essentially patternless world can result in too ordered a transformation: happy endings, no untied strings – that sort of thing. Stories allow you to let the readers do more work than perhaps might reasonably be expected of them.
WCC: What’s your worst fault as a writer?
NJ: Sometimes making my characters say things as I might say them. Actually, I’m not sure if this is a fault in most cases. The accusation can lead to an inverted or concealed snobbery. In one story I have a traumatised teenager (his parents were killed in a car crash) meditating on his job at a failing wildlife park. Some of his speech might be thought too intellectual, too considered, for one who knows he’s been brutalised. I do hate it when some middle-class critic presumes to know how an uneducated butcher’s boy would speak. The lower orders don’t borrow books from libraries, do they? Well, they would in any other circumstances, and I’m creating those circumstances for them. They may not be able to say but they have feelings like the rest of us. My job is to allow them to speak their feelings, if necessary in words of more than two syllables.
WCC: What are you working on now?
NJ: I’ve just written a very short story called Blakemore’s Folly, which has been accepted for publication. I’ve completed a novel, a poetry collection and a second story collection, each of which is looking for a home on the page or on the screen (the vista is in sight!). Trying to publish things is more tiring than disappointing. The important thing is to write because you want to and you believe in it.I’ve just started a second novel and I’m in the middle of some flash fictions. Publishing/writing seems to be all about novels and stories. What about essays, plays, polemic, satire, documentary fiction, non-fiction, biography?
WCC: Have you any other interests?
NJ: Plenty. Apart from reviewing poetry and jazz for Acumen magazine and Jazz Journal respectively, I paint and draw. The questions thrown up by visual art have always fascinated me. I’m a psychiatric case in the sense that I only enjoy the things I can do myself, or think I could do given the time and space. I lost interest in cricket when I stopped playing it, though when I stopped learning to play the piano my interest in music and score-reading increased to the point where I’m pretty good at holding a tune in pitch and following Shostakovich’s Fifth. I told you I was a psychiatric case. I don’t collect stamps, for sure. I do go to the gym and swim regularly early in the morning. I’ve seen too many close ones die to want to follow them prematurely. In any case, I detest bohemianism and anything slovenly. Bohemianism is the triumph of lifestyle over ambition. I gave up smoking years ago. I need as much life as possible. I’m certainly interested in more living, more fresh air, in order to keep out of death’s dominion. For a while longer, anyway.
Funderland is available to buy from Amazon in both paperback and kindle editions.
See the Parthian website for reviews of Funderland.