Fear and Self-Reflection
Thomas Chadwick discusses his writing process and inspirations, and the art of the short story
Thomas Chadwick’s collection of short stories, Above the Fat, is published by Splice and available to order now. Thomas splits his time between London and Ghent, and his stories often focus on luckless men drifting back and forth between the United Kingdom and the continent. Here at Splice, you can read two of them: ‘Birch’, shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Prize, and ‘Above the Fat’, shortlisted for the 2019 Galley Beggar Press Prize. In this two-part interview, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Thomas first about his inspirations and his general writing process, and then about the experience of putting together Above the Fat.
I’d like to begin at the end of the process, with something that has come about quite unexpectedly for me: Hilary Mantel. The two epigraphs to Above the Fat were some of the last pieces to be added to the manuscript, and one of them is taken from Mantel’s novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988). I would not have picked her as an influence on you, least of all with that novel. Why invoke her?
I read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street a year or so ago and was very taken with it. It does what for me all good writing does, which is to force a character to question an assumption they thought was secure. I thought the line in the epigraph captured that in a very direct way — possibly too direct. It asks the character to seek answers in their most mundane day-to-day behaviour — heart, habits, limitations, fear.
The idea that fear can tell us something was particularly important. Fear is normally something to be shied away from, but in the act of shying away we can learn a lot. I put the quote aside and for a while it was attached to another project that hasn’t ever got going, but then, when I came to go through the stories for this collection, fear appeared to be central to a lot of the characters. In some instances the origin of the fear is relatively obvious: economic ruin, heights, flooding, grief. In others, it’s more naïve: finding trousers that fit, getting lunch. But in each instance, the fear is ultimately and hopefully a cause for self-reflection, whether the character knows it or not.
Does Mantel’s work mean something to you more generally?
It has come to mean a lot. I only started reading her novels relatively recently, perhaps four years ago. I’ll confess I’d been put off for a long time because of the noise around the Thomas Cromwell books. I’d studied that period of history a lot at school, and then again at university, and so I think I shamefully thought it had nothing to offer me. Then I saw Mantel speak and was struck by not only her insight and intelligence, but also how funny she was. I picked up a copy of A Place of Greater Safety (1992), her novel about the French Revolution, and from there I started working my way through some of her other titles.
What is it that resonates with you?
Two things in particular. First, her sentences. I feel like the sentences in her novels have been cherished. Almost as if they’ve been carried around in the palm of a hand for several weeks before being placed on the page. They are so well-turned that they can be read rapidly, but at the same time each sentence is freshly weighted in a way that makes it feel as if you are reading the words for the very first time. The second thing I value about Mantel’s work is its feel for history. Obviously this comes across most immediately in her historical novels, but I think it’s just as important to her more contemporary work. Something like Beyond Black (2005), for instance. The novel follows a psychic named Alison around the Home Counties in the late 1990s and is mostly set on a red-brick estate somewhere near the M4, but there is history on every page. It is in Alison’s childhood, in the ghosts she speaks with, and in the world the novel describes. One of the key events in the novel is the death of Princess Diana — a cause for much traffic along psychic paths — but also a moment in which history was forming quite definitely in real time. For me, Mantel’s work captures the sense of history’s weight on the present perfectly.
Well, this is something I’m keen to probe further: this difference in feeling between the writing of the stories (yours) and the experience of reading them (mine), and the way that the passage of time might account for it. When you reflect on them, I’m guessing you see a long process of development, each more recent story being an extension of your skills from the story that preceded it. But when I read them, I’m seeing them all as the products of a process that has already reached its culmination in this book. So take me back to the beginning with a quick sketch: your first itch to write short fiction, your first attempts, your first publication.
My first attempts at writing were all attempts to write novels. To an extent I don’t think that’s ever really changed. Even when I’m writing stories now, I still think of them as part of a novel or look for ways to bring them into whatever else I’m working on.
After about five years of trying to write novels and occasionally producing a short story, I started sending some of the shorter pieces to magazines. Most of them got rejected, but I think the process of receiving rejections was very formative. ‘Stan, Standing’, for instance, started life as a list of “one hundred things that happened to Stan on the way to his brother’s wedding” or something like that. I think I came up with about forty things, then left it. About a year later I did a reading of some of the longer items from the list and people seemed to like it, so I started trying to turn it into a novel. I ended up with a very long piece that had Stan doing all sorts of things on the way to his brother’s wedding, but it wasn’t really a novel or a story — so, again, I left it. Later still, I wanted to enter something to a story competition, so I took my long list of things that Stan did on the way to his brother’s wedding and cut it down to get it under the word limit for the competition. It didn’t get shortlisted, but I got an email saying it was on the longlist and now I had a piece that was much tighter even if it was still a bit too long for most magazines. I spent the next few years gradually cutting words from it to make it eligible for various competitions and magazines. I think it had about three or four not-quite-but-nearly emails before it was eventually published in Bomb, but the story got so much tighter and that was only from receiving rejection after rejection. So I suppose, in that sense, I came to short fiction sort of by accident, as a way to do things with long, baggy pieces that weren’t ever going to be novels.
So this was a couple of years ago, and then ‘Birch’ made it onto the White Review prize shortlist pretty soon after that. Did ‘Stan’ ignite a sort of creative streak for you? How did you get from there to ‘Birch’?
In some ways ‘Birch’ goes back even further. The background to the story is drawn entirely from a conversation I once had with someone about timber prices in the 1990s. The basic story is that as the internet took off, there was an exponential rise in demand for paper. This led to many trees being cut down to produce paper and pulp, which in turn drove down the price of timber. The market only evened out, I was told, when firms started planting fast growing trees — such as birch — to satisfy the paper and pulp markets.
I had this story in the back of my mind for several years before I got round to trying to write about it. There were two things that I thought were really interesting about it. First, it struck me as a good example of the materiality of the internet. The cloud is an inappropriate metaphor for the internet — James Bridle’s New Dark Age (2018) is excellent on this and many other points — and the story of the internet and the timber trade seemed to capture the, for want of a better world, real world effects of the web. Secondly, and this has become more pressing in recent years, the timber trade is a good example of the UK’s reliance on the wider world. The UK has not been self-sufficient in timber for several hundred years. Also because of the length of growing seasons in the UK compared to, say, Scandinavia, Germany, Russia, or North America, UK softwoods are not as strong as colder climates where growth is slower. So timber not only emphasised the materiality of the web, but also was a way into the web of international interdependence which, as I was writing about it, seemed to be overlooked.
The result of all these interconnections was an image of a man surrounded by a birch wood that he was patiently waiting to come to maturity. This image never made it into the finished story, but ‘Birch’ was my attempt to prepare the ground for that image, so to speak. In that sense, I wrote the version of ‘Birch’ that was on the White Review shortlist relatively swiftly, in two or three months, but the ideas had been forming for almost a decade, and I have documents going back years on my computer with little descriptions of a man surrounded by birch trees.
There is a lot more I could say about ‘Birch’, but I’m conscious that not everyone is as interested in the timber trade as I am.
You know, I wasn’t interested in the timber trade at all until I read ‘Birch’, and that cuts to the heart of what I admire about your work. It’s an article of faith for me that there’s brilliance to a story or novel when it can take a subject I have zero interest in and find a form that earns my interest. The interest comes from the form, in the first instance, which in turn generates an interest in the subject — not vice-versa. The same thing happens for me throughout Above the Fat, especially in the title story.
I want to come back to this topic of the UK’s place in Europe in a moment. For now, can you walk me along the path that led you from ‘Birch’ to the other stories: ‘Purchase’, ‘A Sense of Agency’, ‘Bill Mathers’, et al, up to ‘Above the Fat’? I notice that during this period you started moving towards shorter forms than ‘Stan’ and ‘Birch’, opting for 2,000 words rather than 5,000, but then you came back to longer work with ‘Above the Fat’. Why?
I actually wrote most of those stories before ‘Birch’. Of the group of shorter pieces that you mention, I think ‘A Sense of Agency’ was the first, and I remember working on that for quite a long time. It’s in the first-person voice, which I would hardly ever use now, so it feels like a slight outlier in some ways. ‘Purchase’ I wrote very quickly and the reason for its brevity is simply because I entered it into the Ambit short fiction prize, which had a 1,000 word limit.
‘Bill Mathers’ came a little later as a story, although it had existed as an idea for some time. My original plan was to create a Twitter feed from the perspective of the narrator, who would relate a new thing that Bill had said each day on the state of literature, angling, politics, et cetera. I decided that in order to not run out of material, I’d better have a bank of things that I could use, so I kept a list in a notebook. I never got round to putting it online, but I did find the notebook a couple of years later and decided that it might be easier to turn the tweets into a story.
What about the other stories? Particularly the opening and closing sketches: ‘A train passes through the Ruhr region in the early morning’ and ‘The Beach at Oostende on a December evening’?
‘A train passes’ also started out as a list, but again I don’t think I planned to write it as a story. I was on a train from Brussels to Dortmund in the early morning and I made a list of everything that I could see from the window. My plan was to use the list to help write a scene in a novel, but then it was published in Corda, which was set up in the wake of the EU referendum.
In a way, though, ‘A train passes’ did lead to the other two shorter pieces in the collection. When I was putting Above the Fat together, I wanted there to be some sort of thread that ran through the collection. Given that ‘A train passes’ is set in the early morning, it made sense to add a short piece for the end of the day – ‘The Beach at Oostende’ — and something at lunch — ‘Death Valley Junction’. Apart from these last two, though, all the shorter pieces were written between 2013 and 2017. I think ‘Birch’ taught me a lot about the sort of fiction I wanted to write, ultimately. The earlier pieces feel like scouts, looking for different paths, styles, ideas. I think in that sense they were experiments, although at the time I was just trying to write.