Every Time You Write You Have to Figure Out a Form
Thomas Chadwick discusses writing Above the Fat
This is part two of a two-part interview with Thomas Chadwick. In the first part, Thomas discussed his writing process and inspirations, and the art of the short story in general.
Thomas Chadwick’s collection of short stories, Above the Fat, is published by Splice and available to order now. Earlier this week, Daniel Davis Wood spoke to Thomas about starting out as a writer, his process and his inspirations. Here, the discussion continues with a focus on the origins of Above the Fat, the fraught political context in which it was written, and the nitty-gritty of putting together the collection as a whole.
So let’s look at ‘Red Sky at Night’, the last long story in Above the Fat. It’s a story that came into being while we were putting this collection together; you’d already written the others, but this one pushed its way through while the editing process was underway. And, not coincidentally, it emerged against the backdrop of the Brexit negotiations-cum-debacle.
I like ‘Red Sky’ on its own terms and I also like its contribution to the collection as a whole. To me, it picks up on a recurring situation throughout the collection, and it represents both a culmination and a reversal of this situation. The situation is one in which your protagonists — all men — are simply stuck, stuck in one physical location, in England, while their memories and manic thoughts lead them to become unmoored in time. In the shorter stories, like ‘A Sense of Agency’ and ‘And the Glass Cold Against His Face’, your characters are literally placed in confined spaces. In the longer stories, like ‘Birch’ and ‘Above the Fat’, your characters waver between being stuck in England and feeling more liberated in Europe: in Sweden and France, respectively. In ‘Red Sky at Night’, Paul, too, is in a literally confined situation — almost barricaded into Patras, cut off from the rest of the world — and he yearns for freedom. But this time — and here’s the all-important reversal — your protagonist is stuck in Europe, so that England is the distant place, the site of liberation.
Well, I think all fictional characters are stuck. Even characters that seem quite liberated on the page are still stuck on the page. Maybe this is one of the reasons we like to read, because fiction acts as a mirror to our own terms of confinement. In everyday life we can travel and move and avoid facing up to things, but fiction forces its characters to confront aspects of themselves they would otherwise prefer to ignore.
In the stories in the collection, then, being trapped physically is a relatively clunky metaphor for the way the characters are trapped emotionally, with the added benefit that being stuck might help nudge the characters towards some form of realisation. I also think it’s a result of my limitations as a short story writer. There are writers — Lydia Davis, Georges Saunders, Italo Calvino — who can paint all the broad brushstrokes of narrative with a very small number of words. I find that the only way I can condense a longer story into a small number of words is to restrict the narrative to a very specific place and time.
That’s true, but it doesn’t strike me as a shortcoming. I’ve always thought of it as planned out, an intentional constraint.
It’s definitely something I learnt by trial and error. I remember writing ‘Stan, Standing’ and getting to a point where I set myself the task of writing a draft where Stan never leaves his own hallway. It was the same with ‘Above the Fat’, where I decided the whole story would take place in the time it took the protagonist to fry an egg. By the time I wrote ‘Red Sky at Night’, I’d set up my restrictions before I even started writing. There was never a draft where Paul wasn’t stuck in Patras.
But this story came about — an English protagonist stuck on the continent — after the Brexit referendum, during the negotiations. How did that context shape ‘Red Sky at Night’?
It’s impossible for it not to. At the same time, I think all the stories are shaped by it in some way. That context has been there for a long while — certainly for as long as I’ve been alive — and Brexit was a large part of British politics long before there was a name for it. For me the story that’s most closely related to the referendum is ‘Birch’, which was mostly written in the autumn of 2016, right after the result of the vote; I feel I was trying to make a fairly deliberate point about the UK’s indelible connection to Europe.
I’ll confess I hadn’t noticed that reversal in ‘Red Sky at Night’. I think part of what I was trying to do was take a character who was very comfortable with where he stood in the world and make him uncomfortable. For Paul, though, this is less to do with Brexit and more to do with climate change. I wouldn’t suggest that Paul was a climate change denier, but I think he is in denial about how comfortable he is about his perspective on climate change. It has, in a way, become simply another way of presenting himself to the world. What he discovers when he tries to actually act on his convictions and take the boat home, not the plane, is that it’s really difficult and it might be that he was simply using climate change to hide other bits of anger in his life.
Well, very much related to that: you’re obviously in a strange and difficult situation — but a creatively productive one, if Above the Fat is anything to judge by — in that you’re an English writer based in Europe at this particular moment in time, writing about both Europe and England in a way that recognises their intertwining. I can’t think of a lot of writers who are doing this right now, at least not consistently; Chris Power and David Szalay are notable exceptions, though they’re both still based in the UK. In any event, I wonder whether you feel a responsibility to write in this way, about these concerns. I guess I mean this: how do you answer the politics of your situation in your creative practice, without being didactic?
I moved to Belgium in 2015 and have been living in Ghent ever since. We moved because my wife and I both got positions to study for PhDs at Belgian universities. At the time we just thought of it as a bit of an adventure, the opportunity to study and travel and live abroad. About eighteen months after we moved, the referendum happened and suddenly our decision to relocate was cast into the midst of a wider argument about Britain’s relationship to Europe. In that sense, as our lives have become more intertwined with Europe, the UK has started attempting to disentangle itself from Europe. I think what’s become increasingly obvious is that that process of disentangling is quite difficult. Maybe even impossible. Someone once described Brexit to me as like having each country in the EU crack an egg to make an omelette and then having the UK suddenly demanding its egg back.
I feel like that same entanglement has been present in my own writing, and not just in Above the Fat. In 2014, I started writing a novel set in an apartment complex on the Costa del Sol. It was about two generations of English people who find themselves thrown together on their respective holidays. When I started writing it, Brexit wasn’t even a thing, but over the next four years, as I continued to work on it, I had to keep making changes to try and keep up with the cultural narrative that was starting to unfold. So, in that sense, an interest in how the UK and Europe relate has been central to my writing.
More recently, though, I’ve found myself drawn to writing about small west country villages very like the one in which I grew up, such as in ‘Birch’ and ‘Above the Fat’. I don’t think my interests as a writer have changed, but I do think that I’ve relocated them. What five years ago I thought I could explore by taking characters to Europe, I now think I can explore by taking them to places in the UK. Where before I wanted to examine how the UK might relate to Europe, now I’m more interested in finding out how Europe is already in the UK. In that sense I do feel a responsibility. I don’t think anyone writing today could not, but I also feel a responsibility to take the writing to places where it might not be comfortable, where perspectives might not be clear. The way that we consume media makes it very easy to live within bubbles or echo chambers. I think fiction has a responsibility to look beyond that.
It’s interesting that you’re working in longer forms now, after your earlier attempts at writing novels ended up deflating and gave you the material for your short stories. In a formal sense at least, you seem to be now arriving at your original destination of choice (twice!) despite the detours along the way. Can you reflect on the differences in process as you move from shorter to longer forms? What did you discover about the form of the novel vis-a-vis the short story, in the process of writing, that led you to reach the end of a draft?
Writing anything of any form — novel, short story, haiku — is a constant process of learning and discovery. In that sense, writing functions a bit like teaching. Few things force you to learn something as thoroughly as if you have to stand up and teach it. In the same way, writing about something forces you to learn far more about a subject than if you were to simply read about it. Unlike teaching, though, I feel that the process of learning with writing is very temporary. I know I must have learnt to write short stories, but every time I sit down to write one it’s a bit like starting all over again. Rationally, I know this is not true — there must be things I’ve picked up in the process of writing that I can bring to new projects — but every piece of writing feels like something completely unknown.
It sounds pretty desperate to say out loud, but I think that’s part of the challenge of writing. If there was always a pre-ordained shape and structure, the process and the product would be very different. But because there’s not, because every time you write you have to figure out a form, then you can produce something that you yourself never knew existed. So, in that basic sense, I don’t see a massive distinction between writing longer or shorter pieces. I still don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing and I still feel that I have to figure out what form the piece is going to take all over again.
I finished a draft of the Costa del Sol novel a year or so ago, which I was working on during most of the time I wrote the stories that are in Above the Fat. I guess the most obvious distinction between stories and novels is that if you decide to change the form of a novel it can take a lot longer to produce a new version than with a story where — in theory — you can bash out a new draft in a few days. I’ve mentioned it before, but when I decided to change ‘Stan, Standing’ so he never left his hallway, I was able to make those changes over a weekend. With a novel you can’t do that. Or at least not if you have other things to do alongside it.
I’ve spent the last year writing a new novel about Big Cat sightings. I finished a first draft last summer, but realised before I even finished typing it up that I needed to change the whole thing. I’m still writing the new draft now. I don’t think it’s a source of frustration, though. When I’m working on a longer thing over a much longer period of time, it’s easier to see how the form should take shape simply because you’ve spent a lot more time with it. With stories, where my engagement with them tends to be more sporadic, it can be harder to see that. I spend a lot of time basically just copying them out again and again to try and figure out what’s going on. I once heard Kate Clanchy say something along the lines of how, when she finishes a story, she puts it in a draw and comes back to it a year later. I find that really useful. With novels you end up doing that almost by default, but with stories I find I have to engineer it a little more.