A Fascination With the World
Deirdre Shanahan discusses the craft of the short story
Deirdre Shanahan is a London-based writer who has been publishing short stories for a few years now with a lot of success. She won the Wasafiri New Writing Prize in 2018, and was shortlisted for the 2019 London Short Story Prize. Her work also appeared in Salt’s Best of British Short Stories anthology in 2017, and last year Bluemoose Books published her novel Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind. This year, in Carrying Fire and Water, Deirdre brings together sixteen stories which the novelist Alan McMonagle has described as “elemental, achingly honest, and delicately rendered”; the collection is published by Splice and available to order now.
In this two-part interview, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Deirdre first about her approach to the short story form, and then discusses the particulars of writing the stories in Carrying Fire and Water.
Many readers who might be familiar with your work will have probably found you via your novel, Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind, published last year by Bluemoose Books. Can you talk a bit about your turn towards the form of the short story? How did the writing of these stories overlap with the writing of the novel?
Actually, the stories and the novel were completely distinct enterprises. There is no crossover. I think a novel necessitates some level of long-term logic or planning, whether at the beginning or in the later stages, overtly or not, whereas stories for me inhabit a different psychological space and arrive out of a different impulse. In everything — subject, tone, and language — they feel very different.
Maybe on a general level there is something common between Carrying Fire and Water and Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind: themes like the relationships between parents and children, and women escaping their situations. But in the stories I’m able to plunge in at different times in the characters’ lives, and focus on one thing, then charge on and come out again… I feel you can’t do that so much with a novel, where one works more with continuous time and gives much more attention to characters and their relationships. Stories work on a level beyond language, with symbol and shape.
I may have written one or two stories at the same time as the novel, but not most of them. Of course I take “writing” the novel in this context to be the original drafting and not the later periods of editing. I tend to write stories in gaps of time but not really when I am deeply engaged in a long piece of writing. With this collection, some stories arrived out of time away at residencies, in dedicated periods of creative work. And in terms of comprising a single entity — Carrying Fire and Water as a whole — they probably arrived more quickly than the same number of words in a novel.
So what did the stories offer you, creatively, that the novel didn’t?
The convenience of the short story, so to speak, is one of experimentation, whether that be to do with style or subject tone or voice. It is clear they offer convenience in terms of portability for a time-pressed reader, but they offer more than that to the writer. There is the chance to try out skills and techniques that may be rough or unproven. They can be more playful than novels; you don’t have to be so faithful to what you’ve written before, and you can take risks without too great a cost.
Your risks seem to have paid off pretty well, speaking as an observer. You strike me as quite a prolific writer and one who has had a number of honours in rather a short space of time, a few years. How did you start out and how did you get to this point? Was there a particular moment in recent years where you decided to commit to this pathway, honing your craft and clawing your way forward?
With the stories, I had worked on some pieces for a while before anything happened. I’ve always written stories but I think I did develop a clearer sense of what a story meant to me and what I could do, what I wanted to do, in the last three or four years. And I was fortunate to have some published, shortlisted, et cetera. But it certainly was a more gradual thing than may appear, and as dopey as it may sound, I think it had as much to do with “learning my craft” as with being braver and becoming more confident. The publications coming together — that’s coincidental. The stories come to me. I work on them and after a while they are hopefully good enough to go out into the world. But nothing is predictable or planned in any way.
One thing that maybe helped is that is easier to be in touch with a community of writers these days. I’ve always tried to take the opportunity to learn — for instance, I attended the masterclass with Claire Keegan at the Short Story Festival in London a couple of years ago; that was something I could not pass up. Of course, the real task is to carry with one what one has learned, to absorb and let it become part of oneself — not merely to attend passively.
It’s serendipitous that you mention the masterclass with Claire Keegan; this summer I re-read her début collection, Antarctica (1999), and was struck by its affinities with Carrying Fire and Water. I can say what I think those affinities look like, but I’d like to hear from you first. What were the most valuable things you learned in those classes, including Keegan’s? Are we talking about things related to process and technique, like the nuts and bolts of writing, or was it more to do with permission, freedom, inspiration — the intangibles?
Sometimes I think the most one takes away in any learning process is what’s unsaid. From Claire Keegan, I think I learned to have a complete dedication to the story itself and how it speaks. For the writer to write the story, they must not just execute an idea but excavate something from it, to find out what it truly is, and then write on — to follow its essence wherever it leads. And I learned to pay attention to the visceral, to the physicality of the world, in order to convey emotions. It’s probably no secret that Claire is an inspiring teacher but one with great warmth. Who could forget her description of a paragraph as sentences which lie against each other, one developing from the one before, nestled in together like piglets around their mother?
Let’s linger on that bit for a moment: paying attention to the visceral physicality of the world to convey the emotions of a character. It feels like a contradiction in terms, because a physical description of an environment just doesn’t represent a character’s inner life. But, if I can put it this way, I think you tend to do something along these lines, a la Claire Keegan…
You have a character in a situation, but you don’t dwell explicitly on the emotions of the situation. Instead, you have the character notice something in the physical environment and describe it. Now, what a lot of realist writers do is the “objective correlative” thing — the character notices something external, which is meant to suggest their emotional state, or symbolise their psychology, or something along those lines. But the things your characters notice don’t really have that quality. You just let the character notice them and then describe them, and describe and describe, in increasingly precise detail, often to the point where the sentences splinter into fragments — and the intensity of the description suggests the intensity of the character’s concentration, which to me suggests the intensity of the emotions they’re gripped by, which are usually emotions that they want to get away from. So the reader feels the emotions through the length and detail of description focused on environments that don’t have any emotions.
This is to do with my feeling that fascination with the world is what distinguishes people from one another. I work primarily from a sense of character; I “see” characters, often but not always in a particular place — they appear to me, imaginatively, from some other part of my life or experience, maybe bringing a location with them or maybe not. Sometimes, I may not know exactly why these characters are in one place or another, or what the connection is, but that is what I will explore and discover as I work on the story. Having said this, I think that a writer or any creative person must be, by the nature of their work and preoccupations, alert to the world around them in all its many and various facets. Basically, that is our material. I perhaps might make myself clearer by saying I studied art. This way of understanding the world has remained with me as one way of “seeing” — absorbing and interpreting — what is around me and how I go on to use it in creating fiction. How one experiences and interacts with the outer world helps distinguish someone who is trying to make art. If one is not fascinated by the phenomena of the world and the way we humans are in the world and how we behave towards or react to stimuli, then I don’t know what else there is to do. My characters may share that belief — not consciously, but in the way they hold themselves in the world.