A warm Yorkshire welcome today to my blog to short story writer Amanda Huggins, a 2018 Costa Short Story Award runner-up, who has clear ideas about writing the short form. Welcome Amanda! “There’s been talk in recent years of a short story renaissance. In January 2018The Bookseller magazine reported that sales of short story collections were up 50%, reaching their highest level in seven years. However, this turned out to be largely due to a single book — Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. This January the news was all about poetry — sales were up 12% in 2018, for the second year in a row.
“It’s great to see a renewed interest in both forms — certainly a couple of independent bookshops I’ve talked to this week have confirmed that short story sales are up — and more collections are being featured in review columns. There was also the buzz around Kristen Roupenian’s short story, ‘Cat Person’, published in the New Yorker at the end of 2017, which really resonated with a younger audience. Whatever you thought of that story, it was all good publicity for the short form.”
“As a writer, I know that crafting a two thousand word story requires a different set of skills to novel writing, and the former should never be seen as practice for the latter — a short story isn’t a miniature novel any more than a novel is a protracted short story. Although short fiction is suited to the pace and attention span of the modern world, some readers say they don’t read shorts because they can’t lose themselves in the story the way they can in a novel. It is true that they demand your fine-tuned focus, they seek to be read straight through, and every sentence weighs in heavy because it has to earn its place. Yet all these things bring their own rewards. A cracking story will repay your time and attention by leaving you with something to think about for days after you’ve read it.
“When I’ve finished reading a novel I often pass it on, however I usually keep short story collections and return to them over the years in the same way that I do with poetry. I have countless favourites, many by established authors, but also a growing number by emerging short story writers. The collections on my shelves include books by William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Helen Simpson, Helen Dunmore, Raymond Carver, AL Kennedy, Wells Tower, Stuart Evers, Miranda July, Yoko Ogawa, KJ Orr, Ernest Hemingway, Taeko Kono, Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Annie Proulx, Isaac Babel, Angela Readman, and AM Homes.”
“Stylistically, Hemingway’s short stories are near the top of my list — his concise, declarative sentences; his restricted choice of words and sparing use of adjectives; the cadence, the deliberate repetition — all deceptively simple. He summed it up perfectly himself: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”
“For fresh contemporary writing, I really like Miranda July. Her stories are unsettling, quirky, alternately grounded and surreal, oddball, off-beat, skewed. Yet they betray vulnerability, and are both raw and poignant.
“I’m also a huge fan of Japanese writing — novels, novellas and short stories. Japanese literature is often poetic, quiet, unhurried, and that way of writing suits the short story form. Sparing and effective use of language, subtlety and nuance, a certain elusiveness, all demand that the stories are read slowly, and that they are re-read and savoured. These are the qualities that draw me back again and again, and the tales of yearning and loss, of not quite belonging, all resonate with the themes I explore in my own fiction. I admire Murakami’s short stories, and really enjoyed his recent collection, Men Without Women. Murakami is renowned for his surreal writing, yet I prefer his stories when he writes of single men and smoky bars, lonely hearts and enigmatic women. I also love the short stories and novels of Yoko Ogawa. Like Murakami, her writing is often surreal, and can be unsettling and even grotesque. She is adept at self-observation and dissecting women’s roles in Japanese society. Taeko Kono explored women’s roles too, burrowing deep beneath the routines of daily life to reveal a disturbing underbelly — and who could resist a collection called Toddler Hunting and Other Stories?
“One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever come across in a short story is in Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, from his collection, Five Nocturnes. The description of the protagonist pretending to be a dog in order to cover up the accidental damage he has caused in his friend’s apartment made me cry laughing. I’ve only read the story once — I think I’m frightened something will be lost if I read it again, that the humour was somehow magnified by my particular mood at the time I read it!
“To conclude, I’d like to talk a little about my favourite collection from last year, which was Helen Dunmore’s Girl Balancing. I’m a big fan of Dunmore’s writing and The Siege is one of my all time favourite books. My favourite stories in this final collection of her short fiction are in the first section, ‘The Nina Stories’— and in particular I love the title story, ‘Girl Balancing’. These stories are almost notes for a novel-in-waiting; a sequence of vignettes centred around a girl called Nina, set in the 60s/70s. They are painstakingly intense; attention is paid to Nina’s every moment and action, and there are some lovely period details that evoke a strong sense of place. The writing turns the mundane into something beautiful, and the final story soars. Seventeen-year-old Nina is left alone on Christmas Day in a house at the seaside. She goes roller skating along the seafront with her friend, Mal, and when the mood turns, she must outwit him. I’ll leave you to find out for yourself if she succeeds.”
Amanda Huggins is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea (Retreat West Books), and the flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books). She was a runner-up in the 2018 Costa Short Story Award, and has been shortlisted and placed in numerous other competitions, including the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award and the Bath, Bridport, and Fish flash fiction prizes. She is also a published poet and award-winning travel writer, currently shortlisted for this year’s Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Award. Amanda grew up on the North Yorkshire coast, moved to London in the 1990s and now lives in West Yorkshire. She works full-time in engineering and is writing her debut novella.
Retreat West Books
Read my reviews of Separated from the Sea…
… and Brightly Coloured Horses.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Talking #shortstories with prizewinner @troutiemcfish #amwriting https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Qu via @SandraDanby