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‘...the language(s)
of bureaucracy...’


(in conversation)

The 2020 edition of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize saw collections by Linda Mannheim and Ruby Cowling make the shortlist. Ahead of the announcement of this year’s winner on December 7th, Hotel gathers cuts from Cowling’s This Paradise (Boiler House Press) and Mannheim’s This Way to Departures (Influx Press), ahead of hosting the two authors at a proverbial table for a discussion of the form, focus and rigmarole of their writing.


Ruby COWLING (From) ‘This Paradise’

They’re good kids, but each time they fire that gun it seems they might be growing into something else. Or maybe she’s just tired and her cramps are bad, making her see the worst. After all, Ollie and Sam are not her children; it’s not her place to guess the way their genes might unfurl.

Between gunshots there’s near-silence, just the waves shushing onto shore, the odd gull out by the reef. Hot air stirs the spindly pines. Cross-legged on the sand in the casuarina shade, Cara knocks a fire ant off her leg. The sun’s a grill today: there’s no cloud, no sign, yet, of the forecast tropical storm. Ollie jumps every time Sam shoots, but he reaches out for the weapon afterwards. His arm seems no thicker than the barrel. He’s eleven and likes drawing and keeps a tank of stick insects next to his bed. Sam shows him how to pump the air in, sight the centre of the beercan, hold steady, and take his time over the long pull of the trigger. Ollie has another go, but the pellet scuffs sand again.

None of them has been in a tropical storm before. In the eighteen months since they came over, the Atlantic’s been unusually calm, as if nature can only focus on one disaster at a time, and although Cara works seven days a week, life on this lush island has been gentle, benign. When John and Geraldine sat her down this morning to talk about preparations they seemed mildly amused, the way people can be when their lives have never been under real threat—and Cara had to admit there was a thrill in it. People who’d been through it said it was terrifying, but what did that mean, really? Wouldn’t there be something transcendent in it? Wouldn’t it touch on the sublime, the sensual, being helplessly subject to some ultimate amoral force, with nothing you could do except let it come, full-on and savage? Perhaps natural destruction could hold a kind of beauty.

A dragonfly jerks to a stop mid-air and eyes her, then jets off. Sam starts sighting new targets—a coconut thirty feet up, a garbage bag just begging for someone to spill its colourful guts—but Ollie won’t aim at anything but the can.

Bit by bit, they are learning wildness, exploring the relative freedom of island life. Geraldine often says how good all this is for them—so much better, she says, than that stifling health-and-safety-obsessed country we left. It’s funny the way she calls it ‘that country.’ Perhaps naming it would bring it too close. It might risk ruining what they’ve managed to achieve by coming here: their escape no longer such a complete one, if the name of that country were allowed to hang in the air like an unbreathable mist.

The air gun was their father’s. John’s advice, handing it over, was don’t shoot anything anyone’ll sue you for. Inevitably, it’s become Cara’s job to put it away, and she always shakes a bit, particularly because no one’s shown her how to unload the thing.

She checks her watch and calls, ‘Five more minutes.’ Geraldine’s at home—her Saturday morning fundraiser’s been cancelled for the school to turn itself into a storm shelter—and she’ll notice if they’re late back. Geraldine drives much of the charity work here; she mentioned her extensive charity interests in the original Nannies4U advert, as well as describing herself as a third-generation PhD (Cara’s got used to her calling herself Dr E). She means well, treats Cara with an offhand kind of familiarity, though she can get pre-emptively defensive about certain things. More than once, unprompted by Cara, she’s listed the reasons why she couldn’t allow herself a career break, to have the kids, until she was forty. No!’ Ollie grabs his brother’s arm: Sam’s aiming at a turkey vulture wheeling overhead. He shakes him off, but lowers the gun. He hands it over, and Ollie pumps it, aims again at the beercan, holds, fires. Misses. He shakes his head.

She’s had worse bosses. The Ellands are relatively relaxed, and John’s not over-involved. In Cara’s experience, an involved father sets off about a million red flags and alarms. She dresses down and almost never wears make-up, but the way she looks—i.e. fairly symmetrical features, fresh skin, clear eyes, i.e. quite simply younger than the mother—has been known to cause ructions in other households. Here, though, John’s happy to let Geraldine deal with her. He’s an affable man, suiting his semi-retired late fifties, dealing with his investments each morning and snoozing each afternoon—which he uses as a joke: ‘I used to be in the energy business, but not any more!’ Geraldine guards John’s office against the children but otherwise leaves him to it. Down in the clearing, Ollie—white-skinned, vegetarian Ollie—gets a pellet in the heart of his beercan enemy and cheers.

Linda MANNHEIM ‘Dangers of the Sun’

When I tell you I’m taking time off to go to Vermont, where my childhood friend lives, you’re probably picturing an old farmhouse in a snowy field, a Volvo out front and a rustic barn. But Reeny and the kids live in one of the two-story houses in Furnace Street, built when the paper mill was still going strong. The mill is gone now. The supermarket is closed too. Every house on the street is broken and damaged in its own way. I recognize the pattern of shingles patching Reeny’s roof, the patch job that her husband did before he died. The window frames were repaired with unpainted wood. It’s a fixer upper that’s never been fixed up, Reeny would quip. The inside of the house is a maze of laundry baskets, dirty dishes, and empty pizza boxes. The kids’ toys inhabit forgotten corners. I’m on my way to Reeny’s from New York, on the Ethan Allen Express, a train I haven’t been on in years. It’s the same train that Reeny and I used to take when we were kids going up to see her cousins, getting away from the city, leaving our parents behind.

When I tell you that Reeny and I used to visit Vermont when we were growing up in New York, you’re probably picturing us with ruddy faces and crew neck sweaters. But we were from Washington Heights. When we went to Vermont, we wore tight jeans and slogan t-shirts, military surplus boots and backpacks. Two fourteen-year-old girls on their own—leaving the city. We were on guard the whole time. We wanted every other passenger on the train to know we would not abide their bullshit—especially the businessmen who got off at Croton-on-Hudson.

A lifetime has gone by since then. We both left New York—Reeny for Vermont, and me for Massachusetts. I went to college there, working two jobs at a time to supplement my scholarship. Then I went to grad school in Italy, worked for a museum in London, and came back to Massachusetts again before returning to New York. You might think I’ve come full circle; I haven’t. The New York I live in is nothing like the New York that Reeny and I grew up in. I’m a curator at the Gowanus Museum and Art Gallery and I share a brownstone with four happy people who grew up in the suburbs. There’s a man in my life named Ray but we have not defined our relationship. In fact, I’m not sure what to call him, so I call him Ray.

Acquaintances sometimes observe I am living like a student, as if I am afflicted with a condition of some sort that has held me back from advancing my own narrative. The more intrusive ones ask me what I’m waiting for. You might be wondering this too.

And Reeny? Reeny has three children. Her husband died last year. I’m traveling to Vermont to attend his wrongful death trial.


Reeny and the children are waiting at the train station when I arrive. Since Richard died, Reeny’s lost the plumpness she gained after the children were born. Her jeans hang on her. Her eyes are shadowed in purple and narrowed somehow. Her hair falls just past her shoulders, smooth and chestnut brown. Automatically, I reach out to hug her, then remember that I should move quickly because she doesn’t like hugs. She reaches for a packet of rolling tobacco in the pocket of her leather jacket. She’s begun smoking again.             *

When I tell you about how Richard died, you’ll ask me to repeat what I’ve just told you. You’ll want me to explain what malignant melanoma is. You’ll tell me you didn’t know that skin cancer can kill you. I’ll tell you most don’t, but malignant melanoma can, especially if it’s not dealt with right away. Why didn’t they deal with it? you’ll ask. And I’ll tell you about the doctor who thought Richard’s mole was nothing to worry about, who only diagnosed it two years later, after the mole had grown. ‘It was stage four by then,’ I’ll say. And there is no stage five and blahdy blahdy blah. You will look so far away, probably thinking about the imperfections on your own skin, until you return and ask, how old are the children?’ ‘They’re eleven, nine, and five now,’ I’ll tell you.

You will tell me it’s a tragedy. You will tell me you are so sorry. It will be busy, loud, lower Manhattan on a weekday after work. And you won’t realize how, after that, there is nothing left for me to say.

You’ll talk about your trip to Thailand, and I’ll be thinking about biopsies. You’ll talk about the personal ad you just took out, and I’ll be thinking about chemo. You’ll talk about the job you want to quit, and I’ll be thinking about Reeny and the kids. You’ll see my face stiffen, my eyes widen, and you won’t understand my anger.

You’ll ask me, ‘Mia, what’s wrong?’

Ruby COWLING: I wanted to say first off that I became an immediate fan of your work when I read This Way To Departures in January this year (remember January??) I really appreciated the way your stories look outward, being concerned with the structures and systems of the wider world. You balance those concerns with the internal worlds of your protagonists, and, to me, that's what I’m really interested in trying to achieve as a writer: a story about the person in the world; not just the person, and not just the world.

Linda MANNHEIM: Let me start by saying the fandom is mutual. I first heard about This Paradise when someone on Twitter asked what short story collections he should read next and people kept recommending This Paradise. Pretty much as soon as I started reading it, I was riveted and also thrown for a loop. ‘The Two Body Problem,’ with its two columns of prose next to one another, really challenged me. By the time I got to ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted’—with its dispatches from a reporter, DMs on the edge of the page, and texts laid out in rectangles resembling mobile phones—I thought: Wow! I've never seen anything like this. ‘The Ground’ changed my perception of what a short story can be.

I’m really pleased you mentioned my characters operating within “the structures and systems of the wider world.” When I’m forced to tell people what I write about (which of course, is a question I always struggle to answer), I usually tell people that most of my writing is about how people live their day-to-day lives post-conflict. But if you’re telling someone this who you’ve just met at a party, it kind of sounds like a downer. My parents and grandparents and most of the people in the neighbourhood where I grew up had all had to flee the places they were from and were building new lives in New York, so the stories I was most interested in were about people doing ordinary things against the backdrop of extraordinary events—raising their kids, dealing with crap jobs, keeping relationships going (or not), keeping their household going (or not), returning to long time friendships (or not) after a war or another upheaval is over.

I think one of the reasons I was drawn to your work is that it does something similar. To me it looks like every one of your stories is about how people go about their lives when something bigger than them—usually a political force—is shaping what their options are. I love that, in the jacket copy, ‘Flamingo Land’ is described as a story where “A family prepares for Assessment,” and it’s not until you're starting to read the story that you go: Hang on—what kind of assessment? When I first came to London, I worked with a homelessness organisation and became used to the language of local authorities. ‘Flamingo Land’ references that language and takes place in a world that’s so familiar and strange at once. Because the “assessment” is so brutal, you sort of get shaken out of accepting the mundane vocabulary used by bureaucrats. I think this is the part where I get to ask: How did you come to write ‘Flamingo Land’ ... Where did that story come from?

R.C. / I think you’ve absolutely pinpointed the things I'm most interested in, even obsessed with, in my stories—the language(s) of bureaucracy and power, the way people are pushed and pulled by big forces and how those pushings and pullings tangle up with their own internal wranglings, all that stuff. Like you, I like nothing better than a story in which someone's trying to get through their days against a backdrop of the bigger political/social picture (or rather, through the sticky mess of it). ‘Flamingo Land’ is just that, really—I wanted to get right down into the daily moments of this very normal English family who are struggling with finances, and who find themselves feeling more and more crushed by the pressures from a national authority that’s decided to intervene in the most blunt way in the “health” of its citizens—that is, making benefits payments dependent on staying under certain body weight limits, and forcing them to wrangle with an almost incomprehensible “formula” when filling in the forms. It only felt like a minuscule step away from where we already are with the punitive and invasive benefits system in this country.

I say “in this country” and I do mean that, but I’m also not just writing about our specific system—I’m endlessly interested in whether things like benefits systems are inevitably punitive, inevitably invasive. Whether bureaucratic language can only ever be sinister and aggressive, whether having power structures at all is always going to end up mangling poor soft humans and their bodies... Obviously there are better and worse ways of doing things, and I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear I’m on the soft-left politically, but my work is more interested in the macro and the general than the party-political-specific.

So it’s nice to note that you’re interested in similar questions of bigness and smallness and what kinds of power end up where. I’m really intrigued by the fact you talk about post-conflict, or “after an upheaval is over....” There is something more compelling, I think—richer in possibilities—about an aftermath than there is about the grim grind of war or other major upheaval while it’s happening. I’m not sure why. Maybe because we go into a more kind of animal state “during,” when we're focused on survival, and then it's only afterwards that all the extra-messy human brain stuff comes back, on top of the literal practical mess left behind? I don't know. And I don’t know if you agree.

But hopefully we have a “post-pandemic” time coming, not too far off, when another rich wave of story possibilities will offer itself up to you—though I’m sorry to put it that way, as it seems a bit crass. Feel free to tell me you don't want to discuss the pandemic if you like! But I was wondering whether you are interested in incorporating it into your story output, now or in the future. It feels as if it should be in your natural interest zone, but maybe not.

L.M. / I love the idea of post-pandemic story telling. And I hope there’s a lot of it. I think we should all be writing about what’s happening in the world when and how we want to. When lockdown began, there were writers on Twitter advising other writers not to push themselves to work “because you won’t be at your best.” But who says you have to be at your best to write? And why would everything you write be for publication? I think of all the writers I know who’ve found solace in the act of writing. And, if along the way, you produce something that you want to revise for publication, then great. I don’t know how you find the story you want to tell unless you sit down and start trying to tell it. And, also, a lot of the time, I don’t know what I’m going to write until I sit down and start writing. Usually, automatically, after saying that I apologise for sounding too whoo-whoo. But, I see writing as an act of discovery. While I usually have some idea of what I’m going to work on before I start working on it, most of the story arrives after I’m at my desk. So, so far, the pandemic hasn’t appeared in my fiction. I wrote a piece for 3:AM Magazine at the start of lockdown about walking past familiar places that were abandoned—I felt a real need to capture some of what was happening in non-fiction. But I expect the exceptionally weird time (environmentally and politically) that we’re living through now will somehow appear in my fiction in future.

Naturally, I now want to ask you the same question: Do you think about how you might write about the pandemic in future? Because of the way you take familiar situations and take them into a slightly unfamiliar world, I’m totally intrigued about what you might say about this time.

R.C. / I’m glad you said “Who says you have to be at your best to write?”—absolutely. I think that narrative about being “at your best” or having the conditions be “just right” in order to write is just false, and it’s a shame it exists, because it stops people even trying, especially people whose conditions are objectively more difficult. I do have to be functioning reasonably well to produce my day-job freelance work, but to me, fiction writing is more like dreaming—that accessing of the subconscious—and all it demands is a willingness to persevere through the darkness; to not shake oneself awake out of fear and back out into the artless world. Sometimes I write better, or at least more fluidly, if I’m mildly ill... or hung over... as the lack of energy means my initial resistance is broken down. (Not championing alcohol use, YMMV, etc.) 

Anyway, your question has been a tough one to answer—though I set myself that trap by asking you the question first, so, only myself to blame. I spent the first few months of the pandemic feeling really queasy about the prospect of “pandemic lit,” either my own attempts, or others’, and sort of swore that I wouldn’t write about it. I’ve seen rushed-out stories that include masks and distancing and things clunkily included, and I have indeed found them totally nauseating. But I think now I’ve reached a certain acceptance of the situation (acceptance isn’t the right word – I’m more beaten-down than that implies), I’ve come to realise that not only is pandemic and post-pandemic storytelling inevitable, it’s necessary. We can’t pretend this isn’t happening. So I suppose it's bound to come up; anything else would be a monumental act of denial.

Same with the climate catastrophe we’re in—which is something else I can hardly bear to look at for more than a glance; I didn’t even want to mention it here. And the fact that I asked you about “the aftermath” has been troubling me because I think the climate crisis is a different case: it’s not going to just end and be something we can look back at, and start to digest, in the same way as a war or pandemic. Not over the course of a human lifetime, anyway.

I was prompted to think about it again by your story ‘Facsimiles.’ I’ve read quite a few stories that focus on 9/11, and they’re so hard to do well, but I loved your approach with this one: the totally and utterly down-to-earth motif of the missing-person flyer copies being churned out, and the beautifully realistic relationship at the centre, with the whole thing given that speculative edge by the image of the towers that reappear. I wondered whether perhaps we (“we” being you; me; “writers”) reach for the speculative when we come up against the most difficult subjects? The things that are the most difficult to incorporate? I don’t know if that strikes a chord for you. It’s probably a totally banal observation that everyone’s been saying forever... Or maybe we are more interested in doing something unusual with form when we’re looking at these worst parts of humanity, in a similar “sidelong look.” I’m thinking of your piece ‘Butterfly McQueen’ and how it has this really interesting, sort of ‘revolving,’ structure, almost like a sewing stitch that goes back over itself and keeps bringing Butterfly back, when it’s a story that’s straightforwardly about racism. Can you recall how that story came to be in that form?

P.S. It’s a bit unfortunate that we’re having this conversation this month [October 2020]—anxiety all round is sky-high and these questions are so pertinent they’re almost impossible to address with any kind of cool head! So my apologies for their length and potential manic feel.

L.M. / You’re right that there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding this exchange. It’s now a week before the US elections, and, though I’m trying to persuade myself that people can keep going through all kinds of disasters, I know the world we’ll be living in could become an even harsher and more dangerous one than the one we’re living in right now. I keep thinking about Bill Clinton’s inauguration, standing in front of a little black and white TV set in my friend’s two-room house in the hills of Western Massachusetts, looking  back at 12 years of Reagan and Bush and saying, “That was awful, but we lived through it.” And my friend said, “Yeah, we lived through it, but a lot of people didn’t.” There were the deaths from AIDS, the crack pandemic, parts of America shutting down, and lots and lots of US-fuelled conflict in Central America. And I think, the kind of time we could be headed towards if the US elections don’t go the right way, will be much worse than that.

I’ve also been thinking—during a week when government decided against providing meals for children living in poverty here in the UK—about “the punitive and invasive benefits system” you mentioned. The appalling social media posts by Conservative MPs—“roast a chicken, use it for stock, blahdeefuckingblah”—made me so angry. And I kept thinking about the Victorian category of “the deserving poor,” and how those Tweets were a resurrection of that category. There were other people pointing out how unrealistic the “just be thrifty” advice was, how many people can’t cook after working long hours, how many people have no kitchen facilities in temporary accommodation. But really what I kept thinking was: children deserve to eat no matter what their parents are capable of. And everyone—everyone—deserves to eat in any circumstances—whether or not they're “managing” money well, whether or not they know how to cook, whether or not they’re dealing with substance abuse. Surely in the 5th largest economy in the world we can make that happen. My sense is that the UK’s benefits system is more punitive than, say, Germany’s; and that America’s benefits system is considerably more punitive than the UK’s (and punishes poor people in general more than many other developed countries).

Now that I have that tirade out of my system... The story behind ‘Facsimiles’ is somewhat connected to the question of what we write when, and when it’s acceptable to write about a catastrophe. The two 9/11 stories that I’ve written were both started very soon after 9/11. One of them, ‘Dropping’ (from my first short story collection) was written as the US invasion of Afghanistan was beginning. I sent it to an editor who knew and liked my work quite soon after I finished it; he told me he thought it was in bad taste and I put it away for a long time. I started writing ‘Facsimiles’ and then put it away also. I was actually intending to put a different story into the manuscript for This Way to Departures, and while I was looking for it, rediscovered ‘Facsimiles,’ which I'd completely forgotten about. In fact, when I started reading it, I was somewhat in shock. I wrote half of it back in 2001, came to the conclusion that no one was interested in stories about this terrible thing that had just happened, and I put it away and moved on. I really needed to work with it for a while before I found the right ending for it.

‘Butterfly McQueen on Broadway’ was something I wrote for LossLit, the amazing project about loss that Kit Caless (my editor at Influx Press) and Aki Schilz created.  I really did see Butterfly McQueen in a natural foods store in my neighbourhood when I was a child, and because she was so iconic, that memory is incredibly vivid—I kept recalling every word that everyone in the shop said in that moment.  So that scene was already kind of on a loop in my head because I was trying to deal with how uncanny it was to see McQueen in Gone With the Wind and then see her in Alex’s Health Food Store. And also I think automatically started doing the thing you do with a story about seeing someone who’s a star: “Hey ya know what? Ya know who I saw? Yeah, right there in Alex's Health Food Store!”

Speaking of structure... I’ve never seen anything like ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted.’ At first, when I saw all the different voices on the page, I thought, uh oh, this might be tricky. Then I got sucked right in—I mean really immersed in it, like I was going from one world to another. I’m dying to know, first, how you arrived at that structure. Secondly, what was it like to create and sustain all the different voices in it? Finally, the ending of it really delivers—it’s perfect and you can’t guess what’s coming. I think, overall, my question is, how did you make this amazing thing?

R.C. / God, yes, “the deserving poor!” I love that concept. I mean—obviously I hate it—but it’s so full of so many things that light up my dashboard... it’s so ripe for exploration because of everything it says about us.

That’s really interesting about ‘Butterfly McQueen’ (and about ‘Facsimiles,’ and ‘Dropping’ (I’ll have to get hold of that one)). I’m so interested in that kind of story-backstory, especially when it involves someone telling you you shouldn’t write a particular thing, or in a particular way, and then the story returns and has its triumphant day later. I’ve often heard so-called writing advice that says a short story shouldn't have more than one narrator, so naturally that makes me think “oh really? We’ll see about that...” and it's that kind of thinking that’s behind ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted.’ It doesn’t feel that unusual to me, structure-wise—but possibly only because the story always felt as if it had to be polyphonic from the beginning, or maybe just because it’s my story, so it seems like a natural born thing. In the makings of that story I had a woman character who gets misunderstood because she “intellectualises” out loud in an inappropriate context (author-identification alert); I needed the stakes of that to be high, so it became a political scandal situation. And I had the voice of this young woman, feeling out of place in a foreign country, but also struggling with where she fits into a world she’s already disappointed with but still has some hopes for. I was still terrified by the potential repercussions of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima, and in the end the geopolitical/environmental situation of all that just felt perfect for both those characters. Then there’s all the media noise that I wanted to represent on the page, without setting it apart from the main story, and the structure just had to be as it is. I just tried things out, some of them worked, and it went from there.

I haven’t done an MFA or any kind of extended writing course, and although I’m sure that means I struggle with certain skill gaps, I also think it’s freed me, as I’ve never really workshopped pieces like that one, which means no one’s had the chance to suggest I rein it in. I’ve just gone my own oblivious way. I know ‘The Ground...’ has caused some readers trouble (and it’s not the only one), but I really hope there are more readers who get a thrill out of taking part in the fun I was having... after all, I think the best gift you can give a reader is the opportunity to take part in the creation of the story, by doing a little bit of their own work to make it come alive in their brain. In that sense, I was trying to recreate the feeling I get when I read George Saunders, Jon McGregor, those writers who play around but in a really crafted way, as if they’re inviting you into a complex game they’ve designed and they want you to have fun.

It’s my favourite story in This Paradise, because, although I wrestled with it, I actually enjoyed the process. It was such a challenge—a puzzle—and so full of life, to me, as a story. In interviews I always seem to be saying what a terrible time I have writing, how ill I feel when I even think about it, poor me, etc etc, but with this one, I actually felt joy.

Would you say you “enjoyed” putting together certain stories in This Way To Departures more than others? Is enjoyment even a relevant concept for you with your writing? I’m always a bit suspicious of that “Oh, you must love writing so much” sort of blithe assumption, but that’s probably my less-nice side... But for me it’s more about a profound satisfaction or sense of completion than anything like pleasure.

I really really like that your reaction to “advice” about how to write a short story is to go against it—I think we should all be going against that kind of advice a lot more. And one of the things I love about George Saunders is the way his stories do that—that in the middle of this period of super serious solipsistic upper-middle-class short story writing in the US, he shows up and goes, hey, how about a story where an old man takes his grandson to a Broadway show but has to navigate a crowd of psychologically targeted hologram ads, and, by the way, fuck your ideas about genre. And for him to do that in the time he was doing it—for him to write these absurd, scary, funny stories when the American short stories that were elevated came were so focused on a very narrow kind of realism—was amazing. It heartened me at a time when I felt pretty distant from what was being published in “respected” lit mags. And I think that, yes, many of your stories have a similar energy while also being their own thing.

I like the idea too of you having a wider range and getting to be more innovative because you weren’t in workshops where people tried to rein in what you were doing. I did do an MFA, and I got a lot out of the literature courses that went along with it, and some good feedback from specific instructors one-on-one, but I don’t really think I got much from the workshops except the understanding that lots of people won’t get what you’re saying, and those people aren’t the audience you’re aiming for. I also don’t think I picked up any particular skills in those workshops. And that’s not to condemn MFAs or workshops in general—it’s just to say that the workshops I was in, during that particular time (which is a long time ago), didn’t give me much to develop my own writing. The literature courses though, being at the university, and being told yes, you should spend your time reading and writing was a good thing. I was coming from a place where I felt like I had to legitimise the idea that I could be a writer, and participating in a programme for people who wanted to do that helped in some way. I think, though, about Jonathan Lethem, who worked in a second hand book store while he was writing his first novel, read all day, and never went to a writing course, and I feel a kind of jealousy of that—I feel like the ideas that I had about writing and about being a writer might have developed in a way that fit me more if I’d done something similar to what Lethem did.

There were indeed stories I enjoyed working on more in
Departures. And, as you say, I  got a lot of satisfaction when I worked on them. ‘Noir’ pretty much fell into place in an early draft. Film Noir really moves me (especially as a genre that evolved post-war). I was excited about creating something that was noir-ish. Working on ‘Facsimiles’ was exciting in a different way—I was bringing characters back to life from a story that had been abandoned. It felt kind of magical when I found an ending for it after all that time.  ‘Dangers of the Sun’ was hard to find the right structure for at first. Kit Caless had a major effect on it when he suggested I use present tense for the present and past for the past (I know). I do feel a lot of happiness and pleasure when I write—some of what I feel is also quite complex. But, overall, my reaction is: oh, hey, here we go!

I’m really interested in how intensely your work evokes different landscapes—really different landscapes—and how much the characters’ options are shaped by those landscapes. And, in particular, I’m interested in the altered or other worldly landscapes where some of your stories are set—for example, the world the tired mother lives in with her children in ‘On Day 21.’ As someone whose work is set in places that (for lack of a better term) aren’t altered, I’m wondering how it is to develop a landscape as well as your characters. Do you feel similarly about your approach to creating both, or do you approach each of these somewhat differently?

L.M. / That’s a deep question and not an easy one to answer... I think sometimes that if I had done that ol’ MFA I might have a better clue, if nothing else, about how and why I do things. Often, it’s only when I get asked about specific things like this, or when they're brought up in reviews, that it occurs to me that I’m doing *anything* on purpose. Before that, it just feels as if “Well, that’s the story, that’s how it had to be.” (I’m not sure how meaningful that is to someone else, but I’m not sure how else to put it.) I sort of end up thinking “Oh yeah, I suppose you’d say it’s speculative” after the fact.

Maybe I’m using the otherly landscapes as a tool to get to some emotional/psychological truth that I can’t get to directly, for whatever reason. I’m tempted to say: a lack of normal writing skills, and I’m not being self-denigrating there—I mean it, I really do struggle with straight realism sometimes. When I’ve re-read your collection in the last week or so, I’ve been so full of admiration at how well you write the real, gritty, actual world, without overdramatising or shying away. You can just... do it! You just get it right. I know it must have come through hard work and many drafts, but feels very natural.

What I’m saying is I suspect my speculative landscapes are a bit of a cheat: a shortcut to psychological truth, with a permanent get-out clause that “it's not exactly our world,” if something doesn’t ring quite true. And they give me permission to paint in brighter colours than the real world, too, I suppose. They just become more interesting to me for that reason. It’s a hyped up version of the standard “What-if?” drive that makes me want to write in the first place. “What if these people did that... but wait, also, what if the world were like this, and everything was even more difficult and lurid?! Now we’re talking!”

Am I answering in any kind of coherent way? I feel as if I’m rummaging blind, in some kind of creativity bran tub, hoping to find a satisfying answer... and right now I don't think I can do any better than this oddly-shaped, limp and mysterious thing I seem to have pulled out...

I wanted to talk to you about endings—partly because we’ll have to end this conversation, soon, and I have no idea how we do that, especially as the number of questions I have for you is multiplying way out of control; every time we exchange emails, so many other potential topics spring up. But trying to keep it to one, craft-based topic: you’re particularly good at endings that aren’t happy, and don’t strive to be happy, but still satisfy. Are they something that comes naturally to you? Often my endings just arrive as I'm writing, and I always know when I’ve suddenly hit it (“Oop! Ah. That’s the end.”). I don’t often have to do a lot of reworking on endings. But I do struggle with worrying about what I'm leaving the reader with in terms of tone or mood. I always feel a sense of obligation to try and sow a single sequin of hope onto the giant blanket of doom they tend to throw over everything... and that can end up in a wrestle about cheapness or fake positivity. But with yours: it doesn’t in any way feel as if you have struggled with that. Maybe because you refer directly and explicitly to happy/not-happy endings, e.g. at the end of both ‘The Christmas Story’ and ‘Dangers of the Sun’. You pre-empt the reader’s potential discomfort, acknowledge it, and take them with you (into the not-happy ending), which is reassuring rather than condescending. Well, that’s my theory about how you do it, but what do you think?! What's your relationship with endings? Do they come easily or do you have to fight for them? How do you feel about stories with “happy endings”?

R.C. / I think we’re usually somewhat guessing when we explain the choices we’ve made in our work. I don’t really think through what I’m going to write before I write it, but I sort of enjoy talking about those choices in the aftermath, and I can usually come up with some explanation of why my stories are the way they are that goes something like: I believe X, so I would write a story that implies X, wouldn’t I?

The act of creating a text and the act of analysing it (or explaining it) seem far apart to me. The Guardian had an article recently about the song ‘American Pie,’ and the jist of it was: everyone thought Don McClean was referring to Buddy Holly when he wrote about grief, but it turns out he might have been writing about losing his own father instead. And I thought, why would that matter? I can’t imagine he sat down and decided he was going to write a song about grieving for his father. I imagine that he just sat down and wrote what came to him and meant for people to connect with it as they saw fit.

I’m really awed by your speculative landscapes, and by the fact that those landscapes are populated by characters who are so vivid and complex and sympathetic, and what a fantastic thing it is to create a whole world. I think what I’ve tried to do in some of my stories is recreate the world I grew up in, partly because I felt as if it was erased when I went into another world—rural New England, post-graduate work, and allathat. And—to echo Elena Ferrante talking about the Naples neighbourhood she writes about—I don’t feel nostalgia for it and I don’t want to go back there, but I do want to acknowledge that place and how it shaped who I am and also just want it to be represented in the world.

Your suggestion that I’m good at endings has got me floating around on a cloud. I feel as if I struggle with them. Like you, I want a little hope in there, and though some times I find the right ending is close by, more often I’m trying on different ones on until I find one that’s the right fit. I’m all for happy endings so long as they’re not contrived. I really—and I mean really—hate unhappy endings that haven’t been earned. There were a couple of films I saw that ended with suicides, and I thought: this doesn’t fit at all—there was no hint these characters might consider this and their difficulties seemed surmountable.

I was describing ‘The Ground is Considerably Distorted’ to someone last week, trying to explain all the different elements of it and how they came together. ‘And it has a very satisfying ending,’ I added, to try to explain it without explaining too much. The endings I love the most, the ones which I see in your stories a lot, are endings that allow the story to continue in your head, that make you wonder about what came after.

I can’t help but think about us finishing this on the date of the presidential elections in the US, on a day when shops have boarded their windows in expensive neighbourhoods, when people who have never bought a gun before have armed themselves, and when Trump himself has surrounded the White House with an unscalable fence. I wonder what kind of an ending we’ll have. I wonder what will happen after that ending.  

Ruby Cowling was born in Bradford and lives in London. Her stories have won The White Review Short Story Prize (2014) and the London Short Story PrizeLighthouse, The Lonely Crowd, Wasafiri online, Aesthetica, and numerous print anthologies. Her collection This Paradise was also longlisted for the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: This Way to Departures, Above Sugar Hill, and Risk. Her short fiction has appeared in GrantaCatapult Story, 3:AM Magazine, Ambit, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Losslit, Litro, New York Stories, and Bookanista. She’s also done broadcast work for BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin. Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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