You could be forgiven for thinking that Sarah Hall and Tessa Hadley didn’t write short stories. With both having published four novels to date, they are probably known first and foremost as novelists. But both do however, turn their pen to short fiction. Tessa Hadley has recently published her second story collection (Married Love; Jonathan Cape), and her short fiction also appears regularly in publications such as The New Yorker and Granta Magazine. Sarah Hall may have only just recently got around to publishing her first collection of short stories (The Beautiful Indifference; Faber & Faber), but this debut has already won her this year’s Edge Hill Short Story Prize (Hadley’s collection made the shortlist), and earned her a place on the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlist. Both writers were at EdBookFest yesterday to discuss their short story collections, and the short form in general.
Chair, Sue MacGregor, kicked off the event by asking why each novelist chose to write short stories. Hadley responded by saying that she writes novels and short stories concurrently, but feels ‘a wonderful liberation’ when she points her pen in the direction of short fiction. “When I turn to writing short fiction it’s a bit like going camping in a field,” she said, “I’m able to temporarily step away from the complexities and unfinished ‘building work’ of the novel that I’ve been working on for two or three years, and this has a lovely little freedom to it.” Fearing perhaps that the audience would think that Hadley considers the short story to be of a less complex form, she was quick to add that writing the short story was, in its own way, just as challenging as writing a novel. “The challenge of the short story lies with its intensity, and in ‘piecing in’ economy,” she declared.
With Hall, it’s the feelings that she has about her story ideas that determine whether they will make good short stories or not. She likes to explore a character’s strange foibles and idiosyncrasies and the short story form lends itself particularly well to this. She admitted however, that a lot of her short story ideas don’t work, and crucially it’s about turning out a good first draft. “It’s very hard to go on to save a short story when it’s been badly drafted to start with,” Hall said. “Oh yes,” replied Hadley, “A short story has to be right in the first throw.”
MacGregor went on to suggest that it was impossible to define any kind of recipe for a short story. Hadley responded, saying that the short story was ‘something that one can hold in the hand at one time’. Expanding on this she said that because of its length, the end of a short story was far more important than the end of a novel. “When you get to the end of a short story you still have the beginning of the story in your head,” she said, “and the end and the beginning of a story are far more powerfully related. As such, where you choose to leave off a short story, matters much more in such a short space.”
The authors were then asked whether it was easier in short story writing, to write from experience or from imagination. Hadley admitted that it was all such a muddle for her to remember what she had lived or dreamed or imagined, but that she tended not to stray too far what what she thought was real. Hall revealed that she thinks in a similar way, actively taking ideas from her own experiences to use in her stories. She noted that a writer can’t help but apply their professional intrigue to an incident. She recalled a time when she was out in a boat and had forgotten to replace the bung when she set off. As she desperately rowed back to shore with the boat quickly filling with water and sinking, all she could think about was what a good short story the emergency she was in the midst of, would make.
When asked why it was that certain nationalities seemed to be better at short story writing than others (Canadian and Irish writers were specifically mentioned) Hadley responded, saying that although it was a dangerous generalisation to make, there was perhaps a kind of sensibility in a culture ‘which is open to little explosions of intonation and perception’ and that this perhaps, could be loosely mapped onto something in Irish culture and history etc. Hadley also added that it might also be the fact that when a culture has strong short story writers within it, it encourages apprentices who come along and borrow and imitate, before finding their own voice within the form.
Sarah Hall suggested that perhaps tradition and regionality also played a part. She suggested that whereas the writers of the American South have embraced their regional identity and write exclusively of it, writers in England say, have yet to respond in the same way with any strength of feeling, for their regional identity.
It was inevitable as the session was drawing to a close, that an audience member would bring up the old chestnut about why short story collections were so hard to sell.
Hall somewhat reluctantly admitted that short story collections may be harder to sell, but she couldn’t really understand what was so off-putting about them. “Maybe it’s the longer experience of the novel that appeals more,” she said, before telling everyone that she loves short stories because they can be consumed in a single sitting. Hadley thought that novels may be preferred reading because they remain consistent over a longer period. “Most people probably find short story reading a little strenuous,” she said. “No sooner do you just get used to a group of people, when the story is finished, and then you immediately have to learn a whole new set of characters.” I think what Tessa Hadley was really trying to say is that most readers are just too lazy to invest the time and effort needed to read a complete short story collection. I’m thinking that she may well be right, which is more the pity. Thankfully there were few in the Spiegeltent during this session that thought so little of the short story form, and if there were any then Hall and Hadley may well have changed their minds.