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Rose Tremain: My short story inspiration

Orange- and Whitbread-prizewinning writer Rose Tremain is one of the judges for the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. In this exclusive blog, she answers questions from The Sunday Times’s Sophie Haydock on inspirations, influences and her successes and failures as a short story writer.

Who or what first prompted you to start writing?

My father was the playwright, Keith Thomson, who had a small success in the 1950s. Although this career didn’t really happen for him beyond 1958, (cut off by the emergence of a new kind of radical working-class theatre exemplified by Arnold Wesker and John Osborne) I grew up with the idea that writing was a honourable thing to do. I began writing stories and poems when I was about ten years-old.

Has it always been a linear process for you – or have there been bumps along the way?

No creative endeavour unfolds without pitfalls and mistakes. But if you’re really tuned to the ideas you’re trying to explore and the style you’re trying to perfect, then you will learn a lot from these setbacks. Most works succeed not in the writing, but in the re-writing.

How would you describe your stories for people who’ve not read them before?

I sometimes advise people to treat my five story collections like five boxes of chocolates: dip into the ones you think you would enjoy, and then, if this turns out to be the case, read the others. My readers, I think, are now used to the idea that my fiction ranges across a wide terrain of ideas, of landscapes, of time and of narrative voices. But I can’t expect the public to respond positively to everything I do.

Where do you find your inspiration? And is there anything that is “anti-inspiration”?

“Inspiration” is everywhere – from great events to quotidian observations. Writers should follow the Yogi Masters’ philosophy of Alert Passivity – staying quietly tuned to how everything unfolds day by day and where the truth of things resides. It’s also important to keep searching for connections and transformations – the vital links between ideas in the chrysalis stage and the voices and images which will turn them into butterflies.

Which short story do you consider your greatest success?

The first publishable story I wrote (published in the now famous Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists 1983) was called My Wife is a White Russian. Prior to this I’d written countless others which had been rejected, so I feel some affection for this “breakthrough” story. In more recent times, two that I think work quite well are The Beauty of the Dawn Shift (in the collection, Evangelista’s Fan 1994) and The Jester of Astapovo (in the 2014 collection, The American Lover.)

And your greatest failure, if you have any that can be described that way? Why?

In a sense, every story fails. What I mean by this is that whenever I look back at past work, I see immediately how it could be stronger, funnier, more surprising, more moving, more terrifying…more everything! But writers have to go forward, not keep repenting and moving backwards to rewrite old work. This strikes me as a vain endeavour, in every sense of that word.

Do you have any favourite authors? Those you keep returning to?

When I was teaching at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee in the late eighties, the course I was running was structured around Professor Walton Litz’s anthology, Major American Short Stories (OUP 1980) and I learned an immeasurable amount about the short story form from studying this very closely. It feels to me, still, that American writers are naturally gifted at the short story in a way that we Brits are not – perhaps because a higher aesthetic and monetary value has been placed on the form in the US? Two American classics that remain with me always are Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville and Blackberry Winter by Robert Penn Warren.

Who would you read if you were suffering from a spate of writer’s block?

Following from my observations above, I realise I’m all the while drawn to American fiction, particularly those whose work explores wildernesses – from William Faulkner to Cormac McCarthy. In fact I would say that McCarthy, with his pithy style and his great economy of means, is my favourite contemporary writer. I also prize highly Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich.

I’d probably leave aside all contemporary fiction and go back to some classics. George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Henry James come to mind. Or I’d read the history of a place I knew nothing about. Or I’d read the King James Bible, to reconnect with the idea that language can, of itself (that is, almost outside meaning), be beautiful.

Why is the short story form unique, would you say? What makes it so special?

I’ve elsewhere described the short story as “a petulant form” because it makes ever-repeating demands on the reader. We don’t surrender to short fiction in the way that we surrender to novels; we make critics of ourselves and keep asking technical questions, like “Is the writer navigating well through her ideas?”, “Are there too many digressions, serving no useful purpose?”, “How suited is the style to the theme?”, “Does it look as though the story will arrive at an earned ending or an imposed ending?”, “Does it have an ending at all?”. This way of reading does, in fact, make the form unique, but perhaps also tiring, for the everyday reader. And stories are only “special” if they’re seriously good.

Do you believe the short story is making a comeback? Or did it never go away?

With the awarding of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature to Alice Munro, who has only written short stories (albeit quite long, baggy ones), public focus returned to the form. This has resulted in a kind of comeback, with more novelists trying their hand at it. However, many writers mistakenly assume that the short story is easy because it’s short. I would suggest that its extreme difficulty lies in its constraining shortness. When readers embark on a short story, a clock starts ticking in their minds.

What’s been the greatest achievement of your short story career?

My first collection of stories, The Colonel’s Daughter, 1984, unexpectedly won the Dylan Thomas Award. So I suppose I should call this a “great achievement”. But I think a lot of the pieces in it are flawed, so I’m more proud of the fact that I’ve been able to continue to find inspiration for stories in tandem with a long career as a novelist, over 40 years. My next ludicrously ambitious project is a collection of Stories from Ten Centuries – one each from the 11th century to the 21st. If you look for me and find me gone, I will have disappeared beneath the mountain of historical research which this is going to entail.

What advice would you give to other short story writers who may not have been published yet?

I would just remind them – again – that short does not equal easy. When it comes to the elusive short story form, the inner editor in a writer has to be hyper-vigilant over every line.

© Rose Tremain 2016

Rose Tremain was one of only five women writers to be included in Granta’s original list of 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1983. Her novels and short stories have been published worldwide in 27 countries and have won many international prizes. Her 2014 collection of short stories, The American Lover, was shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award and 2016 saw the publication of her 14th novel, The Gustav Sonata. She was made a CBE in 2007 and in 2013 was appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia. She won the Orange Prize in 2008 for The Road Home and the Whitbread Prize in 1999 for Music and Silence.