Many writers begin with a collection of short stories before making the leap to novels. Why did it happen the other way round for you?
In fact, I started out writing short stories (and had a couple of early pieces published in a magazine and an anthology) before I tackled my first novel. And I’ve continued to write short fiction alongside and in between my novels. I’ve always loved writing stories – it’s just taken me 20-odd years to produce enough decent ones to justify a collection! For me, the short story began as a training ground where I could practise my craft but, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it as a form in its own right, quite different to the novel. I’m attracted to the way a story can offer a snapshot of a character’s life at a particular moment – like an encounter with an interesting stranger on a train who you will never meet again but who leaves a lasting impression.
You’re a lecturer in creative writing at Leeds Trinity. Do you adhere to your own advice for students when writing?
If it’s generic advice (such as “rewrite, rewrite, rewrite” or “don’t wait for the ‘muse’ to strike – just write, and the muse will find you” or “never write while drunk”) then, yes, I do adhere to it. However, most of the advice I offer my students is tailored to them, providing specific feedback and suggestions based on a close reading of each individual’s draft material. You can’t “teach” creative writing, as such, and you certainly can’t impose a template. But you can use your experience of the creative process to help students to develop and improve their own writing, in their own way.
How does your approach differ between writing for adults and young adults?
Not as much as I was expecting when I switched to writing young adult fiction. I move the plot along a bit quicker and tone down any sex, violence and swearing but that’s about it. When I’m at my desk, writing a novel for teenagers, the process feels more or less identical to when I’m writing one for adults: I’m just trying to get inside my characters’ heads, capture their voices and tell their story the best way that I can.
In the title story you use football rivalry as a way to introduce the tensions felt by the asylum seeker. Why is football a good analogy? Do you think the power of the sport be harnessed for good?
The tribalism in football – whether at club or international level – strikes me as not that dissimilar, in essence, to the way in which people in society at large can tend to identify with their “own kind” and/or see themselves in opposition to those who are “other”. In sport, I don’t think it’s unhealthy to cheer for your team (as long as that doesn’t extend to being abusive or violent towards the other team’s fans); indeed, you could argue that sport provides a potentially safe outlet for our partisan instincts. Sadly, though – among men, I should specify – it all too easily morphs into fanaticism and quasi-xenophobic posturing or aggression. In the title story, the analogy between football and asylum-seeking suited my thematic and creative purpose because my central character – in fleeing his country to seek refuge in Britain – is, metaphorically speaking, an away fan who finds himself in the home end, surrounded by hooligans. I wrote this story in 2003 but, dismayingly, it seems as pertinent as ever in these post-referendum, pre-Brexit days.
In My Soul to Keep, depressed hypersomniac Charlotte becomes a cult figure. Do you think young people are embracing a culture of despondency?
The young people who idolise Charlotte in that story regard her persistent sleep as a means of escaping rather than embracing despondency – life can’t hurt you while you’re asleep, as they see it. Of course, sleep isn’t a viable alternative to life but one of the characteristics of a cult is that its beliefs make little sense to those of us who aren’t members. To answer your broader question, I don’t believe that a culture of despondency has taken hold among today’s teenagers and young adults. Since Flip, my first YA novel, was published in 2011, I’ve visited more than 70 secondary schools across the UK to give talks and to run writing workshops. I’ve also been teaching in universities for 16 years. I also have two teenage daughters. The recurring and overwhelming impression I’ve had, from meeting and working with thousands of young people over this time, is that they remain remarkably positive and optimistic about life, especially when you consider the kind of world the older generations have created for them to inherit. It might be true that mental health issues and associated problems (self-harm, eating disorders, body dysphoria, etc.) among youngsters have increased in recent years and this is often presented in the media as an aspect of the “despondency culture” your question refers to. But, in my experience, those young people do not embrace this. Rather, they are the victims of a culture of stress, pressure and anxiety which we have inflicted upon them, in the home, in education, in society.
What themes tie the stories and characters in Letters Home together as a collection?
Letters Home was conceived as a “best of” selection of my short fiction, with some newly written and previously unpublished stories sitting alongside ones which have appeared in anthologies, newspapers and magazines down the years. So there wasn’t an organising or overarching theme, as such. But, like many writers, I have certain preoccupations which I revisit in my work and some of those themes recur in this collection – in particular, notions of identity and marginalisation. Three of the stories, for example, focus on a character who redefines his or her sense of self by living vicariously through others: the out of work actor, dangerously fixated on assuming the role of a long dead, suicidal artist; the lonely sleep researcher who develops a surrogate attachment to a persistently sleeping patient; the uncelebrated man obsessed with catching a glimpse of the Beckhams. In other stories, characters are trying to escape one life in the hope of finding a better alternative, or coming to terms with loss, or haunted by the resurfacing of past events. One way or another, you could say that all of my characters in this book are struggling to bridge the gap between life as it is and life as they might wish it to be.
Each story reads like a mini-mystery – do you see a return to writing thrillers in your future?
I like that description: mini-mystery! I hadn’t thought of them like that before but I suppose that’s what they are – so I’ll nick the term and use it from now on, if that’s okay? As for a return to psychological thrillers, I don’t have an idea for one lurking in the wings. These past few years, I’ve been enjoying writing novels for teenagers and short fiction for adults, so I’ll carry on with both for now.