After writing A Brief Survey of the Short Story for the Guardian for some years the London writer has compiled a collection of his own. Mothers (Faber, £10) is a stylish and globetrotting set of tales in which common themes and characters emerge.
Tell me about your writing process for Mothers. Was there a concentrated period of writing for this collection or are these selected from a larger and ongoing body of work?
At first I was writing individual stories, and all I was thinking about was how to replicate on the page the kind of prose I had in my head. That took a long time. When I had three or four I was happy with, it was natural – but not easy – to keep going until I had enough for a collection. Then I revised them again and again and again. There are a few finished stories that aren’t in the collection, and many others in various stages of construction.
Having written A Brief Survey… for some years did you intentionally set out to be a short story writer or will a novel follow this debut?
The book I’m working on right now is a novel. But I don’t intend Mothers to be the only short story collection I publish – in fact I’m writing new stories right now.
What ties Mothers together as a collection?
It was only some time after I started thinking about the stories as a collection, rather than individual pieces, that I thought of calling the book Mothers. There are three stories in the book – the first, middle and last – that feature the same character, Eva, whom we encounter as a girl, a young woman, and in later life. These three stories are very concerned with motherhood – Eva’s most important relationship as a girl is with her mother, and in the final story she becomes a mother – but thinking about the other stories in the book I realised that in fact mothers are explicit, or their influence is implicit, in most of them. It wasn’t deliberate, and I think it’s the stuff that gets into the work without you noticing that matters most.
Of all your characters why was Eva the one you chose to return to throughout the book?
She wouldn’t leave me alone. Summer 1976 is about her childhood but she writes it as an older woman, decades after the events it describes, so I knew who the modern day Eva was, even if she isn’t described in the story. An earlier version of the second Eva story, Innsbruck, was originally about a completely different character, but as I read both stories in proximity to one another certain connections between her and Eva became apparent, so I rewrote it. Once that was done, and because of the open-ended way in which Innsbruck ends, I immediately wanted to write about the rest of Eva’s life – to follow her to the point at which Summer 1976 is written.
Mothers is set in various locations – from Exmoor to Sweden and Mexico. It seems to represent a rootlessness in contrast to the rootedness mothers provide us with. What were you exploring here? (And did it mean exciting research trips?)
The mother-daughter, mother-son bond is a uniquely powerful one, but I wouldn’t say rootedness is one of the qualities it exhibits in these stories; or if it is, then it’s a problematic rootedness – one that can continually drag a person back to a source of pain (I’m thinking particularly about Eva, Gunilla in the story Run, and the unnamed narrator of The Haväng Dolmen).
The locations, as you say, do confer a sense of rootlessness. In a literal sense these characters are not at home, or not for very long. I didn’t make any specific research trips, but drew on places I’ve travelled to over the years. In daily life I’ve often tried and failed to keep a journal, but I become a pretty diligent note-taker when I’m travelling.
Oddly, though, when I was editing the book I did find myself on the island of Rhodes for the first time since I was 10, revising a story based on things I experienced on that childhood holiday long ago. My sister-in-law chose the destination – my wife and I really had no input – but that did end up being an unintended research trip. Everyone else was sightseeing and I was checking whether certain streets were cobbled or paved, or if you can hear the sea from a particular part of town. It was fun.