In her first collection of short stories, Hannah Vincent, award-winning playwright and author of Alarm Girl and The Weaning, presents a group of funny and fierce heroines trying to be themselves while clowning for others. From the ordinary to the magical, Vincent’s entertaining stories are fresh, thoughtful and surprising.
Has writing short stories allowed you to explore anything as a writer that you haven’t before in plays and novels?
The short story is a very exacting form, I find. It requires a writer to understand how narrative structure works. I’m not just talking about the classic three acts most writers and readers know about (even if we know this subliminally). I mean how narrative works in very straightforward and yet deceptively complex ways. I find writing short stories hard so the lesson for me is often that what the reader requires is straightforward but what I need to do in terms of the craft of writing is quite complicated if I am to satisfy what I suspect my reader’s needs might be.
Did you draw inspiration from any other short story writers or collections?
Oh yes. For a couple of years I have mostly read short stories and out of the many, many stories and collections I have read, a handful of writers have inspired me – among them the mighty Flannery O’Connor, whose stories are so good they can sometimes floor me and it takes me a while to take up my pen or laptop again. Claire Keegan is a wonderful short story writer who offers tuition and her guidance has been invaluable to me in understanding the requirements of a short story. I continue to learn from her teaching – with writing the learning is never done, which is one of the reasons it is so compelling as a habit.
Why did you choose to leave many of these stories open ended? Are you giving yourself room to develop them?
Are they open ended? If so, I am allowing my reader the space to develop them rather than having any further plans of my own.
Tell us about the concept of a She-Clown. What is she and why is she a good symbol for this collection as a whole?
She-Clown is someone who performs herself in a fairly exaggerated way in order to fulfil what she perceives as society’s expectation of her. Women are at the centre of the circus of attention when we are young, especially. In the title story, She-Clown’s self-performance has led her into a certain pattern of behaviour that isn’t serving her well. It’s a cautionary tale in that respect. We all perform ourselves to varying degrees, don’t we? I know I do. Sometimes I can’t stop myself from presenting a clown face to the world. At times I would rather remain anonymous – invisible, even – but in spite of myself I put on wig, red nose, oversized shoes and an outlandish outfit and start riding around on a unicycle balancing a custard pie in one hand.
Motherhood, maternity and childcare is a recurring theme in these stories, and was central to The Weaning too. Is this universal theme ripe for exploration given its historical dismissal for not being “serious literature”?
There is little that is universal about motherhood, maternity and childcare – people experience these things differently even though there may be a great many shared elements. As for the historic dismissal of motherhood, maternity and childcare as themes worthy of literature, thanks to some powerful writing by women writers on these subjects, folk are beginning to recognise the domestic arena as a valid space for artistic and intellectual interrogation. I see male writers turning their gaze on to the domestic sphere and receiving disproportionate praise and attention for doing so but hey, we live in a patriarchy so most things need a male stamp of approval before they are taken seriously, eh?
Are there any other themes that are addressed throughout your wider body of writing and if so why do they preoccupy you?
I am obsessed with the ways in which people speak or don’t speak to one another. I think this preoccupies me because of the way my family communicate with one another. I found an outlet for this preoccupation of mine in my playwriting. As a young writer I found much to admire in Pinter’s dramas – in his use of dialogue and in his interest in the unspoken.
“Small triumphs in the face of adversity” is how the actions of the female characters in She-Clown are described. Can the same be said of the stories themselves or are you established enough now that the writing and publishing process is a smooth one?
Oh, this is a brilliant question – thank you. I’m sniggering to think of myself as “established” but you were careful to say “established enough”, and as with Winnicott’s idea about being a “good enough” mother – there I go with my motherhood-maternity theme again – I am sufficiently established in my writing to feel confident in my practice. Early on in my career I realised I would write whether anyone wanted to publish my work or not. I find this attitude helpful. It frees a writer – or any artist – from pressure and paranoia and instead delivers us straight to the heart of our creative endeavour. The process is rarely smooth in that with each new project the writer is back to square one – the next story or book or play or whatever might not work or might not attract a publisher or readers or whatever. However, if the writer can screw their courage to the sticking place and develop appropriate levels of humility and robustness then it is possible to experience something that feels like triumph – triumph over a piece of writing that we manage to resolve, triumph over life’s banalities which we transcend by entering a creative and artistic realm. Any hardship I have encountered has been greatly alleviated by the support and interest of my publishers – Myriad and Salt. I am so grateful to both for the opportunity they provide to get my words out into the world – it’s something I never take for granted.