Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘Mansfield

9780141180403_p0_v1_s260x420If you write stories, you will be asked what your stories are about and, unless you’re one of the people who can answer that they are about a boy wizard, this makes for a tough conversation. You could lay down a clueless cross-stitch of parameters – regarding form, genre, theme, plot, setting, motifs – that equate to saying ’round and red like a cricket ball, juicy like a rare steak and as good in soups as a mushroom’ in order to communicate the taste of a tomato. Assuming your inquisitor has had the patience to wait for your paroxysm of bitterness and self-loathing to subside and is still listening, you might get to explain that the remorseless necessity of living is what the fiction is about, and all the rest of it is just costume, props and lighting.

This points to what makes the café such fertile ground for the short story. In my first post about cafés on this blog, I said that “I suspect there are answers to be found here as to why short stories never really progress as a form – and why, conversely, they are always relevant.” The lack of progression in short fiction may be better expressed as an aesthetic conservatism: reliant on long-established virtues; in constant conversation with its own past. The relevance, on the other hand, is configured in its enduring functionality, the way the genre has always shaped itself to form part of an essential ‘kit’ for modern living, whenever and whatever ‘modern’ was at the time. A desultory glance through its contemporary history shows periods in which the short story has functioned as modern myth and parable, amiable commercial distraction, a format for bringing the stories of ordinary people into the literary salon, training ground for the writers of the Next Great Novel, and, in this digital age, its current status as the perfect literary accompaniment for portable, hand-held, capsule living – exemplified in Comma’s promotion of the Gimbal app.

The Gimbal enables you to access text and audio versions of short stories from (at last count) more than two dozen cities, simultaneously locating some of the stories’ settings and journeys in map and guidebook form. Like the mapping of Dublin in James Joyce’s proto-Gimbal, Ulysses, celebrated each June 16th on Bloomsday, and like Dante’s choice of Virgil the poet – rather than, say, Frommer’s – as his tour guide, there is an understanding here that you might discover the setting through the story, but that you might find a way to get lost regardless.

The reason short stories work in this context is because we can see ourselves so clearly in them that whatever seems alien or remote about the fictional landscape begins to make sense: we understand, at least, the characters’ relationship with it all. The reason a café setting works is because we understand what goes on there, without the gauze of a local or historical context. At about the mid-point of time between the first appearance of Ulysses and last Sunday’s Bloomsday festivities, Mary Lavin was one of the writers mapping Dublin and other parts of Ireland in her stories. But we can see, when we join her protagonist Mary, that this café, in Dublin in the early 1960s, could easily be in any other city at any other time:

The walls were distempered red above and the lower part was boarded, with the boards painted white. It was probably the boarded walls that gave it the peculiarly functional look you get in the snuggery of a public house or in the confessional of a small and poor parish church. For furniture there were only deal tables and chairs, with black-and-white checked tablecloths that were either unironed or badly ironed. But there was a decided feeling that money was not so much in short supply as dedicated to other purposes – as witness the paintings on the walls, and a notice over the fire-grate to say that there were others on view in a studio overhead, in rather the same way as pictures in an exhibition. They were for the most part experimental in their technique.

It’s not difficult to see that, though this is not the opening paragraph of the story, it’s likely to have been the beginning of the writing. In those first two sentences, we have the writer taking stock of where she has found herself and discovering, in the physicality of the café, a personality. This personality is crucial because it enables a lone character to be seen in interaction. When there are other characters around, it’s easy to set them up in counterpoint to one another (and this will happen as In A Café progresses) and define them accordingly, but Lavin shows how it can be done when your character is in solitude. The character’s gaze is what’s important here, and it can be read in the way the physical detail is presented. We are in Mary’s Point of View and, in addition to being told what she is seeing, we are invited to observed how she sees. The observation of the ‘either unironed or badly ironed’ tablecloths, for example, is revelatory, not as a critique of the tablecloths but for the trouble taken to distinguish between the two explanations for their creases. The thought process is apparent here: this is the sort of place where they aren’t preoccupied with appearance, simply that the tablecloths function to cover the tables, and this is because the people here have removed themselves from the way of life in which formalities of appearance are a priority; or this isn’t a question of a lack of care but of a lack of competence, and someone has tried to iron the tablecloths but these aren’t people equipped to fit their café out to the standard that would meet normal commercial expectations – the money, it is noted, goes elsewhere.

Tom Waits almost certainly not taking tea in Dublin, c.1961

Tom Waits almost certainly not taking tea in Dublin, c.1961


The automatic reading of this passage is of the author’s own first impression observations of The Clog, the Dublin café on which this is based, re-framed to suit the character and story she’s found. We can see close-up, though, that Lavin has fine-tuned the language to her character’s mind-set, enabling us to understand and know her so easily and well that each nuance within every phrase makes like the wind and cries Mary.

In this, her Mary is a worthy addition to the short story’s roster of great, sequestered heroines, such as Katherine Mansfield’s perpetually marginalised Miss Brill or the suddenly, temporarily single Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s The Story Of An Hour. She is a widow. Her husband, Richard, died when she was still a young woman, though evidently close enough to middle age for her new identity to accelerate that transition. I use the word ‘identity’, rather than status, because Richard’s death has been a fact of her life long enough for widow to have become absorbed within her sense of self. The very reason she is in the café relates to her widowhood. She is due to meet Martha, a younger woman widowed only the year before – the meeting ostensibly a recognition that they have sufficient common ground to bond. As she waits and we follow her gaze around the café, she considers that Richard and she, living in Meath on a large farm, would have been out of place there, having acquired the ‘faintly snobby’ bearing of landowners:

But it was a different matter to come here alone. There was nothing – oh, nothing – snobby about being a widow. Just by being one, she fitted into this kind of café.

Mary’s concise navigation through her thoughts about the tablecloth and, shortly after, her inspection of the ‘certainly stimulating’ abstract paintings on the walls tell us how the café is prompting her towards an understanding of what the identity of widowhood has done to her. The consideration of whether she fits into the café is linked to an overall preoccupation with what belonging even means anymore. Has ‘widow’ taken away the identity she had bound up with Richard but left nothing in its place? She decides what she thinks Johann van Stiegler’s artwork depicts but realises that this is definition and not opinion:

She knew what Richard would have said about them. But she and Richard were no longer one. So what would she say about them. She would say – what would she say?

In A Café, and Lavin’s writing as a whole, is full to the brim with moments like this, in which she articulates the uncomfortable nuances that sit between our better natures and the raw truth of our feelings. The conversation between Mary and the beautiful, young widow Maudie is immediately a kinetic surge of shared understanding which then acquires an awkward edge, utterly removed from any expectation of forlorn, noble suffering. 251 When a male customer, who turns out to be the café artist, Johann van Stiegler, joins in their conversation, the unease between Mary and Maudie escalates. The reason for going to the café disintegrates and the action, unusually for a story in our Café Shorts series, moves outside.

You get the feeling that Mary would prefer the company of Louise Mallard from Kate Chopin’s story. Like Chopin, Lavin was widowed at a relatively early age and what she took from this experience contributed to her most sharply observed stories. A Mary, who has lost a husband named Richard, though more recently, begins to come to terms with her solitude in In The Middle Of The Field, set on a large farm in Meath. It scarcely matters whether the Mary of this story is the protagonist of In A Café, nor whether the broad brushstrokes of synchronicity with Lavin’s life are matched in the finer detail: Lavin’s achievement is not that she drew her stories from her own truth, but that her stories touch upon fleeting, ambiguous truths within all our lives.

‘I’m lonely.’ That was all she could have said. ‘I’m lonely. Are you?’

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Morecambe’s restored art deco hotel, The Midland, offers its white screen to capture your projections. You sit in the tea room, below the vast whorls of the spiral staircase, and amidst the livery, potted palms, friezes and curved walls, and the pianist is playing These Foolish Things, you smell the “gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow”, dab the corner of your eye with a lace handkerchief or clench a pipe in your jaw and let the contents of the telegram held in your other hand wash over you…

David Constantine, fresh from a reading the previous night at Lancaster’s Litfest, checked out of his hotel and, before hitting the motorway, took a detour to Lancaster’s coastal neighbour. He ordered a pot of tea and sat by the plate glass windows overlooking the epic wilds of Morecambe Bay, notorious since 2004 and the tragic deaths of eighteen Chinese migrant workers picking cockles in the “furrows and ridges” of the tide. The tea took an age to come and he might have given up in order to get back on the road to his home in Oxford but, from his little corner table, he was able to eavesdrop a couple whose romantic afternoon tea was being soured by their contrasting reactions to the relief in the entrance lounge, “Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa” by the artist Eric Gill.Constantine was reminded of the tea room meeting between a man and a woman, no doubt in brand new art deco surroundings, observed by Katherine Mansfield and reproduced as A Dill Pickle, and he carried the incident away with him in his notebook. The result was Tea at the Midland, published by Comma Press, and it made him the predecessor to D.W. Wilson when he won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award.

Much of this is a lie, a fiction I’ve projected onto Constantine’s and indeed Mansfield’s processes – about either of which I know precisely nothing – based on elements of my own experience of taking tea at the Midland, where the order did indeed take an age to arrive and the water was indeed furrowed and ridged in the bay. There were no surfers, though, such as those watched by the woman in the story, behind the plate glass, projecting her ideals of grace and freedom onto their bobbing shapes:

In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best. To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the
heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air.
How clean and clever that was!

Janet Malcolm, in her sublime study, Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey [Granta, 2003], puts together a fascinating account of how the author’s death scene, in a German hotel room, has been re-created by a number of his biographers. To elements drawn from the eyewitness accounts, chiefly that of his widow Olga, of Chekhov’s final hours, other ‘facts’ have been added, most notably a sleepy young porter summoned in the middle of the night to bring champagne, a death-bed treat, to the room. The champagne was real, Malcolm tells us, but the porter was an invention by Raymond Carver in a story, Errand, written towards the end of his own life and published in 1988, which spun a fictional web around the events leading to Chekhov’s death. The manner in which the porter has come to be projected onto the ‘real’ story (albeit one easily disproved by less lazy researchers) suggests that Carver’s story has been read less as a fiction than as a preferred truth.

The woman, watching the surfers and constructing a fictional version of what she would like to be true about their moods and motivations, has been dealing in a preferred truth about the man with whom she is having tea, while his wife is at home, but projected, presumably in the act of cooking his dinner, onto the Midland’s curved white walls. She prefers, too, the truth she finds in the beauty of Gill’s frieze, in the gracious, graceful act of welcome he depicts, to the truth about Gill, whose diary accounts of his incest, paedophilia and bestiality were detailed in his biography, half a century after his death. The man can’t see other than with the hindsight these crimes have provided. He prefers his truth to come with moral certainties. When this isn’t the case – as when the woman asks whether “I should even have to learn to hate the sea because just out there, where that beautiful golden light is, those poor cockle-pickers drowned when the tide came in on them faster than they could run” – he wants no truck with it.

Constantine’s portrait of the man’s furious, controlling bluster, ostensibly intended for Gill but very much trained on his lover, skewers the hypocrisy of the hawkers of moral outrage. The undercurrent of menace is allowed to drift into the reader’s line of vision, never waved in front of our faces. We listen more closely to the woman, as she tries to contextualise her feelings about the Gill frieze by talking about the questionable moral character of Odysseus:

Odysseus was a horrible man. He didn’t deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her mother and father. I don’t forget that when I see
him coming out of hiding with the olive branch. I know what he has done already in the twenty years away. And I know the foul things he will do when he gets home. But at that moment, the one that Gill chose for his frieze, he is naked and helpless and the young woman is courteous to him and she knows for certain that her mother and father will welcome him at their hearth. Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments? – I haven’t read it, he said.

Those four words he speaks could be a backhand crashing into the side of her face, so brutal and disdainful is his attempt to sweep aside her point of view. That he doesn’t is a recognition of how the café environment allows a writer to construct surface and submerged narratives. Confined by the fact that “they were sitting at a table over afternoon tea in a place that had pretensions to style and decorum” only their wilting verbal communication is able to reflect the submerged frustration and rage. Outside, on the other side of the plate glass, the wind is ferocious, the waters wild, and there is beauty and uncomplicated joy in the surf. Inside, even the beauty comes with an overbearing moral shadow. The confined space generates the discord in the first place: the moral division over Gill’s artwork, represented in the couple’s views, is likely to be waged within any viewer who knows the back-story; anyone looking out from this swanky outpost cannot avoid projecting the fate of the cockle-pickers – their conditions of labour in the first place – onto the view of the tides. As with A Dill Pickle, the matter of the bill signals the end of the narrative. The restricted narrative space afforded by the Midland’s tea rooms allows the writer to project his fiction onto it, and re-align the truths held therein.

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S is for Shut Up and Deal

[also for Spoiler if you’ve never the seen the film, so beware…]
Writer/director Billy Wilder, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and star Jack Lemmon had combined two years earlier (with Joe E. Brown delivering the killer line) to create the immortal “Nobody’s perfect” dialogue at the end of Some Like It Hot. In 1960’s The Apartment, there’s something approaching perfection in the stuttering path Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine take, through endless work and love-based misdirections, to the romcom moment of epiphany depicted at the start of this closing sequence. But from the moment MacLaine enquires after the deck of cards, the brief remainder of the film becomes an outstanding example of letting the action speak for itself, that any writer would do well to heed. Yes, Lemmon attempts a gushing declaration of love but he’s cut short and handed the deck: “Shut up and deal.” Note MacLaine’s expert shuffle, a story in a few hand movements, and then, as the end credit appears, the way Lemmon follws that instruction, cards flying everywhere and bliss taking hold:

T is for Twist…Bust
Shirley’s just dumped Fred McMurray to see in the 1960s with you, she’s got the pixie haircut and she’s wearing that dress…those cards aren’t getting picked up anytime soon – it’s not as if you’re playing Felix in The Odd Couple for another eight years. Should Jack and Shirl eventually return to their game, they might get round to playing some blackjack, and they’ll know that, when you’re aiming for 21, if you twist too many times, you could end up bust. T could be for Tortuous Analogy because, as in card games, so it is in the short story: twist if you need to, but exercise caution. Writers approaching the short story via a Tales of the Unexpected, Guy de Maupassant or, indeed, Scooby Doo route, might believe that a twist in the tail is essential to a short story’s DNA.

Maupassant’s influence, as one of the 19th century architects of what we now understand as the short story and the leading pioneer of the twist (and you thought it was Chubby Checker!), is powerful. Yes, he may wrong-foot the reader, but his characters aren’t constructs purely for the purpose of concealing the surprise at the ending: these are people living real lives. In The Necklace, the unfortunate, impoverished Mathilde, having borrowed a glittering diamond necklace to mask her poverty when attending a function related to her husband’s work, loses the necklace and she and her husband spend ten years raising the funds to buy a replacement to give back to the owner. The twist is that, when the owner has the dreadful secret explained to her, she tells Mathilde that the original necklace was a cheap fake. It’s a shock to the character, definitely, but the story isn’t about that shock: they’ve crippled themselves with debt and worked hard for ten years to pay for something they could have replaced for less than 500 francs – that’s a story about how crap life is when you’re skint. It’s not a twist at all: it’s a boorish, droning inevitability. Get the reader to understand your story, and the ending may momentarily startle but it won’t seem to have come from nowhere. Set out at every turn to fox and confuse your reader and it won’t just be the disgruntled old retainer in a phantom mask who’s plotting your downfall.

U is for “Uno, Dos…Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro…”

Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken count-in to The Bottle; Little Richard’s “A Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom” into Tutti Frutti; George Harrison’s double-tracked guitar intro to I Wanna Hold Your Hand: if they were short stories and not songs, they’d read something like –

And then, after six years, she saw him again.
[Katherine Mansfield, A Dill Pickle]

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
[Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen]

Miss Cicely Rodgers strapped her cock and balls into the Miracle Deluxe Vagina, which was made from skin-like flesh-coloured latex and came with fully adjustable straps to ensure a perfect fit and to hide any last sign of maleness.
[Alexei Sayle, Who Died And Left You In Charge?]

V is for Velázquez
It wasn’t just that he’d paint a dwarf as well as a Pope. It was that the depictions of the Dwarf Francisco Lezcano or the beggars and lowly workers, in the grounds around the royal or papal palaces, were proper portraits, investing the subjects with dignity unattainable in everyday society. It was also that Pope Innocent X could be portrayed in such a storytelling way, the terse, malevolent executive overflowing with human power but without too much divine grace in evidence. Stories can work like paintings in as many ways as there have been artistic movements, but the humanity in a Velázquez should be high on the list of aspirations.

W is for Watermelon

Thank you, the sex was lovely and, as you know, I’ve been very keen for it to happen for some time. And how delightful that the hotel puts watermelons in the room – so refreshing! I’m going to cut myself a slice. Would you like one?. I tell you what – this is lovely, but those black pips get on my nerves.

In Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, none of this is spoken by the male protagonist, Gurov, to his titular sexual conquest. He does cut himself a slice of the watermelon, which he eats slowly. And then Chekhov creates an image so excruciating, it’s enough to put you off the fruit for life: “At least half an hour passed in silence.” Girls, if he’s not at the very least asking you whether he’s got any pips stuck in his teeth within the first ten minutes, (a) get the message and get out of there, but not before (b) you shove the rest of the watermelon into him, not sliced up, and not necessarily via his mouth either.

X is for X-Ray Spex
Acknowledging the passing of Poly Styrene and celebrating the concise characterisation displayed in Warrior in Woolworth’s:

Y is for Yeast
That idea you’ve got, that you think would work in a story but you’ve not got a plot yet, or characters, or a setting or a way to begin or end it. It’s still there, still at work, and it’ll grow, so give it time.

Z is for Zelda Fitzgerald
The epitome of the writer’s muse. The ethics of drawing from your own life, and thereby the lives and personalities of those who share that life, are in a constant state of push-me-pull-me within each writer. You use your non-writing hand to wipe away the tears shed at the worst moments of your life because the other hand’s twitching for the nearest pen. Zelda was not simply a muse but an incisive writer herself. Scott knew this, of course, but does the selfishness required by a writer instinctively seek to overshadow this apparent equity in their relationship? Is there room for a second writer in your house? I’m only asking because I write short stories for a living, and I think my landlord might have got wind of this….

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E is for Emotional Choreography

A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.

F is for Forbrydelsen

In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.

G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that for Pieces Of A Man:

Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.

H is for Hunger

“Cig?”
“Come on.”
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Oh aye.”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
“Nice room.”
“Very clean…”

Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:

I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”

J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.

K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself:

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We’ve taken a look at some of the factors that bring writers into coffee shops and that, once there, illuminate potential stories; and there was some discussion about the dramatic resonance these places can derive from personal memory and location. Let’s now grab a refill and take a closer look at how a short story narrative is galvanised by this type of setting.

Katherine Mansfield by Anne Estelle Rice

The narrative of a story can be glimpsed in its opening and Katherine Mansfield‘s 1917 short story, A Dill Pickle, tells us all we’re going to need to know in this stunning first paragraph:

And then, after six years, she saw him again. He was seated at one of those little bamboo tables decorated with a Japanese vase of paper daffodils. There was a tall plate of fruit in front of him, and very carefully, in a way she recognized immediately as his “special” way, he was peeling an orange.

It’s an extraordinary first sentence, prompting a cascade of images suggesting what preceded the “And then…” The collapse of the previous six years into being the moment before seeing him “again” is devastating to us, before we have any idea who “she” and “him” are. As soon as physical details emerge, though, we start to realise we know them very well. It’s the tea room setting that does this. We can see him seated at the table, with its Oriental pretensions, doing just enough to trigger her memories of him – and we know what this is. The chance meetings we experience in tea rooms and coffee houses are never entirely by chance. Put another way, these aren’t the places you’d visit to avoid bumping into an old familiar face. We’ve gained more than a setting from the knowledge that this is a chance meeting across a plate of fruit. We get that these people have the time it will take them to get through their order –

He interrupted her. “Excuse me,” and tapped on the table for the waitress. “Please bring some coffee and cream.” To her: “You are sure you won’t eat anything? Some fruit, perhaps. The fruit here is very good.”

“No, thanks. Nothing.”

– either to re-open old wounds or to rekindle lost intimacy. What it was that took place in those six years; what they were to each other before then; the people they’ve been before this moment; what could happen next: all this will be determined in the time it takes to order, drink and pay for coffee and cream. Again, the mechanics of the venue underpin the choreography of the characters. What will this meeting inspire? Well, you can probably work it out if I tell you that she responds to an early compliment by raising her veil and unbuttoning her fur collar – entirely normal actions, or else she won’t feel the benefit when she goes out again – but that, left alone at the end with the bill, he points out to the waitress that “the cream has not been touched.”…”Please do not charge me for it.”

The mundane functions of all our lives can provide framing devices for narratives, and café culture offers these by the plateful. I’ve chosen a 94-year-old story that could have taken place today in your local Costa, but do you know, or have any favourite short stories set, entirely or mainly, in cafés? Let me know below…


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