Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘performances

You go weeks, a couple of months, without blogging about a short story so, when you do, you tell yourself it’s got to be a story that gets you right there, between the ribs. It’s got to be a story that walks the planet like an ambassador for everything you believe about writing. And you know the story you want to use. But it’s not your story, not really. It should be the story that first made you understand, made you believe. But the truth is you had no idea it existed until some guy put you onto it a year ago. You hope they won’t notice. But they’ll notice.

So – full disclosure: if this post encourages you to track down Until Gwen, by the writer whose novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island, were made into acclaimed movies, credit must go to my colleague, John Sayle, at Liverpool John Moores University. John introduced the story to first year creative writers in a lecture ostensibly discussing dialogue technique. Certainly, Lehane has a fine ear for the dialogue within Americana’s underbelly, a comfortable fit within a tradition that links Damon Runyan with the likes of Elmore Leonard, Quentin Tarantino and George Pelacanos, joined lately and from a more northerly point by D.W. Wilson. Beyond that, though, the characters come across like you’re watching them in HD after finally jettisoning the old 16″ black & white – you witness them in pungent, raw flesh to the point where it becomes lurid – and Lehane’s dislocated 2nd person narrative propels you into a plot whose most brutal turns are disclosed to you like an opponent’s poker hand.

In quite other ways, and the area I wish to consider here, Until Gwen tells us a story about the writing process that should be instructive to would-be authors grappling with the distinction between having the ideas and making the writing. Dennis Lehane has said that he’d had the opening sentence of Until Gwen long before he had conceived of any of the characters, their relationships or what might happen to them. It’s no wonder, having come up with this line, Lehane knew that someday he’d have to build a story around it:

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.

The one guarantee is that, having read this, your reader is going to move on to the second sentence, which is also pretty good:

Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time.

We must steer the Dodge Neon around any prospective spoilers but there is no jeopardy in noting that, below its carnival transgressive veneer, this opening contains the lead-weighted certainties of the thriller: when even the hooker is only part-time, nothing is quite what it first seems; we may be driving away from the prison, but it’s still there in our wonky eyeline; the orchestrator of the goody bag of petty crime presented to the central character on leaving prison is introduced to us as “Your father”; and even though we, the reader, have all of this shoved onto our lap, we have no idea who our proxy, “you”, is.

Through the remainder of the story, we discover the endgame from the four years’ thinking, forgetting and remembering time afforded to the young man, whom we later discover, as memory returns, was called “Bobby” by his lover, Gwen, conspicuous by her absence from the welcome party mentioned above. The thriller is played out between son and father, while Bobby’s memories of Gwen reveal a further great strength in Lehane’s prose, his facility for articulating male yearning. Gwen is typical of Lehane’s small town, big-hearted women who recognise something approaching nobility in nihilists like Bobby, who in turn represent hope, escape and salvation and whose relationships invariably collapse with the burden of this representation:

You find yourself standing in a Nebraska wheat field. You’re seventeen years old. You learned to drive five years earlier. You were in school once, for two months when you were eight, but you read well and you can multiply three-digit numbers in your head faster than a calculator, and you’ve seen the country with the old man. You’ve learned people aren’t that smart. You’ve learned how to pull lottery-ticket scams and asphalt-paving scams and get free meals with a slight upturn of your brown eyes. You’ve learned that if you hold ten dollars in front of a stranger, he’ll pay twenty to get his hands on it if you play him right. You’ve learned that every good lie is threaded with truth and every accepted truth leaks lies.

You’re seventeen years old in that wheat field. The night breeze smells of wood smoke and feels like dry fingers as it lifts your bangs off your forehead. You remember everything about that night because it is the night you met Gwen. You are two years away from prison, and you feel like someone has finally given you permission to live.

Until Gwen ends the way it does because it began the way it did. Lehane’s premise of bad men and botched heists delivers an operatic crescendo within the short story format. He has written through the ideas sparked by that opening line and, along the way, found this narrative. The methodology enables the characters and situations to take shape amidst a series of tropes with which Lehane is comfortable. The peculiar and deadly sprinkling of diamonds holding the small town in thrall equates to the child murders in Mystic River or the epidemic of stray dogs in Lehane’s long short story, Running Out Of Dog, which also features a woman as potential salvation-figure, as does another short story, Gone Down To Corpus. Meanwhile, Bobby’s quest for his own identity resonates with the story about identity suicide, ICU, for which Paul Auster’s City of Glass is also a touchstone.

All this expansion, from an anonymous beginning to the process whereby the story becomes embedded within the writer’s broader preoccupations, is significant. The story’s performative narrative plays itself out by resolving its central struggle but there is plenty left unresolved, deferring as it does to life’s natural messiness. I’ve seen readers speculate and debate about the morality of the main characters and the fates of those around them but a fascinating titbit about Until Gwen is that Dennis Lehane came away from the story every bit as curious about the characters as his readers were. The characters, he has written, “kept walking around in my head, telling me that we weren’t done yet, that there were more things to say about the entangled currents that made up their bloodlines and their fate.”

The result, the other prompt for which was a challenge to write a theatrical part for his actor brother, which would allow him to play (against type) a morally irredeemable character, was a short play, Coronado. To go into too many details about the additions and alterations made to the story would once more risk spoilers since the play ties up several of the story’s loose ends. It does so with elegance and in a way that suggests Lehane has created a new puzzle for himself with his first act, and resolved it in the second.

Coronado, the script providing the title for a collection otherwise comprising of Lehane’s short stories, stands alone impressively as a play, the strong-arm poetry of the 2nd person narrative in Gwen sculpted to a somewhat less naturalistic set of voices, emphasising perhaps the operatic strains I picked up from the story and very much at home in the American theatre of Arthur Miller or David Mamet. Yet it couldn’t have come about without the ellipses in the short story – had Lehane been fully aware of his characters’ fates, he might not have written the play, might have left them in the short story and that might, perhaps, have become a novel. This makes me wonder about the ethics of leaving matters unexplained. Do we owe our characters (never our readers, who can never be allowed to override our creative controls) answers? For all that they share storylines and sections of text, I am not sure it’s helpful to place Until Gwen and Coronado too close together in our imaginations, lest one text overpowers the other.

An alternative companion piece to Until Gwen might be Vincent Gallo’s brilliant 1998 auteur effort, Buffalo ’66. There are shades of Bobby’s parole disorientation in the opening scenes of Gallo’s petty criminal, newly released from prison with a full bladder and nowhere to relieve it, eventually kidnapping a young tap-dancer (Christina Ricci) in his frustration (although, if Gallo has a fictional role model here, it may be Patrick Dewaere’s superbly jittery shambles Franck, central to a disastrous heist and the most downbeat lovers-on-the-lam scenario imaginable in the 1979 French film Série noire). Whilst a different type of antagonist to the father in the Lehane story, Ben Gazzara’s Jimmy, the father of Gallo’s character, offers a complementary montage of charm and menace.

Julian Barnes, in a recent Guardian article, ahead of the reissue of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, for which he has written the introduction, discusses how Ford’s quartet of novels has come to be regarded as a tetralogy, with the final novel, Last Post, widely derided and commonly discarded. Indeed, save for a motif of a couple of logs of cedar wood thrown on the fire, Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed adaptation of Ford’s novels for BBC/HBO, which prompted the re-print, brings the parade to an end at the climax of book three. Barnes makes a persuasive case for Last Post but, in doing so, relates Graham Greene’s decision to dispose of the volume in an edition he edited in the 1960s. Greene accused the final book of clearing up the earlier volumes’ “valuable ambiguities.” I find Coronado a soulful re-imagining of Until Gwen, the more fascinating because the author has, in a way, re-interpreted his own work. But Greene’s phrase reminds us that ambiguity is a defining strength of the short story. Whether Lehane had done anything else with them or not, the success of his and many other short stories is that the characters might step out from the text, valuable ambiguities intact, and wander around the reader’s minds for years to come, insisting that we aren’t done yet.

They mean me. I have been draped with no laurels, nor favoured with any stipend involving sacks of butt. There has been no sherry. I have not been contacted by “the absurd”, nor was I aware that they possessed this level of organisation. And it isn’t poetry. But I am on the flyer (below) and that tells me that I’ll be performing next Saturday in Liverpool at the Bluecoat, as part of the If Only festival. I’ll be there to find out if the person they say is the Poet Laureate of the Absurd really is me: if you’re interested in dropping by, the details are below:

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) makes a valid point. Humour can be highly personal, unpredictable and idiosyncratic. It might, as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) assures Tommy, come down to “just…you know, how you tell the story.”

On Tuesday 10th April, I’ll be conducting a pair of workshops as part of the 2012 Words Festival, Leigh and Wigan’s annual literary celebration. The theme is Humorous Short Fiction and this is to let you know, if you’re in the area, that there are places available to writers of all levels interested in the fraught business of writing short stories that make readers laugh.

There are any number of examples, from O Henry to a forthcoming Reel Time Short Stories feature, Woody Allen, of writers with comic timing and turn-of-phrase but with those – and many others who may not even have intended to string together gags – what provokes the laughter is the truth in the story. However absurd, the story takes itself seriously. However comedic the characters, they feel real. In Sea Oak by George Saunders, the narrator works as a waiter-cum-stripper in a kinky fighter pilot themed bar, ‘Joysticks’, where employees are not allowed to serve up full nudity so wear outsized ‘penile stimulators’ to wave at appreciative diners, who in turn score them according to cuteness. Here’s how Saunders nails the slappable management speak and the suppresses horror of the man deemed not cute enough to continue to earn a living this way. You shudder as you laugh:

After closing we sit on the floor for Debriefing. “There are times,” Mr. Frendt says, “when one must move gracefully to the next station in life, like for example certain women in Africa or Brazil, I forget which, who either color their faces or don some kind of distinctive headdress upon achieving menopause. Are you with me? One of our ranks must now leave us. No one is an island in terms of being thought cute forever, and so today we must say good-bye to our friend Lloyd. Lloyd, stand up so we can say good-bye to you. I’m sorry We are all so very sorry”
“Oh God,” says Lloyd. “Let this not be true.”
But it’s true. Lloyd’s finished. We give him a round of applause, and Frendt gives him a Farewell Pen and the contents of his locker in a trash bag and out he goes. Poor Lloyd. He’s got a wife and two kids and a sad little duplex on Self-Storage Parkway
“It’s been a pleasure!” he shouts desperately from the doorway, trying not to burn any bridges.

Let this not be true. But it’s true. Come for the laughs and stay for the truths at either of the workshops, whose details are below and can also be found on page 6 of the Words Festival brochure:

1] Humorous Short Fiction
Wigan Cricket Club, Bull Hey, off Parsons Walk
10am until 3.30pm
Cost £5
Booking essential. 01942 723 350

2] Ashton Writers with Dinesh Allirajah
Sam’s Bar, Warrington Rd, Ashton
7.30pm – 10pm
Cost: Free

Ashton Writers are hosting an open evening for those interested in humorous writing. Refreshments provided. Free but booking is essential – 01942 723 350.

News of two free events at which I’ll be reading this week:

This evening (Thurs 22nd Sept) sees the first in a series of monthly events, hosted by Merseyside Polonia, an organisation working to bridge the social and cultural gaps between the established local community in Liverpool and those more recently arrived from Poland. My Favourite Book will be a chance to discuss and read from world literature, with a particular emphasis on British and Polish literature in translation.

As special guest for the first event tonight, I’ll be discussing my own story, Scent, published in the 2008 Comma Press anthology, ReBerth: Stories from cities on the edge, which also featured stories by Paweł Huelle and Adam Kamiński from Gdansk. Scent deals with the settlement experience of a migrant in Liverpool, working as a toilet attendant in a waterfront bar by night, and coming home to his unfurnished flat and the dramas of the couple in the neighbouring flat.

The event is at Kensington Fire Station, Beech Street, Liverpool L7 0EU; 6.30-8.30pm.

Again in Liverpool, on Sunday 25th September, at around 1.30pm, I’ll be reading on the spoken word stage at the 2011 Bold Street Festival, which takes place over the weekend.

Most artists in Liverpool hold Bold Street dear to their hearts; for followers of my Café Shorts series, it’s long been the cornerstone of the sitting, sipping and dreaming scene; while shops like Matta’s International Foods and the brilliant News From Nowhere book shop help it to retain the identity of being a part of “our town” even as the chains and developers gobble up the rest of the city centre.

That said, I’ll be performing next to Tesco’s!

Nevertheless, if you’re in Liverpool, come along and support these events…

Meanwhile, if somebody opened up a door to my future
I’d probably turn away
And carry on reminiscing about the Armadillo Tea Rooms and Desperate Dan’s Café

There was, as mentioned in my 1997 poem Nobody’s Letting On, the Armadillo, where young men with Probe records bags and unkempt hair drank tea and ate quiche, and Desperate Dan’s – actually the café linked to the Open Eye photography gallery – which was run by a dedicated Evertonian socialist called Ronnie, who put the Blues’ miners strike-referencing 1984 FA Cup Final single, Here We Go, on the jukebox. And, at other times, there was the Tabac, where I heard the manager, Elaine, asking Adrian Henri if he was “still doing the writing?” More in line with the European bar bistro idea of café life, there was the iconic and recently departed Everyman Bistro, where my favourite character was a solo drinker – we called him Cheerful Charlie Chisholm – who wore a trilby and camel coat, suit and tie, and who would always scour each of the Bistro’s three rooms in expectation of finding the people he’d arranged to meet, and always find no-one.

But there was also Els Quatre Gats, Barcelona’s modernista hangout which incubated Picasso’s early career; and Le Forum in Arles, the precise topology of whose terrace has been imprinted on our consciousness by Van Gogh; there is the Savoy Patisserie, a bohemian enclave in Orhan Pamuk’s beloved Istanbul; and Café Momus, which provided Rodolfo, Mimi, Schaunard, Colline and Marcello thankfully cheap food and the odd cheap thrill in La Bohème. Writers sit and scrawl in such cafés, but they are also sustained by the life that goes on there, that spills in from and out to the cities – their cities – whose many lives sustain their writing.

As soon as we land in the Greek café at the heart of Isaac Babel‘s The Aroma Of Odessa – he dispenses with the nicety of bringing us in through the doorway – we can recognise it as one of the cafés from our own memories and imaginations:

I am wandering between tables, making my way through the crowd, catching snippets of conversation. S., a female impersonator, walks past me. In his pale youthful face, in his tousled soft yellow hair, in his distant, shameless, weak-spirited smile is the stamp of his peculiar trade, the trade of being a woman. He has an ingratiating, leisurely, sinuous way of walking. His hips sway, but barely. Women, real women, love him. He sits silently among them, his face that of a pale youth and his hair soft and yellow. He smiles faintly at something, and the women smile faintly and secretively back – what they are smiling at only S. and the women know.
[translation by Peter Constantine in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, Norton 2002]

Nowadays, we call it the Third Space, the not-work, not-home in which we perfect a public manifestation of our private selves. Moving between the tables, we also move between tolerance, suspicion and understanding. This very short vignette is from the 1920s but the “aroma” of the title has been with him through his life, since his birth in the Odessa ghetto. It’s the smell of distance, of marginalia (indeed, of periphery) – the Jew from the ghetto in the port city at the edge of land, in an outpost of empire, amidst drag queens and their surreptitious shared smiles with the women, and

Fat, serene wives of movie-theater owners, thin cash-register girls (“true union members”), and fleshy, flabby, sagacious café-chantant agents, currently unemployed…

But it’s also an aroma of an intense blend and, in his passeggiata amongst the tables, Babel recognises the motifs of that uncut internationalism peculiar to port cities, fostered by the transit of produce and people. The recycling of themes and phrases mitigates towards meditation rather than narrative development, and brings to mind a poetic expression like Paul Célan’s Death Fugue, but there is a particular storytelling skill being deployed here, and it’s one any writer can attempt in his or her own familiar Third Space. What Babel seems to be taking is a snapshot but it’s also an X-ray. Another way of putting it is that the story is written from the point of view of the eternal outsider but it’s also written from beneath the skin of every inhabitant of the café, the city, his city, our cities.

The new Museum of Liverpool opens today, raising a giant stone eyelid towards its neighbour, the Liver Building, as it celebrates its centenary. This is also the moment in which I become a museum piece, as a brief extract of my writing has found its way into the new building to form part of an exhibit celebrating Liverpool as a “Creative City”.

The extract, from the 2008 story, A Different Sky in the Comma Press collection, The Book Of Liverpool, is being used to soundtrack a minute-long film, directed by Lucy Armitage from Glasgow’s 55degrees production company. The passage imagines a walk around a part of Liverpool city centre and the film, which I won’t get to see until I attend one of the museum’s opening events on Thursday, seeks to provide a visual interpretation of the route and the cultures and histories mentioned in passing. In this respect, it’s an interesting sidenote to the conversations about short stories and film I hope to have here. Other Liverpool writers have had films made, based on their poetry. They are Dave Ward, Eleanor Rees, Gladys Mary Coles, Levi Tafari and Paul Farley, fine company in which to wait out eternity as an (admittedly interactive) object gathering dust in a(n admittedly very modern and probably not at all dusty) museum.

Later on today, I aim to be very much alive giving a short story reading at The Blue Cap, Sandiway, Northwich CW8 2DN, again in the company of poets including Martin Daws, Rebecca Goss, Joan Poulson and Colin Watts. The event is hosted by the Vale Royal Writers Group & Dead Good Poets Society and starts at 8pm, £3/£2.

In other news, BBC Radio 4 has announced that changes to its daytime schedule will mean its short story output will be reduced from three to one a week. I had a story broadcast in 2008 and, aside from the exposure, the professionalism, rigour and sensibility shown by the producer, Justine Potter, and reader, Gillian Kearney, made for a rewarding experience, which has helped me in further honing my craft. It’s the reduction of this interaction between different skills that I think could be the most damaging result of the change, but it also runs against what would appear to be a moment of growth and increased relevance for the short story in this country. You can register your voice about this change – find out more here:

The laces. The sole and the heel. The tongue. And the cuff, the counter, the quarter, the welt. The vamp and the eyelets. The aglet, the grommet, the last.

I’m talking cobblers, of course, but some may recognise that this list of the different parts of a shoe is a specific reference to a memorable passage from Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld. The passage, which can be read in full here, depicts a young man being instructed to pay attention to “the physics of language” – the names of things:

“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.


“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”

DeLillo is drawing an important line for us here, between notions of the abstract and the concrete. On the one side, we have the idea and on the other we have the language. I’ve started on this in an earlier post but it’s one of those principles which, like the names of the parts of the shoe in the excerpt, doesn’t hurt to be drummed in via a little rote learning.

An inexperienced writer will often confuse expressiveness and abstraction with inattention to detail. Joan Miró’s art gives us a handy reminder of where to draw the line. He resisted being labelled as an abstract artist:

For me a form is never something abstract: it is always a sign of something. It is a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake

No matter that the art itself may work along abstract lines; no matter how it may express the artist/author’s subconscious and exercise that of the viewer/reader: what is employed in the creation of the work is the concrete detail of real life. This can be a tough line to walk. Am I suggesting the shutting down of the writer’s imagination? Am I arguing against pure, expressive lyricism, or positing a deadening Stakhanovite realism for the 21st century, like the offspring of a queasy union between Thomas Gradgrind and Dave Pelzer? I don’t think I’m debating the direction a writer’s work may take, or the generic and imaginative paths it may follow, but looking more at the building blocks of technique. It’s about understanding that concrete language is suffused with multitudes of meaning that are as readily apparent to a reader as they are to the writer. The abstract nature of emotion isn’t necessarily best expressed through the use of language that feels emotive, that appears to mimic the rage, passion, euphoria of the emotion itself.

This is something inexperienced writers can mistake. Five years ago, I was in Lagos and spent one morning delivering a workshop to a group of local writers. I asked them to represent their city, or Nigeria, in a single concrete image. I was offered a host of metaphors – the one I remember most clearly was that of a butterfly with blood-stained wings – from everyone in the group bar one of the writers, who chose the yellow buses that attempt to provide a public transport service to the second most populous city in Africa. I knew about the yellow buses, having been there less than a week. Every artist in Lagos, looking to sell paintings to tourists, knows to paint the yellow buses. If you’ve only seen Lagos on the television, you’ll probably know about the yellow buses. And that’s why it worked: the poem this writer went on to produce described a scenario that felt real and, consequently, it made more emotional sense than a yellow busload of empty metaphors.

This is not a culturally-specific sermon and this is basic creative writing didacticism: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted,” as E.M Forster blogged a century ago. Why is it such a commonplace for inexperienced writers to deal with just the laces and tongue of the prose before showing off their fancy footwork? I think there’s a clue in the phrase, “the physics of language.” It’s too easy for writers to absent themselves from the scientific workings of the world about which they are writing. It’s an abstraction borne out of a devotion to the spontaneity of the first draft. Going back over a text to check, for example, the name of “those black, metallic or plasticky bits on the ends of your shoelaces” may somehow seem a violation of your personal vision. Yet the rigour of inquiry, the determination not to let your language settle for vague stabs at aphorism but to attempt precision where possible, is not only a good habit but can add new dimensions to the work. Once you have the components of a thing, the way a thing works, the name of the thing – say, aglet – you begin to speculate as to how or whether your characters might have this knowledge and this, in turn, makes their hearts beat just a bit more persuasively than they had done before.

This is also why science provides a necessary enrichment of the writer’s process. The short fiction specialist publisher, Comma Press, is recognising this with science-themed anthologies. The Darwin 200 anniversaries in 2009 demonstrated how our understanding of what we are, where we are, what this is and where it’s heading has been, is being, revolutionised by the theories and discoveries of evolutionary biology, DNA and genome research, quantum physics. Scientists attempt to build narrative arcs into the first moment of the Big Bang; they seek to map the subatomic activity that takes place in what appears to be the empty space around our bodies; they discover common threads linking every life form on the planet, allowing us to understand ourselves as primates, molecules, stardust. Science is currently giving us the poetry, mapping the abstract worlds beyond our imagination. Writers have language – that’s our field – and we should rise to the challenge of seeking to understand how it works.

A reminder that some of the intersections between science and literature will be explored this THURSDAY 26 MAY in the Evolving Words showcase at Liverpool’s Poetry Cafe – details HERE

Real Time Tweets

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.