Today, it is my pleasure to welcome award-winning author, and contributor to the Cooked Up anthology, Susannah Rickards. She would be answering questions on writing, based on her long experience as an outstanding author of short stories, a sought-after writing teacher, and esteemed judge for various short story contests. She has given very useful, practical advice, some of which I’ve highlighted for you in blue.
If you have questions for her, please drop them in the comments.
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
Thirty. I was an actress, cast in a play where the director told us all to write a story explaining what had happened to our characters before they came on stage for the first time. When the story was casually praised, the elation I felt was a revelation. It meant more to me than any good theater review.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? Which of your stories would you recommend to a reader who has never read your work?
I’m fascinated by the gap between who we are and who we think we are. Beau de L’Air tackles this, as a schoolboy discovers he is a crucial figure in the lives of people he doesn’t know. Another, Ultimate Satisfaction Everyday, explores a dog food salesman’s need to feel he’s amounted to something. Another recurring theme is indifference. People with cold fish hearts scare the life out of me. It’s fun to write what scares you.
3. What makes a successful short story?
I love stories that cast a thin wedge of light on a world so vivid and complex that the reader’s mind supplies the full length novel; that contain language with the potency of poetry – so tight that any omission would create a loss of distinction. (That’s not to say pared to the bone. I’m bored by linguistic anorexia.) Also, good architecture: an enticing structure.
4. Which authors have been your biggest influences?
Fitzgerald, Carver, Joyce, Graham Greene, Kyle Minor, Janice Galloway, Munro, Proulx for emotional depth and complexity; Stephen Dixon, George Saunders, Karen Joy Fowler, James Kelman, Russell Hoban for form.
5. Could you name five short stories you think all writers should read?
• Nobody Said Anything – Raymond Carver. Because it’s word perfect.
• Babylon Revisited – Scott Fitzgerald. A novel in a few words.
• A Day Meant To Do Less – Kyle Minor. His distinctive prose style is led by his humanity and that’s rare.
• My Chivalric Fiasco – George Saunders – a reminder of the joyful possibilities of linguistic liberation.
• For Work, Yes by Tania Hershman. A wonderful story which took years to get published. Just proves that some of the finest work can get overlooked.
6. You’ve won many prestigious awards for your short stories, and judged various writing competitions. What pointers would you give a writer submitting to these?
- Work all the time so that you have a range of stories ready and can choose what to submit.
- But also, for the hell of it, write to order sometimes.
- Set yourself a technical or narrative task that’s out of your reach and wrestle with it.
- Edit every story several times. Do specific edits for clarity, energy, scene shaping, viewpoint, language, syntax, accidental repetition, thematic development, succinctness. And so on. Often, the best stories have been edited dozens of times.
- Say what you want to say, never what you think people want to hear. Say it in a way it hasn’t been said before.
- And assume your readers are intelligent – don’t write down to them.
7. When planning a short story collection, what factors do you keep in mind?
How to refresh the reader is key. I’ve heard claims that short stories should be savoured like fine chocolates; one a day. Seriously, who eats great chocolates one a day? I read whole collections in one go, and so work on the principle that someone else might too. I try to balance 1st person with 3rd, male POV with female, long with short etc. Also, create an arc. My collection starts with a funeral, has a prison sentence in the middle and ends with a birth. That was intentional. Get a good editor. I was extremely fortunate to have Elaine Chiew’s input in story order, along with another wise author. The two of them helped immeasurably.
8. As a creative writing teacher, what advice would you give to aspiring/ emerging fiction writers?
• Read superb writers. Ones who make your hair stand on end. Ones who make you cry because you’ll never be that good. Read them actively. How do they form sentences? Paragraphs? Where do their scenes begin and end? What makes you jealous of them?
• Tap into your own emotional superlatives. What rouses your anger? Your joy? Your wit? What catches your eye that doesn’t seem to catch other people’s?
• Find good, serious fellow authors and share work with them. It’s great to swap with authors you admire hugely whose work is different from your own. They add a critical dimension you might lack.
• Send out work regularly. Make it a part of your week. Keep a spreadsheet so you know who you’ve sent what to.
• But don’t dwell on it. I had an unbroken year of rejections. Then two major prizes, a commission, a magazine acceptance and a book deal, all in two weeks. If you are shortlisted or published, CELEBRATE!
9. Please tell us about your story in the Cooked up Anthology, and what inspired you to write it.
Often a story comes out of the crucible for me when two unrelated ideas fuse. This was one. A friend sent me a photo of a pawn shop window with the word Unredeemed in flashing lights above some diamonds and I immediately wondered who not what was unredeemed by pawning jewellery. At the time, a couple of friends had been left stranded by husbands who simply ‘forgot’ to pay maintenance, leaving their own children destitute while enjoying a good life with new lovers. Indifference and lack of self-awareness – ping. I wanted to show the gap in the most fundamental way possible: through the food they eat at Christmas. As I’m allergic to shellfish, I made Frazer gorge on it and suffer the consequences. The final element was structure. As soon as I realized that every scene was set on a threshold: oyster bar entrance, pawn shop doorway, old home porch; landing and bathroom floor; kitchen doorway, porch again, the story came.
Susannah Rickards is a UK author who lives near London. Her collection of short stories Hot Kitchen Snow won the Scott Prize. Her work has appeared in anthologies and literary magazines including 33: East, The Yellow Room, World Wide Writers, Real Writers, The New Writer, Pleasure Vessels, Brittle Star, The Independent, QWF, Even the Ants Have Names, To Her Naked Eye, Front & Centre, The Piano On Fire, The Source and online at Pequin, Conan Doyle Society, Surrey Herald and Haiku Journal. Her work has won and placed in a number of awards including The Conan Doyle, Society of Authors, Commonwealth Short Story, BBC Opening Lines, International Pen, CWA Debut Dagger, Eastside, Ian St James and The New Writer. She’s in the final year of a PhD in Creative Writing at Northumbria University, writing a crime novel set on the Northumbrian coast.
Do you read or write short stories? If you do enjoy them, why? And if not, why not? Checked out the Cooked Up anthology? Have you submitted to short story contests? Do you have questions for Susannah– about her work, the publishing scene for short stories, or her experience as a judge at writing contests?