Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome Frances Gapper, a brilliant, nuanced, and versatile author. Her latest collection of short stories, “In the Wild Wood” has blown me away, and I recommend it for lovers of quirky, unusual fiction with a touch of the surreal. She’s been widely published: you can read some of her work online in the Irish Literary Review and the London Magazine.
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
I was lucky to attend a very good primary school, St Mary Magdalen’s in Mortlake, southwest London, UK. Mortlake: a death lake, but a good one to learn to swim in. Creativity of all sorts was encouraged and I wrote poems and stories. This would be from the age of five or so. I first tasted the delights of fame when an early poem of mine starting “The fish in our tank swim round and round / Round and round without a sound…” was stuck up by the school goldfish tank. I could quote the last line too, but I won’t because it was a bit weak and falsely jovial. Also I won first prize (five shillings) in a book review competition, no one else having bothered to enter. My friend Jane Eccles, whose beautiful drawing Night Tree is on my book cover, went to this school too.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? Which of your short stories/ collections would you recommend to a reader who has never come across your work?
My preoccupations as a writer – loss mainly, I guess. Loss in one form or another. I tend to assume all fiction concerns itself with loss and/or death, although I’m probably completely wrong about that. But certainly mine does. As for a recommendation of something to start with, I think ‘The Tiny Key’, a booklet of very short stories (bundled with two other booklets) published by Sylph Editions in 2009.
3. Which authors have been your biggest influences?
There are writers you love to read but whose work doesn’t influence your own writing (or at least you’re not conscious of it), others whose brilliance has a dimming effect on you. More rarely, an amazing writer comes along whose work refreshes and inspires you. It’s so for me with Stevie Smith, Ali Smith too. And all the writers listed below have influenced me in one way or another, as have very many others.
4. Could you name short story authors we should all check out?
Probably your readers will know all or most of these authors already, but here’s a short and eclectic list: Ali Smith, Grace Paley, Helen Oyeyemi, Stevie Smith, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jackie Kay, Leonora Carrington, Chekhov, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, William Trevor.
See too my essay on Robert Aickman: “Aickman thought the ghost story akin to poetry in its compression and intensity, and his work has been described as ‘English Eerie’ and ‘English Kafka’…” (Aickman’s motto ‘Never explain or apologize’ – which was also the motto of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s mother – is a good one for short story writers, I think.)
And my essay on Dorothy Edwards: “Hovering awkwardly on the fringe of the Bloomsbury Group, virtually penniless and dependent on a friend for accommodation, Dorothy Edwards lacked the two things Virginia Woolf considered vital for a woman writer of fiction: money, and secure private space…”
6. What tips would you give to those starting out on short stories?
- Learn all the rules, so you can choose the ones to disobey.
- Read how-to articles, via links on social media, then think to yourself this may be good advice but I’m going to ignore it. Comma splices, for instance, seem to be the latest no-no – well I love comma splices. And exclamation marks!
- Interact with other writers online.
- Enter competitions and send stuff out. Lots of people will think your work is crap/meh; this will help you to moderate your own views and be grateful for the occasional kind word.
- Never explain or apologize (see above).
7. What does your typical writing day look like?
I’m glad you asked me this question in August 2017, because I can reply truthfully that I write every morning. Until I’ve written at least 120 words, or a complete flash – that’s my rule for the time being. I used to get up very early in the mornings so as to write before going to work – one job, for instance, started at 7am, so I got up at 4, leaving the house at 6.15. Since I ‘retired’ I’ve had loads more time, but a great deal less self-discipline.
8. Could you share with us the inspiration behind some of the short stories in your latest collection ‘In the Wild Wood’?
The title story ‘In the Wild Wood’ was inspired by my mother’s dementia and my own experience of mental breakdown while I was living with her and trying to look after her. Inspired very directly, since much of it is plucked from a diary-notebook I kept during that terrible time in 2007/8. I didn’t dare reopen that book for several years, having no wish to step back into the maelstrom. But eventually I did, thanks to my partner Deryn’s encouragement – I’d given it to her to read when we first got together, having decided she might as well know the worst.
‘It Was’ is another story made up of mini-stories, but this one is much lighter. It sprang from a time when I was flirting and sort of falling in love (which I certainly shouldn’t have been doing) with a painter-decorator friend of mine. Everything between us remained just below the surface, bubbling up in fiction. I then fell out of contact with her – the breakdown swept everything away – but recently she sent me a lovely message about the book, this story in particular.
I think ‘The Poetry Course’ is the oldest story in ‘In the Wild Wood’. This one was inspired by a minor disappointment, my application to join a course in Advanced Fiction being turned down. So I became the dragon who didn’t get on the Arval course and a friend who boomed outraged sympathy down the phone became Aunt Julia.
Do you read or write short stories? What is your writing routine like? What about your submission process? Do you have questions for Frances Gapper about short stories and their submission process? We’ll be giving away a copy of her book to one of the commenters!
Frances Gapper‘s Absent Kisses, her first story collection, was published by Diva Books in 2002 and The Tiny Key, a flash fiction chapbook, by Sylph Editions in 2009. Her most published story is ‘Pink and Blue’, which appeared first in Pretext 5, edited by Ali Smith and Julia Bell, then in Absent Kisses and then in ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: Love Quarrels from Anton Chekhov to ZZ Packer’, a Penguin anthology edited by Ali Smith, Sarah Wood and Kasia Boddy. Her novel Saints and Adventurers was published by the Women’s Press in 1988 and a children’s novel, Jane and The Kenilwood Occurrences, by Faber in 1979. The latter featured in Paul Magrs’s 2014 list of ‘100 books for children that I think are great’.
This post was written for the IWSG. Thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh for organizing and hosting the Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG) every month! Go to the site to see the other participants. In this group we writers share tips, self-doubt, insecurities, and of course, discuss the act of writing. If you’re a writer and a blogger, go join rightaway! Co-hosts this month are: Tyrean Martinson, Tara Tyler, Raimey Gallant, Beverly Stowe McClure.
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I loved the tip on writing daily. That is something I have been struggling to do. Writing 120 words a day looks doable. Thanks
I find it is so, adhyapika! Hope the writing goes well.
Great to read about Frances Gapper.
I love to write and read short-stories. Started writing them when I was in school. Many of my stories have been published in ‘Tinkle’ – an illustrated children’s magazine of India.
Had taken part in a story contest last year, but didn’t win. This year, I hope to submit for some more!
Frances, I found your tips very interesting.
As I consider myself a learner, I am still learning all the rules.
How do I learn all the rules?
Only after knowing rules can one be eligible to flout them?
Is it fine to not follow any rules and write what I wish to express in the way I desire?
I love using exclamations too! 🙂
How do I learn all the rules? – Oh Anita, there are rules everywhere.
Only after knowing rules can one be eligible to flout them? – No, you should start flouting them immediately.
Is it fine to not follow any rules and write what I wish to express in the way I desire? – Absolutely fine.
It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such posts in the future as well.
Glad it was useful for you!
Loved the interview, Damyanti! So thankful to you,Frances, for sharing this insightful and informative for first-timers who are trying their hand at fiction! Cant tell you how much I needed this! I started with a lot of self-doubts but have realised along the way that I’m not just learning more from reading widely on this art of writing stories but also enjoying it. If there is one tip/practice to follow on a daily basis for any aspiring short story writer, what would that be?
Thank you, Esha! My tip/practice to follow on a daily basis for any short story writer – or writer of any sort – is to rest. Sleep, or just lie down for a bit.
I like to read short stories to try out new genres. It gives me a taste of what new authors are like without me committing to a novel.
Hi. I have started writing short stories very recently and have entered into two competitions so far, just as was suggested in this post. No prizes for guessing that I won no prizes.I will look forward to receiving lots of guidance from this forum.
Please do check out my two stories and let me have your considered views. Thanks everyone!
This is my favourite bit of advice — and the one I adhere to most stringently: Learn all the rules, so you can choose the ones to disobey. It’s like being well informed so we can make the best decisions. I love grammar rules but there must be flexibility in creativity — yes! But that’s not to say we can just drop in commas or apostrophes willy-nilly. The best writers seem to intuit where to break down the rules. And the comma splice? Yes, in creative fiction — but I tend to shy away from it in more essays. Historical analysis, for example.
So all that is to ask, Frances: Which is the rule (grammar or otherwise) you most love to break? 🙂
Thanks very much for dropping in, Michelle – good to see you here! 🙂 As for your question – I do so love the exclamation mark, although I try to ration my use of it, as nowadays they’re so frowned upon.
I’m intrigued by the “never explain, never apologise” motto. What do you think keeps pulling a reader through a story which doesn’t make itself easily legible? What makes them want to read it again, to like it even though it may unsettle them?
Hi Bronwyn and thanks for commenting. That depends on the story and the reader, but for me the compelling factor is usually the story’s voice.
Oh, interesting to read- thanks for introducing her:-) I enjoyed reading about her, and will check our her stories:-) I haven’t read many short stories neither been writing them
Thanks for reading, Eli! 🙂
Fascinating and informative reading the interview with Frances but also so close to my childhood home in Mortlake. Glad Frances was inspired by creative work at school. I was and then continued that as a teacher. Now worry that creativity is being replaced by clever linguistic techniques! Wonder if Frances ever knew my close friend Miss Brett or the grandmother of my kids Violet Daines both worked at Mary Magdelen Mortlake for years!
No, neither of those names ring a bell with me (but I love the name Violet). Glad you liked the interview 🙂
Great interview and spot on advice to other authors by Frances.
I love the way she identified school as the place which triggered her future writing career, in spite of the school’s other deficiencies… I also believe my seed to read extensively and write creatively was sown at school.
Thank you, Luccia! Yes, creativity was encouraged at my primary school and in the first year or two of secondary school, but not after that, sadly.
I went to a Convent School in North London in the 60s-70s and I remember it well…the good and not so good! I’ll never forget Sister Catherine who read Victorian novels to us in 1st and 2nd year secondary school. I dedicated my first novel to her.
Ah that’s lovely, Luccia! I’ll never forget Miss Murtagh or Miss Scriven, both teachers at my primary school and both very strict – but often the strict ones are the best ones.
Would love to have your comment on my short story. This one is part of a collection that I have recently published. The name of the book is – Tales from the Margin. https://literaryyard.com/2015/12/25/story-the-secret-talent-of-frederick-de-souza/
I love “never explain or apologise”! And, of course, knowing the rules so you know how to break them. Lovely interview and great tips – I’ll definitely be checking out this collection.
That’s really kind of you, Kim – thank you! 🙂
Thank you for sharing your tips!
Hello to you both. I really enjoyed this and I love the tips:) The interactions in the comment section serves as a reminder to me that the process of trying to get published isn’t for the faint of heart. I learned a lot, thank you both.
Haha – you’re right, jazzy! And most of us are faint of heart re. the hard work of getting published. Thank you for your thanks.
Love your tips for writing short stories. Especially know the rules so you can break them (which really applies to all lengths of fiction). Also, great recommendations on short story writers. What process did you go through to publish the collection of short stories? Did you query it as you would a novel?
Thank you, Shannon! In reply to your question, I was lucky enough to win the SaveAs Writers short story competition, judged by Maria C. McCarthy of Cultured Llama and she then invited me to submit a collection. But generally speaking, yes – I would follow the same process with a short story collection as for a novel.
I hear you about retirement and organization! It took me a year to get acclimated to the free hours of the day that seemed to fill up with no direction. Good luck, Frances!
Thank you, Zan Marie – oh those lovely free hours! 🙂 But somehow they fill up with all sorts of other things. Good luck to you, too!
A refreshingly honest and insightful interview into a writer’s life and work. Really enjoyed reading this, thank you Frances and Damyanti for a great interview. The collection is absolutely brilliant, so satisfyingly different, sensitive and honest – I’d highly recommend it.
Thank you very much, Jacky! 🙂
Love that cover, Frances. That, besides the interview, makes me want to read the book!
Thank you, Jacqui! 🙂
Great interview as always, Damyanti. And I am definitely going to read this collection as it’s right up my street. 🙂
Frances: most of the short story writers you’ve recommended are my favorites too. 🙂 I look forward to reading your collection.
A question. I’m in the process of querying agents with my short story collection. Some of the stories were published in decent literary mags in the last 12 months also. I’ve had requests for a few full manuscripts as well. So far, the rejections have all been very kind and complimentary of my writing and storytelling. But one major theme keeps emerging — a short story collection is hard to sell. I find that odd because there are so many amazing short story writers out there and, if anything, given attention spans today, you’d think they’d be selling better. Did you run into this with your collection when querying? I’ve started querying smaller presses directly now because I’m thinking agents have even more stringent criteria given they want to make a decent commission for their efforts. Not that smaller presses don’t want to make money, of course. Curious to get your thoughts. Thanks.
Thank you so much, Jenny! As for the hard-to-sell thing, I think most if not all agents will say this (as you’ve found). Querying small presses directly is definitely the way to go IMO, especially those that clearly enjoy publishing short stories and value writers of same, whether or not this will make them any money. I wish you the very best of luck!
Thanks, Frances. Good to know it wasn’t just my imagination re. this agent bias. Anyway, I just started submitting to indie presses this month. So, fingers crossed. Thanks again. 🙂
Thanks for introducing Frances. I enjoyed your interview with her.
Reading this helps, but I’m still afraid of writing shorter fiction. I wonder why that is. How do you explain someone who is less afraid of writing a full-length novel? Boggles the mind. 🙂
I’d say go for the full-length novel in that case, Raimey! 🙂
I love quirky, unusual fiction and that’s a wonderful cover, Frances. The fact that your school friend drew it, makes it that much more special.
I love writing flash fiction – the shorter the better.
So my question to Frances is: what are your thoughts on the novella-in-flash? How popular is the form? In terms of length, is it like the “happy medium” between flash fiction and the “longer” short story? Something along those lines?
Damyanti, thanks for hosting Frances today!
Thank you, Michelle! I think the novella-in-flash is a great concept and undoubtedly an up-and-coming literary form. Up and coming to the extent that probably not many people have heard of it yet! Re. length, I note the Bath Flash Fiction Award says “The novella-in-flash must be in between 6,000 and 18,000 words long.”
I love these IWSG posts; I always manage to learn several things and get introduced to writers with whom I’m usually not familiar. Thanks for these, Damyanti. My question to Frances would probably be what’s most pertinent to me currently: when do you give up on a story? I have a longer short story of mine, 5-6K, that I think is probably one of the best fiction pieces I’ve ever written, but in sending it out several times (I’d have to go back and count 2016 and 2017 subs), I’ve had one editor who was impressed and wanted to publish it (but that fell through; another story in itself); the rest sent form letter rejections (I think). In any case, do you stick to your guns with a story you think has publishing merit and see it through until it’s published? Do you quit after about 10 submissions of the substantially same story and either retool it significantly or abandon it? Any sage input from a professional would be appreciated! Thank you!
Leigh, I know how easy it is to get discouraged, but even if you decide to let this story rest for a while I hope you’ll then begin sending it out again.This is a numbers game and really 10 submissions isn’t that much. Trust your instinct – backed by the positive feedback you’ve received. Don’t give up!
Leigh, I just wanted to jump in here and say pls follow Frances’s advice. I’ve seen stories accepted after their 60th submission.
The fact that you got positive feedback means that it just needs to find the right editor.
Hi Damyanti and Frances – I too like the last tip … I think the most important thing perhaps is finding your own voice – so you stand out from the crowd. Also unique content … I had 10 years or so with my mother being terminally ill, but able to communicate for over 5 years and with her brother-in-law also able to communicate – but I’d hate to write about that period … that’s why my blog is geared to positivity, with posts that hopefully will inspire conversation … and I was lucky – it was the right decision on what to blog about … and continues on – I’ll get myself organised into putting things into publication form at some stage … good luck to you both – great interview and guest – thanks Damyanti … good to know about Frances and her books and path to publication etc … cheers Hilary
Hi Hilary – you are right, it’s important to try and write as close to your own truth as possible. That 10 years with your mother being terminally ill must have been incredibly hard, congratulations on your survival!
Very interesting to read this interview. I do enjoy reading and writing short stories … not great at writing them but I persist. Need to read some of Frances’ works
Thank you, Sanch! Perhaps you are better at writing them than you think 🙂
I love reading your blog posts like this one especially because it reminds me that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a writer. And I love Short stories – O Henry, Katherine Mansfield are among my favourites.
Thank you for your comment, BellyBytes. I know what you mean about calling yourself a writer – it feels (to me too) like claiming too much.
It’s great to learn from a writer about short stories. I might have attempted one or 2 stories but i love reading stories. Thanka for sharing the interview Damayanti.
Thank you, Ramya! Good readers are a rarer and more precious thing than new writers.
Nice interview, thanks! The book looks fabulous, And as someone who’s been struggling with that dratted author bio, may I say that Frances’ author bio on Amazon is my new favorite. 🙂
I do write short stories, and am currently taking the first steps to get them published and feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the options for where to send them, and not sure how to evaluate those options. Prestigious and/or high-paying, but unlikely to accept? Good fit but nobody will see it? Etc. So my question for Frances is: how do you decide whether to send a particular story to one particular magazine or contest versus to some other, or to “save it” for including in a collection? Or maybe you have all your stories in collections, in which case the question is, how did you find someone to publish your book of short stories without going through the “proving yourself with other pubs” thing first?
Thank you very much, Joy – I’m glad you like the author bio! In reply to your question, personally I don’t think there’s much point in “saving” stories to put in a future collection as the great thing about putting together your own collection is you can include stories that haven’t been published before. Having said that, a friend’s agent told him the stories in a collection shouldn’t all be “old” ones – it’s best to include a few that haven’t been published before, as apparently this will help sell the collection.
Sorry, when I said “the great thing about putting together your own collection is you can include stories that haven’t been published before” that should of course be “you can include stories that have already been published elsewhere”. Duh!
Sounds like good advice to me, thank you Frances. I’m looking forward to the day when I have the “problem” of deciding which of my published versus unpublished stories to put in my next short story collection. In fact, I can imagine a few nice themes for collections already. What happy dreams! 🙂
Wonderful to learn more about an author who writes short stories as I’m working on my own short story collection now. I like comma splices too, Frances! Good tip to start entering competitions to get feedback. Thanks Damyanti for another great post 🙂
Thank you for commenting, Christy, and good luck with your collection!
I definitely like her tips, especially the last one!
Thank you, Alex! An old saying but a good one – and I think worth keeping in mind when you’re writing/revising a story. Cut out all the explanation!