ESSN: Is voice particularly important in your stories?
Voice is often the first decision I make about how to approach writing a story. I don’t usually know very much about what’s going to happen, but until I know the voice I want to use, nothing’s going to happen. There’s a period of waiting, before that presents itself – in terms of a phrase or a sentence – which stays. Often the first sentence of a story stays and the rest will be rewritten.
Do you ever plan stories from start to finish?
Rarely. I’m not a planner. I tend to get an idea of something I want to explore, but I don’t know, necessarily, where it’s going to go. Occasionally I’ve known the end, and that’s kind of nice because I know where I’m going, but I don’t necessarily know the beginning. In a way, for me, part of the pleasure of writing is finding what the story is. I think if I actually knew where something was going to go – what it was about – in my head, before I started, I probably wouldn’t bother writing it down.
How do you go about inhabiting the voices of so many different people? Does it require a refined sense of empathy?
From very early on in my writing of fiction – and also in poetry – I was interested in adopting persona as a way of switching my perspective on the world. Early on, I found it quite liberating to have a speaker other than myself, to have another world to use, another palette, or vocabulary, with which to work. In many cases it’s a first-person narrative, though not always (the third person is equally important to me). Nowadays, I find the third-person allows more possibilities.
Why is that?
Because with a close third, you have the benefit of the main character’s take on the world, but you also have a view on them, too. With a first-person narration, it’s from inside. And that’s appropriate for certain types of stories. But it’s not so useful in stories that need to explore the world a character’s going through, in more detail.
So you enjoy stepping back – like zooming out, in a filmic sense – and seeing a character from afar?
I think there are times when that makes sense, and you’re able to do it in a third-person narration, but not in first person. You’re trapped within this character’s head, unless you switch to another point of view, which of course you can do in a story, as well. You can move between first-person and third, or second and third. But that sort of approach tends to work better in longer fiction.
What attracts you to the short form, as a writer?
‘Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing,’ was how V S Pritchett described it. It can explore a whole life in a small amount of time; it can take you from birth to death. But most important is the variety of forms the story can take. You can afford to take risks. You can afford to try out all sorts of things that might not work in the long form, but can work in a short, concentrated burst; something that could put too many demands on the reader in the novel but in a short story – a good short story – a reader with go with you.
Who are your influences, both when you started to write, and latterly?
It’s difficult to know, because I’m probably influenced by everything I read, both good and bad. If I were to list all the short story writers I admire, we’d be here all day. But I very much like Chekhov, and Gogol. They seem to get at the heart of human experience. They’re more concerned about the feeling of life of their characters than of plot. I’m not particularly interested in plot, as such, though I am interested in narrative.
Another writer I’ve always admired is Flannery O’Connor. Very different in style to Chekhov or Gogol, but unforgettable. I think that’s what I like about short story writers. Their stamp is on every piece of their work. There’s a Katherine Mansfield world, there’s a Flannery O’Connor, there’s a Chekhov world, and these worlds are their own. I don’t want to write like them – I want to write as myself – but that’s something you have to do as a writer; find your own way of approaching the world through fiction.
You published a ‘Selected Stories.’ How have your stories changed since the publication of your first book?
It was a little while ago, but the stories I selected were the ones I still felt reasonably happy with, or I related to in some way. In any collection of stories there are ones I prefer to others. There are ones I’m closer to – and I don’t mean that because they’re autobiographical, but closer perhaps to what I was wanting to do. And some stand the test of time better than others. In a way I don’t really choose the material. The ideas for stories present themselves and I find the best way to write them. I go around themes. I go back to things I’ve written about before, but in a different way.
Do you see yourself as part of a Scottish tradition?
Do you think there’s a Scottish ‘school’ or ‘movement’ of short story writing?
We’re obviously a smaller country so there are fewer writers to talk amongst. There are some very good Scottish short story writers, and the form has been popular with fiction writers in Scotland, and as a rule I prefer the short stories of many Scottish authors [to their novels]. Partly because it’s a perfectionist art: you can – possibly – get it right. In terms of a Scottish school? No. We’re all influenced by the same culture, but we come from different parts of that culture and have different ways of looking at things. And I don’t think a writer’s only influence is where you grew up. There are influences from your reading. When I was younger, I read a lot of Latin American and Central European writing, and I’d say that my cultural influences come as much from those things as from my landscape and history.
What are your impressions of the Festival of the European Short Story?
I’ve really enjoyed this time here, for a number of reasons. One being the weather. But another being the people. All the people I’ve met have been friendly, helpful and funny; I’ve particularly appreciated the Croatian humour, which has taught me to be smarter and faster on my feet with jokes. And I’ve really enjoyed discovering work by writers I hadn’t hear of before. That’s what a festival should do, I think. Not just reinforce what you know but open up your mind to other things. That’s the point of them. So when I get home I’m definitely going to try to find works in English translation by some of these writers.
How do you feel about the translation process? Do you worry about losing control of the work?
If I’m translated into Taiwanese or Vietnamese without being asked (which I have been), I’m slightly anxious about what the translation was like. But generally speaking, I think it’s a good thing. At a festival like this where people are listening to a story and [simultaneously] reading a translated version, it feels okay. They might have enjoyed the original more. But Bialik said that reading a translation was like kissing through a veil. You get the kiss, and it’s slightly different, but you still get it. And I like that idea. I’ve very much appreciated the work of writers I’ve read in translation. I’ve got a huge amount out of it. I might have lost something, but it’s one of these inevitable things with language.
The Selected Stories of Dilys Rose