ESSN – What draws you to the short story?
JH – I started writing short stories that were more like prose-poems, which then evolved into a short story form. So I’m a poet who is terrified of the poem as a form, at least, I didn’t find it a natural form to use. My prose-poems were maybe fifteen hundred words, which I’d then develop into stories, which then became three thousand five-hundred to five thousand words – my natural range for a short story.
The short story is a place for experimentation. Also, in terms of form, I use repetition a lot. There’s a story I’ve written called ‘I Still Don’t Know if it’s Her’, which is about misrecognising somebody, where the motif ‘I still don’t know if it’s her’ retains the rhythm of a prose-poem, while developing a story.
For me writing is very much about rhythm. That sense of rhythm going through the story is, structurally, the most important thing. With a story like ‘Even The Crows say Krakow,’ which won a national Arts Council Prize (chairwoman: Rose Tremain, and judges including Ali Smith), people would come up to me and say, ‘the rhythm of that was amazing,’ because there’s a certain flow and bounce to the story. Even if they don’t remember the story itself, – if there is one! – they hear it, and it’s as if they’d listened to a long poem and savoured the words. That’s something I aspire to, which the short story, as a form, can offer more than a novel. Although of course, writing, in general, is rhythm. It pertains to the novel as well, but in the short story it’s championed by the brevity, so it doesn’t become an extrapolated lyrical process.
I have ever-filling notepads, I develop the story in my head for weeks or months on end, even years, walking or swimming. When I talk about walking or swimming as a time to compose, it’s not arbitrary, it really is that sense of rhythm – my body’s in motion and rhythmically moving – and I’m reciting lines as I go. Clearly, rhythm is implicit in this process. When I get to the computer, that’s the quickest part, the actual writing. Of course, the editing comes later. But I always try to write the story from beginning to end in one go, and if that takes 36 hours without sleep… so be it. But normally it would be within a single day or night. With the Krakow story, for example, I had lunch with George Szirtes, poet and translator of László Krasznahorkai, and he said there’s a short story competition you should enter; the closing date’s tomorrow. I’d just visited Krakow, and he said, you must have some impressions – just go home and knock something out tonight. And that’s exactly what I did. I was buzzing from the trip, and it was the first time I’d seen George for a while, and maybe the whisky we drank helped, too, and I just went back and wrote the story until the small hours of the morning. Three-and-a-half thousand words, and it won the competition: five thousand pounds.
So, no editing at all?
No editing at all. It was a totally lyrical, rhythmic experience. Which now… Bits of it, now, I think wow – this is totally inspired. Other bits, if I’d had the time to edit, I know I would’ve taken them out.
It’s almost anathema to mention this, but is there any influence from Beat Writers, in terms of that process?
No, I’ve always avoided things that everybody else is talking about, in terms of literature. Whether it’s UK writers, or beat writers. Other than the ones I’ve had to study. Of course you read Kerouac a little bit, but him and Tom Wolfe and Ginsberg never really did it for me. I respected their work but I didn’t feel it in my blood. I don’t read so much American fiction, anyway. And this whole idea of spontaneous writing they had is, I think, completely different to my idea of writing: my composition time is painfully slow; it’s the act of writing that is quick for me, but the story has been brewing for weeks, months or years. By the time I type it up, I am merely decanting the story.
Your writing’s a lot about rhythm and voice. Which gives you the most trouble? Accessing character through voice? Or – in the third person – having to put yourself on the line, so to speak, which can be a brave thing to do if you aim to be experimental.
I’d make all these decisions before I start. Unless you start and it doesn’t work, and then you begin wrestling with narrative perspective. Perspective is so crucial for the story, but I would have decided beforehand. But then, by the time I get to the desk, if it doesn’t work, I have to abort, and have a complete rethink.
It’s more constraining, third-person narration. And also the least fulfilling in a way. You have to put fences up and peer through them. With the first person, you can leap these fences and run away if you so choose.
It’s perhaps unusual for a writer from the UK to take on European influences as you have. Do you feel that influence strongly?
No, it’s just a part of me. Other people pick up on it. Ian MacMillan said my first novel read like it had been translated into English from a different language. For me, that was a great compliment. However, I do spend considerable amounts of time on mainland Europe, especially eastern and south-eastern Europe, and I try to read the literature of those areas while I’m there. And, yes, not one of my favourite writers is from the UK.
What do you think the translation process does? There can be a flattening of the language?
Or an opening out of your own language. If you’re living somewhere else, writing – say in Berlin – speaking German in the day, then returning to your desk writing in English, your relationship with your own language has changed. It’s interesting whether this informs or deforms your own language. Sometimes it feels too precious – you feel like you’re carrying words to the page as if water in cupped hands. Because suddenly, this is all I have left of my language, after months of speaking someone else’s. Some words I have to look at and think, ‘Is this a real word? I can’t remember it. Where does it come from? Does it work?’
So it can be a slow and painful process when you’re too long away. I usually have a cut-off of eight to ten weeks, where I have to go back to the UK, to replenish my own language. Overhearing people speak the language is important to a writer. To have words in your own language buzzing around your ears. That rhythm comes back again, plus the mastery of language. That said, I have written a narrative where that language-uncertainty is the focus of the story.
Do you find that you bring phraseology, or linguistic approaches, from other languages into your writing?
That might be possible, but it would be subconscious. For example, speaking German, you put the second verb at the end of the sentence, but after hearing German for a while, I don’t start doing that in English! Nevertheless, because German grammar changes the way you’re thinking – always thinking ahead – that can still affect the way you write. Sentence constructions are going to be different than if I’m living in London (I never have!) surrounded by literary people, all trying to impress each other with their language, using as many unusual words as possible. When you live away, that’s not important. It’s basic communication every day. And this is going to affect the form, and your choice of form, on a sentence-by-sentence level. Perhaps that’s another reason why a prose-poem-story works for me, because the form can absorb this language ambiguity and urge the reader forward with the rhythm.
What about your approach to editing? Lots of your stories have been broadcast on the radio, and this necessarily means they’re abridged to some extent. Is this process helpful?
Sometimes it does improve a story. I remember one story they told me was too long. They said an actor was going to be reading it in an actorly way; there’s going to be pauses, emphasis. A little bit of livening up the dialogue, ‘in character’ . And I thought, oh, this sounds dreadful, they’re going to have to cut a thousand words. But actually when the edit came back, they’d done it quite judiciously: not just hacking out sentences; they could see the rhythm there. So it was okay. But at the same time, you’re losing 35-40% of the story, so that’s painful. It’s a bit like in music where they do a radio edit of a single.
And when I hear an actor reading one of my stories, it’s completely strange, because sometimes they put the emphasis in all the wrong places. The very act of having an actor read a story changes the story itself, because [in their emphasis] they’re pre-empting the response of the audience.
The second story in my Dalmatian Trilogy is narrated by a woman – something I do quite a lot – and the actress who read it was very good, because she was completely understated – there was very little emphasis in the funny or dramatic parts – it was kind of flat, and it actually worked much better that way.
I have a story set in Berlin called ‘The Mural at Frau Krauser’s’; the actor who read it was absolutely superb, and actually made the story sound a lot better than I could have hoped for. It’s one of my favourite stories because of that. But in that story, there was quite a lot of gay imagery, and swearwords, and late night happenings in the Tiergarten. When they cut out this stuff, they can always say ‘it’s because of the word-count’. The same thing happened in the Dalmatian Trilogy, with some of the details about the behaviour of some of the soldiers at the time of the war. And they cut out the paragraphs describing this. So that’s pretty frustrating. But when they’re all published in print form, it’ll be the original versions.
I actually think [the process of writing for radio] has made me a better editor of other people’s work rather than my own. You can’t write with these things in mind – it’s just not possible. You can become contaminated by a commission, and you don’t want to be putting up any more fences.