Interview with Paul Brownsey, whose short story ‘Always and Endless’ is in Issue Two.
Why do you write and what do you hope to achieve in doing it?
I don’t know and I think there is good reason why I don’t know. The things that matter most to you are often—perhaps even necessarily—things you can’t say why you pursue them. No-one tries to explain why they want to be happy. No-one tries to explain why they want good health or why they want to be in a relationship with someone they love. And similarly, I can’t say why I write.
There are some things I can rule out. I don’t do it to make money. I don’t do it as a means to resolving my problems or sorting out my feelings—that is, I don’t do it as ‘therapy’. I don’t do it for the sake of wish-fulfillment.
Some people who claim to know about the human soul might say we write to impose meaning on events in a meaningless universe. Or we’re scared of the oblivion of death and are trying to create something that will survive our death. Or that, from a biological perspective, it’s like a dog urinating to let others know it’s there or to stake a claim to territory.
What not-very-famous writers should we check out?
- Barbara Pym, who can reveal the whole of the human condition in a wee exchange about who will do the altar flowers in church.
- Moira Forsyth, a contemporary Scottish writer, whose novels very cunningly give the impression of presenting ordinary life raw, without authorial invention or perspective or ‘treatment’.
- Jocelyn Brooke, magical on the connections between oneself as adult, oneself as child, and the landscape of home.
- Rose Macauley was famous in her day as a writer of clever but rather middlebrow novels. Towards the end of her life (she died in 1958) it’s as if she decided to go for broke and produced a wonderful novel about love, faith, morals and guilt that’s in a higher league from anything else she wrote: The Towers of Trebizond. Its quirky plot concerns a missionary expedition to Turkey in which a group of Anglican eccentrics hoping to convert Muslim women to Anglican Christianity. It has the best opening line of any novel ever–“‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”
What song represents your writing process?
I’m not going to mention a song but my answer is still a musical one.
I once read that Elgar composed his music by writing short sequences that he later ordered and reordered until, in their agglomeration and connectedness, they satisfied him as a complete work. I recognise something like that in the way I write. When I write a short story, the incidents and exchanges that appear in the first draft can easily be turned on their heads and given an entirely different place or role in the final narrative. I might decide that the line I open with works better as the line to end with; or that the incident that was originally envisaged as setting the story going functions better as the climax. I might decide that the last paragraph should be reworked to become, instead, the first paragraph.
What are the major themes found in your work?
I didn’t set out to write short stories to explore this theme, but I find myself coming back again and again to the many, many ways in which someone’s interpretations of others’ behaviour or of their own behaviour can go awry. Time and again, re-reading a story of mine, I realise I’ve been, for instance, standing back from my narrator’s account of his own motives or wishes so as to let a doubt seep in, not only about *his* transparency to himself but about *anyone’s* capacity to fathom themselves or others. “There I go again,” I think, as I read myself. Relatedly, I find myself trying to undermine our reliance on stock conceptions of human nature, standard images of what people are like and what they want. One way of doing this is to imagine a story where the stock version is turned on its head. For instance, you hear people say things like, “Oh, a relationship has a natural life-span and it reaches the end of that span, the thing to do is to end it and move on.” I imagined a story based on the idea that that was not true. That story became my story in Into the Void.
What have you learned in the course of writing short stories?
I am by training an academic, and spent 37 years lecturing in philosophy at Glasgow University. In academic discourse (or so I thought, at any rate) the aim is to have everything spelled out on the surface. You explicitly declare you are going to offer three arguments for the Whatsit Theory or raise four questions about the Thingy Theory; and then you try to say what you aim to say in words that make everything clear in themselves, without needing to call on the power of resonance, of suggestion, of innuendo. In writing short stories the thing I have learned is that, by contrast, you need to exploit the gaps between the words, to allow what the words don’t spell out to come through. Though perhaps it could be fun to attempt a short story in the manner of an academic article.
Whatever I have learned, I didn’t learn it in a creative writing class, for I have never attended one. And when I get rejections that deploy some of the fashionable nostrums of the industry I’m always apt to question them, at least in my head. Why this emphasis on ‘Show, not tell?’—That rules out the expository manner of most fairy tales. Why this fetish for ‘shorter sentences?—are Proust and Philip Roth bad writers?
I have an occasional fancy to use a pre-used title so that some resonances from the original can bounce off my story. I’ve had stories published called Death and the Maiden, Doctor in the House, Getting to Know You, A Hero of our Time, Time Regained, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Possibility of Altruism, Pictures at an Exhibition, A Midsummer Night’s Dream…
Where else can we find your work?
I’ve had stories in lots of literary magazines and was a runner-up in the Fish Competition in 2008, appearing in its anthology for that year. The most accessible source of other stuff by me is a book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, USA. How it came into being is something of an aspiring writer’s fairy tale. I got a short story in an American collection. Subsequently, through the editors, I was contacted by a writer in Texas (he writes gay pornography under the name Gavin Atlas, though my story wasn’t porn) to say he loved my story, had connections with Lethe Press in New Jersey, was urging them to publish me, and would help me make the approach. I couldn’t see what I had to lose, but at the same time I feared this was all too good to be true—I mean, the gods of book publishing don’t just swoop down like that and take you up, do they? I wondered if I was being lured into a vanity scam and that I should be told my book would be a certain best-seller but that I needed to make a contribution of, say, $5000 dollars towards publication. I grew to be ashamed of my suspicions, everything was above board, and the book duly appeared. On top of that, it was nominated for the Lambda Gay Literary Awards in the USA, and though I didn’t win they seemed to be modelling the Awards on the Oscars and I was sent advice on how to make my acceptance speech if I won. An audiobook version is currently being recorded. According to legend, the film star Lana Turner was discovered as she sat sipping cola—or was it a milk shake?—in a Hollywood café. I feel a bit like that.