Charlie Hill is one of the most acclaimed authors in Birmingham right now. Recently he talked to Outsideleft about his terrific new anthology of short stories, THE STATE OF US - beautifully produced by Fly on the Wall Press.
WAYNE DEAN-RICHARDS: I finished reading The State Of Us only last week and I’d like to sort of creep up on THE STATE OF US if that’s alright with you. By which I mean I’d like to first hit you with an array of questions – like a flurry of punches thrown by Ali in his prime - about the form itself… Here goes: What are some of your favourite short story collections? Why are they special to you? Why would you, why should anyone, choose to read a collection of short stories instead of a novel – which is traditionally the more popular form? What are you looking for in a short story – be it your own or a story by somebody else?
CHARLIE HILL: I think I’m going to answer these questions with the same sense of urgency as they were thrown at me. By which I mean impulsively, and without recourse to Wikipedia or my bookshelf. Which means, of course, that I’ll forget a lot and get a lot more wrong…
I love Katherine Mansfield; I think she was a lot more subversive than she is given credit for and certainly more self-aware – in relation to her social/economic class, than the Bloomsbury bunch. I suppose that might have had something to do with the way she was treated, at least at first, by the incorrigibly snobbish Woolf. I can’t think of a particular collection though – the one with At the Beach? And that one with the woman with the pram, in the park? Though I also like the one that was serialised in the magazine Rhythm. In a German Pension, I think it was called.
I also love Anna Kavan – I recently read some of her stories in a collection of her short fiction and non-fiction called Machines in the Head. They’re deeply unnerving, and a little bit uncanny, and what I imagine Kafka to be like (not that I’ve read much that’s ‘uncanny’. Except that fella. Whatshisname. 1950’s and 1960’s. Robert? Edric? No, it’s no good, I’ll have to Google it. Aickman!! Robert Aickman, that’s him! Or any Kafka…)
When it comes to writers who aren’t dead I also like, in no particular order and for completely different reasons, Ruby Cowling, Neil Campbell and Joanna Walsh. Ruby is a mate of mine but that doesn’t mean I read her uncritically, and her first collection, This Paradise, was superb, a pitch-perfect mix of formal experimentation and near-dystopian anxiety. Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo was better known and equally terrific, an exploration of various iterations of interiority that managed to strike a balance between the personal and the universal. And Neil Campbell is one-of-a-kind, a poet whose deadpan prose is like the dark still water on the surface of a particularly deep pothole.
Wayne: If you’re leading a short story workshop, what will you be saying to your students to help them produce work that’s of interest and quality?
Charlie: I think it’s all down to focus. I’ve delivered a few workshops, and my favourite is one I devised on the sentence. Even in a longer story, you have to know precisely what each sentence is doing and how. Pay each sentence the same sort of attention as you would a line of poetry; even those that aren’t, on the surface, doing very much, need to doing it with the right rhythm, the right nouns and verbs, the right punctuation, the right sound, the right feel.
Wayne: What was the first short story that you ever published? Where was it published? Do you still have a copy of it? When did you last read it? What did you feel about it when you did?
Charlie: The first short story I had published was in the first anthology from Tindal Street Press. It came out in 1999. I don’t read it very often because I don’t think it’s very good. Or at least, I think my writing has improved out of sight since then. I mean I’d be in the wrong business if I didn’t think that but there are some early stories I love and would happily re-read. Not that one.
Though I am still proud of the central character’s subsequent re-appearance (in my first novel, The Space Between Things, that came out 10 years later…)
Wayne: It says in the author bio at the end of THE STATE OF US ‘This is his first collection of short stories’ – why is that?
Charlie: One of the reasons is that I’ve always moved about as a writer – shifting the focus of my work, altering my formal approach, throwing my voice wherever my fancy takes me – and the vogue these days is for collections that are thematically, if not formally, linked. It makes them easier to sell. To package. Then again, I have previously published a pamphlet, so it should probably say my first full-length collection.
Wayne Okay, now to the collection itself – THE STATE OF US. As I said I finished it very recently, and thought it was absolutely terrific! It opens with a marvellous story called WORK, which brought Beckett to mind. Was that conscious? Do you count him as an influence? With this story was it your intention to examine some of the absurdities inherent in the workplace?
Charlie: Thank you! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have favourites, and this one of them, not least because it was first published by the late and much lamented Ambit. I don’t think it was written consciously to read like Beckett, though. Although I do love Molloy I haven’t read much else by him, so I think it’s probably more accurate to say it was written to read like my idea of what Beckett is like.
And yes, it was certainly my intention to satirise work. I’ve recently become a part-time Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, working with students on their academic English, but before this I’d had 30 plus years of menial near-minimum-waged work. And I hated it. I hated being woken up by an alarm, and being reprimanded for being late by people who did half as much in a day as I did before lunch, and I hated being told what to do by people who made no effort to earn my respect, and had no interest in doing so, and I’ve never understood the ‘work ethic’, or people who never take a day off work, or people who win the lottery and go back to work. I mean what a way to spend your life! It’s insane! Can’t you find yourself a park and sit in it, for Christ’s sake?
Wayne: When I read this story, and several of the others, it made me laugh out loud, which I think is wonderful - does your own work make you laugh? (I think it’d be brilliant if it did – I read that Kafka used to laugh uncontrollably when reading his work to friends.) Do you ever find yourself laughing at the absurdities you encounter in the real-life workplace?
Charlie: I used to laugh at the absurdities I encountered in the workplace, but then I stopped. I mean it’s only funny for so long, isn’t it? My writing though, that’s a different matter. It doesn’t happen often – more often than not I just snigger – but I do remember coming up with a line that made me laugh out loud in the Waterstone’s canteen. It was from my second novel – Books! – that was about books written by dull 30-something blokes that were so mediocre that they shut down the electrical impulses in the brain. The line ended with: ‘...was killed after becoming cognitively becalmed during the course of a particularly laborious pun on page 32.’ I vacillate about the rest of the book, but I still think it’s a corker.
Wayne: Next, I’d like to talk a little about PULLING TOGETHER. Am I wrong to see it as a story where – sadly - the microcosm of Laburnum Avenue is emblematic of the macrocosm of the UK in the 21st century where we’re all being pressed to be compliance machines and it seems that there’s little tolerance for anyone not on board? Why dark humour rather than vitriolic anger? The last line ‘Yasmin sighed’ seems pessimistic, as if she’s resigned - is that what you feel about the state we’re in, now?
Charlie: Yeah, that’s about it. It’s also about our instinctive mistrust of the other, and of difference of any kind. As for the last line, I think there’s a few reasons it’s resigned, rather than angry. I think the character in the story has probably been through so much that resignation is the most likely response to her situation. I also think that although anger is necessary – not least because it can serve the same purpose as laughter, and help to keep you mentally healthy – you can only be so angry so often before you give yourself a stroke.
Wayne: ON THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION is the longest story in the book. Tell us how it came about and in particular how you managed the balancing act between dark comedy and the existential, dystopian ‘An end to the irrelevance and the meaning, an end to my part in the failure, an end to all of it.’
Charlie: This was a story that took years to write. I kept ditching it. I’m not sure how I arrived at a balance between comedy and existential dystopia beyond allowing myself to be guided by the female hero. Once I’d set the situation up – during a crisis, an astronaut decides to refuse the offer of a shuttle back to earth and instead stays on the ISS – I didn’t really have a plan, and let the character lead the way.
Wayne: I see THE EXPERIMENT as another masterclass in rendering absurdity - the fact that man and woman are un-named emphasising their universality and their situation a metaphor for the corner it seems we’ve been backed into, was that your intention? If you were teaching this story to a class of A Level English Literature students, what would you say about it?
Charlie: Thank you again! I do like the way this interview is shaping up! This story is another that took years to get right (it was eventually published in Stand). I think it is about something universal, yes. Specifically, how we impose meaning on the world, what that meaning means, and the relationship of that meaning to the truth of things. That’s probably how I’d describe it to A Level students. Though I might throw something about the nature of free will in there too.
Wayne: I like all the stories in this collection and will go back and re-read them, but at this moment in time another of my particular favourites is THE TALE OF BIG HAL AND THE BETHANY TOWER. It seems to me to be both a condemnation of consumerism and neoliberalism – ‘an overly typical suburb’ that once again uses humour ‘a post ironic fondue’. How important is the humour to this story?
Charlie: This was one of the stories in the collection I was least sure about. I set out to write a fable and it turns out this is quite difficult to do. Particularly given the fact that there are so many targets (those you mentioned along with – unsurprisingly enough – bad parenting.) I think humour is particularly important because it’s the most overtly moral – or at least the most straightforwardly moral – of all of the stories in the collection.
Wayne: Okay, finally, would you please describe, for THE STATE OF US, your ideal reader (If you say that they’re colour blind I’m going to think you’ve cheated by looking to see how Anthony Burgess described his ideal reader) and the ideal location in which for them to be reading the anthology.
Charlie: I wish I could think of something smart to say here, but I can’t. I suppose… someone who likes to put a bit of work into their reading? On the understanding they’ll get more back? Someone who can appreciate the value of both laughter and anger? Dunno. Tricky one…
Charlie Hill's The State of Us is available now, from here and elsewhere.
Wayne Dean-Richards' It's A Mad World But Funny is available mid-September from Outsideleft Booklets