This month, K J Orr launched her debut short story collection, Light Box. She talks to Elena Bowes about structuring plot, getting to know characters and why feeling lost as a writer is okay.
Can you explain what you do in 26 words?
Most recently, short stories. In my collection Light Box I explore what it means to be confronted with change in life: times of transition or transformation.
You write beautifully. Your style is spare, your images lyrical and precise, your writing fast-paced and suspenseful and sprinkled with humour. Are there certain ingredients you start every short story with?
Thank you – that’s very kind. When I’m starting a story, there is as much a sense of feeling my way as thinking my way. Those times I have tried to know everything about a story before starting to write – well, it hasn’t worked out well.
David Constantine has spoken of the importance of ‘not knowing’ as a writer. Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor both made related claims. For O’Connor it had to do with ‘the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once’. You don’t want to have all the answers. Of course, different approaches work for different writers. For me, starting out, I am looking for something – and it could be anything: an image, a line of dialogue, a dynamic or premise or conundrum or anecdote of some kind – that over time has bothered me, stuck with me, kept me coming back to it. What I then wait for is a kind of clustering of perhaps two or three of these elements – if they seem to be starting some sort of conversation amongst themselves then I know I am ready to begin writing.
Regret, guilt, loneliness and the unseen, little moments that alter everything – these are some of the themes that you touch on in Light Box. Which themes do you find most compelling?
I am interested in those moments in life when we are forced to reappraise the narratives we have – consciously or unconsciously – forged for ourselves … so how the narrative of a person’s life can collapse and change. Maybe this change is sought out, or maybe it comes unasked for, but the confrontation with change, and the odd feeling of limbo that can be associated with moments of transformation … I find this compelling. Change is a constant in our lives whether we like it or not, and it can be associated with a strong emotional and visceral charge. It connects too with what I was saying about feeling your way, the ‘not knowing’. Perhaps there is something in this: that in allowing yourself to be disorientated as a writer while you explore characters who are disorientated you can connect your own experience with theirs … there is an empathetic connective. Of course the kind of change they are wrangling with might be very different than anything you have been through.
Most of your short stories in Light Box are told in the third person, apart from two – Disappearances and Rehearsal Room. Can you explain your thinking behind when to use first or third person narrative?
There is a flexibility that I associate with the third-person – you can do so much with it. Close third-person can actually feel like first-person to me, can have real immediacy but you also get to pull back if you want too, and sometimes that is important to the story: you want the option of that distancing effect. The decision as to which you might choose has to do with the nature of the story you are telling and the way it seems to need to be told. Both of the stories I used first-person for had a confessional element, and for one especially, ‘Rehearsal Room’, there was an element of self-conscious direct address to the reader associated with this. With first-person you become very aware of the voice of the narrator, of the way they are presenting themselves, of what they are choosing to tell you.
How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?
Again – writers approach character in so many ways. And maybe for any writer different approaches work at different times. I surprised myself once by really responding to an exercise where you created a character very quickly through a series of questions that put you on the spot about them: their name, their profession, what they like and don’t like. In general this is not how I work. I like to get to know the character as I am writing. I like that I might be surprised by what a character chooses to do. I think this is important.
People are complex and full of contradictions. They make all kinds of choices, some of which don’t make much sense. In the same way that I wouldn’t necessarily want to know where a story will go when I set out, I wouldn’t want to feel I had a character all worked out. That’s a reductive way to think about a character for the same reason that it’s a reductive way to think about anyone – a family member, a friend, whoever. But of course there may be some things I suspect or even allow myself to know about a character and what they will do … things to get me started.
Can you give some advice on structuring plot?
I think perhaps – more than worrying about this – the thing to do when you are writing is to aim to be true to the character or characters you are developing and the story world you are building around them. But I would also say do read a lot of short stories: you will see just how many ways you can approach a piece without getting too hung up on plot. You can create narrative shape and structure while allowing yourself space as a writer to discover things as you go … scope for a little mystery. At a certain stage in drafting I think more about the degree to which I feel I need (or don’t need) some sort of narrative handrail for the reader … and this, if you do feel you need it, can be achieved in such a variety of ways.
What do you find hardest about writing short stories?
Trusting all the fine advice I am giving here! When you begin a new piece, and you know so little, you have to remind yourself that feeling lost is okay … just as it should be.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you have received?
Keep track of the body and all the senses in any piece of work: these are not only powerful connectives with your reader, but powerful connectives between you the writer and the characters/ lives you are exploring.
What are you working on now?
Another work of fiction: it involves elements that I have found myself drawn back to many times over, so I am excited to see where they take me.
What or who inspires your work?
Travel has been a big influence, certainly. Travel can throw you off-balance … you can be confronted with yourself – your way of being in the world – in such an immediate way. Your rituals, your patterns of behaviour, the very many habits of repetition that structure your time and sense of self and how you fit into the world when you are at home or in more familiar surroundings: all of this can be challenged when you travel.
If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you do?
As a child at a certain stage I wanted to be a brain surgeon … I never will be, but as a writer I am able to explore what that might be like. Writing – as reading – can open up so many worlds.