Myths, legends, inspirational writers, and character versus plot. Following the launch of her debut collection of short stories, Llama Sutra, Melanie Whipman caught up with 26’s Elena Bowes to tell all.
Describe what you do in 26 words
I’m an Associate Lecturer at the University of Chichester, a PhD student, a writer, a Creative Writing tutor, and am commissioning editor for The Story Player.
Why short stories?
I love the challenge and the discipline of crafting a short story. It’s all about compression and lack of waste. But it’s a constant balance. While you’re fighting to put down the best words and the best images, you are also aware of the need to create space for the reader – to leave things ‘unsaid’. It is as much about what is happening off the page as on the page. That’s the challenge for me. I also adore the ability to hop in and out of genres and to break the rules. There are no constraints with a short story. There’s a lovely quote from Paolo Bacigalupi; he says short stories are ‘like grenades’. ‘When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.’
Your stories are so different – original, believable, suspenseful and often with disquieting animal imagery – from the first story about the llama, to Peacock Girl. Where did you get the inspiration for Llama Sutra? Have you spent much time around llamas and peacocks?
Thank you! But actually I’ve only ever seen a peacock in a zoo, and I used to run past a llama farm every day when I was training for the marathon, but that’s about it! However, I wanted to be a vet when I was younger (sadly maths and sciences weren’t my forté) and I am still interested in the natural world and how we, as humans, relate to it. I believe there is a strong primal element in all of us, and that’s something I like to explore in my work. As for inspiration for Llama Sutra, my daughter had been doing a project on South America and I opened my Mac one morning to see a llama staring straight at me. I wondered how I’d react if it winked at me. And that was my opening line…
Would you say your ideas come more from things you see and hear around you or experiences that you have had?
A combination of both. I don’t believe in the old adage about writing ‘what you know’. I think you can write about anything. I love researching subjects I know nothing about, and then adding in people or places or experiences I’m familiar with. But most of my work starts from a position of curiosity. I see or hear something and think ‘what if?’
You teach a variety of creative writing courses, including a one-day course Myth & Legend on how to subvert an ancient story into something modern and edgy. What tips would you give a writer looking to use ancient tales in a contemporary style?
Yes, I think they’re a great source of inspiration. We’re exposed to these kinds of magic realist tales almost from the moment we’re born – nursery rhymes, fairy tales, legends, bible stories. These are stories that are part of our collective heritage. On the course I get my students to tap into these communal narratives, and give them a contemporary twist. I ask them to think about gender and voice, and to allow the surreal to erupt into a realist, contemporary setting. The stories you mention in my collection are both about women. I think yoking a modern woman’s views with ancient myths creates a sense of universality and emphasises our narrative heritage.
Any tips on how to build suspense?
First you need to create a believable protagonist that your reader cares about (if we don’t care, we won’t feel any tension) and then put them in a position of conflict. It can be internal or external. Basically, your character needs to want something and you need to put obstacles in his/her way. That generates conflict, and with conflict comes tension. Obviously it depends what kind of genre you’re writing, but you can add in time constraints and can develop a sense of ‘prolepsis’, where the reader knows more than the protagonist, so we can see what’s coming ahead of the central character, and thus our own self-imposed fears will create suspense.
Character versus plot: do you tend to focus on one more than the other when conceiving a story?
For me, character. Always character. But characters will naturally provide plot. You just need to ask ‘what if?’ I guess it’s what I’ve said about the previous question: a yearning character plus conflict equals plot.
What is your writing process? How much do you know before you start typing? In a typical day, how much will you write?
My children have both just gone off to uni, so my writing schedule has changed recently and I have no excuses now! I get up early and go for a 5K run with my mad Irish Setter. Running allows me thinking space – this is the time most of my creative ideas germinate. I come home, shower, and, if I’m not teaching, I spend the morning and early afternoon writing. The amount I write varies enormously. On a good day – 5,000 words. On a bad day – 500. I get hideously distracted by social media. And I can lose hours and hours researching a subject. At the moment I’m also working on my thesis which is total discipline and doesn’t leave much room for creativity.
In a separate interview you said that a great short story should “shine a lens on a small moment of life, which is often seemingly insignificant, yet says something profound about humanity.” Do you often have that glimpse in your head before you start?
No, not at all! I write organically. I tend to start with a line or a phrase. From there, a character emerges, and kind of writes him/herself onto the page. At some stage I suddenly know where the character’s heading, and then I can begin to see what the overall ‘premise’ is. Sadly, the whole profound ‘lens’ thing that I aspire to is rarely achieved!
What are some of the pitfalls and mistakes short story writers commonly make?
There are dozens and dozens, but the two classics for me are over-writing and under-writing. I believe in the old adage ‘never underestimate the intelligence of your reader’, so I like to write sparingly, so the reader can fill in the gaps, but the danger there is that you ‘under-write’, and what should be on the page stays in your head. On the opposite side of the coin is ‘over-writing’, where you spell everything out and leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. Like everything, it’s a question of finding the right balance.
Who are your favourite short story writers? Any short stories in particular? What is it about them that makes them so good?
There are so many to choose from. I love Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Sarah Hall, Alison MacLeod, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Helen Dunmore, David Constantine, Tania Hershman… At the moment I’m reading Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference. I adore her rich, lyrical prose but I’m particularly impressed by the way she’s not afraid of tackling sensitive subjects like sex and violence. And of course, apart from writing brilliant prose with vivid, original language, all these writers manage to highlight some aspect of the human condition and expose or explore our frailties.
You’ve had a varied career, from working on a crocodile farm, to selling hair transplants, to cleaning water slides. Are there any other jobs you’d like to add to your CV?
I’ve never done bar work! I’d love to work in a pub in some remote village – in the Scottish Highlands perhaps. It would be on a walker’s route and I’d spend the day listening to village gossip and to walkers’ tales, and would join them at the end of the evening with a glass of wine or whisky-and-ginger, and we’d get tipsy and would put the world to rights. Then I’d go upstairs to my room and write and write.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my PhD thesis pretty much full time at the moment as I have to submit by September. However, when I get a spare moment or two, I edit the novel I wrote during my MA. It won the Kate Betts prize, but it is nowhere near ready to go out into the world just yet. There are also a couple of characters from the stories in Llama Sutra who won’t leave me alone. I think they might make their way into a novel too…
What do you do for fun?
I read, run, cook, ski (when I can afford it!) and spend a lot of time drinking, walking and generally socialising with my brilliant girl friends. I’m recently divorced after a very long marriage and the sisterhood have taken me under their wing.
You might like to take a look at Tracy Fells’ recent review of Llama Sutra to delve deeper. Before reading it yourself, of course.