Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lucy Wood Gets Inspired

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Lucy Wood, author of Diving Belles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), discusses the roots of her stories and what other writers’ work has taught her.

Where do you find inspiration?
For my collection of short stories, Diving Belles, I was inspired by Cornwall’s folklore and landscape. The folklore and the landscape are intrinsically linked: Many of the stories grew directly out of specific locations. When you go walking around Cornwall’s coastline, you can see granite boulders that look as if they’ve been carved by giants and dangerous stretches of water with small peaking waves that look as if they are haunted by mermaids.

Zennor Mermaid Chair, Cornwall
When I started to read nineteenth-century collections of Cornish folklore, I was inspired by the very real, everyday lives that the folklore described. Although the folklore is full of magic and extraordinary events, it is, fundamentally, about human situations and relationships. For example, stories about mermaids luring men out to sea are stories about loss and absence. I find it fascinating that these stories may have evolved to describe the feeling of losing a loved one at sea.

I found certain images in the folklore very inspiring: a wrecker swinging a wrecking lamp in the dark, house spirits watching over a house, storm spirits hovering over the sea. I also came across lots of interesting Cornish dialect words during my research. The word “wisht,” which means melancholy or lonely, and is also the name of hounds that run over the moors, is very evocative. When I came across this word I was inspired to craft a story around its meaning and the atmosphere it evokes.

What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
I have learned things from so many writers. I think the ones that have had the most influence on me are Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and the poets John Burnside and Alice Oswald. I am particularly influenced by writing that focuses on a particular place or landscape. The way that Annie Proulx writes about the landscape of Wyoming in her short stories and Newfoundland in The Shipping News is really inspiring—the language and style that she uses reflects the environment she’s writing about. And the characters and the action are shaped by place, too.

Along with many short story writers, I learned a lot from Raymond Carver’s stories. His stories are so well crafted and the tension is perfectly pitched. Carver’s stories show that nothing much needs to happen in a short story, as long as the tension and conflict is maintained and developed throughout it. I learned that what it unsaid and unspoken is just as important, or even more important, than what is said.

Lorrie Moore is such a playful writer: Her stories play with form and language, move backwards through time, and use second person narration. She finds the right balance between sadness and wit, often with a well-placed pun. This play with language and vivid imagery is evident in a lot of the poetry that I enjoy reading. Both Alice Oswald’s and John Burnside’s poetry are rooted in a specific place or landscape, and they evoke this through unusual language and imagery. Poems are often structured through movement from image to image, from conjuring a particular atmosphere, or through repetition, and I try to use these ideas in my own writing.

What story by another writer do you most wish you’d written?
I wish I had written Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Help. The collection works so well because it is tied together by such a wonderful premise—stories that take the form of self-help guides. This means that Lorrie Moore can play around with, and poke fun at, the structures and clichés of self-help manuals, while at the same time gently poking fun at the disasters and tragedies of her characters. The whole book is full of wit and wry humour, but it is also serious and sad. I love the way that the stories use the second person ‘you’ to address the reader, as if the reader is a character in the book. Like the self-help manuals that the collection plays off, “you” implicates the reader in the action, the character’s small joys and mistakes are everyone’s. Lorrie Moore plays around with time to great effect throughout the whole thing, whether we are moving forward quickly through a relationship in small snapshots, or going backward, seeing a relationship between a mother and daughter from the mother’s death to the daughter’s birth.  

The stories are full of interesting language, vivid images, and poignant moments. There is a real confidence and playfulness to the collection, and it is wise without being earnest. It really influenced my decision to base my first short story collection on a specific premise, Cornish folklore, and find ways to play around with its ideas and structures in my own work.