Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cathy Stonehouse on Density, Space, and Silence

In the 55th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Cathy Stonehouse, author of Something About the Animal (Biblioasis), talks about how she put together her collection.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
For me, a good short story has density, which means that a lot happens between the lines. Space and silence in short fiction do a lot of work. In a collection, therefore, there needs to be sufficient space to absorb and appreciate the implications of each piece. I have tired of collections which pack too many stories in, or hit the same note too many times. Some stories that work powerfully alone lose impact when placed beside eight others that do pretty much the same thing. Equally, collections that read like literary portfolios, filled with as wide a range as possible of settings, voices, and forms—as if to demonstrate technical prowess—can feel manipulative and irritating. Personally I admire writers who offer up what they know and push it as far as they can even to the point of failure. Reportage from a front line I will never visit, which can take multiple forms.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
When assembling the stories for Something About the Animal I wanted the reader to experience them as a journey into a particular darkness and then out again. I knew I was expecting a lot of the reader, perhaps too much, but nevertheless this was where my narrative path led. I began to see the book as a linked whole, a series of suspension bridges from which the reader could survey an entire landscape and goggle at the canyons beneath. There was something magical about the way the stories linked territories and when placed one after the other made a bigger journey possible.

I am interested in how “the collection” is quite often an artificial or temporary structure. In this sense short fiction resembles poetry, a form that operates on both micro (individual poem) and macro (collection of poems) levels.

Finishing a book, knowing when it is done, is hard for me. Two of the shortest stories, “Ravenous Hours” and “Freak Waves,” were written at the very end of the editing process to fill what I perceived as gaps, stretches of terrain that required integration into the circuit. I was, however, aware my style was changing and began to feel one book blur into another: This was the time to stop or else the whole rest of the book would become obsolete!