When I decided to publish an anthology of short stories, I didn’t guess just how absorbing it would be. I had to choose, and choice focuses the mind beautifully. The short story is an intricate, difficult and intriguing beast. It isn’t a truncated novel but belongs to a genre all of its own and not just for the sake of classification. You can tell that there is a real difference – some excel at both the novel and the short story: Kafka, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer, but really these are the exceptions; there are far more competent novelists than short-story writers. It seems almost a separate craft and some of the finest writers of short stories haven’t written novels: Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Alice Munro, Catherine Mansfield, Isaac Babel, Borges.

As is often said, a work of art, a poem or novel isn’t finished, it’s abandoned. The creator stops because perfection is impossible, and if you’ve ever seriously tried writing, you’ll know that there comes a point when rewriting just becomes an act of draining your work of vigour and vitality. Better left – that’s as good as I can do it. But short stories can seem perfect and do seem to aim at a kind of perfection. Perhaps it’s the tendency to focus on the moment, sudden changes and shifting points of view and mood with all else stripped away. A fine novel is always a bit out of control and that gives it freshness, insight and a life of its own. I get daily submissions of novels that are logically constructed, planned and controlled but that read like a trip across a desert full of clichés.

It’s the moment that matters and its ephemeral nature is what counts, but you can move backwards and forwards in a short story: Alice Munro does it brilliantly, Tobias Wolff so cleverly and effectively in ‘Bullet in the Brain’ and Joyce superbly in ‘The Dead’. In the short story, the past and future serve chiefly to emphasise the frailty of things, they’re not really there to flesh out the characters. In her speech when judging the Bridport Prize in 2009, Ali Smith said that the short story “concerns itself with the shortness of things. By its very brevity it challenges aliveness with the certainty of mortality.” Yes, often the very brevity of the short story is what hits you, and that awesome completeness which a few of them achieve within such short space.

Many of the stories move between tragedy and comedy with a poignant fluency and energy, some are looking around with anger and a touch of irony, while others are taken by surprise as if they’d suddenly been struck by what is really going on.”

When I invited contributions to this anthology, I hadn’t decided on a particular style or type, instead the aim was variety and writing that was trying to do something to the reader more than just offer surprise – though that is, of course, a vital ingredient. I wanted a collection with strong, daring voices and landscapes; all obliquely celebrating something, whether love, friendship or that wicked and dark humour that often informs sudden flashes of understanding. Many of the stories in this anthology, ‘If I Had Only One Story to Tell’ by Felicity Marsh, ‘Wow’ by A.L. Kennedy, ‘Left-Handed Jumpers’ by Peter Blair, ‘Same Same but Different’ by Stephen Thompson, move between tragedy and comedy with a poignant fluency and energy, while others explore the worlds of their characters and their different responses. Some are looking around with anger and a touch of irony, while others are taken by surprise as if they’d suddenly been struck by what is really going on around or inside themselves and had sucked fresh energy from that insight. And sometimes, like in ‘Voyage’ by Rod Heikell, or ‘Cuckoo’ by Paul McVeigh, you are simply left guessing, wondering what’s going on. Is there a ghost in the machine?

I asked the authors of the short stories for a favourite short story (an impossible question) and for one piece of advice for an aspiring short-story writer. There was a wonderful spread and variety:

Richard Lambert

‘The Night Before Christmas’ by Gogol. I love it because of its oddness: it has magic and a witch in it, like many a good folk tale, and the writing has a vigour, energy and humour that bounds onwards alongside the various characters’ shenanigans.

Emily Bullock

‘Hunters in the Snow’ by Tobias Wolff is the short story I have never managed to forget. It’s visceral and horrifying but so understated. It’s cleverly structured, full of things left unsaid and actions left undone, building quietly and deadly, like the snowdrifts in the story, to the devastating last line.

Emily Critchley

‘Gravel’ by Alice Munro is a short story I find a new meaning in each time I read it. Sisters, childhood, a devastating family tragedy and a bohemian mother all feature in the story but it’s how Munro presents the unreliability of memory and reminds us of those questions in life that can never be answered that always stays with me.

Erika Banerji

‘Symbols and Signs’ by Vladimir Nabokov. This story, about an elderly Russian émigré couple who visit their son in a mental institution, is brief in length but enormous in meaning. It’s a quiet story about ordinary people but there’s an extraordinary amount of poignancy and hidden meaning in each and every sentence. I stumble across something new each time I read it.

Amanda Craig

I have an enormous number of favourite short stories, ranging from ‘The Fly’ by Catherine Mansfield (just one page in which a businessman realises that his son, killed in WWI is like the fly he has drowned in ink) to the stories of Joan Aiken, which often have strong elements of comedy and magic that may be ascribed to the protagonist’s mental condition. I was thinking of the latter when I wrote ‘A Spell of Solitude’.

And some advice:

  • Use place as much as possible: turn up and write in unusual places, use the sense of the place in your story, and try to get in touch with the small mundane details using your senses
  • Make every word count
  • A short story should frame a moment of change. It doesn’t have to be an action-packed tale of derring-do, but it does need to lead us somewhere new. Whether quiet or deafening, a raging river or a trickling brook, it can never sit still

 And everyone agreed that the most important piece of advice was simply: get on with it!

 

Mikka Haugaard is a writer, translator and publisher at Everything With Words. She is the author of Gabriel’s Bureau, The Dream Maker and Maxim’s All Night Diner, and translator of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe. Same Same but Different is out now in hardback.
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Read Paul McVeigh’s ‘Cuckoo’ from Same Same but Different

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