Sunday, 28 August 2022

An Interview with Matthew G. Rees

Matthew G. Rees kicks off Dark Lane Anthology Volume 12 with his story 'The Boat'.  He has published a number of short story collections, most recently The Snow Leopard of Moscow and Other Stories.

Q: What are your working methods?  Do you sit down every day to write?  Do you have a designated place to work?

A: I’ll come to your question in just a moment if I may. First (sounding suspiciously like a politician playing for time and dodging the issue) I’d like to express my thanks to all at Dark Lane for inviting me here, for taking an interest in my fiction, and, finally, for the important contribution you’ve made and continue to make in terms of providing a platform for writers, particularly new writers, who wander the wild woods of ‘the literary strange’.

Now, and at the risk of sounding as if I’m still prevaricating, may I answer your question with a question? Which is this: is the writing that we bring to websites and presses such as Dark Lane ‘work’… or is it something else?

I was a newspaper reporter for ten years. The writing I did then was ‘work’ (in my view at least). There were some long shifts (and weeks) at times; night duties; Sunday shifts; call-outs; deadlines… Nature of the beast, perhaps.

Short story fiction is, I submit, a very different beast. For me (and, I imagine, most of us), writing a story isn’t a 9 till 5, Monday to Friday occupation. For one thing, a story, or at least the seed of it, will ‘come’ when it wants to. The likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Stephen King, Mavis Gallant and others have touched on this: how the starting point can be a mental image and, perhaps with it, a physical shiver – a small epiphany, of a sort. To simply open my laptop and expect something to happen is – for me – a road to nowhere. I have to have something already ‘alive’ in my mind (half-captured, if you will) to take to the screen (wherever that screen might be).

More often than not, my opening lines / scenes will have been written longhand – and rather roughly – in a small notebook or on scraps of paper or a serviette or such space as might have been available in the margins of a newspaper. ‘Openings’ sometimes come when I’m on a walk or perhaps swimming lengths in a public pool. I ‘riff’ those initial words and sentences, mentally. The rhythm of movement helps, I think. But, as much as anything, it’s a process of mental immersion. Someone once told me of their fondness for walking (long-distance) towards a kind of mental calmness and clarity. I know what the speaker meant.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to shoehorn the writing of a story into a fixed routine. Ideas can arrive at inconvenient hours: perhaps at the end of an evening (requiring the making of some notes). On the other hand, I’ve heard it said that the human brain is at its best mid to late morning. In some respects, I envy writers who – rain or shine – crank out 2,000 words a day… particularly if those words are good. Graham Greene, I think I’ve read, settled (possibly later in his career) for 400 words – which seems a lot more do-able! At times, I’m happy to settle for three or four lines in a notebook, jotted down wherever I may be. With luck, they’ll have the ‘voltage’ – as I think John Mullan has called it – to attract and fire the rest of the story.

Tell us about one of your favourite short stories and why you like it (not one of your own).

It isn’t easy making a pick. But I’m going to go for a lesser-known writer, partly to spread the word and partly because I think his best writing is very good indeed. Glyn Jones (1905-1995), an author from Wales, wrote a wonderfully scary story called ‘Jordan’.  It ought to be in every definitive anthology of classic British horror. Indeed, it could – in my view – comfortably book a place in any similar world collection. Bafflingly, it’s invariably neglected (sometimes in favour of very inferior fare). Dark Lane’s famously discerning readers may well know the tale. Therefore, the story by Jones that I’m actually going to pick is ‘Wat Pantathro’: a coming-of-age story set in rural Wales concerning a boy and his father (who’s a horse-trainer-come-trader). It’s just a lovely distillation of the story writer’s craft: an engaging tale, well told. A line from it appears as an epigraph in my story collection Keyhole (Three Impostors press, 2019): ‘I saw a star shining over our valley, a keyholeful of light, telling me I was home.’ On the subject of horses, I can’t help but mention Ted Hughes’s story ‘The Rain Horse’. That’s three stories rather than the single pick you were seeking. I seem to be breaking a lot of rules here. Sorry about that!

Q: Tell us about one of your favourite short stories (done by you).

A: Should I admit to a favourite? How will the other stories react?

If it’s okay, I’d like to answer your question this way…

A story where I think I took on something technically challenging – in terms of the writing – was ‘Bluecoat’ in my collection Keyhole. The story is set in rural, upland Wales on a farm called ‘Moonlight’. The writing of it was a little tricky because the story has two narratives. One about a soldier from the First World War who’s treated at a hospital (that’s situated rather remotely) for wounded servicemen. The other narrative concerns a young couple (present-day) who’ve been living in London and who move back to Wales to the farm where the husband grew up. The challenge for me lay in gradually marrying these two narratives in a manner that could be followed by, and make sense to, readers. Fortunately, I had a strong mental image of the ending, long before I came to write it. This image acted, in a way, as my lodestar. The collection received some very positive reviews, which I was grateful for, and which encouraged me. I was particularly pleased for the publishers. Their special interest is the writing of Arthur Machen. I was their first living author of a full-length book.

Where do your ideas come from?  Do you go looking for ideas – for example by brainstorming, or do you wait for inspiration?

Anyone who’s studied the short story or is a fan of it as a literary form will be aware of the ‘outsider’ nature of some of the best short stories: their preoccupation with people and places that, for whatever reason, stand beyond the mainstream. I suppose that, in some ways, my life has been one in which I’ve encountered such people and been to such places. I’ve listened to them, I think. Flannery O’Connor spoke about the importance of the unconscious in the writing process, and I agree with her. There’s a theory called ‘unbidden perception’: the process whereby we assimilate marginal things from the world around us while unaware that we’re doing so. I suspect that these snatches, of this and that, tend, in time, to need their voice. I suspect that images (particularly things glimpsed momentarily) haunt us, perhaps a little cloudily, in the same way that dreams sometimes do. Childhood is important: the impressions on the senses that we remember from those times. I suspect that all of these things spur us. I have my doubts that a writer can go looking for a story. The tendency, I think, is to encounter the seed unexpectedly while engaged in something mundane: walking a lane or a pavement; riding a bus or a train and seeing something through the window: a figure disappearing down an alley or closing a door… maybe a tree that has been struck by lightning and which now stands grey and ruined in a field. This may sound slightly contradictory, but I also think that a landscape that is empty (a sandbank, for example) can at times be more helpful than one that is full. Keep an eye on the tides though.

Q: Are you a full-time writer? If you have another job, what is it and would you like to become a full-time writer if you could?

A: I think, to some extent, I’m still ‘searching’ – in the way of perhaps all writers. I seem to have done a fair number of things in my life: journalism, teaching, cab driving, shop work, various other ‘stuff’. I’ve travelled a bit (there’s more on that at my website: I was in Moscow – under Putin – for a while (it’s the backdrop for my most recent book: The Snow Leopard of Moscow & Other Stories). Because I trained as a journalist and worked on newspapers full-time for ten years, I suppose I still see myself as a journalist (albeit I no longer knock doors or file stories to ‘copytakers’ from phone boxes). I’m glad I’ve earned a living (sometimes for quite long periods of my life) doing what tend to get called ‘blue-collar’ jobs: cabbing on the nightshift, for example. What I think / hope this means is that I’m aware – and part of – worlds other than the middle-class / upper-class ones that can sometimes seem (in terms of subject) to dominate contemporary fiction, including short stories (horror, too, for that matter).

Q: What is the most difficult part of your creative process?

A: I’m not sure this is the answer you’re looking for, but the gruelling part is the repeated proofreading. It’s a grind but it has to be done (out of respect for your editors, publishers and readers). I think it can count as part of the creative process because it can prove productive. Sometimes you notice a pattern or a certain symbolism or code in what you’ve written that you weren’t wholly aware of – or indeed aware of at all – when writing the piece (maybe an example of the unconscious having been in play). You can then go back and explore that. The best thing about this stage is that it can be done on, say, a bench in a churchyard or a park, or on a pier (if you have one), or at the library, or on the train (if conditions in the carriage are conducive).

Q: If you could go back in time, what would you say to your younger self about becoming a writer?

A: I need to think about this.

Here goes:

I suspect that the matter of becoming / being a writer isn’t something that can be coached or even foreseen. Yes, when I was young, I had a reasonable sense that I might enter journalism (having been a contributor of bits and pieces to my local newspaper since my teens). There’s a natural progression from writing journalism to becoming engaged in other forms of writing. But writing, largely, is, I think, an unpredictable, evolutionary thing. So, I would say this to the younger me: live your life and see what happens. If you feel, along the way, that there are things that you want to write because you find it somehow necessary or rewarding, then do so. And if, over time, other people find what you’ve written to be interesting in some way, then so much the better. You might receive some money, now and again. But don’t bank on it. And anyway, if you’re somehow able to survive, it’s probably better that money isn’t your motive.

I’d also try to make the point that on the way to becoming, or indeed while being, a writer, there will be value in almost everything you do. Whatever your job, you will always glean something about humanity. This will be the case whether you’re sitting on a checkout, teaching a class, brewing coffee as a barista, fitting widgets on a factory line, picking fruit on a farm, pulling pints in a pub (or teeth in a surgery), waiting on tables, sweeping halls, cutting hair, toenails, lawns… whatever. (The young me will – I think I can safely say – by now be thinking or even yelling: ‘I’ve got the picture! Get on with it!!’).

For the plain and simple truth is this: writing, even of the wildest, weirdest and most fantastic kind, is about life, after all.

Interview  Matthew G. Rees, 2022 

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