Shells Chats with author Sean Monaghan

What made you interested in writing?

When I first started school I had lousy handwriting. I mean the worst. To the extent that I was hauled in front of the principal and asked to explain why I was writing "n"s that looked like deformed bananas. I guess there was no methodology in those days for teaching left-handers to write, and it took me until high school to come up with something approaching legibility. I remember, probably around age nine, being sick of the struggle to form shapes that looked anything like alphabet letters and telling my mother that I just wanted a job where I didn't have to write. She told me that was unlikely.

When I was eleven or twelve we had a project to write a novel. Everyone in the class. Most kids hated it, but it was more fun than I'd ever had, even with my horrible print. My "novel" (probably only about five pages) involved a space mission to find out what destroyed the planet that had become the asteroids. It had giant rockets, explosions, space suits, and nasty aliens. All my own creations (admittedly very derivative) and I was so proud of it. The come down was that when it came time to have it marked, the teacher couldn't actually interpret a single word of my scrawl and I had to read it aloud to her.

I kept making up worlds, all the while struggling with actually making the pencil form sensible letters, to the chagrin of my parents and teachers. Over time I think I developed a subconscious "I'll show you" reaction to being chastised and hassled over it. I guess that's some deep-seated (or shallow?) psychological explanation.

The breakthrough came when I was fifteen. Our whole school did a horrifically long walk to raise money. 1000 students marching 25 kilometres (I think about about 15 miles?) along country roads. In the heat. Without training. I guess it must have raised some money. My parents probably sponsored me. Anyway, later our English teacher had us write about the experience of the walk. I think most of the guys wrote a straightforward essay, but I wrote mine like it was a fantasy quest, with the urgency, exhaustion and final homecoming. The teacher read it to the class, and from there my future was sealed.

 



You have a Masters of Philosophy in Creative Writing, how has that helped with writing your stories?

When I started in on the programme I'd already published quite a few stories, even received professional rates for some, so I was a little smug. Then the supervisor would tell me I was writing rubbish, to paraphrase, and I'd get my manuscripts back filled with red lines and the initials "BP" (for "Better Please") on every page. Well, that was a reality check. I guess it made me work harder, work with more attention, made me plan more, polish more, research more. It made me stop coasting.

I ended up with a thesis I was proud of and while it's unlikely I'd ever publish it, the work on it has, I hope, given me more patience and a more objective eye. It's also been an avenue into tutoring in creative writing.

 



You have written some poetry, how do you feel that is different from writing in a short story format?

I am a poor poet at best. I'm often amazed by some of the poetry produced by my students and my colleagues, and feel that my own is but a pale shadow. I guess that I come at poetry from a very technical place, perhaps ahead of the emotional - looking at the sound of words, the cadence of phrases, the rhythm of lines, ahead of meaning, though I do work at finding the emotional impact of my pieces before I let them out.

Funnily enough, I think writing poetry has brought to my attention the importance of those sounds, the cadence and the rhythm in the writing of prose. Short stories are so different from poetry - each form has its rules, though not without crossing over. I recently read Ellen Hopkins's novel Crank, a book written entirely in poems, and I was surprised how strong the narrative worked within the story. I'd be terrified to take on something like that.

 



Do you feel poetry can produce more emotional writing compared to short stories?

I think it's a different kind of thing. Certainly poetry gives you an emotional 'hit', and something that might linger. With stories the emotional investment on the part of the reader is distinct, simply because a story is with you for longer. We get to know the characters, we cheer for them, we feel their losses. I think both have their value, and a well-written poem can charge the emotions with an intensity I think stories struggle for.

I notice many poets falling into the trap of directly stating emotions and for me that instantly diminishes the poem. It's kind of that classic "show don't tell" concept that's bandied around so many writing courses and forums: don't tell us that he's "feeling sad", describe the vase of dead flowers, still on the table a week after she's abandoned him, let us see that he can't bring himself to even sleep in their old bed. Showing us give a stronger sense than directly stating the emotion.

 



What appeals to you about the short story format?

I love the wallop they carry. In a few pages you create a setting, characters with a challenge, and a resolution. As a writer who mainly writes short stories and occasionally embarks on novels and occasionally writes poems, certainly the time investment is different, and I think I like the reward of completing (well, abandoning) a short story within a few weeks or a month - with a few stories in various draft stages at any one time, it means that every couple of weeks I'm likely to finish something. A novel takes over a year, and a poem takes, well, about as long as a short story (not as much writing time, but the editing, putting aside and picking up repeatedly spins it out). I am trying to slow down a bit this year, take a little more time over the polishing, so perhaps I'll only complete ten or twelve stories.

I also like that there are still so many venues open to short stories. Frankly I'm a poor reader of stories, I do prefer to read the volume and density of novels.

 



Is there a particular genre you tend to lean to when writing short stories?

I grew up reading Science Fiction, and that was another part of what stoked my interest in writing. Asimov's concepts, Heinlein's story breadth, Gibson's verve. So many wonderful worlds, and the crazy ways of getting to them. At some point I left science fiction almost completely behind and began to read more broadly (it had been a single-food diet for a long time), and learned that there are so many other aspects to writing.

I love contemporary fiction - not the literary novels that are so esoteric that they become impenetrable, more the kind where as well as a good story there's attention to the sentences, the paragraphs. I've always liked Richard Ford's comment that suggests how he likes "to write sentences that lead naturally to other sentences" - to me that's a good guide for writing.

That said, I don't know that I have the writing chops, or patience, to write remarkable literary fiction. Overall I guess that I tend towards writing science fiction, but also towards literary pieces. I seem to have written a lot of horror over the last few years, though I try to write a kind of literary horror.

 



What is your favorite short story you have written?

That's a tough question. For the most part they're all a favourite for some reason or another - "Zemogorgon" for its world, "Stone Goddess" for its pace and characterisation, "Zombie love for morons" for its humour. There are a few stinkers out there, from rushing too much, or submitting to meet a deadline when I was stuck on how to write it better. I'm turning down things now so I don't put myself in that situation again - better to miss out on a publication than to deliver a piece of garbage.

To pick one - to answer the question without continuing to hedge - I suppose I'd have to pick "Fledgling" which came out in The New Flesh in 2010 (and will be reprinted in Pot Luck Flash Fiction, and was nominated in the Preditors and Editors Poll). It's a story about loss and choices and, I hope, leaves some resonance for the reader.



 

How important is it for writers to set goals?

Every writer is different, with such broadly different approaches to writing that it's always hard to suggest approaches. Some writers will write in 20,000 word bursts, then go fishing for a month, others make sure they reach a certain word count every day. Probably most have goals.

For many years my goal was pretty nebulous, something like: write full time someday. Over the last few years I've made things more specific, by taking out the "someday", I've set goals for the calendar year - still looking at the ultimate goal, but it feels like it's up a flight of stairs and I'm working on each step on the way up. It's really changed the way I write, I feel more motivated, more focused. I've published more in the last couple of years than in all the previous years combined, so yes, for me anyway, goals are vital.



 

What advice can you give based on your experience to a new writer?

Keep at it. The successful writers are the ones who get the rejection, send the piece elsewhere, and keep on writing. There are so many stories out there about the rejections successful books got before they got that acceptance. J.K. Rowling had Harry Potter rejected at first, Karl Marlantes kept submitting Matterhorn, Stieg Larsson got turned down. I have enough rejection slips to wallpaper my house.

Polish. Your first draft isn't good enough. Probably not your second either. If a story isn't quite working, try rewriting from scratch rather than trying to fix a fundamentaly broken manuscript with line editing.

No drafting time is wasted. Think of the tennis champ - we get to see the final on the court (think of that as the novel in the store or the story in the anthology), what we don't see is the hours the champ spent in a vacant court just hitting balls back to a machine, or in the gym toning the muscles, watching videos of past games to look for weaknesses and so on (think of that as the planning and drafting). Even if you've written 10,000 words and it's not working, you haven't wasted anything, in fact you've gained: you've found out what's not working.

 


Where can people find out more about you?

My website is www.venusvulture.com and that's got my contact details, bibliography, link to my blog and stuff. (As a hobby I also make ambient music as Venus Vulture, with several netlabel releases - hence the web address - but that's a whole other interview).

2 comments :

  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one whose penmanship resembled chicken scratch. Great interview, Sean.

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  2. The creative philospher lover the wallop in a short story. I love it. I also love the fact that you had your secret hand writing language going on there. In my teens I took to studying the art of studying handwriting analysis. And typically illegible handwriting is a sign of high intelligence and thought processing faster than motor skills, particularly in children.

    Great thought out questions and answers. I enjoy Sean's work and really enjoyed this interview.

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