A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Nik Perring’s collection of 22 (short) short stories, Not so Perfect, was one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. With “flash fiction” taking over the net and with numerous wordslam and livelit events all over the country, I felt it was time I found out more about the ultra short form.
Well, Nik. I really enjoyed Not So Perfect. It was easy to read, refreshing and surprising and…yes the word I want to return to is “refreshing”. Because that is not a word I associate very much with short story collections – which can often be a bit worthy/heavy or about the naturalistic minutia of a character’s life – which is the opposite of these stories. I wonder if you could tell us a bit – first of all – about what you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the very short form – what it does best and the kind of stories you admire. And also how you came to fall in love with the form.
Thanks for having me here, and thanks for saying such nice things about the book – that makes me very happy. It seems that you’ve got what I was hoping to achieve.
I think that the general perception of short stories is something similar to what you’ve said – that they’re elitist or very worthy or only for Very Clever People – not all that different to what a lot of people think about poetry. But, on most occasions, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I’ve said this an awful lot of late but I firmly believe that stories (regardless of length, and yes I am including novels in this) are as long as they are. As long as they need to be. Some are long (ie novels) and some aren’t. And I think it’s the writer’s job to tell them how they should be told.
Short stories (very short ones I’d include here too), I think, suit telling us about moments, and often they’re no longer than the moments they’re telling us about but stay with us long after. Let me ask you a question: how long did your first kiss last? I’ll imagine not all that long. And yet, how much of it can you remember? Something like that – a big moment, albeit one short in time – stays with you – that’s what short stories can do.
They’re also good at getting right to the point, at getting to the nub of a situation. Everything else can be stripped away – anything not absolutely relevant can be ignored. We get what we need, nothing more, nothing less. And that can be, if it’s done well, hugely affecting and efficient and, let’s not forget – fun too.
So the kind of stories I admire would be ones that do the above – ones that move me and resonate. That change me – that make me see things slightly differently.
Do you think the ultra short form forces more stylisation over naturalism?
I don’t think it forces anything. It may lend itself to being more stylistic, or present more opportunities to write that way but I think what it really comes down to is each individual story being told in the way that’s best for it.
The perfect short story will change you in some way. It will be exactly as long as it is and it will stay with you forever. It will echo. It will be life-changing experience. It should be like swimming with dolphins or remembering why, exactly, you love someone. It would be something like Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ or Etgar Keret’s ‘Breaking The Pig’ or ‘Hat Trick’ or Aimee Bender’s ‘Jinx’ or ‘Ironhead’ or neil Gaiman’s ‘Babycakes’. Or it would be like ‘The Meeting’ or the ‘The Rememberer’.
And what am I trying to achieve? I think I just want to tell good stories that people can get something out of.
The surreal imagery or events of the stories seemed to represent emotions and states of mind in relationships, and I found this a powerful device. Was this intended ?
If it worked and if you liked it then: ABSOLUTELY!
More seriously – yes. And I suppose the shorter form presents us with more opportunities to do this. Maybe, because we’re dealing with things that are right there in front of you and haven’t taken x number of thousands of words to build, maybe we can afford to be more surreal and use stranger images as metaphors. The thing that’s important to me though is that, no matter how fantastic or odd or weird these characters or situations are, they need to feel familiar. It’s all about the story and the characters and what they’re feeling and what they do and not about just using weird images; those images need to have a purpose and to add to the story. In one story a woman is throwing up small mammals, but that’s not what the story’s about – it’s about her relationship with her husband – the animals, though integral, are incidental.
These stories have different histories –published in different places and at different times. How conscious were you of working on them as a collection first and foremost or is it more a matter of good luck that they seem to fit so well together?
Good luck, I think! If, a few months ago, someone would have asked me what I did, I’d have told them ‘I write stories’. And if they’d then have asked ‘What about?’ I’d have scratched my head, frowned, and said something like ‘err, things. And stuff. You know. Life. Some of them are sad, some are a bit weird’. And that’s as far as I’d have got. That I’d written them is really the only thing that I’d have thought connected them.
When I write a story I’ll do it for the story’s sake – it would never have crossed my mind that it should, in any way, be linked to anything I’d written before (unless that was my intention). Unless you’re lucky enough to have a collection published (few of which contain stories that are linked – mostly they’re collections) most short stories will get published in magazines or anthologies or wherever on their own – so they’ll have to be good in their own right.
I should say though that a few of my stories were left out of the collection because they didn’t fit with the others – but I think that had more to do with my publisher seeing a bigger picture than anything I’d have noticed. A collection of short stories is a collection of short stories and they don’t have to fit together, in my opinion. It’s nice when they do though!
What themes interest you most and why?
That’s a really, really difficult one to answer. I don’t consciously decide to write about anything in particular – ideas just happen and if I think they’ll make for interesting stories I’ll try to write them.
But. All that said, I don’t think, on reading the book (and having written it!) that I can really get away from: the not so perfect relationships we have with the people we share this world with. So there’s jealously, betrayal, loss, anger, loneliness, sadness, and a celebration and look at being what we are, even though we may not always fit in.
Characters are often barely described in your stories and remain more ambiguous as “he”or “she”. Is this a deliberate thing?
It is. Yes. And probably for two reasons. The stories, themes and emotions in the stories are, I hope, universal ones. They aren’t gender or age specific. We don’t have to be female to be shy about a love interest, nor do we have to be old to know what losing someone feels like. So I like to keep the characters, even though they are very much who they are, as universal as possible. Unless they need names – and if they do they’ll get ‘em!
I also really love fairy tales and the way they’re told and I like to put a bit of that into my stories too.
Often what the characters look like either doesn’t matter (because that detail’s irrelevant to the story) or is best left to the reader, which can make the story more personal to them. Sometimes they need to be ambiguous or, perhaps, mysterious.
As I said earlier I very much liked the surreal touches and I read this as symbolic of moods and emotions. I felt the very short form was perfect for this as it almost has a quality like poetry, where symbols and images become more powerful than they would in a longer form. Can you talk a bit about the imagery and surrealism in your work? Something like the woman vomiting up a lemur is an extraordinarily strong (and extraordinarily weird) image, and yet treated perfectly normally within the story framework. How did this particular story come to you and what does it represent?
I’m glad you took them that way because that’s how they are meant. As I said earlier, they’re there for a reason and for them to work they have to appear as things that are entirely normal – they aren’t why the story’s been written. I think it’s the duty of any form of writing to paint a picture of the story so the reader can see, in their own mind, what’s happening and I suppose what I try to do is a slightly different take on that (or perhaps even some sort of perverse, or reverse, personification where feelings and emotions are converted into actual physical things).
How did ‘My Wife Threw Up A Lemur’ come about? It started, if memory serves, with the idea of a woman, instead of having babies, having animals – which was quickly changed (because it was more interesting and better visually) to her throwing them up. And then I asked myself why she’d be doing that – and without wanting to give too much of the story away (so I’ll only half answer this – sorry!) – I decided it was representative of people making excuses in relationships, of having other interests – of a married couple, while walking the same path and being in love with each other, having completely different goals and hopes and ideas of what they want from the marriage. Or maybe it’s about a broken marriage working. Or maybe it’s about how some relationships work. They both like the animals, I think, though probably for different reasons. Does that make sense? Thought not! Anyway – I’m the author and I might not be qualified to answer the question!
When do you know a story is finished?
I just kind of do. I think that has a lot to do with my process.
I write first drafts longhand. They’ll get a half-edit while they’re being typed up. I’ll then print them out and edit again. Once I’m happy that I can’t do any more I’ll read the story aloud, making corrections (I always find things I can change at this stage) as I go. Then when I’m happy absolutely nothing else can be done I’ll record me reading the story and listen to it back. It’s when I don’t need to record any more drafts that I know a story’s cooked.
Some people call the very short form Flash Fiction. Quite a few of our readers won’t be familiar with the term – can you define it for them and talk a bit about what is going on out there in the exciting world of Flash Fiction right now?
Flash Fiction is a pretty new name for what used to be called the short-short story. And that’s exactly what they are: short, short stories. They’ve been around for a long, long time; Chekhov, Hemingway, Vonnegut, O Henry, Ray Bradbury and Franz Kafka all wrote them – to name but a few. And that’s without mentioning folk and fairy tales and fables and the like.
I think the term ‘flash’ and its apparent rise in popularity has an awful lot to do with the internet. There are a good number of excellent on-line journals and zines that publish high quality short stories and poetry, with some (like the absolutely brilliant SmokeLong Quarterly) focussing on nothing but flash. And this is ALL GOOD. It’s made the form accessible . People can read it, whenever they like and for free. There’s no need to invest in subscriptions to journals or literary mags (which I still love, I should say) – and I think what’s happened is people have read it, found they quite like the form, and have been tempted into buying collections of short work. I’m not sure that would have happened, to such a degree, before the internet.
Praise too should go to people like Roast Books who are publishing it.
Is there a difference between Flash and Short Story apart from length? Where does Not So Perfect fall – is it Flash or Short Story?
I’m not all that fond of putting things in boxes unless it’s absolutely necessary or helpful. In my opinion, Not So Perfect is a collection of short stories, though admittedly, as short stories go, these are on the shorter side. There are probably half a dozen in there that would definitely qualify as flash, though that doesn’t make them NOT short stories.
Why the title?
I think it does what it says on the tin, so to speak. The characters in the book, and the situations and relationships they find themselves in, are definitely Not So Perfect.
Tell us your five favourite books (or stories ) (or pieces of Flash Fiction) and why.
Because there are SO many utterly brilliant short stories out there, I’ll limit my five to ones written by contemporary authors.
Thanks so much Nik for talking to Vulpes Libris.
Thanks so much for having me. And for making me think Very Hard about your questions!
About Nik Perring
Nik Perring is a writer, and occasional teacher of writing, from the north west. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. They’ve also been read at events and on radio, printed on fliers and used as part of a high school distance learning course in the US.
RosyB writes comedy novels and is presently embedded somewhere in the middle of a screenplay. She hopes to make it out alive sometime next year.
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.