Short stories vs novels, the limits (or otherwise) of genre labels and the idea of ‘play’ — The Ada Lovelace Conversations #3
The Arthur C. Clarke Award’s ‘interviewer in residence’ Anne Charnock talks to Betty Trask award-winning novelist Irenosen Okojie.
Live readings are a great way to meet writers, and that’s how I first met the very talented Irenosen Okojie. We both gave readings at Unsung Live in London last year. I read “Leave the Baby to Cry,” a chapter from my latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time. Irenosen read a short story, “Following”, from her spectacular collection, Speak Gigantular, which was shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize, and now shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards.
From the first paragraph of “Following”, it was clear we should prepare for a surreal, fantastical and funny story:
“I plucked you from the garden like a root vegetable. A tiny man, you still had soil in the creases of your skin after I dusted you off on the oak kitchen table.”
ANNE: Writers often start out by crafting short stories before attempting to write a novel. But you appear to have taken the opposite approach. You first wrote Butterfly Fish set in modern and 1970s London and 19th century Benin — a novel that won a Betty Trask Award. Then you completed your short story collection, Speak Gigantular. How did that come about? Weren’t you tempted to follow up the success of your first novel with a second novel?
IRENOSEN: I started writing short stories after hitting a wall with a draft of the novel. It was a way for me to keep writing. I discovered that I loved the short form. It enabled me to be experimental, it energised my voice. I think I tend to do things back to front or inside out. Disrupting the process somehow puts you in uncomfortable positions, but interesting, challenging writing comes from that. Even with Butterfly Fish, I didn’t write it in a linear way. I wrote the middle first before writing the other sections.
I think I’m always writing from a place of uncertainty rather than authority. I prefer that. It’s a more satisfying experience for me when I’m learning new things along the way or revealing what’s been hidden both to myself and an audience. I found the collection equally as challenging as working on the novel. You’re having to create contained worlds but each story has to stand alone as well as feel cohesive to the whole.
Anne, you have a real knack for creating intelligent, futuristic plots that fully engross the reader. People often feel the need to define something in order to better understand it. How do you feel about labels and being regarded as a science fiction writer? Do you find it limiting in any way or do you embrace it since that genre is filled with exciting writing?
ANNE: I don’t agonize over the labels because I’m content to follow my writing instincts wherever they lead. Setting a novel at least partly in the near-future seems to offer me the largest field on which to play. It does feel like play sometimes. I recognise your inclination towards writing from a place of uncertainty. I started my first novel, A Calculated Life, at the end of my fine art studies by which point I’d concluded that doubt and uncertainty were essential characteristics of being human. I wanted to explore that idea through fictional writing.
I also learned in the visual arts, that it’s when you’re slightly out of control in an art-making process, when you tread that line close to total disaster, that remarkable things can happen.
In Dreams Before the Start of Time, I aimed for an episodic feel to the novel, so that the reader dips into a family story an intervals, to witness how each generation embraces new reproductive technologies. That loose structure was a challenge; it felt dangerous and exciting.
I feel our writing styles are almost polar opposites, Irenosen. I often lean towards a pared back realism, even within a future setting. I’ve seen your work labeled as magical realism, but I’m not convinced by that descriptor. To me, your writing — in your novel and short stories — seems untethered, essentially poetic, veering between realism and surrealism. It’s full of surprises.
I think writers often admire texts that they know they can’t emulate. There’s that feeling of, “How does she do that? Where does that style even come from?” My style of writing is probably the result of years in journalism. But I’m wondering… did your writing style emerge fully formed as we see in your wonderful debut, Butterfly Fish? Do you write poetry?
IRENOSEN: When I look at your writing in Dreams Before the Start of Time, I see someone who really understands craft. The writing is so elegant, lean yet penetrating which works very well for these unsettling, futuristic settings you create with a family at the centre. There’s weirdness there by the nature of what’s possible in the futures you create but there’s also a grounding by placing a family at the heart of the narrative. Readers can emotionally connect whilst still being unsettled.
It’s interesting to me that we’ve both written family sagas in completely different styles which is the beauty and magic of writing. With Butterfly Fish, I was curious about this idea of a dark family inheritance/legacy. The ways it can be silent, insidious. How it rears its head in the future in the most devastating ways. It took a few drafts of the novel for the writing to feel fully formed, honestly! There were earlier drafts where I felt frustrated, and structure was the big mountain to overcome.
Even within those difficult periods, there were elements that freed me. Writing the section in Benin for example, because there was a distance there, it enabled me to feel free, to play. It was about some specificity but really more about tone. Also my instinctive desire to connect to a lost part of my Nigerian heritage. Reading poetry first thing in the morning before writing helped a lot. Coupled with the strange state our brains are in. Things feel fluid, possible. I also write poetry which has integrated itself into my fiction.
Funny you mentioned the magical realism label. I feel my writing leans more towards a sort of charged mix of realism and surrealism. What I’m truly intrigued by is writing that sits beyond those labels and how I write myself into those spaces by exploring that combination, almost like feeling your way around a dimly lit room. Mostly I don’t try to define the work, so it’s interesting hearing people’s take on the work.
I love the word ‘play’, what it means in different contexts and how liberating it can be for writers to embrace it. What liberates you as a writer? What facilitates a space of play?
ANNE: I know that many writers only begin drafting when they have a detailed outline and a well-developed sense of their characters’ personality. But for me, it’s often more playful to discover a character’s personality through dialogue. Maybe this is intuitive because of the years I spent interviewing people for news stories and features — that is, uncovering a story through conversation.
In the opening pages of my novel Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I ‘discover’ the core of the relationship between Toniah and her younger sister and niece through a short passage of dialogue. This was unpremeditated, and yet the nature of their relationship, revealed naturally in conversation, became a solid and enduring basis for the unfolding narrative. That was very satisfying. The novel was set in three different time periods (also similar to Butterfly Fish) — Renaissance Florence, present-day China, and a future London. The future storyline acted as a lens to view feminist issues in both the present day and the past. I kept a tight control on the structure, but I found it immense fun — my playtime — to weave themes and motifs through the three storylines.
In contrast, with my latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, I wrote the chapters out of sequence — a new approach for me. Initially, I wasn’t sure if the end-result would be a collection of short stories, exploring how society might respond to innovations such as artificial wombs and new genetic interventions. Eventually, I decided to draw it all together as a novella. But I changed my mind again and, after some re-writing, shaped the project into a novel. This process spanned over three years, because I broke off in the middle to write Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind.
Like you, I’m fascinated by readers’ take on my work. I read all my reviews! The most incisive reviews can be revelatory.
I’m pleased I read Speak Gigantular and Butterfly Fish back-to-back, because this helped me to pick out a few threads. You return several times to issues surrounding physical and mental health, of people coming apart through loss and grief, or drug abuse. And I heard an echo of your short story “Nadine” in your novel, Butterfly Fish, in the present-day story line — though I don’t know which you wrote first. Is this something you find, that certain pre-occupations bleed across from one piece of writing to another, particularly when they’re in progress at the same time? Can you identify a core issue within your writing, something that keeps pulling you in?
IRENOSEN: I hear you re building your character through dialogue. I prefer to construct characters as I go along too. It’s just more fun for me. I’ll have a rough idea of who I want them to be, then leave room for ideas to come, and follow my instincts. There’s something about really detailed planning that reduces my excitement somewhat. It’s like leaving very little room for the magic to happen. And the magic is the drug for me, it’s what sucks me in — those ideas or threads I would never have predicted that seemingly come from nowhere. Director David Lynch whose films I love describes them like bright fish coming at you and you have to grab them when they arrive.
I’m not surprised there are some recurring themes from Butterfly Fish in Speak Gigantular even though they feel like very different books. I was writing the stories whilst working on drafts of Butterfly Fish so subconsciously, that bleed you mentioned happened.
At the core I’m concerned about particular issues: loss, grief, feeling alienated, disaffected, mental health issues. These are themes I care about deeply. It’s not an accident that they show in the writing, that I often write about people who you wouldn’t necessarily normally see as main protagonists. These are characters who have sometimes fallen through the cracks. They’re on the fringes. They’re just trying to build themselves back up again. The ways they do this can run the gamut from strange, comic, heartbreaking, funny to profound. Even though the contexts in which I set these stories (Speak Gigantular in particular) is often darkly fantastical, I write them because I want people who experience these things to know that they matter, that their experiences mean something. Writing about them is making them visible. And that’s powerful.
When you see yourself reflected, the impact of that can’t be underestimated. It’s like the first time I picked up a Rosa Guy book as a young girl and saw she wrote about black girls and boys. Though they were in gritty, urban American settings, they were complex and well drawn. I saw myself reflected in fiction which meant a lot to a girl who loved books.
These themes: loss, grief… They’re devastating. I know that having had my own personal encounters. They show how fragile we are as human beings. The human condition with all its facets will always intrigue me I feel. Even in seemingly bleak situations there is humour there. The comedy of tragedy, I try to pull those threads together.
I like that you started off writing chapters out of sequence with Dreams Before the Start of Time. It’s like a topsy-turvy way of acclimatising to the world you were creating. It sounds like it had two incarnations before the final version (as a novel) which is fascinating to me. This idea of a book being several things, transforming along the way. How did you find that process and what made you feel that the novel was the best form for it?
ANNE: With Dreams Before the Start of Time, I think my inexperience caused me to stumble, initially at least. I struggled to decide what to do with my scribblings. I attempted to piece together the individual stories/vignettes as a loosely-structured novella, because I’ve always loved fragmented narratives. I’m thinking here of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, to name just two. But I had to concede that novella length didn’t really do justice to the idea’s potential. Neither did novella length suit such a choppy structure. So, reluctantly, I chucked the pages in a drawer.
Nearly two years later, I revisited the project — after I’d written Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Immediately I saw a solution. It dawned on me that Toni Monroe, one of my characters in Sleeping Embers, could step into this dormant writing project and replace a character named Kassie. Toni and Kassie seemed to be the same person separated by twenty years.
So 13-year-old Toni in Sleeping Embers — struggling with grief over the death of her mother and visiting China with her father — grew up to become 32-year-old Toni in Dreams Before. In any case, I became very attached to Toni and her father, Dominic, as they re-shaped their lives following bereavement. I loved the idea of taking them forward into another piece of fiction. It was irresistible.
Having made this decision, I incorporated six of the original eight stories into a expanded piece of fiction, a novel, a more coherent and satisfying narrative, while still retaining a fragmented structure. The result is a novel that follows Toni and her best friend Millie Dack from their thirties through to old age, occasionally digressing to tell the stories of minor characters. The jolts caused by this fragmented structure seemed appropriate, because my characters face similar jolts, the shock of the new, as each generation embraces new ways of starting a family.
I hope that wasn’t too long an explanation!
When reading your fiction, I am reminded of Angela Carter’s work, particularly her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. But I shouldn’t assume any specific writer has influenced you. Perhaps we could round off our conversation by each reflecting on a piece of writing (even a part of a chapter) that made us say, “That’s perfect. I want to write like that.” Obviously, we don’t set out to shadow another writer, but there will be writers from whom we have learned important lessons.
IRENOSEN: A few people have mentioned Angela Carter to me. I’ve never read her work but I take it as a big compliment. She sounds wonderful.
I like the idea of reflecting on a piece of work. It’s a good way to end. You go first!
ANNE: Having asked the question, I now recognise the temptation to list all my favourite authors — there are too many, of course. I’ve already mentioned Angela Carter’s short fiction. I was also knocked out by the other-worldliness of Ha Jin’s collection, The Bridegroom. And the surreal quality of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is hypnotic.
But the writer who has an enduring influence on me, in terms of writing style, is Michael Cunningham. I’m particularly drawn to his novels, slim volumes, with fragmented story lines — The Hours and Specimen Days. But also, By Nightfall and The Snow Queen. He is such an economical writer. He heightens ‘the everyday’ in his characters’ lives, so that the simplest interactions become emotionally charged.
In The Hours, Laura who is pregnant with her second child, is baking a cake with her young son, Richie. Time seems to slow down as Cunningham dissects their movements and facial expressions. They appear to struggle with this mundane task. Cunningham describes how mother and son watch one another, so very carefully. Richie turns over a cup of flour into a mixing bowl in “one hurried, frightened motion”. In the midst of this domestic scene, Laura seems overwhelmed by her son’s neediness, his “fits of inexplicable remorse”. When she encourages his efforts, he “smiles tearfully, suddenly proud of himself, almost insanely relieved.” Her reassurance is greeted by “guileless, unguarded enthusiasm”. Laura decides she won’t, after all, abandon her family. Cunningham writes: “It seems suddenly easy to bake a cake, to raise a child.”
I read this book while drafting my first novel. I was mesmerized. He conveyed so much in so few words. Almost magical.
IRENOSEN: In terms of impact, ZZ Packer’s short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was huge for me although stylistically we’re very different. Her versatility, her boldness, her humour is captivating. I love this collection. In terms of influence, Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’s Son was transformative. With its dark, redemptive qualities peppered with elements of surrealism. It’s tremendous. It’s unforgettable with writing like this:
“I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” (From Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson)
This is pure Johnson genius. A drug addict survives a car accident with a group of people he doesn’t know. The narrator, “Fuckhead” the addict, isn’t even concerned about getting help or comforting a man while he’s dying because he doesn’t know if it’s a bad trip. Even though he remembers being in the car, even though it feels real. I love the honesty of it. Even in that bleak incident, there is a moment of illumination. All at once it’s wise, dark, funny and profound. All at once you feel changed somehow. Only you don’t know if it’s for the better. You just know something’s shifted. You don’t see those lines coming. And Johnson is an expert at this. Like a right handed bowler throwing curveballs your way with his left hand. This is an unusual, hallucinatory, freewheeling collection of connected stories, made even more compelling by “Fuckhead” being an unreliable narrator.
“On the farther side of the fields, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” (From Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson)
Johnson’s writing gleams. It’s wondrous, sad, devastating. This is the collection that cracked my chest open and left something molten in there to live.
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The Ada Lovelace Conversations are a collaborative project between the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature and Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), profiling women writers of Science Fiction and beyond.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award. Her work has been featured in The Observer,The Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post amongst other publications. Her short stories have been published internationally. She was presented at the London Short Story Festival by Ben Okri as a dynamic writing talent to watch and was featured in the Evening Standard Magazine as one of London’s exciting new authors. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular published by Jacaranda Books was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize and is longlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards.
Anne Charnock’s writing career began in journalism (The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune). Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. This year sees the publication of The Enclave, set within the world of A Calculated Life (NewCon Press). In addition, her third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time is published by 47North, and her short story “A Good Citizen” is included in the anthology 2084 (Unsung Stories).