It’s a real pleasure today to welcome Gail Aldwin as my guest here on Being Anne: her collection of short fiction, Paisley Shirt, was published by Chapeltown Books in February, and is available in print and for kindle. Gail and I have been in contact through social media for some time, but I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive when she asked if I’d like to read the collection, and sent me a copy – only because the short fiction form isn’t a medium I often read. But my concerns were totally unfounded – I very much enjoyed it, and it’s really given me an appetite to read more.
Paisley Shirt is a fascinating collection of 27 stories that reveal the extraordinary nature of people and places. Through a variety of characters and voices, these stories lay bare the human experience and what it is like to live in our world.
Such is my unfamiliarity with short fiction that I’d always assumed that reading a collection like this one might be a little less than satisfying – the reading too fragmented, the stories lacking in depth or development. Then how should I read it? Dip in and read a few stories at a time? I opted for the one sitting approach – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Every single story is perfectly crafted, not of uniform length, but each one marked by the perfection of its writing and its insights into people’s lives, exquisitely captured.
I had my favourites – I thought Stone was wonderful, perhaps the shortest but, for someone who reads with the heart as I do, the emotional impact was immense. Accidental Brother moved me deeply too – its construction perfect, and a story I’d be happy to see expanded into something a little longer. Packing is perhaps the simplest – a list, rather than a “story”, but with so much meaning in the content. And this is where I stumble in my unfamiliarity with reviewing a collection – there’s a temptation to look at each individual story, judging each one, loving some, perhaps enjoying a small number rather less.
But I’d urge anyone to step outside their comfort zone a little, and take a closer look at short fiction – and if you’re looking for an introduction, I doubt you’ll find much better than this beautiful collection from Gail Aldwin.
I’m delighted to welcome Gail as my guest today…
Hello Gail, and welcome to Being Anne – would you like to introduce yourself?
Thank you for inviting me onto your blog, Anne. I am a Dorset writer who enjoys the literary activities and heritage of the county. Over the past few years I have been studying for a PhD in creative writing with the University of South Wales. My viva was in November and I am now on the final stretch in completing corrections. This qualification has enabled me to obtain work as a visiting tutor to undergraduates of creative writing at Arts University Bournemouth. The innovative course draws upon industry and academia to inform the practice of emerging writers.
Tell me a little more about Paisley Shirt – why did you decide to publish a short fiction collection?
Many of the stories in the collection have been previously published online and in print anthologies. When Chapeltown Books opened a submissions window for collections I went through all my stories to see if there was a theme that pulled them together. The quality of human resilience was the thread and once I’d assembled the stories and submitted, the collection was accepted for publication.
Are all the pieces relatively recent – or maybe you simply chose your favourites?
The stories in the collection were written over time. The title story Paisley Shirt was recently written as I wanted to share a story at Apothecary, a regular open mic night which is held every month in Bridport. Writing a story for performance is a totally new way of approaching short fiction but I think it works on the page as well.
Why did you choose to make Paisley Shirt the title story? Was it driven by finding the perfect cover image?
A passion for paisley pattern informed the choice. My publisher asked me to supply an image and I found one listed as copyright free on flickr. I’ve recently been in correspondence with the photographer, Robert Sheie, who runs an online service which enables clients to see their products on retail outlets such as Amazon. Robert tells me I chose my cover image well. It’s a photograph of a silk dress shirt sold by the House of Bijan in Beverly Hills (reputed to be the most expensive shop in the world).
I’ve noticed people – in some of the wonderful on-line reviews – calling this a flash fiction collection. I’m lamentably ignorant – when is a short story “flash fiction”? Is it just a question of length?
There are various theories about the origins of flash fiction. Some say it arose from the need to have a story short enough to fill the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Others say flash fiction became popular because a complete story fits onto a screen. With hectic lives, flash fiction offers the opportunity to enjoy a complete story in moments snatched from a busy schedule. Usually a complete flash fiction story is told within 500-words although some magazines accept flash fictions up to 1,000-words. I tend to call all my stories ‘short fiction’ rather than making a distinction dictated by length.
Your stories leave the impression that every word, every sequence of words, is carefully chosen. How long do you spend writing a story – and how long do you then spend polishing it?
You’re right, Anne. Every word has to earn its place and this helps to develop editing skills. These skills can be transferred to other writing projects so nothing is wasted. The concise form is one of the reasons I started to write short fiction. It seemed do-able when finding time to produce other work was difficult. Not that writing short fiction is easy – it can be very challenging and time consuming. I tend to write long and then pare the story back to a length that suits. It’s hard to put a timeline on a piece of short fiction. But I will admit that each piece takes far longer to write than the short form suggests.
The stories vary in length – and, totally unexpectedly, I think my favourite was the shortest (Stone). What governs the length of a piece? Is it a decision you make at outset?
Sometimes the length of a story is determined by a competition entry or the requirements of an anthology submission. When I get an idea I tend to mull it over and then decide which is the best genre to carry the story: poetry or prose. It seems to me most stories dictate their own length. When a story isn’t working, I always play around with the structure and this can impact on how long or short the story becomes.
So, you also write poetry? To someone unfamiliar with the format, some of these pieces are rather like experiencing poetry without the line breaks you might expect…
I started writing poetry over the last couple of years and won the Bournemouth National Poetry Day competition in 2016 with a poem titled Starlings. I tend to capture moments in time through poetry whereas stories require an arc. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between prose poetry and short fiction so I don’t worry about it: some pieces of writing qualify as both.
I must comment on your website – I spent a lovely hour exploring it, and loved the multimedia approach you’ve taken. Is it something you enjoy, or just a necessary part of being a writer?
I’m always interested in writing in different forms so digital storytelling is a delight. I love the process of using images and artefacts to stimulate stories that are shared through video footage. It was fun to create a narrative in this way. I’ve always got several writing projects on the go. Currently I’m co-writing a comedy sketch night that will be performed at the Bridport Arts Centre in the autumn. I believe that writing in different genres helps to support my skills and confidence as a writer generally.
And I’d love to know a little more about the Dorset Writers’ Network and the work you do with them…
As the Chair, I work with a dedicated steering group to support writers at different stages of their writing journey. Our strap line is ‘inspiring writers, connecting creative communities’ and we work hard to reach isolated writers in rural locations. Currently we are offering a series of workshops on novel writing delivered by Rosanna Ley and I am offering a flash fiction workshop in partnership with Waterstones in Dorchester.
I couldn’t help spotting mention of the novel, The String Games, and the fact that you have representation (congratulations!). How’s it going?
That’s reminded to change the information on my blog – I did have an agent and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. However, before she had a chance to pitch my work to publishers, my agent took maternity leave and decided not to return to work. I am now in the process of submitting to independent publishers and two have asked to see the full manuscript. I hope to find a good home for The String Games soon.
And I’ve kept the most surprising fact until last – that you were a non-reading child! What books do you now enjoy?
I like novels that allow me to experience different places and cultures. I travelled a lot when I was younger including a memorable trip from London to Kathmandu on a double decker bus. These days my life is more sedentary and it is through fiction that I visit remote and beautiful places vicariously.
Thank you Gail – and a particular thank you for trusting me with your lovely writing, and giving me such a perfect introduction to short fiction. Paisley Shirt is additionally available online from the Book Depository, or you can order it from any good bookshop.