Adam Marek’s debut short story collection, Instruction manual for swallowing,
was published by Comma Press in 2007. It was nominated for the Frank
O’Connor Prize – the biggest prize in the world for a collection of
short stories. His stories have also appeared in Prospect magazine and in anthologies including When it changed, Parenthesis and The new uncanny from Comma Press, two Bridport Prize collections and the British Council’s New Writing 15. He is working on his first novel.
Comma Press, 2007
for 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize
with Adam Marek
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Adam Marek: About
four years. The
40-litre Monkey and The
Thorn are the oldest stories in there, and Meaty's Boys was
the last one I wrote, finishing just a couple of days before my
deadline. I spend between a month and two months working on each story.
Often I'll have two on the go at the same time, writing a draft of each
in turn. I average about eight drafts before I'm happy with them. I
find it easier to edit and rework a story if I've had a bit of distance
from it. Stories are like meat – they're easier to cut when they're
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
AM: I didn't have
a thread of continuity in mind when I wrote them, but my preoccupations
come up frequently in the stories – mutations vs mundanity, human and
animal biology vs technology, perception, B-movie-style
transformations. So I guess there is a background radiation in every
story in the collection which would identify it as one of mine.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
AM: I had about 35
stories, which I cut down to 15 before I sent it to Ra Page at Comma
Press. There were some stories he suggested excluding, and then I had
about six months before publication, so I wrote a few new ones. Most of
the later stories made it to the final cut.
The running order of the stories was
really Ra's suggestion – when we
discussed it, Ra talked about the book like an album, opening up with a
fanfare, with the quiet moments coming later, and building to a
roof-raising finish. He has good instincts and I'm grateful for them.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
me, a story is a conjuration. It's something that levitates the reader
so discretely that they don't realise their feet are off the ground
until they look down. It's all about illusion, and hiding your
workings. If it's a great story, it pulls you in so deeply that when
you come out of it, the room you're in feels different to the way it
did before. A great story should transport you, even if only a
centimetre from the ground, and even if only for a moment.
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
Always. In my day job, I write a lot of advertising copy, and in
advertising, the most important thing is the response you get from your
audience. It's exactly the same with fiction.
But I don't just write to one person.
When I started writing, I wrote
just for myself. I followed the advice (which I still think is one of
the best bits of writing advice I've ever heard): "write the book you
would most like to read", which encourages me to write stories that do
not yet exist, because if they existed I'd just go out and buy them,
which is so much easier than writing them.
As I've had stories published and done
readings and met the actual
people who enjoy my stuff, my method has changed. When I write now, I'm
always reading aloud. I imagine myself reading the story in front of an
audience, and anything that sounds phoney, anything I'm not confident
they'll love, gets cut. I write knowing that one day I may be reading
it on a stage, and there's no better pressure for getting it right.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
AM: Hmmm, well, I
think the most successful stories are the ones that leave you
breathless at the end, where you cannot do anything but hold the book,
sit still and swallow. It's a rare experience, but it's so wonderful
when you get it. I had this experience just a couple of days ago when I
read The Lottery
by Shirley Jackson for the first time. The last line is so chilling,
and the imagery it creates is so vivid, which she achieves without
actually describing what's happening. I had to go back and re-read the
last couple of paragraphs to see how she'd done it. So, I'd ask my
reader whether they'd had that experience with any of the stories in
the collection, if there were any stories that kept coming back to them
long after they'd finished the book.
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
feels fantastic. I can remember being a kid and thinking how great it
would be to see a book with my name on the cover in a bookshop. I still
love seeing that, and I hope the novelty never wears off.
The whole point of stories is
communicating ideas to someone else – if
no one else ever sees your stories, what's the point? It's like a zen
koan – does a story without a reader really exist? I love meeting
people who have read my stories and knowing that they have inside their
head imagery and ideas that began inside mine.
I was 11 when I saw Back
to the Future for the first time, and there is a scene at
the end that
made a huge impression on me. Marty McFly has come back to the present
having altered the past of his parents, and now they're confident and
gorgeous and successful – Marty's dad, George McFly, gets a package
delivered, and in it are copies of the novel he has just had published.
Ever since I saw that, I wished that one day I would get a boxful of
books that I'd written. When Instruction
Manual for Swallowing was
sent 10 copies in a box to me – I'd waited 22
have this moment for myself, and Naomi (my wife) and the kids all
gathered round the kitchen table to watch me open it. There were
balloons. We took photos. It was magical, and I'm smiling thinking
about it now.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
working on my first novel. But I keep getting seduced by short stories
and taking little breaks to write them – I've written four new shorts
while I've been working on the novel – one for a new anthology from Comma Press
called When It Changed,
which was edited by Geoff Ryman. Geoff paired
up writers with scientists so they could write "real science-fiction"
stories inspired by their research. I chose a nanoscientist called Dr
Vinod Dhanak whose work has applications in military body armour. I got
to hang out with him for a day, see his lab, and talk to him about the
future. A great experience. The book comes out on 24 September.
have a story commissioned for Matter
– an annual anthology from Sheffield Hallam University, coming out in
October, which also includes a story by Alison
MacLeod and a foreword
by Maggie Gee. And then in the Autumn, I have an essay in a new book
edited by Vanessa
Gebbie called Short
Circuit: The Salt Guide to
Writing the Short Story
- I'm really looking forward to seeing it – there are essays on the
short story from Tobias Hill,
Clare Wigfall, David
Tania Hershman and many other great writers.
Oooh, and I just finished building my website www.adammarek.co.uk
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
been lucky enough to get sneak previews of two collections that are
coming out in the next few months: Rob
's second story collection Love Songs for the Shy and
and Wena Poon's The Proper Care of Foxes
both of which are excellent. I also just started reading Paint a Vulgar Picture: Fiction
inspired by The Smiths
, edited by Peter Wild,
and The Granta Book of
the American Short Story
, and Germline
Tyrone Jones. I tend to dip in and out of collections – this lot makes
a kick-ass pick and mix.