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Adam Marek 


Website: Adam Marek

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.

Short Story Collections

Instruction Manual For Swallowing
Comma Press, 2007

Longlisted for 2008  Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize

Reviewed by Vanessa Gebbie

 Interview with Adam Marek

The Short Review: 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 cold.

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.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

AM:  For 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.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

AM:  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?

AM: It 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 published, Comma sent 10 copies in a box to me – I'd waited 22 years to 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?

AM: I'm 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.
    I also have a story commissioned for Matter Magazine – 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 from Salt 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, Elizabeth Baines, Clare Wigfall, David GaffneyAlison MacLeod
, 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?

AM: I've been lucky enough to get sneak previews of two collections that are coming out in the next few months: Rob Shearman's second story collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical 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 by Richard Tyrone Jones. I tend to dip in and out of collections – this lot makes a kick-ass pick and mix.