How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
MacLeod:Eek. Should I admit this? A
‘debut’ collection makes the author sound so new,
almost virginal, but the truth is the stories in the collection were
written over a period of twenty years. I wrote three of the fifteen
while doing the M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster
in 1988. I went on to write and publish my first novel, The Changeling,
though I never stopped writing stories. But it’s tough, of
course. There just aren’t enough magazines publishing short
fiction, and though I’ll always be hugely grateful to writing
competitions for publishing my early work, I reached a point where I
didn’t want to go that route any longer. I wanted a wider
readership, I suppose. That started to happen, little by little. I
published stories with some great literary editors – at London Magazine, Virago,
Pulp.Net, Prospect… Then, in 2003, I signed a
contract with Hamish Hamilton for my next two novels, and I got bolshy.
I phoned my agent from a petrol station, just as the contract was about
to be drawn up. The idea had suddenly occurred to me: could we stretch
it to a three-book deal to include a story collection? He phoned Simon
Prosser, the publishing director of Hamish Hamilton, and the deal was
done, largely on the back of my publication record up to that time, and
Hamish Hamilton’s willingness, as a publisher, to take risks.
I finished my second novel, The
Wave Theory of Angels. Then I went on to sharpen the old
stories and to write about eight or nine new ones.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
No. But as writers, we all have our
preoccupations and our fascinations. I suppose I’m drawn to
writing about life’s essential forces: the mysteries of
desire; the big energies of love, birth and death; and the terrible and
beautiful logic of the human body. I’m especially interested
in these things in the context of where we are now – of
modern times, in other words. So these preoccupations, I hope, draw the
stories together into a genuine collection. I did weed out a few that
seemed like strays, but I’m glad the fit isn’t too
neat. Personally, I like to see variety and range in a story
collection: I like it to be a bit of a ‘wild
space’. I can get bored when reading a collection that was
clearly designed as one. The concept can sometimes be a stranglehold.
You feel the writer running dry.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
One simple ordering principle was important to
me. The first and the last stories in a collection generally have a
significance, or a weight, of their own. Two of the stories in Fifteen Modern Tales, so that the land was darkened
and Radiant Heat,
deal with true-life public tragedies – I wrote each as a
memorial of sorts to those events. For me, it was important that, out
of respect for those involved, those stories were given those vital
book-end positions in the collection. In general though, my editor and
I wanted to create a sense of both variety and connection. So it was a
bit of a shuffle till we got that right. I thought about changes of
mood – where did the final line of one story leave you? Where
did the opening of the next story take you? My editor noticed that a
few stories were narrated, unusually, in the second-person, so she
suggested we split those up. I also suddenly noticed how many penises
there seemed to be popping up in the stories when read together as a
collection! I got a tad nervous; I worried reviewers might have a field
day. But mercifully, most seemed to see that the stories were about
much more than sex.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
No. I put my faith in a belief that there are interesting readers out
there; readers who know they create a story with you; who
don’t always expect to ‘identify’
directly with a character; who will take chances for new ways of
seeing. But I think you can get into trouble as a writer if
you’re writing for anyone other than yourself. It makes you
self-conscious as you write, and that’s fatal. The early acts
of writing have to be private, libidinous – only then will
you take the risks you need to take as a writer. Then, once the story
is alive and kicking, I get tough with it. I want it to be as sharp and
clear as it has to be. It has to speak to others, not just to me.
Anything less would be self-indulgence, not good writing.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
anything at all?
Who do they remember most, which characters, after finishing the
collection, and why?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
It’s the best. It’s what everything is about:
sending your stories into the imagination of a stranger, and knowing
they’re received. Magic.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
third novel, which is set in Brighton, where I now live. And a few
stories that have been commissioned, happily. And a collaboration with
three other writers (Susanna Jones, Jeff Noon and William Shaw);
it’s an online evolving ‘web of stories’
Babel Street. It’s been terrific, improvising with
three writers I really respect.