Jan Woolf: About 10 years. I had an interview for a job at the British Board of
Film Classification in 2000 and they told me they'd let me know in a
week if I'd got the job. It felt an excruciatingly long time to wait,
so I decided to start the collection of stories that had been building
in my mind. I'd also just seen an exhibition about Dante at the Royal
Academy, where I learned that the 7th circle of hell is reserved for
people who waste their talent. So I got on with it. I got the job by
the way, resigning after 4 months - but with a story.
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
JW: Yes - I liked the idea of the short form as it seemed quicker (it
isn't). The collection was to be called Epiphanies, then it changed to
Fugues when I realised they were all connected. I liked the idea that
in a musical fugue, or flight - one instrument, theme or sound chases
another. It changed again when I realised that various works of
sculptor Richard Niman resonated with the stories, so it became an art
book too. I christened it Fugues on a Funny Bone a year before
publication to honour the comedy and because I liked the way those words
sounded. They came to me on a bus.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
JW: I knew (some) were to be fictionalised accounts of children I'd worked with
in a children's home, and the stories had to alternate with the serious
and the funny. The linking characters - the teacher, the head-teacher -
are flirting, so the collection had to chart their relationship - and
further - in a linking sequence. There are also tangential characters,
like the learning assistant, whose pretentious sister is writing a
dissertation on the origins of fascism but who secretly fancies actors
who play Hitler. I liked the idea that a subject as weird as that could
emerge from a pupil referral unit. The collection starts on a Hackney
towpath and ends up in Albania in a sequence of fragile plausibility.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
JW: Just that. A story. A made up tale but with its grounding in life. We need them like we need food.
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
JW: No, that would be like writing to order and then I would feel I'd have
to "measure up". They are from me to whoever will pick them up and
relate to them. My readers will find their way to my book and my themes.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
JW: Did you laugh? Or cry? Did any of them take you to an area of life
that you would never have visited before? Did you like my piss takes on
institutional language? Did any thing make you cringe? Would you buy
it for a friend? Did you like the pictures.
TSR: How does
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
JW: An honour - now that it's published. Pre-publication I felt very
vulnerable about the stories, as if I was sharing my secrets. But
they've been gatekeeped (is that a word? it is now) by a superb editor,
Ruth Boswell. So I feel they are sealed by her intelligence.
What are you working on now?
JW: A novel about a painter, but just when I thought I'd done with short
stories, a new collection is forming about people who constantly call
hotlines. Its called Help.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
JW: In Flight Entertainment - Helen Simpson.
Going Over - Alan Franks.
Liverpolitan - Kathy Hobson (as yet unpublished but wonderful)