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Mark Illis


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Website: MarkIllis.co.uk

Mark Illis writes novels, short stories, radio plays and TV drama. He is the author of three novels, A Chinese Summer, The Alchemist, The Feather Report. He lives in West Yorkshire, with his wife and two children.

Short Story Collections

 Tender
Salt Modern Fiction, 2009

Longlisted, 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

 Interview with Mark Illis

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Mark Illis: I think it took about three years altogether. I write regularly for TV, mostly for Emmerdale, so the deadlines for that tended to take precedence. As it happens though, a collection of linked short stories was the ideal thing to write alongside the TV. Because they were short stories, I didn’t face the danger of losing my way within the larger narrative of a novel every time I returned to that unusual little village in the Dales. At the same time, because they were linked, I didn’t face the problem of an entirely blank page whenever I finished a story. The world and the set of major characters remained the same, although of course they developed as the stories moved through time.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

MI: Not at first. The first story I wrote was Gladness, which now comes towards the end of the book. It's from the point of view of a man called Bill Dax, who at this stage is a husband and father in his fifties. After I'd written it I wondered about the point of view of Ali, his wife, so I wrote Hiatus, which is now the previous story in the collection. I think after I'd written that I realised there might be a book of stories to write about this family, and I realised they might not leave me alone until I'd written it, so I then wrote about how Bill and Ali met, twenty-five years earlier, and after that I became interested in their children, and so it grew.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

MI: I followed my own curiosity. I'd written maybe three stories about Bill and Ali before I became anxious to know more about their children, Rosa and Sean, So they each needed a story from their point of view. By this time Ali's charismatic but doomed brother Frank had made several guest appearances in stories, so I felt it was time he had one to himself. Then I went back to the story when Bill and Ali first met and thought I wanted to see what they were like together before they had kids, so Deep Water got written. And all along I had a sense of where this relationship was going – not to a good place – so I knew the direction in which the stories were moving. As for the order, I guess I was lucky – as the stories follow a chronological scheme, following this family from 1974 to 2004, the order was never a problem.

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

MI:  Story can be comforting and familiar and a bit like having your tummy tickled, but at its best I think it's a lot more than that. It means a pleasurable experience that transports me, takes me through time unaware, allows me to visit other lives, and other worlds, while at the same time telling me something about my own life and my own world. It means something that's going to stimulate me and probably challenge me emotionally and intellectually, it's going to make me catch my breath and go Oh, I never expected that, or Oh, I never thought of that before, or Oh, I'd never thought of it like that before … or just generally Oh. And maybe it’ll do all that and tickle my tummy too, but those are some of the best effects of the best stories.

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

MI:  No. Just me.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

MI: I'd be interested to know who their favourite character was, who and what resonated for them. And maybe, if I was feeling strong, what they didn't like, and why not? And I'd like to ask them to recommend the book to their friends and family!

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

MI: It feels good. I had three novels published by Bloomsbury before I was thirty – I’m 45 now, so I'm a sort of ex whiz kid - and since then I've had a few stories published, but otherwise it’s been all TV and radio plays, so to have another book out there feels fabulous. I had a comment on my blog recently from an American woman who told me she'd read my first novel back in the mid-eighties and it had meant a lot to her, and that gave me an enormously warm feeling. It is a great pleasure and privilege to be able to entertain and sometimes touch people in this complicated way.

TSR: What are you working on now?

MI: I’m still immersed in the wonderful world of Emmerdale, but whenever I come up for air I'm writing some more connected short stories and also a novel. I know I said that thing about the danger of losing my way within the larger narrative of a novel but … I want to give it a try.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

MIBad Dirt by Annie Proulx. Her stories are funny and moving and tough, and all written in that wonderful style in which the words sometimes seem to vibrate on the page. In the Land of Dreamy Dreams by Ellen Gilchrist. I love her stories. There's a clear eyed cruelty to a lot of them, but a tenderness too. I don't think you can get to the last line of Revenge without a huge smile on your face. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. It's hard to read these without being influenced by an awareness of his suicide. They're dense, clever stories with overlapping layers of self-consciousness and characters who seem to question or undermine every word they say. An underlying sense of disgust with humanity there, I think. I found it hard to get through, to be honest.