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.
with Mark Illis
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
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.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
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.
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
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
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?
MI: Bad 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
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.
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.