Gemma Seltzer is a London-based writer and literary blogger. She is the author of daily fiction blog Speak to Strangers, which has now been published in book format. She also developed the online project Look up at the Sky to explore writing and walking.

Short Story Collections

Speak To Strangers
(Penned In The Margins, 2011)

reviewed by Emma Young

Interview with Gemma Seltzer

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

Gemma Seltzer: Exactly 100 days! Speak to Strangers started life as a daily blog of 100 hundred-word short stories based on random conversations with Londoners. The concept of the project was to try to capture the exact moment of interaction in words, which often meant writing as soon as it had taken place, or at least shortly after. I liked the challenge of writing instantly, depicting my direct experiences, and then sharing the story in its raw form. A year after I’d completed the blog, it was published by Penned in the Margins. We did edit for sense and to check each story was exactly 100 words, but essentially the series is very close to the original.

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

GS: I knew I would write 100 stories, but I didn’t consider the individual stories as a collection until I’d finished the project. Writing the final story, in which I address the stranger as the last I encounter, was actually very powerful. Looking back on the full sequence, I can see how they have an accumulative effect, showing the intimate connections between myself and all the strangers in the city.

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

GS: The stories all prompted by a real life situation but were fictionalised version of events. I wrote a story for each day, so the ordering was predefined as part of the project rules. However, we did switch a couple of the stories around for the book, to open with some of the strongest pieces.

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

GS: A story is a tale told by one person to another; in the way only they can tell. It’s using the words only the storyteller could, presented inimitably. For me, stories should be like barely audible whispers, drawing a reader in and encouraging them to imagine the parts they can’t quite hear.

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

GS:  I often imagine myself reading the work myself in front of an audience, and also being asked to talk about it. If I can do both confidently, I know I’m on the right track. If not, I need to work harder.

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

GS: Who do you see the clearest? The Strangers – and if so, which ones? – or me, as the story writer and the Speaker?

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

GS: Fabulous. It’s great to receive feedback and comments from readers, knowing that your thoughts on paper have travelled across the country and are having an impact on others. The project was also intended as an instruction – Go, Speak to Strangers – so I hope book buyers are also inspired to do just that.

TSR: What are you working on now?

GS:  One of the reasons I turned to very short fiction is to offer an exercise in concision, so I could really focus on my writing, sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word. I was writing a very long novel, and feeling lost within it. By writing these smaller pieces, I began to see the detail in the novel again. I’ve also started writing longer short stories now (well, on average 2,000 words!) and am working on ideas for a couple of new projects, including a year-long online collaboration with a photographer.

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

GS:  I’m a huge fan of the short story, and regularly dip into my favourites by writers such as Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore. I recently read Margaret Drabble’s collected stories, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, having seen her read the first story she’d ever penned in the 1960s, which I thought was word-perfect. Amy Hempel's stories are sharp and unsettling, often fragmented but with a fragile beauty. The anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead edited by Jeffrey Eugenides’ includes many of the writers named above, and a beautiful Grace Paley piece which includes the fantastic, domestic, dreamy line, "In a hazy litter of love and leafy green vegetables…I smiled."
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Find out what other authors, from Aimee Bender to Sana Krasikov, said about their collections, what the word "story" means to them, and how it feels to know that people are buying your books! More interviews >>>