Once a special needs teacher and cultural activist, Jan Woolf  is now a writer of both fiction and non-fiction as well as a painter and producer. In 2009 she became the first recipient of the Harold Pinter Writer's Residency award at the Hackney Empire. This is her first collection of short stories.

Short Story Collections

Fugues On A Funny Bone
(Muswell Press, 2010)

reviewed by Sara Baume

Interview with Jan Woolf

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

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.

TSR: Did you 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.

TSR: How did 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.

TSR: What 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.

TSR: 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.

TSR: Is there 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.

TSR: 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.

TSR: What are 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)
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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 >>>