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Robert Shearman

Website: RobertShearman.net

Still under 40yrs old, Robert Shearman, playwright and screenwriter, has rung up an impressive level of achievements including a play produced by Francis Ford Coppola, winning the Sunday Times Playwright Award and, one for SF fans, bringing back the Daleks in Dr Who. 

Short story collections

Tiny Deaths (Comma Press, Nov 2007) 

Winner, 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection; Shortlisted, 2008 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; Longlisted, 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize

Reviewed by Mark Dalligan

Interview with Robert Shearman

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

Robert Shearman: The majority of them were written over the space of four months. I find that a bit embarrassing in retrospect. It feels a bit too fast. But that was the joyous thing about it, looking back - writing a story feels a bit like rehearsing an argument, and by opening up the prosecution in one story, you're inspired to write a defence in another. The more stories I wrote, the more stories I was inspired to write, that bounced off them somehow - and it became a faster and faster process, so that by the final month I was producing maybe two or three a week. My wife found it very amusing, because she knows by nature I'm a horribly lazy writer, and will always rather Google my name on the internet (which is shameful), and watch antique hunt programmes on afternoon telly (which is worse). She found that this sudden change in me, this compulsion to go outside with my notebook and pen, very funny.

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

RS: Oh yes. I was very lucky. I'd written a story for an anthology for Comma Press - and I'd done it with a reasonable amount of bad grace and paranoia, because I'd never written prose much before: I saw myself exclusively as a dramatist and wasn't sure I could get to grips with the pressures of paragraphs and punctuation. I agreed to write them something, on the proviso that if it turned out to be quite quite awful, that we could both walk away without embarrassment. And I loved writing that short story. I loved it, in a way I hadn't loved writing in years. Within months I was asked by Ra Page, the editor there, whether I'd like to have a stab at producing a collection for them, and I almost bit off his hand in enthusiasm. As it was, having finished that first story, I hadn't been able to help myself, and had written another two stories, just for fun. That had already shaped what I thought the book was going to be - something called Tiny Deaths, a slightly quirky collection which dealt with different attitudes towards mortality and sex.

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

RS: It sounds a bit pretentious - but they almost chose themselves. Having gone into the collection with the slightly pompous idea that all the stories were going to be connected by one overarching (and somewhat grandiose) theme, I realised that what I wanted to write kept on kicking against it. If I wrote a relatively realistic tale, my brain would automatically start nagging me to come up with something that was more freewheeling, more absurd, for the next one. And so it went on. I remember writing a couple of stories and thinking what a shame it was that they didn't so strictly fit into the rigid structure I'd set out for the book - only to realise, looking back on them, sometimes only after publication (!), that there was a connection to them after all. I was quite nervous to be tackling a collection straight off, and girded my loins to the task by being quite arrogant with its ambition - and the best of the book now is seeing that arrogance crumble; you can become a slave to your own ambitions. When I write a story, I rarely know where's it going to end - I start with a conceit, or an image, or even just an opening sentence that catches my fancy - but part of the freedom of writing is that you don't necessarily have to follow a map to see where those sentences are going to take you. If that's true of a story, then it's obviously true of a collection of stories! The overarching theme of a book is worth nothing if you can't get the little details right, if the short stories don't work on their own terms.
    In a way, then, writing a book called Tiny Deaths, which was supposed to be contrasting takes on loss and finality, seems to me now an overly self-conscious thing to do. In the end, "tiny deaths" is really a metaphor for what short stories can be. Tales which are so short that even as they burst into life, that their endings are only a few pages away. What I learned writing the book was how endlessly pliable the short story form is, how you can bend it in all sorts of directions, tease all sorts of things out of it. They can be huge in scope, these little tales, or they can be almost embarrassingly intimate. Captured moments as vignettes, or epics in all but word count. It was once I'd realised that, and freed myself up a bit, that the book found its structure. Short story collections can be a bit of a contradiction. Part of the pleasure of short stories is that they can stand on their own, and be taken out of context altogether. But I also love the idea of a book of clearly separate stories which also somehow collide off each other, and in the collision say something about the other stories around them. It's the idea of a short story as a novel. It's really seductive, that idea. I didn't get it right at all in Tiny Deaths, though Ra and I tried hard to find the right order that the stories should be in to lend it that sense of growth and contrast. (And, if I'm brutally honest, because I'm mostly a comedy writer - I wanted the book to be structured so that the gags worked. You don't play a gag which is too similar to another gag, or you only get one laugh. Most of the best comedy is in the dying falls between the jokes, so the stories are positioned in a way that - hopefully - gives that effect the best.)

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

RS:  That's really difficult. I don't know. I think it's an opportunity, really. It's a cover-all word which allows the most perfectly studied piece of prose poetry, which can last only a few lines, or something as vast as The Iliad. And the opportunity is there, when you write a story, to play within any section of the enormous ball park that a 'story' suggests: the intimate or the epic, or sometimes - if you're cleverer than me - both at once.

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

RS: Not the short stories. I don't know why. I think it's because they feel mine. My background has been in writing theatre - for about ten years that was all I ever produced, plays that could be set before an audience that the actors and the author could see every night, and whose reactions could easily be gauged, dependent on whether they laughed or coughed or fidgeted with their bag of chocolates. It makes you feel acutely responsible for them. You stand at the back of the circle and feel pangs when you can sense the audience is no longer engaged with what you're offering them - it's not that they have to be laughing or applauding or anything obvious like that, the best plays are often ones in which the audience sits in a silence so still you can hear a pin drop. And you're aware too that writing new plays for the theatre puts a financial burden upon the management which commissions you; it's always cheaper to put on something established which will get bums on seats, and some sort of gamble is therefore being taken on a brand new script. But there's a danger that all this awareness that you need to do right by your audiences, and by the people who employ you, can make you very self-conscious. You worry too much about reaction, rather than getting the story right. When I moved over to radio and television, I'd no longer be able to hear the audience - but I could still imagine them.
    When the short stories started flooding out of me... I didn't give that audience a second thought. I found I was writing to please myself. (That was mostly because I honestly couldn't imagine anyone reading these stories in the first place - after all, why should they?) I worried at the beginning it'd make me very self-indulgent, but I soon realised my Inner Critic was a hateful buzzing thing which would constantly demand that I try harder, aim higher, be better. He's a right sod, that Inner Critic - but he's also more reliable, I think, than trying to imagine that audience rustling their Milk Chocolate Assortments during your climactic revelations in Act Two. Now when I write stories I only imagine myself, looking back on them in a few years' time, and whether I'll be ashamed of them or not. I know that if I feel I need to make excuses for them as I'm working on them, even to myself, then eventually I'll hate the things.

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

RS: Oh, of course! It's awful doing it, in a way - it's a bit like prodding an aching tooth, but you can't stop yourself. I'd ask what stories they enjoyed, but mostly I'd be wanting to know what stories they didn't - and then fight the urge to cover my ears for the reply. But it's honestly interesting to find out which stories irritate a reader, and that's somehow more satisfying than finding out which ones get a tick. What I love is that no-one ever seems to agree on the stories. I think that's really great, actually - that they can provoke real differences of opinion. There's a story that my wife absolutely hates in Tiny Deaths - she's said that if I ever give a public reading of it, she'll walk out. Other people love that one. Every person who talks to me about the book in detail - when they feel brave enough, because deep down we're all very polite and want to be nice - always champions a handful, and is left cold by a few others. There's just never any common consensus which. That makes me happy. If someone read Tiny Deaths and liked all the stories, I'd almost feel I hadn't tried hard enough to vary the tone, that they were all a bit samey. I think there's something a bit gleeful about reading anyone's collection, and thinking with each new story that the author is saying, "Right, like that one, did you? Give this one a go, then, this one might really piss you off!" It's right that an author should play with the reader like that. All the authors I really love piss me off from time to time. That's their job!

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

RS: Ha! Well, bemused, mostly. When you consider just how many better books there are in the world, it's absolutely staggering to think someone's going to make the effort to wade through my collection rather than something else. But with that comes enormous, enormous pride and gratitude. I'm still thrilled to go into a bookshop and find something I wrote on the shelf - I'd love to say I'd always resisted the urge to take a photograph, or to move my books to pole position... but I'd be lying. (I did go into a Waterstone's once, and found that Tiny Deaths had made it to the special 'staff recommendations' table. And I was so thrilled I beat down my usual shyness, and thanked the people on the checkout. Who all looked rather blankly at me, and told me that none of them had read it - that must have been Teresa, she must have liked it, but she wasn't in today, she was off sick. So thank you, Teresa, very much, and I hope you get well soon!) I've got my book on my own bookshelf, of course, but it's hard to feel too smug about it; it would help if I had a different surname, but as it is all I see is this rather apologetic thin volume in the shadow of the complete plays of Shakespeare. That does somewhat put the achievement into perspective!

TSR: What are you working on now?

RS: I've just finished a second collection of stories, which is called Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, and which will be out early next year. I'm still in that lovely happy place in my brain where I feel blissfully proud of it, and think it's rather good. Then I think it's back to TV and radio for a while. (And I've co-written a Doctor Who novel which is out in December - Doctor Who is a bit like the Mafia, once you've written for it, it never quite lets you go!) But it's very strange - I always assumed that this dip into short story writing was a little detour. I find it so exciting, and I think it's changing my career. I'm gobsmacked by the attention Tiny Deaths has got - shortlisted for the Edge Hill, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor, and currently up for two World Fantasy Awards. (The announcement is in Calgary in November, and I'm flying over with my best suit - fingers crossed!) What's wonderful is that I'm now being approached for more prose work, and publishers want to discuss novels too. I'd never want to abandon short stories, because I love writing them so much, and find them so challenging and exciting to tackle - and I find it hard to believe, whatever I end up writing next, I won't be slinking off to write short stories in the afternoon alongside them.

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

RS: Elizabeth Baines' brilliant Balancing on the Edge of the World - it constantly teases with what the short story can be. In the collection you have stories which teeter on the edge of being verse, and others which suggest the breadth of novels - I'm not sure I've read a book which so clearly plays with the outer edges of what defines a short story. It prompted me to go back to a couple of stories in my new book and work them harder. Alison Macleod's Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction is simply stunning. It does what I wish my collections could do - produce a series of stories which somehow bounce off each other with such skill that they keep on throwing new reflections upon tales you read a hundred pages before. And the final story in the book is just about perfect - it's witty and very clever and so moving. (Don't read it before you've read the others, though. It'd still work. But the cumulative effect of these studies of love is just extraordinary.) And I'm currently reading a faded Penguin book I found in a charity shop - Bernard Malamud's Pictures of Fidelman. I've only just started it, but enjoying it so far.