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Stephen Shieber


Website: LeavingTheRoomWithDignity.blogspot.com

Stephen Shieber lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from Northumbria University and has published his short fiction on the Internet and in three print anthologies, including two for Tonto Books. He's currently working on a novel as well as a second collection of stories.

Short Story Collections

Being Normal
Tonto Books, 2008

Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

 Interview with Stephen Shieber

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

Stephen Shieber: At a guess, I would say the collection represents about 5 years of work. This sounds a lot, but it's five years in fits and starts of activity. Once the collection was accepted for publication, I had a period of 4-5 months in which to edit it with the help of a mentor (Laura Hird, author of Born Free). Some stories, such as Suburbia were written during that editing process. Others, such as Solitary Pursuits had been sitting on my computer for an awfully long time, waiting for a home.

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

SS: Not at all. I intended from the beginning to be a novelist. Short stories were something I enjoyed doing, but were a distraction from writing a novel. Some were written for various submissions – including to the Tonto Books anthologies – which was the beginning of my relationship with my publisher. Others were written because the characters and themes demanded my attention. It was only when I was struggling with completing a novel I liked and believed in that I examined all these stories I had and saw the possibility of a collection. I pitched the idea to Tonto and, thankfully, they bought it. Being Normal was born.

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

SS: Short stories use up a great deal of creative material, so to put together a collection is hard work. One or two pieces didn't make it in to book because we (Laura Hird and myself) felt that they were too similar in tone and theme. This left me with gaps, which I quickly had to fill. Thankfully, desperation provides inspiration. The final job of the edit was to decide the order. We began by placing Being Normal at the beginning, because I dislike collections where you wade through everything else to get to the title story. From there, we thought about the narrators of each story and their themes. Because there's a lot of darkness in the collection, we tried to balance the most hopeless stories with the lighter ones. Eventually, we had an order which we then didn't question. It's a Sisyphean task otherwise.

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

SS:  They're a snapshot, a journey through a period of time with a character that we somehow identify with. Most of all, I believe stories should hold up a mirror to ourselves and invite us to measure our beliefs and values against those of the character. And, if it's not a short unit of entertainment at the same time, then what's the point?

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

SS:  I suspect, like most writers, I write for myself. Writing with a specific reader in mind, I would imagine, is to doom yourself to failure – you can't please all of the people all of the time. Having said that, I write for a type of reader in Being Normal, as the book's dedication makes clear. These particular stories are for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, looking in on the lives of others.

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

SS: There are all the usual questions – What did you enjoy? Why would you recommend it to other people? Did you laugh at the bits that were meant to be funny? Did the sad bits affect you? And there's the questions I would like to ask of people who've read the book and don't know me. For example, Why did you buy this book, in particular? What's your impression of the author, from the stories you've read?

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

SS: It's not so much the buying that interests me. It's the fact that people have turned to my words, my characters for entertainment and, hopefully, reflection. I find it hard to believe that the book's out there, having a life of its own, being passed between friends, being left on airplanes (a friend confessed this to me the other day), being recycled in charity shops. And Being Normal has travelled – it's in various European countries, there's at least one copy in Canada and another one in Australia. That boggles my mind, when just 18 months ago it was simply a document on my laptop.

TSR: What are you working on now?

SS: Well, it's back to that elusive novel! After spending six months writing myself up a blind alley, I finally have a plot and concept that I'm happy with. The book is called Save Me and should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, as well as Joanna Briscoe's Sleep with Me. It looks at the consequences of infidelity in a close-knit circle of evangelical Christians. I'm also working on a second collection of short stories. It's called Leaving the Room with Dignity which is also the title of my blog) I hope that the collection, when it's eventually finished, will appeal to those people who enjoyed Being Normal without raking over old ground.

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

SS: I try to read as many as possible, to give me a greater sense of the form and the traditions associated with it. Recently, I've read: Helen Simpson – Getting a Life. The stories are very much about women and their place in the world but, as I write female characters quite often, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Simpson's incisive wit and descriptive language are a joy. Hilary Mantel – Learning to Talk. Mantel is one of my favourite authors, although this collection, while beautifully written, left me wanting more. The range of material was quite narrow and autobiographical. Worth it for the use of imagery alone. Jeremy Dyson – Never Trust a Rabbit. Dyson is one of the creative minds behind The League of Gentlemen. The stories in this collection are dark and difficult to categorise, as you might expect. A deeply satisfying read.