Tom Lee was born in Essex in 1974 and attended the University of East Anglia, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Goldsmith College. His stories have appeared in Zoetrope All-Story in the United States, The Dublin Review in Ireland and Zembla magazine in the UK, among others, as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio 4

Short Story Collections

(Harvill Secker, 2009)

reviewed by Carol Reid

Interview with Tom Lee

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

Tom Lee: The oldest story, Greenfly, was written in 2001 soon after I had really started to write seriously and the most recent, You Must Change Your Life, in 2007.

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

TL: I suppose i hoped I would publish a collection one day but it was very much story by story with no overarching idea about what a collection would look or feel like. I was just trying to write and it’s hard enough to do that without thinking beyond it. Partly because of the long period over which they were written, as well the different places I was living and things i was doing, I knew there would be a lot of variation between the stories, technically, stylistically and content wise. I thought that might be a problem for a collection but actually in the end that’s one of the things I like about it and which people comment on (favourably, I think).
      Looking back now,
I can see that a lot of what turned out to be my preoccupations or themes (terrible word) were there from the beginning, as well as a certain atmosphere, so maybe there is a coherency to it after all.

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

TL: Well, I am a very very slow writer so there aren’t many stories that didn’t go in the collection. That obviously makes the selection process fairly easy. Deciding the order was more difficult although I’m not certain in the end how much difference it makes. It came down to some quite prosaic stuff like making sure all "the cocaine stories" , as I like to think of them, didn’t come one after the other and bore or turn people off. There are also a number of stories that are set, loosely, in Latin America and I wasn’t sure whether to group them together or sprinkle them through the collection. In the end I went for something in between which I think works ok. It is quite hard to know whether to go for a kind of continuity or chop and change to keep things interesting or surprising.

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

TL: Think i’ll save this one for my PhD thesis, if that’s ok.

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

TL:  Drinks whisky at lunchtime, has a subscription to The Atlantic Monthly, a tennis coach and a summer house on Fire Island, wife a former model, mistress in the Secretarial Pool. Sorry, i have been watching too much Mad Men. (There is a great episode in this in which one of the advertising men causes a sensation in the office by getting a short story published. A jealous colleague then attempts to pimp out his wife to get his own work published. Clearly these were great days for the short story writer to be alive. And therefore perhaps this guy really is my ideal reader).
   The sensible answer is no, not at all, at least not consciously. I have a small number of people who read the stuff when it’s fairly well drafted, whose opinions and editing is very useful, but that’s not the same thing. I certainly don’t think about how something is going to play with a reader – that seems disastrous. I really write to indulge myself, not to perform any service for anyone else, so in that sense i suppose i write what i would like to read myself. Second guessing what your reader would like or expects is very dubious, unless you are Dan Brown and that is your whole business.

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

TL: So, was it worth the hassle (of me writing it - not you reading it, it only took you 2 hours)? No, not really – again, i’m only half interested in discussing the nuts and bolts of the book and find myself quite tongue tied or faking enthusiasm when people ask about it (it’s much easier and more enjoyable to answer questions in this way).

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

TL: Good. I particularly like it when people say they went into a bookshop and found it because i always assume that you can’t get it anywhere. Apparently there is already a signed copy in Oxfam on Tottenham Court Road, but perhaps someone was winding me up. The best thing has been getting emails out of the blue from friends of friends or people i haven’t seen for a long time, saying that they enjoyed it, when there was no need for them to take the time or pretend to like it. Then of course there are the close friends who either haven’t read it or are honest enough not to lie about liking it. We don’t talk about them.
      The reaction and reviews have also made me see things about the stories that I was maybe only dimly aware of – so i now think I have better idea of what my writing is "like". The Big Issue described much of the collection as "second rate experimental filler" which did rather rankle, firstly because i think my work is really very UNexperimental and secondly because if it takes 7 years and you are only producing filler then you are in real trouble.
   Overall, though, as
I said, I write mainly for myself so i’m a little bit insulated against criticism. Perhaps if the book had been totally panned I wouldn’t be so relaxed about it. But of course if people read what you have written it’s a bonus, a big bonus, especially if it comes with bundles of 50 notes (which it doesn’t).

TSR: What are you working on now?

TL: I am one of those who is superstitious about talking about it – or maybe it is just defensiveness or a covering up for inactivity. However, I am quite suspicious of people who can talk in great detail and clearly about something they haven’t yet written or are still working on. There is a Hemingway quote where he says that anyone who talks a lot about their writing is probably no good at it. For me it is too much of a fraught, nervous process to reflect upon until it is over. And anyway, once it’s over, you want to write something else. When you talk about an idea it inevitably sounds much duller than it did when it was floating about in your head – so best not to take the shine off it by doing that.
   For me the trick with writing is to transfer the feeling or sense you have onto paper in a way that keeps the whole thing sparking. I remember reading an interview where a writer –
I forget who – said that it was important never to look at a good idea directly, much better to catch it now and again out of the corner of your eye. If you look at it face on it may well disappear. That makes sense to me. I don’t like to consider something too carefully otherwise it might just evaporate.
   How about that for an elaborate and rambling evasion of the question? All
I can say is: you’ll see. Or maybe you won’t.

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

TL: I’ve just finished James Lasdun’s latest It’s beginning to hurt, which i loved. He has written 2 other collections and 2 novels which are all also wonderful. The stories have a perfectly heightened atmosphere of anxiety, which speaks to me, the feeling of people sliding irrevocably towards something grim or compromising, a crack in their personality opening up to swallow them. The writing is super-clear, uncluttered and vivid.
   I’ve also recently discovered JD Salinger’s Nine Stories, rather late on, probably because he has never let the stories be anthologised. There is the feeling of pure and natural talent at work (a feeling i think you also get with Fitzgerald) although there is of course perfect crafting too. The dialogue is out of this world. From the opener, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, it just blows your head off (excuse the pun, Salinger fans) and it’s easy to see why he was such a sensation when these started being published in The New Yorker. My copy is a 1953 edition, stamped by the Las Vegas Clark County Library District, complete with hard plastic cover.
   The other person I have been reading, or re-reading, is Flannery O’Connor.
Utterly unique, completely merciless and extremely funny. Most good writing makes you want to imitate it but O’Connor is so unique in her approach and her material that you know this would be hopeless and pointless – but you can be inspired by the genius of them. As is obvious, i tend to lean fairly heavily on the Americans (or adopted Americans in the case of Lasdun) – Tobias Wolff and John Cheever are two other favourites. But in terms of the recent history of the short story for me that is undoubtedly where it is at.
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