Wendy Perriam is an English novelist and graduate of the University of Oxford who wrote her first novel at eleven. She has had sixteen novels published and seven short story collections. Her work has received critical acclaim and she has been described as "a writer of authority and skill, with a wicked ear for conversational quirks" by The Sunday Times. In 2002, she won the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award for Tread softly.

Short Story Collections

The Queen's Margarine
(Robert Hale, 2009)

reviewed by Angela Readman

I'm On The Train (2012)

Little Marvel (2008)

The Biggest Female In The World (2007)

Laughter Class

Virgin In The Gym

Dreams, Demons and Desire (2001)

Interview with Wendy Perriam

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

Wendy Perriam: It took about a year. I often write the first draft of each story very quickly, but then I like to revise and polish it. However, a short-story collection never takes as long as a novel, because, with novels, there’s much more planning and structuring involved and often a lot of research, too.

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

WP: Yes, I had a contract from my publisher, so, right from the start, I knew I was producing a collection. I think this is more satisfying, partly because individual stories are often difficult to sell. The good old days of numerous outlets for short stories are, sadly, gone. In the past, I used to write short stories for magazines such as Cosmopolitan, She, Honey and Good Housekeeping.

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

WP: I didn’t have to choose which ones to include, because they were all written specifically for this collection. However, I spent ages trying to decide on the order. Obviously, I prefer to start with what I judge to be one of the strongest stories, but I try to avoid a really downbeat one, or one with an unsympathetic character. I also give some thought to the last story in the book, as I like to end the book with a definite cadence, as in music. As for the ones in between, I’ll try to balance longer ones with shorter; downbeat ones with upbeat; stories featuring elderly people with those featuring younger ones. I’ll even consider the season in which the story is set and try to alternate those that take place in winter with those that take place in spring or summer. So having spent all this time and thought on the matter, I’m always disconcerted to hear from friends or readers that they just dipped into the book and read the stories in a completely random order!

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

WP: One of the advantages of the short-story form is that it is highly versatile. It can vary in length from 500 words to 8,000. David Eggers, for example, has written stories comprising just a single paragraph, whereas Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman extends to 60 pages. A short story can have a definite plot and a narrative-arc, or it can just provide a moment of truth, or change, or revelation. It may be a profound social comment, or little more than a sense- impression. It can include many characters or just one; encompass various different settings, or be restricted to one place.
   However, the essence of a short story, as I see it, is compression and concision. Sub-plots, or long descriptions or analyses of either characters or settings don’t work well in short stories. The novel-form thrives on elaboration and expansion, but the short-story form is more about economy and distillation, and can perhaps be seen as standing halfway between the novel and poetry. Another important constituent, in my view, is a certain ambiguity. A short story does not need to be fully resolved; instead, certain questions can be left unanswered, to resonate in the reader’s mind.

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

WP: Much as I love to have readers – and, indeed, I’m extremely grateful to them for spending time and trouble reading what I’ve written – I don’t have them in mind when planning or writing the stories. I feel this would inhibit me, in that I’d try too hard to please them, or maybe avoid difficult or depressing subjects, for fear of alienating them. For the same reason, I refuse to “write for the market” – i.e. choose a fashionable subject that I hope will win me attention and/or sales. Instead, I follow my gut-instinct and my personal obsessions; many of which spring from childhood. The theme that haunts me most is the conflict between duty, obedience, self-denial and submission, on the one hand, and hedonism, rebellion, and breaking free of confines and convention, on the other. This stems from the fact that I was born a naturally wild and unconventional child to a very strict Roman Catholic family, with great stress on discipline and "proper" behavior. And, when I was sent to a convent boarding school, the pressures to be good and to deny oneself for God increased substantially. So I struggled to be what I wasn’t – to adopt the role model of the Virgin Mary, when I was, by temperament, very far from being meek, submissive and unquestioning!

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

WP: Several of the stories in this collection are sad or downbeat, or feature neurotic characters. I suppose this is because I have quite a bleak view of the world, and I suspect that many of us are far more disturbed or fearful than the "happy" image we project. But I’d like to ask my readers whether they agree with this view or not. And do they find the sad stories off-putting, and prefer the upbeat and more "normal" ones such as High Speed 2 or Tulips?

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

WP: It’s a wonderful feeling and I’m always deeply honored if people buy my books. It’s profoundly satisfying to know that someone is willing to spend time and money reading what I have written. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a book is dead without readers. Readers bring it alive and bring their own imagination, insights and experience to flesh out what I’ve put on the page. This interaction between writer and reader is, to me, absolutely crucial. A perceptive reader can often see things in the work that I myself failed to see, or interpret it in a deeper way.

TSR: What are you working on now?

WP: A novel about three generations of women. I don’t want to say too much about it at this stage, as a work-in-progress is rather a fragile and uncertain thing. As I work on it from day to day, or month to month, I often encounter problems and have to change direction or incorporate new elements so I prefer to keep it fairly private until it reaches its final form.
   However, my next short-story collection, I’m on the train! is finished and due to be published in April 2012. The title-story was sparked by a garrulous woman beside me, endlessly chatting on her mobile, when I was travelling by train to my cousin’s funeral. I also wrote a story based on the funeral itself. Short stories often arise from real-life events, or from such tiny incidents as the phone-pest, but I then change and develop them into something very different.

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

WP: Pulse, by Julian Barnes; Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien and Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin. Other short-story writers I greatly admire include Shena Mackay, Anne Enright, A. L. Kennedy and Jackie Kay.
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

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 >>>