Susan Tomaselli interviews Peter Wild
Susan Tomaselli: For those who don’t know (though I can’t imagine there’d be that many), what is flash fiction? And why are you a big fan of the form?
Peter Wild: Flash fiction is (I think – although I’m willing to be disabused of the notion) short, short fiction that can be as short as a sentence or two. Richard Brautigan’s tremendous ‘Scarlatti Tilt’ is a good example of flash fiction: “It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver. Or as long as, say, seven or eight hundred words. Brautigan was probably my first introduction to the form. I remember reading Revenge of the Lawn in a state of unmitigated pleasure (and it’s a pleasure that doesn’t diminish – I must’ve read Revenge about six or eight times and it ticks all my boxes, still, even now). Then, of course, there’s Dan Rhodes. His book of short, short stories, Anthropology, was just wonderful. Whenever someone asks me ‘what’s good to read?’ or whenever anyone stays at my house and asks for a borrow of something, I always try and foist some Rhodes on them. The third great flash fiction collection for me is J. Robert Lennon‘s Pieces for the Left Hand. I’m a huge fan of Mr Lennon’s novels but his Pieces for the Left Hand, it’s just exquisite, you know? If you can say that without sounding too untethered from the world. I think flash fiction puts a restraint on the writer to say what they’re saying judiciously, whilst at the same time freeing them up to dabble in areas that they wouldn’t perhaps otherwise dabble in.
ST: It’s quite a contributors list – Rick Moody, Arthur Nersesian, Sam Lipsyte, Michel Faber… How did you put the book together?
PW: It was a bit of a struggle! I think I managed to commission about half the book in the space of a week or so. Which maybe (wrongly) persuaded me that the whole thing would be a complete and utter lark. After that first week, it took me maybe another six months to get another 50 contributors. From the get-go, I wanted the book to be 100 stories by 100 writers but there were a good few times during the commissioning where I wanted to kick my own arse for thinking up something so stressful (and this was magnified during the proofing process, when I was trying to get sign off and amends from all of the contributors). As for who I got… The first fifty were comprised mostly of writers I’d either interviewed and knew (to speak to or pester, distantly) or writers I was just desperate to have in there. All the people you mentioned were in the first fifty. Saying all of that, though, commissioning the second fifty introduced me to writers unfamiliar to me, like Avital Gad-Cykman, Andrew Lewis Conn, Ray Fracalossy and Matthew De Abaitua. So that was really rewarding and refreshing.
ST: I’m led to believe that publishers were reluctant to take a book of (essentially) short stories on. Why do you think that is?
PW: Oh yes, nobody wanted The Flash. I took it to Canongate and Bloomsbury and Penguin and about a half dozen other places and either the charitable aspect of the book put publishers off (I was told, ‘We’ve just done a charity anthology so we don’t really want to do another’) or it was considered massively uncommercial. How a book with some of the biggest writers in the world can be uncommercial I don’t know – but then I’m not a publisher, I don’t know markets and all of that. I just know what I’d like to read. I wanted to read a book like The Flash, which is what drove me to do it. I just think, as far as publishing houses were concerned, I didn’t have Dave Eggers or Zadie Smith or ]Nick Hornby (who, it strikes me, are the Big 3 when it comes to ‘we’ll publish your shopping list if you let us’). Thank the Lord for Heidi James and her Social Disease for coming to the rescue!
ST: I really like the painting on the cover; it recalls Grant Wood‘s American Gothic. How did it come about?
PW: Me too! I love that painting! It’s part of a series painted by the novelist Steven Sherrill (who is the author of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break and Visits from the Drowned Girl, two of my favourite books of the last decade). It just seemed to perfectly set the tone of the book for me. When I look at that painting, I see a woman who is fed up with being ignored by her husband who flashes her breast so that, when he finally sees the painting, he’ll see what she was doing and either get upset or realise he’s been neglecting her. Saying that, within the confines of the painting I think the ‘painter’ is very much a photographer (the way the people are standing is very much a photo-pose) so the whole thing is kindof metaphorical. Maybe she isn’t flashing her breast at all. Maybe we just think she is. Maybe we’re imposing the breast on her. In a perfect world (with a limitless supply of money) I would have Steven Sherrill paintings all over my house. He’s painting a new series right now involving TVs. They’re great too. When I grow up, I think I want to be Steven Sherrill.
ST: Is there anyone not in there you’d have liked to have contributed? The Flash II, perhaps?
PW: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith & Nick Hornby! Hah! I do actually keep a sortof mental list of who I’d like to commission. Nathan Englander would be good (I really liked his novel and his book of short stories). George Saunders. I’m a huge George Saunders fan. Douglas Coupland, ditto. Magnus Mills, ditto. Paul Auster. Sarah Hall. Peter Hobbs. Kelly Link. T.C. Boyle. Cathi Unsworth. Neil Gaiman. There are a few writers I’ve discovered this year – people like Andrew Kaufman and Austin Grossman and Catherine O’Flynn and David Gaffney. Would like to include them all in something. At some point, I’d like to do a sort of comics anthology. Would love to get people like Adrian Tomine and Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen and Matt Kindt in a book, alongside regular short stories. That would make me very happy!
ST: Aside from The Flash, you’re also the editor of a series of books for Serpent’s Tail, the first being Perverted by Language. How’s that project coming along?
PW: Well… I think I got a royal kicking for Perverted by Language. It seemed to me that people were reacting both to the stories (which is fine, like ’em or dislike ’em, it’s your prerogative) and the idea (which I think a lot of reviewers misunderstood). The idea was to take a band, mix in a bunch of writers who like the band, get them to pick a song and then use it as the basis (the inspiration) for a short story. Like it said on the front cover, it was fiction INSPIRED BY The Fall. Not fiction ABOUT The Fall. There were reviews that rated the stories and there were reviews that seemed to harp on about the fact that the short stories weren’t Fall songs. Which strikes me as a little bit like complaining about wardrobes for not being cream cakes. Not that I’m comparing short stories to wardrobes (or Fall songs to cream cakes). All I set out to do was fashion an anthology of short stories that might possibly get people who don’t routinely read short stories reading short stories (whilst at the same time hopefully satisfying people who DID read short stories…). At times (watching the Late Review, for example, who stitched us up good and proper, or enduring The Fall’s manager Alan Wise who ripped into us at the launch) this seemed to be a crime that placed me on a pedestal alongside the likes of Chris Langham and Hitler. Saying all of that, though, critical reviews aside, the book is selling really well. Which just goes to show you.
I’m currently in the midst of putting the finishing touches to the Sonic Youth book, which is due for publication next April. The publishers asked me to re-jig it a bit in the light of Perverted By Language, so I had to ditch about a half a dozen writers and commission four or five others and I’m reordering things and tinkering. It’s shaping up now. There’s talk of a London launch and a Laugharne launch with writers and possibly band members… All of which should be cool!
ST: You’re not only an editor, but a writer as well. I’m interested in your influences: was there a particular book that got you thinking, I want to do this? Or even, I can do better than this? Or was the writing always part of a plan?
PW: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since being a kid. In my twenties, I did all of the routine things (sending chapters out, approaching publishers, agents etc.) without getting tremendously far. Then, when I was 28, I left London, moved ever so gradually back to Manchester where I hail from and stopped sending things out (although I didn’t stop writing). Between 28 and maybe 32 I developed a capacious bottom drawer and a deep-seated sense that everything I did was mostly crap. This was when Bookmunch sort of kicked off. There was that Raymond Carver thing about how, when he didn’t have the time to write fiction, he wrote book reviews as a way of keeping his hand in. Bookmunch in the beginning was very much that for me. Then, when Perverted By Language was accepted by Serpent’s Tail, it occurred to me (because I was committing the worst editorial sin of including my own fiction alongside the fiction I was commissioning) that my little contributor info at the back of the book would be somewhat unremarkable compared to the other contributors, so I started dusting off stories from the bottom drawer and sending them out into the world. In my head, at the beginning of 2006, I thought: if I can get ten stories accepted I won’t be such a joker. In the end I had over fifty stories published prior to the publication of Perverted By Language and I’ve had a fair few nominations and prizes and things, which make me feel less of a joker and less like everything I do is crap. Which isn’t to say that all of the ‘success’ (hah!) has gone to my head. I still have frequent sloughs of despond. But I think the sloughs are (occasionally) a good thing.
ST: I think you’re probably the busiest man I know. What’s next for you?
PW: In the immediate future, there’s the Sonic Youth anthology in April 2008. Prior to that there’s an anthology set to be published by Flax Books in January called Before the Rain, featuring six of my stories and six stories by up and coming writers Mollie Baxter and Tom Fletcher. We’re doing a wee tour with that in the New Year. And I’m writing… As part of the Flax book, I now have a writing coach who reads whatever I send him. So I’m writing something big – or at least something that isn’t a short story – to see if I can get a book of my own stuff on the old bookshop shelves. And he’s thrashing every line within an inch of its life. Which is probably just what it deserves.
ST: Finally, have you heard of Tobias Wenzel’s project? What is the question you’ve always wanted someone to ask you?
PW: I hadn’t heard of Tobias Wenzel until you mentioned him (so I toddled off, Googled him and had a bit of a ‘splore round the site). It’s an interesting idea. What question haven’t you been asked that you’d like to be asked? For me, being where I am in my ‘career’, there’s a danger of saying things like ‘would you accept a million pounds to quit work and do this writing thing full-time?’ That’s a question I’d like to be asked. It wouldn’t even have to be a million pounds. I’m a reasonable man. We could negotiate. Or: Can I represent you? That would be a good question to be asked too. On the site, the writers go for the question that gets to the root of themselves (as they perceive themselves to be). So, I think my question would be: why do you keep writing? That feels like a big, lonely, fearful question that would no doubt raise a heck of a lot of dust. So that would be the question. But I don’t have to answer it, do I?
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika as well as a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine, where she writes on comics.