Short Stories, Sardine Burials and Wishes Coming True by Catherine Czerkawska

This week, my little collection of four short stories was published in eBook form by Hearst Magazines UK. They are one of the few mega magazine publishers not to desert the short story, but to carry on publishing quality short fiction, even when other publications were inexplicably consigning their short stories to the scrap heap. My story The Butterfly Bowl - now in the collection A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture - was first published by them years ago.
Excuse the interruption, but The Butterfly Bowl is one of the most beautiful stories I've ever read! - Sue Price.
     Turns out the form wasn’t dead, but only sleeping. Writers loved it and readers too. (And isn't it wonderful that the Nobel Prize judges have recognised it with Alice Munro's award this year?) Readers especially seem to appreciate the short story in eBook form – long enough to start and finish on a bus or train to work, or last thing at night before sleep. And when beautifully, densely written - such as the stories of William Trevor - able to be reread again and again. It makes sense, therefore, that Hearst Magazines UK have embraced digital and are publishing some small collections of short stories as eBooks, working with writers they have published before. 
     I’m flattered to be in such good company .

     Three of the stories in this collection have had previous outings on paper. A Bad Year for Trees - set in a Scottish country park - made it into an anthology of Scottish Women Writers. The Sampler was published (albeit in a previous and very different version) in a small literary magazine. Sardine Burial had the longest and most interesting life and it’s still going on.

     Just occasionally, as a writer, you come across an idea that stays with you for half a lifetime. It’s as though you strike a seam that’s richer than you ever suspected and you find yourself wanting to carry on mining it, sometimes for years. We tend to think that when a writer visits and revisits a character or set of characters it’s at the behest of a publisher. And sometimes that’s the case. But not always. Sometimes you just can’t bear to leave a character or characters alone. Or perhaps they won’t let you alone. It’s an odd feeling. Mostly, you finish a book, mourn the time spent with these people, but know you have to let go and move on. From time to time, thought, you can’t do it. The characters seem to assume a life of their own and they carry on living it in your head, whether you like it or not. There can be two or three books going on at once in there. (No wonder we have problems focusing on the real world!) 

      Back in the mid 80s, not long after our wedding, my husband, who was working as a charter yacht skipper, was employed to take a large company catamaran down to the Canaries for the winter. He left in October and after Christmas I flew down to join him at anchor in Los Cristianos Bay. I was enchanted by the Canaries in all possible ways, and seem to have been writing about them on and off ever since.

The short story called Sardine Burial was my first attempt. I’m still fond of it, for all kinds of reasons. Living and working in the Canaries, I quickly became aware of how the incomers formed exclusive little groups. I’m not sure if it’s still going on, but back then, there was a faint tendency to despise the locals and I doubt if things have changed all that much. I once sat on an ordinary Tenerife service bus and heard an English lady fulminating loudly because the driver didn’t speak English. 
 ‘You’d think,’ she said, for all to hear, ‘that they’d learn to speak the language, wouldn’t you?’

          People living and working on boats form groups too of course. But because they tend to come from all points of the compass and speak all kinds of different languages, especially in the Canaries which is the setting off point for transatlantic crossings, there isn’t the same inclination to huddle together looking for an English breakfast and a nice pot of tea. It was that kind of attitude I wanted to explore in Sardine Burial – and which I’ve blogged about for AE before. What if I turned the usual ‘tourist seduced by attractive Spanish waiter’ idea on its head and made the Spanish waiter the good guy? Vulnerable, too.

          The story did well for me. It was published in a magazine and then I was asked to turn it into a radio play. The Burial of the Sardine of the title is a ceremony that marks the end of Carnival. Young men in particular dress up as old women, and mourn the (big, wooden) sardine loudly, sobbing and weeping and accosting spectators, as it is trundled down to the seashore and ceremonially burnt. It’s a ritual of misrule if you like. Then, in another ‘what if’ moment, I thought – what would happen if a shy recently divorced Scotswoman married a good hearted but flamboyant Spaniard? On impulse. Would they both repent at leisure? Or could they just possibly make it work? I’m still not entirely sure. This is an ongoing fictional experiment.

          But back then, I rewrote the story as a novel. It was published, but I was never very happy with it. Now, I’m in the middle of reworking that first novel comprehensively and turning it into a whole series of books of which the first, Orange Blossom Love, is due for publication soon. It isn’t so much a rewrite as a complete re-imagining with an awful lot more of it from the man’s point of view. Couldn’t leave well alone, you see. I needed to find out more.

          I spent two winters in the Canaries, one aboard a boat and one in an apartment with a new baby (the result of that first winter aboard the boat!) Later, back in Scotland, we had a young Catalan student staying with us for a couple of summers. I loved his energy and his uncompromising self assurance. Loved the way he said hodgehedge instead of hedgehog, his dozens of T-shirts (we called him T-shirt boy) and above all I loved the way he could play football with our toddler son – who grew up to be a T-shirt boy himself - and charm the family grannies too, when many Scottish boys of the same age were succumbing to the great teenage silence.

          Later still, I had a spell teaching English as a foreign language, filling in for somebody on maternity leave at our local FE college. I had a mixed class which included several Finns and a Spaniard. The problem of getting the Finns to say anything at all (I knew about this, having taught EFL in Finland for a couple of years where you had to practically dance on the ceiling to get them to engage in conversation – but I did it!) was compounded by the problem of getting the Spaniard to shut up, even for a moment, so that the Finns could get a word in edgeways.

          All of this, which I had only begun to consider in that early story, has somehow found its way into the new novel(s). Orange Blossom Love is ready to go, Bitter Oranges might be done by Christmas. There’s a third planned, Hera’s Orchard, but I’ve labelled it a series because I’m simply not sure how far I want to go with it. It depends on Luis and Margaret and what happens next. But they all began with that first short story.

An intriguing Scottish house a bit like this one!

          Meanwhile, there’s a fourth and final story in the collection and I think it’s possibly my favourite: The Wish. It’s about a girl called Rosie and her musician father. It’s sad but not really. It’s about making the best of things. It’s about an intriguing Scottish house and a very strange place indeed. And I think I need to revisit them. Especially Rosie. I get the feeling it’s another creation that could run and run. It’s just a case of which character will win out in the end. At the moment, my money’s still on the sexy Spaniard and the orange blossoms, but there’s a George who isn’t even in The Wish, yet, although he belongs there. He has an unexpected and surprising gift, and he’s nipping at my imagination.

          Watch this space.


Dennis Hamley said…
Catherine, that's a lovely homage to the short story, the Queen of literary forms. And I've seen how wonderful yours are. Yes, Alice Munro's Nobel Prize is fitting recognition of short fiction's uniqueness as well as homage to a great writer. I enjoyed what you say about following characters through and returning to them. I'm finding that rather starkly with my characters in Out of the Mouths of babes at this moment and I often wonder how Joslin de Lay and Gyll are getting on in Ireland. I may yet visit them. Years ago we too used to have boys from the Canaries staying with us the the summer. They were all joys to be with.
Jan Needle said…
Wonderful stuff, Catherine, and you've given someone a great title too. (Me, if you're not careful) The Great Teenage Silence. I love it.

Talking of Finns, my second favourite Finnish story is about the man who sent a text to his best friend suggesting they meet up for a drink. After they'd sat in the bar in traditional Finnish silence for half an hour, the man who'd sent the text said: "Well, how are you, by the way?' At which his companion leaned across the table and smashed him in the mouth. 'You bastard!' he shouted. 'I thought you said Come out for a drink!'
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Catherine (and I second Sue's 'intrusive' remark). I love the fact that you're living a simultaneous reality through your characters because that's what happens, isn't it? I remember Terence Blacker writing once about 'Life block' as opposed to 'Writers' block'. His point was that we become so involved with our characters and get to know them so well that they become more real than the people around us. We slip easily into their company but find it more difficult to relate to real people. The fictional world gives us at least an impression of control and understanding, but the real one is baffling.
Lydia Bennet said…
great news about the book Catherine, short stories keep going regardless of trad publishers' scorn. They fit well, like ereaders, with commuting etc, as does poetry. Characters do tend to 'move in' and refuse to leave!
Jan, feel free to nick The Great Teenage Silence. Meanwhile, I want to know what your FIRST favourite Finnish story is! With my young male students, back then, I found that the trick was to get them to talk about ice hockey. They would talk endlessly about that, drawing diagrams and even invite me out to games. But they are a fairly silent people. They tell me it's the forests. I always think Tolkien's ents are inspired by Finns. The language reminds me of Finnish and they are definitely not a 'hasty' people although you've got to love them! And thank-you to Susan for her aside about The Butterfly Bowl. I've just found the original artwork from the magazine illustration - I bought it at the time - and it's beautiful.
Jan Needle said…
Catherine, my number one is more personal and quirky. My friend Andrew Rosthorn, a life enthusiast who doesn't have a pessimistic bone in his body, was standing at a bus stop in Helsinki at five o'clock one morning, surrounded by workers waiting for their bus in freezing fog and sleet. He didn't know any of them, but (unlike Finns) finds it impossible not to talk. 'Why do you Finns always look so bloody miserable?' he asked (a pretty crazy question given the circs!) After a few seconds one of them responded quietly: 'If you'd fought five losing wars against Russia, you wouldn't look so happy, either.'

Andrew was silenced.
Bill Kirton said…
I can't quite match the Finnish anecdotes but they reminded me of a book title I was assured was genuine by friends in Rhode Island - "'Yes' 'No' and other Vermont dialogues."

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