To cut a long story short . . . . Kathleen Jones on short fiction
But, readers like short stories and writers like writing them. The result is a flourishing Indie-publishing scene for short fiction - not just in book form, but also in E-zines and blogs and Facebook groups. People are reading Flash fiction on their mobile phones and downloading stories onto their I-pads from sites where you can read any kind of fiction from erotic to murderous, and cozy to experimental. There are markets for the short story everywhere on the internet. Unfortunately very few of them pay anything.
It's also a very female-centred scene, reflecting the BBC shortlist. The chair of the judges, Mariella Frostrup, said that the genre was perfectly "suited to the innovative brilliance of women writers", but I'm reluctant to accept that sexist statement and would be interested in the opinions of others. Personally I think perhaps it's because the form suits our crowded lives - juggling relationships, children, house-keeping, work and writing. From the reader's point of view too, the short story suits our fast, peripatetic life-style. Katherine Mansfield, who spent her life moving from place to place, desperate for a cure for her TB, wrote that if the house was on fire you could hope to finish a story before the staircase was properly alight, but the house would have burned down (and you with it) before you finished the novel. She started several, but didn't get the time to finish any of them.
Some of Mansfield's stories are included in a new collection - Love, Loss and the Lives of Women - (currently only 99p!) edited by Victoria Heslop, which includes stories by some of the most iconic writers - Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter and Alice Walker, to name a few. And among this selection of 100 'best' is a story by an Indie author - the first self-published author to be awarded a major literary prize - Avril Joy, whose moving story, Millie and Bird, won the Costa Award last year. Avril is still Indie-publishing, but there's a new awareness that self-publishing and quality writing aren't necessarily in opposition and I think her inclusion in this anthology demonstrates that.
There's a new website, www.cutalongstory.com which is asking writers to register with them, with a view to selling their work on i-phones and other devices for proper money. The link came from Northern Arts, so presumably the site is arts council approved. I'm cautious, but I welcome any kind of initiative that might put some money in my pocket, so I've registered. I'm also submitting to E-zines such as Word Bohemia,and Cafe-Lit. Then there are small independent publishers such as Salt and micro-publishers like Nightjar Press who specialise in short stories. It's amazing what you can find when you go on the internet.
I'm now working on a series of interlinked stories set in an Italian Piazza. I've been trying to persuade my family for months that all that wine drinking and sitting around watching the 'Passagiata' was really research. . . but I'm not sure they believe me! Below is a small vignette from my journal.
AugustLa vedova Viviani has arrived with the man to repair the boiler. He walks onto our terrace, a few polite steps behind her, and pauses theatrically, putting his toolbox down on the table and spreading his arms wide as if to embrace the horizon. ‘Che panorama meraviglioso!’ He stands for some time admiring our miraculous view, while Marie-Louisa gets her breath back after the trek down the steep path through the olive grove.
She wears black, like all the other widows in the village, but her dress has sprigs of blue and yellow flowers on it and cream lace at the throat. Her lively gaze takes in my unswept terrace, the book face-down on the chair, and is captured by the plum tree, which is looking dry and bare this year. ‘Il povero albero,’ she says, putting a hand up to touch a desiccated leaf.
‘No rain,’ I say, a little defensively, as if she’s criticising the way I look after her property. ‘Il Sirocco.’ The terrace furniture is covered in a light orange dust that has blown across the Mediterranean from Africa.
‘It is cruel, cruel!’ she agrees.
I offer coffee, which the boiler-man accepts but Marie-Louisa declines. She is diabetic, overweight, and has a heart condition. She has to be careful.
Shades of expression flicker across her face as she sits in my chair and looks round at the landscape. I can sense a lifetime of memories running like a video behind her eyes. She was here as a child when the fascists shot the boys beside the path at the bottom of the olive grove in 1945. It is her wedding furniture that clutters my bedroom with polished chestnut wood and pink marble. She told me once that when she and her husband lived here, they had seven sheep in the olive grove to eat the grass and give them a supply of ricotta. I found the hut they were kept in once, collapsed in a heap of wood and corrugated iron under a thicket of encroaching blackberries.
The boiler-man has spread the innards of the old German boiler over the terrace in neat rows. ‘They are very good, these old caldaios,’ he says to Marie-Louisa. ‘They last well.’ He is scraping soot and rust from the firing plate with a wire brush. ‘With care you can maybe get another ten years out of it.’
I think he is being optimistic, but she nods. She doesn’t have the money for things like that. Our rent is her pension. She lives in a small apartment next to her daughter and between them they manage the olive grove. ‘It is hard,’ she told me last time she was here, as she stood at the foot of a tree, watching Paula perched on a branch with the chain saw. ‘It is a very hard life.’
Copyright Kathleen Jones 2013
When not sitting in the Piazza, Kathleen Jones can be found blogging at A Writer's Life and at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
Her fiction includes a novel, The Sun's Companion, and Three and Other Stories.She Tweets at @kathyferber
PS - If you write crime fiction, why not enter the Margery Allingham Short Story Competition?