“I would say that you should only write if you feel you have no alternative to writing. Not writing would be a more peaceful life.”
The Numbers (Nightjar Press, 2016)
Seeing characters reach their breaking points is intriguing for readers. What inspired you to tell Danny’s story in such a way?
I was not “inspired” in the traditional sense of the word; by which I mean that I did not experience any moment of revelation. The process was more like a series of internalised conversations or discussions as to which structure would work most effectively for the story. It was evident very soon that the narrative had to be anchored in Danny’s sensibility, but neither the narrative line nor the nature of each character was clear at the start of writing.
Do you know the conversation exchanged between Danny and Sarah. Why are we readers to be left to wallow in the unknown?
I don’t think that “wallow” is the right word here; rather I would hope that the reader becomes intrigued and engaged by what is not explicitly revealed. I do not know exactly what happened between Danny and Sarah in the past, but I believe that there are enough indications in the text for the reader to obtain a sense of how he must have misjudged her character. To detail the precise nature of that misjudgement would be to foreground it and, in consequence, throw the story out of balance.
I think Danny’s plight is one readers can empathize with: being misunderstood as well as misunderstanding. Did you primarily channel your own experiences when writing Danny or were you exploring the effects of misunderstanding from a different perspective?
I’m pleased to learn that readers can feel empathy for a character such as Danny. They may also be relieved to know that his plight is unrelated to my own experiences. I wanted to explore how a series of misunderstandings, apparent hurt, and seemingly trivial events can trigger a consequence that could not be foreseen by the protagonists.
“. . . and when he acts he feels as pure and as faultless as a rainwashed stone.” What a line! Do lines like this appear in your original drafts or are they often the products of revision?
I was pleased with that simile, too. It was not in the original draft but it appeared soon afterwards. I rewrote the story several times before I felt that its tone was correct.
Have you ever received an especially bad tidbit of advice regarding the writing process? What was it?
Probably, but it was so long ago that I have forgotten! Most advice is well-meaning; not all advice is worth taking. The writer (or the painter, musician, etc.) needs to be convinced that the person handing out the advice knows what he or she is talking about; sometimes they don’t.
What helps you best get into a writing state of mind? Do you have daily goals when it comes to your writing?
The standard advice is to institute a regime. I’m afraid my method is much more haphazard, as most of my work arises from personal uncertainty, contradiction, and chance. At least initially, I spend a lot of time wondering if my characters, narrative line and tone are correct. So it is a laborious process to begin with. Once a direction is established, it’s probably a good idea to set targets, which need not necessarily be word counts.
What originally piqued your interest with chapbooks? Would you publish another in the future?
Many years ago I was commissioned to write a story called Giacomo’s Juliet for a limited-edition chapbook. I found that I was pleased with its singular nature. More recently Lexicon was published by Nightjar: The Numbers is my second story for them. Yes, I’d certainly write another if the opportunity arose.
How do you typically decide on names for your characters?
Character names are always a problem as they need to match a temperament as well as background and social class. So it’s not unusual for me to try out or to substitute names until I find one that appears to fit.
Danny’s obsession with the fox intrigues me. Did you choose a fox over another farm nuisance for a specific reason? Is it meant to act as a symbol, perhaps?
The story is set in England, and there are very few common predators in the English countryside apart from foxes. The primary purpose of the sighting is to give Danny a chance to offer his services in getting rid of it. So the fox has an unambiguous narrative function. However, like it or not, many animals carry a kind of symbolic weight with them, and foxes – like horses – have done that since the beginnings of literature. The fox is seen as a cold-blooded and unstoppable killer, although in reality its habits do not conform to that perception. Its appearance at the beginning of the story is therefore appropriate on more than one level.
For you as an author, what makes a chapbook an appealing format for a short story?
A chapbook is especially distinctive if the production run is limited, as it is with Nightjar publications. The story appears outside of the kind of unpredictable context that is provided in a magazine or an anthology, and it is published as a work that stands on its own – that is, it appears under conditions similar to a novel, with its own design and individuality. The story is therefore given a unique presentation which it would not otherwise possess.
When advising upcoming writers, you would say, “You should write because _____.”
I would say that you should only write if you feel you have no alternative to writing. Not writing would be a more peaceful life.
In an interview regarding your novel A Division of The Light, you spoke about the process involved in choosing a cover image. Obviously chapbooks are slightly different from novels, and Nightjar seems to have a standard format. What was selecting the cover for The Numbers like?
Nightjar Press does indeed have a “house style”, and this is determined by its founder and editor, Nicholas Royle. Nick decides the cover just as he decides which stories to publish, and, in doing so, he works with the designer John Oakey; they have both worked on every individual chapbook. Nick knew of the work of Jen Orpin and has used her paintings on The Numbers and on another Nightjar publication by Neil Campbell. I was asked my opinion of the design and of course I approved it, but the ultimate decision is always Nick’s. Those interested in the Nightjar designs, or in other stories on their list, are recommended to consult the website.
How do you know when to stop editing a piece and leave it be?
I think this comes with experience. A piece can be overdeveloped or underdeveloped, but those parameters will shift according to the writer’s individual style. Eventually there will come a point at which the writer will have to decide that the work contains the correct amount of detail and texture for it to function as a completed text. For that to happen, of course, the writer also has to have a sense of her or his audience.
What is your favorite thing about The Numbers?
I hope that I am allowed two favourites. The first is the actual text of the story. The Numbers deals with a distressing event, and in describing that event I had to be very careful with detail and with tone. I like to think that I was successful in doing that in a way that allows the reader to see through the descriptions and into the moral heart of the piece. And the second favourite is appearance. I’m very happy that Nightjar chose to publish The Numbers and did so in such a sympathetic and stylish manner.
Christopher Burns lives on the fringe of the English Lake District. His work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. He has published a collection of short stories and six novels, the latest of which is A Division of the Light (Quercus).