Short stories have always had the power to linger far longer in the mind than the time it takes to read them. Yet in today’s fast-paced world, so focused on the sharing of information and ideas, the short story has grown in popularity. Quick and easy to read, and even quicker and easier to share with others, Twitter is awash with new, original writing. Yet mastery of this form is no easy feat. Creating a compelling narrative that captures and holds the reader’s attention in just a few hundred or thousand words takes considerable skill, expertise and talent.
It was a genuine pleasure, therefore, to catch up with one writer who possesses each of these three qualities (and more besides).
Ruby Cowling’s short stories have won various awards, including The White Review short story prize, the Prolitzer Prize from PROLE magazine, the Bridport Prize and the London Short Story Prize. Born in Bradford and now living in London, her short story collection This Paradise (by excellent indie publishers Boiler House Press) came out in 2019. The editor of Short Fiction Journal, Cowling’s rich, wry voice shines through in her answers to these questions, just as it does in her writing.
Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?
The “first” love in my life was music, before writing. But I decided writing would be an easier career. Yes, I know how that sounds now.
What draws you to the short story as an artistic medium?
You can do anything with the short story (as I discovered once I’d read enough of them). It almost requires you to play with it. It’s agile, it’s efficient, and it’s got a kind of self-possession – the novel somehow always seems to want you to like it whereas the short story doesn’t care… That said, I am a dog person, so I’m not sure how that fits together.
You’ve written for some of the most competitive literary magazines around. How long had you been writing before you had one accepted?
I committed to taking writing seriously in around 2005, wrote a (bad) novel gradually over the next six years, and had my first short story accepted – in a tiny but brilliant online magazine – in 2012. But, I mean, my learning process has been very fragmented; that wasn’t seven years of full-time writing. It was the usual trial, error, and long periods of sulking.
That first publication paid me £3, which, though a token, really mattered. This is why I’m so insistent that Short Fiction pays its contributors.
There’s an understandable focus in the writing community around rejection and acceptance in the literary sector. How have you personally dealt with this when first starting out in the industry, and how would you advise other writers to keep going?
I think it’s important to frame the sting of rejection as the natural disappointment that comes when something doesn’t go the way you hoped it would, rather than it being anything personal or special about you. It’s not about you! It’s just a sudden mouthful of salty water during a swim in the sea.
At Short Fiction we’ve had to “reject” many extremely good writers with really great stories just because they happened to be in competition that month with another story we marginally preferred as a team. Or take this example: our notes on one really strong and striking short piece that we declined recently said, “It’s almost Chekhovian – it’s just that Chekhov would have done it better.” The poor writer got rejected for, basically, not being Chekhov. That shows you how ludicrous it is to take it personally.
As for keeping going, you have to keep going just by keeping going. If this is what you want, it’s your choice to keep going. There’s no trick, unfortunately – no way round but through. “The obstacle is the path.”
That’s the theory. I’m not saying I’ve mastered this myself.
You’ve recently published ‘This Paradise’ with Boiler House Press. Could you tell us a little about what inspired the collection?
I always find that question difficult – about “inspiration”. The book wasn’t written calculatingly, i.e. with a collection in mind; a fact that’s probably clear when you read it. One reason it took five years to find a publisher (the wonderful Boiler House Press didn’t even exist when it first went out) was that it’s not overtly themed. But as you build up a body of work, certain themes and links do tend to arise. Turns out I’m compelled by questions of where we’re going with the environment, technology, and accelerated societal change… and big companies and governments and how we as individuals form and are formed by them. Oh, and there’s loads of rain in the book? And sisters? That kind of thing.
Are there any specific collections or individual short stories you’d recommend others read, and why?
This is a huge question! Read everything you can: quickly, hungrily, with total disregard for any book-buying budget or other life commitments. Make sure you read outside your own gender, ethnicity, nationality, class and experience, and read work in translation.
Read the classics but, critically, see what others are writing right now by reading literary magazines and contemporary collections. There is so much free, quality stuff online.
Discovering George Saunders changed my life (but I understand he’s not everyone’s cup of tea (but those people are mistaken)).
Kurt Vonnegut famously structured his daily routine around writing and exercise. Do you have any dedicated writing process that you strictly follow when putting your drafts together?
Nope. When I’m first finding my way into something it’s a world of sickening procrastination. When I’m really into something (the editing stage, usually), I’m at my desk and don’t move until the physical pain gets too much. Writing is really hard on the body. I used to think writing-and-yoga retreats were a sort of fluffy idea but in fact the yoga makes the writing more likely to be physically survivable.
The well-documented collapse of author’s incomes makes it increasingly challenging for writers and artists to pursue their creative goals and also afford to, well, pay the rent. What’s your take on the state of the industry at the moment, and is there anything that can be done?
Another enormous one… The sad fact is that everyone other than the highest-paid 0.5% of authors needs income from elsewhere, and all too often that means those from better-off backgrounds are much more likely to be able to commit to writing as a career. (This starts so early, too – if you grow up in a family/area/class that sees “being a writer” as a feasible option, it means your dream is already so much more within reach than if you grow up in a family/area/class for whom “being a writer” is ridiculous pie-in-the-sky, because it’s economic suicide. It’s not just about providing the occasional £5k grant to working writers – though of course these are valuable, thanks! I’ll take ten.)
The industry at the moment seems to be ever-increasingly risk-averse, at least among the publishing behemoths, and that’s reflected in their lack of willingness to take risks on genuinely new types of work, new stories, untested names and underrepresented voices.
But writing is an art form and publishing is an industry, and when those two cogs try and meet, there’s a horrible grinding sound. The smaller publishers and independents are doing brilliantly in the face of this and need all our support, including systemic support like tax breaks. Proper economic encouragement for the arts, with proper inclusion, could begin to erase the boundary between mainstream and non-, get more people interested in books, and help rebuild the value of “culture” which has been thoroughly mangled in the Machine.
Do you have any suggested literary magazines or writing competitions that you’d recommend aspiring writers submit their work to, to help them get noticed?
Obviously at the moment I’d recommend the Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize as a competition that will be a prestigious CV line for whoever wins, is runner-up and/or on the shortlist. Jon McGregor is our shortlist judge, and Short Fiction has a long history of publishing really excellent work.
Otherwise, aspiring writers will have their own sense of what’s good to enter, because they will be reading widely and aware of the contemporary “scene”… right? If they’re not, then there’s likely to be something missing in their writing. But anyone reading this is already looking in the right places.
What’s next for you and your work? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
Always! It just depends how long and how dark that pipeline is – the eternal unknown.
Your sensible answer is: I have a novel manuscript ready to go out and I’m in the early stages of another short fiction collection.
Thanks for these questions!