Nicholas Royle. A Passion for Publishing.
I first became aware of Nicholas Royle when I interviewed Alison Moore last year. She told me that, before The Lighthouse, she had been wary of sending a work in progress to anyone for their opinion. This was not literary pretentiousness, but more a concern that a heavy-handed editor might change the identity of her writing to the point that it would no longer be hers, making it impossible for her to continue to work on it. The Lighthouse had been the first time she had allowed anyone to see and comment on her work before submission. Royle was just the right person to do this, because of his light touch and sensitivity to her work. He is in a good position to appreciate the qualities needed by a good editor, as he is a novelist and a short story writer, as well as a senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Royle also has a passion for writing and publishing that rarely sees him idle.
How did you become involved in short story editing?
I always read short stories. When I was younger I used to read mainly horror stories, specifically the Pan Books of Horror Stories. When I went to university I studied languages, French and German. I was living in London in a hall of residence and stayed there for the first summer, because I managed to get a job working in a bar. I began writing a letter to a friend, telling her the story of what it was like working as a barman in a bar where there were no customers. After a while I realised it was turning into a story, so I finished it off, called it ‘The Barman’ and sent it to a magazine. Well, of course, it was sent straight back to me, but I carried on writing. On my eighteenth attempt, I managed to sell the story to the Pan Books of Horror Stories. It went in volume 26. Once I was a published story writer it got a bit easier and I carried on writing horror stories, which have remained my favourite form of literature.
I made friends with a number of young writers in the late 1980s who were writing short stories, vaguely in the horror field. They were having trouble getting their stories published. It got to the point where I knew enough people who had written enough good stories that I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ This is when I set up a small press called Egerton Press. I used the press to publish an anthology called Darklands, followed up by Darklands 2. Each one won an award, as well as getting good reviews. They were subsequently reprinted by New English Library. So at that point I became a professional anthologist.
Five to six years later I did another anthology, only this time it was commissioned. This was a football themed book of short stories called A Book of Two Halves, for Euro 96. Then, a few years later, I was commissioned by somebody else to do a similar project. By this stage I was working as an editor of the travel guides series for ‘Time Out’ in London. They’d already done one anthology, which was The Time Out Book of London Short Stories. I persuaded them to let me do The Time Out Book of New York Short Stories. These were all original stories and they gave me a generous budget with which to do it. I had no idea at the time just how lucky I was and how having so much money to pay writers with was almost a unique set up. Once I had done the New York book, I did a similar Paris volume and then another London one. I then went on to do a new series called Neonlit: ‘Time Out’ Book of New Writing. When Time Out finally realised they weren’t selling enough of these series, even though they were huge numbers for short story anthologies, they stopped any further projects.
I left ‘Time Out’ in 2001, and since then have done one anthology for Tindal Street Press and more recently one for a much smaller Scottish publisher called Two Ravens Press, Murmurations: Uncanny stories about birds.
I decided in 2009 that I wanted to start publishing again. So I set up Nightjar Press, a small press publishing one-off stories as chapbooks. Which is where I am now with short story publishing.
What is your definition of a short story?
When I was studying literature, I was taught that the distinction between the novel and a novella is not to do with the number of words, but more to do with the issue of single place, single subject and single time. So whenever I hear people talk about this distinction using words as the deciding factor, I don’t agree with them. Take The Lighthouse by Alison Moore as an example. I frequently hear this being called a novella, which makes me very cross, because it’s not a novella. It may be only 50,000 words, but that does not make it a novella. I think a novella is something that is more focused and about one thing. But having said that, I’m still not sure what the difference is between a short story and a novella. I don’t tend to like short stories that are long enough to get called novellas.
When I went for my job at MMU, I was talking a lot about short stories in the interview. I was asked who the best short story writer in the world is. I said I didn’t know, even though I’ve lots of favourites, but I couldn’t name any one of them. I went completely blank. Then I was told by the interviewer that there was a right answer, but I didn’t think that helped at all. So I thought a bit more until they finally gave me the answer of Alice Munro. I’d just read a collection of Alice Munro’s, because I’d been asked to review it. Although I’d admired the book, I hadn’t really liked it, because the stories were so long; in some cases about 40 pages long. My personal taste in short stories is something between 2000 to 8000 words. This is not an arbitrary figure. I just think the story works best at that kind of length. This is something you can usually read in one go and the intimacy you can achieve by doing this is what makes a short story so special. This is something you can’t do with a novel. In a sense, the short story it is like watching a film, because you usually do that in one go.
You’re involved in competitions like the Manchester Fiction Prize. What are you looking for in a high-quality short story?
I’m probably going to give an irritating answer here, but I know whether it’s any good as soon as I see it. It’s partly experience and partly instinctive. Although, having said that, I’ve been recently rereading things that I read as an adolescent or young man that I thought were great at the time, but now I’m not so sure. So I’m not sure that my instincts back then were right. So maybe I’ve developed an instinct for spotting a good short story or maybe I’ve just learned how to do it somehow. But I do know on the first page how good the writing is. Obviously I have to finish the short story to find out how successful it is as a short story. But I know, by the end of the first page, whether I’m reading somebody who can write or not.
I certainly don’t like reading a story and finishing it thinking, ‘So what?’ I like to finish it having been moved in some way. By this I don’t mean I have to cry every time I read a short story, or laugh, or be scared. But it needs to have some emotional impact on me. I want to feel that it’s well written. It doesn’t have to be clever, but the writing does have to show a certain type of intelligence.
The characters don’t necessarily have to be sympathetic; I do find that rather tedious. This seems to an obsession among critics and publishers, possibly because they think readers demand sympathetic characters. My view is the characters should be believable. And it’s possible that’s what they really mean by ‘sympathetic characters’. But I don’t think you have to like a particular protagonist or narrator. So if I believe in the character and the story is well written and it gets me, then great. If it has an uncanny quality, then even better; because I love that. But that doesn’t mean that I only like stories of the uncanny, or Gothic stories or horror stories. I appreciate a wide range of stories. The main criterion is that they’re good.
How much reading do you do in a year?
I do an enormous amount of reading. It’s very rare that I don’t read. I was recently in a situation where I went somewhere without a book or even my laptop, because I wasn’t anticipating being stuck there. In the end it looked as if I would have to wait for several hours with nothing to do. Normally I would use that opportunity to do some reading for the purpose of editing or looking at stories that have been submitted to Nightjar Press. So I was a bit stuck and constantly checking my emails. I was delighted when a student sent me an email with stories attached, that she wanted me to read. This meant I was able to do something while I was waiting and satisfy my need to be reading and the need to be getting on with some work.
So I’m always overworked and never seem to have any spare time. I bought two books last year to read for pleasure and I still haven’t finished the one I managed to start, because I just don’t have the time. I’m always reading stories for the Best British Short Stories series I edit for Salt. I did a second reading of a story last night that I had read a few days ago, which I thought I wanted to take, because it’s brilliant and really strange. I had to read it again because I was puzzled by it. I’m still puzzled by it, although less than I was, but I decided it did just about make sense, so I finally emailed the author late last night to say I’d accept it. Now I’m hoping that he’ll take me up on the offer. I have had one refusal from an author because the publishers were asking for too much money to release it from his collection. My policy is that I don’t offer preferential rates just because somebody is a famous writer. At the end of the day the author felt that printing the story in isolation would take it out of context.
How do you go about editing a short story?
It’s nice when you don’t have to do anything. This does happen occasionally. All that’s required when this happens is correcting a few punctuation errors. I usually find that if the story needs a lot of editing it’s probably not a story I want to publish anyway. So when I’m picking stories for Best British Short Stories I wouldn’t take anything that I didn’t feel was absolutely right, because I’m not looking to do any editing at all on those, apart from correcting any errors in punctuation. These are stories that have already been published. When I’m considering stories that have been sent to me for Nightjar Press or an original anthology, I’m always prepared to edit, if it needs it. If it shows signs of being brilliant, but obviously needs work, then I’ll put in the effort, as long as the author wants to do that, but otherwise I wouldn’t bother. I’ve done it only once for an author published in an anthology and it was such a lot of work.
You’ve written several novels. How do you go about writing your books, where the editor has to edit his own work?
One thing I teach, when I teach on the MA, is how to edit your own work. One of the most important techniques is to read it out loud. Reading out loud means you catch errors that you would otherwise miss. It doesn’t matter how many times you read something, you’ll be in danger of passing over an error that you won’t notice until you read it out loud. Doing this means that you will catch infelicities, awkward phrases and repeated words. So I don’t think anything’s finished until it’s been read out loud in its entirety.
It is important to read very carefully and slowly. When you get to a point where you think it’s finished, it needs another eye. In my case I have one or two close friends who read my stuff before it goes anywhere else. After that it goes to my agent, who’s an editor and publisher, and he has a good read of it, as well as making editorial suggestions. If I have a deal it goes to the editor of the publishing house and they do whatever is required next. As the writer, although I want to get it as good as I possibly can get it, I know that there will be a couple of safety nets after I’ve done my read on it. So there’s no great worry though. Indeed a lot of writers don’t seem to worry about it at all, because some people seem to send out manuscripts that are in a shocking state. It must be that at some point they’ve had some lucky break, early in their career, for someone not to mind the state that the manuscript is in, because if someone sent me a manuscript like that in my role as a commissioning editor at Salt, I just wouldn’t bother reading it.
Do you write books straight through and then start to edit or do you edit as you write?
I’m constantly stopping and starting. So I might write a scene, then the next day write over that scene to improve it. I can be doing that for weeks, in which I might only advance a couple of thousand words. I am a very slow writer. First Novel has taken seven years to write, but I don’t know how much of that is down to its being complicated. I think a lot of it is down to time being taken up by the job at MMU and all the other things I do, like Nightjar Press and editing for Salt. Although I had finished First Novel before I started working with Salt; at least working as intensively for them as I am now.
I don’t plan things out in advance, because I can’t. I’m in awe of those writers who are able to write the synopsis of their novel in a few weeks or days and then spend the next two months writing it. I am envious of that ability, but I don’t enjoy that way of working, because one of the pleasures of writing a novel or short story is finding out where it’s going. In a way it’s almost like reading it, and I want to be able to read the whole thing. So the only way I can do that is by writing the whole of it. That isn’t to say the way I write is completely random and whatever comes into my head goes straight on the page. It means there’s an awful lot of rewriting to do as I thread stuff in and re-work material that I may have written the previous year. This undoubtedly does slow me down. First Novel did take three times longer than most of my novels. I’m really hoping the next one won’t take as long.
First Novel seems to be getting great reviews and selling quite well, so it’s putting me under a bit of pressure to get on with the next one. Although I have to say this is not because of the publisher, but because I want to be getting on with my next book. Because even when I finish the next one, assuming it’s taken up, then it’ll be at least another year before it gets published, by which time everyone will have forgotten First Novel. That’s the thing about publishing. People don’t realise it can take up to two years to get a novel published after you’ve started writing it.
As far as Nightjar Press is concerned, is this production time compressed because you’re the only one editing the stories and there aren’t so many words to work on?
Yes, I’m the only one editing the stories. I will edit the stories jointly with the author, then once we have finished I send it to my designer, John Oakey, who designs the covers, and has designed a template for the interior, and he flows the text in. If anything is needed to make the text fit properly, then I will work with the designer on that. So even though only one person is editing the stories, the production can take a while. Sometimes there is not a huge amount to do in terms of editing, but getting the presentation right can take up time, for example editing widows and orphans. John will often be working on other things and will fit me in as a favour. The writer gets paid £50. I don’t get anything. I barely make my money back on the books that I publish, so Nightjar Press is really a labour of love. I only started up Nightjar Press in 2009, because the desire to start small press publishing again had been building up for some time.
Between the months of January and April there’s a lot of work going on for Nightjar, and then again from August to October, for the autumn titles. I’m very busy then as well. It is surprising how much time is taken up working on four stories a year. Certainly it requires far more time than I can justify spending on them, but I just really love doing it. I did almost quit Nightjar six months ago, because some titles were selling very slowly and it was beginning to feel as if it was too much like hard work for too little reward. But I was persuaded by readers and other writers and editors to carry on for the time being.
I was approached a few weeks ago by the big Waterstones in Piccadilly, London. They asked if they could stock Nightjar titles. I had to explain to them that it didn’t make any financial sense, because I would lose money because of their discount policy. However, they offered me a really favourable rate. I was very flattered that they wanted to stock my chapbooks in their store and so I said yes. I have no idea whether this will work or not. But it’s nice to think of them being there.
I publish two titles in the spring, and two in the autumn. So about January I start worrying about the springtime and thinking about getting going, because there’s a lot to do. Each one of them has to have a quote for a jacket from someone and that’s not always straightforward. I need to work on the cover. I do some of the covers and work with artists on others.
What about your work at MMU and your approach to teaching creative writing? I was quite reassured when I heard Philip Hensher criticising First Novel on Radio 4. I knew he’d hate it. And then when he went on to say that he has a rule with his creative writing students, that they must never write about writing, I thought, ‘Yeah, that makes sense, that he lays down rules for his students.’
I don’t set any rules for the students I teach on the MA at MMU – other than that they should use correct grammar and punctuation, obviously. No rules. Write what you want to write about and in the way that you want to write. Go ahead and write in the first person present tense if you want to – which Hensher seems to be suspicious of (and he’s not alone in that). I do and it works for me. Take risks, take as many risks as you like. The excitement I feel when I read the work of a talented student for the first time is just the same as the excitement I feel when someone sends me a brilliant short story for Nightjar or an equally good novel for Salt.
How do you time manage all this work you’re doing?
Very badly. I respond to whatever the highest priority is, or whatever has the shortest deadline. So at the moment I’m working almost exclusively on Alison Moore’s short story collection, The Pre-War House and other stories, and on a novel being published in the spring by Alice Thompson, which I’m editing. At the moment I’m waiting for it to come back from Alice because she’s still editing it. Then I’ll do my edit. So I’m working on these sorts of things all the time, plus university stuff, which is on a weekly cycle. So it means that there is almost no time for my writing, which is really frustrating. I’ll have to do something about it. Freeing up a bit of time was another reason why I had decided I was giving up Nightjar. So I don’t know what I’m going to do to make more time, but I’ll have to do something.
Do you think you have an addiction to working with other authors and hearing different voices? What’s the attraction to doing all this work?
I do love working with good writers, whether it’s short stories or novels. Working with them to finally produce something that is really, really good, whether I’m publishing it or whether Salt’s publishing it, or at the University where publication is not the immediate goal. I have one or two writers at the University at the moment who I’m as excited about working with as I am my Nightjar or Salt writers. So that’s the main thing, the buzz that I get with writers who, instead of thinking, ‘I’ve got to get back to my desk and get on with editing’, instead I’m thinking, ‘Great I can go and work on this person’s latest submission. Or I can go work on a short story that needs editing.’
I just love doing it.
Without trying to sound pompous, you feel that you are in the presence of greatness. Because that’s what it feels like, when you’re working with someone that has so much talent. As their editor, it’s not that I want the reflected glory or anything like that, I just want to help them make it be as good as it possibly can be. In some cases it’s just the tiniest bit of input that’s required and in other cases quite a bit more is needed, because someone has very raw talent and they need more help. But either they have it or they don’t. If they have it, then I can make it better. This is especially applicable in the context of teaching creative writing. Someone has either got it or they haven’t. And if they’ve got it, I can help them write better. If they don’t have it, there’s nothing I can do for them. All I do is help them to write sentences in correct English, but I can’t help them be a better writer.
If you could have your time again, any other job that would be anything other than writing, but would earn you a fortune, what would you do?
The same thing. But I would have hoped to have had a few more lucky breaks, so that I have a bit more money coming in. So maybe First Novel would have come earlier in my career, or Alison Moore had won the Man Booker prize. Things like that. But it felt like she had won it anyway. When she got on the longlist it was, for me as her editor, just euphoric, never mind what it felt like for her. She said at the time, ‘Just being on the longlist feels like I’ve won.’ That took the pressure off her and I felt that maybe she was trying to take the pressure off me. But it was just incredible when she got on the shortlist. I think I was more disappointed on the night than she was, which isn’t to say that I’m disappointed in her, it’s just that I wanted it for her.