Zoë Fairbairns. The Benefits of a Wealth of Experience.
I have to admit, when I was given a review copy of Benefits, published by Five Leaves, and told it was written in 1979, I approached it with trepidation, because I thought it would be terribly dated. How wrong could I have been? The story develops into a terrifying dystopia in such an insidious way, that the reader begins to feel perturbed long before the extreme events unfold. What makes it all the more compelling is the way in which elements of the book resonate with many current issues.
Zoë Fairbairns is a writer with a great deal of experience in the craft of not only fiction writing (short stories as well as novels), but also non-fiction, poetry, plays and journalism. Her non-fiction book Write Short Stories and Get Them Published is a wonderfully practical and succinct guide, developed from her many years as a writer and teacher of writing.
You were published at a relatively early age.
I had some poems and short stories published when I was still at school, and two novels published while I was at university.
So you’ve always known you wanted to be a writer?
I always knew I wanted to write, but I realised very early that it was difficult to make a living as a writer. I also knew from a very early age that as a woman it was very important to be financially independent. So I knew I was going to have another career as well.
Yes, not everyone is in the position of being able to just sit down and write and not think about anything else.
Like any writer I’ve had good years and bad years. There have been times when I have been able to make enough money from my writing to be able to work at it full-time. There have been other years when I’ve needed to do other things. I don’t see that as anything unusual, or a particular hardship for someone who wants to be a writer. It’s part of the fun of it really. I’ve enjoyed most of the other jobs, and I’ve never had to do anything I hated.
You’re juggling two lives. How do you get your head into writing if you’re working, because there are also the day to day tasks such as cooking and housework?
Most of the other jobs that I’ve done have been writing-related. I’ve taught writing, and for a number of years I worked as a television subtitler, which is, among other things, a kind of editing role. I haven’t done a lot of things that were completely separate from writing.
I do have a writing routine. I allocate a number of hours every day to writing. I live with another writer. We’ve been together for about 40 years and I think we’ve pretty much worked out how to share out the housework and cooking. We both agree that the writing comes first, for ourselves and for each other. Keeping up a steady routine of housework is not as important as writing.
Writing is a very consuming thing to do, so I suppose it does help if whoever you’re with is a writer, or understands what it is to be a writer.
Yes, it would be difficult or impossible to live with somebody who has a problem with that. But then you wouldn’t want to, would you? And they probably wouldn’t want to live with you either.
You’ve written poetry, drama, short stories and novels. They will require a slightly different set of skills, even though they are writing. So how do you manage to keep switching from one to the other?
It’s all about finding the right words to say what you want to say, in the space that you’ve got to say it in. That’s the job. The nature of the task will depend on what you’re doing, and who it’s for. It also depends on how close a deadline you’re working to. That will affect how you do your writing. It depends on what needs doing.
Let’s talk about your writing, particularly Benefits which you wrote in the 1970s.
It was initially published by Virago 1979, and they kept it in print until about 1998. Then Five Leaves acquired the rights because they thought it would be worth putting it back in print. They’ve also done it as an e-book. Both publishers have done a fantastic job – Virago kept it alive for nearly 20 years, and Five Leaves brought it back to life when it seemed to have died.
It is interesting that a book that was written in the 1970s is still relevant today. Did you write it initially as a response to what was going on at that time, with no thought to the fact that it may be equally as relevant in the future?
I wrote out of my own political and personal preoccupations, which in turn arose out of my life and times. The debate about who has the right and/or duty to raise children, and the economic and political value of domestic labour, and what happens when women refuse to do it for free, is a very interesting debate. It takes different forms in different eras. I’ve written about it in more detail in the introduction to the ebook.
The book has a very innocuous beginning and although the situation becomes extreme you’ve written it in a way that seems feasible.
That’s the job of writing a dystopia. You start with the ‘here and now’, and you extend that into an imagined future.
That was the job I set myself in writing it. It was partly about that time and what would happen in the future. One section begins with the words ‘1984 came and went…’ Another is set in 2001. I chose these dates because they were iconic dates set in what was then an imagined future – George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, which was later made into a film by Stanley Kubrick.
Now of course those two dates are in the past. I’m absolutely delighted that people still want to read Benefits and still find relevant issues in it.
I know you made a comment that you haven’t got any mobile phones or technology in it, but the way you’d written the book made that irrelevant. Do you think that this might be because the readers are capable of putting their own imaginations into the situation?
I hope so. I’m sure the reader will always come to a book, any book, with their own thoughts and preoccupations. I’m certainly not beating myself up about the fact that I didn’t foresee the Internet. I’m astounded and amused and aghast at the huge changes the Internet has brought, and I think back with amazement and nostalgia to a time when such a thing had not been heard of.
In the political arena, the thing that still takes my breath away, and I have to keep repeating it to myself to make sure I’m not making it up, is the introduction of gay marriage, by a Tory Prime Minister. I have to keep pinching myself on that. I’m just amazed that the sexual politics behind that.
Many people have likened Benefits to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984.
I’m fine with that. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books.
I think they have likened your book to The Handmaid’s Tale because it’s equally as chilling and also there is a very insidious onset of the extreme regime. It certainly feels as if women are having their voice and rights taken away from them.
I think The Handmaid’s Tale and Benefits are about sexual politics. About the politics of how the genders relate to each other, and about what that means for the State and politics as a whole. That was my preoccupation and I would guess that those were among Margaret Atwood’s preoccupations when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. I would like to think that people would read both books and compare the different treatments of sexual politics.
You teach creative writing and you’ve written a Teach Yourself book Write Short Stories and Get Them Published, but you don’t just teach short story writing.
I teach a specialist short story course and I also teach courses called Ways Into Creative Writing and A Taste of Creative Writing which are for people who are new to creative writing and want to try different approaches. So we might have a couple of sessions, for example, on drama, but I don’t teach a specialist drama course. I may also include short story writing, poetry and life writing.
So are you teaching people who think they can’t write, but want to have a go? What kinds of people attend your courses?
People who come to the courses are people who have selected themselves. They are people who want to write or think they want to write. They want to try it out. The course, I hope, gives them some guidance and inspiration, as well as a structure for their writing.
Most of the classes are in the evenings or at weekends, so typically the students are people who are in full-time employment, or who have responsibilities at home, or both. They’re busy people. So the very fact that they show up, shows a certain amount of commitment and determination. That then provides them with the structure and the framework to do the work. Because if they’ve got a room full of people waiting to hear their story, this gives them incentive to find the time to write it. That’s one of the important things about the courses I run.
What sort of benefits have the class said they’ve got from these writing courses?
A word students frequently use in this context is ‘discipline’. I try to avoid using that word myself, partly because it conjures up alarming images of strict teachers and penalties. It’s self-discipline, and it has to come from the students themselves. It’s a non-accredited class so I can’t say to them ‘If you don’t do this work, you won’t get your credit, or your diploma.’ It’s entirely up to them if they do the work or not. But they do say that the class provides them with the structure and discipline and the reason to do their writing.
Do any of your students use writing for therapeutic purposes?
They might, but one of the things I say to them, right from the beginning, is that this isn’t a therapy group. The students are there to discuss each other’s writing, not the real-life experience that may or may not lie behind it. (What they talk about in between classes is, of course, up to them.) Sometimes a student, on being told that what they wrote was unconvincing, will say, ‘But it’s true, it really happened to me.’ That’s irrelevant – the aim is to make it convincing in its own terms, whether it is true or not.
Writing may be therapeutic, in the way that any worthwhile, creative work may be therapeutic. It can be satisfying and fun and validating. But it also brings its own stresses, strains, disappointments and insecurities, so anyone who takes it up in the hope of making themselves feel better, may be doomed to disappointment.
There is such a thing as therapeutic writing, but it’s a specialist area and it’s not what I do.
Your Teach Yourself book Write Short Stories and Get Them Published is very comprehensive and you do provide quite a lot of techniques to help a writer create a short story. There does seem to be quite a bit of advice that could be applied to a longer piece of writing like a novel. So what is the difference, in your view, between writing a short story and a novel?
V S Pritchett said: ‘The novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing and that intensely.’ I think that’s what the short story is about: intensity. You don’t tell everything in the short story, you just write about one thing that has happened. If you do it right, and if you’ve got the skill, then it will cast its light and shadow on the wider world, even though the story itself is very small.
I certainly discourage the view that short story writing is a training ground for novel writing. Lots of people do both, and some people are brilliant at both. But they’re not the same.
The difference between a short story and a novel may sometimes be like the difference between cooking a perfectly boiled egg, and putting on a banquet. One is not a preparation for the other. Each demands different skills and qualities. It’s like the difference between a one-night stand and a long-term relationship. Both can be good or bad, but they are good or bad in different ways.
You touch on the genres in Write Short Stories and Get Them Published. What’s your advice for people wanting to write different genres?
Advice I generally give is to think about your own preoccupations and what you want to write about. Then let the genre emerge.
That would make sense. What if someone came in to your class and wanted to write horror, for example?
If they were using my book I would refer them to the section on Fantasy And The Supernatural, because horror is in that category. I would suggest that they start by looking into their own heart of darkness and their own horrors. What is the most terrifying or horrifying thing that you could imagine? Write that down and work from there.
Do you think that the advice ‘start with what you know’ is a good piece of advice?
You have to start with what you know, but you don’t stop with what you know. You find out more and research what you don’t know, so you can go into more deeply what you do know.
What about the advice that people are given for reading the type of book they want to write? Some people advised that if you’re interested in a particular genre you should do nothing but read books in that genre, while other people advise it’s necessary to read widely. Does this actually make a difference?
I would be very concerned if somebody turned up at a short story writing course, who didn’t read short stories. That very rarely happens. People who come to my short story writing courses are almost always eager and enthusiastic readers of short stories. I think in general if someone sets out to write in a particular genre, and they don’t read widely in that genre, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. It would be like saying ‘I want to be a tennis player but I’m not interested in watching tennis champions playing.’ We can all learn from people who have achieved the success that we want for ourselves.
A small postscript from Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves and publisher of Benefits who wanted to highlight a couple of books for reading from Zoë’s prolific output.
I think Zoe has modestly not mentioned that some of her books were very successful indeed, managing to combine absolutely mainstream commercial fiction but with a subtle feminist message. These included the family saga Stand We At Last and the crime novel Here Today, both well worth reading.