Emma Lannie, The View From Her World
When I interviewed Matthew Pegg from Mantle Arts, a few weeks ago, we discussed its publishing arm Mantle Lane Press and in particular their new pocket book of short stories, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis by Emma Lannie. It is the real world viewed from a very unusual perspective and makes for an intriguing read. So I wanted to find out more about Emma and learn more about what it is to be an emerging professional writer.
Tell me about yourself.
I’ve always written and enjoyed writing, and I’ve always surrounded myself with books. I worked in a couple of book shops, and then in a library for a number of years. Part of my job in the library involved running writing and craft workshops, and reading at ‘Storytime’.
Whilst working at the library, I began to take my writing seriously and started submitting work to journals and online magazines. I was really lucky to have work published quite early on. The first two stories I sent out were accepted within a few weeks of one another – one was published in Tripod (a regional literary journal), and the other was published online at ‘Six Sentences’. This definitely gave me the boost I needed to keep sending work out.
Around this time I’d also formed a literature collective with some writers I knew, and we had begun organizing live literature events, running workshops, and had started a small press.
When the Council announced a series of harsh cuts to the library service, I saw this as a good time to take the chance to embark on a freelance career. Now I divide my time between writing, teaching workshops, curating events, and running a craft business making bespoke papercuts.
You’ve also dipped your toe into publishing.
The collective I’m in with a couple of writer friends (Richard Birkin and Nathan Good) is called Time Travel Opportunists. It started out as the publishing imprint of a record label Richard had set up to release his own music on. Both Richard and I had come from the D.I.Y. music scene (I wrote ‘zines and organized gigs, Richard played in bands) so when we talked about starting a small press and releasing a chapbook, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We met with Catherine Rogers, who was the Literature Development Officer at Derby City Council, and were given a little funding for the first book. We spent a month writing stories, editing them between us, we sourced nice recycled paper, then sent it to a local printer. When we got the pages back, we collated them around the kitchen table and bound them by hand. I made a stamp for the cover, and by the end of the month, we had 100 copies of our first chapbook, Coffee. We held the launch for it in a local coffee shop. We tried to make it more like a gig than a typical reading night, and this seemed to attract people who might not normally have gone to a spoken word event. We sold out of the first chapbook almost straight away, and used the money to publish a further two chapbooks – Time and Home. We invited submissions for Home, and had a few great guest writers – Jenn Ashworth, Chris Killen, Drew Gummerson – as well as a number of previously unpublished writers, all incredibly talented.
You did a writing mentorship through Writing East Midlands?
Based on my first chapter and synopsis, I was awarded a mentorship with The Literary Consultancy to work on my novel, The Path From You Back To Me. My mentor was the author Ray Robinson. Before we started, Ray and I spoke about my expectations, strengths and weaknesses, and where I wanted/needed help. I wanted to be better at editing. I was at the point with my writing where I was able to step back and not be precious about it, so I asked Ray to be as brutal as he could. (And he was!) I would submit 8,000 words to Ray every seven weeks, over the course of a year. Ray would go through it line by line and highlight, make notes, tell me what was rubbish and what worked. I think it came at exactly the right time for me. I’d never had my work critiqued before, but I was really open to the process. I was ready to learn. I wanted to be better. These new editing skills helped with my shorter fiction, as well. I feel the mentorship definitely made my writing stronger, and my skin quite a bit thicker.
At the end of the mentorship, I submitted the (almost) completed draft for a full editorial assessment. This is done by a Reader from The Literary Consultancy, and I was extremely lucky to have Sara Maitland read and give feedback on it. She’s a writer I really respect, so I was terrified of what she’d have to say, but her response was really positive. She totally ‘got’ it, believed in it, and the advice she offered was intuitive and spot on. There were a couple of parts I wasn’t sure about, and she pulled me up on them straight away, which was great. It made me realize I could trust my gut instinct. Now all I have to do is finish the thing!
How did your mentor help you think more about how to edit your work?
Ray told me that because I loved language so much, sometimes I’d get caught up in it and lose clarity. He highlighted paragraphs where I had too much going on, too many sensations, and made me realize how that had a dulling effect that could switch the reader off. So I’m wary now of excessive descriptions, and I try to keep things as concise as possible.
Another thing I do is read the work out loud. This helps me identify where the writing is clunky or doesn’t flow, or where I’ve said the same thing over and over. Then I can cut away the filler and this hopefully makes the writing much sharper.
Do you think short story writing has helped to hone your writing more than writing an extended work, like a novel?
To some extent, yes, because with a short story you have to get across what you want to say in a much shorter space of time. It has to grab people immediately, so you can’t just ramble on for three pages. Every word, every pause, has to count. So in terms of editing, and clarity, writing short stories has definitely helped my writing. On top of that, writing short stories allows me to experiment, to break rules, to try anything.
But writing a novel has equipped me with the ability to see the bigger picture. To take strands of a story and spin them out across 70000 to 80000 words, you need to be a good storyteller. So I think writing a longer work has honed my ability to tell a story, and to sustain interest in that story. Short stories, for me, are often snapshots, a small fragment of a life, a happening. Whereas a novel is that life, or that snapshot, expanded. You can explore every atom, every pixel. I think working in both forms has helped me learn a lot more than if I’d exclusively written one or the other.
What do you feel the difference is, for you, between writing a novel and a short story?
I almost see writing short stories as play, and writing a novel as work. When I’m working on my novel, I’ll take a break and write a short story as a ‘treat’. A short story can be anything, and each one will be only a few thousand words, sometimes even a few hundred, and so you can switch the rules and try out all kinds of things and there’s no danger of getting 50,000 words into something that doesn’t work and that you can’t finish. Not that short stories are always easy to finish, but I can see the end more easily.
A novel is an expedition. You might have ideas about going off in a hundred different directions, but if you actually want to get to an end point, you need to narrow it down and figure out where you want to go. And then there’s the preparation, and the amount of time it takes, and all the research. The wall above my desk has a chart with different timelines and multicoloured Post-It notes, and photographs and questions, because I have to make sure it comes together as a coherent whole. I need to know what time sunrise is in that particular place, at different times of the year, and how the weather will be. And so I procrastinate, and I avoid writing the novel. But, once I do actually sit down and let myself get into it, the writing flows, and I’ll disappear into the world I’ve created in a way I can’t with the short story. It takes over everything. I put the rest of my life on hold, and become obsessed. And I think it’s that fear/desire to be lost in it that stops me from diving back into it. I’m working on that.
What’s your process of story writing?
Sometimes I just scribble it straight down onto the page, almost like a stream of consciousness that I’ll go back to later and pull out interesting bits, edit it down into something I’m happy with. Or sometimes I’ll get a line and run with it, usually when I’m somewhere I can’t write it down. I might be brushing my teeth and something will come to me, and I’ll have to keep saying it to myself until I get to a pen and paper. Most times, I’ll read something that will spark an idea. Or I’ll read something incorrectly and it jars me and I think ‘That might be interesting to develop.’ Sometimes I’ll just get an ending. So there’s no one particular way I start a story.
So if you start with an ending, how’d you develop the story?
I usually like to start with the character and get into their head, then try and work out how they got to that point. It can be a very spontaneous way of writing because you just keep going and see what happens. I’m very much a pantser.
So you had quite a bit of experience writing before you put your application into Mantle Arts. Tell me how that all came about.
I saw the callout in the Writing East Midlands newsletter and bookmarked it as something to submit to. Then Matthew Pegg from Mantle Arts emailed me the callout and invited me to submit something. I was going on holiday just before the deadline, so I knew I’d have to work really quickly to get it ready and sent off in time. I have a terrible habit of procrastinating (I read an article recently and it’s scary how accurate it is) and leaving things until the very last minute, so I gave myself an earlier deadline to make sure I’d get something finished and sent off. I had a couple of stories I definitely knew I was happy with, but I didn’t have a collection. So I sat down and started writing. I seem to work best under pressure, it’s almost as if the panicking part of my brain shuts off everything but the creative side. The less I think about what I’m writing, the better the work seems to be. After a frenzy of writing, and some editing, I ended up with a collection of stories I was happy with, chose a title, and sent them off. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever beaten a deadline by more than a day!
Tell me about the collection.
The recurring themes throughout all my stories seem to be language, secret codes, folklore, and links between people. I’m fascinated by gestures, the things that aren’t said, the unspoken parts of language, and the secret shorthand of couples. Add to this a few odd news stories, a childhood spent inside Encyclopedias and a love of round buildings.
I read an article about Lichtenberg scars, which I found amazing, so this was the inspiration for one of the stories. I also read about a forest in Japan where people go to commit suicide. That sparked the ‘Not Gretel’ story. I wrote four new stories that I didn’t realize actually had a theme until I read them all and found there was a thread running through them. So that made me look at some unfinished stories to see whether I could find any with similar themes. A lot of my stories are sort-of offbeat love stories. This particular book seems to be more about family, though, which I guess is the exploration of a different kind of love.
Something I hear a lot from authors is that if you’re going to write you need to read. As a librarian you were embedded in books. So how important would you say that reading is for writers?
I would say that if you don’t read, you can’t expect to be able to write well. If you read a lot, and read widely, you get a sense of what works, and what doesn’t. Reading as a writer gives you a different experience of a book. You become aware of the way language is being used, how problems are being ‘solved’. You begin to understand why certain things really grab you, and how the author did that, and how you might use these same tools and tricks.
I love Aimee Bender. She does brilliant things with her stories. And the way Ali Smith plays with language is thrilling. And Miranda July, Richard Brautigan, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Dave Eggers – I read their work and then try and pick it apart, figure out how they do it. I also find Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane incredibly inspiring. They all make me sick with envy, and give me something to aspire to.
You were saying that one of the problems you had during the mentorship is that you were told you love language so much that you had put an awful lot of filling around the writing. So how do you make yourself ‘kill your darlings’?
I’ll put what I’m writing in a drawer and distance myself from it, then go back to it after a period of time and read it as objectively as I can. Then, I’m hopefully able to see what works and what doesn’t. There was a particular line in one of the stories in the book, and when Matthew sent the edits he said, ‘I really like this line, but it doesn’t make sense.’ It was to do with sweet wrappers being dropped. My original line was ‘I hear the cellophane scrunch and the drop and roll of them hitting the ground.’ His point was you wouldn’t hear the sweet wrapper as it dropped, which is true. So I had to cut out something that might have sounded nice, a poetic line, because practically, it didn’t work. I actually enjoy being edited. It’s great to have someone I respect read through with fresh eyes and offer suggestions. Not that I won’t argue my corner for something I feel works, but for the most part, well, an editor is trying to make your writing better. Why resist that?
Your stories can be very abstract. I’m thinking of the one where the girl swims down to the old house that’s underwater. How do you stop stories like that getting out of control?
I think, because I’m in the character’s head, almost writing it as the character, it helps me to experience it as a real person, and so it keeps it rooted in reality. But I do think it’s interesting to play and stretch reality and explore the possibilities of doing things you might not ordinarily be able to do. There’s a phrase me and a friend use – ‘tiny pony’. It was coined by Frank Chimero in an article he wrote about a man who takes a tiny horse into an Apple store, but no one even notices. Because they’re all looking at the shiny technology, they miss this wonderful, strange thing.
I know there is a scientific reason for why mobile phones work, but at the same time, I still think it’s magical that conversations fly through the air. Or that people get into giant metal birds and fly through the air. I still have that sense of wonder, not just at the natural world, but at the things we have in this world, the things we’ve built. When I was little and playing my parents’ records, I thought that The Beatles were actually inside the speakers. So I think I’ve always liked thinking of alternate ways that things might work. For example, I have a story where people send text messages, and one woman sits there attached to all these phones by pieces of string, and she translates the messages before sending them on. I like dissecting the technology and turning it into something that has a bit of magic to it. So while I try and write things that make sense, sometimes the world they make sense in is two steps to the left of our reality.
Emma also runs a bimonthly short story event Breadcrumb Trail