Reading with Writers

by rebeccaswirsky

Fiction Night with Robert Shearman and Rebecca Swirsky



Reading with the author Robert Shearman for a recent Haringey Literature Live event at Wood Green’s Karamel Cafe was great. I’ll swiftly include his bio here:

Robert Shearman has written four short story collections, and between them they have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Edge Hill Readers Prize and three British Fantasy Awards. His background is in the theatre, resident dramatist at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, and regular writer for Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough; his plays have won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award, the Sophie Winter Memorial Trust Award, and the Guinness Award in association with the Royal National Theatre. He regularly writes plays and short stories for BBC Radio, and he has won two Sony Awards for his interactive radio series, ‘The Chain Gang’. But he’s probably best known for reintroducing the Daleks to the BAFTA winning first season of the revived Doctor Who, in an episode that was a finalist for the Hugo Award.

I’m mentioning Rob because apart from all the above he’s an extremely convivial fellow. Affable, thoughtful, helpful and fun to be around. His work does not intimidate, nor does it seek to create an intellectual distance between author and listener. Rather, it brings you softly, softly in, before smacking you discreetly behind the ear with a sledgehammer. Chillingly friendly, like. And he does it while making you laugh until your sides ache.

So, for the format: Robert and I each read two pieces, with a break in between. The pieces I read differed greatly in tone and subject, but meshed well with Robert’s pieces. It felt good to read them because both are collection-bound, or novel-of-stories-bound, that I’m working on with Stella Duffy. So it was brilliant to give them a bit of air, zing ’em with a bit of sparkle by putting them on stage. And because we were reading two pieces over an interval, rather than the initial adrenaline rush of ‘it’s over now, where’s the wine?’ we paced ourselves. We had to keep the focus. We had to focus on the performative aspect of writing. I’ve got a feeling no-one really ENJOYS being ‘up there’. Rob doesn’t find it easy (sorry Rob, I’ve let the bag out of the cat. Or something.) But it’s not just Robert. Other writers I’ve spoken to don’t find it a walk in the park. I think it’s to do with all that hissing silence rushing towards you. I remember reading alongside Stella at the Word Factory’s Salon at Waterstones in February – how she held the room in the palm of her hand. I had the best seat in the house that night. And I watched the magic of her connecting with her audience. There’s a real gift in that.

So my best tip? Work out a few words to say before you start reading. I believe in this approach because it offers listeners a way into your story, as well as a non-reading moment for yourself to feel comfortable on stage. Your introduction could focus on anything – what you did that morning, someone sneezing up the contents of their breakfast on the train, the neighbours hanging a frosty note about the drains on your washing line (true).

In June, I’m going to be reading with Litro Live at the Stoke Newington Literature Festival. Dan Coxon, Litro fiction editor will be chairing, and I’ll reading be alongside writers Maia Jenkins and Reece Choules. Please do drop by. I’d love to see you there. I may even elaborate on that drain story. Writers need audiences for that reader/listener alchemy. I’ll also be checking into the Word Factory’s September Masterclass with Jonathon Taylor on reading work aloud. It looks excellent and we could all do with more practise.

Finally, I really appreciate writers being honest with other writers. Robert being able to share his feeling of uncomfortability about being on stage speaks of the sort of honesty I admire. Because we’re all in this together, no matter our varying stages in the process. We’re all part of the – excuse the pun – ongoing story. As Stella Duffy once brilliantly said, story-telling in the most human thing we can do. (I’m avoiding using the word ‘levels’, because I don’t think it’s helpful for anyone, even those at the so-called ‘top’.)

Oh, and if you ever run into Robert, please ask him to read you the story about Snoopy. It’s a cracker. Clever, funny, and breathing new life into a well-loved character. I’ll never see Snoopy in the same way again.