Interview with Nicholas Royle
What’s The Story? 10 Questions for Nicholas Royle
Former Word Factory apprentice Rebecca Swirsky talks beginnings, endings and the uncanny with acclaimed editor and writer Nicholas Royle.
Rebecca Swirsky: Your collection is titled Mortality (2006). Last year, Ali Smith gave a lecture highlighting the presence of death in the short story – she argued this was because writer and reader alike were close to, and aware of, an imminent end. Does this idea hold any resonance for you, and why did you choose that title?
Nicholas Royle: That’s fascinating. Ali’s saying something essential about the short story that works at an unconscious level. And I hadn’t thought about that before, but it’s very true. I’m also obsessed with my own mortality. Mortality isn’t just about death, it’s about life, living in the world, although most of my stories are about death, or an encounter with death.
I’m also a hypochondriac, which the story Dotted Line refers to. Conversely, I have a huge appetite for life. I want to get involved. I’m a writer, publisher, editor. I work with writers like on today’s Masterclass, and my students on the MA, and I’ve signed up to being a Word Factory mentor. And it’s the same with the rest of my life. Maybe this explains my morbidity – I dread the day all of this won’t be possible. I remember being the kid who never wanted things to end. Unless they were bad, of course.
RS: What’s harder for short story writers, the beginning or the end, and is it any different when writing novels?
NR: Great question. I mean it, as I’ve been thinking about this recently. My Word Factory Masterclass included an exercise about beginnings, and I was wondering whether I could do an endings exercise. Endings, I think, are far harder. My endings initially had a Roald Dahl twist – you saw them coming a mile off! So I found myself wanting something more crafted.
To end a short story is far harder than a novel. Because you don’t have to have someone dying to end a piece of writing. You don’t have to have the end of the world. You just need some kind of change, whether a change of tone, pace, perspective. I have a couple of examples, but they are novels, not short stories, and the two are completely different things. In both James Sallis’s Death Will Have Your Eyes (1997) and Bret Easton Ellis’s recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), there’s a sense of mystery that really works. Having too much resolution disappoints. With a lot of my endings, readers have a sense of bafflement. And I quite like that.
RS: The uncanny figures strongly in your writing. Did you become interested in the uncanny when young, or later on? And are you on alert for the uncanny beyond literature? Your story Skin Deep, concerns taxidermy, bringing to mind Polly Morgan, an artist who works with stuffed animals.
NR: I’ve always loved horror stories. Most people hear horror stories then switch off, but I love good horror stories – although not all horror is uncanny. I first became aware of the uncanny when Ra Page commissioned a story for a Comma Press anthology called The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (2008). I read Freud’s The Uncanny for the first time, and that’s when I became aware of the weird coincidence of my namesake, Nicholas Royle, teaching the uncanny, whose fiction I later encouraged and commissioned.
And yes, I’m definitely attracted to the uncanny in real life. I love Polly Morgan’s taxidermy work. I also love Paul Delvaux – a Belgian painter associated with surrealism – and Giorgio de Chirico, an Italian who influenced the surrealists. I only named the uncanny after reading Freud. Actually, what I think is very uncanny is putting real people with real names in novels. Which can be unsettling for family and friends as it’s unnerving for them to wonder at what point their lived reality becomes fictional.
RS: Given the number of MAs and writing courses, can the uncanny be taught, or does a writer have to have an inbuilt, uncanny way of looking at the world?
NR: That’s interesting. No, I don’t see why not. Of course, you’d be studying texts that exhibit or explore the uncanny. And in terms of people writing their own uncanny work, can you teach that? I think you can. I’m a firm believer that if someone can write, then you can teach them to write better. So yes, you could have an Uncanny MA.
RS: Kafka’s short story Metamorphosis (1915), by exploring a man inhabiting the body of a cockroach, anchors the surreal with concrete detail. Your work brilliantly makes space for flashes of oddness in unexpected places. Is the devil in the micro detail, or are big ideas more important?
NR: Well, I write about death all the time, so in that sense I’m not shirking the big ideas, but my writing used to be more politically infused. Now I work on stories that have a palimpsest of another story underneath. Increasingly, I find myself writing about banal details in a flat way, deliberately concealing what’s going on deep down. Superficial detail keeps the story moving. In fact, a river analogy would be that I focus on the hidden thermal currents.
Ra Page of Comma Press says a very interesting thing about stories. There is this view that the short story is perfect for our lifestyle, that you can read it in between stops on the tube or the bus, filling the gaps in our busy lives, but Ra Page says you only really begin working on a story when you’ve finished reading it. Because the story underneath the story is what it’s really about. And while you’re reading the story, what it’s really about may not be obvious at all. So that’s a paradox: trying harder and harder to conceal the real story, yet wanting it to remain clear to the reader. Managing the balance between not saying anything and yet saying enough – it’s one of the hardest things about writing. In that sense, my work is more crafted now than it has been. If you say too much, you kill the real story.
RS: We’ve previously discussed your love of the Belgian filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers. Would your own work translate cinematically, and do you see any parallels with your work and the Dardennes? I’m thinking of their unsettling claustrophobia, and of being pushed up close into the storyline, followed by those uneasy, very open-ended endings.
NR: It’s one of my great ambitions to have my work adapted for the screen, because I do think it’s cinematic. I love movies, so it shows in the way I write. And my novel The Director’s Cut (2001) is also about films. Jeremy Thomas, from the Recorded Picture Company, commissioned me to write a screenplay for The Director’s Cut and was going to direct it as well, which I was really pleased about. The project was on the cards for five years, but nothing came of it. Similarly, I was also commissioned to write a screenplay for my novel Antwerp (2004). And of course with the Dardenne brothers, we share a deliberate claustrophobia and a focus on the surface of things, while focusing on what’s underneath. But although my work will always take a sharp turn out of the everyday and the mundane, their work stays in it. But you’re right to make that link. And I love them because they are Belgian and I am a Belgophile.
RS: Your stories are often darkly funny. Do you consciously weave in strands of humour, or is their presence surprising?
NR: I’m glad you’ve mentioned that. I don’t try and consciously write gags. It wouldn’t work if I did, because my children say I’ve got bad jokes. So it must happen unconsciously. There’ve been people who’ve told me First Novel (2013) is very funny, and that some of my stories are funny. A story I have coming out later this year is called This Video Does Not Exist. It’s included in an anthology called Spectral Book of Horror Stories edited by Mark Morris, and is funny, but dark funny. It starts off well, and then it gets worse.
RS: Are the best ideas fuelled by certain times – i.e. late at night/early in the morning – or are you always on the alert, fine-tuned to what’s around you?
NR: The answer to that is that I am always alert. I use notebooks constantly. I write down ideas as they come to me, because I know for a fact I will forget them otherwise. There’s no routine, but I love leafing back through them and seeing what’s there. My work is often about doubles, and my current notebook is a Fabriano, sent by a friend called Conrad. Oddly, the notebook before that was also sent by a friend called Conrad. I’ve lost it twice, and it’s been returned to me twice. Which is interesting as my work focuses on doubles.
RS: Since publishing your novel, First Novel, in 2013, do you have any future projects you’d like to mention?
NR: Well, I’m always writing about death and identity – both were the focus of First Novel. And while my next novel, Second Album, is still concerned with those themes, it also focuses on water, music and reinvention. Although it’s progressing more slowly than previous novels.
RS: Final question: is it better to write about unsettling things in an ordinary way, or ordinary things in an unsettling way?
NR: Good question! I do both I think, and I don’t know which I do better. I should be able to answer that, but it’s not an either/or. Actually, can I email you? Otherwise my answer’s likely to change.
Nick later emails his answer over: My answer is neither is better, because I like to do both. My style is neutral, flat, which maybe has a deadening effect, but inside, deep inside, my characters are often churning. Is that ordinary or unsettling? I don’t know. I’ve a feeling I could write a whole page on this and end up chasing my own tail, with the reader becoming none the wiser, which is not to say it’s not a good question. I think this gets to the heart of my approach, particularly my current approach, but maybe I’m not the best person to answer.
Nicholas Royle is the author of seven novels, two novellas and a short story collection. He runs Nightjar Press, publishing original short stories as signed, limited-edition chapbooks, is fiction reviewer for The Independent and the Warwick Review, an editor for Salt Publishing, and senior lecturer in creative writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. He led a Masterclass on Beginnings at the Word Factory Salon and in September, will be a Word Factory mentor for the upcoming Apprentice Scheme.
Rebecca Swirsky was one of two apprentices chosen for the Word Factory’s inaugural Apprentice Scheme, begun last year. She was mentored by the writer Stella Duffy for her novel-of-stories, A History of Symmetry.