...on where the ideas come from, why her writing has become interested in deeper and darker things and how 'we share traits and emotions with the rest of the population of the world, and need to understand ourselves and others by recognising where we meet and where we miss meeting each other.'
Thank you Hayley - I'm very happy they struck you that way, and I love your questions.
The form is accidental, or started that way, but became quite instinctual. When I started writing it was for performance, for comedy, on stage in a group-sketch format, within a small group of women (which became Scotland's first feminist theatre company). I would do monologues, part scripted, part improvised, which had a natural length of about 4-6 minutes maximum - perhaps 750 words. With pauses (..for laughter..) that was how long I felt I could hold the tension, or attention, with the kind of 'comedy of irritation/fascination/oddity' that some of my characters had.
A few years after I stopped doing stand-up and/or TV presenting (95% of that was also in character) I found that the things I wanted to write - or rather, situations I wanted to explore - 'what ifs' - required more space, and they grew to about 1500 words. Eventually I submitted something to a radio producer, who liked it but said it was 500 words too short, so I added another 250 words and sent it back, and he accepted it, and we recorded it, and bingo, I had discovered that kind of shape and format suited me, as did having a potential audience of invisible listeners. And a fee. What larks. I read it myself, too.
So, for a while everything was around 2,200 words, and ostensibly 'entertaining'. But I changed, life changed, I became interested in deeper and darker things... which have their own shapes. I had to push through some barriers to get to the next stages, in those terms. I think I needed to move from something that can be encapsulated in comedic story form for listeners with delicate ears to things that wanted to be less comfortably commercial or amusing but felt more honest and even dangerous.
Since then, my word counts have crept up, but I am quick to spot padding when I read other people's work, and I fillet my verbiage pretty hard, so I'm never going to be a constructor of epic length novels (though I am writing something more 100,000 word novel-shaped currently, and it takes ages and feels like a vast entity to sustain and nourish in moments of pessimism).
Regarding putting together collections... my beginning was as a guest editor of an anthology called Scottish Love Stories, for Polygon, and I have to thank publishing genius Marion Sinclair for inviting me to try that, because it was my entree into the book world and took me out of the 'oh, I don't have those skills' mindset in that area. I still don't feel I have any skills, actually - but anyway, after that I edited two more anthologies before my own first collection was published.
Putting together a collection of my own work was really just a case of 'what do I have in hand, and what do I want to add to them' - many of the stories in both had already appeared on radio, and some had appeared in print elsewhere. Some were oddities that hadn't found other homes and in hindsight maybe I should have left them out.
I can't now remember how I shuffled the material together, nor anyone offering advice on it; but I do remember the logic of putting the first three stories in Furthermore into their places because they had all received strong, but widely differing, reactions from readers. Any reaction is a diagnosis…of something.
At that time, and earlier with The Short Hello - and if fact even now, still, a little - I always wanted to say 'look, don't categorise me as this or that kind of writer' - I wanted to be able to do comedy and drama and silly and serious, to be unpindownable... and I expect that's something to do with a long-held disdain for repetition (which as you can imagine didn't work well for me as an actor, who has to become comfortable with saying the same thing rather a lot).
Q) Being a writer and a performer doesn't always go hand in hand, but you have managed to do both. Do the two things support each other, and how does one influence or complement the other?
Because of starting out as a performer of comedy (I mean, in my twenties; really I started out as a baby, like everyone else. Or as a seed. A human seed.) stories were always about voice - voice, situation, attitude, that was the recipe. Whatever I write only works, for me, when I find the right tone of voice for it, whether as myself-the-writer, (whoever that is, because it's not all of me, or even consciously me) or the characters who're telling it or leading it.
I no longer perform my own work publicly, except when reading at an event, but I used to love reading stories on radio, inflecting for irony, finding pauses and idiosyncratic deliveries for certain words or thoughts. I miss that, and perhaps I need to find a way to do more of it again. When I did stand-up characters, at its best it was 'flow' - just letting my subconscious out to play, while I stood there opening and closing my mouth at the request of whoever it was. In writing, I try to let the same thing happen, but it's much harder because you're aware of the words you are putting on paper and the self-critic wants to leap in there and tell you it's nonsense, and has to be shut up or distracted. Live performing makes you commit to a thing. I'm about to experiment with speech-recognition software, which might be a revelation and a relief.
Q) I love your work on character, you seem to get to the crux of what makes a person tick. The Marina McLoughlin pieces are so funny, true and also subtle. How do you go about creating a character from scratch, and is it a different process for a story or something to be performed?
Again, thank you - I'm so glad... for years I was rather ambivalent about Marina. She was the person most people - readers, audiences, and TV producers - loved, praised, responded to, but, but, but, some rather clever people closer to home (maiden aunts, etc) thought she was a bit stupid and silly and therefore not quite proper for me to be 'wasting' my time with. I was far too easily swayed by such attitudes. In psychological terms she's a bit of me that I channel to look at universal things which the supposedly serious me still wants to know about, and I'm glad she's still around in my head, letting me do that.
Marina was born (cue Judy Garland song about a trunk in the Princess Theatre, in Pocatella, Idaho) from observation of two people I knew a little. One was a friend of a friend; that girl - let's call her A - used to behave as a kind of echo for a more original and bohemian friend, without knowing how to carry it off. She was always trying to get things right and to sound as if she knew what she was saying, and I found that funny. The second person - let's call her B - was a woman older than me who used to speak quite intensely and seriously and close her eyes while talking to you, and whose voice went on and on and on. And on and on. None of those characteristics survived full tilt into the written-Marina, but that's where she started, and when - after a few improvisations and performances - I really found her own voice - light, lilting, Glaswegian, young - those observed tics fell away until she was just herself; and when I was being her, I thought as her, and it was a very pleasing thing to discover how to tap my sense of humour via that method. Growing up, I wasn't sure I had a sense of humour. No-one would have pointed at the 10 or 15 year old Susies and said 'destined for comedy', or indeed destined for anything.
Writing a story tends to come slightly differently from inventing a character to perform; often the 'what if' arrives first, and then a notion of who it is that would most profitably or agonisingly explore the situation, how they would express their experience - are they in it, are they watching it, were they told about it second-hand, etc.
The main difference is in editing. When you perform live, an audience's sympathies are either with you, ebbing or waning, or against you, and you can sense it. You speed up or slow down or drop a section according to the waves that come through from the audience to your inbuilt sensors. So they edit you. It's alive. As a writer, for the page, you have to play both parts of that equation.. remove all the things that went on too long, went in the wrong direction, made that woman in the front row start plaiting her hair, or the guy at the side throw his beer glass at the stage and call you boring.
Q) I'm sure the things I read before the age of 12 are the ones that had the biggest impact on my own writing style and way of organising the form of my work. When you were growing up was there any books, films, TV or radio shows that really influenced you, or you just loved?
This takes some casting back, back, far back, into the mists of time... I read a lot, always, but the things I remember now are - rather predictably - the Narnia books, although I have less love for them since, and it galled even then that Susan was dismissed the moment she hit puberty; more interesting and relevant to where I was living, aged 7 - 10, were a series of books by Marion Campbell, set in Scotland mainly, on the West coast, the Kintrye peninsula. When I read those I felt I was the characters - a knight or squire, a boy, sailing ships and riding ponies and doing sword drill and building fires and catching fish in pools of peaty water. Also, the Moomin books, which I loved and still love. A sprinkling of Dodie Smith and pony-books and oh, yes, The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell Maclean.
We didn't watch TV much, (when we lived in the Highlands we had no electricity) but in the early '60s my mother presented a series called For The Youngest Scot, so I remember both seeing her at home inventing models and toy things, talking to us about them, and then, on screen, looking very 'done-up', demonstrating how to make a merry-go-round out of cheese cartons and thread, or reading from our own picture books. My father also read to us when we were small, very inventive new versions of familiar stories, or unlikely things in a variety of accents.
Q) Can you remember the first thing you wrote?
No, not really. But I remember the first time I got swept up in writing and forgot time, which I suspect is where I got hooked on storytelling, the rush of finding things inside me which I didn't understand but which wanted to emerge, be heard. It happened during a not very inspired test at school, I was perhaps 11, and we were told 'you have 20 minutes to write on one of these four topics' - and one sentence leapt out at me and that was it. I remember being dazed as I came 'back' into the room when a bell rang. Since then I've used that as the basis for writing classes, and it almost always works for people whose conscious selves are putting the brakes on their desire to write.
The first thing I wrote that was published was, I think, a rather metaphor-stuffed review of a gallery exhibition.. or it might have been a film review for a student paper. Either way, I was in my early twenties and it felt terrifying and exciting to be in print.
Q) Personally I think there is room for so many types of books and what I read and enjoy reading isn't necessarily the sort of things I write. What sort of books do you like to read and why?
That perception makes me want to yell YES, ME TOO. Definitely.
I think one writes what one can, what one has to, what is one's theme; and I don't really want to read about what feels like my 'theme' through other people's prisms, or not too often or too closely. (You do gravitate towards that by instinct until you realise you're attracted by what it reveals to you about your own feelings and stories, the need to express those, but then you have to listen to that, and avoid other people's versions, I think.)
I have come rather late to the discovery that non-fiction enlightens me and can provide unexpected and remarkably useful tools for writing fiction, so I'm reading more of that, though because it makes me stop and think, it's not 'reading for leisure and pleasure.'
I like all sorts of fiction, from the (now rather laboured point-making of) early '80s Feminist crime fiction (both from USA and UK), back a bit to Raymond Chandler (wonderful) and Margaret Millar, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, and all the less well known Green Penguin Crime writers like Pamela Branch, Holly Roth; when I first discovered Highsmith's Ripley, I hugged it to me like a deep secret. I enjoy some science fiction and fantasy writing a lot - as 13 yr old I discovered Mervyn Peake and devoured that trilogy with huge appetite - and later was profoundly smitten by Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.
For about 12 years, I reviewed at the average of a book a week, 90% of it being contemporary literary fiction, and there are 'finds' from that era that I hung onto and still re-read. At random, after a quick look at a pile of books in the corner, those include: Rupert Thomson, Morag Joss, Bernard MacLaverty, Oliver Harris, Joan London, Ali Smith, Jane Harris, Cynthia Rogerson, Nicholson Baker, Julian Gough, Michael Frayn, Manda Scott, Sarah Dunant.
Then of course there's Walter Tevis, Iris Murdoch, Brian Moore, and further back John Buchan, and Dickens, Stevenson, all kinds of things I hang onto during book-culls because I know I'll want them again. I'm rather uncritical of myself in this regard - after so much reviewing, I no longer feel I have to read everything publishers are pushing at me as their current discovery or a 'must-read', because there's no must.
Q) Can you tell me anything about the things you are working on at the minute?
Um... yes and no. I could say 'It's about time I tried to have a third story collection published' and 'I'd love to write more radio stories' and 'I hope to finish the novel I've been working on this year' and 'I've got an almost finished comic novella - featuring my Marina character, that needs editing now' and 'there's a Mystery Character project up my sleeve which I must also try to complete' and... - but this is like opening a hatch into the mental attic and finding lots of boxes you knew you'd put up there and can't quite identify without closer examination, and I'm cautious about draining the energy out of things by opening the boxes and talking about their contents until I can see that they are working/have worked/a piece of paper exists that proves this has happened. There are always more ideas than there is physical stamina to do them justice.
Q) Are there any writers you'd like to champion that we should all be reading more of?
I'm of the view that people should read whatever their instinct leads them towards, that it's as personal as what kind of cheese you prefer (if you even like cheese) - no absolutes, no rules about it. (Don't give me blue cheese, though.)
However, having recently met some well educated men about 10 years older than me who work in the arts and who, they told me, never read fiction by women, I would - of course - suggest that we need as a species to be aware of how our male/female lives intersect - I mean regardless of one's own gender identity or sexual preferences, we share traits and emotions with the rest of the population of the world, and need to understand ourselves and others by recognising where we meet and where we miss meeting each other. One of the easiest ways we can do that is by reading widely, tuning our empathies, including trying fiction by people who are 'not us'. And irregardless of 'genre' labels or book cover syndromes.
I've always read a lot of books written by men, and I think that's partly because the dramatic form I liked and wanted and needed when I started writing was often about journeys, (male hero myths) and male writers are using that shape; I'm trying to use it too, but female journeys (myths) are different, and we have to invent them for ourselves, not follow the male pattern. Thinking out loud there, probably woolly and vague, but I'll leave my half-baked-half-fluffed reflections in case that's useful to anyone looking for their own pathway... There aren't any crumbs to follow, Gretel. You have to make, pack and eat your own sandwiches along the way, and maybe someone else will find your crumbs.
Q) I'm asking everybody this question mostly because I'm nosy and it's always interesting to know what a writer reads. If you had to pick five books to help a stranger know and understand you, which five books would you choose and why? Also, which book or books do you wish you had written?
That's so hard to answer! Alright, without too much cerebral-fussing, how about: Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (time, place, characters, journey, humour and dramatic tension); Pullman's HDM books (I'm counting them as one glorious immersion); Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (the wonderful characters and the dialogue of the Starkadders); and - since I've gone mentally blank here and if it's not cheating to offer this - obviously, my own two story collections Furthermore and The Short Hello, which probably reveal more about me than I could ever guess, for good or ill. But if that is cheating, I'll add 'writing by Lewis Carroll and Mervyn Peake', to the mix. And none of those are anything like the things I write, but they all say something about my inner landscapes.
Books I'd like to have written... I will forget some vital title and later smite myself for doing so, but what comes to mind right now are: Michael Frayn's The Trick Of It; Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist; any of Josephine Tey's novels; the entire Jeeves & Wooster canon by PG Wodehouse; The Hunter, by Julia Leigh (her first novel - astonishing).
NB - currently three of Susie's stories, I Got The Dog - a trilogy - are being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra (available for next ten days), read by Rebecca Front, John McGlynn and Vicki Pepperdine