Moi? I thought, hiding behind my limited French. Surely, Gill James can’t be serious. Does she really want me to appear on her blog? I’m not even on Facebook. Never set foot on Instagram. Nor on Twitter. But I was flattered. Perhaps I could learn? I could describe how I first had a story accepted by Bridge House, going back to my somewhat lengthy reply to her request for personal information, which, I’m sure, must have been so beside the point that she gave up after the first few sentences. Would she really want more of that?
Her reply put me wise. Hold it, it said, if not in those words - almost having come to consider myself a writer, I tend to fabulate. She introduced a number of questions that could be of interest. I think I’ll stay with the first one, though, where I can also touch, to some extent, on one or two of the others. Here we go:
My first attempt at writing involved poetry; I was about fifteen. On leaving secondary school, I submitted part of what I had produced to the two major publishing houses in Sweden. Needless to say, they both rejected the material. Since then I have written few poems. Twenty years later I turned to short stories. This was still in Sweden, writing in Swedish. Two were published, one in a volume for debutant writers, the other as one of two price-winning stories for children with reading difficulties. At about that time I also worked on a synopsis for a novel (in English), based, in part, on a job I’d held in England in the mid-sixties, and completed the first two chapters. I realized, though, that my work as a teacher left little room for me to write fiction and decided to put it off till my retirement.
That came in 2010. In order to warm up, before returning to my novel, I wrote a few short stories in Swedish, and tried them, without success, in a competition arranged yearly in connection with the celebration of a Swedish city as one of two capitals of culture in Europe. After that, finding no other places to send stories, I turned to Britain - and there, there were hundreds! In consequence, from then on, all my writing has been in English, much of it published in competition anthologies. Recently, thanks to Bridge House, a number of these stories and a few others have appeared in a volume entitled The Sound of Patriarchy and Other Stories. I’ve also completed my novel, which will hopefully be out before long.
What inspires me in my writing varies, but my stories very often develop from something I see or hear: noticing a man leaving a tenement building on a Monday morning, for instance, with a bunch of balloons in one hand, heading for what is a collection point for recycling rubbish; or running into a woman outside of a restaurant, at night, not quite steady on her feet, slightly overdressed, telling me as I approach her with my dog not to come too close: she’s had a few drinks and dogs can be aggressive when they smell alcohol. The first scene - that involving the man about to dump his balloons - told me that he was most likely divorced; his child, having celebrated its birthday in his flat, must now have returned to its mother. (In Sweden, these days, parents who have split up often take turns, on a weekly basis, looking after their child or children.) It gave rise to “The Sound of Patriarchy” but really has little to do with that story. The second scene - that of the inebriated woman - forms the starting point, but only the starting point, of the story named “Scene: Another Part of the Island”; I backed away from her, of course, as instructed, and walked my dog home, and so escaped what follows in the story.
And that is how my writing often works: a minor incident, or something overheard, triggers my imagination. “You can vouch for that, can’t you,” said a man once when I was waiting to renew my library card. “That I’m me,” he added. Thinking he was joking, I agreed. It was only after he had finished his business and asked me how things were at work that I recognized him as the husband of a colleague - a man I’d only seen briefly at a reception and not even spoken to (used in “Rivalry?”).
Of course, once I have arrived at some sort of starting point (which may change as I proceed), the real work starts. I have to create the characters I need as well as the setting, however sketchy, and, ideally, a conflict, either between characters or within a character - a conflict that will sometimes be resolved, at other times not (though the character may think it is, as in “Only Sometimes”). After that, what follows may involve a fact check and certainly a lot of revising - and even when I believe that my work is done, there will be comments from one or more editors to consider, ranging from minor points to major: sections that are repetitive, for instance, or leave out material that would help the reader follow what is going on. In the case of The Sound of Patriarchy and Other Stories I’m especially grateful for the work put in by Madeleine McDonald.
The conflicts that interest me in these stories, as in most of my other writing, have to do largely with matters of gender, traumatic experiences and changes in someone’s situation; often they involve all three areas.
To what extent I have been influenced by other writers, I can’t tell. A few times, when I have received a rejection slip, there has been a comment comparing the story I’ve submitted to the work of one or two other writers - once, someone from Finland as well as another one from Chile, neither of which I’d ever heard of. But having studied literature for teaching purposes for about thirty-five years has obviously left traces. Writers that I have followed with interest are, for instance, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nick Hornby, but there have been others. No doubt, as time goes by, more will be added to that list.