article and interview by Kathy Halliday (Founding Editor)
Nicholas Royle is the author of First Novel, as well as six earlier novels including The Director’s Cut and Antwerp, and a short story collection, Mortality. He has edited numerous anthologies including Darklands, Murmurations: An Anthology of Uncanny Stories About Birds and three volumes of The Best British Short Stories (2011–2013). A senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press, publishing original short stories as signed, limited-edition chapbooks, and works as an editor for Salt Publishing, where he has been responsible for Alison Moore’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse and Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island among other titles.
Having experienced workshops and readings with Nicholas in the past, we were keen to speak with him about his career. Earlier this month, we asked him a few questions about his extraordinary life as writer, editor and publisher:
Where better to start than with your most recent publication, First Novel (2013), an intriguingly titled meta-fiction with dark undertones. When or perhaps where did the concept for this novel take root?
Around 2004, when my previous novel, Antwerp, was published, I said to my then editor at Serpent’s Tail, who were at that time my publisher, I wanted to write a novel about dogging. A couple of years later my editor asked me how the dogging novel was going. Slowly, I told him. I needed to do more research. In 2008 or 2009, while my novel was progressing with glacial slowness, a novel appeared from Serpent’s Tail called The Isle of Dogs. I guessed they’d got tired of waiting. It was another year or two before I finished it and by the time I did there was not a lot of dogging in it. There never was, though, to be honest. As to where the concept took root, that was in Manchester, and it was written mainly there and in Greece.
Can you tell us a bit about your inspirations and influences? Is there a specific author that you feel your writing is most influenced by?
When I started writing I was rather too obviously influenced by Roald Dahl, then Ramsey Campbell and Dennis Etchison and later M John Harrison. Then I started reading a lot of Iain Sinclair and I’m sure that showed. I hope I wear my influences more lightly these days, but I feel the ghost of JG Ballard at my shoulder.
Nightjar Press publish elegant, limited-edition chapbooks of unnerving short fiction, giving the short story form the respect it deserves. A particular favourite of mine is Claire Massey’s Marionettes. How do you find such brilliant writers for Nightjar? Do you accept unsolicited submissions? (All limited edition chapbooks are available to purchase here).
I read a lot and very widely. Teaching creative writing (at MMU) and judging the Manchester Fiction Prize I come across a lot of good writers, such as Alison Moore, Stephen McGeagh and Hilary Scudder, whose story, ‘M’, is one of the two new Nightjars to be published this autumn.
It is no secret that you are an advocate for the short story form, or very brief ‘flash’ fiction form. Can you tell us a bit more about what interests you in this structure?
Actually, I’m no great fan of so-called flash fiction. I dislike the term and most of what I read under its banner. A lot of writers seem to think it’s easy to write a good story in 500 words or whatever. It isn’t. Those who do a good job at that length can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. I am, however, committed to the short story. I think it’s the perfect literary form. Because of its length, it’s the most intimate form – most stories will be read in a single sitting, in an unbroken period of concentration, of collaboration, almost, between writer and reader. Also because of its length, or brevity, it’s perfect for risk-taking and experimentation.
Murmurations (2011) is a hauntingly beautiful anthology of stories, pertaining to the uncanny of the avian variety. In your works and edited collections, the ‘uncanny’ is very much an inherent theme. Can you clarify for our readers what you mean by the term ‘uncanny’ and why you find fiction of this genre so compelling?
Freud wrote about the unheimlich or uncanny. It encompasses many different experiences and situations, but common to most of them is a feeling of strangeness. Seeing something familiar in an unfamiliar setting. Déjà vu. The frisson we get from seeing lifelike representations such as dummies or mannequins, or masks. Ghosts. Doubles, dopplegängers, twins. There’s a lot more to be found in Freud’s essay on the subject. When I first read it – prompted both by my namesake, author of The Uncanny, and by Ra Page of Comma Press when he commissioned me to write a story for his anthology The New Uncanny – I realised that here was an umbrella term for lots of stuff I had always been attracted to. I’d been attracted to it for the feeling it produces. A feeling, if you will, of uncanniness.
For the edited collections of The Best British Short Stories, how do you select which pieces to publish? It must be a daunting process of elimination, given the outstanding quality of the work in each edition. (Available to purchase from the Salt Publishing shop here).
I read everything I can that I think might be a contender. I scour literary magazines, genre magazines, websites, newspapers, other magazines, multiple-author anthologies and single-author collections. I slowly build up a list of the stories I want and if I have to whittle it down – we have a limit of 20 stories – then I do so.
As a senior lecturer of Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as novelist, editor and literary agent, your dedication to writing is evident and must result in a hectic but rewarding schedule of events. On a number of occasions, I have been lucky enough to attend your readings – most recently at the launch of York Literature festival, alongside novelist Socrates Adams. How important do you feel it is for emerging writers to attend these events, and give readings of their own work, be it published or not?
It’s obviously very important for emerging writers to read as much and as widely as possible. Attending such events is a good way to encounter new writers you might not otherwise come across. If there’s a chance to read your own work, do so. You should always read your own work out loud anyway. Doing so in public is just taking it one step further.
To us you appear to be an all-writing, editing and lecturing extraordinaire! In reality, this must be a difficult work/life balance to maintain. Would you say you are always first and foremost a writer, or does your creativity in writing take a back seat to other commitments?
First and foremost I am a writer, but in recent years I have allowed all the other stuff to push my own writing into the back seat, from where it is fighting to get back into the front, into the driving seat. At some point I may have to abandon certain activities.
Are you currently working on any new writing projects? Can we expect more of the uncanny in 2014?
I have one of the four stories that will form Nightjar’s publication schedule for next year. It’s another story by Tom Fletcher, called ‘The Home’. I’m in the middle of reading for The Best British Short Stories 2014 (Salt). Also for Salt, I have selected the two novels I will edit for them next year. Neither is particularly uncanny. I’m working on a new novel entitled Second Album, which is definitely a novel of the uncanny. At least that’s how it’s shaping up at the moment.
Finally, what is the best piece of advice you can offer to our readers, most of whom are budding writers, on getting their work published?
Write what you want to write, what you are interested in. Don’t write if you have nothing to say. Don’t try to write x because you think there’s a market for x. When you think you’ve finished something, you haven’t. Go over it again and again and again. Read it out loud. Cut it back, cut it down. Is the opening paragraph really necessary? Do you tell too much instead of showing? Are you guilty of overwriting? Consider showing it to like-minded writer friends, get some feedback. Edit, edit, edit. Only when it’s really done with should you start thinking about where to send it.
Whether you are an established or emerging writer, the advice Nicholas has provided here is unquestionably valuable. There seems to be a strong association between writing and the ‘flowery’, which it can be difficult as a writer to achieve distance from. To edit, cut back and cut down is vital to a successful story. There is something to be said for the beauty of simplicity, which is encapsulated by the short story form in particular. The intimacy Nicholas talks about in relation to the form is evident in the collections mentioned throughout this interview. It comes as no surprise, then, that these are all edited by Nicholas Royle.
We’d like to thank Nicholas for such an honest and enlightening interview.
To find out more about Nicholas Royle, including all upcoming events, click here to visit his main site.