Flash Frontier

Interview with Frances Gapper

Interviews and Features

Frances Gapper‘s new book of stories, In the Wild Wood, has just been released. She is the author of the previous collections Absent Kisses (Diva Books, 2002) and The Tiny Key (Sylph Editions, 2009). Her most published story is ‘Pink and Blue’, which appeared first in Pretext 5, edited by Ali Smith and Julia Bell, then in Absent Kisses and then in Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: Love Quarrels from Anton Chekhov to ZZ Packer, a Penguin anthology edited by Ali Smith, Sarah Wood and Kasia Boddy.  She is also the author of a novel, Saints and Adventurers (The Women’s Press, 1988), a children’s novel, Jane and The Kenilwood Occurrences (Faber, 1979) and a guidebook, Gardens of England (Blue Guides, 1991).

This month, we enjoy talking about her stories, the inspiration behind them and how life intersects with art – from the cover art of her new book to the stories she pens. We are also pleased to include a short fiction by Frances, from her new collection, ‘The leaf that wouldn’t fall’ – which fits beautifully with this month’s tree theme.

Flash Frontier: Your new collection, published by Cultured Llama, is called In the Wild Woods – invoking a view to nature, possibly the surreal or sublime. How did the title come about?

Frances Gapper: Cultured Llama initially suggested The Moustache Maker’s Daughter and Other Stories, but we went with In the Wild Wood since it seemed a better catch-all title. The name comes from a conversation I had with my mum, Patience. At the time I was staying in her house and trying to look after her – she had Alzheimer’s and I was heading for a breakdown. She asked me “Are we going to the wild wood?” Part of me hoped there might be an actual wood nearby, somewhere between the main roads in dusty Brentford, West London. I asked her “Where is the wild wood?” and she replied “I’ve no idea.” Of course the Middle English word wode also means mad or insane; in that sense we were already in the wild wood together. The title’s associations for me also include the opening of Dante’s Inferno: “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself astray in a dark wood…” (Seamus Heaney’s translation).

FF: The cover of your book was created by Jane Eccles, and we note that you’ve dedicated the book to her memory. We’d love to hear more about your collaboration and friendship, and about how the cover reflects the mood of the contents.

FG: I first met Jane when I was six or seven years old and the Eccleses moved into our road. She was about a year younger than me and very shy – she would hide behind her long hair and mutter through it. We were both brought up as Roman Catholics and went to the same church, St Winefride’s, and primary school, often referred to as St Mary Mags. After that I saw her from time to time. I remember in our mid-twenties we spent an evening together in a wine bar, where I spotted a man who’d just conned me out of an £80 ‘room deposit’ by pretending he owned a house whose true owners were in fact away on holiday. The sight of him distracted me somewhat from my conversation with Jane.

I joined Facebook at the end of 2008 and Jane then re-entered my daily life in quite a big way. In between wonderful, often funny drawings of animals and people (she was a freelance artist, having trained at St Martin’s art school) and updates, she would post old photos, for instance of her brother Richard, who died when he was a child. Connections with the past were very important to her and she was a keen user of the FB “suggest friends for so-and-so” tool … with the result that I’m now back in contact with various people I knew when we were kids and then forgot about for half a century.

In 2012, Jane’s breast cancer returned as secondary cancer – the type that’s spread to other organs. She was a bit cross about the focus on what she called the “pink, fluffy” sort of breast cancer, with the advanced stages receiving less money and attention. At the same time, I know she was very kind and helpful to lots of women with cancer, no matter what type. She died in February this year.

The cover picture is Jane’s ‘Night Tree’ – that’s how she labelled it on Facebook. The picture was published in a poetry book called Wild! Rhymes That Roar, accompanying a poem called ‘Wilderness’ by Joan Poulson and published by Macmillan in 2009 (copyright remained with Jane, and her husband Graham McKinnon kindly gave permission for me to use the picture). But there’s no doubt in my mind that the girl in the picture is Jane herself. She’s in a wild and lonely place, looking out into the darkness, but held and supported by a tree – in nature and a part of it.

The cover designer was Mark Holihan – I think he did a fantastic job.

FF: Helen Oyeyemi notes: “Frances Gapper seems to write from the very heart of the eerie everyday…” And it seems your work does draw in many cases from the realm of the real, but spins it into something beyond the mundane. There are stories about a broken pot, a mother growing old, a convent spider, an angel statue, a fallen oak, a little jaggedy bay – many of them pivoting around family relations. Do you find that your work blurs the line between reality and fiction?

FG: The eerie everyday – I love that phrase and am so grateful to Helen for using it re: my writing. The horror writer Robert Aickman’s short stories have been described as English Eerie (my essay about Aickman can be found on the Thresholds website) – his own phrase was ‘strange stories’ – and perhaps I could call my stuff English eerie everyday. (Certainly it’s more quotidian than Aickman’s.) My feeling is that everyone’s everyday – whether they’re English or not – has eerie potential, when looked at closely. No spinning required.

As for the line between reality and fiction, where can that line be drawn? In In the Wild Wood the narrator’s brother says to her, as my brother told me during my breakdown, “Your mind goes into a very dark place sometimes… Remember though, it’s only a story.” Likewise, the young male narrator of ‘Broken Thing’ says, “Anyone who’s ever been with anyone knows you remember things differently from how the other person remembers them, or you remember different things.”

FF: The collection begins with a startling opener: His dead wife hisses, this is your fault. Which is about as good as an opening line gets, in terms of reeling the reader in. Then there’s the opening sentence of ‘In the Wild Wood’: Mum bangs around the house like a giant moth. How do openings come to you? Do you start with the first line of a story and then plunge right in, or does the story form first, and then you cultivate and sculpt the first line to fit?

FG: That depends. It’s important – although often very hard – to get the first paragraph right and the first line is usually somewhere in that paragraph. However, the opening of ‘In the Wild Wood’ is an exception, as that story came together in an unusual way. Much of it is plucked directly from diary/notebooks I kept at the time of my breakdown, but I retrieved some material, including the opening line, from earlier stories about mum and me that didn’t quite work.

FF: We note that there are flashes interspersed with longer short stories in this book: The Leaf that Wouldn’t Fall, Cleaner, My Lion, Stepmother (and more). How do you approach flash fiction, as opposed to other writing? Does it take a different inspiration to bring forth a flash? Do you feel different when you’ve completed a small fiction?

FG: The great thing about writing flash is that the ending is never far away. I love the freedom very short fiction gives me to take risks and be inventive, weird or daft. To do things I might find hard to sustain over a longer narrative.

I like to write flashes in which something changes. It can be a very slight alteration – perhaps a change of mood. If this happens and the flash ‘works’, I feel happy. Writing flash makes me happy.

FF: Some of the pieces here are quite compact micros. How do you sit down to write a micro? Where do such small observational stories come from?

FG: I love writing to fixed word counts (or with a maximum count); it somehow takes the pressure off – I guess because producing a drabble of 100 words or a dribble of 50, or indeed a 22-worder or a 10-worder, feels like fun rather than work. Another way to produce a compact micro is to make drastic cuts to a longer story – I did this with My Lion, for instance.

But as for where stories of any length come from, I don’t know. If I knew, I’d tell you. Often I start by just scribbling a few random things. Then I gaze out of the window, which sometimes helps.

FF: Most of the pieces feel quite contemporary but few stand out for the way they reach back in time. ‘Gone to War’, for example – which juxtaposes memory against reality. The gap between the two people in the story is very specific to this scenario, yet timeless. How did such a moment come to be the focus of this story – and why is this particular moment so perfectly suited to a micro, in your view?

FG: It’s really interesting that you should pick out ‘Gone to War’ because this one – unlike I think all the rest – has absolutely no personal or autobiographical resonance for me. So I can’t waffle on about the story behind the story, because this one just is what it is and I’ve no idea what impulse made me write it. But thank you. I like the way time moves very fast in it, while also standing still. Perhaps it’s a flash about time.

FF: Your book The Tiny Key (Sylph Editions, 2009) was selected by Ali Smith as a book of the year in The Guardian. How has your approach to short fiction changed since writing that collection?

FG: My approach to writing short fiction hasn’t changed much at all since then. In fact it hasn’t really changed since primary school, except as a child I was a bit more fluent. I still like to be given subjects to write about, so I often find writing prompts inspiring.

FF: Besides short fiction, you’ve also published a novel, a children’s novel and a Blue Guide book called Gardens of England. We can’t help but note the appearance of garden details throughout your new book. From ‘In the Wild Wood’: The wisteria tendrils curl around each other when there’s nothing else. Grip and strangle. Has your early nonfiction interest in gardens influenced the way you explore the natural worlds in your fiction?

FG: That wisteria appears in a couple of stories. It was beautiful when it flowered, but it had a bit of a stranglehold on the front of my mum’s small terraced house and sometimes it tried to come indoors. Plants and the natural world do tend to enter my stories, but writing the gardens book in my early thirties had a more evident influence on my first story collection, Absent Kisses. For example, in ‘The Lawnmower’ Mary takes her solar-powered lawnmower with her when she goes to work as a gardener on a large decrepit estate. And one reviewer praised a joke – which in fact my mum had thought of – about the gardens of the castle in ‘The Secret of Sorrerby Rise’.

FF: You are also involved in the online writing community: a senior editor at The Forge and one of the 2017 judges of Micro Madness. How do you balance between your online projects and your personal time for writing?

FG: Haha – I don’t, really. Well, the writing hasn’t suffered much, but my participation in Fiction Forge, an online writing group whose members run The Forge, certainly has. I loved judging Micro Madness with Rachel Smith – the process was fun and enjoyable from start to finish.

FF: Your bio tells us: She has lived in various UK places, and had quite a few relationships, but at the age of 55 she married and sort of settled down. Tell us about the contrast between your earlier life and where you are now (and how it inspires your creative life), and what this looks like, this settling down.

FG: People in this part of the Black Country in the English West Midlands don’t tend to move far outside the quite small area where their families have lived for generations, and the speech is still a bit Chaucerian – e.g., “ow bist?” for how are you. The reference in my story ‘Blackbird’ to a local woman who, while walking along Curral Road, unexpectedly found herself in an ancient sunken green lane, which she could never find again, isn’t something I made up: local people have experienced similar time slips. As the blackbird says, “It ay there no more. And yet it be.” Talk about English eerie… and my partner experiences a less dramatic form of this phenomenon every time she goes for a walk. Nothing’s been lost to time and history, because everything is still here, though you may not be able to see it. She says this gives her a feeling of vertigo. As for me, I’m not really rooted anywhere.

Thank you, Frances!

Readers can find out more about In the Wild Wood on its book page at Cultured Llama.

The leaf that wouldn’t fall

Frances Gapper
Excerpted from her new collection, In the Wild Wood

According to a branch message, one of our leaves is upset at the prospect of being let go. Tell it fallen leaves turn into compost, so it’ll give nurture and life to future generations. If it likes to look at things that way. But no (sap reports back from twig to branch to central core), leaf still hanging on grimly. Sigh. There’s always one. Tell it leaves must fall, separate, depart – that’s why they’re called leaves, ffs. Off it twirls, convinced by our spurious patter. And now we feel strangely sad. Bereft. It’s like this every autumn, but we forget.

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