In one way or another, my writing life has been bound up with the Creative Writing programme at the University of East Anglia, so this is a personal anthology with UEA as its theme. It isn’t intended as a plug for the programme. In part, it’s an acknowledgement of my indebtedness, since it’s been such a privilege to work with the writers I’ve worked with. I only regret having to leave out some personal favourites for whom I can’t invent a UEA connection: Richard Ford, Anthony Giardina, Tessa Hadley, James Kelman, Jhumpa Lahiri, Agnes Owens, and a recent discovery, Alix Ohlin.
As an unhappy art student, aged 18, I wandered into a stationery shop one lunchtime and noticed First Love, Last Rites on a carousel of Picador paperbacks. The carousel was a new thing. So too was Picador. So too was Ian McEwan. The cover image of a naked girl lying on a bed in the soft light of dawn appealed to the habitually lovelorn late-adolescent I then was. I wasn’t a book-buyer, but I spent my lunch money on that book – it cost me £1.25 – and seemed to find something of myself in each of the stories. It was only later that I realised that most of them concerned incest, masturbation, the killing of children. By then I was a student on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, attempting to emulate this title story. Ian McEwan was my literary first love. Malcolm Bradbury, our teacher on the MA, sounded his last rites when he said one day in class, “The problem with Ian’s recent work is that he’s become too aware of the consequences of his own imagination.”
In First Love, Last Rites, Picador, 1976
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say I left art school because of Ian McEwan. I applied to do a Literature BA at UEA instead, and in my first class I was introduced to this Grace Paley story by a young lecturer called Rosemary Jackson. I fell in love with both of them. Paley was a generation older than McEwan, a New York Jew, a lifelong anarchist, activist, feminist, and her voice couldn’t have been more different from his: sassy and wise, sorrowful, exuberant. I read everything she’d written, and spent the next three decades regretting there wasn’t more. But as she said, “Art is too long and life is too short.” The enduring appeal of this story, and most of her stories, lies in its rejection of plot, the tidy tales her father enjoys. Paley’s fictional alter-ego wants to please him, but she despises plot – “the absolute line between two points” – because “it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
First published in New American Review, 1972. Collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Virago, 1979 and Collected Stories, Virago, 1984
Soon after I graduated from my BA I sent a short story – my first – to Ambit magazine and received a hand-written rejection note from the fiction editor, JG Ballard: “well writ but not good enough.” I was thrilled. I’d recently read The Atrocity Exhibition and decided that he was my new favourite author. Written in the more realist mode of his earlier and later novels, the story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ is typically prescient, and typically Ballardian in its tropes of surveillance, violence, perverse science, and desire mediated by technology. In this story all human interaction, including family life, is conducted remotely by “television hook-up”, until the narrator – a doctor, of course – makes the mistake of arranging finally to meet his wife and children in the flesh. There is a lot of flesh.
In Myths of the Near Future, Jonathan Cape, 1982. Also in The Complete Stories, Vol 2, Fourth Estate, 2014
McEwan, Paley and Ballard were my models, and I spent most of my time as an MA student at UEA trying – and failing – to emulate them. If Malcolm Bradbury had an opinion on this he didn’t say, but my other MA teacher was Angela Carter, and she did. I submitted a single page of single-spaced typewriting that attempted to be McEwan, Paley and Ballard all at once. “Oh Andrew,” she sighed, “why don’t you just write about what you know.” She gave me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She had no use for it, but assumed I might – and I did. In the years that followed it seemed that everyone aspired to be Raymond Carver, if they didn’t already aspire to be Angela Carter. For a short while I tried – and repeatedly failed – to emulate ‘Why Don’t You Dance’. It’s still mysterious to me how it works, but when I began to write about what I knew, in a voice that sounded more plausibly like mine, the permission came from Raymond Carter – via Angela Carter – and has much to do with his embrace of the everyday and the quixotic in the quotidian.
First published in Quarterly West, 1978. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1983, as well as Where I’m Calling From and Collected Stories
I met my wife Lynne on the MA in Creative Writing, and have a vivid memory – apparently entirely false – of reading this story in our workshop. We became each other’s first reader, though the exchange was hardly fair. For nearly six years I tortured Lynne with barely-altered pages from my first novel Pig – the same page, a comma changed – and sulked when she couldn’t see the improvement. In return, I was rewarded with these wonderful short stories. Several of them were spun from the day-to-day facts of our life together, in the process becoming more comic and more surreal. We were often quite poor, and the title story is based on our experience of queuing for free hand-outs of surplus EEC butter and cheese. This story, ‘A Regular Thing’, in which a young woman charges her lover for sex, isn’t autobiographical. It was much anthologised and later made into a prize-winning short film in Denmark.
First published in First Fictions: Introduction 11, Faber & Faber, 1992. Collected in New Writing 3, Minerva, 1994 and Envy At The Cheese Handout, Faber & Faber, 1995
In several ways I was one of the failures of the UEA MA. I drifted in at one end and drifted out at the other. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was years before I published anything – unsurprisingly, because I hardly wrote anything. It was 20 years before I returned as a Royal Literary Fund writing fellow, which eventually led to a job on the faculty, which led to my occupying Angela Carter’s old office and Malcolm Bradbury’s old job. Katherine (KJ) Orr was in one of my earliest workshop groups, and stood out not just for the poise, elegance and often surprising violence of her short stories, but for her commitment to the short form. She certainly did know what she was doing. Many students begin the MA writing short fiction and, as they see it, ‘graduate’ to writing a novel. For Katherine, there is no graduation. The forms are different, and differently challenging. Eight years after she submitted ‘By The Canal’ to our workshop she included it in Light Box, her debut collection. It remains as enigmatic, and subtle, and shocking, as when I first read it, and the collection is a near-perfect vindication of Katherine’s dedication to the art of what she calls ‘shorts’.
In Light Box, Daunt, 2016. An excerpt was published in Cheque Enclosed, UEA, 2007
In 2010 the Booker Foundation inaugurated a scholarship at UEA that remains the most generous we have to offer. The recipient is chosen by the tutors on the strength of the writing in their MA application portfolio, and Dave (DW) Wilson was our unanimous choice for the first award – largely on the strength of this story. Born in Canada, a graduate of the University of Victoria, he was then in his early 20s, and already appeared to have found his voice and his themes. Dave writes to a particular cadence, his sentences beautifully weighted. He registers the shifting weather of moods, and the eloquence of the small gesture. Above all he finds the soft spots in the armour of blue-collar masculinity. His stories reek of maleness, and sadness, and here in ‘The Elasticity of Bone’ he finds a way of speaking about the love of a father and son through the medium of judo. They fight, and it means the opposite of fighting. Soon after graduation this became the opening story in his debut collection.
In Once You Break A Knuckle, Hamish Hamilton, 2011
A couple of years after DW Wilson, his friend and fellow UVic graduate Eliza Robertson came to UEA from Canada, and was likewise our unanimous choice for the Booker scholarship. I’d taught Dave in the MA workshop and felt we spoke – and wrote – in the same language. Eliza writes – she sings – in quite a different language. I couldn’t teach her; she already knew too much that I didn’t know. Her virtues are relatively easy to list: the density and lyricism of her prose, the surprise of her sentences, the precision of her noticing, the structural adventurousness, thematic seriousness, the obliqueness. The effect is less easy to describe, but Emily Dickinson’s often-invoked poem comes close: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, which is what this story does. ‘Who Will Water the Wallflowers?’ is lushly atmospheric, ominous, poetic and strange – and like several other stories in her debut collection, intimate with vulnerability, loneliness and loss.
First published in The Walrus, 2014 and available online here, in Wallflowers, Bloomsbury, 2015
Thomas Morris joined UEA from a first degree at Trinity College, Dublin, and was later the editor of The Stinging Fly and a Tramp Press anthology of stories written to mark the centenary of Joyce’s Dubliners, so it’s easy to forget he’s a native Welsh speaker from Caerphilly, where each of this debut collection of stories is set. I remember ‘Bolt’ from one of our early workshops. It has what my former colleague Patricia Duncker called “the linger factor”. The white horse that bolts through the town and is caught when it stops at some traffic lights is merely a passing detail, told at second-hand, but is somehow still at large in my imagination, as is Andy, who works in a failing video store and lodges with a former girlfriend’s mum and has an affair with the town’s sole psychiatrist – also old enough to be his mum – but shrugs off any invitation to talk about his own mum, who is absent yet everywhere present in this story. It’s poignant, and funny, and true, like each of the other stories in the collection.
In We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, Faber & Faber, 2015
Tom graduated in 2013 from an MA cohort that included several other writers who’ve since gone on to publish their debut novels or collections: Ayobami Adebayo, Marie-Elsa Bragg, Paul Cooper, Lisa Owens, Julianne Pachico, Sara Taylor and Sharlene Teo. I was fortunate in my workshop group, which included Tom, Lisa, Julianne, and Kiare Ladner, who was shortlisted for the 2018 BBC National Short Story Award. Like Tom’s ‘Bolt’, we read Julie’s ‘Lucky’ in its first draft, and like Tom’s story it needed very little redrafting. Set a world away from sleepy Caerphilly in narcotic Columbia – where Julie spent much of her childhood – this is the first in a sequence of suspenseful, hallucinatory short stories (marketed in the US as a novel) that are connected by theme but differentiated by Julie’s extraordinary technical dexterity. Here a privileged teenager is left alone for the weekend in a comfortable home whose housekeeper and chauffeur have gone missing and whose protective bars are also imprisoning. She may be safe from the stranger who is hammering at the door. She may well be trapped. Increasingly her situation becomes menacing; increasingly the title is revealed as ironical.
First published in Lighthouse 5. Collected in The Best British Short Stories 2015, Salt, and The Lucky Ones, Faber & Faber, 2017
The current directors of UEA’s MA in Creative Writing (the Prose Fiction strand) are two alumni of the programme: Naomi Wood, author of The Godless Boys and Mrs Hemingway, and Philip Langeskov, who’s so absurdly talented it’s almost scandalous that he hasn’t got around to publishing more than he has. I’ve been haunted by this long short story ever since it was published by Daunt as a standalone single, the cover as enticing as a bar of posh chocolate. Here Daniel and Isla return to the city where they celebrated their honeymoon ten years previously, but at seemingly every turn the sunny ease of their holiday is stalked by complication, mishap, anxiety, foreboding. In its ominousness it’s reminiscent of McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers; in its nonchalance, of Geoff Dyer’s Jeff In Venice.For 50-odd pages it is the best of company, however unsettling. Then something extraordinary happens, both in the story and in the means of its telling. Some fiction will make you weep; some may make you laugh out loud. But it’s rare that a story will make you punch the air, as I did at the end of ‘Barcelona’, both on first reading, and now, as I come back to it.
Published as a single short story by Daunt, 2013, and collected in Best British Short Stories 2013, Salt.
UEA is situated in Norwich, which became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2012, and for the past several years the Creative Writing programme has appointed a Visiting Professor, named for the UNESCO accreditation. The incumbents have included well-known names such as Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Tim Parks and Ian Rankin. James Lasdun, a Visiting Professor in 2014, ought to be equally as well-known. A prize-winning poet, screenwriter, novelist, memoirist and short story writer, he is, as James Wood is quoted as saying on his book jackets, “one of the secret gardens of English writing”. He was a secret to me before he came to UEA, and now stands as a model for what might be achieved in any form, if only one were good enough. And really, any story in this collection might stand as my favourite, including the opener, ‘An Anxious Man’, which won the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award. In ‘Cleanness’, a man travelling to his father’s latest wedding is disturbed by incestuous thoughts of his dead mother, gets lost, seeks direction at an archetypally unwelcoming farmhouse, falls into a pool of rancid pig-shit, nonetheless carries on to the wedding, where his father’s new bride, dressed all in white and smelling of lilies-of-the-valley, willingly embraces him. It’s like a grown-up version of early McEwan.
First published in Ploughshares, Spring 2000 and collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt, Jonathan Cape, 2009