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