When I thought about this, I wanted to mention lots more stories I had encountered; like the Turgenev’s peasant stories I had found on a shelf at home. And then Carver. But he’s everywhere and his (or Gordon Lish’s) influence is everywhere. These stories are a few of those which mean something to me, either along my writing path or just along the way and which I would urge anyone to read. To read variously is the key. There are gaps here but there always would be. Claire Keegan. Chekhov. Lorrie Moore. William Trevor. Kevin Barry. Tim Winton. And so on.

‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall

I’d forgotten the family in this story were former travellers or a family with an indiscernible past, so it was intriguing to rediscover it. The story brims with energy and a latent violence, first shown by the fight between the main character Manda and a couple of school mates, which makes it sound brutal and rough, which it isn’t. The story fizzes in its own particular world, wonderfully evoked by Hall with her use of vocabulary – ‘brobbs’ ‘gannan’ and ‘dobby stones’ – to set scenes in the family home where Manda’s parents have an unashamedly robust and lusty marriage and her brothers are kind of wild. 

Structurally, it’s interesting that literally the first three out of four sections are observations about the family and the narrator, Kathleen’s involvement with them. In the final quarter the story takes off as Kathleen encounters a neglected horse. The family’s rough justice towards the farmer who has inflicted such pain is a swift as the telling. Full frontal and adept. We’re given a chance to see the family before they go into action inflicting their own version of justice, but the story is rich in the telling and generous in its portrayal of those sometimes seen at the margins.

First published in BBC National Short Story Award 2010, Comma Press. Collected in The Beautiful Indifference, Faber, 2013

‘Fast Lanes’ by Jayne Anne Phillips

A friend gave me this collection a while ago and it has been a pleasure to re-read this story, from one of the so called, ‘Dirty Realists’. But this story has real poetry in its musicality and imagery – ‘furled the white sheet out so it settled over me like the rectangular flag of some pure and empty country.’ We follow the journey of the narrator and Thurman through America towards the narrator’s home – an archetypal narrative shape. Along the way very little appears to happen except beautifully moderated dialogue, the geographical and physical descriptions, and the awareness dawning on the narrator of living too fast. There’s physical and psychological movement, shape, but not one which is rigid, and a welcome latent humour: ‘Nothing mechanical is easy,’ and ‘Don’t watch the dog, watch the road.’ 

First published in Granta 19: More Dirt, 1986, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Fast Lanes, Faber,1987

‘Old Wounds’ by Edna O’Brien

This beautifully layered story, which opens back to the narrator’s great-grandparents, and her own immediate family, compresses themes of love, passion, family, fraught intent and the need to escape, which characterize much of Edna O’Brien’s fiction and is shown here to full effect. It could be said the story unfolds layers of time and emotion more fitting to a novel, but somehow, because of her skill, the story works completely. The thread through time is the narrator’s cousin, with whom she has had a close friendship. He is the anchor, but also the connector to other strands – the cause for the family breach in the first place, which is to do with his wife’s reaction to her mother-in-law. I love the fecundity of detail from the natural world, the examination of emotional dissonance, and the way the latent violence of the narrator’s father plays into the present.

First published in The New Yorker, June 2009, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Saints and Sinners, Faber, 2011

‘Roy Spivey’ by Miranda July

When I read Miranda July’s first collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, I was delighted to discover her. I love the apparent simplicity of the story, the way it works on the absence of an action rather than the main character undertaking one. The tone is not as knowing as Lorrie Moore’s, from whom I guess, she learnt. July subverts the form a little, which is what the story form allows. It’s not a showy or tricksy story. In fact, as it hinges on a girl’s interest in a movie star she meets on a plane, it seems at first to be verging into the well-worn territory of a young woman transfixed by a male. But it’s not like that. For all the man’s desire to communicate, she fails to take up his offer. The story begins in a small intimate way, the close proximity of plane seats and opens out to years having passed. It’s deft but conveys a sweep of longing and the great and forever question we all address to ourselves, ‘What if…?”

First published in The New Yorker, June 2007, and available to subscribers here. Or listen to David Sedaris reading it here. It is collected in The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith, Penguin, 2008

‘This Paradise’ by Ruby Cowling

This story moves along with Cowling’s characteristic elegance towards a quietly dramatic end. I like the crisp prose and careful though unobtrusive analysis of family life in the lead up to an expected hurricane. There are some lovely cool observations dissecting the professional (academic?) couple within family life including their disinclination to shelter their gardener who faces the same force of the storm. These is a distance in their connection to their environment and towards their sons, a kind of heartlessness which the narrator, the children’s nanny or au pair, picks up. As she strains to maintain an equilibrium. I love the sense of the landscape in which the family live, which evokes their vulnerability.

First published in This Paradise, Boiler House Press, 2019

‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

Re-reading ‘The Dead’ – it’s as vibrant as ever with a wonderful creation of a party – handling so many characters – unusual in conventions taught about the short story, where such a number might be considered a challenge. The story is about the growing awareness of Gabriel not only of his wife Gretta being drawn to her own past, the loss of an earlier love, a past and world he cannot be part of, but is also actively rejecting. There is a lack in him – such a contrast to the abundance of food the aunts have prepared. Despite Gretta coming from the west of Ireland, he is reluctant to visit there. He is ‘modern’ – not to be drawn, as are other visitors seeking the Gaelic twilight. But his wife’s connection is deeper. Gretta emerges out of the story, out of the crowd at the party, delineated as her own person. She turns his response on its head. I can’t help but wonder if Joyce ever visited the west, especially the area near Galway known as Joyce’s country – if he matched my ventures there.

First published in Dubliners, First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914. Widely available online, including here

‘Bucket of Eels’ by Mitsuyo Kakuta, translated by Wayne P. Lammers

This is a quietly easily moving narrative, where years pass and the mystery of a marriage is noted; indeed the narrator’s own relationships are at the heart of the story. I visited Japan a couple of years ago, and was surprised and delighted to find a similar portrayal of the neighbourhood I stayed in. The story embodies some of the sense of intrigue and bewilderment, as well as charm, I felt about the country. For all its gentle social etiquette or maybe because of it, certain things eluded me. This story illustrates the dichotomy between public and private modes of Japanese life which intrigued me, an emphasis on the sense of ritual and the domestic, which are behind all the vast technological advances for which Japan is well known.

First published in English in Granta, 2014 and available to all to read here

‘Having a Blast’ by Matsuda Aoko, translated by Polly Barton

To dive right in to the preoccupations of Matsuda Aoko, this story is a good introduction, from her collection about the strangeness of ghosts and women and the past and the way life leaks between the two. In three parts there are separate narrations from the point of view of the deceased wife, her husband, and the second wife. The ghost speaks directly to the reader but by the time one arrives at this latter story in the collection, one is used to this tone and device and the easy gliding between perspectives. The story speaks to the sense that the past is always present. The logic of what might be called ‘real life’ is exemplified in the portrait of work life of the company where the characters were employed. Within each section, though, the writing style is sparse and clear and one is beguiled by the individual voices.

Collected in Where the Wild Ladies Are, Tilted Axis, 2020

‘Gimpel the Fool’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Saul Bellow

The vivid world of Isaac Bashevis Singer has always fascinated me. He creates characters and places, and a world which is its own. This story has the quality of a fable but not in a facile way. Singer tells the story of a man in the village taken to be a fool partly because he marries a woman who has had several partners and continues to deceive him. But at her death there is a kind of reconciliation and acceptance by him of what it means to be foolish to oneself and to the eyes of the world. I love the fact that Singer carried this story along with others, through his time in the US. These stories derive from the specificity of his background and yet they speak directly with their clearly rendered characters, sense of community, human weaknesses and foibles on display. There is a real humanity and breadth of understanding in his work. Sometimes, stories based on folk tales can feel contrived, but his never do. They are based in the physical reality of life in all its primal ways and instincts.

Collected in Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories, FSG, 1957. Currently available in the Collected Stories, Penguin, 2020

‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin

I love Baldwin’s novels and don’t really think of him as a story writer. Indeed this long story, to my mind, serves the point: he is better in the longer form. But I like what he does in this story and was keen to represent his work in any selection of writing. Here as elsewhere he creates a community, and reveals its pains and sadnesses, its hopes, passions and ambitions. I love that Baldwin is unafraid to reveal such heights and depths. So much is unpacked in the story and though it might begin to feel unwieldy in the weight it bears in conveying too much familial and personal history of Sonny and his addiction, by flashbacks Baldwin manages to steer on the story, with the triumph of a musical skill coming to the fore. There is such a density of character and place with Baldwin, he can be endlessly re-read.

First published in The Partisan Review, 1957. Collected in Going to Meet The Man, Dial Press, 1965, which was published as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1991. The story was also published as a Penguin 60 in 1995

‘High Ground’ by John McGahern

The disconcerting ending of ‘High Ground’ exemplifies Moran the narrator’s uncertainty and indecision over whether or not he will take up Regan’s offer to contrive to install him as the school principal. There’s an open-endedness in the conclusion, yet a hint that the narrator will decline the offer. He prefers the objectivity of high ground, the kind of landscape he has observed Regan against as they talk and as he is able penetrate Regan’s motives. Moran sees the machinations of Regan, the local TD [equivalent of MP in the Irish Parliament – Ed.] from a distance, and will not deign to become entangled with them or local politics, although this is never made explicit. Here are the elements of many McGahern stories: land, quarrel, manliness personified in different ways; and, behind this, the difficulties of love and where it is found. I love McGahern’s writing, novel and stories, though I think he excels in the latter. I love the darkly strangeness, the physicality of the countryside, his delight in nature in all its form and the sheer musicality of his prose. It truly sings. He is a master of the form and one only continues to learn from him.

First published in The New Yorker, March 1982, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in High Ground and Other Stories, Faber, 1985, and Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories, Faber, 2006

‘The Dead Roads’ by DW Wilson

I love the freewheeling energy in this story, with some of the same characters who appear in other of DW Wilson’s stories. There are clipped, pared-down sentences, characteristic of US fiction, but appropriate here as the three main characters travel long distance by car through Canada, free you think maybe for the first time in a long time. It’s quite traditional in subject matter, a couple and a male friend, Animal, and their raw emotions. But Wilson captures the landscape they travel through, which the reader senses he knows well. There’s a latent violence pulsing through which rises to a head when they meet a Native American, and when Animal is almost killed. All the way, the tension between the men, with the girl, Vic, between them is beautifully conveyed, but underplayed, so the ending is well earned, balanced and evocative. 

First published in The BBC National Short Story Award 2011, Comma Press. Collected in Once You Break A Knuckle, Bloomsbury, 2012