‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

The difference between an Eley Williams story and an Asimov one couldn’t be much more extreme. And isn’t that the absolute delight of the short form? Eley’s stories are linguistically playful, they take the idea of a vignette and apply a meandering thought experiment to mere moments in time, moments that stretch to fill entire pages. Often wistful in nature, there’s communication at the heart of many of her stories, and the difficulty of that, especially when the medium is 4am text messages as it is in ‘Scrimshaw’, but I could have picked any of the stories in her wonderful collection, Attrib.

It’s not erudition for the sake of erudition. The wordplay is a definite way of thinking, or perhaps even of notthinking, of avoiding certain thoughts, certain worries. The narrator sets traps for themself, and has to back out of their own cul-de-sacs. It’s very human, a delight to read, and sufficiently original to stand out from any crowd. And totally, utterly different from anything I could ever write.

Shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020; you can read an extract online here, or listen to the story as recorded by the BBC

‘Smote (Or When I Cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)’ by Eley Williams

I read this story on Durdle Door beach, my back pressed against warm limestone and my bare feet pushed into the pebbles. I had recently fallen in love and everything in my life was shifting. There was nothing to hold onto and it felt destabilising, yet thrilling, to be moving somewhere new. This story captures something of that feeling, while also exploring language, images, art-making and the politics of queer desire. Williams deconstructs narrative using innovative, exciting forms and her writing makes the world of ideas feel expansive.

“and you stark me
and I am strobe-hearted.”

First published in The White Review online, 2015 and collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Bs’ by Eley Williams

A short love story.

The bird here is anonymous, a “blackbird-slash-thrush-slash-starling-slash-finch”. It sings outside, “toccatas and scherzos and bugled blurts”. Inside, a bee is trapped under a glass, “dink-d’dink-dinking its head against a transparent wall”. It is early morning, the time of half-asleep thoughts “of a euphemism of a metaphor of a ghost”.

Williams takes a single moment and spins a thread of mini-thoughts, turning words – she loves words, comparing ‘larynx’ with ‘syrinx’ (syrinx wins) – and facts – “the bones of a pigeon weigh less than its feathers” – over in her head, indulging a charming, playful flight of fancy. “The bird and the bee could set up, I think, a lovely B&B and serve their guests toast with honey and eggs.” 

Collected in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Bulk’ by Eley Williams

There is a heart there big enough for me to lie upon and sleep and not touch the rocks if I curled up with my knees tucked under my jaw.

I like socially observant writers: those with a sharp eye for absurdities, an ear for the fall of different kinds of silence, a feel for the heated cheeks of the unsaid.  I like very clever writers too: people who can play with words, tease them and weave them into a seriphed wink. But to find someone who can blend those talents with such gentle compassion for the queer delicacies of the world…well, that’s a rare treat. Enter Eley Williams. Yet with such a wordsmith it’s important not to forget her exquisite imagery. Fighting pelicans in Hyde Park. Boiling birds for haute cuisine. Unfortunate walrus videos.

The beached whale of ‘Bulk’ lies stubborn in my mind. It sits heavy across the entirety of the story, the characters’ thoughts and actions and interactions clambering on and around it. It’s a physical space to anchor the gathering crowd’s fears and foibles. Its silhouette contains overlapping symbolism, and decaying certainties. It is also just too big a thing, an awkward affront, an interruption to the way things are (“do you think we can push it back?”).

To balance a story in, on, and around such a beast should be tricky. Williams makes it look effortless.

First published in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Smote (or When I find I cannot Kiss You In Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)’ by Eley Williams

I am certainly not alone in thinking Eley Williams’ collection Attrib. and Other Stories is phenomenal. In fact, I looked through to see if anyone else had picked her and of course they had, and several had picked this story. But I make no claims to be unique, this story is near-perfect for me and I’m glad I’m not alone. I first read it in her collection, and it has stuck with me since then. When I realised I wanted to include it, I delighted in rereading it.  It showcases Williams’ love of language and her insights into what we think of when we pretend we aren’t thinking of anything at all. It is, on the face of it, just the inner dialogue of someone in a gallery with the person they fancy, and who they would like to kiss. Williams hurls at the reader a torrent of language and concludes with the loveliest of lines that read like poetry:

You have leaned in, and have kissed me without even thinking about it
Like it is the easiest thing in the world 
and you stark me 
and I am strobe-hearted…

It is the only love story in this personal anthology and it is a story that I love.  

First published in The White Review online, 2015 and collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Attrib.’ by Eley Williams

‘Attrib.’ tells the story of a foley artist whose surroundings conspire to interrupt the production of a soundscape intended to glorify Michelangelo’s masterworks. In quirks and quips, it calls out the uneven distribution of power that maintains the effacement of certain populations, raising questions about who gets to name and attribute meaning, who gets to express themselves, and who gets to be recognised as a creator. It also gives a joyful and hilarious demonstration of an artist’s power to disrupt and provoke change. 

[Williams’s collection also boasts the startling and beautiful ‘Smote’ (or ‘When I find I cannot kiss you in front of a print by Bridget Riley’). ‘Attrib.’ made the anthology because visual art made a place for it in my mind before the story was written; in 1996, I encountered Foley Artist by Tacita Dean, and discovered what a foley artist is and does. 

Many thanks to Sophie Haydock for introducing me to ‘Attrib.’ through The Word Factory Short Story Club.]

Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx, 2017

‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ by Eley Williams

The line spacing in this story began for me an experiment with form, still ongoing. The form carries much of the weight of any story, in terms of its ‘meaning’ or ‘message’. The spacing around the word ‘But’ in this story lends the word its but-feeling, to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein.

First published on The White Review website, April 2015. Collected in Attrib. And Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Smote’ by Eley Williams

If you haven’t read Eley Williams yet, what are you waiting for? She makes stories out of second-long slivers of time, swooping completely away from everything you think a story should be and landing you somewhere completely new and strange. This story, a telescopic exploration of one genderless narrator’s inability to kiss their lover (also a genderless ‘you’) by a Brigit Riley painting, is a great place to start.

First published on The White Review website, April 2015. Collected in Attrib., Influx Press, 2017

‘And Back Again’ by Eley Williams

Chosen by Susanna Crossman

‘And Back Again’ by Eley Williams is a DIY of how I’d like to declare my love this year, not in ”units, deeds, quests, behests” but through an imagined trip to Timbuktu staying in a cheap hotel with a blue painted face, because, as the 1960 Oliver West End musical song goes, “I’ll do anything. For you dear anything.”  As the narrator’s romantic daydream unfolds, mesmerizing details lure us to a Mali hotel where a fan “slices the air into swallowable rashers.” A lorry draws up outside, advertising La Vache Qui Rit, driven by a guy wearing Chelsea away strip smoking cloves-scented cigarettes. 

In ‘And Back Again’, language is dissected, turned inside out and upside down. Song lyrics thread through the story, and words are examined from all angles, metaphorically and visually: the word Timbuktu “has just the right mix of spiked and undulating letters…the verticals of boat masts riding easy waves…” Yet the conceptual nature of ‘And Back Again’ doesn’t override the vivid narrative and delicate poetry, as love will be declared on a morning “woken by the starlings…shouldering the dawn.” 

Following my reading, for Valentine’s Day, I have booked my flight to Timbuktu, and for the blue face paint am contemplating a Klein bleu. Thanks Eley!

First published in Attrib, Influx Press, 2017

Susanna Crossman is an Anglo-French prize-winning essayist and fiction writer. Her debut novel Dark Island is currently under submission. More here.

‘Bs’ by Eley Williams

I love this story. It really showcases the quietly amazing things the form can accomplish while championing Williams’s microscopic eye for detail. On one level it is a simple story of a woman listening to a bird and watching a bee, in bed with her lover, but of course, it is so much more than that. It is a hymn to tiny places and intimate moments, ‘in-between’ times that are so easily forgotten as we get on with the bigger events of life. The penultimate paragraph is a masterclass in narrative climax, and it makes me jealous. Lord have mercy, Williams is so good, with that comma in the air and her particular way of describing pillows…

First published in Attrib. and other stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Jungftak’ by Eley Williams

This is a shout-out for both Eley’s genius, and Rich Porter’s epoch-defining trilogy of anthologies of queer life, published over the last couple of years. Eley’s story – more a rumination on false words, symmetry and self-definition – cuts to the heart of queer being, and being seen. It’s a story about singularity that becomes as inclusive as you’d wish. In reading it, you feel your loneliness being drawn from you. A wonder. 

First published in Not Here: A Queer Anthology of Loneliness, ed. Richard Porter, Pilot Press 2017

‘Smote, or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley’ by Eley Williams

I almost want to write nothing about this story since I think it’s best experienced for oneself. I will say that I have never forgotten this line:

and you stark me

and I am strobe-hearted

Reading ‘Smote’ for the first time made me rethink everything I thought I knew about words and how to use them.

Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017. First published online in The White Review, 2015. Read it here

‘Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet’ by Eley Williams

It was hard to pick one story from Attrib., because the whole collection fizzes with the fresh, addictive energy that made it such a hit. It feels impossible to play favourites. While I often reread the alphabet paragraph from the opening story, I chose ‘Synaesthete, Would Like to Meet’ for my Personal Anthology because I think it best captures Williams’ playful spirit whilst also fitting into my loose theme of relationships. The story introduces a character with synaesthesia before, during and after a strangely successful date. The narrator has synaesthesia, which means as they interact with the world, words, sounds and images are paired with flavours, scents, colours and sensations in an overwhelming cacophony of stimulation. By dating the right person, the narrator discovers a way to numb the overwhelming clash of the senses and the general sensory noise is slowly turned down. Every story with Williams is an adventure in a brilliant linguistic gymnasium and I love her writing to death.

First published in Night and Day, 2011, and collected in Attrib. and other Stories, Influx Press, 2017

‘Alight at the Next’ by Eley Williams

I published this at 3:AM Magazine and am in no way surprised by the subsequent wild success of her first collection. Eley combines a meticulous eye for language with the rare ability to write convincingly about happy love. She had me at “I am the first to admit that my spirit animal is probably a buttered roll.”

First published at 3:AM Magazine. Collected in Attrib. and Other Stories, Influx Press, 2017