“Hark, kindred spirit!” yelled Minifiction, when a bout of Internet surfing brought us face-to-screen with British author Nik Perring, a new(ish) face on the block whose online flash fiction publications over recent years culminated in his 2010 collection of 22 short shorts, Not So Perfect.
Yes, the title does refer to the stories within, but no, Perring is not being coy. The title fits because it renders the only theme that all 22 stories could be said to share, each one capturing the not-so-perfect moments in the lives of Perring’s protagonists. Putting that aside, what you have here is an eclectic mix of wide angles and close ups, quasi-bizarro and groundy realism, nostalgic twists and twisted nostalgia. Not So Perfect is well worth a read, although the faint-hearted or pious should come ready for a challenge.
Perring is currently hard at work on the final final final stages of his next book, Freaks!, a collaborative venture with fellow writer Caroline Smailes. He is also a conscientious Blogger who can be followed here.
Despite his heavy schedule, Perring happily agreed to answer some questions about his influences, his writing, and the short short form for readers of Minifiction.
What are you reading at the moment? Have you read any short shorts recently that stood out to you?
Thanks for having me on here. What am I reading at the moment? As always seems to be the case, I’ve a few books on the go at the same time. I’m reading Dogsbodies and Scumsters, the latest release from Roast Books (who published Not So Perfect), and that’s great so far, I’m reading a Murakami novel, After Dark, and I’ve been reading a whole bunch of comic books. Plus, I’ve also been re-visiting Lorrie Moore’s wonderful Self Help which has knocked my socks off all over again. But if I had to name a single stand-out story from my recent reading, it’d have to be ‘Café Niagara’, by István Örkény, which is from Nothing’s Lost – Twentyfive Hungarian Short Stories which I love for its imagination – really, really brilliant stuff.
How did the stories in Not So Perfect come together? Did you have any particular theme or themes occupying you while you were writing? Over what kind of time frame were the stories written?
The stories in Not So Perfect were written over a couple of years. I think the oldest one in there was published in January 2008, so that’ll have been written a few months before that, and the last one in there was written right at the end of 2009, just before the book was completed. I don’t think there were any themes I tried to address. I still think that the best stories are told because they’re good stories – simple as that – and I’ve never consciously tried to keep to any kind of thread. I’m bad and stubborn like that; I don’t like to be limited! All that said, I’d have to acknowledge that there are reoccurring themes (being human, being different, loss, love, relationships – and women throwing up small animals!), and I suppose they’re there because a) I think they’re interesting and b) because I think they make good stories. Even the throwing up animals one.
Given the fact that there seems to be so few single-author collections of flash fiction out there, were you concerned about getting the book published?
I never really had a collection in mind when I was writing the stories. I just wrote the stories I wanted to write in the best way I could and hoped that, one day, I’d be lucky enough to have a collection out there. And I suppose that’s why I never thought too much about themes. So, no, there was no concern about getting the book published while I was writing it. What happened was that I read a few of the books Roast had published and thought that they were a company who suited my writing – it was only after I’d read them that I thought about approaching them about a collection.
It’s an interesting and frustrating thing, the whole business of people allegedly not publishing short story (or flash) collections. Sure, there are tons more novels published (as will always be the case – nothing wrong with that) but there are publishers out there publishing great short story collections – so I don’t think there’s any reason for short story writers to be scared that they’ll never be published. I firmly believe that good writing will usually find a home (so, writers: concentrate on writing good things, not on who might or might not publish you).
Not So Perfect was recently long listed for the Edge Hill Prize (a prize dedicated to short story collections) - have a look at the list and see just how many publishers are publishing collections - and it’s not just smaller indies like the brilliant Roast Books, there are big names too, like Virago, Bloomsbury - Faber published one of my favourite collections (Clare Wigfall’s, ‘The Loudest Sound and Nothing’ a few years ago) and The Friday Project (HarperCollins) are publishing my next one. So short story collections definitely are being put out there.
Some of the stories in Not So Perfect took interesting and unexpected turns. Is this an effect you strive for in your writing? As a writer, how do you recognize that fine line between bamboozling the readers’ expectations in a way that pleases and pushing it so far that a piece seems disjointed? Or does such a line even exist?
Yes, I think such a line does exist and it’s one that usually shouldn’t be crossed. I think a lot of it has to do with instinct and with practise. I personally think that stories should be interesting and that there shouldn’t be any real limits to what we can write about so long as it makes sense and is being true to the story. And that can mean having weird situations and characters, and can mean we can use those as metaphors or as ways to illustrate familiar things in a slightly different way. I think the important thing is to not be bizarre for the sake of it – make sure there’s a point to it.
I read a quote from you once where you state that “a story is as long as it is”, which suggests to me that you don’t consider the short short to be chopped down version of the ‘longer’ forms. Is that the case? What separates the short short from the longer forms (apart from relative word count, of course).
Ha! You’ve been doing your homework! And I’m glad this question has come up because it’s something that’s close to my heart!
Here’s the thing: a story is a story. It’s the writer’s duty to tell it in the best way possible. Now, sometimes that means it runs to 150,000 words, but equally it may only need 1,000. Or 200. Or 50. Or 3,000.
To me, word count says nothing about a story other than how many words have been used to tell it. It isn’t a reflection of the story’s quality and nor is it a reflection of how much effort it’s taken to write. A story should be what it is, told efficiently and effectively and should absolutely not be chopped down or padded out to conform to any kind of word count. Stories shouldn’t be limited – they should be allowed to be what they are: it’s the stories themselves that should determine their length, not us writers, and to think we can is often really arrogant or lazy. If that makes sense!
You’ve pointed out that short shorts and micro fiction have been around for a while – they just didn’t have a name back then when Kafka or Hemmingway were having a go. They were relatively few and far between though, but the genre now seems to be growing. Any thoughts on why this might be?
I think short things are perhaps more accessible now, with the internet and smartphones and things like that, which is a good thing: if people have the opportunity to read them they also have an opportunity to like them, which didn’t really happen so much before (when people had to know what they were looking for before buying, for example, a collection or magazine). I also think that more people are writing short things, which is mostly a good thing, and I think we should be thanking the internet for that too.
Can you foresee a time when the short short enjoys the same prestige as the novel?
No. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s certainly not anything I’m bitter about. As I said before, I think stories are stories, some long, some short, and they should exist together. They’re not in competition with each other. What I would say though, is that I’d like to see more people publishing short story collections and more people selling them (book shops, I’m looking at you!); for the short story market to grow, collections have to be available, because if they’re not, they certainly won’t sell (you can’t buy things that aren’t for sale!). It’d probably be a good thing, too, if the whole short story scene was opened up a little more. It can seem like it’s pretty elitist and closed, and like it’s difficult to break into and participate in, when really it shouldn’t be.
Will you be returning to the short short story?
Absolutely. It’s pretty much all I write! And are you a writer that feels the need to produce at least one full length novel? Not really, no, to be honest. I’m not saying I’d never write a novel, but I’ve yet to find a story that I think needs to be told in that way. Never say never, and all that!
Your upcoming project is a collection of 50 stories, written in collaboration with Caroline Smailes, called Freaks! Can we expect anything in the short short genre in this collection?
You most certainly can! They’re all short stories. (And I’ve just had a look – we’re editing it at the moment - and one of them’s only 45 words long…)
What was it like collaborating on such a large collection? How was the work broken up between you? Did you write the stories individually, or did you work on each story together?
It was a real thrill. As well as being a great friend, Caroline’s also someone whose writing I love – her novels are wonderful. The process of writing the stories was mixed. The workload was split exactly down the middle. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are stories we’ve written individually (sometimes on the same subject) and there are some in there that are complete collaborations. It was difficult at times (writing anything that stands a chance of being good always is) but it was an awful lot of fun and I don’t think it would have worked if we didn’t get on so well. The beauty with this collection is it’s ours, it’s shared, it’s a team effort (Darren Craske’s brilliant illustrations need to be mentioned too – it’s not about egos; it’s a complete collaboration. I’m excited to see what people think of it. Thanks for having me here!
BIO: Nik Perring is a writer, teacher of writing, and editor from the UK. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. They’ve also been read at events and on radio, printed on fliers and used as part of a high school distance learning course in the US. Nik’s collection of short stories, NOT SO PERFECT is published by Roast Books and is out now. Nik blogs here and his website’s here. He offers short story help here. His next collection, FREAKS! co-written with Caroline Smailes, will be published by The Friday Project (HarperCollins) in Spring 2012.