A Portable Shelter is your second collection of short stories, what is it that attracts you to this format rather than a novel? Do you use short stories as a warm up to longer writing projects?
A short story is shorter than a novel in terms of word count, but not in terms of scope or ambition. Neither is a warm-up for the other; they're completely different ways to tell a story. They each provide such different experiences for the reader and the writer.
A novel is like a dollhouse: you open the front and all the tiny rooms are displayed, each populated with different characters doing different things, all engrossed in their worlds. I’ve always loved miniature scenes in museums: of battles or farms or villages. Even better are the full-size re-creations: the People’s Palace museum in Glasgow has a re-created 'single end', a one-room tenement home from the 1930s, complete with kitchen implements, furniture, textiles and everything that a family would need. I’m obsessed with it. I could look at it for hours, imagining the lives of the people who lived there.
A short story is different: it’s a short, sharp shock of story. I think of a short story as a keyhole; a glimpse into a single room rather than a view of the whole dollhouse. A short story should hint at a larger picture and allow the reader to imagine a whole world in a few words.
A large part of this collection and your other works tie in with a tradition of re-telling of fairy-tales. Why do you think readers and writers are drawn to these tales, which are usually so dark and unforgiving?
I think we like them precisely because they're so dark and unforgiving. When we revisit fairytales, we're often shocked to find they're not the pretty stories we remember. Fairytales might not seem relevant to us on the surface: after all, we don't live in the woods or a castle, and we're not huntsmen or princesses. But like any mythical tale, even when the details don't connect, there's always an emotional truth. Love, death, parental guilt, the desire to make something of ourselves: these situations ring true with every generation.
This is also why I'm so drawn to fairytales as a writer. How do you tell a timeless tale? How do you take the deeply personal specifics of your life – your grief, your despair, your triumph – and make them connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime? You write a fairy tale. A gory, bawdy, unpredictable, bizarrely logical fairy tale.
In A Portable Shelter the stories being told are used to teach an unborn child. Do you think that stories, especially fairy tales, can still educate us about our life and the world around us?
Every time I read a fairytale I get something new, and there's a good reason for that: these tales will always be relevant to our lives because they were originally told that way. They weren't meant as fun little stories; they were folktales meant to guide us, meant to show us our world and the people in it. They show us how difficult the world is, and go some way to making sense of it.
There are two storytellers each taking turns to talk in this book. Do you consider yourself an author or a storyteller? Is there a difference between them?
I try not to consider myself anything. I just love stories and want to share them in any way I can. I've been called an author and a writer and a storyteller and a novelist and a short story writer, and I'm fine with all of those. A friend once said to me that if I were broken in half, I'd be a stick of rock with 'storyteller' written right through me. Stories are what I am; they're my blood and bones.
Did you re-read these stories before they were published in this new edition? What was it like looking back on them?
I did a few small edits for Vintage, so there's some difference between the hardback and paperback editions, mostly in the frame story of Ruth and Liska. One thing I've learned about being a writer is that you should always read your work aloud during the editing stage, because when you publish it you'll have to perform it a hundred times at readings and festivals. Any sentence that sounds clunky is going to scrape on your ears every single time, and you'll come to hate it.
By the time a book is out in paperback, it's been a year or two (or sometimes more) since you first wrote it. It's easy to feel distanced from the stories. Reading my books is like reading an old journal: that's not necessarily how I'd write the stories now, but it's how I wrote them then. You have to feel affection for the younger versions of yourself.
What is your favourite traditional fairy tale and why?
I couldn't pick just one! My favourite fairytales are the ones where women are bold, resourceful and curious: The Snow Queen, Little Red Riding Hood, Kate Crackernuts, Bluebeard and Lord Fox. I love their vivid imagery, their bloodiness, their use of the female quest and search for knowledge.
This collection mixes stories about every day and more fantastical tales, was there a reason that you combined the two approaches?
I don't think of it as combining two approaches. I just tell the story how I think it needs to be told. Sometimes the fantastical creeps in; sometimes it doesn't. The way I see the world, we're always walking a tightrope between the mundane and magical, between reality and daydreams. Sometimes we tip one way or the other.
Can you tell us a little about what projects you're working on now?
I'm about to start the edits on The Gloaming, my next novel, which will be published in 2018. I've also started writing my fifth book, The Night Tender, which is a collection of linked horror stories. I started writing it during a month's writing retreat in a remote part of Iceland, and that isolation and landscape has really seeped into the stories. I'm also branching out into some new projects, including two songwriting collaborations, visual art and filmmaking. Too many stories, not enough time!