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Sheila Armstrong is a writer and editor from the northwest of Ireland who now lives in Dublin. Her stories have been published in The Stinging Fly, Litro, Young Irelanders, gorse and the Best European Fiction series.
How to Gut a Fish is her debut collection of short stories. With the title story involving a fisherman gutting a mackerel as he nervously awaits a late-night rendezvous and another piece in which villagers disappear into a sinkhole beneath a yew tree, its stories interrogate the link between the mundane and the bizarre.
KW: Thank you so much for speaking to us. I wanted to say that I really enjoyed the book. I love short stories and anything that is slightly dark also really appeals to me.
SA: That’s great to hear.
KW: One question I always like to ask short story writers is whether they have a favourite piece in the collection or one that holds a special meaning for them.
SA: When I was writing them, I hated them all without exception, but now that I’ve got a bit of distance and can see them on the page, I can find at least one thing I like about each of them.
The title story is probably my favourite because, sometimes with the way I write, I get wrapped up in the set dressing and the language, rather than the plot itself.But with “How to Gut a Fish,”the structure gets across the plot, the character, and the setting in one go. It also appeals because in the depths of writer’s block, I’ve often Googled “how to write a short story”!
KW: My favourite piece was “Lemons.” I loved the way you conveyed the story of a woman’s life through key events that take place in her body. I thought it was really moving.
SA: I wrote that story during the campaign to repeal the Eight Amendment [which effectively made abortion illegal] in Ireland. At the time, there was a sense of women and their personal experiences being put up for public consumption and people being expected to share these intimate details of their lives. I think I was channelling a lot of the emotion that was in the air and breaking down a life into these chunks that are markers in some ways.
KW: You worked as an editor in the publishing world for nearly a decade. What motivated you to make the transition into writing your own fiction?
SA: I just reached the point at which I wasn’t happy working on other people’s writing anymore. I wanted to do my own and it wasn’t until I left my job for a year that I was able to really focus on writing fiction.
I’ve now started editing again as a day job. You have to split your brain into two. I have two email addresses: one for my writing and one for my editing so I can keep the two sides of my brain separate. It doesn’t always work, but I try.
KW: Are there any writers who really inspired you or influenced your work?
SA: In terms of short story writers, I love Joy Williams, Angela Carter, George Saunders, and, obviously, a lot of Irish writers like Kevin Barry and Danielle McLaughlin. We are extremely good at the short story in Ireland. When I was working full-time as an editor, I wasn’t reading huge amounts. Because I was reading other people’s work all day, it was difficult to read more when I came home. In some ways, I feel like I’m still playing catch-up. The only problem is brilliant new books keep coming out every year!
KW: You mention Irish writers having a real flair for short stories. Obviously, Ireland is a part of the world with a really strong sense of identity. How do you feel about coming from such a rich tradition?
SA: It’s brilliant coming from such a lineage. A book came out last year called The Art of the Glimpse, which features 100 short stories by Irish writers. Seeing them makes you realise where you fit in, and it is at the end of a very long list. You’re standing on the shoulders of massive giants.
I’ve never really been inspired by a specific setting, but it’s difficult to get away from the Irish landscape and atmosphere, which is just so rich. Even the way we think and talk is different, like in, for example, Mike McCormack’s brilliant Solar Bones. We have the kind of linguistic tics that are specific to us and only another Irish person would understand them. It was fun going through the copy-editing process with a couple of those phrases.
KW: Another thing that always interests me with short stories is the ordering of the pieces.
SA: Getting the order right was really important to me because a lot of the stories are very different in terms of theme and tone. I spent a long time trying to order them in different ways. I tried colour-coding them by month or by setting or by character. At one point, I think I even had body parts, which is just mad.
I wrote the first story last of all, and I wanted it to bookend the final story. The final story is kind of an opening out and expansion, and I wanted the first story to draw people in and suck them down. Being quite literal-minded, I wrote about a giant sinkhole! But once I had those two bookends in place, I could start slotting the other stories in based on the overall theme.
I’m pretty happy with the order. There isn’t too much darkness and, when there is darkness, it’s balanced by what I at least would consider lightness.
KW: You mention that some of the stories are pretty dark. Have you always been drawn to this type of literature?
SA: Now that a lot of people have read the book, they are saying that it’s very dark and I’m a little bit surprised. I didn’t set out to write things that were dark, but they seemed to take a twist in that direction.
I really like the idea of a short story being about a day when something happens that twists the way you see the world. The thing that happens can be something amazing and sublime, but other times it is something a lot darker.
KW: Something else I really loved about the book were the quirky details about the characters. You must be a real people-watcher.
SA:It’s funny because I don’t really think I am. I have a sister and if she sits at a table next to someone, she’ll know their shoe size and I won’t even notice people there.
I think I subconsciously pick up on things and then go rifling around for them in my mind when I’m writing. I don’t have a very visual imagination, which people find strange but it’s true. I think in terms of words as opposed to pictures.
KW: What was the writing process like for you? How long did it take to finish the book?
SA: The stories came in drips and drabs. It was only when I decided to take my writing seriously that they started to come more consistently. Sitting down every morning to write is a bit like a therapy session in which you’re both the therapist and the patient, but you’re both incredibly stubborn and refusing to talk. I have a sign above my desk that says: “Act like you’ve already had today’s existential crisis,” which helps me save time in the long run.
KW: Were there any stories you particularly struggled with or found more difficult than others?
SA: “Mantis” [in which a man wanders the streets in search of medicine for an ill child] was difficult because it’s more of a stream of consciousness. When I sent the first couple of drafts to my writing group, they had no idea what was going on. I always think: If you’re explaining you’re losing. Your reader should know what’s going on and it’s your job to make sure they get to that point.
KW: What has been your experience of working with a writing group? I know it’s something a lot of people are curious about.
SA: It’s been amazing. Over the years, I’ve done hundreds of classes and things like that, but having a writing group and having that trust build over a long period is brilliant. You can trust them to help you tear something apart, but you can also trust them to help you put it back together again. And it’s so reciprocal. You don’t feel like you’re putting anybody out because you’re willing to offer the same service in return.
Some people in my writing group are now coming out with books, and the others are just waiting to be snapped up by agents.
KW: And how did you get together as a group?
SA: We did a course together about three years ago and then afterwards, we decided to keep going. We would meet up once or twice a month and then during the pandemic, it changed to online meetings. I don’t think I would have ever gotten to the point where I am with the stories if it weren’t for that group.
KW: And how long have you been writing? I read your Litro piece “Badhbh” [which describes an encounter with an ancient crow goddess] from 2014.
SA: I’ve improved a fair bit since then – I hope! I’ve been writing on and off since I was a teenager. But for a long time, I didn’t feel that I was very good and I wasn’t reading enough to make myself good. It took me a long time to realise that most of writing is about discipline. It’s about sitting down and, even if you think the majority of what you’ve written is absolute crap, you have to stick at it because nobody else cares if you’re going to write or not. You have to be both your own carrot and stick.
KW: I enjoyed your piece for Litro. I can see a lot of the ingredients in it relating to where you would go with your writing in the future.
SA: I think that’s true, but I can also see a lot of stitches and elements that I would trim and expand if I were to go back to it now. It’s bit strange in this day and age; people are submitting their work everywhere when they start out, which is the way you have to do it. But it also means a lot of your older, less refined pieces are out there, which is a bit spooky!
KW: Before we finish, do you have any tips for short story writers? I think, because of the brevity, a lot of people perhaps don’t realise how much effort goes into making a short story work.
SA: What I love about short stories is that you can play around with the form so much. The structure isn’t as linear as with longer pieces, so you don’t need to be looking for a one- or two-act structure.
I don’t really draft from beginning to end.I write a lot of chunks and then it’s almost like one of those magic eye puzzles. It looks like a complete mess and then, if you get a bit of perspective, you can see the shape start to emerge. You can’t really do that with a novel, where you might need to have to the structure and the bones in the first place.
But my favourite thing about short stories is that they always have a heart. There’s one or two lines, a scene or bit of dialogue, that sums up the story. For me, that’s usually the thing that has driven me to write the story in the first place. You need to have a folder full of those images and sentences when you’re writing short stories.
KW: When writing short stories, I think a lot of people struggle with knowing when to end their piece.
SA: For me, the thing with short stories is that you’re always trying to end on an in-breath. You’re trying to make somebody gasp. With a longer piece, you want your reader to end on an exhale and to feel satisfied that they’ve just read something that’s cohesive.
But with a short story, you can almost chop it off at the knees. You leave the rest for the reader to come up with. I don’t know what happens after the ending of my stories. I think people will come up with some brilliant ideas that will be a lot better than anything I could. Leaving that space for the meeting between the reader and the writer is really exciting. You don’t have to tie things up in neat little knots.
KW: That seems like a perfect way for us to end. Thank you again for speaking to us, and good luck with all your writing in the future. It was great talking to you.
SA. Thank you. Good talking to you, too.