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Interview Life is a bit weird

Andy Hedgecock talks to SARAH SCHOFIELD about her fiction collection, Safely Gathered In

SARAH SCHOFIELD’S subtle and compelling fiction comes in a range of styles. Her first collection, Safely Gathered In, includes traditional, emotionally powerful tales (Under the Foil; Shake Me and I Rattle), and work that is detached, satirical and formally experimental (Nostalgia4Beginners; Safely Gathered In). I ask what aspects of a story influence her approach: does theme determine form, or does she simply crave variety?

“The writer David Constantine said, ‘I reinvent the genre every time […] I can’t see how the way I went about it last time will help me this time.’ I wholeheartedly agree with this.

“Often, I query whether I will be able to write another story. Perhaps it’s all just been a bit of a fluke. More recently, with very young children in the picture, approaching the form differently has been the shake-up I needed – I wrote the early drafts of the title story quickly in half-hour stints in a local café, whenever my mum had a bit of time to spare on her day off or the baby was sleeping. Typing whilst breastfeeding also works and buys you a bit more time, except typing one-handed means you have to add certain punctuation in afterwards (question marks are tricky).

“This more urgent approach to my creative practice gave me focus and clarity. I had to write instinctively, not overthink in the early creative stages. It has improved my writing, I think, given me new energy and reinvigorated my storytelling.”

Much of Schofield’s fiction mixes the bizarre and the mundane. I ask what has stimulated her relish for the weird.

“Well, life is a bit weird, isn’t it? I wonder if the mundane things we surround ourselves with are staging — simply things we, individually and as a society, carefully arrange to make the everyday weird more manageable.

“Often, the weird is something that suggests itself in real life, just as in Dead Man’s Switch, where a woman receives instructive emails from her dead husband. I actually received an email from my father who had died several years previously. It was just some sort of server glitch and the subject and email body were empty, but the shock of it made me think... what if?

“I like stories that crash together the mundane and the surreal, often referred to as artifice stories. Adam Marek is a contemporary master of the genre and, of course, Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a great example. I love this and other artifice stories because when a story explores an idea too far-fetched to be ‘real,’ a counterpoint ‘realness’ rises to the surface. The weirdness becomes a safe context to explore that reality. And that feels essential to me in a great short story – it has to connect on a personal level to a reader to be worthwhile. It becomes a space to seek out those things we feel but that lie just a little below the surface on a day-to-day level, ever so slightly inaccessibly. The best short story is a moment where those feelings, thoughts and truths spike through. A tender, vulnerable moment, where an oddness illuminates something profoundly real.”

The collection showcases Schofield’s gift for terse, intense storytelling. I ask what makes the short story, in all its variety, the ideal form in which to address her concerns.

“Short stories are endlessly versatile in terms of what they can do and the shapes they can take. Is that why we love them? So a short story seeks to frame it in such a way that leaves space for the nuance. This is the beating heart of the story and dictates the form it must take.

“When I write I often don’t know exactly where I’m going. Sometimes I approach with a very traditional linear style — the story’s form is trying to not get in the way of the reader connecting with it — I want the reader to forget they are reading a story. In other instances the structure is an essential part of the connection I hope the reader will have.

“For example, Nostalgia4Beginners, a satirical self-help course to improve your nostalgic abilities, mimics the voice and tone of the self-help app or guide. Safely Gathered In smashes together three elements – a self-storage ad, an inventory of self-storage units and words from the 1844 hymn Come Ye Thankful People, Come – gathering disparate texts together just like the objects in the storage units themselves.

“I want the form to echo the idea underpinning it. It is often a case of trial and error – seeking the shape, remoulding and making, until I hit on something that feels right or interesting.”

At the 2016 Ilkley Literary Festival, Schofield read The Tiniest Atom, a story about determinism and healing. I was struck by her unwillingness to spoon feed readers with meanings and ideas. She doesn’t expect us to “get” every reference and symbol but does demand our focused attention. What drives her faith in the reader’s intelligence, sensitivity and previous reading experience?  

“As a reader, my favourite short stories are ones where I feel the writer trusts me and we are doing a thing together. I think of it like a contract – if I am still reading a few paragraphs in, then I’m committed to a relationship, a communion, with the writer for the short period of time. I am in their story, and we plumb it together – it’s interactive. So, this is how I like to write, with my reader alongside me, looking at the same thing and both bringing something to it. So, I have to leave space for that – to respect their life experience and how they want to look at it. They may well see it differently to how I see it, and that’s exciting.

“It comes back to this idea that short stories fill a space where a single word or expression is insufficient. It’s noticing a feeling, or moment or experience that is not neatly expressed in a word or phrase, so a story blooms from that place to give it shape and presence. The writer puts this moment under the microscope and says to the reader ‘come and look at this with me.’ The worst stories are those where the writer’s views are overbearing or didactic, the reader just wants to be allowed to look down the eyepiece and see for themselves. I don’t think I always get this balance right, but I try to.”

Schofield tackles estrangement, loss and anguish with skill and sensitivity. I ask what informs the pessimistic aspects of her work.

“Ha! That’s so interesting, I hadn’t thought of the collection in that way. I am actually one of those maddeningly irritating optimists. My default setting is to look for silver linings in even the darkest of times. I think the darker more painful themes and situations in the work are driven through the fact that they are ubiquitous to human experience. I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t been touched by loss, trauma, grief or anguish of one kind or another. The way these experiences ripple through our lives is intriguing to me. Partly because they can be hard to look at and fiction is a safe space to do that, I think.

“Maybe my pessimism found an escape valve via my fiction and that’s why in ‘real life’ I am so incurably positive and upbeat… I am learning a lot about myself here.”

Schofield lectures in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University and runs programmes in the community. To what extent does developing new talent affect her own writing?

“Hugely. I love working with new and emerging writers. I love facilitating creative writing and storytelling workshops in the community, whether with writers who seek to be published, or with those participants who purely love stories or seek company, new hobbies or the therapeutic benefits of creativity. I learn so much about stories, and I get more uncomplicated delight from those I’ve had the privilege to support in their writing than with my own writing.

“In my university lecturer role, working with student writers means I have to really scrutinise the elements of creative practice and model being a reflective writer. I can’t be lazy about that. Sincerely, I learn more from the writers I work with than I could ever pretend to teach in return.”

There’s a lot of cultural flotsam and jetsam in Safely Gathered In. When I ask Schofield about her current projects it’s apparent her fascination with the incomplete and discarded is undiminished.

“I have a half-finished radio play, so I am excited about getting back to that. And then I’ll be working on another collection of stories. I am intrigued by the idea of Lit. Trouve – a bit like Objet Trouve, but instead of objects it’s texts. This could be anything from abandoned shopping lists – I have an extensive collection found in trolleys – old tool catalogues, cereal packets, the comments left in Facebook community forums... I want to tease stories out of these found texts.

“The wonderful archivist at Edge Hill University, Dan Copley, introduced me to the term Orphan Works; text where the original writer cannot be traced. I am exploring this concept and hope to build something from it. I am looking forward to getting started on this.”

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