The New Yorker is known as much for its literary content as it is for its cartoons. And with them running only four mini reviews every issue, you know a book must be special to be included. Though what caught my attention about their review of Eley Williams’ Attrib. And Other Stories (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) — so much so that I wanted to do the following email interview with her about it — was the opening of that review: “Mischief runs through this collection…”
Photo Credit: © Antonio Olmos
First off, is there a theme to the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories?
Really the stories center upon inabilities to communicate: whether in terms of characters’ language, desire, physical expression, or emotional needs. Often the “difficulty” related to communication is not necessarily between two people, and many of the stories detail the various ways we are often unable to express ourselves to ourselves, or in response to works of art or changes in circumstance.
Did you start out with that theme or did it emerge as you were putting Attrib. together?
This theme does seem to have crept up on me once the collection came together, rather than one I was hoping to pin down and set out to address in a systematic way. I suppose a general fascination with the use (and misuse!) of language is a constant when I’m writing, both thematically and at a sentence level, so it is a collecting theme I should have seen coming.
What genres do the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories encompass?
I think I’m a bit uncertain and peripatetic when it comes to saying what genre the stories occupy (if occupy is even the right word). Your word encompass is far more interesting. I hope I read fairly widely, from weird fiction to horror to literary Modernism to concrete poetry, and pick up the bits I like from all of them.
I suppose the fact that in the main the stories are set in a recognizable world is an important qualifier — but of course the real world is often a vague and hazy, elastic experience. If you like uncanniness, word-play, stream-of-consciousness, and queer fiction I hope that you’d like the collection.
Attrib. And Other Stories came to my attention because of a review in The New Yorker that opened with, “Mischief runs through this collection…” Which makes me think these stories might be somewhat humorous. Are they?
I like the idea of taxonomies of humor! There’s one story, “Rosette Manufacture A Catalogue And Spotters Guide,” that was written explicitly in response to political circumstances unfurling (unravelling?) in the UK at the time of writing, and uses some of the devices of satire in a kind of exhausted-but-spirited side-swipe. Generally, the humor is based on the tentativity of the characters: they get themselves into scrapes, and can’t quite find a way out. Many of the characters are caught in unsteady circumstances, or at a moment of teetering. A tender, existential-dread kind of cheekiness, perhaps? Maybe that’s something that can be found in short fiction: you can concentrate on the awful / brilliant moment where the foot has landed on the banana skin but the sprawling pratfall has not yet been executed. Finding ways to use language to get that sense of instability across is part of that, and so wordplay also makes an appearance.
So, who do you see as being the big influences on the humor in the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories?
I’m a big fan of the writer Ali Smith, who brings an urgent but gentle humor to all her stories — often tinged with the surreal or the unexpected: the idea that there can be silliness and hurt all bundled together in one moment or image. I’d love to say the drier type of wit used by George Saunders or Lydia Davis was an influence, but I’m not sure I could pull off their chutzpah and panache.
More on the silly side, and returning to language, I love the mid-(last)-century UK BBC radio program The Goon Show, which combines esoteric weirdness with out-and-out slapstick and puns. The stories are nowhere near as goofy or occupy as absurd a word, but I’m inspired by the zeal and commitment to foolishness of that kind of comedy. There is much sense to be found in nonsense, and the parsing of it.
Aside from Ali Smith and the other authors you just mentioned, what writers do you see as having the biggest influence on the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories? And I mean on these specific stories, not on your style as a whole.
I’m went through a spate of not being able to read much at all, which has the effect of not adding fuel to an engine: I just didn’t feel able to write. There were some authors whose work always reliably pulled me out of that funk, however, and helped kickstart the stories. I am indebted to the work of Ali Smith, Joanna Walsh, the Edwardian writer Saki (H.H. Munro), Miranda July, Christine McLeish, Helen Macdonald, Nisha Ramayya, David Hayden, Timothy Thornton, and Matt Lomas for reminding me what I care about in stories, and I’d say their work influenced elements of the collection at different times.
And were any of the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories influenced by any movies, TV shows, or other non-literary influences? You mentioned The Goon Show…
Undoubtedly! I listened to the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit on heavy rotation during the writing of the collection, as well as the album by Diamond Mine by King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, and I think some of the sprightly melancholia (and mention of animals in precarious circumstances…) certainly entered the writing. One of my sisters is a trained zoologist, and listening to her various encounters with wildlife and domestic pets (from beached wales to J-shaped livers of horses) certainly furnished the collection with color and detail.
When not writing, you’re a teacher at Royal Holloway, University Of London. How, if at all, do you think working with young writers influenced what you wrote in Attrib. And Other Stories or how you wrote it?
I think there was an element of “practicing what I preach.” I ask my students to be ambitious with their writing, and not to resort to cliché (unless the work demands it), and I was very aware that I had to hold myself to that same standards. Or work out how best to weasel my way out of those standards, or challenge those standards, which is maybe the best way to work out how best to approach a story. I’m harsher on myself than the students I teach (“Why do I want to write this?” “Who would care?” “How can I make them care more?” are questions I would never pose to them!) so maybe it also helped me be gentler with my more paranoid or self-castigating side of my own work.
Now, along with Attrib. And Other Stories, your novel The Liar’s Dictionary also came out in the U.S. earlier this year. What is that novel about, plot-wise?
The novel was inspired by reading about mountweazels, fictitious words that are added to works of reference to act as copyright traps. The Liar’s Dictionary follows two timelines, connected by one (fictional) dictionary. The novel’s chapters alternate between a narrative set in the nineteenth-century, following a lexicographer Peter Winceworth who has decided to enter fake words into the dictionary where he works, while the rest of the book is set in the present-day, and features a young intern Mallory who has been tasked with fishing out these fake entries. It’s a novel about the purpose of shared definitions, authority, nonsense, and power. There’s also a scene where someone gets in a brawl with a pelican.
And is there any connection between The Liar’s Dictionary and any of the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories?
The most obvious connection would be that both books examine the various pitfalls, scruples, and etiquettes that are part of language and communication; in both, characters are often overwhelmed by an anxiety about “finding the right word for something,” while also being authentic to their own individual experiences. They also feature characters that are often overlooked or overlookable or scurrilous — I’m interested in the small acts of heroism or villainy or bravery or boredom that shape lives. I like considering the extraordinary within the ordinary: I hope both books reflect this.
Do you think people who enjoy the stories in Attrib. And Other Stories will also like The Liar’s Dictionary, and vice versa?
Yes, I hope so. I think the Mallory portions of The Liar’s Dictionary share some of the same voice and perspective as the stories, and indeed one of the short stories in Attrib., “Spins,” is linked explicitly with dictionaries and how they are composed, so the two books do tread on each others’ toes. I would hope that if you like noodling around with etymology, and a gingerly respect for being flummoxed or bowled-over by the ways language can go awry, both in terms of form and theme, both books would appeal.
I think the historical fiction side of the novel might seems very different from the “world” of Attrib., and the way in which I approached bringing the 19th century to the page might turn some readers off: I was interested in the ways we receive and can use clichés about the past — through the absorption and use of pastiche and parody, and even fan-fiction set in a certain period — as much as treating historical fiction like a slightly souped-up attempt at documentary or attempts at verisimilitude. I was interested also in the clichés of novel writing (the book’s epigraph is from Dr. Johnson’s 1775 definition of a novel: Novel, noun: “a small tale, generally of love”).
For some readers, the novel might seem a bit more hammy, because I wanted to see how to bring silliness and sensation to the occasionally “dry” theme of lexicography; it is more hammy, in parts. There’s a delight in bringing together page-long descriptions of dandelions, slapstick humor, quotations from Monique Wittig, characters’ minor existential crises etc., but also perhaps an indulgence which I know some readers (including an associate editor of the OED, alas!) found grating. All writing is to an extent an experiment, and both books are very different projects: if you hated Attrib., there is much to dislike about Liar’s (There’s an enthusiastic pull-quote for you!)
I like it. Now, as you know, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Has there been any interest in turning one of the stories from Attrib. into a movie?
Not yet, but very happy for any producers or scouts reading this to BE DRAWN INTO THE IDEA.
I would love to see some of the stories as short films. I suppose the one that come to mind immediately, and perhaps has a more cinematic potential than some of the more “interior thought” stories, would be “Bulk,” where a group of disparate individuals all meet at a beach where a dead whale has been washed up. The gender of the narrator is ambiguous, so in the dream casting role I’d like Maxine Peake or David Thewlis in the role, and basically a role-call of character actors who do such a great line in nervous, bathetic energy: Clive Merrison, Sally Hawkins, Charlotte Ritchie, Elliot Page.
Now you’ve got me started, this is going to be quite the fun was to pass a weekend drawing up lists…
Finally. if someone enjoys Attrib. And Other Stories, they’ll probably read The Liar’s Dictionary. But once they’ve done that, what short story collection of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Ah! I’d recommend one of the anthologies from 3 Of Cups Press, a small publisher based in the UK based on certain themes: On Anxiety, On Bodies, and On Relationships. And any of Ali Smith’s collections, like The First Person And Other Stories; they make me care about literature and words when everything else goes wrong.