The world seems to be chasing big themes, themes that for some reason have become popular. True courage however, in my opinion, is to travel the road less taken. Kate Clanchy does that. She has once again written a book that courageously touches on topics that we, as a society, wish to avoid. Her collection of short stories focus on identity, death and illness and what it means to be a woman in modern times. She takes a very sober look at life as it is, not as we would like it to be. At the core of her writing is an honesty, understanding and curiosity for human behaviour. Her stories rebel against the day-to-day lies we feed ourselves and the muteness imposed by societal norms.
I met Kate on a grey morning in Oxford and we spoke about her new collection of short stories, The Not-Dead and The Saved and Other Stories, and about the topics that are too often avoided.
This is your first short story collection. You have written poetry, non-fiction and a novel before. Why short stories now?
I think short stories are very near poems, really. I don’t think there is a very big difference. They are both predicated on images. The images carry the plot. There are characters with plots. I think that short stories are a very natural development from the poem. Probably the slightly less natural development of the longer form. But if you look at my memoir and my novel, they have quite a lot of short bits in them and they kind of join up. I think of the short story as something I have been doing for ages.
So have you been writing them in between or have you sat down to consciously write?
I wrote them as I went along, in between and then I kind of sat down to finish them off. I wrote them over about ten years.
Are they in chronological order?
No, they are not. I had a period of a year and a bit of finishing them. That includes ordering them as a collection. Because, like in a collection of poetry or an anthology, I love ordering things. That gave me different themes. I had sort of scrappy pieces that I was able to finish once I had the idea of the collection in my head. Also other things that were much too long and I was able to chop them down and fit them in. The whole little section in there; the one called ‘Animal Vegetable’ and ‘The Girls’, they were kind of dark ones about early motherhood. They were sort of quite experimental pieces to start with, very blobby, some of them very, very short. And they got shaped up, but their origin, their original pieces were different ages: six, seven, eight years old.
The theme—it deals a lot, not with death and illness itself, but with the void it leaves behind. The repercussions, which is probably the ‘not-dead’. Why that particular theme? Did it stream out of something?
I don’t really think of them as being about death. I was aware when I looked at them in the end that there is a lot of dying and illness in them. I think of them as being about identity, really, and people finding identity; finding themselves. But there is an awful lot of illness and I don’t know why there is so much illness. I am interested in illness, but I haven’t got a lot of personal experience of it. The story ‘The Not-Dead and the Saved’ is entirely set in different hospitals and is about a child’s illness. The only experience of a hospital I had was when my son got sent there with semi-pneumonia, which he didn’t really have, for five hours. I don’t have these experiences. I just imagined them and as I said I didn’t think of that being a theme. What I think of as the overpowering theme of the stories is people finding their names, finding who they are and being named by other people and how they identity is shaped for them.
It is seems that the impact that illness and death has on the people is what shapes them. How do they find themselves in their new reality? You have the one of the girl swimming with the aunt and her mum has cancer. It’s not about the ill people, it’s about the people around them and how they experience it.
Yes, ‘Aunt Mirrie and the Child’ and it’s her sister and the child. Later, in ‘The Not-Dead and the Saved’ there is the mother and the son. They have been deprived of their identity, when they are in hospital. It’s one of the strangest things when you go to the doctor with your child and the doctor asks: “What does mum think?” and you think: “Whose mother?” You look around for your own mother. Who is this person, the mother? But that is who you become in that context, you become your illness, so they are named in the hospital and they become the mother and the son. There are always in the hospital and they are always called the mother and the son. They are there; they can’t escape that. I think ‘The Not-Dead and the Saved’ as a story is about a mother and a son and that love, but it does really concern me that we don’t let people die. I keep coming across it. We talk about sex all the time, but we cannot bear any kind of death, we can’t allow death to happen. We can’t allow a child to die. That is what the son is saying. This is not tolerable. He is being kept alive when he shouldn’t be. There is death that isn’t sad. It’s just to release. I personally don’t worry about death very much. It is part of a process that we don’t like to talk about.
Sometimes you do things without realising them, when you do it on a subconscious level.
Dale, the boy that goes into ‘The Show’.
That was my favourite story.
He is surrounded by people that are all labels, they are called the judge and the mother or whatever and he has to find his way to who he is somehow through that or who he isn’t. That has not got dead people in it.
It has a theme of abandonment in it. His mother left him, his father left him. His grandmother dies and then…
And then who is he?
And I think he is partially dying from the inside as well, because he has bulimia, so you still kind of have that.
It’s not a very cheerful story, is it?
No, but it’s great.
All the things get stripped away and he becomes all the headlines around him. That is a very dark story.
I love it. It is my favourite (laughs). Another reoccurring theme is the one of women, across all your writing. But you write from a very sober point of view. You contextualize it into social aspects, the day-to-day life. You don’t romanticise it. It’s actually quite hard being a woman and there are a lot of things to consider. You write about things that most people don’t tend to speak about or I haven’t come across many people who are that honest about how tough it sometimes is. And you are non-judgmental as well.
That is what I try (laughs). Thank you. That is what I try to be. That is generally my aim. First through the poems, then Antigona and Me, I am just trying to say how it is.
And even in Meeting the English.
And in Meeting the English. Which is probably the frostiest, really. People trying to say what is going on, what is at the bottom. It seems an important thing. Women struggle with their different roles.
All the female characters span across a lot of generations. You have a full spectrum of personalities through generations—social realism. You spend quite a bit of time deconstructing the myths and injecting a sober reality into them. It’s not one or another. The short story with the children playing. You have so many different mothers with so many different approaches and yet you manage not to judge any of them.
The one about the party. Yes, that is the one nearest to a documentary. I was at that party. It is a story that allows many different characters to exist, so the feminist mother is a bit of a loony in that story, and why not have the pink playing house. She is ready to accept all the differences. The great thing about a short story is that you can sustain that. You can just say here is this moment. Strange things can be together.
But then there is the moment where one thinks of becoming a full-time mother and the character says that there is no right response to this, which touches on how the role of women has changed so much from its previous stereotypes. Sometimes going back to them is now seen as a big offense.
No, you can’t. It’s very, very difficult. That is even in ‘Animal Vegetable’. The very black one about the girl that gets ill. Is more money worth not spending the first three years of your children’s life with them? The three years the child does not remember. The ‘Animal Vegetable’ life, when you are covered in muck. What is that life for? We have now made it so that a very small number of women can be exempted from that and it is the question I just bash away at all the time in Antigona and Me. What’s the right way of doing that? If you are doing it on your own, the way that we also have created in our society (everyone does it in a little capsule) then you do become lonely and bonkers. That is another artefact of this atomised society. It is a very hard way to do it. But I don’t think you shouldn’t do it. If you are any kind of a person you should make sure you find a way to do it. You do your career and become a more valuable person. And I don’t think anybody really believes that when it comes down to it, everyone agrees that the friend should spend her daughter’s last days with the daughter. Everyone agrees with that. That is just universal human truth. Now you have to go and hold your daughter until she dies. But why, if you didn’t think you should have held her when she was one? Why do you think that now? And why her and not the father? It is one of those questions where we know the answer, but we don’t know why we know it. I don’t know the answers to any of it and again this is what the short story is for. You are allowed to pose a question to which you don’t know the answer. In a short story you are allowed to do that.
But even in Antigona and Me there doesn’t seem to be a right answer. Not many people speak about how difficult it is to be a woman today. A woman with children working full-time feels guilty at work, because she is not with her children and guilty when she is with her children because she is not working. Then she feels guilty that her husband or partner is not getting enough attention, because she is too tired. She feels guilty pretty much 100% of the time. There are so many different issues. I have no children, but I am an aunt and whenever I chip in and help by doing the school run for example, people are perplexed and wonder why? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of acceptance across society for the supporting roles. Things have changed and it seems that no matter what you do as a woman, you are set up for failure.
The support role, the extra people—that has gone, I think. There are a lot of aunts in this book. It’s dedicated to my aunt. Aunts are important. The benign ‘Irene’ figure, the ghost, she is there because she is needed. That was one of the very first stories. I started to write prose and I started to write in Scots immediately, after years. The voice is a Scottish voice saying all these different things—Aunty Irene. And I wrote that totally without realising that Irene was really her grandmother and not her aunt. I didn’t know why she was haunting her at first. She was the mother, but she was not called the mother. That thing about her wanting to be called the mother and when she was, she could go.
Because there is a sentence in there that describes what a mother is.
The mother is the one that does all the work.
It is a very clear defined way of how it should be.
Yes, but actually that definition was given to her by her mother, who denied Irene to be a mother. And it is when the speaker says, ‘You were Irene, you were,’ she can go. It is one of the fun ones when she says: ‘My mother says that you are dead’ and she says: ‘We never did get on’. I did want to write that bit because you can imagine somebody beyond the grave saying that. There is a loving story at the end.
That is a good point. Because there is a lot of death in them, but there is also a lot of love as well. The relationships are complicated, but it doesn’t mean that the basis is not there. Like for example the one with the father that starts losing his memory.
That is really interesting because you have the dynamics in the family, the generational gap and sometimes simple things like the constraint of time. None of them are bad people, they are just busy people.
There are different mechanisms and complicated relationships around people. Everyone is loved in there. I like the conversation between the mother and the daughter at the beginning. Taking the punctuation out of that was really important. Cause it’s not happening in the past and it’s not happening in the present. It’s just one of those conversations always going on. Maybe that’s what she said in the recent past.
I think more people should write about day-to-day women’s lives. I think not enough do.
It’s all about who is keeping the home front. That is what Antigona and Me is about and I was amazed at the backlash it got. People were utterly scandalised that I was talking about having a cleaner. Like that made you a terrible person. Anybody who works in an office has a cleaner. People don’t want to talk about these things. Of course it’s complicated, but I was amazed how offended people were. People talk a lot about sex and feel very liberated and superior, but they are not noticing all the things that we are deeply conflicted about. I suppose like death and how to take care of children. The story about the child-minder, I like that one. The child-minder sacks the client.
You think that maybe the child-minder will change her mind, because she has this reflection period when she thinks that the child was not covered properly and had no shoes, but she just takes the shoes and puts them outside. This story is so relevant though, because there are so many excuses being made. Because this happened and that happened. And it is so true to life because we never stop to take a hard look at our lives.
We all lie to ourselves about different things. Try not to, especially if you are going to write anything. That is where you find the good things.
That is a poet’s insight.
The structure, forms of the stories and points of view—how much time did you spend on them? Were there any stories where you changed the point of view? There is the story of the African boy for example. It has dual narration. You have the African boy and the girlfriend tell the story.
The story of the African boy originally was just a little story about that boy, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I am not completely satisfied with that one even now, but I thought it was good enough. It was one I doubled up later on. A lot of them have been through quite drastic changes. The one about the child-minder was really quite a long story, now it’s a very short one. The one about the party similarly was quite a long story and now it is very short. Then, ‘Bride Hill’ always had this double thing, but I hacked away at it. It got a lot shorter from when it was first published. They do change a lot. They are sort of playing with different shapes and forms and different aspects of me. Some, that are quite different, like ‘The Invention of Scotland’ which is a very different, more of a Meeting the English kind of voice, more art and Muriel Spark. That is about the generative imagination. All the different stuff Fiona keeps producing in the middle of her sentence. She is the one with the void in its centre, who keeps producing stuff, like Dale the boy in ‘The Show’, who keeps producing and singing.
Fiona is an interesting character. Because at the beginning she seems very shy, very introverted and the English girl is the new girl, the different one, and you see her influence on Fiona. But then Fiona completely rejects that. She goes through a quite sober, drastic realisation. And you think: ‘Wow, well done you!’ But you didn’t think it was going to go this way.
But what did you think or what are you saying well done to? You kind of feel sorry in the end cause Fiona is quite harsh at the end and you probably expected to feel sorry for Fiona. But Fiona is tougher than that. She is going to actually generate books and generate stuff, be herself. She is a very distinctive Fiona. But there is a loss there. Fiona is on her own in the end. It is such an odd story. I always had that ending and I always had that beginning, but it is such a bizarre story in the way the focus goes from the mother to the daughter. It has very strange moves in there and I can’t account for them myself. That is how the story was always going to be. With Irene, when I was writing that story, I always had the two voices, but it wasn’t until I got to the end that I realised she was the mother. It was all very simple and a clean line and you realise what is going on. I believe in Fiona, I invented her. I believe she is an authentic character, but the moves in ‘The Invention of Scotland’ are very odd, very opaque and I don’t quite know. I believe this is how she got there, but they make for odd manoeuvres.
It is like a reverse Meeting the English. Instead of a Scotsman going to England, it is an English person coming to Scotland. Then you have this sober rationale. It’s selfish, but it’s kind of what you have to be. Fiona is tough. It’s how she is.
Which I guess is how Dale from ‘The Show’ tries to be.
‘The Show’, I want to know more about that story, because there is so much in it.
It was even longer at the beginning.
Really? There is still so much. You have the loss and abandonment in his childhood from the parents, then the religious angle of learning to sing for the choir. Then he goes through bulimia (which again we don’t often speak about men suffering from bulimia. It is normally girls). And then you have the whole side of the media, the journey of consumerisation and then you finish it off by him being homosexual and him wondering whether it is just happening to him or whether he is gay.
He hasn’t got a strong sense of self. He only has in the way that he puts himself forward. He knows he wants to sing but he is too young to know who he is. He is probably a true artist, he is truly gifted but he doesn’t understand, he is not in control of his gift. You get actors like that actually. People who are great actors but don’t know who they are. Don’t have their own voice. They have this void and that is why they are great. He has a void but he hasn’t fully grasped where he fits in. He is probably gay, and that probably is the best thing. I didn’t want to do it as: ‘and then everything was ok’. Because there have been lots of moments, and he will win the competition and it still won’t be ok. Nothing will be ok. He has this void that is going to carry him through. He has that thing that people are looking for.
But again the song he sings, he hasn’t chosen it for himself. It seems like all his life people are making choices for him.
He can’t be. But you know, I watched a series of the X-Factor with the kids and it is just appalling.
It’s stereotype casting, isn’t it?
Yes, they create these characters, but they are real people. It seems extraordinary to me. I worked quite a lot in schools and you do get this pupils who come from unbelievable backgrounds and yet they keep walking.
How much time have you spent trying to find innovative forms for your stories, because they do all flow so naturally?
This depends on the story. Some of them I have been writing for years and I am still not quite satisfied with, like ‘The Invention of Scotland’. It doesn’t want to be a novel, but it has a ‘novelly’ style. It is poking at its boundaries still. In others the form came easily, I knew that was going to be their shape and how it is going to go. In ‘The Not-Dead and Saved’, in the original version, there was a part where you met him in a house, in his home. Then I realised that it had to be hospital, hospital, hospital. And then it had this shape from really early on. Something like ‘Tunnelling to Mother’ and ‘Irene’ have a very clean line and short form. ‘Irene’ has a classic form. It’s a proper little ghost story. It is from an ‘I’ point of view. It has the underlying shape and it is quite neat. Some of them push at the boundaries a little bit more. ‘Animal Vegetable’ always had that shape. It was always going that way.
I suppose in a short story it is more about what you leave out than what you leave in, because you have that freedom to jump twenty years for example, if you wanted to. To give big headlines rather than description.
Yeah. Some of them like ‘The Show’ I was rewriting because they are sort of bizarre, de-centred stories. They are told from around the back. ‘The Show’ is intentionally a bit boring in the middle, when everything gets settled. But he went to many more singing nights in the original version. I had this big pile of horrible things that happened to him and I chopped them back a bit because I had made the point in a way and it flowed better.
Speaking of the way the stories flow, and maybe this is just me, but the first half of the stories seem to be faster in pace, while the second half is slower and calmer, more dreamlike.
I think ‘Aunt Mirrie and the Child’ has a very nice pace to it.
Yes, it does.
It was one that I started a long time ago and finished recently. The stories group thematically and I was always going to have ‘The Not-Dead and the Saved’ at the end and then finish with ‘Tunnelling to Mother’ cause that is a more positive one. I had different opening ones. But they do get darker and darker. I always wanted to have the ones like ‘Alas, the Tents Collapsed on the Green Field of the Mind’ in the middle, those sorts of ones.
They are all snapshots out of life. There are a lot of characters that don’t require conclusion. There is this thing where they teach how many characters you should have in a short story, cause you can’t have too many. But ‘Black Bun’ has quite a lot and it still works.
‘Black Bun’ has a lot characters. It was mainly about Archie and Ruairi of course, but there are a lot of people in it and it works somehow. I am more satisfied with it than with ‘The Invention of Scotland’ cause it’s more like the Scotland I grew up in. The dark underside, Catholic, Irish, white underside of Scotland that we don’t acknowledge. Ruairi is adopted. He is other than Archie, but he is very likable with that. Everyone likes him and yet he is going to undermine everything. He is the nemesis of Archie. But I quite like Archie, he tries his best even though he is dreadful. Just like the literary agent in ‘Brunty Country’—she tries her best.
‘Brunty Country’ is another one that is structurally very interesting. You read it as being spoken directly to you.
You can see a bit of a radio play in it.
So, how much of yourself is in this book?
I suppose you never really know until you get to the end of the book. None of them are directly a biography at all. ‘The Not-Dead and the Saved’ – I have never been in a hospital. All my children are well and nevertheless that person is me. That woman and that terrifying love of the child and the knowledge of what that love can do to you. I suppose it is like a magic spell. All those things that could possibly happen. It is based on my negatives, my fears.
Cause people rarely speak about it, but they do imagine how it would feel like if something awful happened.
People create fantasies of being made saints by having these illnesses. The son contradicts that by not being saved.
What is the next thing? You have done poetry, non-fiction, fiction, short stories? What’s next?
I am doing an adaptation for the radio, non-fiction and a novel hand-in-hand. I want to write about schools and I have an idea for another novel, another long-form piece. It’s funny, I have written ten-years-worth of short stories and I haven’t got any ideas for more, but I do have these ideas for longer pieces.