Melanie Whipman’s story ‘After Ever After’ appeared in Structo 11. We talked to her about her new story collection, Llama Sutra.
Is there a common thread linking the stories in Llama Sutra?
Yes, the title of the book was chosen for a reason. It’s not just the title of the story that was broadcast on Radio 4, ‘Sutra’ literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. I thought it was apt for a collection of short stories. There are threads – themes that run through the collection – the ‘the outsider’, acts of transgression, the natural world, liminality and borderlands. Landscape’s important to me – how it impacts on my characters. It works to reflect or represent them. Metaphorically. Water is present in most of the stories. Whether in the form of rivers or seas, to me water suggests borderlands. The space and light on the coast has an impact on the tone of the stories. I’m from Brighton, and I love the way the sea creates a perpetual sense of movement and change. It’s the opposite of stasis. There’s a sense of freedom and possibilities. And there are the animals, of course: lions, llamas, storks, parrots, birds, elephants, a deer, a singing fish, and a bull. And sexuality – hence the play on Karma Sutra.
Your Issue 11 story ‘After Ever After’, included in Llama Sutra, is a nice example of some of those threads. Have you always been interested in the fairy tale form?
Yes, I’m fascinated by the fairy tale or magic realism form. We’re exposed to different kinds of magic realism almost from the moment we’re born. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, legends, bible stories. These are stories that are part of our collective heritage. I love tapping into these communal narratives, taking myths and fairy tales and giving them a contemporary twist. I think that yoking a modern woman’s views with ancient myths creates a sense of universality and emphasizes our narrative heritage. There are several of these stories in my collection. The idea of the surreal erupting into everyday life works well with my themes of transgression and borderlands. It seems to enhance that sense of dislocation that I’m intrigued by. I want the reader to be as unsettled as my protagonists; magic realism can facilitate this.
You teach creative writing. Do you find it useful for your own work?
Teaching is really important to me. It’s amazing how much you learn through examining other writers’ work. It helps me to gain an objective perspective on my own writing. I did an English degree a long time ago, and then more recently a Masters in Creative Writing at Chichester University. Exposure to different authors and different styles and genres really help you hone and edit your own work.
Llama Sutra is available now from Ink Tears.
>> In the mood for more news, reviews and interviews? Head to the blog.
Vaguely literary things we’ve been enjoying
I’m a big fan of audiobooks – a great way to enjoy stories when it isn’t possible to pick up a book – and Librivox has a great catalogue. The works on offer are out of (US) copyright and are free to download, though they do advise you to check the copyright status in your own country before downloading. Anyone can volunteer to record (either solo, or as part of a collaboration), and there’s a friendly and knowledgeable bunch of people who help with things such as ‘proof listening’. I read for them a few years ago and had great fun collaborating on Pliny’s Natural History and some of James Boswell’s work. Reading aloud does make you consider the text very closely, I’ve found. — Elaine
A blog I’ve been reading for ten years – indeed, since it started! – is People Reading. In each post, Sonya Worthy snaps a photo of someone on the street reading a book. She then interviews them briefly and finds out what they’re reading and why. It’s one of my favourite sites on the internet. I’ve discovered gems I would never otherwise have found, such as God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène. People are always presented as readers first and foremost; she rarely delves into their private lives, unlike more modern sites such as Humans of New York. It’s lovely to see so many people out and about reading.
FutureLearn works with unis and cultural institutions around the world to create courses on some pretty interesting topics – all for free – from the comfort of your laptop or smartphone. They’re super accessible and are a great way to intro yourself to or brush up on subjects when you’re short on time and juggling other projects. I’m currently enjoying their course on Hans Christian Andersen with the Uni of Southern Denmark. Next up on my list is their Shakespeare course run by my old uni lecturer Jonathan Bate.
>> Check out the VLTWBE archive here.