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.
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Vaguely literary things we’ve been enjoying
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.
Roald Dahl had one. Virginia Woolf had one. Thoreau went to one to live deliberately. Hemingway had one over his garage with a bridge to his bedroom. Now I’m building one too. Sandwiched between the chicken yard and the sheep pen on my friend’s farm, I’m wrapping up the exterior work on an 80 square foot writing cabin. It will have a bed, a desk, and a bookshelf — simple living for weekends. It’s no Walden, but I do hope that the peace and quiet (not counting the crowd and bleats of the barnyard) will help me finish my chapbook projects.
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