Structo talks to David Gaffney

“It’s about the form, really. It’s about truth, more truth.”

This interview first appeared in issue 14, published August 2015.

David Gaffney is best known for his work with the short short form. His collections, including Aromabingo, Sawn-off Tales and More Sawn-off Tales, offer the reader glimpses into dozens of quirky, off-beat worlds captured in precisely 150 words. These sometimes strange, sometimes poignant, often comical scenes might seem distant or imagined but are in fact quite grounded in northern England. It seemed only appropriate that we wound up chatting in the café of the newly renovated Manchester Central Library, an architectural landmark in the ever-changing city Gaffney calls home. We spoke about the relationship between his writing and his Cumbrian roots, as well as his current exploration of different forms. — Eleanor Paynter

You read and perform your work regularly. Do you think about performing when you’re writing the short pieces?

No, I try not to, actually. So what I’d rather do is finish it and make it right on the page, really. And then when I’m asked to read, I’ll go over it and say, which ones are gonna work, and which ones are not? It’s really quite hard to know, actually, which stories are going to work live. I also do a cabaret act called Les Malheureux, which is where I play the organ and my partner Clare reads the short fiction. And we’re always looking for which bits of text are gonna work live, ’cause we tend to use the funny ones.
I have a short story from More Sawn-Off Tales called ‘Uncle Leonard’ which is quite a sad story about this fellow who’s getting old and hasn’t got a girlfriend and hasn’t got anything in life, really, and he’s ill. And that’s what the story’s about; it’s just such a depressing story, and yet when you read it live, it goes down a storm.

Is that the one that ends with a line like, “Some people are never going to find love”? That’s a devastating story!

Yes, that’s the one! It’s a devastating last line, and I thought that’s never going to work live, but Clare said, “Trust me, it’ll work”, and it goes down, one of our best, particularly the last line ’cause people go, “ahhh”. And we always say, “Yeah, it’s a tough last line”, and they say, “Yes, it is… but leave it in.”

When you’re writing these pieces, aiming for 150 words, do you wait to arrive at a line like that to know you’ve reached your ending, or do you start with the line and work backwards?

I tend to write quite long; I don’t actually write short. I’ll write maybe 1000–2000 words for a story like that. And it will be writing to explore. So I think ‘Uncle Leonard’ originally, for example, was about 1500 words long and Leonard had got this girl pregnant and never knew about it and she’d had an abortion and – this is all the detail that was in it, and all this stuff had gone on. Yeah, there’s a whole world. And this is where I explore, and then I kind of take that all down.

That’s interesting because a lot of your short shorts have a sense of containing a whole world, but I wouldn’t have guessed you had really worked out all these details. It makes me think about an actor having to know all the background of a character even if it’s not really necessary, they’re not going to recite that part.

Yeah, so it can mean some of them can be very enigmatic, actually. So enigmatic that some people say, “Really, I’m just not getting it at all”, and read it again. And I quite like that, that it’s hard to get, because there are these hidden things behind it. A bit like a visual artist maybe would do when they produce a piece of work and then there’s a whole intellectual construct around it, but the end result is just what you see on the wall, maybe a painted blue square or something like that. And if you talk to the artist, or someone in the gallery, they’ll give you that background. And then you’ll say, “Oh, I get it now.” It’s more interesting to know.

But you could also find meaning in it without knowing that.

Yeah, you could, and you might enjoy it and not know – I sometimes describe it as building all the scaffolding around a story to keep it up, to get it there, and then taking it all away. You’re left with shapes and things, and you don’t quite know, why is that shape there? We don’t quite know that in the story, because it came from a process of exploring where the story was. I don’t think everybody who writes short short fiction works like me. I think some people do write to the words, actually.

Sometimes I get the feeling an author is really aiming for a punch line. If I read a whole set of pieces like that in a row, it can start to feel like a formula.

Yeah, I try and avoid it, the punch line. I mean some of mine have, but I desperately try and avoid the punch line, because it feels a cheat, sometimes, for the reader… that you think, “Oh, right. Leading up to that, was it?”
It’s a bit like engaging with a joke, in a sense. When someone starts to tell the joke, you actually automatically start to engage with the characters as if it’s real. If you say, “Alright, a man with one ear went into a pub”, you start to think, “What would it be like to have one ear? And how did he lose the ear?” And you start to think of this character with one ear, and then the joke is, you know, “Do you want a drink?” And he says, “No, I’ve got one ear.” And you think, “Oh… right…” It’s not satisfying. It’s completely unsatisfying. You think, “I was quite interested in this guy. Tell me about his one ear, and his life with one ear. How does that work?”
So for me the short shorts work better if the punch line is somewhere in the middle, if the reveal is in the middle, and the rest is a kind of gentle taking you somewhere else, I suppose, and maybe pointing you to another place. And you think, it’s going somewhere else and I don’t know where. A sense of when an actor walks off camera, that they’re actually going somewhere. And that it’s real – not all actors can do that. And if you can get that resonance effect, that’s great. And so you tinker and play. You turn things upside down. So actually short short fiction gives me a structure where I can make a lot of changes. So I can say, well actually, I’m gonna start with the last line, bring it back to the top, and then I’m gonna throw the rest away and then do the story from there.

Some of your short pieces do not have a punch line, but an ending that reveals something else. I’m thinking about ‘Smaller than One Eightieth the Diameter of a Human Hair’, where it turns out that what could have just been a metaphor – feeling small – has gone one step further – working with the microscope.

Ideally, yeah, if you can have something that feels like an enjoyable story, and then when you get to the end, hopefully it becomes about something more deep, quite profound. And the last line can do that.
I’ve got one where a man steals people’s shopping in the supermarket. He sees trollies full of shopping that hasn’t been paid for yet and he takes them away and pays for them because he can’t be bothered getting stuff off the shelves. So it’s like a joke story. But at the end, it suddenly turns out that when he’s standing in the shop doing this, he’s actually having a serious mental health crisis, and he thinks he’s on his own but he’s actually with his wife, who’s saying, “Do you want to go out to the car and sit down and listen to your tape?” So everyone’s been laughing when he’s stealing the shopping, and then they’re going, “Why were we laughing? It’s not funny – this man’s having a crisis.” And it’s sad. And it does make you go back and read it again. But if you put at the front, “Here’s a man with a mental health crisis, here’s what he does”, it would be completely different, to bring people into the world and laugh at him then. But it isn’t a punch line; it’s a way of framing it, really.

Reading your work as a poet, I’m very interested in the difference between short short fiction and prose poetry. Is that a difference that’s important to you?

It is important because I think that the work that people like me do in short short fiction is sort of like the work of a poet – distilling sentences and being very precise; and also, prose writers don’t often give themselves artificial artistic restraints, which is what I do. So it’s very poetic to say you’ll write 150 words exactly. Poets always do that [kind of thing]. Most of the short fiction writers I know, they can’t understand why I would limit it to 150.

And how would you explain it to them?

I have no explanation for it. It’s just something that works for me. And I like it. I like that if it’s 152, I like the process of getting it down – and it usually is bringing it down, rather than bringing it up.
I was thinking the next book I do of short fiction, I might actually have line breaks in it, like a poet would, ’cause I’ve never done that before. Prose writers don’t do that. I was actually thinking, “Yeah, next time let’s say this is how it’s gonna look on the page.” And then it really becomes poetry, almost.

Then when do you admit that you’re writing a poem?

I think, ’cause you write short fiction, you don’t think you’re good enough to be a poet. Because there are technical formats – sestinas and all these different things – and if you write prose you don’t always know about that sort of thing – and so you sort of feel a little bit – can I say I’m a poet? Is that a cheat?
But I do get invited to read at poetry nights, and then when people hear me read, they just think it’s poetry. So it sounds like poetry.
At the minute I’m not working on short short fiction; I’m working on a novel. And I think, maybe there’s enough [short fiction] out there. We’ll see.

Where are you with the novel?

I’ve finished the first draft more or less and sent it to an agent. It’s going to be part of a trilogy, so that’s my work mapped out, then: three novels based on the same character, each spaced ten years apart, ’76, ’86, to ’96, and the various, weird happenings throughout.

And is the trilogy something that’s been brewing for a while?

I had an idea that I wanted to write something personal, about my own life and where I come from, which is west Cumbria, which is quite a weird spot. It’s like an industrial place, on the edge of the Lake District. So I started writing about my early life as a teenager, when I was 15 and a girl of 16 was murdered in my town. The story’s mainly about that, and then it flashes forward to 2010, when a taxi driver went on a rampage with a gun and shot 13 people, including himself, in the same town. So I link the two murders.
I wanted to explore a way of working that uses real things and real life. And I enjoyed it. It’s got weirdness in it, time travel and ghosts and things like that. But it’s rooted, just about this boy who’s kind of me and doing most of the things that I did when I was 15, and then moving forward to the book after that when he’d be a bit older.

Your first novel also has connections to your personal life.

Yeah, it does, actually, from later on. It has the connections to when I worked as a debt counsellor. That was when I was working in Manchester, but I cheated and moved it to Cumbria, to get the Cumbria bit in there. I think a lot of writers are obsessed with writing about the towns they come from. It’s something you can’t get out of yourself.

Would it be fair to say, then, that the short fiction is the space where you feel you can experiment and create different worlds, and the longer form is where you do something more personal?

Yeah, I think so. It’s about the form, really. It’s about truth, more truth. The very short fiction can be showy-offy, entertainment, but maybe, is it true? I think one of the reasons I write a lot of the really short fiction is because I have a lot of ideas that are disconnected. And they’re not going to become novels, they’re about stealing people’s shopping and paying for it. So that goes in the ideas file, and then I think, where is that going to fit? And you could put it inside a novel and have a character doing that, and I think a lot of novelists would do that, fold these tics and characters into things, but I think for me the short fiction means that you’ve got a place to put these ideas, rather than lose them. There’s usually about 70-odd in one of my books of short fiction, so it uses up a lot of ideas. [laughs]

I’m an outsider in Manchester, but I recognize a lot of references in your work to places around here, which makes many of the stories very real. But pieces that include place names I don’t know are almost fairy tale-like – the names of places are sometimes so fantastic. It makes me think about how reading it here, or as someone familiar with this part of the world, might be different from reading it somewhere else.

In the last book there’s a lot of place references, probably because I did a project called 23 Stops to Hull, which is where I went on the M62 and wrote a story about the 23 junctions next to towns. There’s one about Eggborough, which is a great name for a place, and a real place.
But a lot of people think I’ve made those names up. We read that one live with the organ, about Eggborough and the power plant, and most people think Eggborough is just a comedy name, but it’s actually a real town with a power plant next to it. And there are a lot, like Widnes and all these strange towns, so to someone who doesn’t know them – I quite like it when I read an American book or something and you get places names that you don’t know and you can just enjoy them – the poetry of them.
The difficult time is when it’s not real and you’re trying to find a place for something to happen, trying to make it up, reach for a name that isn’t too comedy. So you don’t want to say Accrington, ’cause people think that’s funny, so you might say St Helens. There’s certain towns that I’ll use now and again that I think are sort of funny in a sense, and quite obscure. That’s a very English writer’s thing to do, to make fun of the place names.

Why? What makes it English?

I think it’s a sort of Alan Bennettism, like by just saying the name, saying, “I used to go out with a woman, she was a belly dancer from Scunthorpe” – it’s just very English to say that. It’s funny. If she’s a belly dancer from South London, it’s not funny, but if she’s from Scunthorpe, it’s funny. Maybe there are similarities in other countries, but it’s very much that Alan Bennett thing about, “oh, pass me a bourbon,” using brand names. I try and avoid it some because it can be very clichéd, but it’s very English.

Is it because, even if you don’t know the place, a name can represent a whole world or identity?

I think so. People down south would say that they have an idea of Scunthorpe as being grimy, and industrial and fairly horrible, and they have that idea even though they’ve never been and don’t really know, but they have this idea of what it’s like. So maybe if you say “Accrington” or – well there are just towns that have names that sound… grim. Grimsby, for example.
There’s also these names that do something, particularly in an English landscape, that tell you things.

Do you identify as an English writer? A Mancunian writer? A Cumbrian writer?

I’d like to be classed as Cumbrian – west Cumbrian. That’s my ideal. Because a lot of the stuff, the people I write about, seem to come from the fact that I’ve always felt that west Cumbria is on the edge of everything, one of the most remote bits of the country, apart from Cornwall, apart from Scotland. So living in England, west Cumbria is quite remote, hard to get to, really. It’s 100 miles from Newcastle, 120 from Manchester, and there’s no really big towns to speak of. So you feel on the edge of things, you feel that it’s happening somewhere else, where you’re not, and I think that west Cumbria has probably shaped a bit of what I write, which tends to be about outsiders, people who don’t fit in.

Yes, and maybe also about people stepping outside themselves. In some of your longer short fiction the characters are on the outside, but then they also step outside themselves to learn something about themselves. Like the one in Aromabingo about the guy who works in an office and becomes a cleaner in his own office.

Ah, yes, you read that one! Aromabingo was less successful – people seem to like my very short stuff better. I like some of the longer ones personally – I like this one, the one about the cleaner. And yes, that’s almost a typical Gaffney character. He’s struggling to fit in and struggling to do things, but he finds a solution. He tries to see himself as others. What I thought was interesting about that story was that he enters a whole new world, which is actually the same world he was already in. But the cleaner and the security people talk to him. It’s like The City & the City by China Miéville, like there’s a world that you just don’t see, that’s invisible to you, but you change what you look like, as he does, and suddenly the people in that world then talk to you. Yeah, and that’s the sense of exclusion, I think, that some people could have in a workplace or [a place] where they’re not like anybody else.

So maybe the office worker isn’t the most west Cumbrian of your stories. As a west Cumbrian, do you mean you’re representing more of an industrial, working class?

Yes, working class, slightly excluded maybe, poorer areas, unloved parts of the country. Well they put a big Sellafield nuclear plant there, which I don’t know if I’ve written much about yet, but I do in the novel I’m working on now. The nuclear plant is the place where everyone works, and the reason they put it there is because it’s a place that nobody cares about.

So they could essentially dump it there.

Yes, that’s right. So there is that industrial thing, I don’t really like the countryside much, so there’s never a pastoral ideal in my stories. If it even gets hinted at, it’ll be withdrawn right away or something bad will happen. It tends to be urban, it tends to be cities, and probably quite modern, I’d think.

Do you think there’s a difference between a British aesthetic and an American aesthetic? Is that a fair question?

Well there is the “big novel” American tradition that we haven’t really cracked in this country, which is the DeLillos, the Philip Roths, the Updikes – and there is that sense of them being able to write about small things but make them epic, sitting at the centre of history. I don’t think we’ve really got the kind of writers who do that. We tend to be kind of parochial, writing local but it stays local, you know what I mean? It doesn’t tell a story of the whole of American history, which is what some Philip Roth books would do.

That “tradition” can become an overt attempt – people even say they want to write “the next great American novel”.

Yeah, I don’t know whether English writers are that bothered about doing that. They want to write about the local that is just the local, maybe. I think maybe many of the interesting writers coming from Scotland and Ireland… maybe a sort of Celtic thing goes on, where you’ll find a lot of these writers who are really cutting edge are coming from that sort of background, where language is a little bit different. And English writers – the days of Martin Amis are maybe gone, and that kind of thing, and Julian Barnes and McEwan, the big names – people are less excited by what they do because it’s middle-class writing for middle-class people, and it’s not a voice that’s coming from beyond anywhere. These are voices we’re familiar with because they’re part of the establishment. I sometimes wonder whether we haven’t got the writers that are coming from the other places – I don’t know.

Are you doing any collaborative work at the moment?

The other big thing I’m working on is a graphic novel, with a graphic novelist called Dan Berry. We’ll do a live version of the graphic novel in October in the Lake District at the Comic Arts Festival. I’ve done the text, which I can say is the easy bit – and Dan is drawing the pages. It’s going to be about 90 pages, which is quite a lot.
We’re using some of my existing text from various books. And we’ve come up with a story, you could call it portmanteau. Well it’s not really portmanteau because we’ve knitted them together so well I think that it’ll look like a cohesive tale. And it’s called The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, which is one of the stories from More Sawn-Off Tales.

So you’ve made what were once separate pieces somehow more cohesive… by carrying a character through?

Yeah, that’s right, so we have character such as, there’s an estate agent in two or three of my stories for some reason, so obviously he becomes the same character. So there’s kind of ways you can knit them together. I mean, it happens when you read Raymond Carver stories. You think, okay, they’re all separate stories, but actually, they’re all just the same, aren’t they, about a middle-aged bloke who drinks too much. And in a sense, your stories are about the same thing. And when you start looking, you do find that, oh, that’s the same story, but in a different way.