David Gerow’s wonderfully strange ‘Story for Circular Breathers’ opens our latest issue. If you haven’t already, you can read it here. We caught up with Dave for a quick chat about the piece and his writing more generally.
Can you tell us a little about the genesis of ‘Story for Circular Breathers’?
I actually had this idea long before Covid. It was to be set in the US during the Great Depression, when endurance competitions like this weren’t unheard of (as depicted in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?). But for whatever reason, the idea fell by the wayside until 2020.
I finally wrote the story during the first lockdown. For any kind of emerging artist – like me, like many of my friends, like Sara in the story – there was a sense that our hard-won momentum had been paralysed. There was this tremendous fear that the inroads we’d made might not be there anymore when venues started opening again – or even that the venues themselves might not be there! I actually had a play in rehearsals when the first lockdown was called, and it was so disheartening to just walk away with the hope that we’d resurrect it as some unspecified time in the future. (Happily, that time came in 2022.) And then you had Rishi Sunak telling artists that we should retrain and find other jobs, and most of the performing arts opportunities in digital theatre and music going to well-established names, with less space than ever for people to emerge. It was a demoralising period. This story was the receptacle for my anxieties and frustration.
But beyond the specific context of the pandemic, this story speaks to the thing I dislike most about the life of the artist: the competition element. There are only so many commissions, only so many stages, only so many magazines, and they can only sustain so many people’s ambitions. Like it or not, the simple act of submitting pits you against the very people you’d naturally flock with – fellow writers. That’s something Sara struggles with during the circular breathing competition: that the only way she can win is if others lose.
We really dislike the competition aspect of it all, too. Selecting one piece over another, rejecting people… easily the worst part of the work. Is a DIY approach the only way to avoid that, do you think?
Do you mean self-publishing? Because I’d imagine that’s quite a competitive scene as well, vying for the attention of readers. Ultimately there’s no way around it: if you want to be a writer who has things published, some element of competition is inevitable, just like rejection. I guess the thing is just to focus on your work and celebrate your wins and your friends’ wins. And also to support magazines and theatres and all the rest of the opportunity-makers.
The style of ‘Story for Circular Breathers’ is unusual – how did you settle on this approach for this story?
I love constrained writing exercises, which is what this is: an attempt to write a story in one unbroken sentence. Actually, it’s part of a series of one-sentence stories; some others have been published in Gutter, en bloc and The Frogmore Papers. But ‘Story for Circular Breathers’ may be my favourite because the form so perfectly fits the subject matter. This is the only one where I allow myself to abandon the constraint in the final section. Constraints are great, but you’ve got to be willing to break them when the story demands it.
Kind of like having to understand the rules to be able to break them effectively? Speaking of, you’re currently studying for a DFA in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Can you say a little about how that’s informed your writing?
Doing the DFA has been brilliant, mostly because of the people it’s brought me together with: students and teachers with this huge array of interests and specialities. There’s so much knowledge on offer that I can draw on. Honestly, it’d be hard not to become a better writer in that environment. I’m doing it part-time over five years to spread the cost out, which has turned out to be a great way to prolong my time in this community of writers and readers.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve recently finished the first draft of my first novel. It’s a serio-comic campus novel looking at Sino-British relations and the exploitation of Chinese students in UK universities. I was an English teacher in China for years and my day job now brings me in close contact with international students at the University of Glasgow. I’ve long wanted to mine all that experience to produce something unique. It’s almost ready…