Structo talks to Vicki Jarrett
Vicki Jarrett is a short story writer and novelist from Edinburgh. Since her first completed story, written while she was still working in a chippy, won second prize in the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition, she has published widely and been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Bridport Prize, among others. To mark the re-issue of her story collection The Way Out with Structo Press, I caught up with her over Zoom to discuss her influences, the state of Scottish writing and the perennial challenges for working-class writers trying to make themselves heard. – Dan Bradley
How did you get started as a reader and then later as a writer?
I remember being read to more than I remember the first books that I read. We used to go on caravan holidays quite a lot. My folks had a wee caravan and I remember very vividly being read to at night there, and the wind and rain kind of shaking this box. We had paraffin lamps, the wee hissy gas lamp things. And that was all like, I suppose, children’s classics. My mum was always a big reader, but she read us things like The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Watership Down and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When I think about it now, some of it was quite dark actually, and a bit fantastical. So maybe that set some kind of note for the rest of it.
When I started reading myself, I read all the predictable things like The Famous Five and The Secret Seven, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I loved that. And then Tolkien and The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. Lots of Stephen King; I scared myself stupid with Carrie. I’ve always been into a mix of genres. Doris Lessing was a huge teenage thing for me, specifically The Four-Gated City, which was the last in her Children of Violence series. And that got really weird. That made a big impression on me. When I first started writing myself – apart from the angsty teenage poetry that will never see the light of day – I was reading a lot of contemporary Scottish writers in the nineties like Janice Galloway, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray. There was a real kind of – “renaissance” is a stupid word – but there was a big movement in Scottish writing at the time. That sparked my interest in maybe putting something down myself, as I saw something in those books that I recognised.
And I realised that you could talk about the experience of Scottish life and it could be good. There were a couple of short story collections, such as James Kelman’s The Burn, and work by A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway. I’d started writing at that point, but the first story I ever actually finished and sent away somewhere was the chippy one [‘Mona Lisa and Chips’]. I sent it to the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition. That was some point in the nineties, maybe 1996. I thought nothing of it. I mean, what an eejit; I had one story finished and I sent it into the biggest competition in Europe. I was totally clueless. I ended up getting shortlisted for it and going along. I felt completely out of place. I didn’t even know any other writers. I’ve never done a writing course. I felt like a fish out of water there. And I think that’s probably stayed with me.
Structo Press republished your short story collection The Way Out with a new story, but you’ve also written novels. Can you tell when you start working on something whether it’s going to balloon into a novel or be something quite concise?
I’d say everything starts in the same place, which is usually just a small thing, often from personal experience. It’ll be like an image, a line of dialogue, something I’ve overheard, some connection that’s suddenly come to my attention. Something that grabs my attention, basically, and makes me want to write it down. But it’s not like a fully formed plot line or anything like that. It’s a wee “bit”. And I try – and don’t always succeed – to keep in the habit of writing those little things down. Most of them won’t go anywhere, they’re just random thoughts, but if they have that extra something that keeps me going back to it, I start writing around it and see what comes of it. Sometimes with a short story, if it clicks in a place and you know exactly where it’s going or what it wants to be then, yeah, I know that’s a short story. If it doesn’t behave itself, but still maintains that interest and keeps going off and opening more doors and unpacking more shit, you know [laughs], then I realise this might be going somewhere else. Actually, both of my novels came from short stories. I really enjoy reading short stories, but I also think writing them has fitted better into my life, in terms of work and kids and all that. It’s really hard to find that several-year stretch of stability to keep your head in the same vice. Oh, that sounds really bad! [laughs] And I’m a terrible planner. I don’t plan much, which makes writing novels really hard. I’m sure there’s an easier way to do it, but I haven’t found that yet.
Win the lottery or something.
Setting off to write a long-form piece of work like a novel is quite an act of faith, I think. Like, the next two, three years are going to be dedicated to one project.
I do think it would be easier if I was better at this planning thing – I’m insanely jealous of novelists who plan out the whole thing and so have a structure to write to. I’ve tried that method and the process starts to lose its magic for me. And if it’s not got that spark for me, then I think the reader won’t have it either. I once read an article on writing that said, yes, you can start writing a novel without a plan, but you also can stick your arm in a wood chipper [laughs]. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea! I think that’s really true because you’re definitely trying to live with that kind of uncertainty of not knowing where this idea is going, as well as the feeling that it could just all fall apart at any given moment. So, being able to do that while managing the rest of life can extract quite a large toll. I’ll find a better way one of these days!
One thing that really struck me when I was reading the stories in The Way Out was how frankly you write about the working-class experience. I’ve done quite a few of the jobs you describe, and was working for Royal Mail when the pandemic started.
I temped for them as a casual a couple of Christmases ago. Jesus, that was hard.
You write in quite a frank, unsentimental way about working-class experience in a way that isn’t cheesy, sentimental or caricatured. But there’s also a thread of weird uncanniness at the same time. The stories are set in quite familiar urban environments, yet there’s a strangeness to everything. What inspires that connection for you?
I think it’s a combination of my reading influences – bringing in elements from both sides. At first it wasn’t a conscious thing. It wasn’t like, “all right, I’m gonna write about this particular crap job I’ve done and I’m gonna stick something weird in it”. It just seemed that having something quite surreal and strange in the stories was natural, and the best way to describe how something feels. But those weird elements can throw into relief the strangeness of the everyday, of those jobs and some of the surreal situations and mindsets they can push you into. I find a lot of the “real world” pretty damn surreal anyway. There’s so much of life that is completely nuts, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to mix those two things together. They are mixed together in my head, anyway.
Yeah, I agree. I think some literary realism does a disservice to the world. Life is rarely that safe and self-contained.
I want to be surprised by stuff, and I don’t like how people categorise that this is this sort of a book and I’m going to put it in this box or on this shelf but we’re going to put that over there, and you can’t mix them. No, I like to take down all the walls and smoosh it all together.
The stories contain some quite some dark material, especially when it comes to unhealthy relationship dynamics and the course that women have to chart through the world, but they always have a thread of humour. What makes you laugh as a reader and why do you think it’s important to balance those kinds of things out?
I don’t know if I laugh as a reader. Perhaps quietly? No, I laugh pretty easily, and think humour’s a really, really important human function. I think of it as an armour that allows you to approach some of the darker stuff up close, but without getting your face melted off. And without taking all that darkness on yourself. It’s a protection, but it serves a function as well. It’s not just a frivolous choice. It lets you do more if you can step back and see the stupid or the funny in the situation. I’ve got a fairly surreal silly sense of humour. My dad was a big Goons fan, and used to play the tapes in the car when we were on holiday as kids. And some of that is nuts, and stupid, but I’ll laugh at scatological humour and fart gags, but I also really like puns and wordplay and clever shit. I suppose the old “laughter in the dark” always appeals to me. But I think it’s an important thing, and not just people being silly. Funny is serious and serious is funny.
I agree, that sense of humour is something I remember from working for Royal Mail or in factory jobs. My parents always say “if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry,” and you need that sense of humour to cope.
And in a lot of those jobs what gets you through it is the humour. You need that; it’s protection, you know, it’s medicine.
Did you start out with the goal of creating a collection or did it form over time? What was the process of pulling all those stories together?
I never started with the intention of writing a collection at all. I would’ve never thought myself capable of writing a collection. It was just one story after another, over quite a few years. I mean, some of the ones in the collection are pretty old… just because I’m pretty old! [laughs] I’d actually written all these stories and one of them had taken and become my first novel, Nothing Is Heavy. That came from the chippy stories and where I was living at the time. I don’t know if you remember Tollcross from when you lived in Edinburgh, but I had a flat there at the time. It was above a chippy and across the road from a lap-dancing bar. That’s the dynamic that became Nothing is Heavy.
A few of my stories had been published in Gutter and when I bumped into the editor at the Mitchell Library, he said it might be interesting to put together a collection. But I don’t think I would’ve got to that point if I hadn’t pushed out that novel and gotten shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year in 2013. It gave me a bit of a profile [at Gutter publishers Freight Books]. I was lucky that the editor they appointed me was Rodge Glass, who wrote Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs. He teaches creative writing at Strathclyde now, after being down at Edge Hill for a while. But he was really good. He did make me take a lot of jokes out, but was really good in terms of helping me look at all the stories. Quite a few didn’t get in there, but he helped me think about what tied together what I’d produced and how I could make them into a cohesive collection. And one of the ones that didn’t make the cut was the original short story of ‘Always North’, which turned into my second novel. It’s interesting that that didn’t actually fit with it. It was a really useful process, having an editor, having somebody to kinda see it differently and get you to look at it differently. I’m not sure that’s something many authors get these days, you know? And, of course, Freight is now a casualty along the way, you know. It didn’t survive. Gutter is still going under new management though.
One of the chippy stories, ‘White Pudding Supper’, got made into a short film by an Irish film company called Rockall Films [more info here]. It’s doing the rounds at festivals at the moment. The story is set in Scotland, but they filmed it in Newcastle. I’ve seen it, but I haven’t seen it on a big screen. I was really hoping it would like come to a film festival somewhere near me that I could get to. It did Galway or something, but there’s no way I can get there. But I would love to see it on a big screen. That would be great, to see something that started in your head on the big screen. There was some talk of someone optioning the film rights for the second novel, which again would be great, but it hasn’t actually occurred yet.
Have your feelings changed about any of those stories? And thinking about the newest story ‘Up Dog Down Dog’, how do you think about yourself as a writer now compared to the writer who wrote those earlier stories?
Probably still somebody that hasn’t really come to terms with calling myself a writer at all, to be honest. I have a really hard time with it. I know intellectually that imposter syndrome is not true and it doesn’t make sense. But I can’t help having this pre-programmed reaction, whether that’s down to capitalism or Scottish Presbyterianism, that asks “But is it your job? Do you make a living at it?” I hate it, but there’s a strong part of the way my brain’s put together that struggles to say “Hello, my name’s Vicki and I’m a writer”. It makes me feel hugely uncomfortable. I’m somebody who’s written some books. You hear exchanges about what makes a writer, and it’s things like “a writer writes every day” or a writer is someone who writes, whether published or unpublished. And I kind of agree with that. But this assigning of labels and putting people in boxes… The popular idea of what a writer is today is someone who pops up and has an opinion about something or rocks up to literary festivals and all that. That’s all very nice, but I don’t identify with that kind of writer. It’s not my experience.
It doesn’t seem to be holding you back.
No, not so much now, as I’ve been writing for a bit and have met other writers who’ve experienced varying degrees of success and so on. And, to be honest, even the ones that have done the best and better earned the label of a full-time writer, it doesn’t always help that self-doubt. It doesn’t make you suddenly go, oh, cool, I’m a writer now, you know?
I’ve read some of your earlier interviews where you mentioned that you got noted for this prize while you were still working in a chippy and you felt a bit kind of out place amongst all these people who seemed to be better at talking the talk. You’ve touched on this a little bit, but do you feel more at ease with that? And do you think, perhaps more importantly, that publishing has changed in that period?
Well, I would say things haven’t changed, no. I wouldn’t say I feel more comfortable in those situations. There’s been a couple of things I’ve been shortlisted for and I’ve turned up and very much got the impression… well, the word “gritty” has been used more than once. I think there’s a huge problem in mainstream publishing, where it seems predicated on this home counties, middle-class view of the world. And that anything that steps outside of that suddenly becomes some kind of sub-genre or, god forbid, “gritty”. It’s a little patronizing.
I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening with small presses. That tends to be where I’d gravitate to look for something interesting. It’s not like I won’t read anything published by a big publisher. I will, and some of it I very much enjoy. But the interesting stuff is happening on the fringes, and it shouldn’t still be. And especially considering how things are with the economy, small presses can go down like that, so you’ve got no security as a writer. When I first started writing, authors weren’t expected to go out and promote their work and be a public person. By definition, if you like writing, you like sitting in a room on your own and not talking to anyone, right? So having to go out and talk to people feels a lot like whiplash. At various points in the intervening years, I’ve continued to do a lot of different jobs. I’ve still got a cleaning job, and before the pandemic I was teaching English as a foreign language in Edinburgh. I also did a few creative writing classes for the council, so being in that position of helping other people get started with their writing, and being in a looser, less pressurised environment gave me a better understanding of what I could possibly say to people that might be useful in terms of writing.
I think I’m a little bit better at talking about writing now. I’ve periodically thought, okay, I’m not a huge fan of engaging with the business end of the writing – I like the writing end, you know? – but maybe having an agent would be a good idea. I made a few forays into writing query letters and CVs, but you couldn’t find anything more bloody dispiriting. It’s all “Find your USP” and basically just grovelling. And I don’t really want to do that, you know? But yeah, writing is not an easy path unless you’re bringing a predictable product.
I remember watching a video of a publishing conference in the north where they spoke to various literary agents about advice for emerging writers, and it struck me how posh a lot of the agents seemed. I worry it creates a situation where you have to pitch your experience in a way that makes sense to a middle-class reader who may have never been to a job centre or know any of those touchstones.
No, absolutely, I get where you’re coming from. The gatekeepers seem to be people whose experience is very homogeneous and anything outside of that needs to be packaged up. And that’s huge – I could rant for ages about how that happens with Scottish writing specifically. The “gritty” label getting thrown around again and again. And it’s like, we are real people, you know? But you can just stick a label on it, like, ooh, this is the harsh reality of being Scottish.
You write a lot about women in work, especially care work of various kinds. And the pandemic has shit all over people who are working in care and propping up the rest of society. How have you found that, writing during the pandemic? Has that kind of made you more determined to write? Has it made you reassess?
My writing pretty much flatlined during the pandemic. It was too much. When the ordinary world turns into a sort of seething pit of anxiety, it’s quite difficult to put your mind entirely in an imaginative space. You kinda need reality to behave itself, or at least to be predictable. I’ve got twins and both of them had left to go to uni in 2019 and, of course, ended up back on our doorstep the following March. So suddenly it was a full house again. And I had taken the cleaning job just before the pandemic hit. I was quite lucky, in that I got furloughed for a while, but we were one of the first people chucked back out there, ’cause apparently a cleaner is a “tradesperson” and so we were allowed to go back in and start cleaning. There was some point where it came out, in the latter time of the pandemic, that basically all these parties had been happening in Downing Street, and there was barf on the walls, but they were really rude to the cleaners and everyone was pearl-clutching. And there was a sudden outbreak amongst the people in the houses that I was going to of virtue-signalling niceness. It’s like, yeah, do you talk to the cleaner now? Oh, please stop it. It wasn’t sincere. It was just a kind of, “yes, I am nice to the little people” thing.
I’m still doing cleaning work. I do it mornings and then I do, I suppose, more “white-collar” freelance stuff in the afternoon, like AI voice recognition for an American company. But it’s basically the same as the cleaning in a way, as it’s all zero hours. It’s insecure. I don’t know how much work I’ve got from one week to the next, you know, and it just keeps kind of rolling along. But through all of that and through the pandemic, I was writing pretty much nothing for one reason and another, mostly just life and stress. And it was actually when Euan wanted to bring out the short story collection again, I’m like, “oh yeah, all right”. And so I wrote ‘Up Dog Down Dog’ very roughly based around some of my experience of doing YouTube yoga during furlough and going back out to clean and how people are. It is endlessly fascinating to me the way people’s attitudes towards you change depending on what box they think you should be in. Like if you’re a cleaner, then clearly you’re not thinking deep thoughts or having an inner life. You’re just kind of a machine. They talk to you in a certain way. But if I was talking to them and said I taught English or worked for a long time as a technical author, then they’d talk to you in another way. I suppose it comes back to putting things and people in boxes and not allowing things to mix. It’s like, no, you have to be this kind of a person or that kind of person, and then that equals that and then a whole bunch of assumptions follow, which are completely nonsense.
So, at the moment I’m trying to get back to finding my kind of own personal fun and enjoyment in writing because I kind of lost that a bit, especially with the struggle to make a living at it, which I’ve eventually come to accept is not going to happen. You think, why am I doing this to myself? This is hard and sometimes it hurts and I’m not making anything out of it – why do I keep doing this to myself? There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote about writing: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow”. And I’ve come to realise that I feel more like myself when I’m writing, and when I’m not writing, there’s definitely something missing. Like I’m missing a sense because writing for me is, I wouldn’t say therapeutic, but helps figuring out what you think about something and working through. […] It’s an odd thing, isn’t it? Working through and trying to make some completely fictional work kind of helps you deal with reality. What’s that about? I don’t know.
I used to work as a translator and it was the same thing where I loved translating, but I ended up hating being a translator. It totally burned me out because I was struggling to make ends meet. Whereas now I do bits of translation now and again on my own terms, and it’s amazing because my brain lights up again.
Yeah, you kind of forget about the good parts when you’ve been away from it for a while. You can get burned by it in the way that you can get burned by any kind of job that takes too much from you. Certainly, it is those moments where you’re working on something and you have to be there. You can’t be sitting around and waiting for inspiration to pull on your head – you have to get into a regular practice and to be in the water, so to speak. But that moment when something just kind of clicks together and you’re like, oh yes, I know exactly where this is going, when I can’t type fast enough, that makes a lot of the slog worth it. It’s kind of magic and I miss it. I do miss it. I miss the regular engagement with it. I’m working back towards that.
Find out more about Vicki and her work here: vickijarrett.com