Wednesday, 21 March 2018

All The Fabulous Beasts: Priya Sharma Interview

I couldn't have been more excited than when I heard Undertow Press were going to be publishing the debut collection from Priya Sharma. The stories I've read of hers over the last few years have always been superb, by turns creepy, beautiful, tender and terrifying. A whole book-load of them? Count me in. Especially one with such stunning cover art and design as this one.

I asked Priya a few questions about All The Fabulous Beasts, particularly focussing on the two stories new to the collection, 'Small Town Stories' and 'A Son Of The Sea' (spoiler: both brilliant).

So, without further ado...

JE: So, to warm us up, how do you think of your stories? Weird fiction, fantasy, horror? I wouldn’t know how to classify them myself (which I absolutely think of as a good thing). Do you find such categories useful as a writer, or limiting?

PS: Hello James! I find that a hard question, even now. I hope that All the Fabulous Beasts is all of the above. When Mike Kelly of Undertow put this collection together he was very careful about what he felt should go in (thankfully) as I've also dabbled in fairy tales, mythology and alterative history. If they'd been included, certain stories might have jarred with others.

The story that I'm writing dictates the form and flavours. I've had lots of rejections along the lines of "I like this but it's not horror". I certainly don't find strict definitions of genre helpful, but I think definitions are getting broader and more blurred.

My favourite books don't adhere to strict definitions and I think I've drawn on them. Things that are between the lines or bend genre are more interesting, such as novels like Beloved by Toni Morrison, Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut, and in the work of David Mitchell, Calvino, Helen Oyeyemi, to name a few.

JE: Regardless of how you think of them, your stories nearly all feature a supernatural element. What is it about the supernatural or surreal that appeals to you as a writer? What does it allow you to do that ‘straight’ realism couldn’t?

PS: I remember listening to Thana Niveau on a panel about horror and she said that she was drawn to it because it was hardwired in there somewhere, which I thought was very thoughtful, rather than it just being about exploring our personal fears. I feel like that about most speculative fiction.

The supernatural allows for a whole new level of allegory. Also, when it's done well it does double duty as there are thrills to be had.

I wish I could write straight fiction, and probably read more straight fiction than genre fiction. When I try and write 'literary' fiction it seems very flat on the page. I feel confined. I think I write speculative fiction because I am, in truth, an escapist. It's the perfect type of fiction for exploring big ideas, feelings, and for extrapolating, but also for having fun and pushing the limits. Human beings are all about the impossible (even at risk to ourselves and the planet).

JE: In both of the new stories in your collection, there’s a very strong sense of place — from the more exotic locations of 'A Son Of The Sea' to the very English, parochial English setting you use in 'Small Town Stories'. So I wondered how important you think a evocation of specific place is, to you as a writer?

It's a crucial part of worldbuildng for me, as important as character. We're all affected by our environments. You can character build in how a person interacts with that world. I always do more research for stories than I need and have to be selective about what I use. It's the same with the world that I'm writing about. There's more happening off page that never makes the cut. Sometimes it's as much as what I imagine for the characters themselves.

I love stories with a strong setting, that's crucial to the story. It's what I enjoyed most about The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, for example. The Titus novels by Mervyn Peake blew my mind.

JE: I was especially taken with the titular setting of 'Small Town Stories' — a lot of British horror fiction seems to be either city based urban horror or rural folk horror, but these kind of backwater small towns seem very British and very scary to me. Was it a conscious decision, to write about the kind of place normally ignored?

PS: No, in that it wasn't a conscious decision - I just wanted to explore feelings I had about the town I grew up in- a smallish Cheshire market town, and when I think about that era it brings back the child in me, for reasons good and bad. That place still has a lot of power over me. When I go back I realise that I'm a stranger there.

The thing is, I don't recognise the place that I knew, not really. New build homes are where the industries that employed most of the town once stood. Supermarkets have replaced the veg shop and the butchers. There are more coffee shops and hairdressers, but nowhere to buy books or music. There used to be a thriving market each week but now it's just a carpark. And I'm not sure who shrunk the schools I went to.

Every small town has its urban legends and outsiders, and I wanted to explore that concept as well. Births, deaths, affairs. Nothing was secret for very long.

I wanted to write my own love story to it all.

JE: As well as a strong sense of place, both of these new tales seem to be about the past being something we can’t escape from, or even move on from - was this a conscious theme?

PS: Sometimes it is, sometimes it just seeps in there. It's a form of haunting, isn't it? The past is important to most people I know, whether they're trying to recreate/relive it or escape from it. I read a lot of Fay Weldon in my teens (thanks to The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil) and one of my favourite lines by her is "Wherever we go, we take ourselves with us". We can't escape our pasts. We can only learn to live with the horrors and joys of it.

It's funny that you've brought that up. I don't think I've ever started a story at the beginning of a character's journey. I'd actually find that too difficult to chart, in some ways. I like flawed people, in the thick of their struggles. What does that say about me?

JE: And finally, can you tell me a secret - name an author who’s an influence on your work that no reviewer or commenter has ever picked up on...

PS: Jim Crace. I think he's woefully neglected in the UK. His novels vary widely in subject matter but there's something about his prose that is poetic. It has a rhythm that I find addictive, almost iambic pentameter, which some people will mock. Reading his work, I get the feeling that every single word is considered and deliberate. I think his style is unique, and can only hope that one day, if I work hard enough, I might develop a unique style too.

My favourite works of his are Arcadia, The Pesthouse, Being Dead and The Devil's Larder.

You can buy All The Fabulous Beasts from the Undertow Press site, in both paperback or hardback editions.

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