Wednesdays with Writers: Helen Simpson talks about her collection of stories in COCKFOSTERS, how a short story is really like a geological core sample~’skipping the gossip and going for the jugular,’ how an empty nest is invigorating, her to-read pile, and so much more

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Quiet, honest and wry short stories about women in middle-age is as tender as it is disturbing.
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Helen Simpson has been writing short stories for a long time–in fact, COCKFOSTERS (Alfred A. Knopf, June 2017) is her *sixth* collection–and I’ve just now been introduced to her?! She’s British, and that might be part of it, but still. I see her as a contemporary to Flannery O’Connor, Richard Russo, Tom Perrotta, Alice Munro, and perhaps Lorna Lanvick and Joyce Carol Oates. 

Included stories revolve mostly around women in their 40s and 50s focusing on identity, reinvention, changing bodies/sex lives, empty-nesters. There’s a gaze toward the horizon, as many of these women are entering the ‘autumn’ of their lives. Time is ticking, and it’s felt in this collection, a hum that is the steady pulse of suspense.

These nine stories are deceptively quiet and honest, bringing to light a very authentic recognition of life, of children, of marriages, of friendships between women; there are betrayals and acceptance, complexities as well as simplicities.

You’ll find there’s a bit of travel, too—to Berlin through London, and also the U.S.

I promise, regardless of your age—or your sex—you’ll find a thread of commonality in at least one of these stories for they are all built on the truest feelings: love, belonging, joy, the tug of familiarity and history, and the recognition that change—and growing older—is inevitable.

So join me for a spot of tea—or whatever you like to drink—and welcome Helen Simpson to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay: Helen, welcome! It’s an honor to have you. I know you’ve been writing for a long time—your first published collection of stories came out in 1990. Every five years, you treat us with another collection. Can you talk about the inspiration—or perhaps the selection process—for COCKFOSTERS?

Helen Simpson:  Thank you Leslie, and the honour is all mine!  Here I am, ready for our conversation, a cup of tea at my elbow.

With one volume of stories every five years,  I’ve come to think of this as coral-reef writing, slow but steady—a process of accretion.  I don’t choose a theme in advance, so each volume reflects whatever it is that was obsessing or amusing me during the years it took to write.

L.L.: Let’s talk about form for a bit. The short story is very much *not* a ‘small novel.’ Can you talk about your perceptions of the short story and why do you prefer this medium?

Helen Simpson:  The challenge for a short-story writer is, maximum power for minimum length—it’s lightness of touch you’re after as well as power.  In novels you expand,you elaborate; you explain when, where, how things are happening; you go on and on.  You don’t need to do any of that, really, with a short story. You can just skip all the gossipy stuff and go for the jugular. download (44)

Also you can slide great subjects under the nose of the reader without solemnity, smuggle them in by stealth.  While apparently describing banal domestic issues you can explore the history and psyche of nations.  In “Moscow,” [all stories mentioned here in Helen’s response are contained in COCKFOSTERS] a Russian man comes to repair the kitchen freezer of an English business-woman and her historian husband; as they chat over the condenser coils, the strongman myth of machismo-and-masochism is shown to be alive and kicking across the globe.  In “Cheapside,” an older London attorney takes a possible intern to a fish restaurant, and during the course of their lunch the details and conditions of a life in the law are laid bare in excruciating detail.  And in “Berlin,” where a struggling middle-aged couple go on an opera trip to that city, themes of loyalty and betrayal and how to digest history are explored at both personal and national levels.

L.L.: I’ll admit the idea of writing a short story sounds appealing to me, but I find I often don’t know what to write about. Something I can wrap up in—say twenty pages and not four-hundred! How do you mine the topics for your short stories? And do you plot them, or let the muse guide you?

Helen Simpson:  I think the great appeal of the form from the writer’s point of view is that it means you can do something new every time. With every new story you can do something different, formally—shape them differently from each other.  That’s a good part of the pleasure of writing them, finding the right form each time.  I find once I’ve got the subject and the shape of it, the fun lies in the reading and the notes and the thinking and circling round it before writing it—I have a thick file of notes for every story I’ve ever written.  But it’s a very time-profligate way of writing, the way I do it; it’s like spending hours cooking a meal only to see it wolfed down in a few minutes.

As to mining a topic, I think a good short story can be like a core sample.  Think how much a geologist can learn from a core sample—it’s the same!  If it’s a good one, you’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about the history and geography and inhabitants and social conditions of the area, in wonderfully concise form.

images (18)And as for plot and the short story: something has to happen but not too much…

L.L.: Many of these stories are about women (though men factor in, too) who are approaching their golden years. They may have already raised children, sent them off, and are trying to make sense of their place in the world. It’s sort of
depressing! Yet I kept flipping the pages; it was like I was ‘preparing’ for what this stage of life might feel like (I’m in my late 30’s). Can you talk about that, please?

Helen Simpson: I like “golden years!”  They still call it “old age” over here—although, no, come to think of it that’s changing too; in news reports now, someone who would have been referred to as an “old person” has become “an older person” even if they’re 93…  The characters in most of these stories aren’t old (or even older) yet, but yes, they can see change ahead.  I am pleased you felt compelled to read on, that you trusted the truthfulness of the stories.  I know as a reader that sentimentality doesn’t work for me; it’s only ever honesty in fiction that feels worth it.

As for feeling depressed at the thought of work pressure slacking off, children having left home etc, you really mustn’t be!  So many of my contemporaries report feeling unexpectedly exhilarated at having more time and less responsibilities than in their 41xpkc6XPDL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_thirties and forties, at no longer being plagued with the anxieties and doubts of their twenties.  Women in particular might agree with Zoe in “Early One Morning”(inc. in IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT)—

“Perhaps the shape of life would be like an hour-glass, clear and wide to begin with, narrowing down to the the tunnel of the middle years, then flaring wide again before the sands ran out.” 

Now I’ve started quoting—and because it may lift the spirits when you think of getting older— I hope you’ll let me conclude with this from “Berlin” [as found in COCKFOSTERS]:

“And how is it that even though we sit at the end of the Atlantic storm track, one day of sun leaves us convinced that summer’s here?  That why we still make resolutions and think of new ways to approach life after all this time: because we’re human and we need to be reminded and encouraged and refreshed.  Again and again.  Right to the end.”

L.L.: What’s obsessing you nowadays? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Helen Simpson: The news: what’s been happening in the world during the last eighteen months.  I don’t think I’m alone in this…51A9lGpxANL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

The weather: while writing several stories about the weather [ as in IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT], I realised the theme of climate change is one of the hardest of subjects for fiction if it’s to be done without didacticism or statistics or collapsing into dystopia.  But I’ve stayed interested.

L.L.: I’m sure there are a million things we could talk about—your favorite books, if you’re working on anything now, advice for aspiring writers, what your holiday plans are…but is there anything I forgot, but should have asked?

Helen Simpson: Enough here, I think!

This anniversary year has given me a cast-iron excuse to re-read Jane Austen; also to turn to those novels of Henry James which I haven’t yet read.  But my favourite books tend to be the ones I’m reading, or am about to read, which at the moment are: THE COMPLETE STORIES by Anita Desai; THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich;  A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT by Akhil Sharma; SINGLE, MELLOW & CAREFREE by Katherine Heiny;  LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders; JANE AUSTEN, THE SECRET RADICAL by Helena Kelly; MIDWINTER BREAK by Bernard MacLaverty; ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE by Elizabeth Strout; THE ADVERSARY by Emmanuel Carrère.

Yes, I’m working on something new set in London.

Advice for aspiring writers? Be brave, be honest and only write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write.

As for summer holidays: a week in Ibiza (sunny, but savagely expensive particularly with sterling’s Brexit plunge against the Euro); and a week in rainy Lancashire download (43)culminating in a wedding near Wigan where the sun broke through the clouds and against all probability shone brightly on the bride.

L.L.: Thank you, Helen! It’s been a pleasure!

Helen Simpson: Well, thank you, Leslie!  The pleasure has been mutual.

For more information about COCKFOSTERS, to connect with Helen Simpson, or to purchase a copy, please visit:

© Derek Thompson - Color copy (1)ABOUT THE AUTHOR: HELEN SIMPSON was born in Bristol in 1959. She spent five years writing forVogue. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London with her husband and two children.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media sites:

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these social media sites:

[Cover and author image courtesy of Knopf and used with permission. Author photo credit: Derek Thompson. Image of ‘rainy’Lancashire retrieved from Mona’s Musings, couple playfully riding bikes from petebarrett.com, H. Simpson’s other book cover images retrieved from Amazon, all on 8.22.17] 

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