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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] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Jane Corry talks about her U.S. domestic thriller debut, MY HUSBAND’S WIFE, what happens when ex-wives need a favor of one another, strong women, lies, inside a high-security prison, and some really spot-on writing advice.

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Smart, literary domestic thriller that is utterly and completely addictive, MY HUSBAND’S WIFE (January 31 2017, Viking/Pamela Dorman Books) explores multifaceted and nuanced relationships and you won’t want to put this one down; I know I didn’t. 15871466_360265247672452_6114258333084822345_n

Set in London and Devon, England this is a tale told in two halves: “Fifteen Years Ago” and “Today,” but the narrative is neat, not messy; there is no back and forth between time periods, rather they are very distinct–the first half of the book is the first time period.

When young lawyer Lily marries Ed, she’s determined to make a fresh start (all good protagonists have a secret, right?), but then she takes on her very first murder case and meets Joe, a convicted murderer whom Lily is strangely attracted to. Lily’s not the only one with secrets: her next door neighbor, 9-year old Carla from Italy who lives with her single mother; a friendship is forged. Carla has secrets. She knows things.

And then there’s Ed. A fledgling artist who would rather draw and paint than go to work at his marketing job. He’s got secrets, too. An old ex. A wealthy family.

Two lies. Small white ones.But that’s how some lies start. Small. Well meaning. Until they get too big to handle.

~From MY HUSBAND’S WIFE, Viking January 30th 2017

MY HUSBAND’S WIFE is at once a domestic thriller, but so much more. It’s the law, it’s murder, it’s about justice. It’s complex intimacies, motivations, and a relationship study. I found it to be highly addictive, dark, and the writing brilliant. 

I promise, if you enjoy twisty, well-written, upmarket and slightly literary work, you will relish this story. I loved it. 

Join me in welcoming Jane Corry to the blog couch!

Leslie Lindsay: Jane, I am so, so excited to have you here to chat with us about this stunning new book. I devoured MY HUSBAND’S WIFE in two breaths. I feel like I have a ton of questions, but the first is: why this story? Why now?  What ignited your imagination?

Jane Corry: MY HUSBAND’S WIFE was inspired by my three years as a writer in residence of a high-security male prison. It showed me that many criminals look like your intelligent next WP_20170109_12_37_13_Pro_LI (2).jpgdoor neighbor. Some were very calculating and charming just like Joe in my book. I also wanted to include the relationship between first and second wives. I happen to get on very well with my first husband’s wife. The four of us (including my newish husband) have all tried hard to create a good relationship, for the sake of the children and grandchildren. But it did make me wonder what might happen if the second wife needed to ask a big favour from the first. And this found its way into the plot….


L.L.: MY HUSBAND’S WIFE is your first U.S. publication, but you’ve published before. Have you always been a writer, or did this sort of evolve for you?

Jane Corry: I began my career as a journalist after university and wrote for many national magazines and newspapers. I’ve also had several short stories published in women’s magazines. So yes – I’ve always earned my living as a writer. I feel very lucky in that respect. I also run writing courses and helped to found a literary festival in my town. MY HUSBAND’S WIFE reached number Five in the SUNDAY TIMES best-seller list in the UK which was very exciting.

L.L.: There’s a lot going on in MY HUSBAND’S WIFE. Deceit, dependence, lust, justice, infidelity. I truly found it to be a fabulous character study and so true to life. Was there a particular character that ‘came to you’ first? Do you have one you felt a particular affinity for?download-48

Jane Corry: I have a particular affinity with Lily. She starts out in the book as a newly-married twenty-something lawyer whose first job, after her honeymoon, is to defend a murderer on appeal. I identify with her strength in difficult situations and also her frailty. In my kitchen, I have a sign that says ‘A woman is like a teabag. You only know how strong she is when you put her in hot water!” I bought the sign in Lake Placid when I was there with my children after my divorce. I also sympathise with Carla. She learned to be cunning at her mother’s knee. It’s not all her fault! Ed is an artist – and I dabble in watercolours.  My great-great-great-great grandfather was quite a famous painter (his patron was Lord Frederick Leighton).

L.L.: Aside from characters, there’s a good deal of secrets and infidelities in MY HUSBAND’S WIFE. It’s not just love affairs, but deeper things resting in the darkness of our psyches. Can you speak to that, please?

Jane Corry: Some of my friends who’ve read MY HUSBAND’S WIFE have said they’re surprised at how dark it is. They didn’t think I was like that! It surprised me too. I do think we have black elements in ourselves which we’re not aware of. But I also try to be the kind of person who helps other people. I am very involved in all kinds of voluntary causes. To be honest, I think the prison showed me that people could do terrible things without meaning to. Many of my criminal students didn’t mean to break the law. But they crossed the line and ruined other people’s lives. I wanted to show that in  my story.

Carol Memmott, for the Washington Post, called MY HUSBAND’S WIFE “provocative” and “addictive,” and says it “nicely fits into the psychological suspense genre that’s riding a slipstream of popularity, thanks to the success of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.”

L.L.: A decent chunk of the book takes place in prison as Lily prepares her case against Joe Thomas, convicted of killing his girlfriend in a scalding bath incident. You have a unique perspective into the prison system in that you spent your writer-in-residence 400px-prison_crowdedat a high-security jail for men. That creeps me out just thinking about it! Can you tell us a little more about what you learned through that experience and how it made your writing richer?

Jane Corry: I applied for the job after my first marriage broke down. Even though I had maintenance, I still needed the money. To be honest, I really hoped that I wouldn’t get the job because I was terrified when they showed me round during the interview. But when I started, I got hooked.  Men came to my workshops because they were genuinely interested in writing. I learned to forget that they were hardened criminals – it was the only way to cope. Sometimes they would tell me what they had done and I really wished they hadn’t because it made me see them in a different light.  One day, I came in to find a very hushed atmosphere. One man had murdered another. It made me sad and but also confused because both were criminals.

At times, I felt very vulnerable. I didn’t have an officer with me. Instead, I merely had a whistle and a key round my belt. I was never physically attacked although some men made sexual comments and one swore at me. Another kept following me and asking questions about his work. I looked him up and found he had done something really horrible so I made sure I was never alone with him. Many were very kind and friendly so you had to make sure they weren’t ‘grooming’ you. In other words, being very nice so you would lower your guard. I used to get very frightened in case one of them would send a mate round to my house. (It was just me and my then-15 year old son at home).  So I put a pair of my ex-husband’s boots outside the front door.  My children’s Godfather (whom I later married) gave me a personal alarm. Unfortunately this went off by accident in the prison and caused a major security alert. Very embarrassing!

All these experiences, I believe, made my writing richer because I was in a different world with new experiences every day.

L.L.: I understand, too that you run regular writing workshops and speak at literary festivals worldwide, including The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. How I love Italy! If you could pare down your advice to aspiring writers in one sentence (or home_blog1-360x198two), what would you say?

Jane Corry: Write about what you feel passionate about. Write every day even if it’s only a few sentences to keep the momentum going. Have a strong main character who is likeable but has flaws. Give him or her a problem – when that’s solved, set another problem. Revise your final manuscript properly and read out loud from the printed page.

L.L.: What’s next for you? Please say you’re writing another domestic thriller!

Jane Corry: My new book is called BLOOD SISTERS. It’s about sisters, best friends, loves, lies and prison.

L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Jane Corry: What a great question! You could ask what makes me laugh. Answer: my second husband!

L.L.: Jane, it was a complete pleasure. Thank you so much for stopping by!

Jane Corry: Thank you so much for having me.

For more information, to connect with the author, or purchase the book, please see: 

12376137_519461551560790_1785935929031905019_nABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Corry is a writer and journalist and has spent time as the writer in residence of a high-security prison for men—an experience that helped inspire My Husband’s Wife, her debut thriller. Corry runs regular writing workshops and speaks at literary festivals worldwide, including The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. Until recently, she was a tutor in creative writing at Oxford University.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image retrieved from J. Corry’s FB Author page on  Image of Matera, Italy retrieved from WFF blog page, image of high-security prison retrieved from Wikipedia, and depicts a California, U.S. prison, not U.K., ‘woman in hot water’ retrieved from, and copy of book with winter foliage from L. Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 1.19.17]