I’ve just read two wonderful collections of stories; Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, first published in 1955 and May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, a young writer’s first book, published this year. The O’Connor stories are set in the American Deep South and are an extraordinary mixture of dark symbolism and grotesque characters who sometimes seem like animations of the people in Diane Arbus’s photographs. A wild, black humour runs through her work and her use of dialect – an extremely difficult thing to handle – is the best since Mark Twain. May-Lan Tan shows a similar command of dialogue in her stories of modern California. They are richly and accurately written; far from that style that Toby Litt memorably called ‘IKEA prose’. What is really heartening in both writers is the intense awareness of character and empathy with the joy and tragedy of the individual life that has always marked the best story writers. After all, the way to learn how to write short stories is to read all of the great writers of them, from Chekhov to Cheever, and to wonder at how they achieved their miracles. We need Creative Reading Courses quite as much as writing ones.
Only one tip – don’t write about yourself, it is for nearly all of us a very limited subject. A story is an act of exploration of the Other, of other men and women and the illimitable variety of their worlds.
William Palmer’s collection of short stories, Four Last Things, has been recently reissued by Random House. His stories have been in many literary magazines and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. He is the author of six novels, the latest of which, The Devil is White, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2013. He has also published three collections of poems. In addition to writing he has done much teaching: he was Writing Fellow at the University of Birmingham, 2000-2003, at the University of Warwick, 2005-2007, and at King’s College, London, 2011-2012. He reviews regularly for several journals, including the Independent.