Mark Lawson joined Rose Tremain, Anne Enright, Neel Mukherjee and Andrew Holgate as a judge on this year’s Sunday Times EFG short story award. He speaks to Sophie Haydockabout how politics and technology can ruin fiction, and the worst advice a writer can be given…
Are you a fan of the short story? Which short story writers do you admire the most?
Well of course, there’s Chekov. His short stories are, at the very least, as good as his plays, which are outstanding. I’m a big fan of William Trevor’s work – we saw his influence in many of the Irish entries we had to this year’s award. John Updike’s stories in the New Yorker are fantastic. Then there’s Alice Munro and William Trevor, who devoted themselves to the form.
Do politics have a place in fiction, do you think?
I’ve written a lot of political fiction and political journalism, and my regret was that there wasn’t more of that. Most fiction is historical. Even most of what we’d called present-day fiction is set in the 1980s or 1990s. It’s perhaps because the risk of being overtaken by contemporary events – as evidenced in 2016 – is very high. For example, I read a couple of novels, just last year, in which David Cameron was still prime minister, because the expectation very much was that he was going to be there until 2018 or 2019. I think that’s why people avoid contemporary political fiction.
Are people scared to write about technology in the same way?
That is one of my obsessive themes. I read a lot of crime fiction. Ruth Rendell said, late in her life, that the plots of almost all her novels would be rendered redundant by CCTV, mobile phones and social media. And then there’s those classic thwarted love stories, where a character meets a stranger on a train, has a fleeting encounter and never sees them again. That sort of plot is now impossible. In seconds, you’d be able to find someone on your smartphone, before you’d even walked through the barriers at Paddington.
So it’s fair to say that you believe technology ruins a story?
One of my obsessions is how much of world literature could be lost if you put the mobile phone or the internet into the plot. It’s interesting. One day I’ll write a book on the impact of technology on fiction. Many stories are, for that reason, very deliberately set in a historical limbo of the past. There’s very little romance in our modern times.
How is the Trump political era going to permeate fiction in the years to come?
I think, unfortunately, there is going to be less and less contemporary fiction, because the times are so unpredictable. If, in January 2009, someone had asked you to write a novel about Obama seeking re-election, it’s plausible that something big could have happened to prevent that, or throw it off course, but ultimately, it was odds-on he’d run for another term.
So what does that mean for writers?
How do you begin to write any fiction set in the next American election? We have absolutely no idea who the candidates will be. Here in the UK, we live with the fact that there could be a general election next year. Or it could be in 2020, or next week [Mark was talking before the snap election was announced]. All these things are terrible for contemporary political fiction – technology and uncertainty. Markets hate uncertainty, but so, clearly, do fiction writers.
Should writers avoid contemporary settings for their stories?
It’s absolutely no wonder that authors choose to write about Henry VIII. History pretty much stays still, but news won’t stay still. It’s like trying to take a picture of an object that’s moving very fast. It’s no wonder that people don’t want to do it. It does mean that there’s a retreat from the present. And there will only be more and more retreat, as people choose just not to face it. Or because of the sheer risk that you start writing about Trump and, by the time you get to chapter 8, Mike Pence has become president.
So you believe that the past is more certain?
People write about the past because, in general, you’re not told that you don’t have the right to imagine what it was like to be Anne Boleyn. You’re given more leeway. It’s a depressing conversation, because I can see all these pressures pushing authors into the past.
To what extent should authors mine their own experience?
The worst advice that any writer can be given is “Write about what you know”. If you were brought up by lions after you fell out of the back of a Jeep on a safari, then great, write about that, it’s interesting. But I’ve read a lot of short stories starting, “I met Rosie on the day that dad lost the farm,” and end up thinking, “Oh, for God’s sake”. There will have been a lot of farm bankruptcies in Iowa, so you get a lot of short stories about them.
Do writers have permission to think outside of their own experience?
You should try to write about what you don’t know. It’s difficult. Cultural appropriation is a very judgemental term. You have to be careful about where your imagination can go. I think it would be very hard for me to imagine what it would be like to be the only black person at a university or in the civil service, but where you go from that is an interesting question. It would be unwise for me to write a first-person piece of fiction in the voice of that character, but if you can’t have any non-white characters in a story, it becomes indistinguishable from racism and apartheid. You’d have to write those characters from the outside.
And what about gender in fiction? Can women write about men and vice-versa?
Women writing as men, and men as women – some people have a political objection to that. I think the objection is practical. In my observation, when men write about female characters, very often the women are obsessed with menstruation to a level that I think would be very unlikely to be the case if you were actually a woman. Similarly, when women write as men, there’s one (I’m not going to name the writer), where he goes to urinate and you’d think it was there the first time he’d ever done it, because there’s all this elaborate stuff about unzipping his flies, and he’s 56! He’s got the hang of all this by now. He’d been doing this for quite a while. The thing is, for a writer, how to make the imagination realistic.