Salley Vickers is a short story writer and novelist – Aphrodite’s Hat, her collected stories, was published in 2010 and her latest novel, Cousins, is out now. The former psychoanalyst talks to Sophie Haydock about starting her career at 50, the privilege of writing, and staying close to her unconscious
You’re a novelist and a short story writer. What makes the short story form so appealing to you, as a writer?
I liken writing a novel to a marriage, and a short story to an affair. A novel requires dedication, hard work, often going through tough unrewarding patches, whereas a short story allows for impulse, for risk and experiment, for a change of tone or mood. You can lose your head in a short story in a way that is harder in a novel. Many of my short stories I wrote in the interstices of writing novels, so they are sometimes a break-out statement.
Tell us about your last collection of short stories, The Boy Who Could See Death.
My first book of short stories, Aphrodite’s Hat, was a collection, which, in one way or another – not necessarily romantic – dealt with love. In this collection, The Boy Who Could See Death, the tile rather gives the game away as all the stories have something to say about death, but not necessarily in a grim way.
“Death is outside life, but it alters it,” as I say in my first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel – and most of my books have something to say about death and how we see and manage it in life. It is dedicated, in part, to a very dear friend, the literary agent Deborah Rogers, who died suddenly while I was writing some of the stories. Many of them, I hope, would appeal to her wicked sense of humour.
Which short story do you feel is your most accomplished and why? What were the challenges of writing it? What are its successes?
My two favourites are both based on plays by Shakespeare: The Indian Child, which is about the little changeling child who is the object of the quarrel between Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and A Sad Tale, based on Mamillius, the boy in A Winter’s Tale, who dies of grief over his father’s jealous accusations of adultery that apparently kill his wife Hermione, the boy’s mother. The challenge was, of course, that I was picking up a thread in Shakespeare, and I wanted to weave it into a story that did no disservice to his work. I like both of them because they have a poetical fantastical element to them, which I like to feel Shakespeare would have approved of
How would you describe your writing style to people who haven’t read your work yet?
My writing style is quite spare, often ironic and it is often called “elegant” (though I am not sure quite why as I have quite a tough strain in my writing, too). I am psychological in my outlook (as befits my past as a psychoanalyst) and there is often a slightly mystical strain, not too much, but a faint sense of other worlds.
Which short story by another author has had the most profound effect on you and why?
Probably The Dead, by James Joyce. Joyce was fascinated by how the past informs and haunts the present, as I am. It is a wonderfully evoked story of an elderly couple’s party in Dublin and the experiences of a younger couple who are guests at the party. It ends on a note of delicate and wistful melancholy, which I admire and would love to achieve myself.
What’s your advice to short story writers who may not be published yet? What are the keys to success, in your opinion?
I’m against advice on the whole. “Read other stories,” is the best I can do – and then set them aside and find your own voice.
Who or what first prompted you to start writing? Was there anything that nearly prevented you from becoming a writer?
From a young age I assumed I would write one day, because reading was and is always what I was best at. My father used to say if I had nothing else to read I would make do with the cereal packet. But I never plan, and I’m not hugely ambitious, so I waited till it happened. I wouldn’t say my children prevented me from becoming a writer, but I might say they held me up while I had to earn enough to keep all three of us – I was a single mother for most of their childhood and writers earn very little, alas.
Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?
Because I did so many other things before becoming a writer, aged 50, I had a wealth of experience stored up – and thoughts about that experience stored with them – from which I draw now. I call it my lumber room (the room where, in the past, people used to put things they couldn’t see where else to put, in case they might one day be useful or valuable) and I plunder and rearrange it endlessly.
How do you combat writers’ block?
Don’t ever mention writer’s block. Do doctors get “doctor’s block”? In my case, anyway, there isn’t any such thing – when I don’t write, it’s mostly laziness, or that I find I have nothing to say. Gaps are good, anyway. Writers aren’t, or shouldn’t be, machines turning stuff endlessly out
How do you work? Do you have routines and rituals? Any tricks to get the writing flowing?
No special routine, but I always write, when I am writing, first thing, and my only trick is never to get dressed or look in the mirror so that I stay close to my unconscious and well inside myself.
What does it mean, to you, to be a writer?
It’s a great privilege to be a writer whose work people want to read. I am often very, very touched by the care with which my readers read me (often far more deeply and well than reviewers who are paid so little they are bound to gallop through). What moves me most is when I hear from people who say “that was just how I felt”, or that my books have made them feel understood. If what I write makes meaningful connections with people then that is what matters to me. As long as that continues, I shall continue to write, though it can be lonely at times.
Photograph: Luke Nugent
Cousins by Salley Vickers is out now (Penguin Paperback £16.99)