Sunday Times Short Story Award Interview: Haleh Agar
Haleh Agar on curiosity, cuddle parties and how reading is 'training at the gym'
Your short story, Not Contagious was Highly Commended in this year’s Costa Short Story Award. Can you tell us about the inspiration for that story and explain a little about your writing process and what made you turn to writing in the first place?
The story explores touch and our longing for intimacy. I read an article about professional cuddling and cuddle parties a while ago and was fascinated by the different ways in which people look for intimacy. My novel Out of Touch also examines how we use touch to create and dissolve boundaries between ourselves and others. In terms of my writing process, I kept my story sharply focused on the relationship between touch and imagined boundaries. Before her ‘cuddle sessions’ the protagonist Homa had to agree to the terms and conditions of [receiving] the service. For example, she agreed that she would only take part in the cuddle sessions, if she was well, and not ‘contagious’ with any disease or illness. Ultimately boundaries are permeable and this can be frightening – hence the professional cuddler’s abject reaction in their cuddle session when she finds out that Homa had been sick the previous night. The story is about accepting our vulnerabilities, and also accepting that we are not so separate from each other.
You’ve said that reading short fiction, when you’re between novels, is: “Like training in the gym: you don’t want to break away from reading for too long at the risk of those muscles going soft.” As a writer and person who loves reading short stories, what are the elements that you think makes one truly shine?
When a writer has approached their subject in a unique way, then I get very excited. What does that look like? I love Lorrie Moore and Irenosen Okojie’s short stories because I’m always surprised by the images they use to convey their message. I’m always hooked when humour is used effectively to explore a topic that might be quite dark, like disease and death. So when an author takes risks with their imagination, I’m instantly drawn in.
Who are the short story authors that you find yourself turning back to, again and again, and what are you looking for in their words? Inspiration, advice, tone, lyricism?
I love short stories by authors Leone Ross, Irenosen Okojie, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Colm Toibin, Hilary Mantel – to name a few. I just love the way these authors play with language, how they create fresh images. Their original approaches often inspire me to think in a deeper way about a familiar subject – and this is what I love, when a short story gives me fresh insight – a new way of thinking about a question.
Your debut novel, Out of Touch, will be published in April. It’s about family relationships and secrets that can no longer be contained. Where did the idea come from? How long did it take to write? Why does it matter to you that this story be told now?
I wrote Out of Touch in a year, before sending it to my agent but it has continued to evolve through its many drafts. The story is inspired by the strained relationship between siblings. I have two sisters and I’ve always been fascinated by what we have in common, but also by what makes us so different. My older sister often says how lucky I was growing up because she was the one who broke our parents in. Though birth order is fascinating, when writing Out of Touch, I was particularly interested in exploring gender socialisation, and the different expectations placed on Ava and Michael by their parents. Both siblings have complicated relationship with each other and their parents, and it was so interesting to explore how their difficult childhoods echo into adult life, as they both struggle with intimacy. I think the book raises a lot of questions that are relevant today as it looks at vulnerability, toxic masculinity, and the search for your ‘authentic’ self.
What are the steps you took – as well as the challenges and the successes – while navigating your book from idea, to draft, to polished manuscript, to published novel? What have you learned about yourself and the novel-writing process during that time?
My process is the same with most pieces I write – whether it’s flash fiction, short story or a novel – it all begins with asking a question. For example, what pulls us apart, and what brings us together? From the core questions, emerge characters and conflict. I feel my way through the story and characters in the first draft. Though I have a basic idea of what the story is about, who the characters are, and what the conflict and the resolution might be, I am led by the story – in other words, it becomes a co-creating process between myself and the path the characters take. I find that imposing too much structure can kill the organic way in which the story would otherwise develop. Of course, everyone has their own process which works for them.
I LOVE the editing and polishing stages of writing because I can focus more on the language, and build depth. The greatest lesson that I have learned in writing is to enjoy the process. I used to really dislike the first draft, but now that I’ve let myself off the hook with timeline and output and outcome, I’m loving the process and I’m actually much more productive. My word count has more than doubled because I’m more relaxed when I approach a project.
You won two literary prizes including the Brighton Prize and the London Magazine prize in 2017 for your essay On Writing Ethnic Stories, which begins: “I was told to use my maiden name – Hassan-Yari, a name that usually meant extra questions at the customs queue but now would mean a fast-pass to the front of the line in the world of publishing.” As a Canadian-Iranian novelist, can you tell us about that essay and why you think its message has resonated so loudly?
Inclusion in publishing has always been important to me. The commodification of ‘diversity’ by the publishing industry is something we’ve seen happen in the past, but I feel hopeful that increasingly through dialogue (a lot of it generated online) and increased pressure, the publishing industry will have to change its approach. Certainly, more than ever before, they’re being held to account, which I see as a very good thing.
With my essay, I also wanted to draw attention to the fact that people of colour are often put into a box, wherein only their stories about racial identity and suffering are valued. We should not be confined to these topics, and the genre of literary fiction. This was an important message for me to get out there.
What’s your typical writing routine? Do you plan everything in advance, for example, or create the story as you go? Do you need silence and solitude, or can you write on the Tube?
I have tried it different ways – over-planning with every chapter outlined, and little planning with just a general outline on the conflict of the story, and how the characters might resolve it. I find that if I plan each chapter ahead of writing, it becomes less of a co-creation process, and the characters take a backseat. But letting the story evolve naturally, with a more general outline, has really worked for me, particularly as I’ve been writing my second novel. I find that I’m excited to return to the page, to find out what will happen next, so the first draft which I used to dread is now exciting instead of painful. I used to set a word limit of a thousand words a day, and found that at around that mark, I would often just stop. Since deciding that I would not pay attention to word count, and just write while the inspiration was flowing, I have doubled my daily word count. I write in a co-working space which has changed my life in such a positive way. I feel part of a community of freelancers. It’s so nice to have other people to talk to, people who are working in very different jobs than myself.
What has been your biggest “failure” – literary or otherwise – that has actually gone on to positively shape your life or writing career?
My biggest failure was believing that I had ‘failed’, when a writing project did not produce the outcome I wanted in terms of publication. I’m often inspired to apply to different writing opportunities, and of course, I have experienced rejections along the way. It would be very odd if every single thing I had ever applied for was a ‘yes’. The greatest gift that’s come out of facing rejection, is that it taught me that I must keep centred, and make my mental health a priority. I saw a tweet once about how with writing, there’s a danger of constantly moving your goalpost. I’ll be happy when I win this award, or place this story with that magazine etc, etc, for infinity. But if you focus instead on feeling satisfaction now, when you’re writing or reading or even just taking a walk, then you’re not looking to some future self when you can be satisfied. I don’t feel that my satisfaction is being held at ransom anymore, because I’m enjoying the process, regardless of the outcome – which is probably why things are shaping up well!
It’s the culmination of many years of hard work, determination and conviction to publish your first novel – what advice would you give to others who are at the start of that journey (to convince them to keep going)?
Never mind where you are in your writing journey. Follow your curiosity – those questions that get you excited. What makes a person change? What can we forgive? Why are we afraid of others? Let the question lead and inspire you. Also – make sure you’re reading. I’m a slow reader, so my numbers are not very high in terms of how many books I read a year. But I’m really taking in the books that I do read, and sometimes, I’ll read over a sentence three times if it’s struck a chord with me. Some of my greatest teachers have been books!
What is your desert-island short story – if you could only read one ever again, which would it be and why?
Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. I love her sparse prose. Her writing is so elegant and smooth. She is so sharp with her observations and she makes it look effortless. The Beggar Maid looks at power in intimate relationships but also within a wider community (for example, between classes). Munro’s subtlety, even when writing about this big topic of power, is what sets her apart for me as a master.
Haleh Agar has been published in literary magazines and journals, including Mslexia, Viva Magazine, Fincham Press and Lamplight Magazine. Her short story, Not Contagious was Highly Commended by the Costa Short Story Award. She won the Brighton Prize for a piece of flash fiction, and her narrative essay On Writing Ethnic Stories won the London Magazine’s inaugural essay competition.
Her novel, Out of Touch, will be published by W&N (Orion, Hachette) on 2 April, 2020. Twitter: @HalehAgar
Interview by Sophie Haydock