If hard writing makes for easy reading, the stories collected in Chris Power’s debut, Mothers, must have been hell for their author—who has made a public study of the form in his Guardian column since 2007. These stories exhibit a precision and clarity that seem effortless, much like his descriptions. Likewise, there is an accessibility to his themes, commensurate with the resonance of his imagery. Who has not observed a tree branch that “reached out…like a withered arm,” or stepped into a body of water to watch it “wrinkle at [their] ankles”? So it is with the difficulties faced by his protagonists. While mothers inform this work in myriad ways, the scope of this collection is in no way limited by this, at times indiscernible, motif. Narrators vary in age, sex, and orientation. But they all, in some way, fail to actualize their ambitions—particularly those concerning interpersonal relationships. Happiness may write white, but Chris Power doesn’t. Still, his masterful prose and incisive explorations of universal themes will delight anyone who purchases this collection.
While we were arranging this interview, you said you were unavailable between six and eight London-time, because you would be bathing, and reading to, your kids—which immediately reminded me of that Einstein quote: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Are you honoring a multigenerational Power tradition by reading your children bedtime stories?
I’m not sure I am. I’m pretty sure my dad’s parents didn’t read him bedtime stories because they were fairly distant parents. My dad grew up in Ireland and was packed off to boarding school at the age of 5. And my mum’s dad died when she was very young. She was 6 or 7 and I think her mum was probably too exhausted to read her stories. But my mum did. I remember her reading me The Hobbit. She tells a story of how she kept falling asleep while she was reading it and at one point I was just like, “I’ll take it from here.” And I just picked up the baton and ran with it. But, yeah, she read to me a lot as a child. And I love reading to my kids because they get so involved. There’s no border between them and the book and the story. And I think that’s what great literature holds for people who are obsessed with it: it’s a complete envelopment that’s hard to beat.
In “The Haväng Dolmen,” the narrator tells us his mother would take him for walks when he was a boy and “recite the names of the trees and flowers [they] saw. The way she spoke made them sound like the words to a spell.” These lines made me wonder if it wasn’t the incantatory properties of words that first drew you to language and literature, rather than narrative and so forth.
Perhaps it was a combination of both. As soon as I finished reading The Hobbit, I leapt into The Lord of the Rings. It was after reading that that I wanted to be a writer and use language not necessarily in the way that Tolkien did, but to have that kind of effect and world-building. That fits in with a lot of childhood obsessions for maps and make-believe. And maybe your interests veer more towards surrealists and you grow. That’s not to position realism as superior in any way, but that’s certainly what I became more interested in. But when I was in school and writing these crazy, blood soaked, angsty epics, I guess there was a sort of incantatory quality to it. It would be hard to say what exactly appealed to me, because, at the same time, I think I had a facility for it and you naturally tend towards what your facility is for—whether it’s for language, math, or football. I remember that line and thinking my mum has this tremendous store of knowledge of plants and trees and I became kind of obsessed with it while I was writing some of those stories. I would be in these places that I wanted to write about—these landscapes—and I really had to work to develop the knowledge to talk not about trees and foliage in general, but about specific types. There’s Ann, a character in another story, and one of the divisions between her and Jim is this attentiveness she has to her surroundings. Whereas for him it’s a box-ticking exercise to get from point A to point B by the most straightforward and non-risky manner; whereas she’s alive to her surroundings in a way. I always felt that with my mum. And that can be on an emotional level—detecting the moods in a room, or in a situation, or on the natural level as well. And I’ve always really admired that in people who have a depth of knowledge about the natural world, which seems to be growing less and less. Albeit, there’s a big sort of wilderness porn here, where there’s a lot of the urban readership who dream of escaping the city who talk about the old ways and folk ways, which has a dark edge to it as well, because you can pursue that down a blood-and-soil line, which is not somewhere I’d want to be. But there is this sort of hankering after that relationship to nature, I suppose, that I find interesting. Albeit, I don’t share that obsessiveness for it. But I do like knowing the names of trees when I look at them, and I often don’t. But then it’s kind of a nice blend of technology, because then you can look up an app and go, “Oh, it’s got leaves like this and bark like that. I think it’s this tree.”
Your descriptions of nature and trees, specifically, are pretty stunning.
They were hard worked at, so that’s very gratefully received.
I was curious if they just offered themselves freely, while you were at the laptop or over a pad of paper, or if you’d been walking around with them and waiting for an opportunity to use them. They just seem so apt. I have to marvel over their not having been used before. For instance, there’s a line referring to ash trees where the narrator says, “They had been so severely pruned that they might have been plucked from the ground and thrust back in upside down, their shriveled roots grasping at the air.” It’s just so perfect. And then there’s a description of an acorn as “tawny and ribbed like a little barrel.” It’s impossible not to feel it in the palm of my hand when I read that.
Funnily enough, the acorn I was writing about there I actually had in the palm of my hand just the other day. In “The Haväng Dolmen,” when he plucks that acorn, it’s taken from something I’d done. My wife and I go to Sweden a couple of times of year, but there was this one trip in particular where we were down in the southern region, on a holiday within a holiday, and we went to a succession of places that had this real atmosphere to them and we visited them in the same sequence that the narrator visits them in the story. Albeit, I didn’t have any potentially supernatural encounters or psychotic episodes. But there was this really strong, pervasive atmosphere that put me in mind of M.R. James, and I’ve always loved ghost stories. I was keen to write a story that operated on that level. I’ve always been quite interested in that aspect. I’ve always loved being scared. But that acorn I actually picked out of a coat that I pulled out of a cupboard. I was going to give it to a charity shop and I found that acorn in the pocket. Kind of like he does at the start of the story. It’s kind of a strange reflection of that.
How did you come by your role at The Guardian, where you’ve been writing a series called “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” since 2007?
That was just sort of extemporized, really. At that time, The Guardian were ahead of a lot of other UK papers and really investing in online and commissioning a lot of content that was specifically for online, whereas a lot of newspapers were just putting the paper up online, but they weren’t doing anything different or specific. The Guardian had all these desks that grew in online capability and they were just really hungry for stories that were specifically for online. They were like, “Pitch us anything you think of.” So I was writing various things for them. And they were short pieces, like 600 words on topics of the day, whatever was in the book world. And I came up with an idea to write about a different short-story writer every week. I thought maybe I’d do 15 or 20 of them and, frankly, it was a handy way to earn some money and to write about something I certainly had some interest in. Some of my favorite writers were short story writers. But I was by no means an expert or anything and it just snowballed. I kept doing them, but I gradually started running out of writers whose work I knew enough about to, more or less, write them then and there, and started actually choosing writers with some regard to their stature, as opposed to just whether I’d read them or not. Maybe I’d read one or two stories, but didn’t have a command of their work at all. And I began spending more time actually doing the reading and the research and so the pieces got longer and the time between them got longer as well. It was really a tremendous education, not necessarily specific to short story writing, because I’m quite a forgetful reader. I’ll read something that, say, Eudora Welty writes, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Donald Barthelme, or whomever it is, and I’ll think that’s an amazing way to do characterization or show time passing or just move between different elemental stages in stories, and I always think I should remember that—and I’m an inveterate scribbler in books and note taker—but I invariably forget all about it. And yet I don’t think you do really forget. I just don’t remember it in a way I think I’d like to. In the sense that, I’ve encountered this problem, I can think of how so-and-so did it, and then I can shape a solution following those principles. But it’s never that ordered for me. It’s more that everything you read kind of goes into a compost heap somewhere inside and that sort of mulch, or humus, is what your writing comes out of. Or maybe a balance between your lived experience and your emotional/psychological life and everything you’ve read that has somehow stayed in your mind. It’s kind of remarkable going back and reading things and discovering how much you’ve forgotten, or how much your concept of something in your mind is actually different from what’s on the page. Nabokov said that rereading is the only reading—I’m paraphrasing—but I think it’s true, certainly for me. The only texts I can say I know with any degree of intimacy are the ones I’ve read maybe four or five times, and then they start to stick. That probably says more about my memory than anything else, but I think there’s something to that. On the other hand, it’s probably helpful to not have these things at the front of your mind, because then you might feel paralyzed. Or, if solutions were offering themselves to you and they were cut whole cloth from other peoples’ work, that would obviously be very limiting, because you would be worried that what you were producing actually belonged to someone else.
Andy, in “Johnny Kingdom,” is an impersonator. Was his character informed by anxiety you might have had about publishing a collection of short stories in the UK, given your role as a contributor to The Guardian’s series on short stories? In the sense that people would be eager to accuse you of assimilating and being this authority capable of producing a sort of pastiche?
From the age of 8, reading Lord of the Rings, I always wanted to write fiction. Although, for many years I really did nothing about it, apart from producing some terrible teenage poetry. So I became a journalist years after wanting to write fiction. Albeit, I obviously produced a lot more journalism before I produced any fiction of any kind of worth, if it has worth. I was writing journalism while I was writing fiction, but those two things just happened almost like a switch flips and you’re just writing in entirely different modes. Yes, hopefully, you can learn things from either one that you can apply to the other half, but it seemed like two different things. I should also say that I was working for a long time as a copywriter. And anyone who’s worked as a copywriter will know that you write something and then 6, 8, 10, 12 people like to shred it. I think it toughens you up to criticism, whether from an editor, an agent, a friend, or, indeed, from a reviewer. I admire people who say they never read their reviews. I admire that singlemindedness, but I’m avid to read them. The moment a review of Mothers came out I was on it. For the most part they were very positive. But it’s always just intriguing to hear, or read, someone else’s take, and I’m fascinated by that. A good review is an argument, so it’s not necessarily about getting the book right. It’s about explaining your response to it. And if that’s done well, it’s beside the point whether it’s a favorable or unfavorable review. It becomes its own thing, and an interesting hinterland to the book. In terms of “Johnny Kingdom,” there’s obviously a lot of the artist in him, but when I started writing these stories I was working full-time and I was writing very early in the morning. This is before I had kids. I would get up, write for a couple of hours, and then I’d go to work. Eighty percent of my time was taken up with something that I really didn’t care about, that I wasn’t passionate about. It was a paycheck. And I wanted to do it well and I wanted to do it professionally, but I didn’t want it to be my career. I wanted to be a writer. Whether or not that’s viable as a career is a different matter. But eighty percent of my headspace was jammed into this couple of hours in the morning. That’s where my emotional life and my psychological life resided. And “Johnny Kingdom,” which really grew out of two lines of dialogue—a husband and wife talking to each other in a kitchen—and had just stuck in my head several years before that, grew into what it is about: this guy who’s a standup comic who has writer’s block and uses another person’s work. All these stories grew quite organically out of either a place I was really struck by or a line of dialogue or a woman who was sitting at the next table from [me and my wife] at a restaurant at Spain, whom I imagined this life for that I’m sure was nothing like her life. She’s probably perfectly happy, but I imagined she carried this tremendous weight of sorrow and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. When I read “Johnny Kingdom” now, I think it’s really about a more universal thing than being an artist or being a writer. I think it’s really about laboring at something that isn’t your passion. For most of my working life that’s been me, and I know lots of other people for whom it’s the same. They don’t want to be office administrators, or they don’t necessarily want to be investment bankers, or even teachers, in some cases. It’s that thing they do on the weekend, or it’s that thing they do after work, or the education course they’re fitting into their working week. It’s really about that idea of being, not exactly trapped, but having been maneuvered into a position in life that you weren’t expecting and weren’t pursuing. And what you were pursuing and expecting and hoping for is becoming distant. And the panic that can cause or the crisis it can cause, which Andy obviously experiences, is reflected in several of the stories. They’re dealing with people who have got to a stage in life where they’re realizing “This isn’t actually where I thought I was headed.” And that was certainly a stage that I had got to. I’m 44 now, and I was late 30s, turning 40, and writing a lot of these stories. And I think they reflect that. For a long time I was trying to write stories and I didn’t really have any content. I might have little tricksy things, or things that kind of worked, but there wasn’t any heft to them somehow. They felt thin to me and I never wanted to show them to people. I certainly didn’t want to try and get them published, because it didn’t seem like there was anything to them. And I think in my case I just needed to live a bit more and accumulate some more damage before I could start writing things that seemed to be of value to me.