"All Of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas: Short Stories" by Garry Crystal plus An Interview With The Author
Coming off the heels of his brilliant novel Leaving London, author Garry Crystal presents this new work, a collection of short fiction and plays. Some of these works have been available for some time, via short story eBooks or in various literature websites around the internet but here you can get a taste of Garry’s short fiction in one convenient volume. There are stories within that have been published for the first time - the wonderful Paris Quartet, comprised of four interconnected stories set in the City of Lights. The “Quartet” includes Waiting In The 11th Arrondissement, told from the point of view of a waiter in a Parisian restaurant as he watches a couple’s date completely fall apart; Anywhere But Here, which chronicles a young man’s feeling of claustrophobia and his seeming inability to escape his current situation, despite his sexual trysts with Ellie. It’s the imagery of Paris’s many bridges offering a way out illusionary which makes this story the powerful one that it is. Somehow, the narrator - Miles - is unable to “cross that bridge” and make the move away from his sense of isolation. The waiter and the restaurant from Waiting In The 11th Arrondissement also makes an appearance, linking this story to the first. The title story, All Of Us With Our Pointless Worries and Inconsequential Dramas finds the story’s depressed and suicidal narrator visiting his therapist, watching her not paying attention to him as he tells her of his problems. Afterwards, he meets up with his friend Miles - from Anywhere But Here - and discusses his dilemma regarding Lillie, an Algerian expat with whom he is having an affair, again the link to an earlier story being that he had met her in a bar in Paris’s 11th Arrondissement. Lillie is pushing him to tell his wife about the affair. When he eventually owns up to his wife about the affair, the story does not end as the reader would expect it to, instead coming full circle with an ironic twist. Detours chronicles another couple, the narrator and Esme, who are about to visit Esme’s mother Margot. The reader soon learns that Esme’s brother Tomas is the narrator from the previous story and we learn of his ultimate fate regarding the fallout of his affair with Lillie. The entire story takes place in Margot’s apartment during the holidays. The dark candlelit apartment with the shadows creeping across the wall serve as a wonderful metaphor for the emotional states of the characters. As the night moves on and the more they drink and speak to one another, the more the shadows creep across the wall, the candlelights dimming. It is Esme’s dream which carries much of this story’s meaning. The symbolism of light, shadow, and darkness is throughout, emphasizing the family dynamic taking place over the course of the evening.
Out of the 17 short stories and 6 plays within, the collection is laid out thematically, the focus being on relationships, love affairs, adultery, office politics, family and the lies we tell one another - and ourselves - in order to cope with the harsh realities of the 21st Century world. One of my personal favorites is Running With The Bulls, a story about a couple who are trying once again to make their relationship work as they find themselves arguing over an innocent enough comment made by the narrator regarding Pamplona’s Running of The Bulls. The argument gets heated to the point where it beings to effect his girlfriend’s young daughter, who doesn’t like to hear them arguing all the time. But for me, it’s the Running of The Bulls itself which serves as a perfect metaphor for the story: looking for the excitement that once existed in their relationship which is no longer there. The argument about the ritual seems to reflect each of their feelings about the relationship itself and the act of arguing and drama is the only thing left lending their relationship any “excitement” at all.
All in all, this is a wonderful collection of short stories (and plays) which mine deeply emotional and personal territory, which is one of Garry’s major strengths as a writer. All of these stories are deeply relatable and hyperrealistic - you either know these characters or perhaps you have found yourself in these very same situations. Each of them leaves the reader with much more than what is on the surface - ala Ernest Hemingway and/or Raymond Carver - and will have you thinking about them long after you finish reading them. I always look forward to what Garry has in store and this book has more than fulfilled my expectations. A great read.
I recently spoke with Garry about his new collection as well as about the differences between writing short stories and novels. I also wanted to probe a little further about the individual stories within:
What do you see as the major difference between writing short stories versus the novel?
There is the immediateness of the short story – you can have an idea, a small idea and then you can build it up in your mind and explore that in a few pages and see what happens. But in terms of ‘getting it right’ and saying what it is your trying to say in a limited amount of space it can be quite hard. There was a passage in Detours (the garden scene), two paragraphs that I spent hours trying to get right, a full afternoon on two short paragraphs and then I went back to again the next day and spent time on again. That might seem tedious to some but it’s enjoyable as well, to try and get it exactly the way you want it. But then, whether it’s the novel or the short story, there is that question, “When is a writer happy with their finished work?” and the answer is “never”.
Can you elaborate on the idea behind the interconnected nature of "The Paris Quartet" stories and considering the interconnected nature of these stories, was there the temptation to expand this into a much larger piece, perhaps a novel or a novella?
The interconnected part didn’t come immediately. It was only when writing the third story that I thought it might be more interesting to have characters or a specific character from one story appearing in the next story and so I went back and changed some parts. After I finished it I thought maybe this could have been expanded into a novella with the final story Detours running all the way through. But the stories don’t have to be linear in that they are all self-contained and can really be read in any order unless you view the ending of Detours as a definitive ‘well that’s the end of them’ moment.
Symbolism seems to play a large part in many of these stories, for instance the play of light and shadow in Detours, the ritual of the running of the bulls in Running With The Bulls, the bridges in Anywhere But Here; how much of this was planned or was it a subconscious thing?
I did use the bridges, the bulls metaphor, shadows as a way of setting the tone. Detours is basically a set of clues running throughout the entire story. None of the characters are actually saying what’s about to happen to them, this event that’s taking place, but everything they say is a clue for the reader that something’s not right here. I was trying to avoid the route of just spelling everything out although it’s all there that this isn’t an ordinary family get together. That story is about how much we avoid talking about certain things and in this case it’s death that’s the elephant in the room. Three out of the four stories in the Paris section all have to do with loss, time running out, escaping from situations and just the unimportance of our dramas in relation to our minuscule time alive and of course that they are not unimportant to us or to the others involved. I was speaking to someone recently about setting tone in a story and with Detours I had this ominous feeling in the back of my head the entire time while writing but that’s because I knew the ending. But every reader is different and just because I had that feeling when writing doesn’t mean that they’re going to have the same feeling when reading. With Detours I only had the beginning and the end before I started writing, and the beginning seems like a sort of fun scenario but knowing the ending meant I knew there wasn’t going to be much light getting into this story. Using imagery such as the shadows creeping in helped, I hope, to set the tone. The bulls in Running with the Bulls are doomed from the start although they’re instinctively trying to escape that fate, which is saying something about the relationship in that story. And the bridges, well if you want to escape from something, whether it’s a city you hate living in or a relationship you’re not happy in, that bridge, the one you can see constantly from your window, looks like a great escape route at first but the longer you avoid crossing it the more you start to hate it.
I'd like to talk about Filter Image. You say the story was the beginnings of you writing about your experiences in London (and that this story in particular didn't make it into the final version of Leaving London). The first thing I noticed is that the story is written in the 3rd person perspective whereas Leaving London was written in the first person. Had you initially intended to write the novel in the 3rd person or did this particular story serve as the main idea for what you ultimately had in mind for Leaving London?
When this story was first published I had feedback from someone saying, “this is just a guy whining for three pages, plus in my MFA in writing we were told to show never tell” and I’m sure someone else said they felt totally drained after reading it and not in a good way - so thanks for that. But actually re the ‘show don’t tell’ they were right and I found it easier to ‘show’ in the first person when writing. That story was just one of a few stories about my time in London and it was written long before I started on the book. It is a bit whiny though I admit but it was meant to show depression in relation to a series of events but it wasn’t going to be anything bigger, and I wasn’t going to take the advice of another reader who said that the narrator should have just killed himself at the end or even at the start and saved some time – you have to love honest feedback.
Let's talk about Grand Canyon, one of my favorite stories in the book. There's an obvious parallel between the characters in this story and the incident concerning Donald Trump and his attempts to get his way to construct his beloved luxury golf course in Scotland. However the story also speaks to more than just Trump and his sense of entitlement. It speaks to the larger issue of men with money and power feeling they have a right to run roughshod over other people's rights merely because they have wealth. In America they call this "Eminent Domain" which is only supposed to be used in particular and specific circumstances. This story seems to speak to its rampant abuse as well as other class issues. Can you further elaborate on this?
I wish a time portal would open up and just suck Donald Trump back to the 1980s where he belongs. There’s a film out there called You’ve Been Trumped that documents the entire Trump golf course fiasco. I was surprised that this golf course was allowed to go ahead given the amount of protest against it and because it’s quite easy to check out Trump’s back-record of making out like a bandit to the detriment of everyone else involved in his business schemes, but as usual money won out. Trump of course, the egomaniac that he is, tried to stop the documentary from being broadcast because it shows exactly his bullying tactics including having the film maker arrested and riding roughshod over the people who had lived in that area for years, including shutting down their electricity and water. The other disheartening thing about Trump is that people do look up to him simply because he is a high profile business man – but his business tactics show him to be little more than a bullying crook with zero originality – a man who builds a golf course in a country awash with golf courses – who the hell needs another golf course in this world? Britain is of course being ruled by a right wing government at the moment and it’s a group of rich people in power who are having an absolute field day at the expense of the public. We have people such as David Cameron, Ian Duncan Smith and George Osborne who, it’s fair to say, are committing a class war against the sick, disabled and the unemployed. This lot want to ban the human rights act in the UK and have plans to ban people from protesting against them - to actually classify protestors as terrorists. A huge number of people in the UK are living under fear of this parasitical government. Cameron managed to slime his way into his position with only 36% of votes and this is a man with zero real-life job experience. It’s no surprise that Obama called him a lightweight but he’s definitely carrying on the detestable Thatcher/Blair way of ‘ruling’ a country. The UK, 64% of the UK, didn’t want the Tories in power but here they are and they’re proving exactly why that percentage of voters didn’t want them in power. Never get me started on politics.
The last part of the book is a series of short plays which appeared a couple of years ago as And When The Arguing's Over. How much have playwrights influenced your writing and if so, who in particular? Also, what was the impetus to present these stories as short plays rather than straightforward short story narratives? Dialogue is one of the parts of writing I enjoy the most, to hear the voice come alive in my head and then onto the paper. And these scenarios didn’t really need anything else except dialogue because there was only one setting in each play, basically two different sets of people having a conversation, mainly conflicts. I’m not sure all of them fully worked but it was a good way to explore scenarios without the need for all the descriptive scene setting. I live next door to a theatre on my left and a cinema to my right so I can always find some inspiration within a short walk. David Mamet has always been a favourite as is Sam Shepard, David Rabe and Neil LaBute but I’m a total film buff and there’s a ton of excellent screenwriters out there to choose from.
Any plans to write a longer theatrical work?
I was going to write a longer one focussing on a dinner party which descends into chaos, not a very original idea though plus I’d have to listen to people I know asking why I portrayed them in that way, even if they hadn’t entered my head when writing. That’s always fun. The story The Conversationalists, for me, struck a particular chord. The story concerns itself with a man listening to his ex-girlfriend endlessly talk without allowing him to interject, as if he were merely a sounding board and/or completely and totally uninterested in having an actual "give and take" conversation. It's all about her. Was this story making a larger statement about how there is a tendency for people to be completely immersed in their own problems without any intention of being open and listening to others? It’s kind of the whole ‘waiting for my turn to talk’ subject and yes, the immersed in our own problems does come into it. But there’s also the other point of view that this woman is really talking and he’s not listening because he thinks he’s heard it all before so he’s having his own internal monologue. They’re both talking but neither of them is listening. A person who talks for that length of time, six hours in this case, has something to say and it might be a case of having to read between the lines on the part of the listener. The instinct would be to side with the guy who is simply being ‘water-boarded with words’ for hours on end but he’s not actively participating in this conversation, he just wants it to end and ultimately for him, it does end. He has his own perceptions in place about this woman but that doesn’t mean his perceptions are the entire picture.
Earlier this year you released your first novel Leaving London, which I thought was brilliant. How has the reaction been?
Well I’m glad you liked it. I’m not sure about reaction in as much as some people have liked it and I’ve not heard from anyone who has read it and disliked it although there has to be some out there going, “what a piece of crap, sigh”. And then there have been those who have told me they won’t buy it in case it’s really bad and then they’d be embarrassed to tell me - so that’s a sort of feedback…I’m just not sure on what. I didn’t have high expectations of anyone buying it so each new sale is a bonus.
What are your future plans? Any new projects on the horizon?
Nope nothing, I’m glad to say. A new book will be next but I’m just kicking around ideas until I find one I want to go with and then…it starts all over again.