KJ Orr’s debut short story collection – Light Box – has recently come out, and it’s brilliant, so I wanted to ask her about it. Here’s the interview.
AM: Why did you call the collection Light Box?
KJO: It made sense for a number of reasons, and my hope is that there is pleasure in coming across some of those while reading, so I won’t point all of them out. Partly this pleasure I’m thinking of – as a reader and as a writer – is associative, and over-explanation can perhaps get in the way. Having said that, the idea came from one of the stories in which an astronaut uses a light box to help reset his body clock as he adapts to life back on earth. So if in that story the light box is representative of change – of someone who is in a state of transition – for the collection as a whole it makes sense, in part, because so many of the stories are exploring characters who are confronted with change of one sort or another. I do also believe that ‘light box’ is a great metaphor for the short story and what it can do – the way it can shine on light on particular moments in a person’s life, and make them vivid. And as a form the short story is so contained and compressed, and yet capable of such expansion at the same time … there is something of that, too, in the image of a light box.
AM: I love your light box metaphor for the short story. I recently went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, where all the photos were displayed on wall-mounted light boxes. It massively elevates the experience of looking at a photograph, in the same way that, as you say, a short story can make you see a defining moment in someone’s life with super-clarity. Neat.
So, when you’re getting your metaphorical camera out, how do you go about finding your subject?
KJO: I find that stories tend to emerge less from a single subject and more from a clustering of different impulses or sources of curiosity … and I will want to find out more about how these will interact, to explore them through the writing itself. These impulses might come from anywhere … I tend to scribble things as I notice them … so perhaps something overheard (on the radio, on the street) that intrigues me either through subject or because of a particular turn of phrase or tone, or perhaps something seen – a striking image or interaction. But my writing tends to follow a composite approach, because I find it leaves space for discovery. I don’t want to know too much before I begin. Perhaps it is for this reason that travel has been a big influence … there is an element of the unknown which can lead your mind and imagination to make the sort of oblique connections that can be gifts for writing. Of course travel can mean far-flung places or walking in London.
AM: So it sounds like any kind of planning/plotting is the enemy of your creative process – is that right?
KJO: Not necessarily … not always. Sometimes it can be a gift to know exactly where you are going with a piece, and this has happened for me once or twice, and I have enjoyed the writing process. But I have found that over-thinking and end-gaming can be problematic. Writing can too easily become freighted in an unhelpful way with too much planning, too much research. These are things that instinct tells me to hold lightly, and experience has backed this up.
AM: Since reading Light Box, there’s one story in particular that keeps coming back into my head: Rehearsal Room. I think the set up is extraordinary – so simple, but powerful and beautifully odd: a sweeper in a building used by a theatre group viewed through the eyes of one of the actors, her initial fascination with his meticulous approach to sweeping, and then the way that their dynamic changes as the pressure of the upcoming previews draws close. The story goes through several distinct beats where that dynamic shifts, and in just nine pages, the relationship between the actor and the sweeper boils up until it explodes. Was this one of the stories where you planned those beats in advance, or did they evolve during the writing process? And while we’re talking about this story, what was your initial inspiration for it?
KJO: They evolved during the writing process. This was a story that really did unfold sentence by sentence. It is interesting for me to remember that now, because whenever I read it aloud there is a strong sense of rhythm coming through … and I think that rhythm, and feeling the narrator’s voice emerge through it – this is what guided me through the first draft. As to the set up and inspiration: what I remember is that I’d been to see a Russian theatre company in London, and I was reading a book by the director, and he discussed the ritual of sweeping. This is something I was in fact already familiar with, having worked in theatre myself, and I had always found both the ritual and the idea of it compelling. It has to do with the expression of intent: intention to work, and to go about it in a certain way. What I can’t tell you is how this evolved into the situation I then imagined and wrote about … I guess I got curious about what would happen if this activity was thrown off, and this brought a very particular dynamic to the story. But I am generally very interested in the way our lives are governed by ritual and routine and repetition and certain rhythms, and in what happens when these things get disrupted.
AM: And is your creative process governed by any rituals or routines?
KJO: Like a lot of writers, I have found it good to write first thing – this can be a productive time. You make use of the mental state you are in when you’ve not quite woken up. My editorial mind is less likely to kick in at this time of day – ideally that’s reserved for a different part of the process and not when I am trying to get words down on the page. I also try to steer clear of the internet, which is distracting and throws the flow of writing. Something I want to try again, but haven’t yet, is writing in French. I used to do this, years ago, when my French was better than it is now. The exercise of writing in a language that isn’t your first can be great, in that it forces you to find alternative routes to expression: there’s a gap between what you can think and what you can say. It’s not that I would actually write a book in French … but this was one way I found in the past to access an interesting, oblique approach to writing.
AM: I love to write first thing when I’m half awake too – it’s a really productive creative state. I read that Einstein would take naps with his arm dangling over the side of the bed while holding a rock in his hand, so that when he nodded off and his hand relaxed, the sound of the rock hitting the floorboards would wake him up, and he’d be in that liminal state of being half-in and half-out of sleep and he’d achieve a mental sweet-spot for thinking. I think Dali did the same trick with a key and a plate. When I saw you read at the WordFactory a few weeks ago, you mentioned that you had the idea for The Human Circadian Pacemaker while listening to a radio programme about astronauts while drifting off to sleep and were in this liminal state. Has this happened to you on other occasions?
KJO: I wrote the first draft of ‘Rehearsal Room’ when I had a nasty cold – that was a liminal state! I think when you are sick you perhaps don’t have the energy to over-think, or trip yourself up – you just keep going as best you can. And sometimes that’s the best way to get any first draft down: just keep going until you have something, and then you can go about assessing what you’ve got. When I have more energy my mind can trip me up by getting over involved. So maybe a cold elbows the mind out of the way for a while. Being a bit stupid-headed can be helpful. In fact Flannery O’Connor made this point in ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’ about it being no bad thing being a little stupid as a writer of fiction. For O’Connor it was to do with ‘having to stare’ and ‘not getting the point at once’. This would relate to that just woken up feeling – everything takes on a slightly different rhythm, you can feel you are inhabiting time in a slightly different way, and thoughts are not necessarily too sharp or concrete, so there is a changeability or fluidity to what comes from the mind and the imagination. This relates too to a longstanding fascination I have had with liminal states and places in general … these are threshold or transitional states or places, and often they are associated with a feeling of uncertainty or fluidity. The stories in my collection reflect this – with settings like hotels, beaches, trains, a frozen lake, the rehearsal room that actors work in, a path that runs beside a canal, foreign cities. Emotionally and psychologically the territory implied is often unsettled and unsettling … the astronaut who can’t adjust to life on earth is just one instance of this.
AM: That’s so interesting. I never thought about being ill as making a contribution to creativity! What a positive way to reframe it – I’ll try that next time I’m bed-bound. You talk about giving your imagination room to manoeuvre by using liminal states, leaving room for discovery, not necessarily having a destination in mind when you set out, and yet, reading Light Box, I felt so expertly guided through the stories, which are always superbly economical – everything in them feels purposeful; Alison MacLeod has called your stories ‘thrillingly precise’ and David Constantine said they have ‘forensic precision’, so when you’re working on a story, what kind of editing process allows you to move from this free-form imagining to precise and economical storytelling?
KJO: I watched a documentary on David Hockney recently, where they show his iPad series … you may have seen them. You can actually see his process in action … so the various stages his paintings went through, the layers as they were added. I wish there were an equivalent for looking back over a writing process that was as immediate as this in showing the changes involved. I certainly edit carefully. Sometimes this has involved taking away almost half of the material I have generated for a particular story – so something that comes in at 8000 words in first draft becomes 4000 instead. Often I make decisions about what needs to be evident on the page, and what can happen offstage, as it were, or in the reader’s imagination. (A writer friend once described my work as having a lot happening in the wings.) Often I will find that in a first draft I have written three times what only needs writing once, so that is a matter of simple cutting. Often I will find I have described something in several ways, and I need to choose just one of those descriptions. Sometimes this is hard, and I want to keep all of them. But I think it is true that there is power in decisive choices: to create a vivid impression in a reader’s mind you don’t want three vying images, you just want one. Of course, sometimes with metaphor, the power comes from a kind of muddling of impressions, but that is slightly different territory. And sometimes there will be shaping or structural issues that become evident and need addressing.
AM: Which story in Light Box do you consider to be the most successful, and why?
KO: One of the things I set out to do with Light Box was to create a new world for each story – I wanted not to repeat the same approach over and over. What pleases me is the feedback I have had suggesting that the collection holds together, and has an evident cohesion, in spite of the stories being far-flung and quite different. This means the stories work together, and speak to each other, which was equally important to me. There is an obvious temptation to stick to one style or approach if it works well, or if a particular story has been deemed – one way or another – to be successful. But as I worked towards a collection, I really did want to feel I could explore the short story and what it could do … and also what I could do as a writer.
AM: It’s traditional to ask at the end of an interview what you’re working on next, but for me, getting that question just after a new book has just come out is quite demotivating – it highlights the fact that I’ve spent years working on something that took the interviewer only a week or so to gobble up, and now they’re already thinking about the next one, which might be a few years away. So instead, I’ll ask what are you most looking forward to at the moment?
KO: There’s empathy! I am looking forward to spending more time on my next project, which has its roots in ideas related to a short story I drafted almost a decade back, but never published. I am really looking forward to immersion in that story world, and to generating more material, and finding the right form for that material. The end of one project means refining, and final edits, and proofreading, and all of that obsessive, meticulous work, so it feels healthy then to dwell in a different mental space – to relax into, and to agree to get a little (or a good deal) lost, in that imaginative, curious and happily dissatisfied state!