Tell us a little about yourself – how long have you been writing? Any publications?
I was born in Manchester in 1989, the second child of a British/ Ukrainian family. When I turned fifteen, I decided that I would start reading ‘serious’ books in a misguided attempt to rebrand myself as a brooding proletarian intellectual, à la Ian Curtis, in the belief that this would make me more attractive to members of the opposite sex (it did not). I ended up liking the books, however, and years of bad teenage stories and plays followed.
After leaving university, I worked for four years as a teacher of English in South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and the UK, whilst continuing to scratch away at short stories in my spare time. A year ago, I returned to higher education to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where I was a recipient of the Difference Scholarship. Since then, my fiction has appeared in the UEA Prose Anthology 2017, and I was recently shortlisted for Penguin Random House’s ‘Write Now’ competition and Tulip Tree Publishing’s ‘Stories That Need to Be Told’.
Specifically, tell us a bit more about your longlisted story – the inspiration behind it, the writing of it…
I wrote the bulk of this story in a three-week period in late-2016 when it felt as though the world was falling apart.
In the times in which we live, I think it is easy to feel cynical. It’s easy to look out the window and say, ‘the world is broken, and we’re all fucked’. But ultimately, that kind of cynicism is cheap – it isn’t the sort of person I want to be, and it isn’t the sort of writer I want to be. With this story, I set out to write something hopeful. I wanted to say: yes, the world can be brutal and it can be bleak – but there is goodness here, too. There’s kindness and friendship and silliness and fun.
I had been writing stories set in this weird, apocalyptically Northern town for a while – building up the geography and the texture of the place in my mind, then slowly populating it with its cast of oddball inhabitants. With this one, I started out with a concept I had had about a pair of scrap metal dealers. Ordinarily, I find writing to be a slow and painful process – one step forwards, two steps back – but for whatever reason, the heroes of this story, Eric and Ernest, just sort of plopped out, fully-formed. I think maybe I’d stumbled onto a bit of an archetype; they’re essentially your classic double act – different but the same, divergent yet complimentary. In their own way, they are both damaged characters: each has known pain and loss, and will know it again. But even for them, life isn’t all misery. At the end of the day, they have next to nothing – but at least they have each other.
Name three short story writers you especially admire – why?
I find the short form really exciting, and I could happily sit here and name ten or more writers I really love (George Saunders, Shirley Jackson, Kevin Barry, Lorrie Moore)… but I’ll try to keep it brief.
My favourite short story writer is probably Flannery O’Connor. She was a great comic, and never afraid of writing big (even cartoonish) characters. The people in her stories are sometimes monstrous, often grotesque, but, at their core, always human. No matter how irredeemable they may appear, she handles her subjects with tenderness and compassion. The way she is able to shift between horror, laugh-out-loud absurdity and genuine pathos never ceases to amaze me.
Another writer I really admire is Thom Jones, particularly his collection The Pugilist at Rest. He writes about his time in the US Marine Corp with great specificity; he clearly knew that world very intimately and his eye for detail is incredible. The thing I like best about his writing, though, is the visceral way he is able to describe physical sensations, particularly pain. There’s a brilliant scene in the title story where he recounts an amateur boxing match in which the heretofore tough-guy narrator sustains permanent, life-changing brain injuries: ‘He put me down almost immediately, and when I got up I was terribly afraid . . . It felt like he was hitting me in the face with a ball-peen hammer. It felt like he was busting light bulbs in my face’. So good!
I also love Richard Yates’ short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. As well as being a very technically skilled writer (the way he paces his stories and transitions fluidly between scenes is just great), he’s also really witty, especially when writing about children. Undercutting that humour, though, is a profound, aching sense of melancholy. Every single story in that collections punched me in the chest, and its bittersweet tone lived with me for a long time after I put it down.
- John Steciuk’s 2017/18 GBP Short Story Prize longlisted story, ‘The Land of Nod’, is available to read here.