Ten questions with C.S. Mee:
The Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize winner, 2017/18
(1) When did you start writing?
When I was four. My earliest work was a biography of my hamster Cornflake (as yet unpublished). I always wanted to be a writer, though this sometimes hindered my ability to sit down and write. I lost confidence and became distracted as a teenager. Then, when I turned thirty, I suddenly sat up and realised that if I didn’t get on with it then I would never ‘be’ a writer, let alone write anything. I started to take writing seriously at that point, to exercise the craft, follow creative writing courses, develop projects and send my work out.
(2) What’s your daily routine?
Presumably this question refers to a daily writing routine. I dream of having a daily writing routine. Daily? Daily! I have three children under five. My days are mostly spent seeking and preparing food to shovel into their little beaks and then tidying up the leaks and mess. When my four-year-old is at school, my two-year-old is at nursery and my zero-year-old asleep (so we’re talking maximum three hours per week) then writing is usually bottom of a long to-do list. Let’s just say I’m taking a break at the moment. BUT there are many pluses. Feeding time is perfect reading time and caring for small children is fertile for my imagination. Accompanying three new people as they discover the world and themselves is endlessly inspiring. I have a notebook of ideas that I will tackle when my youngest starts nursery. Besides, this is the nature of the writing life. Apart from the fortunate few who are sustained by their publications or an external source, most writers squeeze writing around working to earn their keep in some, often unrelated, way.
(3) What do you find most difficult, and what (if anything) comes easily?
Endings and beginnings, in that order. Ideas come easily, writing them to a satisfying conclusion does not. Since completing my novel I have also struggled with the balance between composing submissions and working on new writing projects. It is depressing when your precious writing hours are eaten up trying to get your work out into the world. I have often been tempted to retire into a little burrow and use my manuscripts to line my nest. Then something unexpected and lovely happens, like winning the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize, and I am reminded that I am writing for imaginary readers who exist out there in the world, not just in my head.
(4) Following on from that, give us your version of a perfect writing day. (And have you ever attained it?)
I can’t imagine factoring my children out of any perfect day, but five or six hours of school/nursery would give me as much writing time as I currently desire. Ideally I would begin with prayers and end with pilates; a rested soul and a straightened spine favour concentration. I don’t have a room of my own, but I do have a landing, which is more comfortable than it sounds. On a perfect writing day I would write uninterrupted and undistracted for as long as possible on whatever project was most pressing and most inspiring at the time. If I run out of words then walking often helps them flow again, as do cooking and cleaning. At school pick-up I would return to my family. I have sometimes achieved days like that and hope to again.
(5) Where do your ideas for short stories come from?
Anywhere and everywhere. I often open a blank Word document and start typing whatever comes into my head. Many of my best stories (including ‘Brothers’) begin that way. Other times an idea for a character, or more often a situation arises and I play with the idea for a while before I sit down to write it out.
(6) Any idols, or major writing influences?
I studied Italo Calvino as an undergraduate, but it was only years later that I came to realise how much his writing has influenced my sense of what literature does and its purpose. The way Calvino experimented with the borders of reality and fiction, how he used fiction to explore the world and his pristine prose are inspirational. Reading Jorge Luis Borges and Halldor Laxness always reminds me why I write. Many of the writers I read as a child have also been major influences, such as C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Terry Pratchett.
(7) How about bête noires?
Am I being too nice if I say none? If there are writers I don’t engage with, usually because I disagree with their values or worldview, then I don’t read them. Having said that, the Reverend W. Awdry has a lot to answer for.
(8) How long does it take you to write a short story? And how do you write it (e.g., do you plan, or do you just start typing?)
I occasionally write stories in a few days, but usually I build them up over months and even years, setting them aside for long periods between drafts. I might start with an opening paragraph, or a couple of scenes and then come back later to develop the narrative. The plan often happens in my head in between writing sessions.
(9) What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
One of the most useful early pieces of advice came from my first writing tutor, James Scott. He told my class that rejection was part of the deal, to keep redrafting and resubmitting. ‘Brothers’ is a case in point. It had thirty-three rejections (and many drafts) before winning this prize. I’m often amazed by writers who lose heart after a few rejections and I’m grateful to have been told the cold truth early on.
(10) What are you working on now, and what are your ambitions as a writer?
I have many plans and projects. I am working hard in my head. I have at least a dozen short stories in various stages of plotting and drafting, as well as plans for several novels. Much of my work at the moment is inspired by my experiences of motherhood. My ambition right now is time to get the ideas down. I’ll worry about whether they’ll be buried in my burrow or sent out into the world when I’ve got that far.
- Read C.S. Mee’s prize-winning story, ‘Brothers’, here.