Interview with Linda Cracknell
We caught up with Linda Cracknell this month on the subject of her new short story collection, A Searching Glance.
Linda was born in the Netherlands and raised in the south of England, but has lived and worked in Highland Perthshire since 1990. After studying at the University of Exeter and the International Language Institute in Paris, she spent a year teaching English in Zanzibar in Tanzania. A number of education and consultancy jobs in the UK followed.
After winning the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition in 1998 her first collection, Life Drawing, was published, which was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 2001. Her second collection, The Searching Glance, was published in 2008.
As well as fiction, Cracknell has written numerous radio plays and drama scripts, and teaches creative writing in workshops across Scotland and internationally. In 2002 to 2005 she was writer-in-residence at Brownsbank Cottage near Biggar, the final home of Hugh MacDiarmid.
BFS: The ‘quietness’ of the short story genre means less attention for writers on the whole, so the most obvious first question to ask is: why write short stories, as they’re a difficult genre to publish and sell?
Linda: Although I’ve written in other forms, the short story’s my first love and choosing what I write isn’t generally commercially influenced. Images or voices just ‘arrive’ with me and I know there’s going to be something brief and bright about their place in a piece of writing. When I write radio plays or longer narratives, the work originates in quite a different way. I don’t find that ideas migrate well between the forms – an idea for a radio play is just that. It might be adapted to work on a stage as well, but it’s certainly never going to be a short story.
I came across the expression ‘the searching glance’ in relation to portrait photography, but it struck me as very fitting for the short story form itself. Between engaging you and losing you as a reader, something profound and intense happens, a ‘searching’. That’s what makes short stories beguiling and magical and for the reader an act of intelligent creation and of course, trust.
Richard Ford calls the short story ‘the high-wire act of literature’. I like this, perhaps because it flatters me as a writer, making me feel edgy and brave, but it equally applies to the reader and to the publisher – short stories are high risk beasts and it doesn’t take many words out of place for them to go awry. I think some of the current resistance to their reading and appreciation arises from a misunderstanding about how to read them. A book of short stories looks a bit like a novel, and perhaps suggests that they should be read like chapters. In my mind they have more in common with poems, which we will usually re-read, and allow to resonate in our mind before moving on to the next.
Short stories are fabulous for the medium of radio. They have to be pretty short to fit the 15 minute BBC slot so they are quite exacting to write. A number of the stories in The Searching Glance were originally commissions from the BBC. It’s lovely when a producer says, ‘can you write something on the theme of x or y, or about a minor character from a Charlotte Bronte novel?’ because it encourages you to find a story you didn’t know you had in you. It’s quite a thrill to hear an actor bring your words to life. One of the stories from this new collection, The Weight of the Earth and the Lightness of the Human Heart, goes out on Radio 4 on Friday 4th July as part of a week of stories commemorating 100 years of the SOS signal. Ralph Riach is the reader and has a wonderful stately gravitas, perfect for the character I had in mind.
BFS: How did your writing career begin?
Linda: An itch to write followed by courses to make me sit down and do it followed by a surprise win of the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday prize in 1998 with my first published story, Life Drawing. I was very lucky as this opened doors for me and allowed me to take writing more seriously. My first short story collection was published 2 years later. Having started writing short fiction because it was short and therefore manageable, I was hooked!
BFS: Most of the stories feature nature in some way, or at least, a feeling for the land. Is the notion of land or territory important to you?
Linda: Increasingly so, yes. Perhaps this arises from the early literary influences which excited me – readings of Wuthering Heights and Hardy’s novels at school. I loved the sense of small figures in league or at odds with landscape and the elements, and an almost supernatural sense of animation in the land. Because my characters are often quite alone and/or alienated, the significance of the physical place they inhabit seems to intensify.
BFS: A Searching Glance seems less black than your previous collection: is this something you would agree with?
Linda: I wasn’t aware of that but a bit less gloom can’t be a bad thing. I do get tricked though. In the heat of writing a new story, it goes its own way, and suddenly I realise it’s a story about loss. Again! A few readers of The Searching Glance have told me that they found some stories very dark, in particular Night’s High Noon, but I take no responsibility for that. The character and his voice simply did their own thing in that one!
BFS: Like all the best short stories, yours offer glimpses into miniature worlds. Are you tempted to develop any into a full-length novel?
Linda: This is rather embarrassing as I think I’ve done the opposite! In 2001 I bowed to perceived pressure to ‘grow up and write a novel’. I’ve worked on it on and off ever since and ‘finished’ it several times but never been happy with it, even though there are aspects of it that still make me tingle. Nor am I happy with the process I went through in writing it which was much more deliberate and ‘plotty’ than the creative impulses of my short fiction.
The imaginary world I created in a particular building in two historical periods has now spawned a series of break-away short stories. I hope they stand alone as those ‘miniature glimpses’. Nothing’s wasted in writing!
I might well try writing a novel again but I will do it when I have a novel-feeling idea and embark on it in quite a different way. I do suspect, however, that I’m more naturally a short story writer.
BFS: What short story writers do you read for pleasure?
Linda: I tend to think first of writing coming from North America - Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, Annie Proulx, although the nature of their stories is often very different to my own. Raymond Carver’s A Small Good Thing and Mary in the Mountains by Christopher Tilghman never cease to move me. Closer to home Ali Smith and Jackie Kay are favourites and I’ve become a big fan of all Jessie Kesson’s writing, having dramatised one of the short stories for radio last year. I don’t think her writing is as celebrated in memory as it deserves. I’m about to open Anne Enwright’s Taking Pictures and will be making a point of reading the new collections of some of my peers out with short fiction champions, Salt Publishing. They have a grand total of eight titles on the longlist for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award this year and have come up with an innovative subscription scheme, The Story Bank, to introduce readers to their short fiction output at reduced rates.
BFS: How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Linda: This wasn’t the last good one, but reading it was memorable. Because of my new project, I’ve been reading a lot more non-fiction and exploring tangents. I keep an ear out for recommendations connected to my preoccupation with people and place and The Poetics of Space written by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in 1958 was one of these. It’s a study of how buildings and shelters shape our thoughts, memories and dreams. He writes about the poetic image of the house, and in particular he goes on to explore the ‘hermit’s hut’ – isolated, redolent of simple poverty, and of legend.
I started reading it while I was staying alone in a remote bothy on the Isle of Rum with a window onto the sea. There was a full moon, gales, and a stag sat outside the door of the bothy all night, apparently guarding me. As the night wore on and Bachelard’s words wove the ordinary things around me into mythic significance, I began to feel I was a character in a fairy-tale!
The relationship between what you read and where you read it is an interesting one. This was perhaps one of my most dramatic collisions – I won’t forget the book.
BFS: What are you working on at the moment?
Linda: I was very privileged to win a Creative Scotland Award last year which has allowed me to pursue a dream. Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust, says about the literature of walking, ‘the necessary combination of silver tongue and iron thighs seems to be a rare one’. This year I’m attempting to team these two attributes in a collection of ‘journey – essays’ based on walks – following memory, history, the lines of previous footsteps. Most follow a human story in what we might perceive as ‘wilderness’, for example a drove road between Skye and Perthshire, an extract from which has already been published in Cleave, a new anthology of writing from women in Scotland from Two Ravens Press. I’m also following a couple of writers in places that were critical to their development – Hardy in Cornwall and Jessie Kesson on the hillside above Loch Ness at Abriachan. Some of them are personal stories. In early July I set off for my first adventure as an Alpinist, and will hopefully be following my father up a 4,500 metre peak that he undertook in 1952, only eight years before he died. The iron thighs should come in particularly handy for that one.
Teaching and facilitating creative writing is an important part of my work so I’ve been offering workshops in connection with the project, at events where walkers congregate such as the Fort William Mountain Festival and Crieff Drovers’ Tryst Walking Festival. I’ll also be working with a small group at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh to make an audio walk inspired by the work of Canadian artist Janet Cardiff who is exhibiting there with George Bures Miller from July to September this year.
It’s a fascinating excursion into new material and different forms, but I know the siren voices of the short stories will demand to be written again before too long!